You could say that writers are always on the lookout for material. As Henry James famously urged in his Art of Fiction: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” Joan Didion also extols the virtues of recording the inspiring, the mysterious, and the inexplicable in her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook.” (You can find it in her book, Slouching Toward Bethlehem.) At one point, she re-reads an old notebook and comes upon this overheard line of dialogue: “So what’s new in the whiskey business?” Immediately she remembers “a blonde in a Pucci bathing suit sitting with a couple of fat men by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel”–and then she recalls seeing the same blonde years later in New York in very different circumstances which leads her to remember her own very different circumstances then and now. It is the beginning of a story if Didion wants it to be, and it is being stored for her in that one line overheard at the hotel pool.
Didion’s essay in a good reminder that some of the best stuff comes from the least likely places–an overheard comment in line at McDonalds, say, or from sharing an elevator at the hospital with a couple strangers. And then there’s the unexpected sight I witnessed a couple weeks ago: a man dragging a lawnmower with one hand and steering his motor scooter with the other as he drove rapidly down the streets of Richmond. Some days I feel like everywhere I turn a story is lurking, and the overheard comment or unexpected glance is the key to opening the door and stepping inside.
For this week’s prompt: Set aside time each day to become someone on whom nothing is lost. Keep your eyes and ears open and jot down what you observe. Note the details that might otherwise get lost. Capture the tone of voice or the way someone folds his hands. Notice how people greet one another. (An airport is great for this–so is the school playground.) See that couple sitting at the back of the restaurant? What are they saying without speaking a word? After a few days of this, read back over your notes. Which trail do you want to follow? Choose a line or an image that intrigues you and use it to write the opening paragraph of a story. Post it here along with your original inspiration. We would love to see it–even if we recognize ourselves in your story.
About the Keeping the Appointment Challenge! Check in each week, grab the prompt and go. New prompts will be posted on Tuesday. Find a quiet place and write in response to the prompt for 15-30 minutes. Only after you have something on paper, take a look or a listen to other examples if you like. Wait a day or three and reread what you wrote. Revise for 30 minutes or so. If you want, post what you wrote. We would love to see it–and we promise to keep our own editing selves to our selves! In other words, this blog is a place to share your work, not to “fix” the work of others. We receive it with the open, generous mind of a fellow-writer and reader. Comments are welcome as are words of thanks.
Image by Steve Slater