Friday, October 21, 2011

Field Trips, Parties, and Where do I Get my Ideas?

In response to Roz Schanzer’s hilarious post “Writing Right, Right?” about Rules for Writing, Jim Murphy commented, “You have to have some fun writing if you expect me to still be awake when I get to the conclusion.” That reminds me of a funny story.

Most of the books I do with Sandra Jordan begin with a field trip. But not all field trips turn into books. A few years ago Sandra and I had what we thought was a great idea. We set off for the Museum of Modern Art to do some research. After two hours there, we went back to my apartment, sat down, and promptly fell asleep. Later we realized if our great idea put us to sleep, what would it do to our readers?

Where do you get your ideas? That’s the question I’ve been asked hundreds of times for the last thirty years. Some of my ideas seem quite interesting when I come up with them, often in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. But in the light of day (is that a cliché, Roz?) in the midst of researching, I get so bored I end up eating lunch at 9:30 in the morning or writing frantic e mails to my daughters about nothing.

Here are some of my favorite field trips that did work out:

  1. A drive out to Storm King Sculpture Park resulted in our book “The Sculptor’s Eye.”

  2. On a visit to the National Gallery in Washington DC, Sandra and I stood transfixed in front of Jackson Pollock’s painting Lavender Mist and featured it in “Action Jackson.”

  3. A trip to the Isamu Noguchi Foundation in Long Island City to see his stage sets for dances by Martha Graham sparked our interest in doing a book on collaboration that resulted in “Ballet for Martha.”

Going to a party doesn’t constitute a field trip but it may inspire an idea. I once met the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude at a cocktail party and she and I struck up a conversation about …no not art…but her Issey Miake dress. She was so charming that when Sandra and I decided to do a book about the Christos, I knew we would enjoy interviewing them.

Although I usually don’t get ideas for books at parties, social events seem to produce a multitude of suggestions by well meaning friends. It usually begins like this: “I’ve got an amazing story that would make a great book for kids. If I had the time, I would write it myself.” Here are some recent offerings:

A children’s book about the Bhagavad Gita from my friend Maxine who’s a Buddhist.

A story about Lucy’s schnauzer Morgan, who recently ran away and went missing for 19 hours.

Stanley’s grandson’s 9th birthday party at Busch Stadium.

And so on…

Occasionally, I’ve felt compelled to explain that I write nonfiction about the arts. This pronouncement is sometimes followed by blank looks, which prompt me to discourse on the dearth of arts education in the schools and the fact that perception in the arts encourages abstract thinking skills and inspires creativity. More blank looks. Perhaps I’m preaching to the wrong audience, which is why I’ve vowed to avoid parties (except on Halloween) this month, and stay home and write (and have fun doing it).


Annalisa said...

"Just Shapes" is a phrase my Dad uses to describe his "hobby" and growing up I didn't understand his life's work. All the stories made for good evenings around the table, but only yesterday it dawned on me that he went to "Layton School of Art" and retired as a "Master Sculptor" from Nissan. And with my son entering 4th grade next year...I hope teachers still inspire children. Because my father's passion for creating, building, sculpting began when his 4th grade teacher asked for a bug. Impressed by the quality of work, she asked for more bug models and thus, it began. A lifetime of happiness hinged on the simple request of a teacher. Thank goodness for teachers!

Sandy Brehl said...

Wonderful ideas- and useful for teachers to use with kids. Should writing about their trips be limited to "what we did/what we saw, or couldn't we better use your books (and post) as mentor text for kids- what did you see, notice, think, associate from the trip that you could write about?
Love your books, and so do kids. Writing about art is rare, and your books light kids up!

Ilima Loomis said...

As a journalist, I get this a lot too. Everybody thinks their story should be in the paper, but I think the ability to recognize a truly unique and compelling story is sometimes a bigger part of being a writer than actually, you know, writing.

Jan Greenberg said...

Annalisa, What a wonderful story about your dad. Early encouragement from a teacher can make all the difference. That happened to me, as well in the third grade, when Mrs. Oetting hung my drawings around the classroom. I see inspiring teachers all the time when visiting schools. But I also see schools where art supplies are limited and music classes cut, which is one of the reasons I continue to write books about the arts.
Thank you,Sandy. I am happy to have e mail conversations with you students anytime.

L Maguire said...

Thank you for your post about where you get your ideas. As a fifth grade teacher gearing up to begin a writer's workshop unit on non-fiction writing, it is important for students to understand that often the hardest part of writing is generating ideas but that ideas are all around us!