My students (and other people) ask often where writers get their ideas. I can’t speak for all writers, but sometimes there is a glimmer of a story in the back of my head, an image – whether real or imagined – that sticks and simmers and wants to be on the page. Since I am not in my comfort zone as a writer of fiction (although I have done it), these narratives often end up on the page as a series of poems with a recurring theme or character to “tell” the stories.
Lately, you may recall me mentioning the pioneer woman. She is one of those characters that lingered on the edge of my peripheral thoughts for weeks before I tried to commit her to paper. Once I did, she immediately began to develop a backstory. She had me doing research on dressing a rabbit, on making soap, on herbal remedies, on how long it took the average family to travel the Oregon Trail. She had me imagining what it might be like to both embrace and curse the demands of that world, the fear and power of firing the rifle, the struggles of illness and family life.
Why? I have NO clue. Seriously. I have never been particularly fascinated with that aspect of American history, although I did watch Little House on the Prairie when I was younger. This is one of those strange instances where I am feeling that the ideas for the poems came from some mysterious catalyst – perhaps an image in a film, a book, something I overheard – and the poems have been coming pretty quickly ever since. I currently have drafted over ten (yes, ten) different poems and have ideas for four or five more. This woman’s story has a beginning and a middle, and now I will do my best to give it an end.
I am lucky to have a first reader who has an open mind for the pioneer woman’s story and has encouraged me to write more about her. It makes me feel that I am not weird for suddenly wanting to use this woman’s voice. Tonight, alone, with both the husband and the son out with friends, I have drafted two more poems.
Tonight, she started her journey – “the men sing as they slap the flanks of oxen and I tremble/my way into the wagon, my breath like a shroud above my baby’s head” and later she spied her dead husband in the winter air – “in the chill, the shifters come, shaped like nobody/you knew and everyone.”
They are far from finished, but they are still telling me new things about the PW. (Her nickname…it is tiring to type “the pioneer woman” all the time…). I am pulling a thread, and it is unraveling a story.