Emerging from the Storyless Swamp


 No matter how soggy, you can emerge from the storyless swamp

Story ideas often seem to fall from the sky. Or in the case of my latest story, to come up from the basement. I’ve been in a fetid fictionless swamp for the past couple of months, incapable of putting anything to the page. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been feeling pointless resentment over not being able to get agents interested in what is now becoming an old novel, or editors interested in what are now becoming some old (but newer) stories.

The sing-song hearing of “not for us, thanks” can be a blow to writing confidence, but at some point you’ve got to come out of the swamp, at least to get some fresh socks. What made me change out of my swampy sad sack’s clothes was a helpful spur for any writer: a deadline.

I saw a link for an “Unearth Your Underworld” short story contest in one of the writing newsletters I get. I’ve won (or gotten seconds or thirds) in a number of writing contests, and in reading that the theme for this one was, “Anything Underworld—dig in to the sewers, bomb shelters, basements and your deepest hells!” I had an instant idea for a creepy story. In a blink, I saw my peculiar landlords and the strange business they had in their basement from so many years ago. A story, with visuals and plot line, in a second.

Stories Lie Waiting
When I say “instant idea,” I mean that the story idea jumped up from that basement of my imagination, where it’s sat in cold storage for all these years. I’ve written before how writing ideas are everywhere, and indeed they are. The theme of the book I’m writing right now is how to see through a writer’s eyes—how to see and record the stories that surround us.

It’s harder to see them when you are in the dim swamp of your sadness; you’ve got to at least open some curtains. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a deadline that pulls in some light. The basement story’s deadline is November 20th, and it’s well on its way. I don’t have to win anything in that contest to know I’ve already won, because I’m writing fiction again.

Sometimes I forget that you can get used to carrying a backpack of sadness around with you, so that it seems almost natural to shoulder that stuff. But it’s good to know that you can leave that backpack on the counter now and then. Everything feels lighter.

So, where do your story ideas come from? Do they stealthily finger up through the grass, crawling up your leg so that it takes some time to feel the itch, or is there a crashing from the sky and a lightning bolt, so that a story is revealed in instant incandescence?

Epitaph: Goodbye to One of the Good Ones
Sometimes our lives are touched by someone we’ve never met, who has a public forum that lets viewers (and listeners) get a sense of that person over time, so that he or she feels like family of sorts. I’ve listened to (and roared at) the madcap philosophizing of Click and Clack, NPR’s Tappet Brothers, for many years, delighting in their boisterous intelligence and warm camaraderie, both between themselves and their guests. Their shtick was never about the cars—it was about life’s tumblings, madnesses and small graces. And laughter. Ringing, infectious laughter.

The oldest brother, Tom Magliozzi, died this past week at 77. His brother Ray is going to continue to let the recorded shows play on NPR in his brother’s honor. Goodbye and good tidings, Tom. Wherever you are, don’t drive like your brother.

6 thoughts on “Emerging from the Storyless Swamp

  1. Your fiction never fails to please. And your nonfiction about your fiction is also good.

    Woke up to snow, started a fire in the fireplace on the first try, and sampled 3 new hot sauces with my eggs and potatoes.

    Whereupon I declared this The Best Day Ever. Feel free to join in the festivities.

    Isn’t it Tom who died, and younger brother Ray who survives? Marvelous wit in that team. We should oughta record one of our visits; bottle it and sell it as a remedy for sanity.

    Ah; just realized why you killed off the wrong brother. How very Freudian.

  2. Joel, no, I switched the brothers in arms, because I hate to hear of anyone named Tom dying. But yes, you are right, my reportorial skills are really flagging here, since I love those guys and listened to and read many tributes and eulogies. Brain, wherefore art thou? So I fixed it in the post—thanks for the editorial support.

    As for a day with trying 3 new hot sauces and quick fireplace starting (fire in the belly and the hearth), it’s inarguable: Best Day Ever.

  3. Congratulations on ditching the swampy socks, finding inspiration, and opening the curtains to let the light in. Good luck with the story!

    Where do my stories come from? Many from my dreams, but that was a given. I also find lots of inspiration in nature, not in that I write about nature, but the structure and colors become architectural frameworks that my imagination builds on. Physics inspires me too. I enjoy theoretical physics and have been hung up on string theory lately and the concept of time as an illusion, which are themes in my sci-fi/fantasy WIP (which came from a dream…initially).

  4. Hey Síofra, always a pleasure to have the blog graced with your presence. Thanks for the story salute. String theory? Wow, you tilted me into the fourth dimension with that one. When I read (and I can only absorb the popularizations, not the math) about the origins of the cosmos, dark matter, the micro-time of the Big Bang, I can be enthralled as well. These are BIG stories, the biggest. Other times when I hear of a new discovery on the farthest fringe of what we know as our cosmos, I am simply boggled.

    As for time, it’s actually a doughnut.

  5. Most of my writing comes out of getting pissed off at an injustice. Or, related to that, my steadily increasing sadness over the general selfishness and shortsightedness of the human race, and the way it looks like we’ll never grow up and make it.

    And then I see someone perform an amazing act of kindness, or generosity, or building something useful and elevating–

    And I put that in my stories too.

  6. Rick, forgive me for not immediately dipping my quill pen in electronic ink to reply—this has been a brain-scattering time for me, and when I reassembled the pieces, I transposed my amygdala with my hippocampus. But I’m better now.

    Your list of story-making flour is yeasty indeed—all sound reasons to put a story to screen. The first reasons remind me of that Twain essay, The Damned Human Race. It’s good there are those acts of kindness to leaven the damn damage.

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