The story of my story begins at a urinal. Much like the story itself.
Of course, all beginnings have their backstory. There was, for example, the morning's coffee that led me to the urinal in the first place. There was the writing workshop that morning where I drank the coffee, and there were the necessary groceries that brought me to the store where the aforementioned urinal was located. And there was the online writing workshop starting later that afternoon, which was on my mind as I entered the bathroom and faced the wall.
At that moment, my muse—who apparently has an adolescent's penchant for bodily functions—raised the question that has inspired countless stories: what would you do
My answer to that question, how I would have reacted, is irrelevant; instead, what is relevant is the question itself and the subsequent pondering, about the possible reactions but also the action itself and the actor himself and the kind of world we live in where such awful things could have plausibility. My story "Third World Kroger" is the result. But the story of the story is what's gotten me thinking about how the inspiration and creation of that story can answer the questions: how did I do that, and how can I do it again?
Get Yourself to the Urinal (Finding Inspiration and Urgency)
The workshop coffee led to a certain kind of urgency. But the creative space of the workshop is what helped other creative juices flow. If I hadn't needed to use the bathroom at that moment, there would be no story. Yet, if my mind hadn't been similarly overflowing with wonder and curiosity, there would also be no story. I had primed myself to write by doing things that writers do. Go to writing workshops. Join a writing group. Attend writing conferences, take a creative writing class, read literary magazines. Don't apologize for doing any of these things or for going around bemoaning your struggles with writing. But also, please, do these things humbly and in the spirit of learning: if you were already good enough, you'd have several publications and wouldn't need them. Think of them as basic writing functions.
Use Public Bathrooms (Getting Out of Your Routine)
Unusual things can happen in places like public bathrooms. One time I pulled the toilet paper and the roll came off, bounced off my leg, and rolled the entire length of the bathroom, leaving a white tissue trail behind several men standing at the urinals. In public bathrooms, we are more careful about what we are doing, we think more, our brains are more fully engaged. When we stick to the safety and comfort of home, dendrites in our brains aren't making the connections that lead to creativity and inspiration. So take the bus. Eat at a restaurant that scares you. Worship somewhere other than usual. Get out there. The reclusive-genius writer persona is something of a myth: J.D. Salinger spent time as an entertainment director on a Caribbean cruise ship.
Consider Things from Inside the Stall (Embracing the Hypothetical)
The view at the urinal is pretty uninspiring. If anything, there might be a bulletin board with yesterday's newspaper to distract you. Lucky for me, there wasn't—only a blank wall ahead and a metal toilet stall divider to my left. Instead, I looked down at my own foot and wondered if a person in the stall next to me would be able to see it. I even imagined what my foot would look like from that angle. And then I realized: it could be anyone sitting there. Anyone. Someone famous. Someone ill. Someone planning a terrorist attack. Someone sitting there with a Ouija board or Etch A Sketch or mannequin. The possibilities are endless when you don't limit yourself to what is right in front of you.
Take the Story Out of the Bathroom (Listening to Good Advice)
The original piece I submitted for the online workshop was a few hundred words and took place almost entirely within the bathroom. Based on feedback, I expanded the story to provide some context, develop the characters, and weave in a backstory. I had a good story, ready enough, I felt, to submit. I entered it in a contest. It didn't even receive an honorable mention. I went for a run with "Gives You Hell" on repeat. Then I shared the story at another workshop. Among the good advice I received: take the story out of the bathroom. So I did. I added a scene at the end, outside the bathroom. What emerged was an even better story. I submitted again to the same contest (a fortunate oversight actually). The story took second place and will be published. All because I was in the right place at the right time, even if that happened to be a urinal.