Whenever I walk into a library, I take a deep breath; all of those words, all of those ideas! All of the stories, all of that information within four walls, under one roof! I just want to let it soak into my pores. I love the dusty paper smell mixed with the sharp scent of ink—one sniff and I’m ready to sit down, open a book and fall into the images conjured up by the words.
People often ask writers where they get their ideas. Well, for starters, nothing beats the library. (No, no, I’m not overlooking the Internet—I know its there, but it’s a totally different experience. You know what I mean.)
First, last Tuesday night Lois Lowry spoke at the San Francisco Main library. Author of over forty books and winner of numerous awards, Lois Lowry, (now in her seventies) has just finished the final book in THE GIVER quartet, answering many of the questions she’s received from readers since her original THE GIVER won the Newbery in 1994. She spoke on a number of topics but what especially interested me was how she got her idea for THE GIVER, a story about a dystopian society that had gained enough technology to create a lifestyle that had no memory of sadness or pain. She told us that all her ideas come from asking the question, “What if?” It was the question she asked after a visit to her elderly father who was slipping into dementia and had lost his most painful memory--that his other daughter, Lois’s sister, had died as a young woman. Lowry first thought that it seemed like a good thing to forget the painful memories in life. She wondered, what if we could offer this to people? What if we could forget all of the sad and painful things that had happened to us? From that questioning came the idea for THE GIVER.
I think all creative endeavors come out of this ‘What if?’ question. What if I paint her face at another angle? What if I add cilantro to the pasta sauce? What if the violins come in on A Minor? What if I have a different character tell this story?
The second author visit was Rita William’s-Garcia at the West Oakland Public Library talking about her multi-prize winning book ONE CRAZY SUMMER, the story of three sisters sent to spend the summer with their estranged mother who is an activist with the Black Panthers in the late 1960’s. Rita spoke to an enraptured room of all ages about where her idea came from—it started with the question, “What would it be like to be a child in this very electric time and place?” It’s another kind of ‘What if?’
I took both of these talks back home with me, like treasures in my pockets. And when I pulled them out to admire them, a little piece of something else fell out with them—a folded piece of paper with ‘dare to fail’ scribbled on it. It’s the unspoken part of ‘What if?’ What if my idea doesn’t work? What if I try and fall on my arse?
The answer to that is simple: you get up and try again because intrinsic in the endeavor, in the desire to create, to the 'what if?' question, has to be the willingness to fail. I think it’s an excellent question to ask ourselves at the start of every day. It's the only way through the door.