1. Keep a notebook and take notes regularly. In one of her essays, the author Lydia Davis talks about the importance of taking regular notes and how this habit will sharpen both your powers of observation and your expressive ability. She encourages writers to not only write about their thoughts and feelings but also the behavior of people around them, bits and pieces of conversation, the weather, facts they come across in books, and so on. As fiction writer Stuart Dybek notes, unlike potters and sculptors, fiction writers have to create their own clay or stone before they can begin shaping life from it. That’s what your notebook is for: creating the clay.
2. Cultivate an interest in many types of art. Almost any writer will tell you that you’ll never become a good novelist or short story writer if you don’t read a lot, and this is certainly true. However, I’ve always felt it’s equally important to look for artistic inspiration outside of fiction. Many of my own stories have moments in them that were directly inspired by poems, songs, paintings, films, photographs, and plays.
3. Pay attention to image. The author Alice Munro refers to the little pieces of reality in one’s fiction as the “starter dough”—these little pieces of memory that get the fictional part of our brains going and that also connect us emotionally to the story we’re creating. When I think of my own stories, I think of them as being entirely fictional, yet almost all of them also grew out of an image from my own life. I’m a big believer in the idea that certain images contain a kind of emotional residue and that it’s especially important to pay attention to those images from your own life that stay with you, even if you can’t explain why.
Take an image from memory—or perhaps an image that you wrote down in an old journal—and use that image as the starting point for a scene that is otherwise completely fictional.