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The Mastery Path for Writers: a new way to learn the skills you need

Story Lesson 7: The Instinct for Story

When a day passes it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t told or books weren’t written, man would live like the beasts—only for the day. Today we live, but by tomorrow today will be only a story. The whole world, all human life, is one long story.
—Isaac Bashevis Singer

Professional writers never run out of ideas for stories because they have developed a kind of instinct for story. They don’t write only about themselves— for, after all, how interesting is any one ordinary person’s life? Instead they keep their attention on the world around them; they notice something, or they hear someone say something, and their story-instinct says, Hmmm...there’s a story in there.

The more you can practice keeping an ear out for story-material, whether it comes from oral tradition or oral history or people you encounter, the stronger your instinct for story will become. And if you make a habit of jotting down ideas or material for stories in your notebook, soon you will have a substantial store of “stuff” you can choose from to make use of in a story you want to write.

Here are a few more places to look for stories:

1. Oral History
As you probably know, oral history involves the collecting of stories about an event, or a time, or a place, from people who experienced that event, or lived in that time or that place. One of America’s best-known oral historians is Studs Terkel, whose many books are full of amazing stories told by ordinary people.

Here’s one of them, told by a man named Dennis Keegan, included in Terkel’s book, The Good War. Keegan is telling the story of what he witnessed in San Francisco right after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor:
No cars could move. The streets were full of people, blocking the tracks, the trolly line. People were throwing rocks, anything they could find. A streetcar came along, one of those old- fashioned funny San Francisco streetcars. It had a big round light. A man ran up with a baseball bat and smashed the light...

I was a senior at the University of San Francisco. I had room and board with a lady and her daughter. When I went in I flipped on the lights because it was pitch dark. Mrs. Kelleher screamed, " Dennis, turn the lights out! The Japs are comin’! The Japs are comin’!” She and her daughter were sitting on the couch clutching one another in absolute abject terror.

Mrs. Kelleher screamed, “The Golden Gate Bridge has been bombed!”

I said, “Mrs. Kelleher, I just drove over there a few minutes ago. There’s nothing wrong with the bridge.”

But they were so terror-stricken, I turned out the lights.

A search in a library or online will provide you with the titles of many other books of oral history which you can, if you like, mine for story ideas and materials.

PRACTICE: Collecting materials from oral history 1
Find some books of oral history on a subject or period that interest you. Browse through them, making notes of any material that seems interesting to you. Now retell one of the stories in your own words, or take some materials (from one or more stories) and use them to put together a story. Try to tell the story as if you were talking to someone.

What did you notice in doing this? Take some time to reflect.

You may also be able to do your own oral history research. Are there any older people you know whom you might ask to tell you some stories about their experiences or the places they lived in? People usually love to tell stories to an interested listener. You don’t have to tape record or take notes (though you certainly can if you want to and your storyteller gives you permission). If you simply listen, and ask questions, and let the person’s stories capture your attention, you will probably retain the material that is useful to you. Afterwards, though, do take some
time to jot down everything you can remember (that you find interesting) in your notebook.

This activity is great practice to improve your listening skills and your

PRACTICE: Collecting materials from oral history 2
Find someone (a relative? a neighbor? some folks at the senior center?) who is willing to tell you some stories. Listen to the stories, ask questions, then write down what stands out for you. Collect any material you find useful.

Now retell one of the stories in your own words, or take some materials (from one or more stories) and use them to put together a story. Try to tell this story as if you are talking it to someone.

What did you notice in doing this? Take some time to reflect.

2. Overheard Stories and Gossip
Writers have always made use of stories other people tell, whether overheard or passed on as gossip. Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald, for instance, collected stories at dinner parties or from conversations with friends and made use of this material in their novels.

PRACTICE: overheard stories and gossip
Spend some time in a place where you can eavesdrop on people’s conversations and, as best you can without making yourself obnoxious, listen in. Take mental notes of anything that interests you and transfer those notes to your notebook later. (If you prefer, you can try taking notes as you listen, but make sure the people you are listening to don’t catch you doing this!)

If you’d rather, have a good gossip session with a friend and then take some notes when you get home.

Look through the material you have collected and see if anything speaks to you. Try to put this material together into a story.

What do you notice in doing this practice?

3. Stories of Things and Places
It’s not only humans who have stories; other beings in the world—even places—can tell us stories, if we are willing to listen. Many folktales and myths, for instance, explain things about animals (“How Bear got his Short Tail,” for example) or plants (Native American stories about the Corn Maiden, for instance) or natural phenomena like thunder and lightning and rain.

PRACTICE: stories of things and places
Brainstorm a list of things in the world or places, or both, that appeal to you. Might any of them have stories to tell you? See if you can listen and collect some of those stories; take notes.

What do you notice doing this?

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