Five “I”s for Finding Stories

by Chris Maxwell

Debbie and I smiled at friends as we walked out of the church. We enjoyed the conversations in the cool November air. One of our friends informed us that the pecans falling from trees beside the church were ours if we wanted them. So, we began picking up pecans. My mind imagined a pie. Debbie’s mind focused on gifts for family.

Things changed quickly. As we worked, Debbie said, “What’s that?” She was watching what looked like a squirrel competing with us for the pecans. The more we looked, the larger the animal appeared to be. I walked closer as the creature climbed a pecan tree. If that was a squirrel, it was bigger than any I had seen in my years of disliking squirrels stealing food from our bird feeders.

I got close. Very close. The animal sat on the tree limb as we stared at each other. It didn’t have a mobile device. I did—I used it to take pictures, search the web, and ask a friend to come back to tell me what type of squirrel we had seen.

Our new friend? A fox squirrel. I posted pictures on social media. We all had pecans; I had a story.

Where are the stories?

Writers often struggle to find stories. Before we type nouns and verbs, before we reveal illustrations and key points, we search for stories. But where are they? In our hurry to find quality stories that have the potential to reach an audience, where do we spot them?

Stories are everywhere. Nearby. Far away. As writers, our job—and our privilege—is to notice them, craft them, present them. The stories are all around us, though we often miss the fox squirrel desperately chasing our pecans.

One place to trace stories is through IMAGES. We live in an image-driven world, so images shouldn’t be hard to detect. They stare back from our screens and devices. They rush through videos crafted to keep our attention. They sit in paper for those of us who still enjoy magazines.

We don’t always need to be staring at a screen. Look out the window. See the clouds as they ride through the sky. Pictures convey actions, feelings, experiences. See them. Stay there. Stare there. Stories are waiting.

Another way to discover stories is through IMAGINATION. Our brains can serve as tour guides into realms we will never visit. Mentally, we can go there. Listen for sounds. Look. Breathe. Hear the bird chirping? What is that smell? Roses? Do you see them? Who needs a rose from you? What is their story?

I have written for one company for three decades. They assign fictional stories as devotionals. So, I let the brain begin its tasks. Regions of my brain artistically reveal scenes. Nonfictional conversations merge with unreal narratives. Knowledge and encounters manifest as bizarre blends of actions. Stories emerge. They have been waiting there all along. We must give them time to wonder, to adjust, to merge, to mingle.

In my book Pause with Jesus I didn’t just read and study the stories. I imagined being in the stories. In the story, you need to write this week, imagine. Give yourself time to imagine.

INTERVIEWS also help us transform life experiences into stories. Engaging in conversations to begin crafting stories can be thrilling opportunities. They can also be intimidating. Choose to see the positive side. Ask open-ended questions. Listen well—remembering we have one mouth, but two eyes and two ears. Search for stories behind the stories.

I recently wrote an article about someone’s pain and grief. The original plan changed as I interviewed this person. The editor and I knew enough of their story to interest us, but we didn’t know the deeper part of the story that would appeal to a larger audience. One of their answers took me into streets I didn’t expect to travel. Those roads revealed portions I didn’t know existed.

Ghostwriting book projects taught me deeper ways to find stories in the interviews. My role as a pastoral counselor has helped me in this; those I am interviewing are not only providing information. They are telling stories they desperately need to tell. I must listen. Then I must write.

A fourth way to find our fox squirrels around all the leaves and pecans is through INTERRUPTIONS. Welcome interruptions.

When a dog barked, her high volume interrupted my planned thoughts. I struggled to get my mind back on track, but the bark continued playing in my head. It turned into a story—not about disliking dogs, not about the cause of a bark being hunger or hurt, not about frustration. The interruption became a story about grief—remembering a friend’s dog that died. The interruption became a story about how life is bursting with disruptions. Though annoying, they can teach us lessons. Though disturbing, that can distract us into a track for a story we otherwise would have never found.

Some of my best received blog entrees and stories originated with interruptions. Though we need to distance ourselves from distractions when writing, we shouldn’t always push aside that news alert. We shouldn’t always shake our heads amid commotion. We should sneak in and find a story.

Another way we can find stories is through INTERSECTIONS. Junctures of life barrage us with stories. We cross with age. We shift with grief. We turn during times of career change or health change or financial change or political change or international change or emotional change. We aren’t alone on those intersections. Others travel there. Others are stopped there, seeking solutions. My friend writing about his wife’s death—he has a story from that intersection. My friend writing about his move to a foreign land for mission work—he has a story from that intersection.

Good stories need intriguing take-aways. Those found in the intersections of life bring those to types of stories to us. Though uncomfortable at times, these intersections might be your most stimulating stories. Notice them. Write them.

I can still remember the first time I attended an Evangelical Press Association convention. I sat at a lunch with an editor who knew of my writing because of curriculum I had written. He listened to my ideas for his magazine. He was nice, but I could tell none of my concepts thrilled him. Our conversation continued as we told personal stories. When he found out my brother-in-law was a major league catcher, his facial expression changed. He asked me to write about that. I did—using images, imagination, interviews, interruptions, and intersections. It became their cover story. It was my first of many articles with them.

Let these five trails aid you in finding a few pecans. Let them also help you notice the fox squirrels of life. Those are the stories. Look at them. Stare as they glare back. Sit with them. Study, observe, and learn from their climbs and jumps. Notice their belligerent pursuit of pecans, their stillness when seeking to convince you they’re not there at all.

Readers are waiting to see a fox squirrel as they eat a few pecans. Craft your story to take them there.

Chris Maxwell served 19 years as lead pastor in Orlando, Florida, after five years of youth ministry. He’s now in his 15th year as Campus Pastor and Director of Spiritual Life at Emmanuel College. He speaks in churches, conventions, and schools, and is the author of ten books, including Pause With Jesus, Underwater, and a slow and sudden God: 40 years of wonder. His latest book is his 2nd collection of poems—embracing now: pain, joy, healing, living.

Look Around and Imagine

Creativity is often a matter of seeing things from a new perspective. Look around your home/workspace and imagine you’re an explorer hiking over that mountain of folders on your kitchen table, or imagine what that fly is thinking as it ambles across your keyboard. Take a microscopic view of your surroundings and see what interesting things come to mind.

Randy Petersen, The Joy of Working at Home