One of my favorite lines in the movie Shakespeare In Love is the theatrical producer's response to the financial backers' concerns for how a play ever comes together considering all the chaos involved. The producer's sincere reply is, "I don't know. It's a mystery." The line is funny, but it is also quite true. To a large degree much of any creative process is a mystery.
My background is in theatre and long ago I was introduced to that most dreaded of all actor questions: How do you remember all those lines? I didn't know that novelists faced a similar question: Where did that story come from? When I first heard it, I was tempted to respond, "I don't know. It's a mystery." Of course, while the answer might amuse avid Shakespeare In Love fans, it would not be completely true. Everything has an origin and I remember vividly the moment of origin for The Miracles of Santo Fico.
For many years, I have taught a class in playwriting in the theatre arts department at Southern Oregon University. One particular project I always enjoy assigning near the beginning of a term has to do with discovering the often-arbitrary origins of a story. I ask my students to bring into the next class the shortest and yet most interesting newspaper story they can find. The best ones are always those little filler articles that usually run no more than an inch or two in length and contain very few specific facts, because with creative storytelling the more specific facts an article contains, the more limited is its power to inspire.
One semester, not long after the catastrophic earthquake that rocked central Italy and destroyed much of the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi, an older student--and very talented writer-brought in her article. It concerned the problem authorities in Assisi were having with peasants stealing fragments of the basilica's broken frescoes and selling the pieces on the black market. It was short, to the point, and the class immediately weighed in with their thoughts. But all class discussion came to a halt when the students noticed the instructor's jaw go slack as he stared silently off into space for at least ten seconds. That was all it took for all of the major elements of a story to fall into place. It was all there: Character. Place. Plot. And the hardest of all-Structure. Of course it was all just framework, but the framing of a novel is the hardest part-at least for me. Once I had recovered from this slightly alarming trance, I returned to my regularly scheduled professorial duties and explained my thoughts to the student who had brought in the article-basically handing her the story line on a platter. She thanked me, but she had her own story in mind.
Unfortunately for me, my story wouldn't let go of me. It was locked in my brain and over the next few days it just kept growing. At the next class I pulled the student aside and again told her I really thought the story I had presented was a good one and would be very happy to work with her on it-although I also thought it was probably a book and not a stage play. She politely explained that she had her own idea for a stage play. We compared notes, and once she was satisfied that we were not pursuing the same story, she gave me her blessing and we went our separate ways to realize our different tales.
From there it took only a year to write down what had taken ten seconds to realize. And that part, indeed, was a mystery.