My first novel, Belinda’s Rings, hits bookstore shelves this month, and while I’m still in a state of ecstatic disbelief that people—even strangers—will actually read and maybe even enjoy my novel, a small part of me is wound in a tight spool of worry. With readers come questions, including, in all likelihood, the most frequently asked question of all: Where do you get your ideas?
I dread this question—not because I don’t value it, but because I’ve never been able to think of an eloquent or even accurate way to answer it. So I’ve decided instead to steal one from John Vigna, whose answer to this question remains the best I’ve ever heard. (Sorry, Mr. Vigna, but it’s the price you must pay for being so admirably well-spoken.) Mr. Vigna described how ideas don’t exactly strike him like bolts of lightning the way many of us have been led to believe they do through the glamorized stories of artists and creators that we see in literature and film. Instead, ideas are more like features of the landscape—they are everywhere, and all of us can access them.
Yes, I thought when I heard those words. They told me something I didn’t know I believed until that moment. Ideas are everywhere, all the time. The decision to eat toast with marmalade for breakfast is as much of an “idea” as the decision to give a character a lazy eye or a secret taxidermy collection. While ideas may seem conjured out of thin air, they actually come from somewhere: they're a kind of craving for a certain taste in your mouth.
My process of writing my novel began with a single sentence: “Squid’s got three mothers who can’t spank him.” Somehow, as thousands of other sentences were edited, rewritten, cut and pasted elsewhere, or sometimes cut altogether, that first sentence remained unchanged, fixed in position as the opening of the novel. In writing it, I’d gotten the first taste of something much larger—a voice, a personality, a family, a conflict—and writing the rest of the novel became a constant effort to build substance around that single morsel.
My way of building that substance involves drawing from everything, everyone, surrounding me. It’s no secret that the family in my novel, which consists of two teenaged girls, their wild little half-brother (nicknamed Squid), their mother, and their bipolar stepfather, bears striking resemblance to my own family when I was a teenager. I admit that my first sentence certainly didn’t come out of thin air. And yet, for some reason it irks me when my family talks about the characters in my book as if they are theirs. “I’m in her book,” my brother tells his friends. After my sister read the synopsis on the back cover, she asked, incredulously, whether she really was “a supermom in the making,” and suggested that our mother would probably find it hard to read the section that calls that character of Belinda “an impractical, impulsive mother.” Any time we talk about the book, my sister refers to the character of Grace as my character. “You know the part when your character takes the wrong bus?” she’ll say. Her name is Grace, I want to say. This is fiction. We’re calling it fiction.
And it is fiction, even if some elements are factual. My mother never ran off to England to study crop circles. My sister doesn’t have an ugly, hairy mole growing on her cheek. Some of the events are highly dramatized, and some never actually happened at all. But here’s the truth behind the fiction: as a writer, I am a thief. Keep your words, your mannerisms, your foibles to yourself. If you reveal them, I may snatch them when you’re not looking. My writing is a collage of the bits and pieces I’ve stolen. Once your piece is glued on, it’s no longer yours. Finders keepers, I say.
And why not? For me, writing is like a remix, a mashup in words. I take the pieces of what I see, hear, and experience, and recombine them to create something new. You might argue, as I would, that this is what all creators do. Stealing is what creation is all about.
However, it occurs to me that perhaps part of the reason I dread the “Where do you get your ideas?” question is that I am uncomfortable admitting my thievery, especially to those from whom I have directly stolen. Just like them, I feel an unavoidable sense of ownership; my characters, my ideas, feel like mine, just as my sister’s likeness feels to her like hers. And like most artists, I want to be perceived as good at my craft, and good because of what I can create rather than my ability to manipulate what surrounds me.
What I know I must come to terms with, however, is that everyone I ever knew in my first twenty-five years of life could be as much an “owner” of Grace as I am. Some of her is me, but much of her is not. And the very act of writing a story and releasing it out into the world assumes that readers will be able to see something of themselves in the characters, thereby stealing their own little pieces as keepsakes.
What excites me most about releasing my hold on this book is the possibility that others will steal from me in the same way I stole from John Vigna: with the belief that any idea that rings true in your universe becomes your own.
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