Posted in Writing

Nowhere and Everywhere

I used to wonder where writers got their ideas. I read Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and tried to imagine where he came up with the story of Bill Forrester and Helen Loomis and the dish of lime-vanilla ice. I read To Kill a Mockingbird and speculated about the character of Boo Radley. Where in Harper Lee’s mind did he live before he arrived on the paper? Then I started writing, and I never again asked an author where the ideas came from, because I knew.

They come from nowhere and everywhere.

Some stories sneak up on us from our own lives, and we don’t even notice until someone points it out to us. You. There you are. I see you. Others spring from the news or photographs or prompts created to push us into new territories. But most of my stories don’t come from such concrete places.

One of the first short stories I ever wrote was about a disturbed man who blew up a hot air balloon full of his enemies and also, due to a last minute glitch in his plans, the only person in his life who he truly cared about. I never intended to write such a dark story. In fact, the day it came to me I didn’t intend to write anything at all. It was Christmas Day. I was on an airplane with my husband, flying from my family’s home to his. One minute, I was holding a piece of stationery with a hot air balloon on it and looking out the airplane window. The next minute I was furiously scribbling the first draft of “A Fair Day” on a notepad. I had no idea where it came from. I still don’t. The story went through a few rejections and many rounds of revisions, but the basic idea stayed the same, and eventually it found a home in Darker Times Anthology, Volume 5, as runner up in one of their monthly contests.

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The inspiration for “The Night Children,” published in Havok Magazine in October 2016, came from this library book. I wanted to know who “The Day Children” were. And, if there could be Day Children, didn’t that mean there could also be Night Children? What was their story?

My first published short story was “The Jack-in-the-Box,” which came out in Issue 12 of Dark Moon Digest. That story was born from a combination of experience, memory, and “what if.” I was sitting on the floor of my cousin’s house, playing with her three-year-old daughter. She had a jack-in-the-box with a dragon inside and she begged me to turn the knob over and over and over, delighting each time the lid popped open. As I turned the crank again and again, I thought back to my own childhood jack-in-the-box. It had a clown inside, and the surprise of the POP, though predictable, terrified me so much that I refused to play with it. As I watched the dragon emerge time and time again, I thought, What if one time something was different? I held on to that idea, and when I got home, the first draft of “The Jack-in-the-Box” flowed from my fingers.

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The idea for “The Other House” came from my friend’s three-year-old. I like writing stories that scare children, but I love writing stories that scare their parents.

Sometimes though, letting go of an idea is as important as holding on. The story I wrote for Growing Pains, the YA horror anthology from Horrified Press, was inspired by a Facebook post. A friend 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. While my friend was dealing with her attic guest, I was typing the first draft of “The Girl in the Attic,” a tale about a twelve-year-old girl who hears a knock coming from the inside of an attic door that has been nailed shut for sixty years. She decides to pry the door open. But the more I wrote, the more I realized there was a problem. It was the knock. It didn’t fit with the rest of the story, and the more I tried to make it work, the more the story fell apart. Finally, I realized I had to let that part go. While the eerie knocking sound had been the instrument of horror in my friend’s real life, in the story I’d created, it was superfluous. It was hard to hit the delete key, but the piece was made better by the cut. (By the way, my friend DID investigate the sound in her attic, and she made it back just fine.)

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“Teardrops and Watermelon Seeds” is my favorite of all my stories. It was inspired by an article about magical realism in this issue of Writer’s Digest. “Teardrops” was first published in Spark: A Creative Anthology in 2016 and will soon be appearing in Ember: A Journal of Luminous Things.

Our ideas come from everywhere and nowhere. They slip in through cracks. They whisper in our ears while we’re sleeping. They pounce on us from shadows. Some of them even knock. Our job is to let them lead us, and then know when to let them go.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Poetry, Writing

Where Ideas Come From

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.

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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.

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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.

Posted in Writing

A Blank Page and an Open Mind

Three years ago, I sat in a coffee shop with a brand new journal, some colored pens, a stack of magazines, a pair of scissors, and a glue stick. I’d just decided to end my teaching career and become a writer. Faced with the opportunity in front of me, I felt both excited and overwhelmed in equal measure. After all, I didn’t exactly know what being a writer looked like. So I did what I always do when I need to figure things out. I sat down with a blank page and an open mind.

This is what I produced:

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This found poem is still one of my favorite things. I re-read it a couple of times a year, and it never fails to inspire me anew. The journal it’s in is no longer blank. I stayed in that coffee shop for hours, filling it with ideas, story beginnings, homeless lines of poetry, and the very first to do lists for my new life as a writer. With every word I wrote down, I felt more confident, more sure of my decision. By the time I came home, I still didn’t know exactly what it meant to be a writer, but I was ready to find out.

There’s some good stuff in that journal. Once in a while I open it up and find an idea that’s ripened into something juicy. Some of the vagrant lines of poetry have found homes; others still wait patiently. But my favorite thing about it is the way it serves as a concrete reminder of where I started and how much I’ve learned. Three years ago, my to do list included items like “Research steps to publishing a novel” (as if it were that simple) and “Find a third publication to submit poetry” (because back then I had only two credits to my name and no idea just how many opportunities there are for submitting work).

When I look at this journal, and the found poem that started it all, I can’t help but wonder what the next three years will teach me. I guess there’s only one way to find out.

She dusts off her to do list and…