“Ben – why don’t you ask me where my ideas come from?”
“Why the hell would I do that? You just get them don’t you?”
“I knew this wasn’t going to be easy . . . ”
We’re in the Mr Morris wine bar, pretending to be sated on olives, bread and Cheddar. Perhaps hunger is making him grumpy again.
“No, it’s just that us writers are always being asked where our ideas come from.”
“Really? How many times have you been asked that?”
Hmmm. Actually, I can’t recall the last time, if ever. What I should have said is that other writers are always saying they get asked where their ideas come from.
“Well,” I say, “the point is, ideas don’t come from the Ideas Shop in Lewisham.”
I’m paraphrasing several writers here, like Neil Gaiman who I think said ‘Bognor Regis’.
He spits out an olive pip which bounces off his plate on to the floor. “I know they don’t come from the fecking Ideas Shop. They come out of your head.”
This isn’t going well. I’d intended for us to have a conversation that I could then repeat to my writing group, so they could get the point that . . . well, I’m no longer sure what the point is.
“Look, Terry,” Ben says. “Writers are always coming out with this kind of crap. They bullshit about everything, like saying they sit down at nine a.m. and don’t stop writing till 5 p.m., yet most of them only produce a novel every three years or so. Which works out at about 80 words a day, or ten words an hour. My cat can write fiction faster than that. Writers can’t help it – they’re story-tellers, after all, so they exaggerate everything, including themselves.”
“Okay, but there still must be something different about the head of a writer, to get those ideas coming in.”
He takes a large gulp of wine. “So, why don’t you tell me where you really get your ideas from.”
And something in his expression makes me pause, not reach for the easy answer I had ready to deliver. I frown, strongly. He turns his head quizzically. I look at the ceiling fan: no ideas there. I glance at the other customers. Nope. Just chat and cheese there.
I pick up the empty wine bottle and take it the bar.
“What’ll it be, Terry?” says Robert.
Normally, I’d say ‘house white’, but instead I say, “Got a nice English red?”
“Yup but it’s pricey.”
Back at our table, Ben raises an eyebrow at the bottle of red.
“I think,” I say, filling our glasses, “that it’s not so much a case of where do ideas come from as making the effort to push through the obvious, easy ones that anyone can get.”
“That sounds better. Go on.”
“It’s like when you’re having a conversation with five or six people, and you’re talking about religion.”
“Isn’t that one of the subjects you’re supposed to never talk about?”
“In pubs, yes; but let’s pretend we’re having a nice dinner party at Lucy’s place. So, as soon as you open the subject, everyone in the room will try to finish it, close it down, have it neutralised, even finish your sentences for you.”
“Because brains like to complete things, not leave them open?”
“Yes,” I say, “which is maybe why crosswords are so popular: because they’re completeable. Anyway, I think the same thing goes on with our own brains. As soon as we think of a theme or vision or concept, our brains want to complete it.”
“And the problem there is that anything real actually can’t be finished or explained.”
“I think the best ideas are the ones that are open to mystery and wonder. Which means to get to them, you have to fight off all the obvious, known and over-explored ideas that want to get into your head and finish off the thought for you.”
“But isn’t a story a finished thing, with a satisfying ending and all that?”
He’s got a point. You’d lose a lot of readers if you didn’t complete your stories, and offer some kind of resolution. Hmmm.
“So,” I say, “maybe the trick is to come up with an idea that’s open then you explore it within a story that’s got a completeable structure.”
“‘Close Encounters of a Third Kind’? There’s a definite ending: the Earth people go into the alien ship, which has been the plot drive for the film. But what exactly was driving them there – at least the non-selected people – is left open. It might be a religious or spiritual impulse, or the need for a different life; it doesn’t matter: it’s fundamental enough for everyone watching to understand.”
“And what about the opposite: where the idea is closed and therefore mutes the ending? ‘Star Wars’?”
“Now you’re being controversial. Millions love those films.”
“Yes but is the ending really that satisfactory? Isn’t it just a straightforward completion of the good guys winning out over the bad guys?”
“Well, there is the ‘force’ too.”
Ben snorts. “And what exactly is the force?”
“Search me. Something to do with us being luminous beings, I think. Or is that Carlos Castaneda?”
He pours more wine. “Sounds like you need to think about this a bit more.”
He’s right. As is often the case when I’m trying to unravel a lesson for the writing group, I find there’s a lot more I don’t know than I do.
For example, is the ending of Close Encounters better than Star Wars because the idea that’s driving the story is kept open? I haven’t heard many people besides Ben claim the end of Star Wars as disappointing. Then again, I can’t actually remember it now. Something about small furry bear-things dancing in the firelight and the guy getting the girl, and the force being with them, rather than with the bloke with the smoker’s voice?
Ben lets me think it through. While he’s understandably irritated that publishing has turned into a rush for the money pot and therefore small shops like his can’t compete with bigger stores and Amazon, he’s still a lover of good stories.
So, I begin to see that, as with any kind of real learning, training, struggle to improve, it’s necessary for a writer to work with contradictions like the one we’re discussing. To ‘complete’ them is just to become a slave to them, in effect.
“I understand the need for certainty,” I say, “especially when people are still new to learning how to write. But I’m beginning to see that I also have to encourage those of my group that are serious about it, to learn to work with apparent contradictions.”
“Open and closed?” he says. “Maybe the answer isn’t that the plot is closed and the characters open, or vice versa, but that they’re both closed and open at the same time.”
“Like your book shop?”
“Very funny. If you hadn’t bought this rather nice red, I’d rescind your 10% discount.”