Stories come from the intercourse of ideas.
There. I said it.
The birds and the bees and all that.
But, seriously, where do the ideas come from?
For me, ideas come in the way I remember dreams—in fragments of image, of visceral sensation, and emotional residue. Some ideas actually come in dreams, but even then, they will only be a scrap of something bigger.
A single story never comes whole. Or it hasn’t yet. It has seeds, and over time, through the pooling of these seeds, some of them cross-pollinate and begin to germinate. Some of them begin to belong to one another in relationships that form a bigger picture.
Much like collage. (From birds and bees to dreams to seeds to… collage. Yep, I’m going there. Keep up.)
In collage, I begin with very real, undreamed scraps, ones, still, that catch my fancy, my eye, or my gut. As the pool of scraps grows, the bits begin a conversation amongst themselves. Patterns arise, because the mind is a pattern-finding (pattern-making) machine. Pay attention to that.
The act of collage is one of finding, creating, telegraphing a pattern or series of relationships between initially disparate images.
It is an act of creating new meaning with cut-up bits of old meaning.
With that understanding, it is hardly a jump to say that stories are collages, the seeds of story are the cut-up scraps of paper, and the world at large is the series of magazines from which you cut those bits.
A seed or scrap may be a sensory image: skin on the forearm bursting open with the consistency of wet bread; a field of flowers smeared together like paint; blood, pooled just so…
It may be a character: a man whose pirate heritage lets him board any plane, train, or ship without permission; a girl who enjoys removing the feet from things, all kinds of things…
It may be a moment’s or set of moments’ circumstances, often expressed as a “What if?”: What if a dust bunny could articulate the experience of a dispersed state of being? What if gravity were a decision? …
A scrap may be a theme question—or theme answer: Can we love without ego? What does that look like? Can it be love if ego is involved? …
A seed may be any of these things and anything else, but you’ll notice that, alone, not a single one is a story whole. It is only part of the puzzle, a scrap in the collage of story.
These scraps find a home both in the written pages of my writing journals (to peruse for later inspiration) and in what I have always visualized as the bubbling crockpot of story I keep on low in the back of my mind (particularly when I’m cooking up a story and trying out new and different ingredients).
Seeds, scraps, ingredients—whatever you want to call them, multiple need to coalesce for story. You’d better be saving ’em up somewhere.
So, if story ideas come from these scraps, where do these scraps come from? The magazine of life, as I’ve said, sure, but you can’t simply sit and flip through pages for inspiration, can you?
There is a Kafka quote I love, and I will share it here:
Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not even listen—simply wait. You need not even wait, just learn to become quiet, and still, and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice; it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
Ideas uncover themselves for you, exactly like turning the page of a magazine to precisely the image you’ve been needing and had no idea you were looking for.
You need simply pay attention.
So pay attention.