Your Life as Fodder – Or How to Grow a Story

So often I hear people say they want to write but they struggle coming up with ideas. That they feel compelled to write at all tells me they already have ideas. It could be that they just don’t know how to get them outside themselves (remember the jar full of frenzied bees?). Or maybe they don’t know how to transform their ideas into a story and execute it. Or maybe they don’t believe anyone would care to read what they have to say. To all of that, I say this…

First of all, believe in yourself. (You can do it!) Second of all, you’d be surprised at the difference sharing your story can make for another person. (Really.) And third of all, if you really believe you’re out of ideas, simply look to your own life and go from there. (Your life is magical, mystical source of fodder.)

I’m not saying that you ought to write personal essay (unless that’s what you want to do) but that you can take snippets from your life and turn them into fictional stories. Treat those snippets like seeds that you can plant (put them on the page – just get them out of your head – and see what starts to sprout), water (stay with it, tend it, and add what’s needed – trust yourself to know), and prune (edit, cut, and relocate). When you commit to the growth of a story, it will grow.

Here are a few examples of events, phases, facets of my life that I can use to create fictional stories…

  • I had always wanted to experience living in an apartment building and managing it for the benefit of free rent. My personal story didn’t quite go that way – I managed SEVEN buildings (while working two other jobs), and I got a measly $250/month credit on my rent. My romantic fantasy became a horrible reality – the worst job I’ve ever had. (And that’s saying something.)

    Upper management was difficult to work with due to systemic dysfunction and a total lack of awareness that change was needed. One person, in particular – the Assistant General Manager with a bull-in-a-china-shop presence who perpetually, even angrily, chomped on a big wad of gum – was consistently rude and dismissive – even cruel. To me. I worked non-stop with no one to give me a break (even though they “sold” the job as one with TONS of flexibility – they lied). Some residents were demanding and rude. Some were lovely. The building was a “charming” old one in downtown and fraught with problems. I also got up close and personal with the homeless problem in ways I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I saw the underbelly of humanity.

    I moved into the apartment of the previous, beloved maintenance man who had died just a few months before. Management neglected to tell me he died in the apartment (until I asked). But it all worked out because he left a calming presence in the space. And the maintenance and painting crews were fun guys and treated me well. They were, by far, the best part of the job. Think a Raymond Carver-esque short story.

  • Just before taking the manager job at the apartments, I lived in an artists’ community. Sounds cool, right? It wasn’t. Rampant disregard for authority by residents who were underdeveloped emotionally and mentally, partially due to the enabling of the manager who was a lovely person as a person I’d want to know outside that context. You can bet that, someday, the people I met there will wind up in a screenplay, as will the four sane people I also met there. Think One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with art and lots of weed and alcohol.

  • When I was 11, I came home from school one day. My grandma was there, as usual, and I could tell she had been crying. When I asked her why, she stalled, but I eventually learned that when she arrived at our house that day, she found a note on the kitchen table – It was a narrow sliver of torn, lined paper, just wide enough to accommodate two sentences – from my dad saying he was leaving us. I remember immediately going to my parents’ bedroom closet to find his half of the closet empty except for the several naked dangling hangers. The image of that emptiness was seared into my brain and serves as a metaphor for the emptiness his decision made in my life. While I long ago came to terms with that period of my life, it’s an image I can use to tell a story about family, selfishness, grief, infidelity, insanity, growing up too soon, strength, and more. Think a Joyce Carol Oates-esque short story.

So, if you’re compelled to write a story but can’t think of what to write, take some time to scan through your life and all the experiences you’ve had. You’ll find more ideas than you can handle. To start, make three lists:

  • Events/phases – like my working as a manager or living in an artists’ community
  • People – like the brutal Assistant General Manager or the uplifting maintenance crew and painters at the management company, or the enabling but very likeable Manager and “crazy” residents at the artists’ community
  • Images/objects – like the image of my parents’ half-empty closet and all those meager empty hangers

If you’d rather not write about yourself and your life, spin off from one small thing from your life and see what happens. The truth is… we can tell more truths about humanity through fiction than we can through writing from our life experience, anyway. So free yourself up. Draw from your life, then let your imagination take over. Not only will it free you up, but you also won’t have to concern yourself with being called out on “the facts.”

Give it a try and let me know what you come up with in the comments below.

Sending you mad writing mojo…