3. The Gettin’ Place
People are never coming up to me and asking, “Andrew, where do you get your ideas?” Mostly they want cigarettes or money, neither of which I ever have on me.
There’s that exchange in the Cohen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men (which may or may not be in the book) where the girl from Trainspotting asks the brother from The Goonies where he got the gun he has come home with. “From the gettin’ place,” Goonies guy tells her, or some approximation of that.
I’ve never been that interested in writers themselves, their lives or their processes. From what I’ve read, most writers I love were not great to their families and worked very hard to be good at what they do. There is, for me, no beloved text that has been improved by knowing where their animating idea came from, or the taffy making process by which those first ideas were pulled and stretched into the tale I’ve currently got stuck to the roof of my mouth.
Here’re two examples of story sources.
The book I’m currently having a staring contest with was first conceived when I saw a news report in a hotel room somewhere in Arizona, while on vacation with my family. Apparently, local residents of whatever place were up in arms about a cellphone tower going up in their beloved desert. They wanted the reception, but not the eyesore. A compromised was reached by disguising the cellphone tower as a gigantic saguaro. This story is nowhere in the book I’m writing.
For another example, I’ll tell you about the impetus for a story of mine published on Joyland, “I’m Sorry and Thank You.” I was drinking in a bar on a nice fall day and out the window I saw this crunchy young mother splay her baby out on the bar’s lawn for a diaper change. It occurred to me that babies, before solids, basically produce the same waste as birds. And what was that thing that birds have called? That hole? I couldn’t recall at the time, and later on it came to me, and remembering that word—cloaca—was a satisfying experience. In some ways, the story I wrote follows my own experience pretty snugly.
How does knowing these anecdotes assist the reading of a story? Knowing doesn’t help. Maybe you got an “Oh, that’s interesting” feeling, but I doubt much more than that.
I don’t care about a writer’s Gettin’ Place because that’s not where the story is. As a reader I will never go there, so it doesn’t help me knowing about it. What’s important is the Meetin’ Place, that spot where Writer and Reader gather with their own experience to create a sui generis experience. The story I wrote about some drunk coming out onto his front porch to find a hippy woman changing her baby on lawn doesn’t mean much without the assumptions a reader will make about who these characters are and what they’re doing, assumptions based on things I have told them and things I haven’t. Any meaning or tension in this story relies on the job I’ve done as much as it does on the job any given reader will do. I’ve got my Getting’ Place and you’ve got yours, and I’ll never know and can’t guess at where you’re coming from, so don’t worry about where I’m coming from.
Only no one ever asks.
Andrew Hood is a winner of the Danuta Gleed Award and the author of The Cloaca, a new collection available from Invisible Publishing. His story on Joyland was recently nominated for the Journey Prize. You can read it here. For the next month Andrew will be sharing insights into creative writing.