Miss me much? You’ve seen some reruns of my posts over the last half of the year, so I’ll forgive you if you didn’t notice I wasn’t exactly here. In addition to the whole challenging life everyone has been leading, both my parents became ill this summer and died in late fall. I’ve been distracted. Many thanks to Kate and the crew for reposting some of my older entries and keeping me alive on the blog.
This also means I published my sixth Elder Darrow novel in November, the second into the pandemic. Mickey’s Mayhem gives a little more space to a gangster character than he might normally get and I think I like him well enough to not kill him off. Ooops, spoiler. Here’s hoping the next one, we can have a live launch.
A couple weeks ago, I found myself reading one of those end-of-the-year compendium pieces the New York Times does celebrating famous people who died in 2021 and found, stuck in the middle of an appreciation of Beverly Cleary, this description of how she passed her time as a child: “tripping chickens.”
Now beyond the utter beautiful silliness of such an image and what it tells you about the mind of a bored child, I was struck by what a perfect description it is of how writers find ideas.
If you’ve been reading here long enough, you’ll know that the one question a writer at an event can count on being asked is some variation of “where do you get your ideas?” And generally writers touch their noses lightly and say something like: “They’re all over the place, you just need to see them.” Or a snarkier answer might come, like “I buy them at the idea store” (which makes it possible that some writers are buying their ideas at Marden’s.)
But the image of a young Beverly Cleary reaching out with a long stick with maybe a hook at the end, to trip up a bird, made me wonder what she did with the chicken after it was down. Was this how she picked out the victim for dinner for her mother to slaughter? Or was she just inspecting the situation to see what she could learn about chicken behavior? Or was she passing time, displaying the casual cruelty of a child?
You probably see where I’m going with this. If our internal dialogues, our observations of the world, our reading, our day to day actions present us with a long parade of ideas, good, bad, and indifferent, then the process of picking out what to write about is exactly like tripping a chicken.
Something in the particular idea—its color, the tilt of its head, its puffed-out chest, the light in its eyes and the hitch in its gait—catches the writer’s eyes. Zip goes the hook around the bony feet and then wham, the chicken goes down like a WWE wrestler, only more convincingly.
Stunned, the chicken looks up at the writer, wondering. Is it my turn for the ax? Will I find life in a story somewhere? Or is this writer just screwing with me because she’s bored? And the writer, too, has to figure: off to the block? Or help the bird upright, smooth its feathers, and send it back into the parade? Maybe next time, chum.
Writers are thieves for technique. It’s going to be very difficult for me not to answer the next time someone asks where do my ideas come from not to say: “Oh, hell. Usually I just go out and trip some of the chickens.”
And a completely random side issue: E. B. White was a great fan of raising chickens.He carried on enough of an epistolary conversation with a friend over the culture of the birds to create a book of correspondence, highly readable if you’re a fan of the dry wit of White.