Creative Manifestation: Where Do Ideas Come From?
If you’re like me, you’d love the opportunity to ask each of your favorite authors where their story ideas came from. Most authors, myself included, are asked the same question by readers at our many book readings and signings. My usual reply, said with a smile is, “Which book and how much time do you have?” The reason is that the creative process was surprisingly different for my first novel, A Decent Woman, and my work in progress called The Laments.
Heads up…I feel a long, rambling blog post coming on this rainy Tuesday in October! This is, after all, a blog about writing, and I am fascinated with ideas and the creative process of writers.
I liken the manifestation of ideas for stories to alchemy–the organic and complicated transformation and mix of ideas into words on a page.
In my experience and from what I’ve gleaned from other authors, ideas come to us in many ways–perhaps as an answer to a nagging question; a personal passion or interest; a curious dream; a story we’ve heard or an article that inspired or horrified us; a synchronistic event; through daydreaming; and sometimes, through random searches on the Internet. I believe coming up with ideas is a combination of our imaginations with heavy doses of curiosity, intuition, and inspiration, a beautiful concoction that at times, can seem divinely orchestrated. But are those ideas truly original or divinely orchestrated?
We all have flashes of ideas throughout our busy days, most of which we tend to ignore, put on a shelf for future examination, or we don’t follow through with the idea for myriad reasons and excuses. The British author Neil Gaiman believes writers and artists are particularly sensitive to the moment their attention lingers on a particular situation or idea. I agree with him. I feel an intriguing idea in my body like a pinch or a poke. It is highlighted in my mind, I draw a mental circle around it. Then the questioning begins, “What’s going on here? Why did this happen? What would happen if…? What happened next? And then? How did she react?” Writers run with an idea. We examine it intimately, up close, out of the box, and then we turn it inside out, which is the fun bit. If we deem the idea worthy of further exploration and thought, that’s when the real fun begins. If we happen to hit a roadblock or a brick wall in our writing, instead of stopping dead in our tracks, we build a creative side road or a detour around the problem with new ideas that will see the story to the end. Writers are persistent and we are in our heads a lot.
“Ideas turn up when you’re doing something else.” – Neil Gaiman
So let me throw in a wrench or at least food for thought about the wonderful world of ideas and thoughts. When I first heard the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle say we don’t own our ideas and thoughts, I scrunched up my nose and my brow furrowed. What? In another interview, he said our ideas come from the collective mind and our thoughts from the Ego. I understood the Ego part and while I loved the idea of a collective mind out there in the ether, I’d always believed my ideas were my own. Then Tolle further confused me by saying our ideas and thoughts are one and the same.
Allow me to share how the idea of my first novel A Decent Woman was birthed. Then I’ll share an experience that helped my understanding of Tolle’s interesting statement of the collective mind. I told you this blog post would be a long one.
A few years after my precious mother’s unexpected death at 57 years of age, my grandmother celebrated her 90th birthday. Despite still grieving for my mother, I decided to gather my memories for a tribute to my grandmother on her milestone birthday. Though I’d never written a tribute, I thought it could be a special gift to leave my children and my family for posterity’s sake. More importantly, it was my wish to show my mother and grandmother how much they meant to me and how much they’d influenced my life. As a child and throughout my life, I’d loved nothing more than sitting at my grandmother’s feet or at the foot of the bed with my mother, listening to their stories of growing up in La Playa de Ponce and later, about their lives in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Both women were superb storytellers, who instinctively knew how to captivate and hold an audience–a true gift.
After reading what I’d come up with, my then-husband asked me to write an outline. I had no idea why and he didn’t explain. By then, I’d been an exhibiting painter for close to 20 years and had written dozens of poems, but I’d never entertained the idea of writing a novel. When I presented him with a basic outline, he told me I had a story to write. I didn’t question a thing. I began to write all the stories I’d heard from my mother, my aunt, and my grandmother despite the pain caused by nostalgia and melancholy for my mother. Granted, there were lots of missing pieces and I needed tons of historical information to fill in the blanks (which looking back, should have daunted me), but I kept writing. I may have been an inexperienced writer, but I had a passion for stories, a love for my family, and for the island of my birth.
At the time, I didn’t understand the enormity of the decision to write a novel and all that it entails, nor had I read a single book on writing (which I believe was a blessing in disguise at that time). I had no fear of creating. I was a self-taught artist. I already knew the creative alchemy necessary to manifest and work ideas onto canvas and paper with watercolor brushes, pastels, and charcoal. Deep in my heart, I believed my story was unique. The longer I sat at the writing desk, idea A led to idea B, which led to idea C, and so on. I followed the general road map of my grandmother’s life and the lives of women she’d known or heard about throughout her life, or I invented characters gleaned from nonfiction or academic books written about life in turn-of-the-century Puerto Rico. When the manuscript started to resemble a book, ideas for descriptions and dialogue poured out. At times, I believed I was taking dictation from the ancestors.
The first draft manuscript was completed in six months. Now, the original manuscript bears little resemblance to the current book, but that’s for another blog. Thank you to my ex-husband for the idea, his encouragement, and for knowing I needed to write a book when it was the furthest thing from my mind.
Fast forward a few years. After I found a publisher for A Decent Woman and the manuscript went into editing, I selected the perfect image for the book cover–the gorgeous painting by Marie Guillemine Benoist called Portrait d’un nègresse, completed in 1800. The portrait, which hangs in the Louvre, depicts a beautiful black woman in a white turban, a tignon, which my heroine wore, as well. I was ecstatic when my publisher approved the image. I saw my heroine Ana Belén Opaku in this unknown woman and felt a strong connection with her. Below is an image of the original book cover.
A few weeks later, during a quick Google image search of this gorgeous painting, two book covers of novels popped up with the same image–The Book of Night Woman by Jamaican-born Marlon James, published in 2009, and Texaco by the French author Patrick Chamoiseau, who was born in Martinique. His novel was published in 1992. I was stunned. The award-winning books hadn’t come up in my original search. Yes, I was naive to think no one in the world would choose the painting for a book cover, but me! I’d never heard of the authors and had never read their books. (I’ve since read both books and I am now a huge fan of these authors). Of course, I was disappointed by this discovery, but not deterred. I’d seen book covers with similar or exact images reworked in new ways.
I immediately ordered the books. My jaw dropped while reading the first chapter of The Book of Night Women. Like my book, the story begins with a birth. And our heroines have green eyes, both were born into slavery, and they killed their rapists. I raced through the book, which is outstanding, by the way. Thankfully, the story is different from A Decent Woman. The story of Texaco is vastly different and also a wonderful, well-written novel. What a damn relief.
So, Eckhart Tolle was onto something with the collective mind (or whomever he got the idea from!)–our ideas and thoughts come from the collective mind with subtle differences. The story of A Decent Woman bears little resemblance to the novels, The Book of Night Women and Texaco, but we do share a strong connection to our respective Caribbean islands, and it appears the three of us (or their publisher’s art department) saw our main characters in the beautiful woman in the painting hanging in the Louvre.
Ultimately, we scrapped my original book cover and chose a photograph I shot of a statue I own of the Virgin Mary of Monserrat, which I love. A Decent Woman went on to be published three times. Yes, three times with different publishers, and of course, the book enjoyed three distinct book covers, but that’s another story.
Here is the current book cover. My thanks to Winter Goose Publishing for creating this lovely book cover with the image I chose; it meant a lot to me.
A special note of thanks to the Universe for not showing me those two award-winning novels until after my writing journey with A Decent Woman. Smile.
Next week, I’ll share a (shorter) blog post about creating memorable characters and using archetypes in stories.
Thank you for your visit!
Puerto Rican-born Eleanor Parker Sapia is the author of the multi-award-winning novel, A Decent Woman, published by Winter Goose Publishing. Her best-selling debut novel, set in turn of the century Ponce, Puerto Rico, garnered Second Place for Best Latino Focused Fiction Book, English at the 2017 International Latino Book Award with Latino Literacy Now. The book was awarded an Honorable Mention for Best Historical Fiction, English at the 2016 International Latino Book Awards with Latino Literacy Now. A Decent Woman was selected as a Book of the Month by Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club. Eleanor is featured in the anthology, Latina Authors and Their Muses, edited by Mayra Calvani.
A writer, artist, and poet, Eleanor is currently working on her second novel, The Laments, set in 1926 Puerto Rico. When Eleanor is not writing, she tends to her garden, travels, dreams of traveling, and tells herself she will walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time before her hips give out. Eleanor is the mother of two amazing adult children and currently lives in her adopted state of West Virginia.
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