Two weeks ago—and it was a fabulous vacation, btw—I posted about Penelope Lively’s book Making It Up, with some observations about living out alternative lives in fiction. What would have happened if…?
Writers are often asked where we get our ideas for fiction, and (like most questions we’re asked), there are as many right answers as there are writers. Still, I’m always fascinated by the variety of responses—even within my own experience.
As sheepish as I feel admitting it, the genesis of the first story I wrote as an adult, the story that got me in the chair every morning to write for an hour before heading off to a job, the story that I took with me to grad school a year later, came from—here goes—a dream.
Why the sheepishness? Not sure, but I guess that it’s that rule from grad workshops about never starting a story with a dream. Yes, I know that the rule refers to the actual narrative structure (rather than the idea behind it), but still, something about dreams as creative fodder makes me think of shortcuts, of Bobby Ewing and the shower.
Still. It worked, didn’t it? I dreamed of a little girl in a party dress, running from a cloud of bees. Why bees? Why a frilly party dress? Who knows. Who cares? What matters is that I couldn’t get the image out of my mind. I woke up, scrawled onto a piece of paper dress, bees, and a day or two later started writing. Who was this little girl, why was she wearing a party dress, and what was going on with the bees?
In answering those questions, I wrote “Bees for Honey.” The story had no autobiographical parallel to my life, other than my having once been the same age as the narrator. The next story I wrote, “The View from Below,” was about 95 percent autobiographical, despite what I later told my mother. It was about the moon landing and a young girl’s (that is, my) wish that the astronauts would get lost up there, make a wrong turn. Grownups had already mucked up planet Earth—so went the girl’s thinking—and they shouldn’t be allowed to mess up the moon, too. There was more to the narrative: a mother’s drunkenness; parents’ failings; a wacky babysitter; shag rug. But that conviction about the moon landing, that resistance I had felt to my family’s (and the nation’s) euphoria over the fuzzy image on the black-and-white TV in July 1969: that fueled the story, same as the bees had fueled theirs.
While in grad school, I went rafting on the American River one hot June day. The air temperature was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit; the water, snowmelt cold enough to merit the wearing of wetsuits. That contrast interested me, lodged in my imagination in such a way that, on the ride home, sharing the car with an archeologist, I became especially curious. The heat and cold had opened me up, a day on the river had relaxed me, so that I found myself fascinated with every tidbit the archeologist shared about chipping sites and filtering screens and centimeter-deep layers of dust. When I got home, I made notes and, soon after, started “Away from Trees.” Again, the story isn’t “about” archeology (it’s about grief), but archeology gave me a way in, a particular slant on a general topic.
I don’t have the patience to practice archeology or marine biology (“Falling”) or glass-blowing (“The Ruins”) or translation from the French (“Careful”), or the small motor skills needing for working with potentially lethal tools. But I love writing about them, love their obsessive qualities and their metaphoric possibilities.
Why did that one dream about bees start a story, and why has no other dream since? Why archeology, say, and not automobile design or plastic surgery? I don’t know. “You wonder about the strangest things,” my mother once told me, not in criticism as much as bemusement. I could see her thinking, Who is this child I helped make? And yes, my attention to the details that captivate only me has struck others as tedious, obvious, pedestrian, or just plain dull. Not every story idea blooms into something worthy of readers’ attention. Many promising beginnings—somewhere in my files I have twenty-odd pages about a cat breeder—have dwindled into nothing. And others just haven’t found the right entry point yet.
What about you? Where do you get your ideas?