Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

How do authors come up with stories?

There’s no one source, like a wellspring of inspiration that the writer simply needs to find. Perhaps Andrea Barrett captures this best in her essay “The Sea of Information” when she writes, “Writing is mysterious; and it’s supposed to be . . . any path that gets you there is a good path in the end. But one true thing among all these paths is the need to tap a deep vein of connection between our own uncontrollable interior preoccupations and what we’re most concerned about in the world around us.”

Our inspiration, then, is found in our own personal preoccupations. Andrea Barrett writes, in that same essay, that her “imagination is nourished by old books, old bones, fossils, feathers paintings, photographs, museums of every kind and size, microscopes and telescopes, plants and birds; I like to learn things and . . . all this information feeds my fiction.” Author Elizabeth McCracken is captivated by her family history. She keeps a family archive filled with diaries, letters, sketches, diplomas and poems. Stories often grow out of what she finds there. In Joyce Carol Oates’ essay, “To A Young Writer,” she advises writers look for “forbidden” passions, buried selves, and ill-understood drives. “These emotions,” she writes, “are the fuel that drives your writing and makes possible hours, days, weeks, months and years of what will appear to others, at a distance, as ‘work.’” Lauren Groff’s short story, “A Season By the Shore,” was informed by her own “anxiety and restlessness” that came with her pregnancy with her first son. While she can trace the inspiration of some aspects of this story, she, too, acknowledges the mystery inherent in the process: “In truth, my debts are endless, and I only wish I were alert enough to recognize them all.”

What are your own vital interests? What details, anecdotes, concerns, images or subjects do you return to again and again? Some ideas may come to mind right away. If that’s the case, start there. Look for the intriguing character or the compelling conflict within that interest. If one doesn’t easily present itself, begin to do some exploring. This might take the form of research, conversations, looking through ephemera, or journaling. If you follow the trail of that preoccupation, you’re bound to come across the engine of a story.

If a preoccupation doesn’t come to mind right away, you might find it useful to keep a journal or look through the one you already write. You might keep a folder of interesting bits—news articles, flyers or brochures from intriguing places, pictures of unexpected findings. Over time, you might return to this to see what interests have remained and which have lost their appeal.

Pay attention to where your mind and imagination wander. You will find your inspiration there.