Where do ideas come from?
Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love) is of the opinion
that ideas and creativity circle the world like gulfstreams, looking for ‘portals’, and if you’re not open to them, they’ll go and find someone who is. I get the impression that she means actual gulfstreams of ideas, just as she seems to mean actual angels when she talks about angels.
I too entertain some unverifiable ideas, though I don’t have Gilbert’s ability to believe in discrete, human-like supernatural entities. But for writing purposes, I’ve found that pretending to believe can be useful. Our imaginations believe and act on what we tell them.
Back when I was writing the first draft of Acts of Love, I tussled with the character who eventually turned out to be Stella. At that point she had a different name, and having written a few chapters, I couldn’t figure out anything further about her or what she might do. Stuck stuck stuck. One day I got myself into a bit of a makebelieve trance and told her I’d ‘interview’ her. My agreement with myself was that she temporarily existed outside the world of the book. She was to talk to me, the writer, about the way I was writing her, and about what might happen to her in the novel. Then I wrote non-stop in my notebook in ‘her’ voice for about forty-five minutes. Amongst a load of twaddle, she said something which changed the direction of her character: ‘I’m not as angry as you’re making me out to be.’
That was a surprise. At the time I couldn’t see any way for her not to be fundamentally furious. But over the following months she changed shape (and name) into a less whiny, more active person. I’m not suggesting that I actually communed with her ‘spirit’. I knew, at the time, that I was fooling myself. And I understood that something in me knew more about her character than I consciously knew at the time.
In the same Radiolab podcast that I linked to above, Gilbert also talks about finding the title for her bestseller Eat Pray Love. Essentially, this consisted of gently asking the manuscript to reveal its name to her.
I thought this sounded a little kooky (though really I wish I had Gilbert’s ability to believe like this – it’s as though she never became divorced from that childlike part of herself), but historically I’ve been bad with titles. I still haven’t officially graduated my MA – ten years this year – because I’ve been too embarrassed by my collection’s title to lodge it in the university library. I really must get onto that.
Recently I needed to find the title for a story and having just listened to the podcast, thought I’d trick my imagination into setting up a quick link into my conscious mind. There’s a fairly left-field body-mind thing that I do, so I did that, and asked the story for its title, and ta-da, there it was. Not perfect, not particularly memorable (‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’) but good enough for a deadline and a lot better than any of my previous attempts.
This idea that so much of what we write comes out of the non-cognitive parts of our minds does fascinate me. In the Guardian Weekly (11.02.11), John Gray wrote in the The Hunt for Immortality that H. G. Wells, having absorbed Darwinism, was convinced that humanity would become extinct unless right-thinking people seized control of evolution. He thought the Bolsheviks would do a great job of creating a higher species, and found Lenin ‘very refreshing’. He wrote that if the Soviet state killed lots of people, ‘it did on the whole kill for a reason and for an end’. Chilling.
However, Gray points out,
“His scientific romances tell a very different story. When the time traveller journeys into the future, in The Time Machine, he finds a world built on cannibalism, with the delicate Eloi seemingly content to be farmed as food for the brutish morlocks, and travelling on into the far future finds a darkening Earth where the only life is green slime. In The Island of Dr Moreau the visionary vivisectionist performs vile experiments on animals with the aim of remaking them as humans. The result is the ugly, tormeted “best-folk” – a travesty of humanity.
Wells’s fables were a kind of automatic writing – messages from his subliminal self that his conscious mind dismissed. They teach a lesson starkly at odds with the one he spent his life preaching: the advance of knowledge cannot deliver humans from themselves, and if they use science to direct the course of evolution the result will be monsters. This was Wells’s true vision, always inwardly denied, and for much of his life expressed only in his scientific romances.”
Gray suggests that despite what Wells thought he believed about the construction of a ‘higher species’, Wells’s subconscious knew better: that it was wiser, closer to the truth, and more far-seeing. (Though ‘closer to the truth’ just shows my own biases.)
How can we know ourselves well enough so that, maybe, we can write the strongest stuff in us without it having to trickle down through the convoluted pathways and firewalls we may have set up between our dreamworld and our conscious minds? The best way I’ve found, so far, is just to write, and write some more. More on that another time.