“Where do you get your ideas?” is an understandable but impossible-to-answer question for authors. But “Nuns at Scout camp” will be one of my answers someday.

I’m often asked where I get my ideas for books, which is an understandable but impossible question to answer.

There is no well of ideas. There is no secret formula. There is no one answer to that question, as much as fledgling writers seem to want there to be.

Simply put, I hear something. I read something. I see something. The flicker of an idea is born.

Something Missing was born from a conversation with a friend over dinner about a missing earring.

Unexpectedly, Milo began with a memory from my fourth grade classroom.

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend was born from a conversation with a friend and colleague while monitoring students at recess.

My upcoming novel, The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, originated with a story that my wife told me about her childhood just before falling asleep.

My unpublished novel, Chicken Shack, began with a dare.

All of these are simplifications of the actual origins of these novels. There are more complex stories behind the origin of each book. In all cases, additional ideas were grafted onto the original idea to create a more complex story.

But in terms of the initial spark, that was how each story began.

Which leads me to this poster, which is displayed in the Yawgoog Heritage Museum at Yawgoog Scout Reservation, the camp where I spent many of my boyhood summers.

I suspect that someday in the future, this poster will be added to the list of initial sparks for one of my novels.

A nun’s day at a Scout camp? How could this not be the basis for a novel?

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Posted in Autobiography, CHICKEN SHACK, Idea, MEMOIRS OF AN IMAGINARY FRIEND, SOMETHING MISSING, The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs, The Writing Process, UNEXPECTEDLY, MILO | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

I won a Moth StorySLAM, and that wasn’t the best part of the night. Seriously.

I won a Moth StorySLAM at The Oberon Theater in Cambridge on Tuesday night. I managed to win from first position, which isn’t easy.

I’ve won 13 Moth StorySLAMs in the last three years, but I’ve never won after having to go first. Few storytellers do. I was excited. Thrilled, even, But winning was not the best part of the night for me.

Given my extreme competitive nature, this is really saying something. 

Three of my friends joined me at The Oberon on Tuesday night, and two of them, Plato and Tom, put their names in the hat and were fortunate enough to take the stage and tell a story.

They performed brilliantly. They told great stories. Their stories were so good, in fact, that Plato finished in second place, just a few tenths of a point behind me, and Tom finished in third, a few tenths of a point behind Plato.

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I was impressed with their performances. A little proud, even.

Both Plato and Tom began their storytelling careers at Speak Up after Elysha and I asked them to tell a story. Tom told a hilarious story about meeting his wife for the first time, and Plato has told a number of stories for us, including one at our very first show.

Last night was the first time they took the stage for The Moth. I suspect that it won’t be the last.

Plato and Tom are not my only friends who have taken the stage to tell a story. Since I began introducing my friends to storytelling (shortly after I began doing it myself), many of them have performed at Speak Up, and a handful have told stories at a Moth event.

I’ve also watched people who complete my storytelling workshop go on to tell stories at Speak Up and even compete in Moth StorySLAMs. Many of them assured me that they were taking my workshop for reasons other than performing and swore that they would never take the stage. Despite their initial protestations, a large number of them have gone on to tell stories for Speak Up, and a few have even ventured into New York and Boston and competed in Moth events as well.

People who never dreamed of standing on a stage and performing have become seasoned storytellers who can’t wait to tell their next story.

Introducing friends to something new, assisting them in honing their skills, and then watching them perform and compete is more rewarding than I would have ever expected. That’s how I felt on Tuesday night, watching Plato and Tom perform on stage.

In many ways, I was also returning favors.

Eight years ago, Tom bought a set of golf clubs for $10 at a garage sale, dropped them into my car on a snowy, December afternoon, and thereby launched my golfing career. Golf has become one of the greatest loves of my life. I’m still a terrible player, but I would play every day if I could. I’ve even written a memoir about the game. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Tom changed my life when he dropped those golf clubs into my car that day.

Back in 1999, Plato decided to take a chance on an inexperienced teacher, fresh out of college and rough around the edges, who many administrators viewed as a wild card. He hired me when others would not and thereby launched my teaching career. I have been teaching in that school ever since.

Our school was the place where my occasionally unorthodox teaching methods were embraced and my creativity was rewarded. I was permitted to become the teacher I am today thanks in large part to Plato’s leadership and guidance. It was also the place where I met my wife, Tom, and many of the closest friends.

My life would be very different had Plato not taken a chance on me that day.

Introducing them to storytelling and watching them compete for the first time was a small way of repaying them for all that they have done. It was a joy. It’s well documented that after the first person in a family graduated from college, others in the family, who never dreamed of attending college, will follow. Once the ice is broken and the impossible is made possible, people are willing to give it a try.

My success with storytelling has served a similar role for many of my friends. Once I started taking the stage, others have followed. It has been so much fun to watch.

Watching Tom and Plato perform so well on Tuesday night was truly reward enough. The fact that I won the slam was great, but honestly, it was icing on the cake.

Delicious icing. Satisfying icing. Well deserved icing. But still, not nearly as rewarding as watching Tom and Plato standing behind that microphone, under those bright lights, telling their story.

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This is not the look a father wants to see on his little girl’s face.

My daughter’s new haircut is lovely, but she’s only five years-old. She hasn’t even started kindergarten yet.

Where did she learn this perfect blend of annoyance and disinterest?

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Dungeons & Dragons brought me back to writing and saved my career.

The New York Times reports that Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz is a former Dungeons & Dragons player.

So too was Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire.

Many more.

The league of ex-gamer writers also includes the “weird fiction” author China Miéville (“The City & the City”); Brent Hartinger (author of “Geography Club,” a novel about gay and bisexual teenagers); the sci-fi and young adult author Cory Doctorow; the poet and fiction writer Sherman Alexie; the comedian Stephen Colbert; George R. R. Martin, author of the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series (who still enjoys role-playing games). Others who have been influenced are television and film storytellers and entertainers like Robin Williams, Matt Groening (“The Simpsons”), Dan Harmon (“Community”) and Chris Weitz (“American Pie”).

It’s an impressive but certainly not exhaustive list.

Not exhaustive, for certain, because it does not include me. I am also a former Dungeons & Dragons player.

In fact, D&D brought me back to writing and saved my writing career.

I first started playing Dungeons & Dragons in middle school, when a friend  introduced me to the game. I rolled some dice, created a character, and played The Keep on the Borderlands, an adventure that I can still remember to this day. I fell in love with the game immediately, and before long, I had stopped playing and had graduated to Dungeon Master, the leader of the adventure. The arbiter of the rules, the invisible hand of fate, but most important, the storyteller. I began by using pre-purchased Dungeons & Dragons adventures (called modules) but was soon writing my own adventures for my players.

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In many ways, I was writing stories for the first time.

I played D&D throughout much of my childhood, becoming a scholar of the game. When cars, girls, and high school sports injected themselves into my life, Dungeons & Dragons was pushed aside. I briefly played again after high school with friends who were attending college. Then my manuals, modules, and multisided dice were packed away and moved to the basement, never to be seen again.

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Or so I thought.

Fast forward about 12 years. It’s 2002. I’ve graduated from Trinity College with a degree in English and creative writing, and for the last five years, I have been trying and failing to write my first novel. Nothing I seem to do works. Nothing I write makes me happy. After many failed attempts, I have given up on my dream. I’ve come to the realization that as much as I want to be an author, even I don’t like the things I write.

I quit. I decide that I will never be an author. 

Then I get a call from my friend, Shep, a former Dungeons & Dragons player in his childhood. He has gathered some of our friends (also former players) and wants to try playing the game again. He asks me to join the group.

At this point in my life, I am single and hoping to find the right girl, and I don’t see Dungeons & Dragons as the path to romance, so I decline.

He calls back a few days later. He tells me that I don’t need to play. “Just write our adventures. Maybe serve as Dungeon Master, if you want, but at least write some adventures for us.”

I suddenly have an audience for my writing. People want to read the words that I write. People are asking to read the words that I write. Something stirs inside me. I say yes.

I write D&D adventures for my friends for more than a year, and yes, I am convinced to occasionally reprise my role as Dungeon Master, too. I write hundreds of pages of Dungeons & Dragons adventures, and as I do, the writer in me awakens. I start to feel good about writing again. I start to wonder if I can still be the writer that I dreamed of being when I was in high school.

It’s an exciting time in my life.

About a year after my return to Dungeons & Dragons, I call Shep. I tell him that I can’t write D&D adventures anymore. I tell him that I need to try writing a novel again. I tell him that I feel that pull toward the page that I have not felt in so long.

He understands. He offers to read whatever I write. Shep becomes my first reader. He remains an early reader and one of the most important readers of my work to this day.

I start writing Something Missing in February of 2005. I finish writing it in June of 2007. It publishes in 2009.

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I have made my childhood dream come true. My writing career has been launched. I am an author.

Would I be writing today if it hadn’t been for Dungeons & Dragons? I would like to think that I would’ve eventually returned to the page, but I’m not sure.

Maybe not.

A friend in middle school introduces me to the game.

More than twenty years later another friend brings me back to the game.

I find my chops. I rediscover my love for writing. I start the novel that launches my career.

Take away either one of these friends and I shudder to think about what might have happened to my dream/

Take away Dungeons & Dragons and I wonder if I would be sitting here today, writing these words.

Maybe not.

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My first date advice: Tell stories.

TIME’s Eric Barker reported on what science says are most appropriate and beneficial topics of discussion on a first date.

My first date with my wife wasn’t a declared date. It was dinner at Chili’s before we attended a talent show at the school where we both worked. It would be months before we would officially begin dating, but that hour spent talking over fajitas and guacamole sewed the seeds of our mutual attraction.

In truth, I thought my wife was perfect long before we started dating. Too perfect, in fact. I thought she was utterly and forever unattainable. I loved her long before she loved me, but I didn’t think there was a snowball’s chance in hell that I would ever date her.

You can’t imagine how often I still pinch myself when I see her sitting across from me, my wife and the mother of our children.

I told stories at that first dinner. I told her about my two near-death experiences, the armed robbery, my arrest and trial for a crime I did not commit, and my troubled, difficult childhood. I’m normally an excellent listener, but I remember talking a lot that night and sharing parts of my life in ways I never had before.

Maybe it’s because we weren’t on an official first date that I shared so much, so soon. I’m not sure.

Whatever the reason, it worked. Elysha and I had been colleagues for almost three years and friends for the previous two years, but that night at Chili’s was when things began to first change for us.

When asked about what first attracted her to me, it turns out that it wasn’t my devilish good looks, rapier wit, or undeniable sense of humor.

It was my stories.

She says that in listening to my stories, she came to realize that my life was so different than anything she had ever known before, and it was in the midst of that bit of storytelling that she began to see me as something more than just a friend.

I’ve been storytelling on the stage for three years now. I first took the stage at a Moth StorySLAM in July of 2011. In the short period of time since that first performance, storytelling has changed my life. I have found something I love and something I do well. I have met new and amazing people, and I am proud to call many of them my friends. My stories have been heard by millions of people around the country on the radio and podcasts.

But it turns out that long before my success with The Moth and the launch of Speak Up, storytelling helped me win over the smartest, finniest, prettiest girl I know. A girl who I thought was out of my league.

Eric Barker of TIME advises (based upon his review of the research) to talk about travel on a first date and avoid discussions about movies. He suggests leaning toward controversial topics and sharing a secret if possible. He points out that an even balance between talking and listening is ideal. He recommends asking your date if he or she likes the taste of beer if you hope to get lucky that night.

Me? I say to tell stories.

I used this strategy once in my life, and it resulted in one of the happiest days of my life.

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Our daughter told us to shut up, and she was right.

Driving home from the pool club, Elysha and I were debating the proper age to allow a child to play in a pool without supervision.

With multiple lifeguards on duty, I had no problem allowing our five year-old daughter to play in the three-foot section of the pool without my watchful eyes glued to her.

Elysha vehemently disagreed.

I explained that if we were swimming in a lake, I would be far more cautious, since people can easily slip below the water unseen. But in a crystal clear, well supervised pool like the one we had just been swimming in, I would not be worried. As a former lifeguard, I trusted the men and women in the chairs to keep my daughter safe, and I know how easy it is to spot a child in trouble.

The hands-off, laissez-faire way that I was raised as a child might also play a role in my opinion.

Elysha challenged my position, arguing that it simply wasn’t safe at Clara’s age to swim alone.

When I asked when it would be safe to allow our daughter to swim without parental supervision, she said, “I don’t know. But not at five years-old.”

We weren’t fighting. We hadn’t raised our voices, and neither of us was angry. We were simply debating. Challenging each other’s positions. Discussing safety in an admittedly dangerous environment. Hopefully finding some common ground.

Then from the backseat came the voice of our daughter.

“Guys, I don’t think I want to hear any of this. Can you stop talking?”

Turns out that Clara was the smartest person in the car at that moment.

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Productivity tip #10: Get out of bed.

I’m not saying to sleep less, though I think that a lot of people could stand to get out of bed a little earlier.

No, this is much simpler.

Once you are awake, get out of bed.

My alarm goes off, and within seconds, I am out of my bed and starting my day.

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Would I prefer to remain in the confines of my soft, warm cocoon? Of course. But the purpose of my bed is to sleep, and when the sleeping is done, it’s time to move on.

Immediately.

Not only does remaining in bed hurt your ability to fall asleep quickly in the future, but the amount of time that people waste lying in bed after they have awoken is staggering.

GET OUT OF BED.

If you want to stay in bed longer, set your alarm for a later time. Actually spend that time sleeping.

If you’re too tired to get up, sleep more.

Otherwise move. Now. 

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Our children, circa 1840

Somehow, some way, my wife turned back the clock about 180 years and took our children to the park to sketch the flowers, the same way children spent time before there was television and video games and electricity and plastic.

And our children complied. They sat and sketched. My daughter came home and reported that she had a great time.

I don’t know where she gets these ideas, but the kids are lucky as hell to have her.

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Megan Washington’s stutter is just perfect

I’m not sure why this effected me so much.

Maybe it’s because I also spend a lot of time onstage, taking to strangers,  and can’t believe Megan Washington’s courage.

Maybe it’s her honestly. The grace and humor that she exudes. Her unwillingness to accept our sympathy.

It’s a beautiful talk, and it’s a beautiful song. You should watch.   

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My mother looks unbelievably young, and I look even more poorly dressed than usual.

Another photograph of my mother that I’d never seen before has surfaced. 

Mom has been gone for seven years now, but these photos, sent by various members of my family, are like unexpected, all too brief visits from her.

Wonderful and heartbreaking. 

This is a version of my mother that I don’t remember at all. An even younger version than the one I remember from my childhood.

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When I first saw the photograph, I didn’t even see my mother. I stared at the little boy who she was holding, who looks like a poorly dressed version of my son.

“Who’s holding Charlie?” I thought. “And what the hell is he wearing?”

Can you blame me?

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