EDITOR’s NOTE: Along with our ReadTheSpirit cover story about Rachel Pieh Jones’s 2021 book, Pillars, she gave us permission to reprint this column she wrote to encourage other writers.
By RACHEL PIEH JONES
Author of Pillars
Generating story ideas can be infuriatingly difficult but also really fun. I hate the way I feel staring at a blank page but I love the way I feel looking out at the world with my mind full of curiosity.
Here are some of my favorite ways for generating story ideas, the primary ones being to cultivate an endless curiosity and to pay attention. But more specifically…
To pay attention, that is our endless and proper work.
I love coming up with story ideas. Most of my ideas are terrible, but terrible ideas can spark great ideas or can become less terrible over time. And, somewhere in the middle of the terrible ideas there are usually one or two good ones. I keep several lists, saved under the names of the websites or magazines they match and I add to the lists almost weekly so that when a big blank strikes, I have someplace to turn to. The lists include names of places or people, links to articles or books that spark ideas, turns of phrases that I like, anything, just so that when I look at the list, my mind starts gathering scraps for a story.
In no particular order, here are suggestions for generating these story ideas:
Follow your own curiosity. What have you always wondered about? Is there a monument or a historical event or a well-known person or a popular folktale that every time you see or hear it, your curiosity is piqued? Follow that. What do Djiboutians think about love and how does the Somali Romeo and Juliet folktale impact men and women differently? That question led me to research and write Death by Heartbreak.
Be bold. Don’t be afraid to approach someone in order to ask questions. I am always terrified before making a phone call or approaching someone And I’m always glad, afterwards, that I did it. Most people love to talk about what they do and are honored that you are interested. Once people start talking, though at first they may have been reticent, I often have a hard time ending an interview. Brian McKanna could never have written The Women in the Fields if he hadn’t stepped into a potentially awkward conversation with women he didn’t know. It ended with a good discussion, Brian holding a bag of organic pears, and a beautiful essay.
Follow your own interest, transplanted. Discover how what you love is similar in this new culture, or radically different. I love to run. So I naturally gravitate toward Girls Run 2, the only all-girls running team in Djibouti. I like to cook, so I am interested in Djiboutian attitudes toward cooking and food, both in restaurants and in the home. Are there recipes passed on for generations, how do young people learn, what about that flat bread that is cooked over charcoal?
Follow other people’s curiosity. What do other people wonder about where you live? What seems to draw their interest? Do you get a lot of questions about what you eat, what you wear, what the houses are like? Are people fascinated by the politics or the music or the sports in your city? When you post on Facebook about the slaughtering of goats on Eid, do people pepper you with questions? Follow their curiosity and write, keeping in mind the people who have never seen or experienced your particular place.
Go for a walk. There are two main benefits of going for a walk. First, it clears your head. Get out of the chair and move. Second, you’ll see something or encounter someone or remember something. Make sure to bring a notebook or smart phone along so you can jot down the ideas that come to mind. Let Down and Hanging Around on the Hippie Trail came from Chris Watts’ walk around India’s Anjuna Beach.
Cultivate a personality of asking questions. This goes back to curiosity. Do that annoying toddler thing, “But why? But why? But why?” You could expand on the question, too. Like, “And then what? And then what? And then what?” Be a learner, always be a learner. If you’re lucky, people around will recognize you as a learner and will even start bringing stories to you that can develop into essays.
Don’t know things, even if you do know them. You don’t know them from this particular person’s perspective. Ask anyway. I’ve lived in Djibouti for almost 12 years and still ask questions about day-to-day life because I will never know it as well as a local person, and because people have a wide variety of stories, ways of saying things, and ways of seeing things. It might be the thing that is most mundane to you that fascinates another reader.
Pay attention. Small details make an essay come alive, but they also propel more questions and might lead down intriguing trails. Use all your senses as you go about daily life and find a story in the smell of the sunrise over the desert or the sound of silence after the geese have flown south.
Find the universal in the unique. As you pay attention, think about what that specific sunrise smell says about new beginnings. Tara Thomas did this vividly in her piece Desperately Seeking Autumn. She wrote the specific story of autumn in Germany but as I read, I could hear the leaves crunching beneath my feet when I walked home from elementary school in Minnesota. Her essay was about how she both missed and enjoyed autumn in Germany but it touched on the universal experience of autumn.
Always say yes. This isn’t really practical, but as often as possible, say yes. Invited to a concert? Go. Someone wants you to tour their school for kids with special needs? Go. Someone hands you a plate of steaming rice with a boiled goat tongue on top? Eat it. Debbie Porter followed her strange yearning for a souvenir into a shop in a Chinese market and out came the story Postcard from Kowloon. Everything might not turn into a story (though as Annie Dillard said, writers are always cannibalizing our lives for parts), but it could. At the very least, you’ll have a grand adventure.
And of course, as one last suggestion: read.
Read like mad.
Read other EthnoTraveler pieces (or other pieces in your genre).
(This column originally appeared in Rachel Pieh Jones’s website and was republished here with her permission.)