I just picked up an old journal from January of 2011 and found the first, very rough, draft of my poem “Enchanted Rock in September” which was published in the 2012 Texas Poetry Calendar.
If you’d asked me yesterday, I would have guessed I wrote that poem in the summer, or maybe during a poetry lesson with my seventh graders during the fall of 2010. I never would have come up with the truth—that I penned it around 10:00 p.m. on January 31st while sitting by the fire pit in my backyard waiting on a cold front.
Here a few of the thoughts I captured that night before I turned my attention to poetry:
“I am sitting in my backyard writing by the light of the campfire I just made for myself (with the help of the fire-starter log from HEB). My plan is to sit here and write in my journal and drink this High Life and read Lolita and enjoy the evening for as long as I like… Tomorrow we are getting a true ‘arctic blast’ that will drop our temperatures down into the teens at night with wind chills in the single digits. Not exactly campfire weather to me. I’ll probably be inside the house, next to the fireplace, wearing a sweatshirt and a scarf, drinking hot tea with a cat on my lap. But tonight I’m wearing my Spider-Man t-shirt and jeans and flip-flops. The thermometer on the back porch says it’s sixty-eight degrees and there is a little breeze that brings along a cool kick with it once in a while—a hint of the cold to come. Perfect weather… Just went inside to check the forecast. They’re saying there will be a low overnight of 50 and a high tomorrow of 35. That doesn’t make any sense to me and makes my brain hurt… I hear a guy whistling a tune. It kind of sounds like it’s coming from the veloway [the bike and rollerblade path behind our house]. A musical rollerblading ghost perhaps? Probably just a neighbor.”
That forecast still doesn’t make any sense to me, nor does it make sense that on a January night of campfires and arctic blasts and rollerblading ghosts, I chose to write a poem about hiking up Enchanted Rock in September. But I did, and I’m glad, because I really like that poem.
Ideas can come out of nowhere. My story “A Fair Day,” which starts out with a man staring at a severed human elbow, was born on an airplane on Christmas Day in 2010, as my husband and I flew from his family’s home to mine to celebrate the holiday. The fact that a hot air balloon features heavily in the story comes from some stationery I had at the time. I have no clue why my brain was creating murderous characters and gruesome deaths on a day when I was sublimely happy and enjoying time with loved ones. It just did.
Other times, the inspiration behind a piece is easier to pinpoint. In my story “The Jack-in-the-Box,” a twelve-year-old girl whose father has just died begins receiving messages from the clown inside an old jack-in-the-box toy. The seed for this story was planted when I was playing with my two-year-old niece and her own jack-in-the-box. Hers had a dragon inside, not a clown, but it still scared me. Jack-in-the-boxes have always scared me. My niece wasn’t frightened at all and just kept playing the thing over and over and over, and I found myself thinking, What if one time when the lid popped open something was different? I started writing the story and discovered what would happen as I went.
Sometimes the motivation behind the story actually gets edited out during the revising process. The idea for “The Girl in the Attic,” which was published this summer in Growing Pains by Sinister Saints Press, came from a friend’s Facebook post. She wrote, “Omg. Something in my attic is knocking. Like, ‘Hello? Is anyone home?’ knocking. If I don’t come back… don’t send anyone after me.” I immediately started typing out a story about a girl who hears a knocking coming from the mysterious attic door she’s not allowed to open and decides to investigate. I was well into my first draft and struggling to keep the thread of the story intact, when I realized the knock didn’t make any sense in the literary world I’d created. So I deleted it. There’s still a girl and a mysterious attic door and good amount of horror, but no knocking sound. The story didn’t need it. And yet, without the Facebook post about the knock, I never would have written the story. (Oh and my friend did come back from her attic, by the way. All was well. This time.)
You never know when or where a good idea will strike—on an airplane, by a campfire, or even just checking Facebook. I guess the important thing is to recognize them when they come along, trust your instincts, and see what happens.