Stories are everywhere. They don’t all have to come from your internal struggles and experiences. In fact, they shouldn’t.
Sometimes, as a writer, you come across stories that are so fantastic or unlikely, that you couldn’t make them up. These stories serve to illuminate human nature and often do so better than the kind of soul-searching too many beginning writers mistake for insight. When you look outside of your life rather dwelling principally in it, you can tap into universally interesting or unusual stories.
I have a very good friend who is a native New Yorker. She grew up on the Lower East Side and went to high school in the seventies. She eventually became a club DJ in the New York punk scene. I only met her a few years ago, by chance, but we shared some stories and realized we could have been in the same clubs, me as a musician and her as a DJ. We’ve since become good friends and she told me a story that seems fantastic from today’s perspective.
Basquiat was a great American painter who unfortunately died at the age of 27 in the 1980s. Despite dying so young he left over a thousand paintings. He was incredibly prolific and it was this compulsion to paint that led to this crazy story. It should be noted that one of Basquait’s paintings holds the record for highest price paid at auction for a 20th century American painter, 140 million dollars.
In addition to being a painter, he was also a musician with a punk/noise band. The late seventies punk scene was an incredible time for creativity and many of us didn’t see the need to only pursue one medium. There was a lot of crossover between art and music. My friend dated Jean-Michel at one point, and her eventual husband went to high school with him and was a roommate after high school. It was the roommate situation that led to him being a person who destroyed some of the greatest art of the twentieth century.
Basquiat’s drive to create and paint wasn’t limited to canvas and paper. He painted on walls, doors, blinds, and on virtually any surface. As a result their shared apartments were mini-museums of Basquiat art, art which would be priceless today. Unfortunately, painting all the surfaces in rented apartments wasn’t popular with landlords. So, my friend’s ex would have to paint over the work to get their deposits back when they moved.
The biographer and art historian’s dream
Anecdotes like this are central to a biographer’s attempts to bring a subject to life. Famous ones, like Van Gogh cutting off his ear, can serve to illuminate the personalities that drive artists to create. For art historians, who share the need to uncover lost work, the notion that Basquiat work might lurk under costs of paint would also be compelling, though the reality is that those cold water walkups in Soho have all been gutted and are now multimillion dollar places. There won’t be any recovery of those works. All that remains is the story.
I’m telling this as a tale for writers because it illustrates that you have to get into the world and explore conversations to feed your need to illuminate the worlds you write about. This is a big part of being a creative writer that I seldom see discussed in forums and threads about writing. There is too much emphasis on gaming the system or delving into personal trauma as a healing mechanism. That has its place, but ultimately we are storytellers and the stories are so much more compelling when they come from unexpected conversation and experiences in real life. If I hadn’t started a conversation with a 60 year old woman in a bar in the West Village, I wouldn’t have made a good friend and heard a great New York story. Believe me, there are more.
You have to get out there.