Friday, February 27, 2009

Story Germs

Ideas for writing are like the dust particles (or perhaps bacterium, according to a recent study) that gather water molecules to form clouds. . .

One rainy morning, Kristin and I set out for a day of shopping.

I live on an island in Puget Sound, southwest of Seattle, so any trip of this nature involves a long trip over bridges and ferries and hill and dale and through the horde of other drivers making the same trip. Apparently all headed the same place I am and in much more of a hurry to get there than I am.

As I was merging with traffic onto the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, a sleek black BMW 3-series came roaring up out of my blind spot. The guy was leaning forward as if he could will traffic to move faster, his cell phone grafted to his ear. He hovered there for a moment before he accelerated and shot past me, diving into the lane in front of me to pass a slower-moving car and then darted ahead, weaving through traffic as he crested the bridge.

My first impulse in this situation is usually to say something questioning the bipedal lineage of the driver and indeed, as he shot around me and I spotted the cell phone, that was what I did. Then I noticed something important: the license plate said "Lungs".

As traffic inevitably bogged down going up the hill on the far side of the bridge, I was able to keep him in sight (without breaking any laws of man or physics) and could just make out a little decal in the back window.

The intense driver in the sleek black car was more than likely a pulmonologist. A doctor heading toward the hospital at breakneck speed. If I could have helped him get there faster I would have. And as I watched him dive down the ramp toward Tacoma's hospital district I wished him well.

That's a true story. I'm not posting it here to inspire you not to flip off the doctor heading to help the emergency patient. In all honesty, the guy was driving recklessly no matter how good his reasons. I'm not going to tell you that - unbeknownst to me - my loved one was his patient either. This isn't a chain letter. Emailing this to ten people won't get you any luck, karma, or money from Bill Gates.

I have no idea how that story ended or if I'm even necessarily right in my conclusions -- our day continued to be perfectly normal from that point on. It doesn't matter what happened, only that I erred on the side of complexity and I feel that I am the better for it.

Whatever moral you draw from this is your own. This is a blog about writing, not morals. (There's something wrong with that sentence, but I can't quite put my finger on it.) The main reason I'm telling you this is because people tell me: "I want to write too, but I don't know where to get ideas!" If you read my previous post about humanity, imagination and empathy, you'll remember that I made oblique reference to this story. That's because it was the nucleus around which that idea coalesced.

That's not to say that empathy was a foreign idea to me before a trip to Ikea caused the scales to fall from my eyes, but it did begin my meditations on how we presume to know everything from surface impressions. I began to watch these things happen, take mental notes of my own reactions to real life events and the interaction of characters in movies and literature. It culminated in these two blog posts and I believe my stories are stronger and my characters are certainly stronger for undergoing that scrutiny. 

Imagine every situation fully. Don't be afraid of complexity. Pay attention; your ideas are all around you, bumping into others, gathering mass, forming clouds and then raindrops and then... stories. Or at least blog posts.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).