Where do stories come from?
I think about this question a lot. I think about it while I’m driving to the grocery store and while I’m walking my dog. I think about it when I’m reading to my kids at night and while I chop onions for dinner.
One afternoon, I was thinking about it while I was collecting eggs from my chicken coop.
An egg is a beautiful thing. It’s easy to forget that when you buy them by the dozen and only think about them when you are deciding how many to crack into the pan for your breakfast.
But consider this: have you ever seen a pregnant bird?
No, you have not. Birds don’t get pregnant because they evolved to fly. An egg is a bird’s version of a pregnant belly. An exterior womb, if you will, so that the mom can still fly around while her baby grows from a single cell into a fluffy chick that can survive in the outside world.
An egg is like a story. When you look at an egg, all you see is the smooth, round shell. You don’t see the twists and turns or the chemical reactions of protein synthesis and calcium deposition that happened deep inside the hen long before the egg exited her body.
When you read a good story, it has a smooth, finished flow. Every story has a backstory and every backstory has another backstory. The part you read is only a summary of the author’s choices, coincidences and chances. And that’s a good thing.
When you’re eating an egg, you don’t want to think about the fact that you’re eating a bird’s menstrual cycle. When you read a story, you don’t want to wade through layers and layers of detail before you get through to the heart of the action.
An egg starts out as a tiny cell called an oocyte buried deep inside a hen’s ovary. As the hen matures, her oocytes start to grow larger. In order for them to develop normally, she needs a healthy diet, exercise and sunlight. One at a time, these specialized cells rupture from the ovary as a fully formed, yellow-like-the-sun egg yolk.
This is how stories start in our heads. At any point in time, you have dozens and dozens of ideas in your head. Most of them aren’t fully formed and you might not even realize you are there. If your ideas have a steady diet of books, conversations, exercise and exposure to sunlight, they will grow and develop. Eventually one will gain momentum and grow larger than any other ideas. At this point, it will break free and start the long trip from your mind to the page.
Once an egg yolk has burst free from the chicken’s ovary, it has a long ways to go before it is a fully formed egg. First, it enters a stretchy funnel of flesh called the infundibulum. As it travels down the funnel, the chicken wraps the yolk in protective layers to help it survive outside of her body. This includes the egg white, the thin membrane, and of course, the sturdy and showy egg shell.
Only after all of the egg has received it’s finishing touches will the hen squeeze it out of her body an into the nest.
Similarly, an idea isn’t ready to drop out into the world as a story until it has traveled through the fleshy funnel of your mind. Before you turn your idea into a story, you need to wrap it up in the right details, rich language, and a cohesive storyline.
Then you need to edit the shit out of it so that when you squeeze it out of your body onto the page, it has the smooth, marvelous feeling of a freshly laid eggshell.
Once an egg has been laid, there are three things that can happen to it. If the egg is abandoned and forgotten, it will rot away to nothing, almost as if it never was laid.
If it has been fertilized and incubated, it can hatch into a fluffy new baby that will grow up to lay eggs of her own. It is this process that gives rise to the age old ‘chicken or the egg’ debate.
Or it can be taken from the nest and poached, scrambled or hard boiled to provide a nutritious meal for someone else.
The same is true of stories.
If a story is abandoned and nobody reads it, it will fade away into nothing. Sometimes it just happens. Be sad for a moment, but there are lots of oocytes in the ovary, and you have lots of ideas in your head. A new one will ripen soon.
Sometimes, a story will hatch into a new idea that will develop into another story. Just like you can’t have a chicken without an egg and or an egg without a chicken, you can’t have a story without an idea or an idea without a story. It’s a wonderful feeling for me to hatch a few chicks in the spring knowing that they will lay eggs for me in the fall. And likewise, I love writing a story that gives me another idea that I can use to write another story.
Both instances are positive feedback loops that keeps me well stocked in ideas and eggs almost all the time.
Most of the time, when a chicken lays an egg, it gets packaged up and sent to someone’s kitchen. Once that happens, the eggs can be used in thousands of different ways. When you publish your story and make it available in print or online, you are passing it along into other people’s kitchens. Once they’ve read it, it’s up to them to hate it, love it, share it or quit reading it halfway through.
At best, an egg will provide nutrition for someone about to have their best day ever — a surgeon performing a heart transplant, a teenager passing her driving test or a new mom finally getting the chance to take a shower.
At best, your story will entertain and inspire people to share their own ideas and stories.
Here’s the best part of this comparison: chickens lay egg after egg after egg. Some chickens lay more than 200 eggs per year.
When you think of your stories like eggs, it allows you to write a lot of them and not worry if they’re perfect or feel devastated when they don’t go viral.
Chickens evolved to lay a lot of eggs because most of them never hatch, and many of the ones that do get eaten by predators before they even have a chance to grow feathers.
Some of your stories will be great, some will flop and others will hover somewhere in the middle. Don’t stress.
Just chill out, let your ideas flow and every now and then, squeeze one out.
That’s what my chickens do.
I’ll go ahead and assume that you are now fascinated by chicken reproduction and want to know more about it. Fortunately, I’ve got you covered: