I used to flippantly reply, “Where do you get yours?”
But lately I’ve reconsidered my answer. I no longer believe people are asking the obvious. No, I think they are inquiring about something much bigger. I think they are asking about the mysterious process of creation; that elusive mix of inspiration, imagination, frustration, perspiration, consternation, and revision… revision… revision.
They want me to explain that thing that happens when I’m working on a book. So today, I’ll attempt to explain.
Everything starts with inspiration and imagination. To my mind they can’t be separated. The two go hand-in-hand. That’s because storytellers pay attention to the world. Being a writer means looking and seeing first and foremost. Or to put it differently, I’m a collector. A story seed collector. I walk through my life noticing and gathering and squirreling away ideas and thoughts. That’s the inspiration. Everything is inspiration.
But sometimes, to make things sound better, I change them. That’s the imagination. Let me give you an example.
When I was growing up my mother had a half-dozen often told standards—wonderful stories about her childhood growing up in the 1930s and 40s. Even though she told these stories in the same way every time, using the same descriptions, the same dialogue, even the same inflections and pauses, I never tired of hearing them. “Tell me the one about the runaway kite,” I’d beg. Or, “Tell me about the sand dune fort.” Or, most often, “Tell me the one about the boxes to Holland.”
My mother—who really should have been a professional storyteller, or maybe an actress—always agreed. This gist of her tale went like this: In May 1945 my mother sent a small box to Europe. Inside was a tube of toothpaste, a pair of socks, a bar of soap and a note. The note, written in my mother’s hard to read scrawl, sent good wishes and included her address.
Her box was just one of thousands that poured into Europe from America that spring. Under the direction of charities like the Catholic Aid Society, Americans all across the country were packing badly needed items into boxes and mailing them to desperately needy Europeans.
My mother’s box found its way to a Dutch family whose oldest daughter was named Katje. In was Katje’s father who wrote back, asking if my mother could spare a box of powdered milk for the baby, or an old coat, or perhaps a few cans of meat.
The pressing needs of Katje’s family tore at my mother’s heart. What began as one woman and one small box grew into a church wide effort to support Katje and her family through the winter of 1945-46.
I can just imagine it.
I love imagining it.
Boxes filled with sugar, milk, warm clothing traveling in a steady stream between Michigan City, Indiana and Olst, Holland.
Katje’s family survived, and when they got back on their feet, they sent a box to their American friends—a box of tulip bulbs that my mother and other women from her church planted all over town.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I feel compelled to tell the absolute truth here. In the real-life versions, Mrs. Ullrich—the most greedy member of the church—stole fully half the bulbs for her own backyard, and in a commando style type raid, my mother and other members of the Women’s Guild took them back. But that’s another story.
So, there’s the truth—the inspiration.
Now comes the imagination—those parts I made up to make the story sound better.
First, I reluctantly eliminated the evil Mrs. Ulrich. After all, I wanted my story to be a book about caring and sharing, not hoarding and stealing.
Next, I made my mother younger— something she was thrilled about. I knew my readers would be more interested in a ten-year old girl than a twenty-year old woman.
And I made the story even bigger. Instead of an Indiana church supporting one Dutch family, I expanded those events into an entire Indiana town supporting an entire Dutch village.
Now, I have a story born of inspiration and imagination.