Swimming With Books

A writer's reading journal, & sundry other notes.

Where do ideas come from?

with 9 comments

Benjamin Franklin's map of the Gulf Stream

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.

Are those eyes benign or scary?

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.

Written by Susan Pearce

June 6, 2011 at 10:04 pm

Posted in Essay

Tagged with ,

9 Responses

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  1. Thanks for that thoughtful and illuminating post Susan. Loved your interview with Stella. I also love the way you put Elisabeth Gilbert’s rather waffly ideas to practical use. Your post reminds me of Jim Crace who told a Writers and Readers audience in Wellington – ‘I’m a writer – I make things up!’

    Jan Farr

    June 7, 2011 at 12:02 pm

    • Thanks Jan. I suspect that Gilbert has a steeliness that balances the waffle factor: something has to account for her disciplined writing life.

      Susan Pearce

      June 7, 2011 at 12:32 pm

  2. I appreciate your thoughts here, Susan. This strikes me, however, as a misreading of Wells. He was a very young Herbert when he wrote his great romantic novel, The Time Machine; and a very mature Herbert when he embraced — or I would say, was embraced by — the political snake of Bolshevism. Something tells me this talk of the writing process, of the sub-conscious, of “characters coming alive on the page, telling me what to do etc” (a modern banality, let’s be honest) is something the Bolshevik writers of today would call refreshing. For a comedian like Gilbert, and for her flock, I find myself compelled to buff the gold-plated sign beneath a genius like Wells: “Please do not touch.”

    Can I recommend you have a look at my comments on “The Poet as Absent-Minded Neuroscientist“? This is as far as I go on the topic of a “writing process,” and it’s perhaps too pseudo-scientific for my taste (in retrospect); but you may find it relevant to your post.



    June 25, 2011 at 1:40 am

    • Hi Zireaux. Thanks for your comment. Your insight on Wells is interesting. Not being an expert on the man or his writings, I’ve taken John Gray at his word. Maybe he has conflated Wells’ career to make a point. Neither do I know enough about the details of Bolshevism to be able to grasp exactly why current Bolshevik writers (who are they?) would be keen on ‘talk of the writing process, of the subconscious [etc]’. Would you enlighten me?

      I gather that you don’t like ‘talk of the writing process’: it’s something I like to think about, because it hasn’t been a straightforward path for me, though is becoming more so. I use ‘sub-conscious’ pretty loosely, and mean by it ‘what we don’t know we know’. As far as the modern banality, I’d hoped to make clear in the post that like Nabokov (‘my characters are galley slaves’), I too dislike the notion that the character can take over from the writer like some external spirit.

      I’m amused that you recommend I look at comments that you now find beneath you. I enjoyed your discussion of Larkin and Nabokov. ‘Pseudo-science’: the word comes in useful to describe quacks or the over-enthusiastic of any description using mock-science to try to market unproven theories. However, it’s inevitable that those of us who are fascinated by what neurology, quantum physics, cosmology etc tell us (insofar as we understand it) will try to draw some parallels with what we do know. If we’re not to become quacks ourselves, we have to be aware of the biases of the ‘science writers’ we read or listen to, and of when the scientists themselves correct us. Those conditions set in place, I think it’s misleading to call those discussions ‘pseudo-science’.

      Susan Pearce

      June 27, 2011 at 8:56 pm

  3. Susan, you’re very charming; a pleasure to respond. Galley slaves indeed!

    I suppose every era has its Bolsheviks, its philistines, its Oprahs and Chopras, its creative writing schools, Red Books and Facebooks, gurus and Gilrus, Rasputins and RasPalins.

    Interesting if we compare three of the English literary sensations of the fin de siècle period — Twain, Kipling, Wells. International luminaries, all three. Sought after world-wide for their views on politics, science, futurism. Twain, bankrupt Twain, having toured the globe, comes away least scathed by such mundanities, his artistic heart still beating strong (real heart flagging). Kipling grabs politics by the horns — a mistake, no doubt, impaled as he was — but at least in my mind he chose the most honorable fight. I’d let Kipling cast my vote on just about any issue, any day.

    Wells, however, Wells is a tragic case. To me the secret to John Gray’s article lies in Wells’s “flash of passion” for Gorky’s partner and Soviet spy, Moura Budberg. Wells lacked the word-love of Twain and Kipling. His verse — the few lines of it I’ve been able to locate (not including the doggerel of Ann Veronica) is badly tuned. His art, it seems to me, relies primarily on the strength of his loins. Gray calls Wells’s works “Scientific Romances.” I call them “Romances,” but anything is better than “Science Fiction,” which, although it might apply to someone like Verne, is a travesty for the genius Wells possessed.

    If you enjoy the stark asphalt-and-plastic pathway from Nabokov to neuroscience, you might want to read Brian Boyd’s book — The Origin of Stories. For my part, however, I find little of interest in such works.


    June 29, 2011 at 12:01 am

    • Zireaux, thank you for that comparison of Twain, Kipling and Wells. The example of some contemporary writers (e.g. McEwan & Amis) would reinforce your point that it is indeed dangerous for writers to venture into commentary on politics, etc: that it does result, as you say, in mundanities.

      I do reflect on how to get myself sitting at the desk (no podium here) when there’s the opportunity. And I like to think about how to generate more ideas and get over that block where you just don’t know where the story’s going. Thus my posts on the writing process.

      However, although I appreciate your book recommendation, I don’t think I’ll get to it. What keeps me listening to science podcasts etc is not that I want to know the scientific detail of how the ‘creative mind’ works. It’s simply that I love the weird ideas which speak to us about a possible reality we can only begin to imagine. I don’t *think* I want to write science fiction, but it seems to me that even if our narratives describe events as we know them in this mechanical world, our narrative structures must begin to reflect the strain that this new knowledge places on us. Don’t ask me what I mean by that: I’m just beginning to figure it out.

      Susan Pearce

      June 29, 2011 at 2:34 pm

  4. […] markets, collaborative writing (O God help us), writers who ruminate upon the writing process (see discussion on the topic with Susan Pearce), and the general act of writing just for the sake of it — which recalls stanza 14 of Res […]

  5. Hi Susan
    Thoughtful blog, Susan. I agree that ‘believing’ helps the imagination create characters. And the cliche is true: they become real and tell or dictate (personality-wise) the story to an extent. Children seem to get this – they quickly ‘believe’ in characters when writing or reading. I use a 3-D image in writing workshops as a model of how tangible a character is. The Wells book sounds great: I love his short stories (esp. Country of the Blind). Cheers, Raymond.

    Raymond Huber

    July 25, 2011 at 3:50 pm

  6. […] A parting under the greenwood tree A delicate passion of pain And soberly I return to my Mature and elegant Jane. Some comments on these lines in a moment…but first, the subject of Wells’s poetry arose in an on-line exchange with Susan Pierce, author of Acts of Love (University of Victoria Press), over her stimulating blog post, Where do ideas come from? […]

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