Monday, July 9, 2012

Dickens, Poe and Dickinson Walk into a Bar...

It's that question that kids have been asking for centuries, the one every adult fears. Daddy, where do stories come from? Okay, so it's not the type of question that makes you cringe, but it's just as difficult a question to answer.

It wasn't my kid that asked me this recently but my baptism sponsor. We were hanging out at Starbucks, me with my manly, no-nonsense strawberries and creme frappabingosomethingorother, she with her girlie, way-too-hipster black coffee. We were talking about organ donation and how one person can save so many lives, when an idea occurred to me--one that I'm not even sure is original. I asked her, what if you wrote a novel and it followed this group of separate characters, and you didn't know why they were all connected, but then, near the end, they all end up needed transplants and get them from the same person, another character you'd been following?

She wondered aloud if that's how I lived my life. As a writer, was I always searching for a story? I didn't think so. It sounds too pretentious and writery to say (in an over-dramatic, pretentious voice), "Everything is a story to me. I comb every interaction in my life to find that *gasp* one...great...story!"

I was pretty sure that wasn't me.

After further review, though, maybe it is. I always attributed the stories I come up with to a creative mind--they just pop in there. But, alas, an examination of the facts proves that this just ain't true. So where do they come from? If you look at the novels I've written, well, I steal them.

My first novel started brewing in a Brit Lit seminar on how British Colonialism influenced British novels. A discussion spawned, one day, from Great Expectations about the nature of crime--about how Pip identified with the prisoners in London--and driving home that day, before I even was an MFA student or graduate, before I ever was a writer, I decided it would be cool to write a novel that examined the nature of crime, that there were things we do as humans that are perfectly legal but somehow were worse crimes than those that get us locked up.

Fast-forward a few months (maybe longer?). I'm driving in my car listening to Green Day's American Idiot, an album with such a distinct storyline that it was adapted into a Broadway show. The idea of a suburban kid running off to the city and watching his whole life crash down around him, forcing him to run home with his tail between his legs (at least that's how I interpreted the album) stuck with me. In the car that day, Truman Armstrong was born--a boy that runs away from home for an unknown reason, and once you really start to like him and feel bad for him, you learn his crime--he ran away because he got his girlfriend pregnant. Dirt bag, right? Criminal, right? He makes amends in the end and suffers for it, but I guess I have to thank Billie Joe Armstrong and Charles Dickens for that one. Two of my all-time favs.

Novel number two? Well, the credit for that one kind of goes to Edgar Allan Poe. It was the (possibly) incestuous twins of The House of Usher that spawned that naughty little novel. The House on Bittersweet Trail, for which the novel is named, even falls in the end like Usher's abode. I'm glad to credit Poe with this idea, though, as many who were at my reading at WestConn probably assumed I was some kind of psycho perve. Nope. Sorry. Poe had twins doing the nasty almost 200 years ago. I was just inspired by them. The rest of the story did come from my own life, traumatic childhood moments and such, but mostly it was Poe's fault. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it!

As for the novel I'm currently working on, the idea really spawned from a combination of my conversion to Christianity and writing the blog post about it. When I wrote that post, I quoted the poem about hope by Emily Dickinson. Well, thinking about her made me think of another poem she wrote, a poem about losing those close to you that starts, "My life closed twice before its close" and ends "Parting is all we know of heaven and all we need of hell." So the novel All We Know of Heaven was born. It follows a young lady through two near-death experiences, but also the two deaths of loved ones--the true meaning of the poem. In the end, a young man she fancies helps her to find God with many of my own personal experiences finding Him woven into the end of the book. Thank you Emily Dickinson.

So, if you're keeping score, which I wasn't until just now, I got my ideas from combining the classic literature I studied and now teach with my own person issues and interests. Every time, same combination. How boring. But if I weren't paying attention, and looking for a story, I wouldn't have found them in those pages, on that CD, or in my life. So perhaps I am always looking. Dreams. Daydreams. Television. Books. Conversations.

I guess I'm more pretentious and writery than I thought.

Basket Case by Green Day
Music video inspired by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 

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