NOTES FROM THE IDEA FARM

Funny thing, inspiration. Why is it that certain moments catch us up, shimmer, and shout “I belong in a story?”

Perhaps we writers are especially attuned to these illuminated bits, but from my unscientific survey of fifth graders at Whittier Elementary in Seattle, it seems most human beings experience times when life expands and reveals some essence to which the only logical response is: “that belongs in a story.”

We writers are the raccoons who hoard these shiny snippets.

We snap mental photographs that hold story. Like mine of my friend Margrit quilting in a circle of lamplight, an image that speaks her specific tenderness. Or Izzi’s evening vigil by the gate, her fur backlit by the sun, doggedly awaiting John’s return. Or the guy wearing a baseball hat that has crowfeathers stuck into the mesh like a feathery crown. There’s story there.

Other times a story is suggested by a mental auditory clip: The clink of nine pennies dropping into the birthday jar during Sunday morning services at the Little Red Church. The squeaks and pops of the elementary school band tuning up before a rehearsal. A shriek of wind whipping off Puget Sound.

Sometimes I save up overheard pieces of dialogue for inspiration. Like that of three little girls playing in the ancient Grove of the Patriarchs on the side of Mount Rainier. “Let’s play castle,” announced one. “I’m blond so I will be the princess.”

grove

Camus said that artists seek to recreate those two or three moments when their souls were first opened. That’s just the beginning. We writers constantly collect and recreate moments because they serve a story. We savor little vignettes of character, place, dialogue, etc. that help us make sense of the world and ourselves.

Sometimes opening lines seem to drop from the heavens. I save them up. Like: The first time Mama left us she was back the next day. Or: “Darlin’, I wish I could stand between you and the wind.” (According to my notes, this is something children’s author Eve Bunting’s dad said to her.) Or: What’s the worst thing that could happen?

All these glittery bits, some as brief as a word, offer inspiration. Like this list near the path at a coffee plantation in Hawaii which suggests an alphabet book about ways to move:

walkthisway

It is not unusual to meet a word that inspires a story – snarky, hunched, snick – or a word that fits into a work-in-progress with a satisfying chink.

Of course names are grist for the storymill, too: Charlie Goodenough, Stumpy Thompson, Pincherella the crab. Their names deserve stories.

Anecdotes can get me going, too. Like the best friends who glued their hands together with superglue so one couldn’t move away, or the girl who “corrected” her boyfriend’s love letters and sent them back. Both tragic and comedic at the same time. Good stuff.

Of course this is just a beginning of all that inspires. Memories, experiences, research, observations, reading. When I come across an image in a magazine or newspaper that holds a story, I clip it out. Some pictures really are worth a thousand words.

wayorbeach013

I imagine all these story parts shelved in a high-ceilinged, cobwebby hall. Golden light streams through clerestory windows and falls on a particular item, suggesting it. I start to write. That bit seems to attract others and they begin to fit together in a sort of Rubik’s cube. Pieces slide, align, and spark each other.

When I work with material that has the supercharged quality – the “I belong in a story” quality – I am more likely to fall under the spell of my work, as I hope my reader will be.

Those are the best days, right?

• • • • •

FAREWELL. In July 2000, I was a guest speaker at what was then Vermont College’s three-year old MFA program in writing for children. The following January I joined the faculty, and taught off and on for a total of nine semesters over the next 11 years. It is a first-rate organization, superbly captain-oh-captained first by Lousie Crowley, and now by Melissa Fisher. I loved working with fellow faculty members who lit up the days with lectures and workshops and lit up the nights in the faculty lounge. I loved being an advisor to my students from whom I learned so much. VCFA is a nurturing, supportive community and I will be forever grateful for its presence in my life. Let’s stay in touch.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “NOTES FROM THE IDEA FARM

  1. Martine Leavitt

    Laura, every sentence of this blog post was magic – it made my brain light up. Thank you! I am so sorry you won’t be back at VCFA for many reasons, one of which is that the faculty lounge was never so hopping as it was when you were there with your ukulele!

  2. A lovely piece, Laura, apart from the last bit. We’ll miss you. But I’ll think of you out collecting sights and sounds on the Sound. Maybe with a bucket. A red bucket and a yellow spoon.

  3. Leda Schubert

    Lovely post, Laura.

    I may be the actual source for the love letters story. When Bob and I were long-distance courting and writing actual letters, he had a comma problem. So I circled those little devils in red and sent them back. A marriage that begins in humor and editorial comments is bound to be a good one, right?

  4. I love this post – especially “We writers are the raccoons who hoard these shiny snippets.” Immediately brought to mind the bird in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH who couldn’t resist shiny bits of wire, risking danger to gather them as gifts for another…I often feel that way as I eavesdrop (I mean, gather ideas.)

  5. laurakvasnosky

    Leda, I bet that is the source of the corrected love letter snippet — sorry I failed to note that when I wrote it down. And Katey, don’t you love how calling yourself a writer gives you license to nose around in other people’s business? All for the good of the story. I will miss you all, too, and hope you will visit us in Seattle. We are remodeling to have a nice guest suite by next Spring, so will be needing more guests.

  6. maryquattlebaum

    Thank you, Laura, for this lively, lovely post. And wishing you joy in 2015 with your gardens of words, images, and green, growing things.

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