Where Do Ideas Come From?

I get ideas for stories from all sorts of strange places.  Sometimes, perhaps usually, several things come together and connect in my mind.   Something like that happened today, and I thought I would document it.  So, just in case you were wondering, here’s how it happened.

I read an article in the New York Times about the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, whose voice is reminiscent of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century castrati. I had been fascinated by the castrati since hearing about them in connection with the movie Farinelli, about one of the greatest opera singers who also happened to be a castrato. (The castrati were male singers who had been castrated at a young age so they could sing in the church, since women were not allowed to perform sacred music. They retained their high voices. Some of them became like 1960s rock stars, paid highly for their performances and adored by women who, according to the article, prized them as lovers because they could not have children.)

I read “Sarrasine,” the Balzac story mentioned in the article, several years ago, in Roland Barthe’s S/Z. This was after seeing portions of Farinelli, which I think had come on the television for some reason. I’ve never seen the whole movie, and I don’t remember reading the Isak Dinesen story mentioned in the article, “The Cardinal’s First Tale,” but I must have, because I’ve read all of Dinesen’s stories. But in Dinesen, if you encounter a castrato, you think nothing of it. Her fiction is populated by such liminal characters, such monsters.

I’m using the word monsters in a particular sense here: to me, a monster is a hybrid entity who is displayed, or is liable to be displayed, because of that hybridity (“monster” and “demonstrate” come from the same etymological root). The castrati were monsters in the same sense as Frankenstein’s monster, hybrid (male/female) entities who were also spectacles. Some of them highly paid, intensely desirable spectacles. Aesthetic objects as well as creators of great art.

In the article, Jaroussky mentions that the countertenor voice can sound repulsive. So I had to listen to him singing a Vivaldi aria on YouTube. And he was right. His voice is breathtakingly, incredibly pure. It’s one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard, but it also sounds almost inhuman because it falls outside of our usual categories for human voices, certainly in opera. And that makes it, in a sense, repulsive as well as attractive. It’s the voice that an angel, which has no gender, might sing with. (And angels are frightening, if you really think about what they are, what they represent.) To me, it’s fascinating.

There you have it. All of that is sitting in my brain, waiting for the one thing that will complete it, a character who has a story to tell, or to be told about him. (I’m pretty sure it’s a him, although I can imagine writing the story of a woman in love with a castrato.)

And that’s where my story ideas come from. That tangle of sources.

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7 Responses to Where Do Ideas Come From?

  1. emily says:

    Haha, I think I walked in on this. If the story that spawns from this moment becomes delightfully famous, I will have the claim of talking to the author either during or after the inspiration occurred.

    (On a side note: 20 dollar student rush tickets for boston ballet: The Nutcracker! I’m in! =] Thanks for the heads up.)

  2. Alan Yee says:

    I haven’t read much about the castrati. I wasn’t even aware of them until I read Anne Rice’s historical novel, Cry to Heaven. It was an interesting book, but I found Tonio (one of the two main characters) to be slightly annoying at times.

    I would love to read a story from you that deals with the castrati. Hope you find a character soon, so you can write it!

  3. You know, the line that really struck me was this: “And of course, thousands of children were sacrificed to find one beautiful voice.”

    This makes me think the character I would be really interested in was the castrato, at who turned out not really to be able to sing much at all. (Wikipedia has “In the 1720s and 1730s, at the height of the craze for these voices, it has been estimated that upwards of 4,000 boys were castrated annually in the service of art… Only a small percentage of boys castrated to preserve their voices had successful careers on the operatic stage; the better ‘also-rans’ sang in cathedral or church choirs, but because of their marked appearance and the ban on their marrying, there was little room for them in society outside a musical context.”)

  4. Bob Devney says:

    No surprise that the sources of YOUR river are crystal springs fairly high up on the mountain, some distance off the trodden path. Thanks for giving us this glimpse. Looking forward to what you’ll do with it. (Assuming we recognize it when we see it.)

    I liked the old blog well, but am happy to follow you onto new ground. Hope this move is as far as you need to go in fulfilling the “exile” part of silence, exile, cunning.

    About the frightfulness of angels: hard not to think of that lovely, lurid film by Gregory Widen, THE PROPHECY. As Elias Koteas’s cop (a failed seminarian) says:

    “Did you ever notice how in the Bible, whenever God needed to punish someone, or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God, but always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever really want to see an angel? “

  5. Emily: Yes, you came to my office while I was listening to some of this music! $20 rush tickets: that’s awesome! Sometimes I miss being a student . . .

    Bob: That’s a terrific quotation. I’ve never felt inspired to write about angels, but assassin angels are a different matter. Yes, I was thinking of quoting Joyce on silence, exile, and cunning. Silence I definitely need, any exile won’t be too far away, and cunning, well, I’ll at least try to use it to write my stories.

  6. ThreadorAll? says:

    So does it mean that I’m not cut out to be a writer since most of my ideas come from counterfactuals about myself, characteristics of people I know and snippets of their life, and counterfactuals about our species/reality? I hope not, but it makes me sound limited and egostistical.

  7. No, I think writers can get their ideas from all sorts of places. But I guess I would make an argument (which I suppose I did make in my posts on the museum) for experiencing things outside of your daily life and routine. Although I’m not sure what you mean by counterfactuals? I do think writers need to be at least somewhat egotistical in order to write at all. I mean, here we are, convinced that we have something to say and that other people should not only read what we have to say but also pay for it! That’s pretty egotistical, but it’s also the only way to actually create art. You have to believe in what you’re doing. The limited part: I suppose that’s what I don’t want writers to be. So many of them do seem limited to me, honestly. I want them to be more imaginative. But I don’t know if any of this is a good response to your comment . . .

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