How do you think of these things?

My mother wanted to be a writer, and therefore she wanted me to be a writer.  You might say that I became a writer despite this, and I was never the sort of writer my mother wanted to be. This baffled her.  The ideas I liked best to play with bewildered her.  “Are you never going to write something that doesn’t have a spaceship in it?” she asked plaintively–despite the fact that nothing I had published to that point had a spaceship in it.  I think Mom thought I was thinking up this stuff just to be difficult, but honestly, the ideas, they just arrived.

My first published story, “The Boarder,” grew out of a conversation about how hard it is to write a truly alien character.  Because, like it or not, we’re not aliens, we can only extrapolate so far from our own worldview, and then the alien becomes a screen on which we project our ideas.  I started out with an alien that looked like an egg, required a life-support system in order to live on our planet, emitted a scent like almost-burnt toast, and could not communicate in any way a human being understood.  Then I foisted it on an elderly woman who had been talking to her parakeet and her photographs and herself for years, and made it her roommate.  And I waited to see what happened, and together the old woman and the alien showed me.  My mother, reading the story, asked, “why would this even occur to you?”

My second published story, “Lioncel,” was written at Clarion.  The initial impetus: take the dictionary, open it to a random page, use the first word as a story prompt.  “Lioncel” was my word; it’s an heraldic term for one or more small lions appearing on a coat of arms.  The lioncels became telepathic mini-lions created for humans to hunt.  But the story was really about the loneliness of human beings, and the yearning some humans have to break through that isolation at any cost.  Again, my mother: “Why would you write something like this?”  And what could I say to that?  That I’d been unnerved and frightened, at the age of ten, when I realized that there was no way to be utterly sure that my experience of the world was the same as anyone else’s, and this was my way of exploring it?  She couldn’t get past the telepathic lions, I’m afraid.

My mother didn’t get a chance to read “Somewhere in Dreamland Tonight,” but the idea grew out of a story she told me about her father, an osteopath in Nebraska in the 1920s, who had a couple come to him wondering why they couldn’t conceive.  From what Mom said her father had said, the way the couple were going about it they would never have had a child; it took him explaining the physiology of sex to them, which embarrassed him very much.  This got me, a child of the more-information-than-you-can-possibly-use late ’60s, thinking about the cost of ignorance.  And when I was asked to write a story about Coney Island, suddenly I had a naive young woman under the boardwalk, having what she thinks is sex (but isn’t).  So I can say that that idea came, in a roundabout way, from my mother and her father.

Ideas come from everywhere; bits of conversation, observed behavior, a reaction to a book that really pissed you off, a story about your grandma.  It’s not the ideas that are special so much as what they evoke in you, the writer.  With or without spaceships.


Madeleine E. Robins posts here regularly on the 7th and 21st of the month, and elsewhere on her blog, Running Air.  She is in the process of finishing yet another book, but she thinks her mother would like this one.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


How do you think of these things? — 3 Comments

  1. It’s interesting to me how some people can get past the lions at an early age. In fact, they are eager for just the lions, and leave out the emotional isolation, please. Others have to be taught to see the lions as symbols, but as long as they mean something, well, it’s okay, I guess . . . but is that really something you want to do, and why not go out and do something useful?

    I guess this comment is really more about how the reader deals with the ideas at the other end, rather than how we as writers get the ideas and turn them into stories, but your post made me think of reactions in my past similar to your mom’s.

  2. My mother also seems to be a frustrated writer. We will be riding in the car and suddenly she’s off, riffing a plot: “Look at that couple over there, outside the Starbucks. Have you ever seen a dog like that? Maybe it’s a rare animal from Tibet, and they are going to make a fortune selling puppies, but then they have a divorce and the husband steals the dog…”
    We are working on her oral memoir, and she went through that ms like Sherman through Georgia, adding material, rearranging, rewriting.

  3. My mother wanted to write very 20th century short stories in the John O’Hara mold. She was a smart, observant writer with a real feel for language. What she didn’t have was the willingness to actually sit down and write. I have said for years that what she really wanted was to be an author; in that way, my writing was very convenient. I just wasn’t writing what she wanted to write, which was less convenient.

    I like your mother and the dog. Real life is crawling with story, after all.