Embrace the Stories Around You

Posted by: Melissa Crytzer Fry  :  Category: Inspiration

When I was 21, something quite amazing happened. But back then, I didn’t quite fashion myself as a novelist, so I didn’t even recognize it or understand what a miraculous gift I was throwing away.

I’m talking about conversation. When an old man in my apartment building shared with me, “You know … I was on the Titanic,” I nodded politely, talked about the weather and went along my way. I’m still kicking myself today for not trusting my instinct to turn back.

Because it’s those rare encounters – gifts, really – that the novelist should cling to: Other people’s stories are your ticket to great fiction. And more.

A Sense of Regret
Looking back, I know that the seven words uttered by the old man were an invitation. Lonely and in his late 70s, he wanted to talk to someone. And, lest you think I was this snotty 20-something who couldn’t be bothered by older people, I want to set the record straight.

I willingly chose this apartment complex, knowing it was filled mainly with retirees. I wasn’t a partier and liked the sense of quiet, the manicured Ohio lawns, the big pond. What stopped me that day from opening that wonderful door of dialogue with this man was my own ignorance. Because, trust me, I stopped twice to look back at the stooped-shouldered man, his white hair glistening in the sun.

I almost walked back to him. But I felt stupid, not knowing how many times the Titanic sailed. I thought the ship went down on its maiden voyage, but then I wasn’t sure how many survivors remained – if any (this was long before the movie came out!). You see, my own embarrassment of not knowing the history stopped me cold in my tracks, though every fiber in my body was willing me back to him.

I think I knew then – even without my novelist hat on (sure, I dreamed of writing a novel, but didn’t think I could) – that I’d missed out on a rare opportunity to share in someone’s life story. Probably an extraordinary life.

Even now, I ask myself, “So what? So history wasn’t your strength. What would it have hurt to just respond, ‘Oh really? Tell me more.’”

I still wonder what I could have learned … about him, about myself.

While these kinds of interactions will undoubtedly provide excellent ideas for your own novel writing – magnificent plot twists, vibrant characters, real-life facts – they will impart something even more meaningful:

  • Enlightenment
  • Understanding
  • Compassion

All of those things make us better writers in the end, don’t they?

My Advice
If someone offers to share a piece of his or her life with you, stop. Listen. They’re providing you with the ultimate gift to inspire your writing.

I’ve personally learned from my mistake. I’m listening now. And I’m also taking the first step to initiate dialogue. In fact, I just learned of an older gentleman a few towns away – a southwestern railroader who owns an antique train that he still runs down the copper mine’s tracks during Christmas, filled with toys for disadvantaged girls and boys.

Do you think I want to learn more about this big-hearted man before it’s too late? You betcha. I can only hope that he’ll enjoy telling his story as much as I’ll enjoy hearing it.

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16 Responses to “Embrace the Stories Around You”

  1. claudine Says:

    Shoot! What an opportunity lost, and not just for you, but for us, your readers! :) I’m glad you’re taking full advantage now.

    Older people really are hidden treasures, not only of stories, but of wisdom and joy. And a reminder to us that we are all the same on the inside.

    Nice article, Melissa! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Melissa Says:

    Twitter: CrytzerFry
    Claudine,
    Aren’t older people just wonderful? “Treasures” is THE perfect way to describe them. I hope others don’t make the mistakes I’ve made. All people – any age, really – have so much to share.
    Melissa
    .-= Melissa´s last blog ..To Bee or Not to Bee =-.

  3. Birgitte Necessary Says:

    Twitter: necessarywriter
    This speaks so well to the limits of the adage, “Write what you know.” I often hear writers ask, “What if I’ve led a boring life? What if I wasn’t abused, or kidnapped by aliens?” When you rely on other people’s experiences, you broaden and deepen your knowledge in ways that even your imagination can’t conceive. And I’ll even bet you don’t have to search too far to find a person or two claiming they really were kidnapped by aliens!

    Thanks for an informative and heart wrenching post!(I wanted to hear the Titanic story too!)
    .-= Birgitte Necessary´s last blog ..Embrace the Stories Around You =-.

  4. Melissa Says:

    Twitter: CrytzerFry
    BIrgitte,
    As the saying goes, “Life is stranger than fiction,” and that’s been my experience. So you’re right that there is an abundance of information (and even stories) out there waiting for writers like us to harvest.
    .-= Melissa´s last blog ..To Bee or Not to Bee =-.

  5. Lia Keyes Says:

    Twitter: liakeyes
    What a wonderful story you made out of even this missed opportunity, though! You’re still writing what you know, which is that even the things we miss teach us something.

    It must be so frustrating to be old. To be considered irrelevant and to be patronized.

    I know an old man who is patronized by his own daughter. Constantly. It makes me squirm each time I witness it, because although she leads the blameless but unadventurous life of a suburban housewife he was a high-ranking member of British Intelligence during World War II. Who is she to belittle him on a daily basis? “How are the mighty fallen…”

    …and, yes, he has fabulous stories to tell!
    .-= Lia Keyes´s last blog ..So What DO Teen Boys Read? =-.

  6. Melissa Says:

    Twitter: CrytzerFry
    Lia,
    I’ve witnessed the same patronizing acts between adult children and their elderly parents, and it drives me mad. In fact, I’ve seen that behavior in public more times than I care to count.

    The level of disrespect is heartbreaking.
    .-= Melissa´s last blog ..To Bee or Not to Bee =-.

  7. angie mizzell Says:

    Twitter: angiemizzell
    We all have a story to tell, and he wanted to tell his, too. What you took away from that experience is a lesson for all of us, so thank you for sharing. And even though you didn’t stop to hear his story, perhaps there’s a story there, too? Just a random thought I had as I was typing this. :)
    .-= angie mizzell´s last blog ..fairy tales =-.

  8. Melissa Says:

    Twitter: CrytzerFry
    Angie,
    Yes – there’s a story to tell from my mistake, indeed. I’ll never let it happen again And it’s SO true that everyone has a story to tell. I think people are so ‘close’ to their own lives that they don’t find their own stoires interesting (and rarely think that others would). THAT’S where the gems lie for the writer … stumbling upon those stories, fictionalizing them, embellishing them, adding to them!
    .-= Melissa´s last blog ..To Bee or Not to Bee =-.

  9. Rachna Chhabria Says:

    It’s sad that you lost such a nice opportunity. The old man could have found his way into one of your novels. But I am sure this has made you wise and in future you will not let such opportunities slip out of your hands.
    The older gentleman ( the railroader) sounds interesting. Don’t let this chance slip past.
    Thanks for this wonderful post!

  10. Melissa Says:

    Twitter: CrytzerFry
    Rachna,
    Thanks for the response. I will definitely be more cognizant of those opportunities in the future. The forfeiture of such a potentially exceptional experience still haunts me today! But onward we go. I’ll let everyone know how the railroader get-together goes.
    .-= Melissa´s last blog ..To Bee or Not to Bee =-.

  11. Birgitte Necessary Says:

    Twitter: necessarywriter
    Yes, I’d like to know! What a cool story that promises to be!
    .-= Birgitte Necessary´s last blog ..Embrace the Stories Around You =-.

  12. Mia @ Finding Balance Says:

    You shouldn’t beat yourself up too much. Most of us don’t recognize those opportunities, especially when so young. Nor, sometimes, do we realize that someone may just need to talk regardless of what “we” may get out of it.
    .-= Mia @ Finding Balance´s last blog ..How Do You Describe Multiple Diagnosis? =-.

  13. Melissa Says:

    Twitter: CrytzerFry
    Thank you, Mia, for the kind words. It’s true that such opportunities are hard to see “in the moment.” And what a great point about it not always being about “us.”
    .-= Melissa´s last blog ..I’m not Furby =-.

  14. e.lee Says:

    Twitter: eeleenlee
    Its fascinating with senior citizens what you can discover. We are submerged in stories like water but insanely enough, we complain that we are thirsty all the time.
    .-= e.lee´s last blog ..How to Switch Genres With More Ease =-.

  15. Melissa Says:

    Twitter: CrytzerFry
    Hi e.Lee,
    I absolutely LOVE the analogy of being submerged in a sea of stories, but feeling constantly thirsty for them. Thanks!
    .-= Melissa´s last blog ..Friday Photo- Kryptonite =-.

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