Saturday, August 26, 2006


Anyone who writes has heard the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" My writing students often worry about where their ideas will come from. I tell them that writers are people who pay attention. When we pay careful attention to the world, there's no shortage of stories.

Here's a perfect example of this process, from page 7 of John McPhee's Coming Into the Country:
The Kitlik, narrow, and clear as the Salmon, rushes in white to the larger river, and at the confluence is a pool that could be measured in fathoms. Two, anyway. With that depth, the water is apple green, and no less transparent. Salmon and grayling, distinct and dark, move into, out of, around the pool. Many grayling rest at the bottom. There is a pair of intimate salmon, the male circling her, circling, an endless attention of rings. Leaning over, watching, we nearly fall in. The gravel is loose at the river's edge. In it is a large and recently gouged excavation, a fresh pit, close by the water. It was apparently made in a thrashing hurry. I imagine that a bear was watching the fish and got stirred up by the thought of grabbing one, but the water was too deep. Excited, lunging, the bear fell into the pool, and it flailed back at the soft gravel, gouging the pit while trying to get enough of a purchase to haul itself out. Who can say? Whatever the story may be, the pit is the sign that is trying to tell it.
I ask my writing students to pay attention so they'll see the signs that are trying to tell stories: snippets of overheard conversation, bizarre news headlines, unlikely found objects.

Gary often goes hiking on our local mountain, which is also a favorite spot for shooters. On our dining room wall is a round piece of metal full of holes. It looks like avant-garde art, but it's actually a hubcap someone used as a target. Gary found it and brought it home. We've occasionally talked about making a sculpture garden in our backyard from the discarded, bullet-riddled stuff up there: news kiosks, cars, washing machines.

Once, near the top of the mountain, Gary found an upright bass kicked and smashed in and shot to splinters. The entire instrument was too big to carry easily, but the head had been snapped off -- tuning keys twisted, bent, and pocked by bullets -- so he brought that home. I used it as a visual aid in a Maundy Thursday homily, and I've also shown it to my students as a writing prompt, because there has to be a story there.

What story is this sign trying to tell?

Once, four days before Thanksgiving, we found a nineteen-pound Butterball turkey, still in its plastic wrapping, shot full of bullet holes in the middle of a fairly inaccessible trail. (That one upset me because of the waste of food, until I realized that the coyotes would get it.)

What story is this sign trying to tell?

We're surrounded by stories: the ones we can see, the ones we can't, the ones we'll never know but want to know. Trying to imagine those stories is a way of loving the real world where the stories live.

Fiction isn't escapism. It's engagement.


  1. Anonymous6:28 PM

    If you had cooked as many "Thanksgiving" meals as I have where people gather around a table to "give thanks" for their good fortune in being together and knowing how much history is flowing through unprocessed, multi-generational,collective memory I feel you and Gary would understand the turkey on Peavine in a heartbeat.


  2. Hi, Sharon! (Are you back from Atlanta? How's the new grandson?) Oh, there are any number of ways I can understand the turkey on Peavine, and my writing students always have a field day with it. But we'll never be absolutely sure what happened, any more than John McPhee will be absolutely sure what caused the pit in the riverbank. That's why we need fiction: because there are so many stories we can't know with any journalistic reliability, but still feel the need to tell.


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