What’s In a Story


Inside the Writer's Mind

Where do you the stories come from?

This is a question often asked of a fiction writer, songwriter, and even poets.  Creating something from nothing isn’t an exact science and the process differs ever so slightly from the essayist and memoirist approach to writing.  Although, a writer—regardless of genre–will labor over similar issues once the writing is underway. I know this to be true having spent a year blogging.

Content – Where does it come from?

On Sunday nights when I close my eyes, I ponder the content for the coming week, sometimes with dread because like most women writers—some with day jobs and families—there is always something demanding our attention.  Finding quiet time is on par with The New Yorker publishing one of poems—almost impossible.

The Sunday-late-night-time-to-ponder-brilliance-before-sleep is my time to think up wonderfully engaging topics to write about.  However, I usually I fall asleep before the muse leaves me with my weekly quota of brilliance. I tend to wake up Monday morning in a panic because I have nothing in my head except for the word tumbleweeds (words without a home, which connect to form an endless chain that tangles itself into roaming word-ball until the writer unravels).

Are you running on empty and looking for love in the all the wrong places?

I whine about it often enough—with good reason–but in truth, I am always behind on my own life and flirting with a story.  I don’t care what I do or how I manage the nitty gritty details of my world there is always something beyond my reach.  So waking up on a Monday with only me, the tumbleweeds, and my shadow, is as expected as heartache that follows a lover’s comment, I like you as a friend, but….

What do you do?

I will walk the streets in my hood pounding out a story problem.  If need be, I will pour myself a glass wine and listen to my favorite singer-song writers for inspiration.  But mostly, if I am void of story and content brilliance, I will slip into my mind and wander through my memories. I am a woman of many faces, as well all are. Go look in the mirror if you doubt me.

 Mind sweeping

I start in the farest corner, where dust is inches thick and life’s moments are haphazardly stacked.  I am frequently waylaid in this alcove because the pile, **FOR SAFE KEEPING**, woos me.  It promises the world if only I’d pour a glass of wine and sit.   Secrets and juicy tidbits reside here, all clamoring to reach the top of the pile.  It’s my favorite stack as there is always a story for the telling in this heap of past lives.

Come-hither, the closet at the top of the stairs in my mind

The come-hither closet is like a junk drawer in your kitchen.  It’s where I store anything not filed or labeled (my mind, unlike my organized hard drive, could use an intervention or spring-cleaning by Merry Maids).

Come-hither as defined in the dictionary:  sexually inviting or provocative.  You’re wondering why I have a closet at the top of the stairs with this name, yes.     Well, herein is the point and answer to the question I started with, which was, where do the stories come from?

I don’t know that I can explain without someone suggesting I see a mind doctor, but here goes:

As a writer, everything I see, feel, touch, experience, watch, taste, smell, ponder, pass over, and survive, has a certain come-hither quality to it, and yes sometimes it’s sexy and too tempting for me to resist.  A word or expression that pulls me to my knees I will toss into the closet.  A character will whisper in my ear while I am shopping at Target or pumping gas, and I’ll send her to the closet.  The lyric in a song by Brandi, Dwight, Matt, Mary Chapin, or Rob, will write itself upon my body and be there waiting for me when I next visit the closet.  A conversation I dropped in on at Starbucks, the smell of baking bread, an empty box of shoe dye, the recipe for green chili stew, the road trips I took across the desert with my dad, the afternoon I walked through the Bank of England contemplating my future, the lover I never stopped loving, a funeral for a friend.  A comment left on my blog.  All are stored in the closet, waiting.

Is it magic?

I confess to believing there is little bit of hocus pocus to the story telling, but mostly I think it’s there in the genetic code, this art of how-to, it’s innate.  As for the science of writing, the diligence, the sit-my-ass-down-in-the-chair-and-write, the don’t-give-up aspect of writing, well that’s part gumption and part passion.  You have to want it bad to sit in the chair day after day sifting through your closets and journals for the next story, which tends to show up when you least expect it and from the most obscure tumbleweeds.

Is it magic, gumption, or both?  For fun, do you have a closet in your mind where you store your tidbits?




I’m a writer and hoarder of one-size-fits-all panty hose. Until the hose fits over my bum, I write to provide an alternative view on writing and perfection.

30 thoughts on “What’s In a Story

  1. Absolutely Brenda! There are places which will always provide and come through for me, they’re too deeply written in my psyche. This is a really thought provoking post and I appreciated learning something of your writing process and in turn something of my own.

    • I am so glad, Elizabeth. I have said this a trillion times before about the writing process, but it does fascinate me. How each of us creates, where we sit, how we sit, what we do, when, etc., all of it intrigues me.

  2. At the risk of sounding crazy, I’ll say that sometimes my mental closet hides things from me. Things I’ve forgotten even happened. And when they get moved to the the front of the closet and start to peek out, it’s like discovering something new. Strange, right?

    • Kelly, not really. I think this is how we writer’s roll. I know we all have our own ‘weirdnesses’ and when we talk about it to the average lay person, we do come off sounding kind of crazy. I don’t worry about it. As for your mental closet hiding things from you, it’s probably doing this for your own good. You my dear, have a heck of lot going on upstairs between editing and writing. Trust in your mental closet.

  3. Lynne Favreau

    Filing cabinets. My dad had this four-draw wooden filing cabinet that I loved which lives on in my mind. I adored the smell, the sound of the draws opening and the smoothness of the movement. I store all manner of information in there, character bios, colors, snippets of conversations, images that evoke a time and place I want to write about later, maps, menus, and names. So crammed full it’s sometimes hard to find the right file.

    • Lynne, I love the sense of smell in your comment. It’s strong even from where I am sitting in San Francisco. I loved that you use a filing cabinet of your Dad’s, so rich. I know what you mean about it being over stuffed. Wonderful comment, thanks for sharing this part of your writer mind.

  4. Closet? I envision a whole crazy apartment building full of potential stories – the young romantic couple, the quiet serial killer, the crazy lady with all the cats… (wait, is that me)? Periodically I knock at one of the doors and ask what’s going on with them.

    And alas, sometimes nobody’s home. Or there’s a block party going on and instead of being there to write it all down, I have to be at my day job. Grrrr.

    • I get annoyed at the other part of my life intrusions on my writing life. Last weekend was my lost weekend. I was forced to surface when my son told me I was looking a lot like a pork chop! Next time you have a block party, can I please come?

  5. Magic + Gumption = Gift!
    I DO have a closet in which I store my tidbits. Usually I lock it and forget where I hid the key! That’s why writers carry journals, right? My inspiring thoughts are rcaptured right next to the grocery list!
    Usually my inspiration is so simple and stupid: does anyone else give themselves a concussion making their kids’ bunk beds or is it just me?
    Sometimes my inspiration is sad and forlorn: where am I and how did I get here?

    • You always bring a smile to myself, Astra. I suspect we would have a grand time talking over a bottle or more of Chardonnay.. Yes, this writer is never without a writing journal and if I am, I will write on whatever I find. Me and journals have an unstable relationship. I covet them, drool over therm, want to buy them in every size or color. I just want them. Help me! :-)

  6. I write down most of my tidbits (I have post-it notes all over my desk). Sometimes I have a character or couple of words stuck in my mind and I’ll think about them and keep revisiting them until they speak to me. Once they have spoken (usually when I’m trying to sleep) I write it down on a post-it. I found this post via She Writes.

    • Rena, thanks for stopping by. I tend to start with a character, the words are the last part of the story. A writer’s tired body if of no concern when inspiration hits.

  7. –Brenda,
    I continually look forward to what you will say (ponder) next.

    My mind is so “”FULL”” that sometimes I drown inside the words :)

    & of course, people like you inspire me to be a better writer… Xxx

    • It is always the way, Kim. There is too much going on inside. I am seriously thinking of getting a mini tape recorder.. Hmm, not sure. I quite like the sound of this expression, “I drown inside the words.” If not a lanky man, I’d go for the words.

  8. Brenda, the first thought that came to mind was, ‘Closet? Ha-more like a junk drawer!” I’m trying to find a system to keep these ideas organized – it’s particularly difficult when I”m driving- but like you, I lie awake at night or in the morning thinking. I think when I’m walking or running, I think when I’m at work, I think when I should be doing many other things. And when I sit down to write, if I’m lucky the thinking will flow through my fingers and find form. Sometimes I just read your blog and get inspired :)

    • I know some writers who use a portable tape machine… that’s an idea. I’ve thought about that to be honest because I don’t always write down my ideas and later I kick myself in the backside. Trust me,I get inspiration everywhere.. sometimes I read something and my mind is gone. I am glad to help because you’ve helped me with your wonderful photos.

  9. The devil is in the details, and so is the key to writing. The nuances. For example, I love this line, because it is so rich with visuals and also so eclectic. To me, this is perfection:

    “A conversation I dropped in on at Starbucks, the smell of baking bread, an empty box of shoe dye, the recipe for green chili stew, the road trips I took across the desert with my dad, the afternoon I walked through the Bank of England contemplating my future, the lover I never stopped loving, a funeral for a friend. A comment left on my blog. All are stored in the closet, waiting.”

    It makes me want to know more about each one of these items, including the road trip with your dad. You are an artist of words, dear Brenda.

    • Monica, you do make me weak at the knees with your lush comments. My writer’s hearts sends you a kiss across the wires. And yes, it is always in the details. I don’t remember learning this in 3rd grade composition, but somewhere along the way I picked it up.

  10. June O'Hara

    I so envy fiction writers. A story, for me, is a big lump already there. I have to chisel and shape it into something someone might want to read. I’m limited as to how far I can go to create a story. I’d love to let my mind free and give it a shot, but I’m so far into what I do, I’m not even sure I’d be able.

    Thank you so much for your thoughts on the creative process. The topic never fails to fascinate me, and your voice and descriptions stay with me long after I’ve read them.

    • June, I never thought about it that way. I suppose it is one of the advantages to writing fiction. We simply look at the blank page and pull in all our crazy ideas and let the fingers sail. The creative process and matters of the heart are my two favorite subjects to write about. I don’t seem to tire of these subjects. I hope this passion continues to burn.

  11. I am always behind on my own life — I love how you put this. I once heard another writer say when asked about finding time to write “My life mugged me so I couldn’t write.” Like June, sometimes I wish I could write fiction because I could play with whatever was available to me. The challenge in NF is to look at a situation or something someone said or a passing moment and ask “Where is the story in this?”

    • Hey, Julie. Funny you mention the NF fiction challenges as it’s something June and I were talking about earlier. My point was I do drag real life into my fiction, bits and pieces, but where it goes or how a truth ends up is anybody’s business, thus my preference for fiction. I am not bound by the truth.

  12. Yes — I do have a closet in my mind where I store tidbits and ideas. However, for my blog I’m devoted to staying current, so I only (try!) to pull out old stories to illustrate new quandaries or ideas I’m dealing with today. We all have favorite stories and I consider it kind of a cop-out to keep pulling those out over and over again like some writers do! If I can’t think of something new to talk about today then I may as well have died yesterday, that’s how I kind of feel.

    Having said that, my current post is based on one of my favorite personal stories from 1979 — haha!

    • I will by to read, Linda. I don’t have any rules about blogging content, and even if I didn’t I can’t always control what comes out of my head. I do find the writer’s process fascinating.

  13. Oh yes. I feel like I have a closet in my mind, one which changes each time I open the door. Really, it’s not a closet, but a portal. I guess you could say it’s magic. Thanks for sharing a piece of yourself with everyone.

    • Hey there, Shannon. I like the ideal of portal so much more. One step and whoossssssssssssh, you’re gone. I think of my blog as one of my journals, much of my ‘closet’ shows up here..

  14. Mainly, my tidbits have been written down in my freewriting books. So they all sit on my bookshelf. But I’ve only begun daily freewriting few years ago, so for the stuff that went on before that, they might be in my mind closet. That closet is a fine one. Elusive at times, but fine. Because the details I’ve locked away are usually still pretty vivid.

    • I stopped journalling on notebooks because I can’t find anything if I need it later. I’ve started recently trying to do it online so I can tag it, etc., stay organized, but even that is not proving to be 100% successful. Oh well. Are your free writes leading into something or only for the pleasure of writing. I kind of do both.. Just curious.

  15. Val

    I have a closet full of junk that I need to settle down and organize. When I focus on that blank screen and remember everything that I encountered in a day or my lifetime, it seems it turns to magic. The information won’t stop coming. The key is having the time to be a writer and go to work. I’ve been called weird or random by my coworkers and I’m sure it’s because I see life differently from them. Every move or expression that someone makes I see it. The way they walk is processed and placed in my closet. So yes….I will say it’s magic once it hits the page but clutter in my closet when it’s in my head.

    • Val – It’s been my experience that people who are not absorbed by the need/passion to write don’t understand those that do. If you think about it writing is a solitary pursuit it’s not a team sport, and a large percentage of people don’t like to be alone, especially not in their heads. I always thank the person who calls me weird. It’s unsettles their world-try it. I am thrilled when something in my head makes its to the page and I am able to make is shiny

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