Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Where Do You Get Your Ideas (or...The Man With No Nose)

I have a slew of fan mail that I've really got to answer. I always have such good intentions of getting back to these (mostly) kids the same week as the packages of mail come in, but life just interferes. But I do, eventually, buckle down and answer the letters. All of them. Well, no, that's not really true, now that I think about it. I've chucked a few in the trash. They went something like..."We're writing authors for a class assignment and I chose you. I read the first page of your book and I already know it's the best book in the world. I'll try to read more later. Could you send me something?" The ones I love to answer go... "I read your book and it changed my life..." I used to write a personal letter to each kid, but I just can't manage that with the volume of mail that I now receive. But I think it's important to answer kids' letters (and to not get too big for your ding-dang britches), so I do a sort of Top Ten Questions Answered form letter and add a personal note. And what is the Number One Question I get asked? "Where do you get your ideas?" It's the #1 question when I do school visits, and it's the #1 question in my fan mail. Is that because my ideas are a little wacky? Yeah, probably. But other authors I know say it's the #1 question they get asked, too. In my case, the answer to this #1 question is varied (depending on what wacky idea I'm currently stewing in), but the common basis is people. I get my ideas from watching people. Generic people are disposable. I spend no time looking at "normal" people because their story is most likely boring. No, I study the crazy-looking people. The lady who, at eighty, is still dressing like Barbie. The man with the sweat-stained, salt-encrusted cowboy hat and hairy ears. The snotty girl with her nose turned up so far that you can see clear up to her teeny-tiny brain. Or the man with no nose! What a shock he was! A few years ago I was driving my kids to daycare (on my way to my job teaching school), when I happened to glance over and see that the passenger in the car alongside mine had no nose. I stared straight ahead for a second, as we waited for the light to turn green. Had I seen that right? I had to know! So as I kept facing forward I cranked my eyes waaaay over, and sure enough--the man had no nose! Now, what you want to do in a situation like this is roll down the window and say, "Hey, Mister! What happened to your nose?" but of course you just can't do that. (Besides, he might retort, What happened to yours? as one might suspect that mine got caught in a pencil sharpener...) So when the light turned green and we went our separate ways, I couldn't stop wondering about him. Why didn't he have a nose? Was it an industrial accident that left him schnoz-less? Did he have nasal cancer? Was he born with no nose? Did he still have his olfactory senses? What would it be like to go through life noseless, having pencil-nosed women at intersections cranking their busybody eyes over to get a peek at your schnoz-free face? This, you see, is how my brain works. This is how I get my ideas. This is why they're often wacky. I just need to know the back story to the "characters" that I meet at the intersections of life. And if I can't know the real story, I'm forced to make up my own. Which I then build a theme up around , a plot up around , and a whole world up around. Usually when I answer kids I simply tell them that I get my ideas from watching people, or from reading the newspaper, or from things my kids have told me about being in school, or from having been a teacher for 15 years, or from my own experiences being an outsider kid. One time, though, I was doing a school visit and I tried explaining about the man with no nose. When I was done, a boy raised his hand and said, "But there are no people without noses in my neighborhood." "Oh, yes there are," I told him. "Keep your eyes'll see!" And that, really, is the nutshell of how a person gets ideas.

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