Melissa Rae Madison responds to the age-old question… what inspires you?
When people hear that I’m a writer, one of their first questions (right after “why haven’t I heard of you?” or “no, what do you really do?”) is often “how do you get your ideas?”
I wish there were an easy answer. I’d like to be able to say that I grow ideas on my windowsill, or that I buy them on eBay (actually, if I could grow them on my windowsill, I could sell them on eBay – see, there’s an idea!). When I’m feeling a little less flippant, I’d like to be able to answer the question with a serious, yet succinct answer that gives insight on my creative process. But how can I do that when I’m not even sure myself?
Sometimes it’s clear that an idea is based on an experience, a person, an event, or a place from real life. A few years ago I volunteered to stay overnight with my grandmother on her first night home from the hospital after a serious illness. This sounds like a warm and fuzzy tale of grandmother and grand-daughter bonding until we get to the part where I went outside the apartment building to get better phone reception and locked myself out, leaving my helpless grandmother dozing in her armchair. If you want to know how I managed to evade the police and get back in before Gram woke up, you can read about it in my novel The Pursuit of Happiness, because I used the incident in my book, changing only a few minor details to fit the story better.
The connection between the events in my book and the events of my life is the exception rather than the rule, though, and writing a scene isn’t usually as easy as transcribing an embarrassing episode to paper. If it were, I’d probably be even more willing to make a fool of myself than I am already, all in the name of art. And at least then I would have an excuse for some of my more ridiculous antics. (Note: when putting oil in your car, make sure you are putting it in the oil thing. Do not, I repeat, do not, put it in the windshield washing fluid tank. The results will be distressing. On the same topic, “OEL” does not mean oil in German. Apparently it means “windshield washing fluid tank.”)
Because the main character in The Pursuit of Happiness is a lawyer, and so am I, people sometimes think most of my novel is based on my own experiences, but I’m happy and relieved to report that it isn’t. Although my experiences as a lawyer did provide me with a background of the day to day mechanics of life in a big law firm, the origins of most of my ideas are far more obscure. There isn’t one moment that I can look back on and say, “Aha! That’s it! That’s when I was inspired!”
As best as I can remember, the idea for the book started with a thread of a memory about one of my days as an associate at a large law firm in Philadelphia. One day while I was driving home from work, I pulled at that thread and it came loose. It went into a pile of other threads from a myriad of other life experiences and memories. I added a thread here, a thread there, and one day there were enough of them to weave into something new and fresh, something, as Monty Python would say, completely different.
If you want to nurture your creativity, you need to live your life, observe, experience, and let it all wash over you. Don’t be afraid to be a fool or make mistakes. Mundane experiences that don’t seem hold much promise for inspiration may, over time, provide a thread that ends up being exactly what you need to make your pattern complete. Ideas are everywhere, all around you, at every moment of your life. All you have to do is look.
Tay Bellagio, a former tomboy from rural Pennsylvania, has finally achieved the life of her dreams, or so she thinks. She’s a successful lawyer for a top law firm in Philadelphia, making more money that she ever imagined. She has a group of dear friends and a loving extended family, and the attractive bartender at the local Irish pub has just asked her on a date. She has everything she wants, except happiness.
Why is Tay so miserable? Maybe it’s her boss, a power-hungry partner at her firm who thrives on humiliating his subordinates. Maybe it’s her friends, who are getting fed up with her diva attitude, or her family, who thinks she’s pulling away from them. Maybe it’s the bartender, who thinks she’s shallow. Or maybe it’s because the life of her dreams is becoming a nightmare.
When family obligations and an ethical dilemma at work crumble Tay’s carefully constructed world, she has to take another look at her dreams and ambitions and decide what she wants out of life. And to her surprise, it may not be what she’d planned.
Melissa Rae Madison, a partially reformed lawyer, is formerly from Pennsylvania but now lives in sunny Southern California, where she regularly laments the scarcity of really good cannoli. When she’s not writing or lawyering, she enjoys reality TV marathons, sugary cereal, and being bossed around by her pushy Siamese cat.