Where do ideas come from?
*Beating your imagination like slave labor?
*Trying out the creativity exercises you find in blogs like this or in writing magazines or self-help books for writers?
*Keeping your muse well-fed, happy, and entertained?
*Listening to the small, quiet inner voice of your story sense when it starts to lay curiosities at your feet?
All of the above?
Let’s examine that last question about listening to your curiosity.
Do you ever let it come, one small piece at a time, until you understand how these bits connect and whether you can transform them into a story?
I don’t discuss theme often because some inexperienced writers tend to confuse theme with message. Theme–in the context of what I want to discuss today–is not an opinion you’re going to cram down the reader’s throat. Instead, it’s an idea or perception that fascinates a writer and provides a wellspring of material.
When I’m developing a new theme–or area of fascination–I become very aware of details and ideas that pertain to it. I may have brushed past them before without ever noticing them. Now, I’m a magnet, and they vector toward me and cling.
For example: I happen to be an estate sale junkie (pun intended). Earlier this summer I drove rather a long way to a small community and a modest brick house on an acreage. Liquidators were closing the estate of a remarkable woman who was born in Poland and at the age of 14 was taken by the Nazis for labor. She worked as a maid, cleaning the home of a Nazi couple, and suffered daily abuse from the woman she worked for. At the end of WWII, there was liberation. She met an American soldier, married him, and came to America. Her small home was crammed with lovely items: porcelain figurines, trinkets, glassware, china, and needlework–all of fine quality and workmanship. You could see how this woman, who lost her family and suffered through terrible ordeals, had clung to a love of beauty and grace.
Her story has haunted me all summer. A few nights ago, I happened upon Montgomery Clift’s first movie, THE SEARCH. I’m not a fan of Clift’s, although he was an excellent actor and performed in stellar, thought-provoking movies. I almost switched this film off, but instead gave it a chance.
It’s compelling and emotionally haunting. It deals with the plight of orphaned and lost children immediately after WWII, children torn from their homes by the Nazis, children put in labor camps or concentration camps, children starved, abused, and shocked, children tattooed with numbers on their arms. They’re terrified of anyone in a uniform and don’t understand that the Americans are trying to help them. They’re French, Czech, Dutch, Polish, Lithuanian, etc. and don’t understand English. The film focuses on the plight of one child, a little Czech boy who’s been in Auschwitz. He can’t remember his name or his mother or where he comes from. An American GI befriends him, teaches him English, gives him kindness, clothing, and food, and helps him find his family again.
As I watched THE SEARCH, I saw a scene depicting a girl of perhaps 12 or 13, clutching a small, ragged cloth bag containing the head of a doll, a watch, and another small item–all she had left of her former home. I thought of what I’d heard at the estate sale, about how that woman took only her doll and the family watch with her.
I have my family’s ancestral watch–the timepiece of a great-great grandfather passed to my great-grandfather to my grandfather to me.
Spider webs of ideas and concepts. Slender threads of curiosity weaving together with emotional response.
After I watched THE SEARCH, I thought back to one of my favorite films. It’s called LITTLE BOY LOST, and it also deals with orphans after WWII. It’s more schmaltzy than THE SEARCH, but in both films the young boy steals the show and makes it work.
LITTLE BOY LOST deals with an American journalist assigned to Paris. He marries a Frenchwoman and they have a baby son. While he’s out of the country on business, the Germans occupy Paris and he’s unable to return. His wife joins a Resistance group and is killed. The little boy vanishes. When the war ends, the man combs every French orphanage in search of his boy. The matron of one orphanage tells him his search is hopeless. She sets him up with Jean, a spindly little boy with big soulful eyes–nothing at all like the robust son the American envisions his boy to be. She tries to persuade this grieving, embittered man to adopt Jean, to help another child if he cannot help his own.
Although the casting is odd–Bing Crosby plays the role of the American father–it’s neither a comedy nor a musical. Instead, it’s about false expectations, loss, heartbreak, and reunion.
There’s one more film that I’ve seen many times and happened to watch again a few weeks ago: RANDOM HARVEST with Ronald Colman and Greer Garson. It’s set after WWI and it’s a love story, not a tearjerker about homeless children. Yet Colman’s amnesia gives him a slight waif-like quality. He’s just as lost, just as cut off from his past, home and family.
There are too many portents and pointers telling me to pay attention to all this. What is my story sense trying to convey? What, emotionally, is drawing me to these themes? What are the feelings involved in these dramas? What connections am I making? Where am I going with them?
I don’t know yet, but I’ve learned to follow these trails until enough ideas stick to me and I figure out what I want to do with them.
Are you listening to your curiosity?