Pulling a Thread

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.


8 thoughts on “Pulling a Thread

  1. As I do with my fiction, which is my primary scope of writing, I become my characters. You will always know how to represent a character on paper, when that character rest inside you. I like your blog, and commend you for being a teacher, and stressing the importance of words and their power. An idea, is but an idea, until we attach a word to it, that gives it life.

    • Thanks for your kind words, WB. I always admire how the fiction I love to read creates a real world inhabited with real people. When I can do that in narrative poems, it always feels like a special thing. Thanks for reading and your lovely comment. I love being a teacher – and I love your last sentence, which I would love to share with my teenage writers.

  2. Run with it!

    Are you familiar with the band Neutral Milk Hotel and the album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea? The composer, Jeff Mangum, got the concept for the album and its songs after a “series of desperate dreams about Anne Frank”, who shows up as a presence moving through the lyrics. It’s a collection of some of the most hauntingly beautiful and passionate songs in 90s indie rock. What you say here reminds me of that, and by extension this: you can never tell where inspiration will come from, but don’t ever feel weird about wanting to take on another voice, and don’t let any internal or external editor tell you it’s a bad/stupid/unsustainable idea. The worst that can happen is that you get practice in the act of creation.

    But maybe you should give her a proper pioneery name? Like “Martha” or “Charity” or something.

    • Oh, I will run with it. It’s just nice to have someone else confirm that the obsession is okay. And I do know Neutral Milk Hotel, but not that story – thanks for that. Right now, they are all written in first person, but the name thing is interesting if I decide to give her husband or another character a voice as well.

  3. Pingback: An Embarrassment of Riches | Put Words Together. Make Meaning.

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