Truth Inspired – How Story Dictates Itself

What inspires your stories? Our imaginations are constantly bombarded, yet it takes but one little fact to grab us, holding us hostage until we pay it’s artful ransom. When that nugget of inspiration strikes, we must listen. When truth pulses as a nucleus, our job is to take dictation, building a form around it as the story whispers in our ear.

Our chosen form can be poetic, solemn, curt, funny, profound. It can be nonfiction, fiction, or visual images. The lifeblood of our stories extend from deep within individual experiences and sensibilities. It directs our voice and shapes our perspectives.

Where are you in your stories? How do the characters or theme represent you? Do you remember the very moment that inspired your work to spring from your imagination, as if a moment in time is frozen to memory?

I offer four examples of books that glimpse at the heart of the author. Each of these stories sprang from a moment, a realization, a personal experience.

THE WALL: GROWING UP BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN by Peter Sis (F,S,& G, 2007) biography
Sis views the world visually as evidenced by this remarkable tale of his life before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Part third person narration, part journal entries, and part scrapbook, there’s no way to miss the author’s heart in the story. His afterword sums it up. “Now when my American family goes to visit my Czech family in the colorful city of Prague, it is hard to convince them it was ever a dark place full of fear, suspicion, and lies. I find it difficult to explain my childhood; it’s hard to put into words, and since I have always drawn everything, I have tried to draw my life-before America- for them. Any resemblance to the story in this book is intentional.”

This could have easily been a nonfiction book, but the author was inspired to weave a fictional tale of a Comanche grandmother telling the story of the wild buffalo that, at one time, “…were so thick upon these hills that you couldn’t even see the earth beneath them.” Alternating between the tale and the nonfiction events, the story at once illustrates the devastating effects of white man on the buffalo and how, in 1907, fifteen buffalo were moved from the Bronx zoo and released to the Oklahoma plains. What inspired this story? Waldman grew up across the street from the Bronx Zoo, where he was intrigued by the story behind “the mother herd,” and nurtured by conversations with his grandfather. He listened to his inner muse and took dictation.

YATANDOU by Gloria Whelan (Sleeping Bear Press, 2007) Fiction
The placement of the author’s note at the beginning of this story truly illustrates the inspiration behind this story. “When I visited Africa my two strongest impressions were of the beauty of the land and how hard many Africans had to work to take from the land necessities as simple as a drink of water or a dish of porridge. What a satisfaction it was, then, to write the story of Yatandou and the grinding machine (officially known as a multifunctional platform.)

Life for eight year-old Yatandou is difficult. Her primitive Mali village “lies beneath rocks that stretch like two arms holding us safe,” yet the day-to-day chores are a matter of survival. There is water and firewood to fetch and the millet must be pound in preparation of meager food-Three hours of pounding for a single day’s meal. “The women talk of bringing to the village something that will eat the millet kernels and spit out meal. My pounding stick grows heavier and heavier.” Ultimately, Yatandou makes a personal sacrifice by selling her pet goat in order to help buy a grinding machine which might eventually be used to draw water and generate electricity. Behind the words is the hope and optimism of the Mali people.

“The story of the Negro Leagues is about the unsung heroes who overcame segregation, hatred, terrible conditions, and low pay to do the one thing they loved more than anything else in the world: play ball.” Told in a unique first person voice, the story is broken into nine innings, plus an extra inning, each occupied with stunning illustrations. The opening chapter introduces the voice for this 16,560 word picture book. “Seems like we’ve been playing baseball for a mighty long time. At least as long as we’ve been free. Baseball’s the best game there ever was.”

Dive into the Author’s note and you can practically feel the moment of his inspiration. While a student at Pratt, he was asked to do a painting of a Negro League player, which he knew little about. The research opened his eyes. “What I found most striking was the story of the Negro Leagues, their overwhelming success despite the daunting odds against them. Their spirit of independence, having made something out of nothing at all. Armed with only their intellectual and athletic talents, and the sheer will to play the game that they loved so dearly, this group of men assumed control of their destiny.”

Whether you write fiction, nonfiction, fantasy, or poetry, you are a part of what you write. Are you listening to the story being whispered to you? Are you taking dictation or are you fighting the voice that wants to be spoken?