"Keeping a Creative Mind" is a bi-weekly series by New York Times Notable Author Molly Moynahan. This week, she encourages us to pay attention to the pauses between our busy spurts and look for inspiration in the every day.
photo via Longzero on flickr
“I don’t get it, Mom. You don’t have a real job but you’re always busy.” My sixteen-year old son made this remark one morning when I was busy reading Vogue, staring into space and patting the cat.
“I’m a writer,” I huffed. “Anyway, I do have a job.” I was teaching a part-time ACT/SAT prep course two hours a morning. And writing a memoir, revising a play, constructing a blog and keeping up with the endless list of reality TV shows Bravo had forced me to watch.
“Yeah, but that’s not a real job. I work all day. You-" he looked at me closely. “What do you do all day?”
This busy thing struck a nerve. My son had noticed something I like to deny. Sometimes it’s musing, mulching, mulling and dredging but frequently it’s thumb twiddling disguised as online solitaire, shopping, Facebook, bad television watching, magazine reading, and cat cuddling. Still, I am always listening. Underneath the words, between the lines lurks a story.
“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?"
- Henry David Thoreau
You must give it to old Hank. He stayed busy figuring out things like people were too busy. He seldom worked a coherent job after ditching the pencil factory but his quotes about work are absolutely everywhere. My son would have said Thoreau was another example of a fake worker. Did he build bicycles? No. Did he get all greasy and have to deal with idiots who don’t understand how to put air in their tires? Never. Thoreau was just like the rest of us writers, a fake busy person.
"Delay is natural to a writer. I walk around, straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor - as though not until everything in the world is lined up and perfectly true could anybody reasonable expect me to set a word down on paper.”
- E. B. White
Here’s the thing, every time I write, someone asks where my ideas come from. It’s a legitimate question, I guess. But it’s very hard to answer honestly. Yes, many things originate from actual experience but many other things are bits of overheard conversations, fantasies spun from a glimpsed moment, dreams and odd facts that seem like the beginning of a story.
For example, witnessing a dog training class crossing Central Park on my way to see my shrink on the Upper East Side inspired my second novel. I was despondent about a failing relationship and a dearth of ideas for my next book. Suddenly I found myself watching a pretty girl who looked bored and sad tugging on the leash of a dog that also seemed depressed. It occurred to me how awful it would be if your boyfriend left you in the middle of the night but even worse if he left both you and his ill behaved dog. By the time I reached my shrink's the entire novel was taking shape in my brain. That random observation caused a ripple effect that led to the publishing of Living in Arcadia.
Another way I like to stay busy is by going to movies. I love going to the movies alone, preferably at an odd hour so I can indulge my fetish for sitting in the middle of an empty row. Recently I saw The September Issue, which is a documentary about Vogue Magazine and the people who work there. Anna Wintour was, as expected, gaunt, dry and geometric with that square haircut and her stick thin legs.
But the surprise was Grace Coddington, Vogue's art director. Her back-story about getting hurt in a car accident that ended her modeling career was news to me. Instead of grieving the loss of physical perfection she became an art director and created an amazing portfolio of work.
While her passion for fantasy and her lack of pretension were refreshing, there was something she said that reminded me how artists should always stay aware of the possibility of story. She credited Norman Parkinson with telling her, "Never shut your eyes or go to sleep in a car, train, anywhere. You might miss something inspiring.”
I love that advice. It’s those moments in-between, waiting on line, taking a train, holding your husband’s clothes while he tries on pants, that something can occur that gives you a new idea that leads to a great plot. If you block out the world around you, that world cannot nurture your imagination.
I was shopping with a friend recently when the lady who hands out the numbers so you can take clothes in the dressing room started to tell me about her bad day. I couldn’t help thinking how this dialogue would work for a character that had to tolerate rude people on a daily basis.
My son has always marveled at the way total strangers trust me with their secrets. “Why do they tell you that stuff, Mom?” he asked me once when a cab driver broke down, turned off the meter and described how his wife back in Russia had broken his heart.
“I have no idea,” I said. “But if I ever write a novel about a love sick Russian cabbie, I know what he’s going to say.”
Molly Moynahan is the author of three novels. The most recent, Stone Garden, was a 2003 NYT Notable Book. She is currently working on a memoir. Molly lives and teaches creative writing in Chicago. Her website is www.teachersway.indiemade.com. Her blog is mollymoynahan.blogspot.com.