Category Archives: About Me

Finding Stories

I don’t know where you find your stories, but I find mine everywhere. All I need is a little prompt – an object, a smell, a look from a stranger. Some of my favorite stories are inspired by listening to the words people don’t say.

Here, I’ll show you what I mean. I’m sitting in a Panera restaurant. I have a window seat. It’s just after the lunch rush. I’m going to look around and eavesdrop and see what stories appear. I’m sure I could find a hundred, given time, but I’ll limit myself to the first five that appear. And so you can see how my brain works (don’t look too closely), I’ll put the inspiration for the story idea in brackets. Keep in mind these are just seeds of bigger ideas (or possibly suited only for a short story), but you gotta start somewhere, right?

Waiting – Barry is a busboy at a busy chain restaurant in a Chicago suburb. Most customers ignore him or offer fake, polite smiles that Barry recognizes as the kind someone offers a person they think is mentally handicapped. He’s not. He’s just quiet. He’s also rich. He inherited seven million dollars two years ago, but he hasn’t touched a penny of it. He’s waiting to fall in love first. He wants to be loved for who he is, not for his money. On a particularly rainy Wednesday, a woman who is clearly annoyed by the young man she is enduring lunch with smiles at him with a different kind of smile. The kind that sets his heart to beating fast. She looks vaguely familiar, but he tells himself this is because she’s eaten there before. He’s wrong.

[A busboy was Hoovering, and hovering, near my table.]

Barriers – When Jerry Kincaid is stuck in I-40 traffic on the August afternoon following the worst day of his life (his girlfriend left him for a state trooper), his attention is drawn to the orange safety barriers – the ones they fill with sand or water or something to keep drivers from killing themselves should they drift off the highway into the median. He reads the manufacturing information and notices the model name is appended with “Mark 3.” A strange curiosity compels him to find out what happened to the “Mark 1″ and “Mark 2″ models. The next day, on the way to the manufacturing plant in Bowling Green, Kentucky, he falls asleep at the wheel and drifts into the median. A year later, the “Mark 4″ is introduced.

[There's sidewalk construction going on across the way, complete with orange safety cones.]

Every Thursday for a Lifetime – Father Karcher has lived a long and mostly uncomplicated life. He’s weathered more than his portion of the global disdain for the sins of his ilk with quiet humility, nodding and sighing and even tearing up at just the right moments to absorb the anger meant for evil men who have damaged so many young lives. But despite his own bitterness toward the wrong-minded priests, he never points an accusing finger. “God’s fingers are better suited,” he says if anyone asks. Every Thursday he sits in the small coffee shop at the very same table, sipping hot Passion tea (an inside joke, but not the one his parishoners might expect, particularly around Easter) and waiting, hoping, longing for a few moments of shared secret silence with the dark-haired woman who’s been coming every week for years.

[An aging priest sat alone at a corner table. He looked wistful.]

A Trail of Crumbs – She almost always can be smelled before she is seen – the middle-aged woman with the clothes that are much too big and the dog that is much too small (they didn’t even see him the first three times, hidden as he was in her suitcase purse). She comes at the end of the day, just before the doors close, and asks for whatever bread they’re planning on throwing away. Kelly is the only manager who breaks the rules and gives her some. Just a loaf or two. One evening, when Kelly is feeling paradoxically depressed and adventurous, she follows the woman. After a few dozen twists and turns through unmarked doors and down unlit stairwells, she finds herself in an underground city. It is a world unto itself. Not the stronghold of criminals and ne’er-do-wells, nor the trash-riddled sewer of sad lives and sadder stories she expected to find, but a bright and beautiful community that always smells like a summer rain; a place where the only currency is love.

[Saw stacks of bread behind the counter. Wondered where it all ended up.]

Listening – Matt and Joanne have been struggling lately. He calls it the “eleven year itch” and she calls it “that damn golf channel.” Following a particularly nasty disagreement on the relative merits of marital counseling, they agree on a more unique approach to sorting through their mess. They decide to interview long-married couples in search of practical wisdom. Secretly, they’re each hoping to find evidence to support the opposite result – they don’t think the marriage is salvageable. At first, they get their wish – these long-married couples don’t seem the least bit happy. But as they delve deeper and deeper into the strange (and sometimes disturbing) love lives of strangers, they find themselves growing closer instead.

[A young couple was sharing a table with a much older couple. There was something in the way the young couple was sitting (as far apart as the booth seat allowed) that prompted the story idea.]

* * *
Q: Where do you find your stories?

The Way I Walk

I write the way I walk.

When I know where I’m going, every step is purposed. I am not easily distracted. My footfalls are metronomic. And when I get to my destination? I feel good. I feel capable. I feel smart. I treat myself to a cookie because I deserve it. Hey, every little accomplishment means something.

Most of the time I don’t know where I’m going.

I walk in circles. I take the easy path. The impossible path. I stare at a sidewalk crack. I climb a tree. I sit on a fence. I hide in a bush. I chase nervous rabbits. I pet rabid dogs. I look for messages in the sky. The dirt. The rain.

I walk slowly. I run to feel the wind. I stumble. Sometimes on purpose.

I see things. I miss things. I find things. I lose them.

I’m tentative. Awkward. Uncertain. Bold. Confident. Afraid.

I get lost. A lot.

But I keep walking.

I know authors who only know how to run. They plot their path and race to the finish line without looking back even once. They set absurd word count goals and then destroy them. They manufacture motivation when they can’t find it in a cup of coffee. They invite the muse at daybreak, but write anyway when she doesn’t show up. They complete one novel and start right away on another.

They are word warriors. They are finishers. They are the reason books get published.

They are my heroes.

(Sometimes I hate them.)

I’ve been walking for five years with my current novel. Many times I’ve come to the same place in the road – the fork that veers left and on to the end of the story. I know almost everything that sits along that path. It’s a good path.┬áThe novel is finished in my head. I’ve written it there to completion.

But my heart isn’t ready to write it down. I don’t know why. (And I do.)

Sometimes I listen to the other books that are waiting in my writing queue. They’re a restless bunch. They don’t like the way I walk. They want their turn.

How much longer? they ask.

I don’t know, I answer.

So I keep walking.

I’ll keep walking until I see the fork in the road, until I feel the ache in my heart, and until that ache becomes gravity and pulls me to the left. Then I might even run.

But when?

I don’t know.

Crap. There’s the fork now.

Soon?

The Blank Page

The blank page strikes fear into writers, but too often for the wrong reason.

These writers (perhaps you?) see it as something to fill with cleverness and excellence that will excite the senses and convert the masses. They consider it a space to stuff with characters and plots and subplots and twists and tension and conflict and resolution.

To them, the blank page is a empty thing that demands to be filled. And when it doesn’t get its way, it mocks them. It belittles them. It questions their writing talent. Their commitment. Their masculinity. Their femininity. Their parenting skills. Their love of Hemingway. Their selfish use of oxygen.

The blank page is evidence of an empty heart. Or mind. Or (gasp) soul. This is a terrifying idea.

And so they scrounge and scrape for story scraps in their ubiquitous (and surprisingly destitute) “ideas” folder and shop for characters at the local Starbucks. They read Rowlings or Robinson for inspiration, then stare with glassy-eyed panic at textured walls, praying for a seed of brilliance to reveal itself in the randomness.

All to satisfy the need to fill the page, to deny the yawning abyss of irrelevance and purposelessness its prey.

I think they’re scared of the wrong thing.

The page isn’t empty at all. It’s absolutely packed. It’s filled from edge to edge with every book, every movie, every song, every tear-filled breakup, every hope-filled phone call, every sin, every grace – every single experience and thought and dream and bliss and agony the writer has ever known.

You might be thinking, “Isn’t this just a matter of semantics? I say the page is empty, you say it’s full – either way, I still have to choose what to type and that’s a daunting thing.”

It’s not semantics. It’s a completely different way of thinking.

If the blank page is empty, you need to find things to fill it. Go ahead and put a sentence on the page. It’s still pretty empty, isn’t it. Okay, go find more stuff. Hurry, before that solitary sentence begs for the mercy of the eraser. What’s that? You’re stuck? You must be looking in the wrong place.

But if the blank page is full, everything you need is right there. And isn’t it, really? Aren’t all your story ideas (the good ones and the terrible ones) – or at the very least, the seeds for those ideas – already a part of who you are? If not, maybe you’re going about this writing thing all wrong. Ever heard of “write what you know”? That means write from who you are. Don’t “try to be a writer.” Just write. Look at the stuff that’s already in you – the stuff that’s already there on the page – and circle it. Underline it. Re-arrange it.

Uncover it.

The blank page isn’t empty.

It’s full of you.

Now that’s scary.

Things I’ve Said on Twitter

This is a totally lame excuse for a post. It’s just a bunch of stuff I’ve tweeted over the past couple of months. Some of you have already been subjected to this madness and would rather be pecked to death by a sparrow than read it again. This isn’t for you. This is for those of you who don’t tweet…or who were too distracted by tweets about Justin Bieber to notice mine.

Many of these have something to do with writing. The rest have more to do with my personal psychoses. Feel free to offer your diagnosis in the comments.

While you amuse yourselves with this, I’ll go write a real post.

*Note of warning to those of you with severe OCD: These tweets are almost all in chronological order (from most recent to…not so recent). Did you notice that word “almost”? Yup. I did this to mess with your head.

Twitter recap 1
Twitter recap 2
Twitter recap 3
Twitter recap 4
Twitter recap 5

That should do it for today. Now you know what it’s like to be waterboarded. Thing is, I’ve got pages and pages of this crap. So you’ll probably see a few more pages the next time I pretend to care about how often I blog.

Now, back to that post I was writing. It’s about wasting readers’ time with filler.

No, it’s not. But wouldn’t that be clever and ironic?

The Truth Below the True

I’m not going to tell you my true story.

Not just because it’s decidedly uneventful for the first four decades or so (apart from the usual stuff – saying clever things as a toddler, enduring the “let’s get Steve and his older brother matching sailor suits, won’t that be cute?” miscues of otherwise wonderful parents, leaving home, getting married, having kids, taking the occasional vacation, discovering unique ways to incorporate bacon into daily life), but because some of the story, particularly the season that begins just after those first four decades, features choices and consequences and events that, if published, could end up hurting Real Life People.

No matter how redemptive the story might ultimately be, a memoir that begins, “I fell in love with someone who was not my spouse,” is fraught with potential to damage friends and family members and others who don’t care to remember what happened “way back when.” Could such a book be helpful to people struggling with a similar situation? Probably. Cautionary tales have merit, to be sure. But I’m not telling you mine.

You’re distracted, aren’t you.

You’re wondering if that opening line is indeed from my unwritten memoir. Let’s take a closer look at this distraction for a moment. Look beyond the base curiosity that feeds our strange hunger for rumor. In just one sentence we see the edges of something that makes us squirm: even the best fall down sometimes. [Hat tip to Howie Day's "Collide."]

Don’t turn away just yet. Look deeper. Beneath the true story of a man who falls in love with someone who isn’t his wife is something called longing. I’m not going to use this space to tell you the “right and wrong” ways to deal with longing. [Feel free to bombard me with emails about "boundaries" if you must. Then take a real close look at why you feel so compelled to bombard me with emails about boundaries.] I’m not even going to try and define longing here. But you know it, don’t you. You know what it is.

It is a truth.

Though I choose not to tell my true story, I still feel compelled to write. (Hey, I’m a writer. It’s what we do.) And that, my virtual friends, is why I write fiction – short stories you can read here (if you have a strong stomach for angst and don’t mind digging a bit to find the hints of hope in the pain) – and a novel, which will finally get stamped with “The End” by summer if all goes well.

Let me make something abundantly clear: I’m not writing my “true story” in novel form. For the record, I don’t think that’s such a good idea for writers. But I am telling the truth. The truth of longing. The truth of what it feels like to be lost. Of what it feels like to be desired. Of what it feels like to be forgotten. Of what it feels like to wait. Of what it feels like to sip grace.

These truths are universal – and such universal truths are exactly what make a novel both believable and compelling.

I’m sure you’ve read novels that resonate with you. Maybe you couldn’t articulate exactly what it was that captured you, but you knew that this novelist was telling the truth. I suspect you’ve also read a few books that have had the opposite effect – you simply couldn’t relate to the characters or the storyline. Why? I’d bet the story was a little short on truth.

If you want to be a good writer – a writer who connects with readers, you have to get in touch with the truth below the true. Fair warning: getting to the truth below isn’t always fun – in fact, the journey can be ugly and scary and dangerous. But ignore it at your own peril as an author.

Tell whatever story you want, be it a mystery or fantasy or historical romance. Make up characters and plot lines as far removed from your own true story as the fiction demands. Hey, that’s part of the fun of being a writer. You can go anywhere.

Just be sure to tell the truth when you get there.