Embrace the Stories Around You
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:
All of those things make us better writers in the end, don’t they?
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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