This article originally appeared in The September/October 2002 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Where Ideas Really Come From
Kids always ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” Over the years I’ve found all kinds of ways of answering this important question. Mostly, I lie. I say things like, Ideas come from the Idea Store. A kid once told me he had been to the Idea Store. Another liar, I suspected. Except that he could describe it in detail. Detail makes a difference. Detail makes the liar a storyteller.
“It was huge,” he said. “There were aisles and aisles and aisles and there was lots of furniture and stuff for your house. And there was this giant blue and yellow sign…” That was the give-away; the kid was talking about the Ikea Store. He was only a letter off.
Mind you, the Ikea story isn’t such a bad place to go for ideas. Especially, if you want to write a story about, let’s say, a lonely dining room suite who pines for company...but I digress.
The Ikea kid gave me the idea to ask students to write about the Idea Store. What does it look like? Who runs it? How do you purchase an idea: by the pound, by the meter? A girl named Alessia Santilli once described to me how to get there. “The Idea Store is left from Memory Lane and far from Fear Street.” Those are pretty good directions.
There is a place where ideas grow. It’s not a store. It’s an island. Sri Lanka. That’s what it is called now, anyway. A long time ago, before ever it was Ceylon, that fabled island in the Indian Ocean was known as Serendip.
Serendip is where ideas really come from.
You’ve heard of Serendipity? Serendipity comes from the word Serendip. Serendipity is the word we use to describe making a fortunate discovery by accident.
You walk into your bedroom, trip over your skateboard, go flying, and there, when you land, lying right in front of your nose, is the watch your grandmother gave you that has been lost for three weeks. It’s lying under an empty Fritos package.
The term was coined by the eighteenth century British writer, Horace Walpole. Horace Walpole discovered Serendip without the aid of skateboard or Fritos, but simply by reading a book, a Persian fairytale, entitled the Three Princes of Serendip. Walpole wrote to a friend about that story. “The princes were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”
Ah! That changes things a bit. “By accidents and sagacity.” These princes weren’t just lucky; they were also smart – attentive to the worth of their inadvertent find. Sagacity comes from the Latin sagacitas, which, among other meanings, refers to the keenness of scent in dogs. That seems to suggest that if you want to find the lost watch that your Grandmother gave you then you had better keep your nose to the ground. Serendipity is about how, sometimes, it takes a skateboard to get you there. Mind you, a dog would probably be happier with the Fritos package.
Walpole wrote the first Gothic Horror novel in 1764. It’s called The Castle of Otronto. Interestingly, if you shift the first two letters around in “Otronto” you get “Toronto.” I used to live in Toronto. I’d like to think Walpole was thinking about Toronto when he wrote the Castle of Otronto, but, unfortunately, the city of Toronto didn’t even exist in 1764. There is a castle in Toronto, however. It’s called Casa Loma. If you shift the letters around in “Casa Loma” you get, “Alas, Coma!”
Again I digress. That’s part of the trick of getting to Serendip. You have to be prepared to wander from the path.
When you shift the letters around in a word to get a new word it is
called an anagram. A lot of serendipitous things can be found in anagrams. There was a time when people thought that the words hidden in names held mystical meaning or magical power. Louis XIII of France even had an official anagrammatist in his court.
Lewis Carroll would have made a fine court anagrammatist to his own monarch, Queen Victoria, if he hadn’t had other fish to fry (and no particular affection for Her Majesty.) One can imagine her coming to him in a regal tizzy over Liberal Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, a man Victoria passionately disliked. What might she have made of Carroll’s anagram of Gladstone’s name, “Wild Agitator! Means well.”
An anagram is an idea in dark glasses and a wig. Here’s a list taken from the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of Language: astronomer = moon starer;
conversation=voices rant on; revolution=to love ruin; sweetheart=there we sat.
In my novel, Stephen Fair, Stephen plays a similar kind of word game. Faced with an English assignment called “Me, Myself and Why,” Stephen writes a poem using only words that can be formed from the letters in his name. He literally makes a poem out of himself. It is amazing how many words there are in a name. At first all you can find are the easy ones: “a,” “and,” “it,” “he” – whatever. It helps to know that there is an animal in everybody’s name, even if it is only the lowly ant. But there is so much more. I remember a seventh grader exclaiming suddenly, “Oh, my God! I’ve got Smashing Pumpkins in my name!”
When Stephen Fair was translated into Dutch, the translator, Molly van Gelder, changed Stephen’s name to Simon Goedhart, to make it sound good and Dutch. And then she had Simon write the same poem that my Stephen wrote but using only the letters in Simon’s name. To which, I can only say: “Yo, Molly; vell done.” (To use only the letters in Molly’s name.)
The Italian translator left Stephen’s name the same, but instead of writing a poem in Italian using only letters from his name, she made Stephen’s assignment an acrostic: the first letters of each line spelt out his name down the page.
Sometimes in junior classrooms I will see evidence of kids making acrostics out of their names. Usually, however, these classroom acrostics are lists of adjectives describing the student. For instance, my first name, TIMOTHY, might be:
But a list isn’t as interesting as a sentence. A sentence is the first step into a story. For instance, TIMOTHY might be: “Today Is More Of Tomorrow’s Hopeful Yesterdays.” Which brings me to the first line of a poem I might write one day:
The ship that sails to Serendip goes by the name of Play.
It is important to learn how to play at writing. To wander off the path. To get lost. Getting lost is something teachers might wish certain students would do, but the teachers are seldom prepared, pedagogically, to assist them in the process.
I was in England recently. I had traveled up to Oxford to visit a friend and when I came back, I got off the train one stop too early. I got off at a station called Strawberry Hill instead of Teddington, where I was staying with my cousin. I decided to walk to Teddington. England isn’t all that big.
I didn’t know that Strawberry Hill was named after a famous estate, a gothic mansion, built in the eighteenth century. The home of Horace Walpole.
I would like to say that my reckless act of serendipity led me to discover the home of the very man who coined the phrase. But I would be lying. I didn’t see Strawberry Hill, just a lot of shops. (And none of them was the Idea Shop.) Because I didn’t see it, I’m not even sure if Walpole’s home is extant. In fact, I didn’t know Strawberry Hill was where Horace Walpole lived until I started writing this paper. Accident can only get you so far.
On the other hand, while I was walking from Strawberry Hill to Teddington, I did sustain my adventure with a nourishing bag of potato chips. They’re called crisps in England. The flavour of these crisps was, “baked ham with pickle relish.” So, the trip wasn’t entirely a waste of time.
Getting lost is an art. Indeed, there is a work in the Tate Modern Art Gallery by Kathy Prendergast, called “Lost.” “Lost” looks exactly like a map of the U.S.A. – just like the map you might find in the front of a classroom. Except, when you look closely, there is no Cincinnati, no Los Angeles, no Baltimore, but rather, there are only places like: Lost Valley, Lost River, Lost Creek, Lost Hills, Lost Swamp. These are real places and, in finding them, Prendergast asks the viewer an intriguing question: how can somewhere be lost and on a map at the same time?
This brings me in a suitably circuitous way to an important issue with regards to creative writing: having a map is only of limited use. Teachers, more often than not, stress the notion of outlines and strategies. Maps. A map, however, is mostly useful as a means of getting somewhere fast. It’s like an expressway. I’m convinced that there is no highway to Serendip. After all, it is an island. But even upon landing on its shores, if it’s ideas you are looking for, you would be best to take the road less travelled and keep your eyes open for those little lost places. That’s where ideas are.
A few years ago, I was invited to speak in just such a place, a village called Elizabethville, Pennsylvania; the locals called it E’ville.
Great, I thought, arriving late on a Saturday night. I’m not simply in the middle of Nowhere, I’m in E’ville, from which I will not be delivered for several days. What’s more, I was to be put up at the E’ville Inn. A perfect venue in the true sense of that word which refers to the site of a crime. It was a couple of centuries old, shuttered, picket-fenced, and sitting on a hilltop surrounded by large, wind-filled trees. I checked in and then wandered down to the village to find somewhere to eat. At a gas station convenience store, I bought myself some comfort food and headed back up the hill to the E’ville Inn. Imagine my surprise to find, parked outside the inn, a black coach drawn by a solitary black horse. Grimly, I thought about my fate: death by cliché. I was halfway through the gate before the door of the coach opened behind me. I turned to see a young man dressed in black with a black hat. I shall always remember his immortal words.
“Can you tell me where the bowling alley is at?”
He was an Amish boy. He and a chum had stolen away from home and taken Dad’s rig to town. Kids at the local school explained all this to me the following day; how the more adventurous Amish lads would hide ordinary clothes in town and sneak out to go bowling. The same kids who explained all this to me also wanted to know where I got my ideas? As if they needed to ask.
“Here,” I said. “Right here in E’ville. Or, failing that, down the road in Pillow. Some of them had never heard of Pillow. Pillow, Pennsylvania. On a walk that morning I had seen a sign on the edge of town that said, Pillow – 6 miles. Pillow is clearly a stop on the way to Serendip.
There is this about ideas: they are everywhere but you have to be looking for them. Ideas are the shape inspirations take when they come out of hiding.
In the Hide & Seek game of writing, Idea is it. Idea is the one who goes out there and finds the story.
Here’s another serendipitious game. Write a story in which the first sentence has 26 words in it, the second sentence 25, etcetera and so on, down to the last sentence which has only one word in it. This is the kind of game that rescues so called “creative writing” from the nuisance of preciousness. Preciousness plagues creative writing. The game of 26-1 doesn’t have a lot to do with creative writing or literature, with plot or theme or character development. No one faced with the game of 26-1 can throw up his hands and claim, “I’m not the creative type.” It’s not about having a good ear for dialogue or an extensive vocabulary or a knack for turning a good sentence, although those abilities will enhance the game. 26-1 is about playing with words. It’s a neat and circumscribed exercise in losing your way.
My picture book On Tumbledown Hill is a game of 26-1 played out over six years. That’s how long it took me to write a story that actually made any sense. To make it more of a challenge I made the story rhyme. But typically, 26-1 isn’t about making sense; it’s about having fun, about fooling around on the page.
Serendipity happens when you take chances. There is no guarantee of your outcome when you take chances, anymore than there is a guarantee that when you play a game you are going to win.
I wrote a story once called The Book of Changes. In the story, as part of a class project – a fall unit on China – one of the students introduces her classmates to the I Ching, which is sometimes known as the Book of Changes. The I Ching is an ancient collection of sixty-four oracles. It is a book of great wisdom, but it can also be a wonderful starting point for a game. Using three coins, one casts one’s I Ching, which means, one determines a hexagram that leads to a particular oracle. The oracles in the I Ching are really fabulous metaphors ripe for all kinds of interpretation. The oracles don’t tell you what to think, they give you wonderful images to help you think, to help you sort out whatever problem you were trying to sort out when you asked the I Ching your question in the first place. You start out by asking a question.
When I thought of the idea of writing a story called “The Book of Changes,”I decided to make it a challenge to myself – a game. I cast the I Ching and wrote the story based on what my chosen oracle told me.
To me, writing is only fun when there is some element of chance to it, when it’s something of a game, when it’s like slow reading. You don’t exactly know what’s coming on the next page but you’re ready for it, your senses are alert, you are in a state of anticipation. You are looking for clues. When you are writing a story, everything is a clue.
There are all kind of word games: palindromes, pangrams, doublets, and univocals, to name a favourite few, all of which can be wonderful jumping-off places for writing assignments. Perhaps the most stimulating of all, however, is the lipogram. A lipogram is a composition, which contains no instance of a particular letter of the alphabet. In my experience, kids are fascinated by this idea, especially when they hear about Ernest Wright’s 1939 novel, Gadsby. It is novel of 50,000 words that makes no use of the most frequent letter of the English alphabet, “e.” Here’s an extract:
“Upon this basis I am going to show you how a bunch of bright young folks did find a champion; a man with boys and girls of his own; a man of so dominating and happy individuality that Youth is drawn to him as is a fly to a sugar bowl. It is a story about a small town…”
Word games are like skateboards. They can trip you up but they can also take you on an exhilarating ride. Having said that, however, it is now time to own up, to admit that Really Big Ideas seldom spring simply from happy accidents. Important ideas owe far more to conscious and sustained meditation on an event or issue or theme of real and deep importance to the writer. It would be fatuous to dismiss or undervalue the importance of this on-going enquiry that is, in truth, a writer’s lifework. But, in my experience, important ideas by their very size often seem impenetrable at first. The Big Idea is more often than not like some huge walled-off area one walks around and around desperate to know what might be inside but without finding any means of access. And then, suddenly, and often in a distracted moment, one stumbles upon a small door, a loose brick, a tree with an obliging network of branches that afford a glimpse into the garden, a way to proceed.
Word games prepare one for the Big Write. They build up a writing muscle, a facility to pull words out of the air when you need them the most. Ideas do not exist in a static state, like fruit on a tree. They come into existence in the very act of reaching out to grasp them. Like the hero in Russell Hoban’s, How Tom Beat Captain Njork and his Hired Sportsmen, it is the kid who fools around who really knows how to win the game.
Let me finish by talking about a favourite movie. In They Might Be Giants, George C. Scott is an affable nut, who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes. His family hires a psychiatrist, played by Joanne Woodward, to try to heal him of this delusion. The psychiatrist’s name happens to be Doctor Watson, which, understandably, pleases Holmes. He is a paranoid: he believes his arch-enemy, Moriarity, is out to get him. He sees clues everywhere. At one point, as I recall, he overturns a garbage can and roots through the garbage for a clue, which, of course, he finds. I can’t remember what it is: a candy wrapper, an old cigarette carton – the thing is, to him, it’s a clue. Dr. Watson goes along with him and begins to think maybe he’s right. Maybe there is a Moriarity out there – well, something anyway.
As a writer, you have to be something of a Sherlock Holmes. You have to be on the look out for clues all the time. You have to have your eyes and ears pealed. It’s not an enemy you’re looking for; it’s a story. And anything – anything you trip over accidentally -- might be useful towards making that story work. Anything might be the missing ingredient. I am not suggesting writers have to be paranoid and think the world is out to get them. On the contrary, writers are out to get the world, clue by clue. To discover, or try to, what’s going on out there, story by story. An idea is the first step and there is, potentially, an idea under every Fritos package. Watch for it.