How Stories Happen

When my sister was a very young child, one of her nicknames was “Begabine,” which, I believe, evolved from “Bug of Mine,” since “Bug” had been an even earlier nickname. It always sounded like some weird, proper Old English surname to me, and at some point, many, many years ago, I formed an image in my head of a character named “Osgood Begabine.” I didn’t know what to do with him, except that I knew his story would have to contain the sentence “Osgood Begabine was flummoxed.” Why? Because this sentence has popped, unbidden, into my head for at least two decades now. I don’t know why, except to duly note that I was supposed to do something with it.

In 2004, during my “Poem a Day” project, I wrote a short, two-verse poem called “Trepang,” which is a type of sea cucumber, and also the name of a Sturgeon-class attack submarine that was undergoing a refueling overhaul during my final years working in the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. The protagonist of the poem was an old Balinese man named Pak Suhud (“Pak” is an honorific title, like “Master”), who knew the secret ways in which trepang (also known as bicho do mar) could be prepared to bolster male virility. The full text of the poem is available here, along with a couple of other published pieces from the same period. I have always loved the character of Pak Suhud, and felt like I needed to do something else with him.

Prester John

A few years ago, I read a book about European exploration into Asia, which for centuries was often driven by the desire of Europe’s kings and merchants to lay hands on the riches of great Asian empires or cities, including those ruled by Genghis Khan (the historically-verified Mongol Emperor) and Prester John (a fantastical, mythical Christian King, originally believed to live in India, then later in Ethiopia). I was struck, at the time, by the way that those two ancient, unrelated names shared common sounds and structures, lending themselves to doggerel: Genghis Khan and Prester John. I jotted down a couple of lines of poetry as a result, imagining a scenario where the myth and man actually met: “Genghis Khan and Prester John / Did put their swords and armor on . . . ” That fragment would occasionally cycle through my mental jukebox, too, though once again I couldn’t figure out exactly what I might do with it.

About a month ago, I posted a list of ten links to cleaned-up old Upstate Ether/Upstate Wasted scripts under the title “Dix Axiomata De Axon Anon.” I had a casual meaning in mind when I framed that somewhat nonsensical title for the past, but once I saw it on the screen, and let it wander around my head for a while, I realized that it really deserved something better than serving as an archival pointer, and I removed that post altogether. But what to do with it?

Why do I relate these seemingly unrelated facts about the eccentricities of my mental process? Because this, for me, is how stories happen. Somehow, these four disparate, disjointed, homeless mental concepts began to coalesce and take shape, together, in my head over the past month, linkages forming between them, plot points resolving, key phrases turning, me sending e-mails to myself to capture them as they flitted across my consciousness, lest they be lost. I’ve often noted on my various blogs that I write obsessively or compulsively, and this is an example of how that comes to pass: I had to get these things out of my head, and put them on paper. It was no longer optional.

Three nights ago, I started typing. Last night, with some helpful edits from Marcia, after maybe 12 hours of research and writing, I finished the story. (Well, as much as I ever finish anything, since I’m continually polishing things as I revisit them and find errors or awkward constructions). I slept soundly after getting this story to paper, no longer haunted by Osgood Begabine, Pak Suhud, Prester John and the mysterious “Dix Axiomata.” They have found their place in the world. Now it’s time for them to go live in other people’s heads . . . let’s see where they land . . .

2 thoughts on “How Stories Happen

  1. Meanwhile, the tumescent Teutonic tormentors reveled in their debauched demeanor, wisely ignoring the bosh about chastity and prudence. Keep your nose to the grindstone and all you get is a short nose. Until…

    Nicely done.

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