Thursday, February 12, 2009

Finding Story

Sometimes my stories find me. The characters appear and want me to tell their story.

Other times I need to find the story.

This semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts I’m in a program with a special picture book emphasis. This means I will write and turn in A LOT of picture books! I will turn in between four and five picture books this month.

Stories come from lots of places. Some come in dreams. Some are found in real life: an object, a comment, a situation. Others appear halfway between conscious and subconscious thought--early morning is a prime time to access this part of the brain. So is meditation.

Picture books are so different than novels and because of this my discovery of story and characters is different. With novels, I start with characters in a situation and they create the story as they make choices. With a picture book I have to find an idea or a place or a character and know more before I begin writing.

Catching a story is like finding butterflies. A butterfly might appear, just like some stories appear. These stories are gifts. But most of the time we need to go and look for the butterfly or if we really want lots of butterflies around we can plant a garden that invites butterflies to not only visit, but live near us. In a similar way we look for stories. Finding stories can be hard. Sometimes we might look and not find anything. Or we look and look and finally sit down and start typing in hopes some sort of story will emerge.

I am trying something different. After I returned from Vermont I knew I needed to find more stories. Now almost every day I create my own writing prompt. Somewhere, anywhere--perhaps in my mind or outside during a walk--I find an idea or an object and I write some words of a picture book. I don’t worry about writing great words or a great story. I don’t worry about writing a complete story. I just write--something, from any idea. These partial stories are a fertile garden, a garden for finding butterflies. I’ve developed some of what I’ve written into picture books. Reading through what I’ve written also triggers story ideas. In essence I’m creating a place where my stories can live.

Committing myself to writing an aspect of a story almost every day is a way of playing. Playing with words. Playing with ideas. Playing with stories. As I play I find stories with meaning and stories that are fun to write.

I want to write one more story to turn in with my first packet to Uma. (Uma Krishnaswami writes such marvelous books. You are missing out if you've not experienced her stories.)

I need to go play in my story garden. Maybe my next butterfly will be huge and colorful, resting on a flower waiting to be caught, or maybe it will be small, fluttering anxiously from flower to flower, almost out of reach.

I won’t know what story I’ll find until I enter the garden.


MF said...

I "caught" a butterfly in yoga class today - it was so hard to sit quietly through the end of class until I could run to my car and write it all down! Have you ever had an idea at a really inconvenient time?

Sarah Blake Johnson said...

Yes. I've had ideas/stories come at inconvenient times. Many times I've rushed to a piece of paper to write down what is running through my head.

I hope you didn't lose any aspects of your story.

Mary Witzl said...

I like the ideas of stories as butterflies. I catch a lot of mine in dreams too, though they are never complete. Like MF I'm always getting my ideas at inconvenient times, and yoga classes seem to inspire me too.

My problem is that the stories I get tend to take me on wild goose chases. I get so caught up in details that I end up snaring myself -- and the story -- in them.

Sarah Blake Johnson said...

Mary-- stories can take us on wild goose chases. That is where revision comes in. Sometimes those wanderings make for a better story, too.