In this post, I’d like to continue my earlier discussion about where stories come from. (Here’s a link to my previous post.) As I mentioned in my earlier post, stories can come from all sorts of places, and for each writer inspiration may strike differently. What I’d like to do in these posts is talk about stories I’ve written that can be read online and describe what sparked each of these stories.
Last summer I heard a story about an inflatable bouncy house being blown away. This happened in South Glens Falls, New York, about forty-five minutes away from where I live. A strong gust of wind swept the inflatable house over fifty feet in the air. Because the story was both incredible and local, I heard a lot about it on the news for a few days. Here’s an article about this event. Three children were injured as they fell from the house while it was in the air. One child fell shortly after the house lifted into the air and suffered minor injuries, another fell from about fifteen feet and broke both arms, and the third fell from fifteen to twenty feet and landed on a car, suffering a head injury. The three children were treated for their injuries and all survived. After the children fell out of the house, it continued to rise; some reports say that it blew as high as one hundred feet into the air.
Here’s a photo taken by a bystander of the bouncy house up in the air:
This story captivated me because it’s about the unexpected happening. Children are playing, the scene appears pleasant and innocent, and then something unimaginable occurs. As a fiction writer, I thought the image of that inflatable house spinning through the air could be used as an image that carried symbolic weight in a short story. To me, the image conjured up disorientation, and I wanted to use it in a story and create a character who was in a situation where she felt—both literally and figuratively—she could not get her feet on the ground.
As I was trying to figure out what character I’d place in a bouncy house blowing away, I thought about when I’d felt most “up in the air” in my own life. I realized those times of disorientation had been when I hadn’t known what was next. I felt disoriented when I graduated from college and didn’t have a job. I had the same feeling when I finished graduate school and, once again, hadn’t found a job yet. I felt it most strongly when I completed a three-year visiting assistant professorship and, despite having had a few interviews, had not secured a new job. For me, the sense of not knowing is worse than knowing about something difficult. If you know, you can deal with it in some way, but it can be frustrating when you’re just waiting for the next thing to happen. For my story, I came up with a character, an eighteen-year-old young woman. She is someone who does well in school and is stunned when she is rejected from every college to which she’d applied. What’s next for her? She doesn’t know; this isn’t a scenario she’d ever imagined. She’ll apply again the next year, but in the meantime, what should she do with herself? On top of this, the narrator's cousin, who is also eighteen, comes to live with the narrator’s family while the cousin's parents are going through a divorce. The cousin, Garnet, has gotten into every college she’s applied to and can’t understand why the narrator didn’t apply to at least one safety school. I needed Garnet in the story to apply extra pressure to the narrator, to make, as a result of her success, the narrator feel even worse about not getting into college. My narrator feels jumbled and twisted and scared, and I thought these feelings could parallel what it must be like to be lifted off the ground and into the air. After figuring out who my protagonist would be, the next step was figuring out how to get her into a bouncy house.
So where did this story come from? It came from that image of the bouncy house up in the air. The circumstances of the story are completely different from what happened in South Glens Falls, but that image led me to the story of this young lady whose life feels, for the foreseeable future, up in the air.
I chose to end the story where I did—with the characters literally still in the air—because I wanted to conclude with a sense of not knowing, for both the characters and the readers. I looked at that image of the bouncy castle floating and twisting in the air, I thought of how unstable and disorienting that must feel, and I tried to capture that sensation in the ending of the story.
And since I promised I'd include a photo that could be used as a story spark with each of these "Where Do Stories Come From" posts, here you go: