Many decades ago, as a young freshman at a small liberal arts college in Maine that shall go herein unnamed, I was cautioned by the then-president, named after a Confederate general, to practice the art of serendipity. His advice? Go to the library as if you were looking for a particular book, slide six books left from that book on the shelf, and take that one out instead. His advice about trusting serendipity might have been a little more compelling if he didn’t tell the same story every autumn of the four years I spent in his care.
But at an event a couple weeks ago, someone asked me the question about ideas and I thought of old Robert E. and his advice that serendipity can offer you something when you least expect it. Sometimes an idea walks in on crutches and plops itself down in front of you.
Three weeks ago, I’m sitting in the very cold and noisy waiting room of the local tire shop, having my winter tires swapped for summer ones (prematurely, as it snowed the next day, but still, this is Maine). A man climbs out of an ancient Toyota Cressida with great difficulty, sets his arms in sturdy aluminum forearm crutches, the kind with cuffs to support the weight.
He tacks into the waiting room, his legs badly bent, and thumps down opposite me, notices that I’m writing on a pad.
“You a writer?” he says. “I wrote a book.”
I braced myself. This is a more common condition than you might think.
“I fell 150 feet off a scaffolding and survived.”
As it turns out, this fellow Tony was a mural painter, hired by a car company executive in Detroit to paint an enormous mural of the year’s new model on the side of a building. I didn’t catch all the details, but enough to hear that the wife of one of the executives took a shine to Tony, asked to travel up on the scaffolding with him and have lunch one fine sunny day. Wearing a mink coat, she supplied the picnic basket. Some wine was involved, and sometime later, he fell. Eventually, he sued the scaffolding company and won a settlement, but was only allowed to collect the interest on it every year, not touch the principal.
One of the things introverts do very well is listen. One of the things most people love to do is talk about themselves. There was more.
Tony grew up in Pasadena, California. His father was a traveling salesman who sold women’s shoes all across the country. His mother was never mentioned. His father did, however, date Jill St. John’s mother.
You have to understand that, for a writer, this is the equivalent of someone handing you a stack of hundred dollar bills and saying, here, spend them however you want. Each one, each idea or fact you hear, only buys so much. But in the aggregate, they constitute a fortune. I may never use a single fact I heard about Tony, but knowing his story gives me a host of jumping-off spots (heh!) for new stories. The woman in the mink could have pushed him. He could be the illegitimate son of a Hollywood actress.
It’s listening that brings us the idea. You may think you’re telling me a story, but even if I agree to confidentiality, my fingers are crossed with respect to whether I’ll find a way to work some tidbit of it into fiction. Forewarned.
Because they’re everywhere, ideas. What you do is pay attention, listen, find the heart in what you hear. You can’t control what serendipity might bring you, but you can damn well listen for it.