Where Ideas come From

Ideas can come from anywhere and from many places. Rarely (at least for me) is a story idea generated from just one thought, but from an odd collection of seemingly random information or experiences.

Today I completed reading a remarkable book, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell. It was the acknowledgments at the end that really struck me though. The author, Robert Dugoni, tells the story of how the idea for this novel came about. As a writer I relate to his experience about how ideas develop. In his acknowledgment, we learn about his growing up with a “special needs” sibling who was “different,” his Catholic upbringing and a news article he came across about a child with ocular albinism; all topics relevant to the novel and collected over time.

FIRST DRAFT

An especially important point that he makes, that all writers, myself included, need to remember, is that “a first draft is written for the writer and should never be shared with anyone.” That goes right along with Terry Pratchett’s quote: “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

THINKING IS WRITING

I am not sure if non-writers really understand the process; that even when we are not writing, we are writing. Recently, I was part of a conversation with fellow writers where we all agreed that thinking is writing. If you happen to share a household with a writer (God bless you), you may laugh and joke about this; you may see this as an excuse to not write. You would be wrong.

LAUNDRY IS WRITING

Stepping away from the desk to throw in a load of laundry is writing. Gardening and pulling weeds is writing. Even sitting among friends and listening to conversation can be writing. We are sneaky people, us writers! You never know when an idea is growing in our heads! But seriously, sometimes we need to get up and move around, perform a menial task to allow ideas to evolve.

WRITING IS A PROCESS

Writing is a process, something I was constantly reminding my students when I was a teacher and a librarian. You cannot skip steps! One of the most important steps, if not the most important is thinking.

IDEAS MORPH

Story ideas happen in an instant and simultaneously develop in the writers’ mind over a long period of time. Bits come to us from unexpected places sometimes, and sometimes they are right there in front of us having been with us forever. Ideas are not born whole and complete; they gestate. They begin as a seed and slowly grow until one day you have a story, whole with a beginning, middle and end. Ideas have no sense of time; they come upon us at once, in a flash and also slowly like molasses in the wintertime. This is why writers carry little notebooks. This is why we often appear distracted.

AN EXAMPLE

Currently, I am working on a short story whose ideas derived from many sources. I had an idea for the story based on a news article that ignited my imagination. Thinking about it brought up memories of events that actually happened to me. I took those events and molded them to fit the story, gave them meaning. I created a character who embodies what I believe to be some basic truths about humanity.

That story is not yet ready to be “born,” but it’s getting there. I have messes to clean up, the timeline is jumbled, and kinks to straighten. I have not completed the process. Non-writers have commented to me that writing must be fun for me. It can be. Most of the time it’s more like someone is ripping your fingernails off. Slowly. Still, it’s worth it.

Planning

Damn, am I ever behind. If you are a creative of any kind, then you will understand what I am talking about. You will especially get it if you are like me and struggle to settle on any one task.

Several months ago, I prioritized my writing projects. That helped me focus. Perhaps it’s already time for another evaluation.

Currently, I am working on three short stories, two of which are meant to be in an anthology. The anthology work is more than just a commitment to my own writing. I have a responsibility to the other members. I have fallen behind reading their work and that’s not fair. I am also working on a novel outline and a character arc for it. I write book reviews too which I have currently cut back to once a month.

Then there are my weekly blog posts which I skipped last week for the first time. I failed to post it that is; I’ve actually been writing several essays that will eventually make it to my blog. One is on a particularly sensitive and fragile topic and requires much thought and time.  

For the remainder of the summer, I have decided to focus on the anthology stories and calendar my novel work for the fall. I need to stop flitting back and forth between projects. I have got to focus. It’s going to feel so good to accomplish something! As I see it, that gives me six weeks to complete final drafts for two short stories. I am not including the week of my daughter’s wedding because I am at least that realistic!

Come September, I can return to the novel. Maybe I will even participate in Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) during November. I did that several years ago during the July event and accomplished a great deal (on another unfinished novel!).

I’ve got so many story and novel ideas in my head and so many incomplete on paper. I know that I am not alone; this is the life of a writer. The good news for me is that I have reached a place in my life where I can devote good chunks of time to completing some projects. One foot in front of the other.

Origin Story

She came up out of the mud where the Mississippi River washes the continent’s silt into the Gulf of Mexico. The Mississippi Sound was her place of birth, her embryo, her mama’s womb. She knew the familiar cadence of languages mixed as in a boiling pot. There was the French providing spice, the savory meats of English and the Spanish paella blended to a sound so sweet and soft. A person didn’t have to understand the words, not if she was in tune with this small world and its past. Just listen to inflection, follow the pattern, the hand gestures and facial expressions.

Go sit on the dock at her grandfather’s wharf, pretend to check your crab traps, pretend to watch the boats go past and listen to the old men. There they sit in the shade, Jax beer in hand, talking quietly amongst themselves, a chuckle here, an occasional outburst of laughter there. Their bellies evince years of fried food and pie consumption; a life, if not well-lived, certainly appreciatory of the simple goodness their world provides. Their hands are large and calloused, their eyes deep and tender. They speak of fish and boats and family. They don’t know it, but they speak of love. They offer favors and shake on it. Using few words, they offer comfort when needed, giving each other a pat on the back and maybe slipping a handful of neatly folded bills when necessary. It will come back around.

Find a corner in the kitchen and allow yourself to be forgotten. What you witness will be much the same. Women sit around the table smoking cigarettes and talking about the children or the neighbors. Or the men on the wharf, their husbands.  A grandchild wanders in and is offered a bowl of warm blackberry jam and homemade vanilla ice cream—a reward for picking the blackberries. She is sent away to enjoy her treat on the shady porch. The women carry on with their gossip.

This is the world she returns to in her mind, the world that haunts her and follows her no matter where in the real and present world she might find herself. When she drives up the interstate in Texas, filled with thoughts of traffic, errands, politics, work, suddenly she is back on the bayou watching the shrimp boats go out at dusk. The briny, humid air is the embryonic fluid that kept her buoyant and thriving and she feels it draw her home. Ghosts follow her everywhere. The ghosts of those who came before, whose DNA she shares. They are trying to tell her a story. They want her to understand that she is here now, doing this because they were there then and because of the choices they made.

And what of the others? The ones who came long before the grandparents and great-grandparents? They also haunt this woman, this woman who came from the very chemistry of this American sea that curls into the continent like a bowl being protected in the arms of some great god. She sometimes looks over her shoulder to see a woman, her bare feet, sand encrusted, her skirt hem stiff from sun and salt water. How did she get off the island, ghost or not? How is it that she is here, this Marie, wandering through an air- conditioned grocery store complete with piped in Musak and computerized cash registers? Is she covetous of this new century or disdainful? And why is she so restless that she must follow this descendant, this Elizabeth, who seems so untethered herself?

Elizabeth sees the past through a filter. It appears to be idyllic. Oh, but it was tough! And her ancestors must have been fierce to survive the weather, geography and the culture!

Elizabeth is a child and she dives down for starfish and seahorses. She races along the beach, bare feet pounding hard packed wet sand. She plays and explores. Time is meaningless. Farther up the island, the sea oats dance in the breeze where the sand is dry and deep and thick. It’s hot too but her bare feet are tough and capable. Her thighs are capable too as she marches through deep sand as other children might march through snow drifts. Over on the gulf side of the island, the wind always blows. It whips her hair into her face, slapping sand and salt about. She watches the waves and she can see them all the way to the horizon, so much bigger on this side. It’s wilder over here and exciting. On this side, it is much easier to believe that she is alone, a lone remnant of humanity. This is her origin story.

Gautier & Byrd-Bait Shop, Boat Dealership