Where Stories Come from 2: I Heard It on the Radio

While driving my kids to school one hurried morning, the radio blaring as usual (this was before iPods and downloads, and unless I wanted to dig out a CD to pop in the player, the radio was my go-to for vehicular entertainment), a news report pulled me from half-attention to sharp interest.

“Local police report that a Meals-on-Wheels van was stolen from the corner of Ash and Walnut . . .”

meals on wheels

From the back seat, my daughter piped up, “What kind of person steals a Meals-on-Wheels van?”

What kind of person, indeed? As I delivered the kids to their respective drop-off points, hollered, “Love you; have a good day!” and headed back home, the story and question continued to clang in my head—seriously, who would steal a vehicle from a charity that ministered to elderly shut-ins? Wasn’t that just punching a ticket straight to hell? I began to list, in my mind, all the people who would definitely steal a Meals-on-Wheels truck: Hitler, obviously. Stalin. Mao. Karl Marx. Timothy McVeigh. The Clintons. That neighbor who kept abducting our trashcan and using it to burn trash

I pulled into the carport, my mind swirling as I continued with my list. Saddam Hussein. Jared from Subway. The Black-Eyed Peas, for writing and producing that song, “My Humps.”

camel humps
For the ear-worm, I apologize.

I entered the house, poured myself a cup of coffee, and sat down at my computer, my brain itching. A new question began to form—what did the person who stole the van do with the food in it? Suddenly I saw in my mind’s eye a well-to-do woman sitting cross-legged in the back of a van, leaning against one of the metal racks, surrounded by emptied aluminum-foiled containers, stuffing food into her mouth with her bare hands, her eyes vacant. A new question, now: Why was she so hungry? I began to write, following the woman from a safe distance and yet as close as my own heart, and when I was through, I sat back and read what I’d written. I’d like to say it was perfect, but it wasn’t. There were plot holes, some clichés, repetition that needed to be fixed, but the bare bones were standing on their own, and I knew how to affix the flesh. I spent the next week rewriting, re-polishing, revising, then emailed the story to my darling friend, Lori, to read. She sent back the best review I’ve received to date, a review so splendid, I saved it and referenced it in the blog I kept at the time, not knowing that she would soon be dead of the cancer that would kill her in a span of three months, from diagnosis to death, a short summer of pain that left me a decade (so far) of grief. In honor of my beloved friend, I changed the protagonist’s name to “Lori,” sent the story to several literary journals, was rejected several times, and then Fabula Argentea asked to publish it. If you’re interested, you can read it here.

I teach academic writing, but I have also, in the past, mentored students who are interested in the creative fiction realm. When those students ask me for advice on writing fiction, I provide the following obvious mandates:

Read a lot. Read for pleasure, yes, but also while paying attention to technique. Read different genres than you’re used to. Take note of what you like and don’t like and why. If you come to a phrase or sentence that is amazing, stop and read it aloud so you can savor the taste of good writing on your tongue. Take note, too, of vocabulary that you’re unfamiliar with—introduce yourself to the words. Discard some as unnecessary to your life, but keep more than you throw away. Learn the meaning of sesquipedalianism and use the word in conversation to impress your friends, but avoid the practice in your own writing. `

Pay attention. Be awake and aware of the world around you—it’s full of wonderful stories waiting to be hatched. Take notes of things you hear or see that causes your daily stride to pause. Write everything down, on scraps of paper, backs of envelopes, your phone (my “notes” app on my phone is filled with bibs and bobs of observances). Keep a notepad next to your bed, and if you wake up from a dream that lingers, catch it in your net of words. Be willing to accept that not everything you jot down will become a story, but understand that every once in a while, something will, and that something may just be the inspiration you were hoping for.

When that story comes to you, start writing as soon as possible. Don’t wait until tomorrow because inspiration, like a sparkler on a July night, fades quickly. Once you start, get it down. Don’t worry about whether or not it’s “good”—it probably won’t be right out of the gate, but that’s okay. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your story shouldn’t be either. Allow for some clumsy junk that you will take out later, but when you write a phrase or sentence that sings to your soul, take a minute to read that aloud, too, and enjoy the thrill of that coveted moment. Revise. Revise some more. Take a nap, go for a walk, then revise again.

And get off the dang internet. When you overhear a curiosity, don’t google “person who stole Meals-on-Wheels truck” because I promise you, the real story won’t be near as fun.


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