Friday, April 30, 2010


Part Two of a Two-Part Posting

“Where do I get my ideas and inspiration for writing?” I repeated his question. “Let’s take a walk to the mall.”

It was only a couple of blocks away and frankly, the slow walk and fresh air gave my caffeine-buzzed mind a welcome breather. We shared some small talk on the way, being nothing noteworthy but needed nonetheless.

We found a comfortable bench near the middle of the mall. I told him to take a look around and tell me what he saw.

“A bunch of stores, a bunch of shoppers, plants, decorations, I don’t know,” he offered.

I pointed to a lady with a stroller and two boys. “What do you see there?” I asked him.

“Umm, a mother and her baby, and her two sons,” he said. “Taking a break from shopping? I mean, what am I looking for?”

“Take a closer look,” I said. “Notice her posture, her eyes, the boys. They have a story, even if you don’t know all the details.”

He took a couple of minutes, watching them as if seriously trying to see a story. Finally he said, “She looks maybe tired? The boys seem to be having fun. The baby is sleeping. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to see.”

“A little better,” I said. “Here’s what I see. She’s probably a single mother, low income, only one of the boys is her son and she’s here to celebrate his birthday, probably at McDonalds, where she’s only going to buy food for the boys, nothing for her. It’s been a hard life for her, I’d guess for a year or more.”

“Are you just making that up?” Warren asked me. “I mean, how could you possibly know any of that.”

“A good writer has to notice more than the obvious. She’s not wearing a wedding ring, so she’s probably single. Her clothes are well worn and a little dirty. Her hair’s a bit stringy and unkempt, she’s not wearing any makeup and she’s missing half a shoe lace. Hence, she’s likely low income. One of the boys is wearing older clothes and a bit dirty as well, his hair looks uncut and shaggy but not deliberately so. The other boy has new, clean clothes and a good haircut and is not likely her son but her son’s best friend.”

I continued. “If you look at the bottom of the stroller, there’s a small package in what looks like birthday wrapping paper. Probably a gift for her son. She’s been eating a peanut butter sandwich and drinking water, but she hasn’t given anything to the boys, even though they keep asking her how soon they can eat.”

“But why did you say she’s had a hard life?” he asked.

“It’s in her eyes,” I said. “She’s not just tired but there’s little hope or joy in her eyes. Even though it’s her son’s birthday, she’s got little left to offer.”

“That’s cool,” Warren said. “Even if it’s not all true, it’s cool how you noticed all that stuff. I’m gonna start doing that.”

“You boys ready for McDonalds?” the young mother asked.

“Yeah,” they excitedly replied. “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

I told Warren to wait as I quickly got up and walked into the McDonalds just ahead of the young family. I ordered a dollar cup of coffee and handed the clerk $30. I told her it was for my coffee and whatever the family behind me was going to order, then to give the change to the mom.

I quickly walked back out to where Warren was waiting.

“The clerk is pointing at us,” he said.

I turned and looked. The mom tilted her head, as if she were trying to figure out who I was and what had just happened. I just smiled and nodded at her. As she turned back to the clerk to get the change, I told Warren we should move to a different part of the mall. He had no idea what I had done and I didn’t want to explain to the young family why I did it. Sometimes a mystery gift is better left a mystery.

By the time Warren and I were done with our three-hour shadow-the-writer tour, I had given him probably a dozen pages or so worth of notes.

He learned that, at least for me, story ideas and inspiration come from life itself, by observing the obvious and the not-so-obvious, then making connections with the rest of the world, our senses and our emotions.

It’s the difference between, “I see the whale,” and “There she blows! -- there she blows! A hump like a snow-hill! It is Moby Dick!"

A good story is, after all, merely words that breathe.

1 comment:

  1. Love that last line. Think I'll steal it :)