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Original Essays

Inquisitiveness and Desire

by Audrey Niffenegger
  1. The Time Traveler
    $6.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    The Time Traveler's Wife

    Audrey Niffenegger
    "[A] soaring love story illuminated by dozens of finely observed details and scenes." Publishers Weekly
  2. The Three Incestuous Sisters: An Illustrated Novel
    $7.50 Used Hardcover add to wishlist

It's hard to convey the experience of making art to someone who doesn't. "Where do you get your ideas?" is the question writers hear most often. Well, where do ideas come from? Mine tend to plop down out of nowhere. One minute I'm wondering where I left my keys, the next minute I'm thinking about a little girl named Lizzie whose face is covered with soft black fur. She wasn't in my head the minute before; where did she come from? Some enormous waiting room, perhaps, full of ideas. I imagine Lizzie waiting patiently, holding a little ticket with a number on it, listening for her number. Maybe she's been waiting there for years. Now it's her turn, and she gets up, ready to jump into my head, hoping for the best.

I believe that we attune ourselves to receive certain kinds of ideas. It's unlikely, for example, that I would pay any attention to an idea about a young widowed farm woman trying to keep her land from being sucked up by agribusiness. Even if I thought of her (and, of course, I just did) I wouldn't bother with her; she's not mine to use, I don't know her story, and I don't care to know it. I want little, furry Lizzie. The farm widow belongs to someone else, she just wandered into my head by accident to illustrate this point. We all have ideas all the time. But we only pay attention to a few. I'm interested in strangeness, and so my chosen ideas are... strange.

I am both a visual artist and a writer. I don't make too many distinctions between the two. I have made portraits of myself as Siamese twins, as Medusa, as a vampire. I'm interested in mutants, love, death, amputation, sex, and time (the themes of my novel, The Time Traveler's Wife). Symmetry, cemeteries, translation, and superstition are the obsessions of the novel I am writing at the moment, but all of these concerns appear and reappear in my visual art. When you are fishing for ideas you tend to catch the kind you have baited your hook for, and you throw back all the others.

In the movies, writers are always balling up pieces of paper and staring moodily into the corner as though they were struggling to read a teleprompter. Sheesh. Writing is a completely internal activity. Watching someone write is pointless. Reading is where all the action is. You are moving your mind across someone else's, like a snail, like a long kiss.

A while back my boyfriend and I went to see Sylvia, the rather overwrought movie about the marriage of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. We happened to see it in London, where much of the movie takes place, and the dank flats and overcast skies of the movie seemed extra real, completely correct. But the actors in the movie were pretending to be writers. There was a great deal of furious discussion of writing, jealous rants and drunken recriminations. There was a lot of staring into space while seated in front of vintage typewriters. And of course there was the obligatory scene of Sylvia Plath sealing the kitchen with tape prior to putting her head in the oven.

That's attractive, I thought, munching Pringles. (English movie theatres sell the oddest foods in their concessions stands.) Yet another movie reinforces the art = pain connection. Yawn.

My own experience has been that it's not pain that makes art. If art were simply a response to pain, there would be a lot more art. I think that art is the result of inquisitiveness, mingled with a deep desire to make things be. In 1997 I was sitting at my drawing table when a phrase popped into my head: the time traveler's wife. I wrote it down on the sheet of Kraft paper that covered the table, along with all the other ideas and song titles and lists of Things to Do. It was a generous phrase. It assured me that there were two characters, a husband and a wife, and that the husband was a time traveler. I started to think about the wife. It would be hard to be the wife, I thought; you'd spend a lot of time waiting for your man, and he would be the one having all the adventures. I felt sorry for her; I could see her, sitting at a table, drinking tea, waiting. Why does he leave her alone? I wondered. Another idea plopped down: time travel is a disease, it's a genetic disorder. By now this little cluster of ideas had my full attention. I wasn't interested in anything else now, and I began to build and ponder and worry them into being. Their names are Clare and Henry. She has red hair. His mother died in a car crash. He visits Clare when she's a child. She makes art about birds. My curiosity was riveted: I had to find out the story, and to find out, I wrote.

The delightful part about making anything is that no story or picture is ever complete. When I am reading, I add things to the story that were never put there by the writer. When you read my writing, you have your own vision of each character, and your own understanding of their motives and desires. If I could put my eye to your brain I would hardly recognize my world, it is a collaboration between the two of us. You have your own supply of ideas, which my writing is calling forth. Even Lizzie, the seven-year-old girl covered with chinchilla-like fur and wearing a dirty white lace dress, who is now wandering aimlessly around a hotel room in my head and talking to her stuffed rabbit, has a certain solidity for you that she didn't a few paragraphs ago. Excuse me; she needs my attention. Thank you for yours. spacer

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