Where do stories come from? Inspiration. Well, where does inspiration come from? Some might think it just plops into your head like a lightning bolt. After eleven years of writing, I’ve learned that my inspiration comes from following my interests. I think if you want to be a writer, you need to be observant of the world around you. I believe curiosity leads to inspiration which leads to stories. The creative process is similar, a funnel with curiosities at the top and stories at the bottom.
When I first started writing, the hardest thing was coming up with ideas, that little seed I needed to get going. I soon learned the value of keeping a small journal and jotting down things that caught my attention from the pigeons that sat on the traffic light poles or the different types of tail wags our dog did (wiper-blade, helicopter, and spiral). At that moment, if I noticed my creativity gears starting to turn, I would write down everything I could about it. For the first idea about the pigeons, I imagined that they were traffic reporters or police birds. Later that became the first story I wrote. For the dog tails one, I haven’t been able to take that one further yet. So instead, I have a file of doggie observations which I’m hoping will serve as inspiration in the future for a story. I find that when my story well is dry it’s because I’ve stopped observing the world around me. This is a signal to me to go out, relax, and just be present.
In Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, she recommends creators go on periodic artist dates to be inspired. Some of the things I do to fill my creative well are listen to nonfiction podcasts such as “The Atlas Obscura” or “Radio Lab”; watch a documentary; go for a hike; watch old movies of my girls when they were toddlers; or skim through the portfolios of my favorite illustrators. The key thing is to notice when your interest is piqued and to follow it.
The seed for my debut picture book How to Wear a Sari started in fall 2016. I was planning my Indian outfits for the upcoming Navratri and Diwali seasons. I love the elegance of saris, but I was bemoaning how I never got the hang of wearing one. I began wondering what it would be like if a young Indian girl wanted to play dress-up with her mom’s sari. My curiosity was ignited and the questions started pouring in. What type of sari would she pick? Which steps would be easy, which would be hard? What mistakes might she make along the way? And most importantly, would she succeed? Before I knew it, I had the plotline for a story. My next book I’m an American (summer 2023) grew out of my interest in the history of immigration past and present. I was curious about the reasons that brought people to the United States.
So how can we help children engage in this creative process? Have them start a journal. Each day have them write down five things they noticed. Perhaps it’s a line of ants going in a zig-zag pattern across the sidewalk, a poster for a found puppy, two squirrels playing chase, a pesky pigeon that loves a particular windowsill, or a million other possibilities. Out of the day’s list have them put a star next to the item that is their favorite—the one that inspires them to dwell further. Then, ask them to write a few sentences for the topic. They can do some research. They can type their question into Google to get started, find some nonfiction books on the topic, or maybe just daydream and see what surprising ideas pop up. At the end of the week, they should have a list of five things that inspired them. Have them pick their favorite one and ask them to keep digging. Have them ponder the questions Who, Where, When, What, Why, and What If. Before they know it, a story will begin to germinate.
The world is an amazing place with stories hidden in children’s laughs, sidewalk chalk drawings, family hugs, and magical cloud formations. Let’s encourage the kids of today, to look up, down, and all around, and discover the gems that are everywhere. Your students have wonderful stories to tell. I can’t wait to hear them.