I am currently working on a story that features a coffin factory. Everyone loves this little touch. “How did you think of that?” people have asked. “It’s so atmospheric and creepy and perfect!”
When I hear things like this, I just say, “Thank you,” and try to smile mysteriously, as if I just can’t help being a genius. But here, on this blog, I will reveal the truth: I live one block from a coffin factory.
In fact, I have lived one block from a coffin factory for ten years, and I never, ever thought of putting it in a story until a few months ago. I really didn’t think about it much at all. It was just there, like the old guy who decorates his electric wheelchair with bits of colorful garbage and the mysterious abandoned car rusting at the bottom of the hill near the bike path (no road in sight). I’ve never put those in a story, either. In fact, I hadn’t even recognized them as “strange” until I wrote them down. Just now.
But the important thing to remember is that, often, inspiration is an outside job. Writers don’t create so much as they connect. For ten years, you walk past a coffin factory every single day. Then—one day—you walk past, and you really see what is there. You connect the possibilities that exist in a setting like that, the symbols, the meaning.
Everyone has experienced one of those moments in which you are busily telling a story, and someone interrupts you because what you have said is strange. “Wait—there was a guy who lived down the street from you who shot at the neighborhood cats with a BB gun, and nobody ever called the cops?” Um, yes. There was. We never thought about it because he was just…there. When I moved to Guatemala, people kept asking me what it felt like to be having this adventure. “Um, it feels kind of normal. Like it’s just this thing I’m doing.” When I tell the details now–my weird role in a Spanish-language production of The King and I, the phosphorescent sand on the beach, the ants the size of my thumb that lived in the rainforest–it all seems peculiar and amazing. But while I was there, it was just my life. I had no perspective.
Writing, then, is the act of changing perspective, of seeing the world anew, and of connecting what we find to the universal. The good news is that the world is already out there, all around us. There is strangeness everywhere, even in the most “normal” suburb in America, once you start to pay attention. Why do all of the girls dress the same? Why are all of the yards so perfect, except for that one at the end of the block, where the old lady lives? Why did they close down the neighborhood pool? What does it mean?
The world is a bizarre place, and the strangest of all are the people in it. You don’t have to be a genius to see that.