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The Writer's Cafe

From Raw Material To Story




Ideas for stories strike from anywhere, spring from anything - dreams, newspaper articles, paintings, relatives' lives, the words of a song, the encyclopedia - and then we set out to transform them into fiction. "Write what you know", we've all been told. But we know things in so many ways, from so many sources, and any one of these can start a train of thought that ends with a story.

We limit ourselves by thinking that "what we know" means only what we've lived intimately, daily, for it can also mean what we've read, what we've been told, what we've observed in the woods, on Main Street, in museums. We limit ourselves, too, by thinking that these germs of stories must already contain a compelling and fully rounded characters; the raw material of fiction can as easily be image, idea, metaphor, language - plot and characters growing only as necessary from these sources. The less we limit ourselves, the more chance we have of finding the trigger for what may be a fantastic story.

How do we transform these scraps of experience - all kinds of experience into fiction? For the art resides not in the experience itself but in what we do with that raw material. Often personal experience serves as the catalyst for a story. The place you live can spark the imagination.

This material is immediate. Making a story from it seems easy enough, but the first draft may be little more than a journal entry, a memoir, or a character sketch instead of a full-fledged story. In your mind, your character's so real to you that you don't need to create her with words.

Forget your own reactions to a place and imagine the character's - from inside.

Personal experience is just one example of raw material that needs to be transformed to become a story. While all fiction writing demands exactitude, stories that arise from other sources present other opportunities and problems. You may find an idea in a newspaper, a book, or a conversation you overhear on the bus. The problem here is to write something new, to transform something that already exists in language. "Don't tell the whole story. First, figure out what intrigues you most about the account." This decision made, point of view, voice, tense, time frame, start to fall into place.

With a story you've heard hundreds of times before - a myth, fairy tale, a history book standard - you can start by choosing a different point of view, perhaps that of the character you feel has been slighted in the original and see where that takes you.

Of coursc, more unusual things can serve as sources and subjects for fiction - a visual image, a painting, for example. Day-to-day images also trigger stories of all types.

Sometimes we start making up a story when a phrase buzzes in our ear. The phrase can be a bi of conversation that leads us to invent the speaker, a sentence whose music makes us think of water kissing the side of a ship, or a metaphor waiting to be given flesh. What if that sound of kissing becomes a real kiss between two passengers on the ship? What if two map-makers carry on a love affair the way they make and read maps, the way the imagination relates to "reality" - recreating, interpreting, inventing, failing to communicate. Just a few words can be raw material if we work out the ramifications: Just what a map of silence and how can it be expressed as a relationship between people.

Questions often goad us into writing, but they are not always questions about characters, places, or events. They can also question abstract ideas. What is the nature of loneliness? What if immortality were a reality? In the stories we write, character can ask these questions. Characters' lives can represent possible answers. Or, the form of the story can embody both questions and answers. If you decide there are twelve varieties of loneliness, you might write a work in a dozen sections, exploring in each a different facet of that emotion. These questions may be only the framework you use to build the piece, no longer visible, but still necessary to the construction. In this way, writing fiction can be a dialogue with - though not necessarily about - yourself, one story acting as the impetus for the next, a give-and-take on whatever images, characters, metaphors intrigue you.

Writing fiction base on material that at first seems distand does not mean avoiding the things you care about, but expands the range of those materials. Learn to pounce on whatever starts you thinking about a new story, however unlikely, and you've found your catalyst.

Still, it's only a catalyst, a moment of inspiration that needs to shaped by imagination and verbal ingenuity. What prevents writing about personal experience from being a diary? What prevents writing about current events from being an essay? Or an idea from being philosophy? The boundary lines - thank goodness - are rarely clear, but one distinction may be this: with fiction, the experience or idea resides in language and form in image, voice, character, scene, and is inseperable from these things rather than explained by them. Fiction is language the way an ice sculpture is ice; dissolve the ice surface to search for supports, disregard the verbal surface to find another meaning, and the whole thing disappears. With language, we create a fictional equivalent, a parallel or not-so-parallel universe, rather than describing the one that already exists.

Fiction may be far indeed from the event or image that triggered it. Writing fiction is not a process of holding a mirror to the world and transcribing what one sees, but a process of tranformation by language and into language, a creation rather than a recreation, an experience of great and terrible freedom more than anything else. That day exploring ledges by the ocean was only the trigger for a story, not its reason for being.




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