The other day, my creative writing professor told me that “we were made to tell stories.” That’s the basis of human nature, to share their experiences, to use their voices. Every story is unique — each one has its own distinct voice and purpose.
As writers, we excel at storytelling. It’s in our blood, intertwined into our DNA. We all do it differently; that’s why this month’s interviews focus on individual storytelling techniques.
The February theme: How to begin a story/poem.
Find a voice and follow its energy. I find it almost impossible to start with an idea (for example: irony as a defense mechanism can have serious consequences for human connection) and then try write a story. However, if I sit down to write and listen for the voice of a caustic, sarcastic, washed-up comic, whose loneliness seeps hilariously through her speech, I’m much more likely to get a draft started, maybe even completed. Basically: don’t start with what you want to say, but who you want to watch, know, and hear speak.
To me, the method that works when beginning a story or poem is to become that story or poem. By that I mean, act it out. Whether out loud, or inside your head, find someplace you can be alone and let yourself meditate on what you want the story to say. What the characters look like, and act like. The sounds, smells, tastes, and feel of your world. Imagine it all. Make sure to have a recorder or notebook nearby to record what you discover as well.
Every story teaches the reader how to read it. It begins: “I am happy,” or “I am sad.” I am happy and sad. I am the first, second, or third person. I’m an anecdote. I’m argot. I am not to be trusted. I am in conversation with all the stories that came before me, the ones you read in college or huddled under the covers. I am a new old story and you are your new old self—you, the reader. We are bound by this sentence, and the next, and the next. So let’s begin.
Any of my work, my stories or my poems, always start with a single idea. I could be sitting at my desk eating lunch and then a lyric will pop into my head or a vaguely defined premise like “techno wizards from Mars.” Although that example sounds completely awful that’s kind of how it is. Even the worst ideas can turn into great ones. So I will pull out my laptop and start typing up a story based on that small thing, not always intending on it being good. The first thing I write isn’t meant to be read by others, but it is meant to establish my characters and my world for me. When you first start you don’t know either of them. You haven’t been to this world or you haven’t met these characters yet. That short story, just for me, is how I understand what they are about.
It begins with an idea. Or maybe it starts with a theme, family, small towns, marriage. You muse on that theme. You wait for associations. Incidents from your childhood. A story a friend told you. A dream or fantasy. You make a list of these associations. You have associations with the associations. You write them down. The list gets messy. You stare at the list, certain ideas start to take form and leap from the page. You grab hold of them. You put pen to paper. You’ve begun.
I’d like to thank the writers who shared with us in this month’s Penned! I hope these responses help with putting your pen to some paper. (Don’t forget, Sea Salt submissions are open!)
See ya next month!
Tyler Barton is a cofounder of FEAR NO LIT and an intern for Sundress Publications. His stories have been published in Midwestern Gothic, Split Lip Mag, Hobart, and NANO Fiction. Find him at tsbarton.com. Follow him @goftyler.
Leanne Gregory is a student at the University of the Cumberlands. She has been writing since the sixth grade, and she was a member of her high school’s writing club for three years. She loves to write in the fictional genre of fantasy, specifically medieval settings, but has recently been trying to expand her writings into the realm of science fiction, as well.
Jamie Yourdon, a freelance editor and technical expert, received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. His short fiction has appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Underneath the Juniper Tree, and Chicago Literati, and he has contributed essays and interviews to Booktrib. He lives in Portland, Oregon. Froelich’s Ladder (Forest Avenue, 2016) is his debut novel. He has been writing for 27 years, always and only literary fiction.
Zane Ross is a junior at University of the Cumberlands and an English major with an emphasis in Creative Writing and a minor in Journalism. He started writing when he was young, writing his own Goosebumps-like stories in 5th grade. He played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons in high school, so he contributes a lot of his practice in writing to those nerdtastic years. He is a fiction writer by trade and focuses mainly on the genres of Fantasy, Mystery and Horror. His writing is very focused on entertaining readers. He also write for the UC Patriot, his university’s school newspaper.
Ben Tanzer is the author of the book Be Cool – a memoir (sort of), among others. He also oversees the lifestyle empire This Blog Will Change Your Life and frequently speaks on the topics of messaging, framing, social media, blogging, fiction, essay writing and independent publishing. He has been writing for 18 years, a mix of fiction and personal essay.