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Where the Stories Come From

There are these questions I get a lot as a writer.

“What do you write?”

 “Do you actually make any money at this?”

“How do you have the time?”

Blah. I don’t mind answering any of these questions, but honestly, they bore me. They’re so obvious. So unoriginal. These questions are placeholders. I have this theory that talking to a writer is akin to talking to an alien for most people. They just don’t know what to say to us. They can’t imagine what on earth our lives are like or what they have in common with someone who sits in a room in a smoking jacket, swilling two-day old coffee and murmuring to themselves about philosophy and Shakespeare. Or maybe we wear high heels and silk dressing gowns and drink wine while imagining hulking, naked, wealthy tycoons on horseback. That’s the thing. THEY JUST DON’T KNOW. So they don’t know what to say to us.

I’m not offended. It’s pretty funny, actually, because I know the truth. I know the coffee is hot from the Keurig and I may or may not brush my hair before 2pm. But sometimes, to be honest, I make stuff up. Stuff like how I write on trains crossing North Africa, or in bohemian apartments in Paris. Or maybe I only write twice a year when I’m on a yacht in the Caribbean. Or I can’t volunteer in my child’s classroom because I’m living amongst monks, finishing my next novel. Or I’m too weak to bring snacks for the little league team because I’ve totally been fasting for weeks, eating only banana leaves until the muse comes to me.

Okay, okay. None of this has any bearing on the reality of my writing journey. At. All. (Think preschool parking lots, Costco, my closet floor, leftovers, etc) But I know these questions don’t really matter because no one bats an eye, no matter how I answer them. The most passionate reaction I might get to my zany responses is a mildly doubtful, vaguely Valley Girl, “Seriously?”

But there’s this one question I love. It is the best question, a sincere question. When I get this question, I know I’m meeting another alien, another seeker. This question comes at me differently, and if you’re a writer I bet you get it, too. The person asking will often lean in just a little. This question is a great skeleton key, slipping into a mysterious lock. It’s what’s inside that wardrobe in the attic. It’s the invisible ink that shines in moonlight. The secret language we storytellers speak only to one another. Ready? Do you know what it is?

Where do you get your ideas?

Ahhh. See there? Doesn’t that thrill you just a little? How I love this question for so many reasons! I love it for all it reveals in me. And in the one who is asking. And I have the answer always ready.

The same place as you.

BAM! POW! SHAZAM! All the comic book sound effects apply to this moment. Eyes meet. Recognition zings. Alien recognizes alien.

This question is about you, the writer, but also about the one who asks it. It’s about what connects us all, the true secrets of the storyteller. But beyond that, it’s about identity. It’s about a person who wants the answers for themselves because they know somewhere inside that they are something strange and wonderful and… they are like you. Of course, that’s not what I tell them because that would be boring and normal and not alien at all. But when it comes to this question, I tell them the truth in a way that only another storyteller will understand. A litmus test.

We’re Lightning Collectors.  

Wait. Watch. A real storyteller understands this answer intuitively. We know that we don’t GET ideas. We RECEIVE ideas. They are delivered to us from the universe, baby. Storytellers are built for stories. We are conduits. We just take in everything that’s around us and we are bathed in stories. We soak up the energy of our personal world. That’s what’s behind the curtain of every storyteller who ever cranked out a good yarn. Sounds easy enough, right?

Wrong. If your litmus test tells you the truth, your question asker will go bright-eyed and misty at this point. Because they know. And they know that you know that they know. And they know that once they know, they can’t un-know what they’ve always secretly believed about themselves. Scary? You bet. And that’s the real question that’s being asked. So, here’s my real answer. The whole she-bang.

Collecting lightning is not like carrying a basket through the woods. Collecting lightning means being a structure that invites risk to zip right through us. It means the chance of getting burned – sometimes, fried. It means standing in the worst kind of storms and not pulling inside yourself. And here’s where my answer really matters, when I tell this seeker the most important thing I’ve learned about what and who I am as a Lightning Collector. Seriously. I looked up lightning rods on Wikipedia, so I’d be an expert.

“…lightning is actually composed of both a cloud component and an oppositely charged ground component.”

Did you see miss it? Did you blink? It’s a glorious flash, the secret to what makes up all our stories, the requirements for lightning to strike – both the cloud and the ground. A story requires the energy of inspiration AND the grounded certainty of the storyteller’s courage. Wise Lightning Collectors know they can’t be afraid. They must be aware in a world of people who often aren’t. They have to believe – long before the flash, really believe – they are sufficient to conduct all that energy. That kind of confidence is what cauterizes souls and sparks voice.