Katherine Paterson on Ideas

“The writer of an article about Dr. Seuss reported that at the end of an interview Theodore Geisel¬†congratulated him for not asking the one question that people invariably ask. When the writer asked him what that one question might be, Dr. Seuss replied, “Where do you get your ideas?” “Well, all right,” said the reporter. “Where do you get your ideas?” “I’m glad you asked that,” Dr. Seuss said, and pulled out a printed card. On the card was spelled out the secret that the world pants for. It seems that on the stroke of midnight at the full moon of the summer solstice, Dr. Seuss makes an annual pilgrimage into the desert, where an ancient Native American hermit and wise man has his abode. That old Indian, Dr. Seuss declared, is the source of all of his ideas. But where the old Indian gets his ideas, he has no notion.

“Where do you get your ideas? I suppose the people who ask this question are expecting a rational, one-sentence reply. What they get from me is a rather stupid stare.”

~ Katherine Paterson, “Ideas,” October 1983

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Katherine Paterson. The Invisible Child. New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 2001.

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Image via Pixabay.

My cousin Ruth’s statuesque leg

Where do you get your ideas?

According to what I’ve read, writers often hear that question. Answers are as varied as writers themselves. Don and Audrey Wood said they get their ideas from an idea box. Dr. Seuss said he got his in Switzerland. Other writers aren’t so forthcoming as Dr. Seuss and the Woods. Possibly they don’t know.

I never want to be in that position.

When my book graces the shelves–face out–at Barnes & Nobles nationwide, and I sit on stage wearing a suit purchased at Neiman’s and my Stuart Weitzman pumps, and Oprah says, “Where do you get your ideas?” I want the answer on the tip of my tongue.

To prepare, I did some research. I examined the first page of the manuscript I’m working on and identified the following sources:

1. My Aunt A, who, when she was nine, told Aunt B, who was six, to touch the electric fence to see whether it was on. (It was.)

2. Five-year-old neighbor C, who collected wiggle-tails in a jar and took them home to watch them turn into mosquitoes.

3. Mrs. D and Miss E, who, when added together, equal Miss Pinksie Craigo.

4. My mother, whose two little sisters, one a redhead, got involved with an electric fence, and who knew someone named Miss Pinksie.

5. My first dog, Stinky, who dug his way out of the yard to chase cars so many times that my father put up an electric fence to keep him confined. (After one contact, Stinky gave up digging, and my father shut off the electricity.)

6. Stories about a family named MacCaskill, who were universally loved for their humor, spontaneity, and love of life.

7. My father, who chose to settle his family in his hometown, which afforded pecan trees, mosquitoes,  a beautiful river, and a passel of eccentric residents (most of them related to him), and who taught me to respect property lines.

For one page, only 216 words, not even an entire scene, that’s a lot of sources. In fact, one might think I just pulled some stories out of my head, threw in a few conjunctions, and started typing page two.

One wouldn’t be far from wrong.

When I go looking for ideas, I go no further than my own back yard, with side trips to San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston. Hometown and family are all I need.

My grandfather believed stop signs caused wrecks. My Great-aunt Eula said Man would never set foot on the moon because it wasn’t in the Bible. Our family doctor agreed. He also worried that people using the new dial telephone system would get the O and the zero mixed up.

When I started writing fiction, I latched on to those folks right quick. I put them on the first page. Because I’d set down their remarks almost verbatim–I was born with a tape recorder in my head–I wondered briefly about the ethics of calling it fiction. But only briefly. The conjunctions, I rationalized, were mine.

On the second page, I introduced a younger character, based on my cousin Ruth.

Ruth is eight years older than I. She spent her twelfth and thirteenth summers with my family in that little country town. Ruth was tall, which I wanted to be, and a teenager, which I wanted to be, and she wore lots of petticoats and got to ride the horse wherever she wanted without supervision and listened to “Purple People Eater” on a transistor radio, which I wanted to do, and she was my hero. She also tried to boss me around.

I was little and cute and had a pony tail and I wanted to go everywhere she did, and usually my mother made her let me tag along. I was the bane of her existence.

We got along quite well.

One summer we shared a bedroom. (I’ll admit at the outset that the two summers are jumbled in my memory.) Two green army cots were set up as bunk beds against the wall. I wanted to sleep in the top bunk. So did Ruth. I set up a howl, so I won. My mother kept saying, “You’re going to be hot up there,” but I didn’t care.

Ruth tried to talk me out of it. Her argument went something like this: “Look. If you sleep in the bottom bunk, you can kick the underside of my mattress in the middle of the night.” I was young, but I wasn’t dumb. She might kick me, but there was no way my short leg would even touch the mattress, much less give it a shove. I slept in the top bunk and, as my mother had predicted, nearly burned up. As I’d predicted, Ruth kicked me.

Ruth, an artist, decorated the wall beside her bed with crayon drawings of horses. I’m sure she drew me some, too, but they didn’t look nearly so attractive as the ones lower down that got more light.

Ruth’s main interest then was the sorrel mare, Lady, who lived up the street at my great-aunt’s. Whenever she could catch Lady and get a saddle on her, they went riding together. Lady didn’t like Ruth nearly as much as Ruth liked Lady, so catching and saddling gave both of them plenty of exercise.

When she wasn’t out on Lady, she was lying on the bed reading Gone With the Wind. Day after day after day. It wasn’t easy to get her away from that book when I wanted to play. I deduced that thirteen-year-old girls were supposed to read Gone With the Wind, so when I was thirteen, I did.

Also in town that summer–whichever it was–was a boy Ruth’s age. The boy, Jack, lived in California and was officially visiting my aunt and uncle, who lived a mile north of town. He spent most of his time, however, staying in town with my grandfather, who served canned Pillsbury biscuits and sorghum molasses three times a day and was just generally more fun to be with than people who insisted you eat vegetables and asked where you were going and when you would be back.

There being only two short blocks between our house and my grandfather’s, Ruth and Jack were inevitably thrown together. They rode horseback and worked on getting an ancient automobile of my grandfather’s to run. Jack rode Jolie Blonde, the Palomino, down to our house after everyone had gone to bed and sat in the saddle talking to Ruth through the screen of her open bedroom window. At least he did it once. I was probably asleep, but I’m sure I saw him anyway. (That was probably the second year, when she had a bedroom to herself. Or it may be that my mother got tired of our wrangling and separated us.)

The highlight of the summer was the week we spent camping at Uncle Cal’s pecan bottom. To get there we made a loop about a mile in length and ended up on the opposite side of the river, just above town. We took army cots and mosquito netting and bathing suits and cardboard boxes of food, and my fox terrier, Pat Boone, and my grandfather, and my cute, little red-headed Aunt Betty from Houston. (My father’s youngest brother, and various other adults, used to ask, “How is that cute little red-headed aunt of yours?” That’s where I got the idea for those adjectives.) We also took Jack.

We ate breakfast, swam, ate lunch, swam, ate supper, swam. Mother sat on a towel on the gravel bar and periodically shouted, “Jack, let Ruth get her head out of the water so she can breathe.” My grandfather tried to teach Jack how to saucer his coffee, but Jack had to hold the saucer with both hands. If he’d removed one, he’d have scalded himself. He never quite passed the course.

One day when we were sitting around waiting for our food to digest before we went back into the water, Mr. John Maxwell’s Santa Gertrudis bull crossed the river and wandered up the hill into camp. Everybody ran and piled into the car, except for Pat Boone, who ran around putting himself in harm’s way. Mother whistled and called, “Here, Pat, come here, Pat.” Betty said, “I hope the bull’s name isn’t Pat.” I don’t know what happened after that. I was laughing too hard to pay attention. I think the bull scratched his neck on a tree stump and then went back home.

I’m throwing all this on the page as I remember it. Ruth swears we spent only one night on the river. She says after that, we spent the nights at home and went back to camp in the morning. I say we spent every night for a week, that my father went home in the mornings to shave before going to work and came back every evening, and that it was the happiest week of my life.

When something is the happiest week of your life, you can remember it any way you want to.

When you’re writing fiction, you can remember it any way you want to as well.

Ten years ago, I took those summers, Ruth and Jack, my grandfather and Pat Boone and Lady and the rest, and put them together into a narrative.

Some of it is fact. I put in a scene where Ruth takes her statuesque leg and kicks the underside of my mattress. I put in a scene where Jack sits outside Ruth’s window at night. I put in the Santa Gertrudis and all the swimming. I put in my grandfather’s Bull Durham and saucered coffee.

Some of it is fiction. I bumped up my age from four to eleven to give more opportunity for conflict. I also added scenes that didn’t happen anywhere except inside my head. And then I added one more thing.

And I shaped it all into a true story: Stop Signs.

Later I entered Stop Signs in a fiction contest. It won first place. I was, of course, pleased, in¬† part because who wouldn’t be, in part because the contest sponsor sent me a check, and in part because I had such fun writing it. In fact, it practically wrote itself.

But, confidentially, although I accepted the Certificate Suitable for Framing, and cashed the check, I can’t take full credit for the success of Stop Signs. I have to acknowledge the town and the people (and the animals) who comprise my Muse. Thanks to all of you.

And thanks to the person at the heart of the story.

Happy Birthday, Cousin Ruth.

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Names have been changed to protect me.