Jun 19, 2012

Where do you get your ideas?

"Where do you get your ideas?"  It never occurred to me to be annoyed by this question until I heard other writers grousing about being asked. They would often launch into too-rehearsed riffs about idea clearing houses or super stores.

While growing up, I was often asked where I got my curls.  I had one friend who always used to jump in and answer for me.  At Karcher Mall.  At K-Mart.  At Curls R Us.  She'd laugh and tell me how tired she was of the question---and I smiled with her.

But when she wasn't there?  I'd talk about my grandfather and how much he hated his curly hair, how he'd wet it before bed and sleep with a nylon stocking over his scalp, anything to tame the wildness.

Later in life, I'd confess to others how much I hated my hair and I'd talk about my grandfather again.  I'd remember the day we were out boating and I sat at the bow, my hair whipping everywhere, making me crazy, and my grandfather leaned over to my grandmother and much-too-loudly told her how beautiful it was.  I wanted to scream.  It was his hair. Maybe no one else would understand my frustration, but I always thought he would.

Even later, I'd talk about my grandfather's passing and the way my love for him somehow dripped with my tears into those very same curls, how I finally internalized his love for me and I never cut my hair again.

"Where'd you get your curls?"  That was an invitation for me to talk about my grandfather.  Maybe the person asking really wanted to know what brand of curls-in-a-box they should buy, but they got an answer about my grandfather.  It didn't occur to me to be annoyed, even though the question clearly did annoy my friend.

I'm the same way with "Where do you get your ideas?"  I apparently hear a much deeper question than most people hear.  Quite possibly, I hear more than the questioner is really asking.  (Curls In A Box? Aisle 5B. Bottom row.)

When I hear, "Where do you get your ideas?" I hear a question about the elements in a writer's life that give rise to story.

Yes, I do have more ideas than I'll ever be able to write.  They bubble to the surface all the time, often while I'm trying to finish another story and have no time to pay attention.  Some of them are good ideas.  Some of them are crap.  But there they are, bubbling--possibly bright and cheerful like an artesian well, more likely thick and explosive like a mud pot.

All the same, the underlying question about ideas is a fascinating one.  "Why?"  Why do some people live their lives with an endless bounty of stories waiting to be written while others do not?  Why do song writers hear music?  Why do poets experience bursts of perfect words?  Why do sculptors see images in stone?  Why do photographers see the perfect framing for a landscape while I'm pointing and clicking? Why?  Where does this creative inspiration come from? Why is it present in some people and seemingly absent in others?

And what about the variances within an individual's life?  Despite the fact that I have more ideas than I'll ever be able to write, I've also experienced times when the bubbling stops.  In my last post, I wrote about creating order and meaning in our lives---about the way our writing output changes as our personal paradigms shift.

Is this a writing block?  Maybe.  I think it has more to do with creative exhaustion---creation in another part of our lives taking precedence over creating stories.  Maybe we're belly-hopeful with child or designing a curriculum or building a house.  Our energies go elsewhere, like a stream diverted.

So, yes, there are times that are less conducive to writing.  We all know that.  Crises happen.  Schedules change.  Strangers bring messages that knock us back---all the stuff of stories, yet painfully real.  But if there are conditions that make writing more difficult, is the inverse true as well?

Are there ideal conditions that give rise to story?

I think yes.

Given time, shifting paradigms lead to epiphanies we need to communicate with others.  We pull out our personal creative tool set and get to work.  If we are painters, we paint.  If we are writers, we write---but even among writers there is such variation.  One writer might respond to the death of a parent through memoir, another through horror, another through a quirky young adult fantasy.  The result might focus on life or death, light or shadow, it might be dark or humorous---or darkly humorous.  The brain that filters experience and produces art contains Whitman's multitudes.

How a writer filters and distills experience into story has much to do with voice which has much to do with personality which has much to do with not just where but how we stand in the world in relation to everyone and everything else.  And even this statement has much to do with who I am, a writer of the American West, a firm believer in rugged individualism and independent thinking.  I do not see culture giving rise to literature.  I see individuals in a culture reacting to specific situations in a specific context---and stories materializing out of that individual experience.

Maybe the question I hear isn't so much, "Where do you get your ideas?" but "Why do you get your ideas?" or "How do you get your ideas?" or "When do you get your ideas?" or "Why do those ideas reveal themselves to you?"

And really, maybe it's the depth of the mystery that leads writers to give the easy answer.  "Aisle 5B.  Bottom row."

Jun 5, 2012

Crashing, Connecting, and Creating


Sometimes big, ugly events crash into our lives and stomp through the marrow of our being, breaking everything in sight.


There's nothing we can do about it.

Over twenty years ago, an ultrasound tech bubbled with excitement, telling us we'd soon be seeing our baby for the first time.  When she abruptly stopped the scan and wouldn't make eye contact, our world collapsed.

Five years ago, I walked out to my garden and ten minutes later there were phone messages from every member of my family except my dad.  We buried him that next week.

A year ago, I took my mom into the ER and a doctor casually informed us her cancer had spread.  Our response: what cancer?  I'm now my mom's primary caregiver, through chemo and whatever hell and heartbreak it takes to choose life.

A few nights ago, I woke in darkness with severe pain. Another trip to the ER and an emergency surgery and I'm back on my feet.

Every time we experience one of these massive life changes, our personal paradigm shifts.  Our understanding of who we are and how we are situated in the world, in connection or not in connection with others, shifts.

The earth shakes beneath our feet and our teeth rattle deep in their sockets---and we once again search for meaning.

Because that's what we do:  we create meaning.

As writers, we're in the daily business of creating meaning.  We tell stories not randomly, but with purpose.  Sometimes we understand that purpose before we begin writing but, more often, we know the narrative and we add the meaning as we go along.  We sense it, lurking there in the plot, sometimes subtle and layered, sometimes set to spring forth and startle us awake to life.

In reaction to paradigm shifts:

  • Sometimes our writing stops altogether.  After that first miscarriage, it took years before I wrote anything else.  Creating meaning for my daily life was difficult enough without creating meaning in stories.

  • Sometimes our writing speeds up.  In the weeks after my dad died, I became very aware that my life had limits, that I wouldn't live forever, that I needed to make my dreams take flight right that moment.  There was no time to lose.

  • Sometimes our writing slows to a crawl.  After my mom's diagnosis, I continued revising a manuscript about a character who recently lost her mom, but every line eked from keyboard to screen with the excruciating slowness of an IV drip.

That night I was lying in the emergency room, with some heavy narcotics dripping into my blood stream, I saw it all for a brief moment.  A family to our left lost a father to a heart attack, a family to our right lost a pregnancy---and I wept.  I mean, I truly wept.  I felt such pain---both for their losses and for my own---but mostly I wept for the fact that we all experience so much together and yet feel so alone.

Waking up in the recovery room, my first impulse was not to rush to my keyboard to write down my story. My first impulse was to ask the nurse her story.  Where did she grow up? How did she get into nursing? How many generations of her family lived in Owyhee County?  When she wheeled me back to my room, she squeezed my hand and another nurse asked if we knew each other.  She smiled and said, "Not before tonight, but now we're old friends."

Big, ugly things do crash into our lives from time to time.  There's nothing we can do about it.  And yet, in the worst of our pain, sometimes a story fills the gap, reminding us we're not alone.  When we tell our stories, when we listen to the stories of others, we find connections.  We may begin the story as strangers, but we part as old friends.

Returning to my keyboard this morning, my writing speeds up.  It's no longer about my dream or my grief. It's about the story that needs to be told.