Just how do you come up with this stuff?

David Atwood Points of the Compass
Posted 8/23/13

People ask how I come up with the ideas for this column. It’s simple. A human-interest column is essaying. You can write an essay about anything, and I do, as is witnessed by such subject matter as toilet paper, chocolate doughnuts, frogs, …

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Just how do you come up with this stuff?


People ask how I come up with the ideas for this column. It’s simple. A human-interest column is essaying. You can write an essay about anything, and I do, as is witnessed by such subject matter as toilet paper, chocolate doughnuts, frogs, flowers, and most anything else I can think of, or see out my window.

I started becoming literarily obnoxious in high school. When assigned to write two pages, not in big letters, front and back about any subject I chose. It was my goal to make the teacher sorry for giving me such leeway.

For one English class, I did a whole series on Tinker Bell. Everything, sentences, paragraphs, essays for the whole year had the elusive fairy of Peter Pan fame worked in somehow. For example, when assigned the usual, ignominious tripe of, “What I Did Last Summer”, I would review the summer’s activities through the eyes of the sarcastic, sometimes mean-spirited little fairy. I would switch genders and he/she would be a boy/girl. Once I had him riding a motorcycle. Since then, all of my children have listened for the rumble of a big Harley, as the tooth fairy comes to visit. Some ideas are too good to let pass. I got a “B” in that class. I would have gotten an “A”, but my grammar and handwriting were atrocious. Still are. Some days though, ideas just won’t come. Nothing happens when I think, which some say is pretty much a normal state for me. What do I do? I start writing.

Writing is something I love to do, and do it often and abundantly. I have discovered that if I just start, something will follow. When Herman Melville sat down and wrote, “Call me Ishmael,” I doubt he had an epic in mind. It was probably a nice story nestled away in the back of his head, but as he started with that simple sentence, the story demanded telling, and he did.

Some stories are complete in the writer’s mind as you can tell in the first sentence. When Ernest Hemingway wrote, “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish,” the story of “The Old Man and the Sea,” is told. Being the master of brevity, I think he had the whole thing worked out before he started.

At a dinner party, a dining companion challenged Hemingway to write a story in six words. He took up a scrap of paper and did. Here is the story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” If that doesn’t get you, nothing will.

John Steinbeck intended “East of Eden” to be an epic. He knew what the story was long before he wrote it, so when he sat down to write, all he had to do was pull words from his mind and organize them. I think that is what we all do.

For the writing of “East of Eden,” he kept a journal about the work that he wrote in every day. It was a warm-up exercise for him, something to get him started. One of the fascinating things I learned about Steinbeck was that he wrote this classic in long hand, in pencil. He describes the process at length in the aforementioned journal. See, you can write about anything, even how you write, and someone will find it of interest.

Journals are important. If you are not keeping one, it is never too late. Start today. I often hear, “But my life is so boring.” No, it is not. To your great-great-grand children, your writing, simple as it may be, will be a time machine to transport them back to now. Through your eyes, they will see history as a happening, not an emotionless event on a timeline. “Wow, they really lived through that,” will be their exclamation, not, “Gee, what a boring life.”

I wrote two historical novels based on my great-great-grandfather’s Civil War journals. I am certain when he sat down to write them as a young man, he did not envision having great-great, or now, great-great-great grandchildren, but he does, and we know him, and his life, and that of his wives, and children who lived through that terrible conflict. We watch history come alive through his words. How did he start? Just as you should, he wrote a date at the top of a page followed by what happened to be on his mind that day. He didn’t write every day, but enough to have a very good idea what life was like in the 1860s. I revere him for it. So will your posterity.

Write a personal history for the same reason. It is not hard, but please, please do not start, “I was born ...” For goodness sake, we know that. Tell me a story. Start your history from your watershed moment, the moment that changed your life, the moment that when it happened nothing would ever be the same. We all have one. Write that, and you will find that as you do your life before and after that moment will unfold and you have a narrative, a history, and a story.

Where does this stuff come from? It is inside all of us. Sit, write, and let it out. Tell me a story.

David Wilson Atwood is a local writer whose human-interest columns offer a unique perspective. He may be contacted at: www.starchasers.us, or david@starchasers.us.