Where do writing ideas originate? In our minds? Our hearts? A little of both, surely. Do they come along in a flash, or simmer for some time? In my experience, both. But some arrive with a powerful, abrupt interruption to life as usual. And then hold on, refusing to be shaken loose.
About 10 days ago, folks here in New Jersey marked two years since
Superstorm Sandy slammed into our coastline, then worked its way north through
the state to where I've lived most of my life. BAM, regular life was
interrupted. Like many writers, I wrote about it, not once but several times.
First, even before the winds howled, an essay poured out of me about what it was like to be huddled in my home with my husband and one son, while another son was away at his first year of college. Though geographically safer from the storm, he was actually wishing he had been home (a meteorology major, one of those odd people who like bad weather); and that stirred up powerful emotions.
About two weeks later, I wrote a different piece for the blog of a regional writing center where I was just about to begin teaching. That essay focused on the way people in my state were still talking about the storm in ways that seemed clear we were actually talking about a lot more than the storm--and how, in personal essay and memoir, we often *talk* about one thing while telling the real story about something else.
Next came an invitation to contribute a guest post to the popular blog of a friend from high school. This one, in keeping with her blog's theme of empowerment, focused on how the storm had forced me to look at my relationship to being flexible and adaptable.
Finally, a few weeks after that, when I'd had a chance to consider what the Jersey Shore – an ever popular vacation haven for most Garden State residents, but alas, not for me—meant to me now that it was ruined. This piece, like many of the layered and slightly more lyrical pieces I love to work on, took me places I hadn't anticipated--from childhood longing to newly married compromise, young motherhood to middle age, and finally, to facing a parent's decline, when bad news once reached me while on a rare Jersey Shore visit.
Noting the anniversary has put me in mind of how pieces begin, grow, and then are linked, not only in obvious ways, but sometimes less clearly; how (if we're lucky) one piece of work leads to another; why we can't rule anything out. It made me again consider how what we think we are going to write is sometimes usurped by what feels most urgent to write. And it reminded me to appreciate that squirrelly, unreliable, and gratefully welcome thing we might call inspiration.
Had you asked me in mid-October 2012 what I was planning to write over the next month, I surely would not have said four essays that relate to weather and the Jersey Shore (and more). Even when the storm was making landfall -- I was working then as an editor for a regional news site, frantically gathering and posting storm preparedness tips; interviewing health, power company, and local government officials; and texting my son to interpret the weather updates -- I still hadn't planned to write anything personal about the storm.
Then, the storm was upon us, and my fingers began to move over the keyboard. The first essay felt like I'd said everything I needed to say. Until the next essay asserted itself. After that one, I felt finished.
And then…well, you know; you're a writer too.
Over the next few months, my family will spend our first Thanksgiving in our hometown in about 20 years…my elder son will turn 21 and my husband's niece will marry (on the same day)…my younger son will take the SATs…my family will attend a concert we've been looking forward to for six months (hint: we'll be in a New York state of mind)…and who knows what else might happen, what unexpected events, large or small, hopefully not tragic, will occur. I don't plan to write about any of it.