Last week my son was in a school production of Peter Pan. It was a wonderfully colourful and often humorous production which left many of us adults feeling nostalgic for childhood and its gift of imagination. It also had me immediately reaching for Finding Neverland, a film about J M Barrie’s friendship with the Llewelyn Davies family which was the inspiration for the play of Peter Pan. We watched it as a family last weekend to prolong the magic we had enjoyed while watching the play.
While watching the film, my daughter made a comment to me about writers and how they get their ideas. There is a scene where Sylvia Llewelyn Davies’s mother bends down to talk to Peter and his brothers, a coat hanger in her hand, which she points at the boys, emphasizing her opinion. The link with Captain Hook is clear, as we see the old lady through Barrie’s eyes. She leans into Peter, seeming to brandish the coat hanger aggressively, much as the Pirate Captain uses his hook to threaten Peter Pan.
My daughter whispered to me at this point in the film: “Is that what it’s like when you are writing – you see something like the hook in the sleeve and it makes you think of what to write?”
Of course, it is not always like that: most writing is an uphill climb with pitifully few flashes of inspiration such as the one in the film, and who knows how J M Barrie really pieced all the images together into a finished product? However, I have had a couple of eureka moments, and they have come when I was least expecting them – often when I have not consciously been thinking about a story at all.
The most recent occasion was nearly two years ago (which goes to show just how infrequently they happen!) when I was listening to an old friend talk about a terrible disaster she had suffered. Her house had burnt down. As she told me the incredibly strange circumstances surrounding the fire and the events that followed, I felt a shiver run down my spine. She was giving me the perfect missing link to a story I was struggling with. Everything she said was offering me answers to plot problems. As I drove home I could not believe this had happened. There was no other way of looking at this: it was a gift.
I wrote it all down the moment I returned to my desk – and it worked! Everything fell into place. I immediately felt guilty that I was robbing my friend’s life to fix my story, so I phoned to tell her what had happened and to ask her permission. Luckily she was thrilled and even said it was wonderful to think something good had come out of her misfortune. Of course I changed a few details to make her story fit with mine, just as J M Barrie changed things, turning Peter’s grandmother into a male pirate (so the film leads us to believe).
Writing, to paraphrase Peter (not to mention the name of this blog) is an “awfully big adventure”. A writer never knows where ideas will come from; they can come at us sideways, from an unexpected source. The trick is to keep our eyes and ears open at all times. And always to believe in fairies.