Many moons ago I found myself in a bar called Green’s Grocery just outside of Nashville, attending a wedding reception for an old friend of mine. After wishing the newlyweds well I found an empty chair and struck up a conversation with a very nice man who turned out to be an accountant. When he asked what I did for a living I told him I was a storyteller. His eyes widened a bit as if I had confessed to alchemy.
From that moment it was little more than a hop, skip and jump to the question that every writer is asked sooner or later: where do you get your ideas? It was a question I’d been asked before, but until that day I had never fully realized that the human ability to invent stories or cobble them together out of life events is not universal.
As I talked with the man, and struggled to explain how ideas came to me, it became clear that he had never had the same thing happen to him. The more I tried to abstract the process, or explain it by using analogies, the more he insisted that the kind of narrative genesis I had been familiar with since childhood was simply foreign to him. The absurdity of the thought almost convinced me that he was pulling my leg, but it was obvious that he wasn’t. He simply did not think that way.
I remember, too, a similar moment from my youth, when I learned that an acquaintance of mine was unable to think in three dimensions. My brother and I and a good friend of ours had grown up talking about machinery and mechanisms, describing them to each other in our heads, and from that anecdotal experience I had extrapolated that all human beings can hold a six-sided die in their mind’s eye and turn it to any perspective. But that isn’t true. There are a lot of people can’t do that.
For the purposes of this post I’m going to side-step the question of whether such mental abilities can be taught. I have an opinion in each case, but I will save them for another day. What I want to nibble at here is the relationship between events and stories, and how different events may suggest narrative threads that are either plot-driven or character-driven.
A few weeks ago I had occasion to take a long, unexpected road trip on Interstate 80, from the East Coast to the Midwest. Toward the end of the trip, as I crossed northern Illinois in the wee hours of the morning, I rounded a sweeping bend to find a patrol car swinging it’s side-mounted spotlight onto my rapidly-closing pickup truck.
I was confident I wasn’t speeding, but as I passed the patrol car pulled out and attached itself to my flank. I was too tired to care much, so I held my course and waited while the officer ran my plate. When he finally pulled me over it was more a relief than anything else.
Fully expecting to be informed that I had been traveling 66 in a 65, I was caught off guard when the officer informed me that I had twice drifted over the fog line. What’s the fog line, you ask? Well, I asked the officer the same question, and he informed me that it was the white line on the right side of the road marking the transition to the paved shoulder.
(What I did not say at the time was that whatever else I might have been doing, I was one hundred percent sure I had not drifted across the fog line twice. In dealing with authority it is always important to choose your battles, and debating what an officer of the law believes he saw is a guaranteed losing argument.)
Further confounding me, the trooper asked what year my truck was, to which I responded that it had been manufactured in 2001. After showing my license and registration I was surprised when the trooper asked me to get out of my vehicle and follow him back to his car. Fully expecting to have my breath checked, or to be put through a field sobriety test based on my wanton disregard for the fog line, I was again perplexed when the trooper directed me to take the passenger’s seat in his patrol car.
I spent the next fifteen minutes or so wedged between the passenger-side door and the trooper’s sprawling array of center-mounted computers and gadgets. During that time he asked me what seemed like a wide-ranging, repetitive and inane series of questions. The only nugget of information that interested me was that the trooper had pulled me over not simply because of my fog-line abuses, but because my license plate had come back as belonging to a white, 1998 truck. (My truck is silver, although a number of people have told me it looks white to them.)
When I later expressed puzzlement that my registration could be so wrong, the trooper said he would show it to me on his in-car computer. He then went back to peppering me with questions about where I was going and who I was going to stay with when I arrived, and forgot to show me the errant registration information. He did mention that registration information is often incorrect, however, which I found both oddly amusing and not at all reassuring.
Finally, as the trooper began to ask the same questions for the third time, a second trooper strode past my side of the patrol car. As he walked into the headlights I could see he had a dog with him, and moments later the dog started working the truck, sniffing here and there. When the trooper I was sitting with asked me if I had any drugs in my vehicle I just smiled and shook my head.
In short order the dog gave my truck the canine seal of approval, and a few minutes later I was on my way again with a simple warning about drifting over the fog line. Three hours later I reached my destination.
After a short stay in the Midwest I headed back to the East Coast on I-80 to attend a graduation ceremony. While traveling through Pennsylvania I crested a rise that had been cut through a mountain top and found the traffic in front of me at a standstill. Looking ahead I could see a minivan lying on its side on the left side of the road, and several other vehicles stopped nearby.
I pulled onto the left shoulder and sped past the stalled traffic, pulling up just short of the toppled minivan. Getting out I ran to the overturned van where several good Samaritans were already helping a woman out of the driver’s side door — which was now on top of the vehicle. Looking in through the sun roof and shattered front windshield I couldn’t see anyone else, but it was dark and the contents of the van had been tossed sufficiently that a child could have been lost in the debris.
As the woman was being helped to the ground I asked if anyone else was inside. She looked back at me wide-eyed, obviously traumatized by what had happened, but was lucid enough to say no.
I checked again to be sure just as someone nearby the gas tank was leaking. Two of the people who had stopped to help the woman led her down the road, away from the van. I fell in behind and tried to encourage the woman to stop turning her head from side to side, but her mind had clearly been overloaded by the crash and she was having trouble hearing me. (She should not have been moved, but it was too late for that.)
As the woman walked she was overcome with several violent spasms of adrenaline and fear. One moment she was quiet and walking slowly, then the next her body seized as if reliving the wreck. When we were a safe distance away I encouraged her to sit down by the side of the road, then I tried to get the others to help her keep her head and neck still. Looking at her eyes I could see that her pupils were round and equal, I couldn’t see blood anywhere, and she was clearly alert, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t about to drop dead from internal bleeding, or that she wasn’t headed for paralysis if her spinal cord had been bruised.
As I watched the woman for signs of shock I heard someone behind me talking about what had happened. The woman, talking to herself more than anyone else, suddenly said that she had been forced to swerve off the road to keep from running into someone. As she spoke I could see her again viscerally reliving the moment, then I heard someone say that the offending driver was turning around. Looking back up the road I could see a nondescript red sedan turning gingerly around in the middle of the highway.
Someone ran over to prevent the car from leaving, but I could see through the windshield that the driver was an old man who was oblivious to what had happened. Looking down the long hill I saw an off-ramp and realized that the old man had entered the highway in the wrong direction, driving up the hill toward the two lanes of traffic bearing down on him. I looked back at the van and I could see the tire marks where the woman had swerved violently to avoid a head-on collision.
Her hard turn to the left had sent her van into the solid wall of cut rock about fifteen feet off the side of the road. Fortunately, the cuts through the hilltop had been made at a slight angle away from the roadbed, so instead of slamming into the rock the woman’s van had been launched upward and over on its side. The ride must have been horrifying, but the glancing blow allowed the energy of the impact to be dissipated over a longer period of time. At highways speeds a head-on crash into the wall of rock would almost certainly have killed her.
In front of me the woman suddenly repeated what she had said: that she had to swerve out of the way to keep from running into the other car. I looked at her and told her she did the right thing. She didn’t have any choice. I told her that what had just happened to her was crazy — that it made no sense, and never would — and that she should not try to understand it. In the back of my mind I hoped someone would follow up with her in the days and weeks to come, to make sure she wasn’t suffering long term effects from the trauma.
I asked one of the people sitting with the woman to help hold her head still, then I told the woman that it was important not to move her head. Another reflexive moment of terror shot through her, but even as it did she said she felt fine. I explained to her that her body was flooded with chemicals that were making her feel that way, and after listening for a moment she calmed down and allowed the people sitting with her to hold her head still.
I walked over to the old man, who was now out of his car, and it was clear from his blank look that he had no idea where he was or what had happened. I’m not qualified to differentiate Alzheimer’s from senility, but I’ve seen Alzheimer’s before and the old man’s affect was familiar. Several people helped him to another car to wait for the police, and I was glad to see that no one was being unkind. It was clear to everyone what hand happened, and it was a miracle no one was dead.
Moments later a state trooper arrived, then another. I checked on the woman again and found her desperate to call her husband and her children’s school to let them know she would be late. Her cell phone was still in the van, but when I went to look for it I couldn’t find it. I did find her purse, and took it to her, but when I handed it to her I told her not to touch it or stick her hand inside. The outside of the purse was covered with shattered glass, and the inside contained dozens of large shards.
On the highway traffic began trying to sneak past the crash site. Up the road I heard two emergency vehicles coming, then saw the first of two emergency SUV’s bounding along on the narrow left-side shoulder, fighting to pass the traffic jam. At the same time cars and trucks began moving onto the left shoulder to pass one of the troopers, who had parked halfway into the right lane. The more the traffic moved over the more the approaching emergency vehicles had to drift toward the rock wall, until it became obvious that they were going to be stopped by drivers desperate to put the wreck behind them.
Feeling my own adrenaline I stepped out onto the road and stopped traffic until the emergency vehicles reached the scene. Across the highway I watched a perfectly-dressed trooper lead the woman who had been in the wreck to his squad car. Another trooper walked toward me and I pointed to the old man and filled the trooper in on what had happened. I looked at the woman sitting in the back of the patrol car, alone, and wondered if the air conditioning was on, and whether that could send her into shock.
I let the traffic on the highway go and tried not to judge the people who had sat and watched instead of gotten out of their cars to see if anyone needed help. Then I opened the door to my truck and pulled out a half-drunk bottle of water and tried to rinse the broken glass off my hands.
The Trooper Story
The trooper story is, to me, a plot-driven story. It’s about the moment when the trooper decides to see if my truck is ferrying drugs, and the way in which he goes about establishing probable cause for a search.
First he asserted that I was weaving over the fog line, but he never checked to see if I’d been drinking. If he really believed that I was having trouble staying in my lane, he would have checked to see if I was drunk. Second, he claimed that my registration information was incorrect, but he never showed me the incorrect info. My guess — and it’s only a guess — is that he simply made that up.
The Wreck Story
Despite the accident and the old man and all of the other narrative threads that suggest themselves, this story, for me, is not about the wreck. Rather, it’s a character-driven story that reveals itself through the broken glass I still had on my hands when I continued on my way.
I spent the next four hours and three hundred miles picking glass out of my fingers and palms while gingerly holding the steering wheel. I wondered if the woman would be all right. I wondered how many kids she had. I wondered what their lives would have been like if she had died. I wondered about the old man, and about the people in his family who knew he shouldn’t be driving, but who didn’t have the heart to take his freedom from him. I wondered how many lives had been changed on that day.
Where Stories Come From
Stories come from everywhere. They come from imagined events and real events. They come from choices. They come from awareness. They come from being alive.
If you have the requisite editorial sensibility — the ability to distill and organize events and imaginings into a narrative structure — then you will harvest stories everywhere because stories come from life itself. Whether you favor realism or fantasy, plots or characters, the events and truths underpinning your worlds and stories will all necessarily come from your experiences.
Your power as a storyteller is a combination of your native gifts, your mastery, your awareness and your ability to distill events. And whether your goal is art or entertainment, or both, your compass is the truth.
— Mark Barrett
I like this a whole lot. You’ve distilled this creative story-finding process into it’s basic parts.
I remember a blog post on Literary Labs about spatial recognition in writing. I think you achieved that three dimensional effect in your telling of the stories (especially how the wreck happened). I was able to visualize the scene quite easily. Well done.
How do you reconcile these “discovered” stories with theme? I usually have a theme that I want to write about and then I have to search (for a long long time) for the story that expresses my theme. Here it seems you have the opposite, a plethora of stories, but I don’t get a sense of theme or overarching purpose to them.
Thanks for a great post.
For an interesting (and liberating) take on theme, scroll up to the top nav and float your mouse over Docs / Guest Documents, then click on ” ‘Theme’ and its Dire Effects by Thomas McCormack.”
After reading Mr. McCormack’s essay, if you want more, follow these links:
Thanks for the links Mark.
Mr. McCormack’s article was quite fascinating. I’ve never taken writing in an academic setting and I can see how such insistence on a short sentence descriptions of a story’s animus can be harmful. I think you hit the nail on the head in one of yours though when you said
“theme is really only useful when it’s employed during the creative process. As an analytical tool it is terrible, and does considerable damage to students who are forced to use it.”
I still believe that every story should have a purpose. In Mr. McCormack’s shy classmate example, the professor was not wrong for insisting on purpose but was wrong for making a student plunder the murky depths of a creative exercise for some trite description of said purpose.
I think theme should be used as an inner compass and even when writers cannot articulate what theme they are writing about, they still have one lurking in their subconscious and guiding their choices.
For all my railing against the academic abuses committed in the name of theme, I don’t disagree that theme is useful, and at times even critical. My short story collection (Year of the Elm) is necessarily thematic in that it deals with various moments of insight that pre-teen children have — long before they become lost to their hormonal rages.
I think it’s almost axiomatic that any story has a purpose, even if the purpose is simple expression. I would never say that a story should have a grand purpose or overarching meaning, because some stories are very slight in their intent, and wonderfully successful at achieving that effect.
Like most techniques I think theme, in the end, is best used at the reflexive level you suggest. Treating it as such, however, requires a certain amount of instinct and mastery of craft, and the only way to get to that level of skill is to experiment and practice.
You’re right, nothing like getting it wrong a few times to point a writer in the right direction.
Some stories do seem to be intensely thematic while others have a wonderfully slight effect like you said.
I tend to advocate for more of the former over the latter. Literary fiction has lost its way in what i’ll call a sea of vague brilliance. It now contains less plotting and murkier themes than before (no thanks to the pomo era). I like novels like 1984 because their themes and purposes are highly visible.
I am all for a novel being subtle enough for each reader to take away what they will from it, but it is kind of awful to use all those words and have them get lost.
How is Year of The Elm doing?
I think you’re being kind. Literary fiction has become its own cult, the leaders of which are as relevant to human experience as fashion designers. What used to be a genre devoted to small moments and the illumination of cultural truths is now a genre devoted to intellectual masturbation.
But hey, that’s just my two cents.
Year of the Elm sits on Smashwords with nary a kind word from me, and yet somehow trickles out sample-chapter downloads with regularity. (Sparse regularity, but still.) I do intend to create a POD version, and would probably rank that second or third on my to-do list right now.
Having said all that, I’m hard-pressed to see it as anything but a success so far — at least in my own tiny little corner of the written world.