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Whenever I think of that place where story comes from, I always hearken back to that seminal moment in the story of Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. I recall Roberta (Bobbi) Anderson walking in the woods with her dog, Peter.
She might have passed the spot where she stumbled once or twice or half a dozen times before, perhaps by yards, or feet, or bare inches.
This time she followed Peter as the dog moved slightly to the left, and with the path in sight, one of her elderly hiking boots fetched up against something… fetched up hard.
“Hey!” she yelled, but it was too late, in spite of her pinwheeling arms. She fell to the ground.
This is essentially the Genesis of Story, is it not? The storyteller trips over something, gets up, brushes themselves off, and investigates the thing that made them trip. That thing is the kernel of an idea. It sticks up out of the ground, just a glimmer. A storyteller bends down and tries to unearth it. At first, they have no idea whether it is a pebble or a mountain… because it is only a glimmer that sticks out above the path they have walked a thousand times. How much of it is buried beneath the surface, they do not know. That’s why they get down there and begin to dig it up. They need to know.
“Nice going,” she said, and looked to see what she had tripped over–a fallen piece of tree, most likely, or a rock poking out of the ground. Lots of rocks in Maine.
What she saw was a gleam of metal.
She touched it, running her finger along it and then blowing off the black forest dirt.
“What’s this?” she asked Peter.
WHAT’S THIS? Is that not what the storyteller asks when they hit upon a new idea?
I ate The Tommyknockers up with a sort of rabid madness. Just as Bobbi wanted to discover what this thing was that stuck out of the ground in the woods of Maine, I too wanted to know. Only three inches of metal… only a kernel. That’s all it takes to chase a story, is it not?
Whenever I think of story, and the impetus that brings me as a writer into a new one, I think of that little tiny piece of metal sticking out of the ground. And the burning desire to get down in the dirt and dig until it is unearthed. Perhaps that’s what King was thinking about as he wrote The Tommyknockers… how well the analogy fit with his chosen path of writer. Surely, he thought that.
To put this into perspective as to how it relates to the kernel of an idea leading, hopefully to a novel… the tiny piece of metal that stuck out of the ground was an entire ship from outer-space, a crash-landed UFO. Peter walked Bobbi in a different direction one time and of all the places on the forest floor for her foot to land, it struck a minuscule piece of metal sticking up out of the ground. This was virtually an impossibility. Until it wasn’t. Her foot found that thing to trip over… JUST. This is how a story comes to a writer. Ideas fly past us all day long until we snag onto one of them and ask ourselves WHAT IF? WHY? It’s such a magical and mysterious wondrous thing. We reach into the idea we trip over and we begin the arduous task of digging it up.
The truth is, the idea is sometimes, sadly, small… a rock poking out of the ground. That’s why we don’t stop examining them as they arrive. Because we can only see the kernel. We have to dig in order to discover how far it will take us. For every hundred ideas, only one of them is a buried spaceship. Only one of them will reveal itself as an iceberg with hidden depth.
This, to me, is the beauty of being a writer… the journey of discovery, of perseverance, of determination. If I trip over something, I’m going to be like a dog with a bone. I will not stop digging until I can see what it is I’ve tripped over. These ideas are just as random as Bobbi’s foot striking down on the one precise spot in all the world where an impossible thing lay just beneath the surface of the earth. It’s fascinating, isn’t it? Being a writer and getting to explore the ideas that come your way? I suppose it could be construed, also, as a form of madness. Many might simply be annoyed to have tripped over a thing. They might pick themselves up from the ground, brush the dirt away from their pants and say, “Stupid dog!”
But us writers? We need to know. WHY? WHAT IF?