Monthly Archives: July 2012

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

This is probably the question writers get asked most frequently (I can remember when it was, “Do you use a pencil or a typewriter?”).  Some of us have stock, if snarky, answers, like “I try to lead an interesting life” or  “At Ideas ‘R’ Us.”  When I talk to kids, I sometimes say how ideas tap me on the shoulder, and I whirl around to pump their hands and cry “How do you do?” Some of those ideas become stories, but most are just passing acquaintances.

But today I’m asking literally–where do you get them? In the shower is common, and so is while out running or taking a walk. This summer, here’s where most of my fireworks have been going off:

I don’t know what it is about the backstroke, but lately I’ve been bumping my head on the pool wall a lot, because I’m thinking about my work. As hard as I try to remember to bring my notebook, I sometimes have to jump out and grab whatever paper is at hand. Ideas are unruly things that come and go, and to make sure you catch them, I can testify that a (dry) kick board or a bike seat makes a lovely desk.   

Driving is dangerously generative–thank goodness for stop signs and long red lights. I used to get ideas while I stood in grocery store lines, but now I’m too mesmerized by the cooking shows on the overhead TVs. Airports, of course, restaurants (especially after a glass of wine), while listening to other writers read or talk…

How about you?  Where do you get your ideas?

When we were in Japan (words that continue to amaze me), communication was a challenge. In truth, beyond hello, thank you, bows and smiles (all of which go a long way there), it was more or less impossible.  At least with people, you could so some mime.  But in a convenience store…

Take a chance? Wind up with fried eel bones (which Paul ate and claimed to enjoy) instead of yogurt?

But I never tired of the signs written in earnest, endearing, endlessly creative not to say lyric English!  The country-wide effort to conserve energy has resulted in lowered air conditioning and dimmer lights; in one store I read a sign apologizing for the “quenching of the lights”. In another, a closed cash register said, “This counter is stopping.”  

At the gate to a temple graveyard, we found this notice:

At the Kyoto Museum of Modern Art, the catalog was clearly perplexed by some of the work on exhibit:

“An artistic disorder we have never known have brought us now ‘ruins of old styles’. Contemporary art of Japan, also in spirit of his own history and situation, could not be saved from this universal tendency.”

No matter!  We ate bread called Smile Forever and drank coffee in the Pure Friend cafe.  When I was young, I used to beg to be allowed to drop in the coins and pull the stopper to dispense my parents’  Winstons from the cigarette machine. In Japan, I could still buy these:

On our last day in Tokyo, we spent all afternoon in one of the students’  favorite spots, Yoyogi Park.  Families, lovers, musicians, artists, poets, frisbee players and tiny, tiny dogs!  And across the way, a street fair straight out of the ’60’s, with a message anyone can appreciate, if not quite translate.

Banana Popsicles

Yeah–that’s what got me through.  That, and the amazing people who actually came to an OUTDOOR book festival located on a CEMENT SIDEWALK beside a BRICK BUILDING on a day when the temperature was in the high 90s and the humidity was approximately 15000 %. Here I am, and if you think I look bad now, you should’ve been there later, when my nametag somehow got stuck in my armpit.

As you can see, even my Faithful Fox had had it. Still, thanks very much to the intrepid Harriet, indie book store goddess, and all her helpers in their pretty purple sundresses.

Cheers, too, to my friend Laura Walter, who took the photo and looked especially fetching in her we-are-about-to-encounter-kryptonite sunglasses and cute baseball cap. Jeers, however, to the man who stood beside my table busying himself with his deluxe phone.  I had a sneaky hope he was about to show me  a nice review of one of my books, and smiled up at him encouragingly.  Instead, he intoned “97 degrees” and showed me the numbers to prove it. 

More soon…

We and the ten students we chaperoned left Japan late Sunday morning and arrived in Cleveland Sunday afternoon.  The kids into time travel/teleporting got off on this, and I thought of fairy tales where a character returns from legions of extraordinary adventures only to find a single second of real life has elapsed.  The rational side of me feebly tried to erect a few thoughts on the arbitrariness of borders and time, but it was no use.  We’d been away, very far away, and that was all.

A tea house in Kyoto--peace out!

Japan is beautiful, spooky, gracious.  Japan is not America.  Our  first afternoon there we wandered outside the village where we did home stay and up into the mountains, through a misty bamboo grove, past a graveyard where the faces of the Buddhas were worn to masks, and stopped to smell the gardenias blooming on a bush the size of a Volgswagen.  The flowers and gardens–moss, stone, water–I understood, but again and again Paul and I caught ourselves speculating on what, exactly, we were looking at, everything from the symbolism of the shrines to the bottles in the vending machines (the vending machines!  they’re everywhere, and we developed favorites–the dark, sweet, iced coffee called Boss as well as CC Lemon, which claimed to pack the vitamin C of 70 lemons into every bottle).   As valiantly as Paul had tried to learn the language, that, too, was nearly impenetrable.  I have long quoted Rilke’s “Try to lead the uninterpreted life,” and for two and a half weeks we had little choice.

The Golden Pavilion

We’ve never met kinder, more considerate people.  Warning: never ask for directions unless you can handle a person dropping everything and escorting you two or three blocks.  Even in wild, stylish Tokyo, there’s a civil sort of hush over things.  People dress so beautifully, always in muted colors–grays, beiges, black.  Women laugh behind their hands.  The workers all wear uniforms, and the taxi drivers cover the seats of their cabs with doilies.  Though finding a trash can is nearly impossible, you never see a speck of garbage on the sidewalks, and I wondered if everyone we passed had a wadded up candy wrapper or crushed pop can stowed in their stylish bags.  Paul claimed even the crows–lord, the size of those crows!–were less raucous than their American counterparts.  As soon as I got home, I re-read “Crow Boy”, one of my all-time favorite picture books and now all the more moving.

Field trip in Hiroshima

 I scratched the surface of Japanese mythology, but want to know more.  Each Shinto shrine honored some deity–we saw statues of foxes, mice, Buddhas wearing baby bibs.  Japan is a country of festivals, because the Shinto gods, rather than be adored, prefer being entertained.  Everyone told us to come back in the fall, when the mountains rage with color.  

The students were terrific travelers and outdid me in their adventurousness.  The girls bought Lolita costumes.  On  the last night they all went to a public bath we found down a tiny Tokyo alley.  My only complaint  is that I’d forgotten how much teenagers eat.  Having ten kids suddenly turn to you and say “What’s for dinner?” is sweat-inducing.  By the end everyone’s money was running out–did I mention that Japan is crazy expensive?–and one night Zach, in an effort to economize, ordered the cheapest thing on the menu at a noodle shop.  It turned out to be cold soba with a raw egg on top.  He ate it.

We’re back.  But one suitcase is still only partly unpacked.  I want to keep one foot (in a house, not street, shoe) back there still.