Rub Two Sticks Together to Create a Spark: A Scout’s Strategy for Starting a Story

How do you start a story when your creative spark has dimmed? Try rubbing two ideas together.
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How do you go about starting a story when your creative spark has dimmed? Try rubbing two ideas together, like Lynn Sloan did.

By Lynn Sloan

As every fiction writer knows, there comes a moment when the ideas dry up. It’s not that you have no ideas, it’s that none of them are engaging. You try to think. You take a walk. You hang around coffee shops eavesdropping on conversations. Ideas emerge, but each seems clichéd or too thin to support more than a page or someone else already wrote that story. These are dark times in a writer’s life. Are you really a writer if you have nothing to write about? You’ve walked outside, you’ve hung around coffee shops, now you follow other standard advice. You turn to the notes you’ve jotted down on your phone or on scraps of paper or in the journal that you keep, or the journal you meant to keep but you’ve let lapse. Nothing. Or you begin to journal. Each day you write down your thoughts. This is a great strategy to trace your own mental processes, to dig into impressions and feelings that flow ever deeper, and to re-discover how truly generative writing is, but still you find no story spark.

I descended into this sorry state after I completed my first novel, Principles of Navigation. For several years, I’d given everything I had to this work. Draft after draft, figuring out what my story was really about, living with my fractious characters, honing the plot, revising chapters, then the whole manuscript, and in the last months, replacing flat words with more vivid ones, deleting what was unnecessary, moving around subordinate clauses to make sentences that sung, and finally fixing the commas. I, the writer, was exhausted. Even worse, the editor inside me had dominated my thinking for so long, she’d suffocated the creative writer.

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The only solution I could think of was to get tough. I would force myself to start a story. Since I’d drunk too much coffee in coffee shops, elicited too many sharp glances by eavesdropping on strangers, and the notes I’d kept in my “Story Starts” journal seemed as if they been written by someone else—they had been. They’d been written by the pre-novel me—I decided I would enlist chance. I would sit in my reading chair in my living room and wait for the next two things to happen, and I would write a story from those two things. Since rubbing two sticks together can create a fire, I would rub together whatever two events came, however insignificant, and I would start a story.

I shut my eyes. A patch of sunlight fell on my feet. Outside, kids from the school at the corner trudged past, shouting and laughing. After an interval, cars passed, pausing briefly at the stop sign at the corner. Then my doorbell rang and exactly at that moment, the clock on the far wall chimed. Clock, doorbell—these were my two things. I would begin a story with a doorbell, and a clock would play a role. No, a clock would be a major element in the story.

That was the beginning of “Sunshine Every Day,” the last story in my collection, This Far Isn’t Far Enough (Fomite 2018.)

Bernard stood outside the open door of 14C, produced his card, thought longingly of retiring to Seaside, and smiled down at the tiny woman. What was her name? He ignored the Pomeranian growling behind her ankles, and waved his card in mid-air, pretending to check for smudges before handing it over, a practiced gesture he used to stretch out the first critical moments with a potential client. Proceeding slowly at the beginning was essential to success with the bereaved and the elderly. And god bless her, this woman was both. Recently widowed, she’d mentioned on the phone, and pushing eighty-five by the looks of her, with a wig the color of stewed apricots and a face the years had pummeled into submission. Giving Mrs. What’s-her-name plenty of time to admire his suit, extra-starch shirt, silver hair, no longer banker-short—that was a bad year—he lowered his eyes, imagining sun on his face, a breeze, being somewhere else. Her rat-faced puffball began to whine. Bernard glared down at the beast. Dogs, foul stenches, bickering relatives, these and worse he’d learned to accept. He noticed the carpet, an imitation Aubusson of the kind sold in shops connected to low-end casinos. This did not augur well. The dog ululated.

Bernard is an estate appraiser who finds in this apartment an antique clock—one exactly like the one my mother gave me that hangs in my living room—a beautiful old clock that he is determined to possess at any cost, while Mrs. What’s-her-name is equally determined she won’t let him have it. With two cagey protagonists seeking to outwit each other, and with life and death in the balance, it’s a funny story, and a sad story. Two things, two sticks, held together, twisting and turning, created a fire.

So why did picking two random elements work for me, and why might it work for you?

 Your First Novel Revised and Expanded Edition

Your First Novel Revised and Expanded Edition

First, while I thought the two things that sparked my story-fire were arbitrarily chosen, they weren’t entirely haphazard. My mind, without me paying conscious attention, had dismissed the kids, the sun, the cars, until it found elements that seemed fruitful. In the recent past, I had been thinking about how individuals embed their identity in objects, how objects change meaning over time, and how hard it can be to part with the possessions of a lifetime, struggles I’d witnessed with my grandparents. All this came together as I listened to the chiming clock. It had become a magnet pulling from the welter of possibilities, images, details, memories connected to old family heirlooms, material I wanted to probe. My mind had done that, without my direction. It had found what mattered to me and what I was prepared to explore as a writer. Your inner self can be counted on to offer up what is meaningful to you.

Second, I had committed to forging a story, at least the start of a story, from whatever emerged. Commitment is essential to creative work. Nothing good comes without perseverance, as the Scouts say, and every artist, writer, and scientist.

Third, which evolved from points one and two, by embarking on a process that felt like a game, I was having fun. Freed from the responsibility of making the best decision, I found my way to writing a story that is, I think, significant, and that I like.

Sometimes I am ablaze with ideas for stories, but it I get stuck, I rub two sticks together to light an ember. Sometimes I get lucky and create a fire.

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Lynn Sloan is a writer and photographer. Her stories have appeared in Ploughshares, Shenandoah, and American Literary Review, among other publications, and been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is the author of the novel Principles of Navigation (2015 Fomite), which was a Chicago Book Review Best Book in 2015. Her new book, This Far Isn't Far Enough, a collection of short stories, is just out from Fomite. Her fine art photographs have been exhibited nationally and internationally. For many years she taught photography at Columbia College Chicago, where she founded the journal Occasional Readings in Photography, and contributed to Afterimage, Art Week, and Exposure. She lives in Evanston, Illinois with her husband. Learn more at http://www.lynnsloan.com/.

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