The other day someone asked me, “Where do you get your stories from?”
“From everything,” I said. It wasn’t a very helpful answer, but it felt true. For me, a story comes together from so many elements. From memories, from experiences, from a bit of conversation overheard on the bus, from odd thoughts that just pop into my head, seemingly out of nowhere.
And from other stories.
Lined up on my writing desk, within easy reach, is a row of indispensable books. Not all of them are reference works like dictionaries. Some of these books I might not consult very often but I like to know they are there. A few are, for me, the important books of my life as a reader and a writer. One of these books is The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales.
I bought my first copy (Pantheon, Hunt and Stern translation, illustrations by Josef Scharl), back in the 1970's. Back then, like everyone else, I knew only the famous handful of Grimm: The Frog Prince, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel…. So it was a shock to me to flip through this massive book and discover there were hundreds of others stories. Stories I’d never heard of. Stories I couldn’t wait to read (yes, I was a strange kid). The book was $7.95 or so and I remember deliberating over it for half an hour in the bookstore because this was a lot of money to me back then, when my source of income was a paper route. But I had to have it. When I brought the book up to the counter the bookseller smiled and said, “Finally decided, eh?”
That copy of the tales was poured through many, many times and at last, after many years, the book cracked in half. So recently I went out and bought an updated version of the Pantheon edition ($26.95, but now I've got more spending money so it's okay).
Over the years I read these tales to my kids, but they always seemed restless when I did, which was not the case with other, more contemporary books and stories. It occurred to me that the tales come from a slower time, when the storyteller was the sole source of entertainment for people in small towns and villages. My kids have grown up in a faster world, where stories and images are a constant bombardment, often geared to selling something.
But I also discovered that if I read over one of the tales to myself beforehand and memorized its shape, I could tell it to the kids, and that went much more successfully. The point was not to memorize the tale word for word. Just to know it well enough that I could tell it in my own words.
So where do I get my stories from? When I sit down to write, part of me is still a kid, going quiet and listening expectantly because someone is going to tell me a story. Yes, I’m the one writing it, but deep down there’s a feeling that I’m the listener, not the teller. The story grows from all the elements it needs to grow. Sometimes it arrives as a complete surprise. Sometimes it seems like I'm not the one getting the story from anywhere. It comes and gets me. Or we both set out, the story and I, from different places, and eventually meet somewhere on a road. I like it best when that happens. That's why I always write not so much to say something as to have something said to me. The story has come all this way to be here, and I want to hear what it has to tell.