When one of my sons was really small, I asked him where he got his ideas from. “My mouth,” was his reply. It’s a common question for writers and sometimes I think, when I am asked, I should simply adopt my son’s answer.
It is an intriguing question, though, and the answers are no less interesting. After something big happens, people will often turn to the nearest writer and say, “You should write about that!” or “That would make a great book, wouldn’t it?”
But, the real story of inspiration is not dissimilar to human conception, really. The right seed has to hit the right place at the right time for a story to grow. At any other moment, perhaps it would be another seed or another story. I remember reading a novel called The Well of Lost Plots. Maybe there really is such a place out there — a resting place for all the stories that might have been told. I know that I’ve been stumped by stories that hit too close to home and those that felt too foreign for me to tell them.
Inspiration really is a delicate balancing act between familiarity and curiosity. I need to have something accessible about the main character in particular, some means of identifying with him or her, to be able to get inside his or her head. At the same time, the story can’t simply be my own– or frankly, I’d be bored in the telling of it. Often what captivates me in the course of writing a book is what I learn — both on an informational level and on an emotional level — but at the same time, I do think there is something about writing about what you know.
I think one of the reasons I don’t tend to write the stories that people say would make great books is that I feel like those stories are already clear: we see them as great tales because we can see the whole story at once, the villain, the hero, the crisis and the inevitable ending. I think those stories are good ones but they are, in a sense, already told.
To me, it’s actually better if a story offers a kind of alternate reality, a certain element of “What If…?” where we don’t know what will happen. We were once invited to drop everything and move to a remote community we were visiting. We said no, of course, but the idea stayed with me: what if we had said yes? who would say yes? what would happen if he did? I didn’t know and I wondered and wrote that story through three novels and nine years.
Sometimes there is an image or a sound or a smell that becomes indelible on the imagination. I might hear a snippet of news on the radio or learn a fascinating fact and, as Blake would say, “see the world in a grain of sand.”
There’s an element of fascination, with trying things on for size. Sometimes there’s therapy and preventative therapy: as my friend Erin says, “We write the stories we will need.” I wrote a book about a woman who was suddenly widowed, although I hope I will never need its lessons firsthand.
A good writer creates a world which, even if it is very similar to our own world, has its own rules and boundaries, joys and sorrows, characters and histories. The world has to work, first and foremost, for the writer who will live in it for months and years at a time. It has to be a place the writer is willing and interested in visiting, revisiting and even inhabiting. By the time I was through with writing about the fictionalized remote community, I realized that I loved the pretend version much more than the real one.
So, now for the contest. As we speak, copies of Seekers of Stars are wending their way toward my home for me to send out to contest winners. Many of the copies are already spoken for, but I would like to offer an opportunity for you to receive a copy. Here’s how you can win: Tell me in the comments below about your inspiration for your creativity. We will pick a winner at random on Tuesday December 17 and will send a copy of the book to that person. It’s as simple as that. (Please pass the word along to other people too. Thanks!)