This is a post that is currently on the American Literary Review site:
The place where stories come from? I think that it must be the same place where dreams and nightmares reside. It has no street address, no basement or attic room. I'd say that its closest likeness is a traveling circus, one with sideshows that scare small children, and the whole thing sometimes leaves parents feeling like they've been conned – thirty bucks for six rides? Who's in charge of this dump?
My stories often start with a title, one that's sometimes inspired by an article I'm reading or by an idea that's maybe triggered by an irrational fear. (For example, what if I were in an accident and paralyzed from the waist down and I have a boyfriend I'm nuts about but because I'm now paralyzed, he ends up falling in love with someone else. And guess what, his new girlfriend and I work in the same office!) I keep a small, beat-up notebook on my desk and another more pristine one in my nightstand. In them I jot down ideas for titles, characters and situations that sometimes turn into stories. Many other writers start with an image or a character who maybe arrives with a name, maybe not.
Stuart Dybek has said that he begins his stories with a strain of music playing in his head and goes from there, as if transcribing notes into words. Before I started writing fiction seriously about sixteen years ago, I attended graduate school at Indiana University as a creative writing student in poetry. I'm grateful that I did because I think the close attention poets are taught to pay to every word (not that fiction writers don't too, but I didn't, not at first) helped me learn to write stories that flow outward from the few words that sit at the top of the first page.
My hope, which is sort of the inverse of Dybek's method, is that the words will become a kind of music in the reader's head. I want the story to carry the reader from paragraph to paragraph like the best songs do. I don't want the reader to be glad when it's over. It'd be nice if he or she would go back and reread it right away, as if hitting the repeat button on the stereo.
I don't outline when I start a story and never really know what's going to happen until I write the next sentence. This is risky, maybe, but like the impulse that leads one line of poetry into the next, the element of surprise is paramount for me. No surprise for the writer? Well, there probably won't be any surprise for the reader either. I live for these surprises, the great line that lifts your spirit and mind at the same time.
One of my favorite recent surprising lines is in Meg Wolitzer's The Wife. The line is in a passage where the main character derides our tendency to award prizes to each other. She wonders if other animals do similar things. "Is there an award for Most Helpful Crow?" I laughed out loud when I read this and wondered if Wolitzer did the same as she wrote these words. I don't know if goods like these would be delivered if you were writing a story whose course had already been charted in an outline.
Here is a sample of some of the titles in my notebooks, ones that haven't yet been paired with characters, for reasons you'll probably understand:
"Paris Means Nothing"
"Please Do Not Sing While the Radio's On"
"Gwendolyn Wears Orange"
"Groucho Marx and His Glasses"
"Why Are You Hiding from Me?"
"The Poet on Poetry, Love, House Pets and Avalanches"
Some of the above were written to be used in a story that I wrote as an academic satire about a poetry professor, one that appeared in the New England Review in 2002. Its similarly improbable title: "This Parrot Is Hilarious."
I have the most success when I'm having fun with my stories. Even the serious ones sometimes make me feel like I'm getting away with mischief my grandmother might not appreciate.