Last week, I found myself going down some mental rabbit trails about what got me started in writing, probably spurred by some questions that came up in my online chat with a school book club. Since kids always ask me about that, I thought it might be of general interest, so here’s the start of a blog series about my writing origins and influences — the things I’ve encountered along the way that captured my imagination in a way that helped shape or inspire my writing.
Oddly enough, the first thing that I think led to me being a writer wasn’t books at all, but rather musical theater, along with the Disney musical movies. Long before my reading skills were at a level where I could read books with any kind of in-depth storytelling, I was already into the stories of musicals. We had a lot of Broadway cast albums, and I had all the albums of music from the Disney movies. I remember being mocked in preschool when we were supposed to bring our favorite record, and I brought the cast album for Man of La Mancha.
But back in those days, there was no home video. The only way to see a movie was if it came to the theater or came on television. We also didn’t live in the kind of city that got the big touring productions (I saw my first real professional musical — a touring production of Camelot, with Richard Harris as Arthur — when I was in college). As a result, I hadn’t actually seen most of these musicals. I wasn’t exactly sure what the stories were about. Even with the Disney fairy tale movies, while I might have known the basic fairy tale, I might not have been entirely sure which characters were singing which songs and how that fit into the fairy tale (though I did have a few of the “stories and the songs” albums, which helped).
So, I had to make up my own stories to go with the songs. I wish I could remember some of the things I came up with. I’d either play out my own stories using my dolls or act them out myself, using my trove of dress-up clothes. Sometimes I’d mash them up and use songs from multiple musicals together. I didn’t think of it as writing as the time, since I wasn’t writing anything down, but I was creating characters and telling stories.
One of the few musicals I had actually seen was My Fair Lady, since they used to show that on TV every year, usually around Thanksgiving. When I was four or five, that was my absolute favorite movie, and it only occurred to me in the past week or so when I was thinking about all this that it’s essentially a Cinderella story — we’ve got an impoverished young woman who’s transformed to go to a ball, only it’s a professor of elocution rather than a fairy godmother who transforms her, and the outcome isn’t so romantic.
I’m not sure what influence musicals have on my current writing, other than that I do sometimes use music as inspiration for characters or plot points, and one of my brainstorming techniques is to put iTunes on shuffle and then try to think of how the song that comes up might relate to my story. But music did seem to spark my creativity and make me want to tell stories, and that seems to have had a lot to do with setting me on my current path.
Oddly, even though I’ve dreamed of doing musical theater since I was about three, I haven’t really done it. I was in one locally produced original musical when I was right out of college (the music was good, but the play was absolutely terrible), and I sang offstage backup for the church youth production of Mary Poppins a few years ago, but I’ve never been in any of those musicals I used to act out my own version of when I was a child.