Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Bubbles are nice, but people are nicer than bubbles

by Robison Wells

I grew up watching Mr. Rogers, and I was always a sucker for his operas. I remember with fondness the misunderstood villain Wicked Knife and Fork. All he ever wanted as a spoon! But all they ever gave him was a knife and fork – they even called him Wicked Knife and Fork. That, my friends, is the kind of inner turmoil that Pulitzer-winning novels are made of.

But by far the best of Mr. Roger’s operas was the stunning Windstorm in Bubbleland. In it, the trusty news anchorman is busily spreading propaganda (“There’s never, never, never, never, never any trouble here in Bubbleland!”) and he advertises the newest product to hit store shelves: Spray Sweater. Fortunately for all involved, Betty Aberlin, the town sweater-knitter, discovers that there’s nothing in the aerosol cans of Spray Sweater at all – just air! And worse than that, W.I. Norton Donovan, the president of the Spray Sweater Company, is behind the malicious plot: his true identity, as his initials indicate, is The Wind! And by conning the citizens of Bubbleland to spray more air into the atmosphere, the wind gets stronger! And, as you know, wind and bubbles mix about as well as spoons and forks.

Meanwhile, Hildegard Hummingbird (who has some sort of sordid, but unexplored, history with the wind) has left Bubbleland because she’s underappreciated. Well, as you can imagine, without Hildegard there to protect them, the town’s a bubbleless shambles. They (the news anchor, Betty Aberlin, the weather-reporting Porpoise – The Porpoise With a Purpose, the banana-boat captain, and the street vendor bubble lady) all run down to the waterside to see firsthand the horrors of wind.
Never fear, however. Hildegard Hummingbird returns just in the nick of time, and although when she faces down the wind she loses (in a blowing vs. wing-flapping competition), yet she still inspires the motley crew of Bubblelandians to try flapping their own wings! They do, and the wind is driven away. (The moral of the story, according to Hildegard, is: You can blow more bubbles, but you can’t blow more you.)

I promise I have a point. It's coming up in a moment.

In the episodes leading up to the opera, King Friday made a royal decree that the Land of Make Believe would perform an opera, and it would feature: sweaters, bubbles, a porpoise, and a hummingbird. How they crammed it all together was up to them. (And with such instructions, it should be no surprise that Chef Brockett said “Oh! I’ll be the banana boat captain!” and all the others said “Great idea!”)

So, what does it have to do with writing? This is how I put together a book. I, just like King Friday, get a bunch of ideas into my head, and cram them all together until they work. For my first book, On Second Thought, I had the ideas: an observatory that everyone hates, lost Spanish gold, and a tomato greenhouse. Then Chef Brockett piped up with “I’ll be the extreme right-wing conspiracy nut!”

My second book was more of the same. I’d just finished my bachelors degree in Political Science, and I’d focused almost entirely on the theoretical rather than the procedural (I could expound for hours on the Democratic Peace theory, but to this day I don’t have the slightest idea how the city council works). Wake Me When It’s Over sprung almost entirely from three concepts: (1) the American dollar is only worth what we believe it is, (2) the Berlin Wall fell because of a very poor press release, and (3) scrapbook stores are, for all intents and purposes, evil.

Lately, since my next book is proving to be driven much more by character than plot, my idea-collecting has come from observing people. Three interesting events have stuck in my head.

First: I was sitting in a restaurant, by myself. A young woman ran in from the street, urgently needing a napkin. She wasn’t a customer, but she was very demanding, and refused to explain the problem. What was she doing? Why did she need it? I was seated facing away from the windows, so I never learned the answer.

Second: I was sitting at the pharmacy, waiting for a prescription to be filled. A middle-aged woman came in and browsed the store shelves. She was in no hurry, and very carefully studied every item she picked up -- she’d read the package for a few minutes, and then set it back on the shelf. She was wearing a finely tailored coat that had a 1950s look to it, though it was obviously modern. Likewise, her shoes were high-heeled, but very June Cleaver. At long last, she bought a Do-It-Yourself Home Drug Test, and left.

Third: My wife and I were in a small town in central Utah. We were passing through, and stopped for lunch at a small café. After eating, we crossed the street to a used bookshop, hoping to find a book on CD. The woman behind the counter had a nose ring. The only other customer was a tall, Marlboro-man type cowboy. He had a plaid shirt and cowboy hat, and his graying mustache was thick and overgrown. As my wife and I browsed the audio books, he moved silently from shelf to shelf. At the front counter, we bought Nicholas Nickleby. He bought The 9/11 Commission Report.

Three brief instances, none of which is all that remarkable, but they all have stuck with me for one reason: there’s obviously more to the story. That stupid napkin thing was at least two years ago, and yet it’s still jammed in my mental files, waiting to one day be found and used.

Will I ever cram these three ideas into one book? I doubt it. But it’s interesting to imagine what kind of story I’d have if I did. The important thing is to always be on the watch for ideas, because you never know when you’ll stumble across something great.

Maybe the home drug test was for the banana-boat captain?


At 4/11/2006 2:50 PM, Blogger Sweebler said...

I thought you were going to give out three topics and ask people to write stories on that. My husband and I used to do that while we were driving on long car trips.

At 4/11/2006 4:52 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

I thought about doing that, but then I didn't. Ah, the twists and turns of life.


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