Mommy, where do stories come from?
Has anyone ever asked you where your story ideas come from? It’s not quite as bad as the birds and the bees talk, but it can still be a difficult question to answer.
I have a degree in folklore. Yes, that’s a real thing. How does someone decide to major in that? Well, I don’t know about everyone else, but I decided to pursue it because I love stories. I’d go so far as to say I’m addicted to stories. I’m always looking for them, listening to them, watching them, reading them, making them up. I was an English literature and History double-major in undergrad — stories, lots of stories, just some of them truer than others — with no prospect of occupation, so I went to to grad school. I picked a degree that sounded interesting which happened to fall between E and H in the graduate school program book I was looking at in Career Services. Yes, tons of forethought went into my decision, “Folklore? That’s stories, right? Let’s apply!”
For the record, folklore isn’t just about stories. It’s actually about lots of things that fall under the heading of “traditional culture” — art, building, work, cooking, fishing, music, dance, etc. However, my interest was in stories. My favorite concept was how people create their identity through personal narrative. “I am who I say I am”, essentially. The stories I tell about myself reflect who I think I am and shape who other people think I am. You see this every day on Facebook. Your friends don’t tell you every single bit of their lives. They share the parts they want to represent themselves to the world (google “Facebook self-representation” and you can read a bunch of papers on the topic).
But getting back to this topic, some people who study folk narratives try to answer where stories come from by tracing elements of stories back into pre-history. Which is kind of funny, in the case of mythology. We study the origin of origin stories. Hey, I did say “kind of” funny. There was a recent news story about how fairy tales were older than we thought. My reaction to this “news” was, “Well, duh.” Yes, people told stories before someone wrote them down. Shocking.
Which still doesn’t answer the “where do stories come from?” question. So, here goes: When a man and a woman really love each other, sometimes they make really stupid decisions and their friends tell their other friends about it and, tah dah, a story is born.
See what I just did there? I told a story. Which is actually my answer to where stories come from. They come from questions. “What would happen if…” “Why is this this way?” “Who is this guy? What does he want? How’s he going to get it? Who’s going to help him? Try to stop him? What happens if he doesn’t get it?” You answer that and you have an idea for a story.
And, if occasionally my muse comes in the form of a vivid dream or a voice in my head, the stories don’t start until I ask “What the heck was that?” or “Who are you?”