Tales from Wherever Ideas Come from: Don’t Listen to What Writers Say

“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.”

“Hit me.”

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.”


Tales from My Street: Being More Yourself by Being Someone Else

“Do you think you have your own style, Nige?”

“Yeah, people look at one of my plaster board ceilings and know straight away it’s a fecking Perkins.”

We’re in the Tavern, talking during a pub quiz drinks break. Nige doesn’t ever officially take part in the quiz, preferring to snipe in from the side when he knows the answer to a question and stick to slurping lager when he doesn’t.

This can lead to somewhat bizarre conversations, like earlier:

Me: “Seen the latest Fringe yet?”

Nige: “Elton John!”

Me: “The one where they break out of the amber.”

Nige: “Great White fecking shark!”

Me: “We could just form a team, you know.”

Nige: “Piers Brosnan!”

Now, I get in two more drinks and say, “It’s just that I’ve been writing this story for a magazine that for one issue wants stories written in the way of Ray Bradbury.”

“Now, there was a proper writer,” he says. “Fahrenheit 451 was a brilliant book. Mind you, the Establishment don’t really need to burn fecking books anymore, do they, because the internet’s turned everyone illiterate anyway.”

“I thought it would kind of stifle my individuality, to write like someone else. But it’s actually made me work harder on aspects of my writing that I didn’t realise were missing or kind of weak.”

“I think it’s the same with anything, Tel. Take football. You start out copying all the top players; picking up their tricks – we all do that as kids. But the kid who gets noticed by the scouts is the one who’s doing his own thing. The one who spends hours every day just kicking a ball against a wall and controlling it.”

“And were you that kid, Nige?”

“No, I was the kid who wanted to do everything – football, cricket, cycling, even fecking Meccano. I never had that single-mindedness you need to succeed. Anyway – so that lone kid gets taken on by some big club, along with a load of other apprentices. But only about one in ten will make it.”

“Is that one in ten the kid who works the hardest at his technique?” I say.

He grins. “How the feck should I know. I wasn’t that kid, remember? But I do have a theory.”

There is a loud buzz and crackle as the quizmaster’s microphone fires up.

“Once you get past that first stage,” says Nige, “you have to kind of turn it all on its head. Instead of doing your own thing, you have to learn by copying everyone around you who’s better than you. Absorb what they do into your own thing.”

“I think I see that. Good theory.”

“Doris Day!”




Back home, I take a glass of whisky into the conservatory and sit with it in the dark. Or the semi-dark, I should say, since light from my neighbour’s safety beam is helpfully flitting over his high fence to illuminate the suspicious undersides of the leaves on our various bushes and small trees.

I think about what Nige said. Although he’d claimed it was just a theory, I think he might have been on to something.

The Bradbury-inspired story I’ve been working on has been a new experience for me. Normally, I get a vision or a feeling or a theme, then work out form it, into the plot. But now, there is another presence working on the story. It isn’t Ray Bradbury himself, of course, since I never met him. But I have been reading a very good biography about him called, ‘On Becoming Ray Bradbury’. It was published in 2011, the year before he died, and the author, Jonathan R. Eller, had full cooperation from his subject, including access to papers, letters, early drafts, unpublished stories, etc.

I’ve been moved by how much I identify with Bradbury’s approach to writing. I learned the same lesson as he, for example, about how my work was never going to really resonate until I accessed my deeper emotions. And I fully chime with his determination to walk what he called a ‘lonely, but a fine path’ between the two imposter: the hacks, as he called them, on the one hand, and the literary intellectuals on the other.

So, while I don’t know Ray personally, I feel a strong kinship with why he wrote.

Writing this story feels like stepping to one side of oneself, almost like collaborating with someone else, to steer myself in a new direction. Or perhaps it’s more like stepping to one side of one’s old self and collaborating with one’s future self.

Whatever, it’s made me more aware than normal of every word choice. Not exactly, “What would Ray do?”, but more like checking with that presence if the story is staying true to the combination of theme, emotion and prose choice that was agreed at the outset.

And within that, I’ve felt the story take on its own life, different to the way my stories have gone in the past.

I switch on my laptop and email Shedders in California about all this. It’s around 5 pm there.

Within minutes he emails back to say:


I wonder if by writing in the style of another writer you can evacuate something about yourself that then lets some other weight or talent come through?Could it be that an aspect of how ‘you’ write (almost imagine Bradbury had to copy your style, what would he have to observe that is quintessentially you?) stops other aspects coming through?An example, for me: in trying less hard to be convincing about coaching / training, the part of me that was convinced came through – which in itself was convincing . . . Just a thought, old bean – maybe ‘being Ray’ made you more yourself in some way.




Postscript: I sent ‘Guy’ to Penumbra magazine for their Bradbury-themed issue and on 9th December they emailed me to say it had been accepted.

Tales from the Past: Ghosts in the Memory

It’s around two in the morning and I can’t sleep. I go to my study and think about switching on the computer, but instead raise the blinds and look out at the night garden.

Lately, I’ve felt that the fictional stories I write and my real life stories are running together. It’s not that I don’t know which is which, but more that I’m not sure where the most truth lies.

For example, at the moment I’m writing a chapter of “Subbuteo for the Soul”, set in September 1977. Shedders and I were in Ireland, for the first time. He spent a week exploring his family routes while I spent some time in Dublin before hitching west to meet up with him in Killarney.

I know the bones of what happened because I have a diary from 1977, and this particular scene took place in Cork, after Sheds and I had parted again, to make our respective ways home.

I’d taken over seven hours to hitch-hike 40 miles, and realised I’d have to spend the night there. Up till then, I’d been mostly camping but it was late and I didn’t know if there was even a campsite around.

Things of course were different in the 70s, and things are different when you’re in your early twenties. So it was that in my green boots, beard, long hair and lumberjack shirt, I went into a little pub and started talking to the regulars there.

I can’t of course remember, and probably didn’t know anyway, what they really thought of me. But I think they liked something in my sense of adventure. Perhaps they could tell I was genuinely open to Irish culture, even if I couldn’t possibly understand it in a two week visit. I might even have told them about the Irishman who gave me a lift and who’d talked passionately about the Potato Famine. In my ignorance, I’d assumed it must have happened during his lifetime, so vividly did he recall the injustice of what the English had done to the Irish. But of course, it took place in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Cork locals bought me drinks but when I said I had nowhere to stay the night, no one offered to take me home with them. But they did have another suggestion to make . . .

I sit here now, watching the swaying trees in the London night, and my thoughts try to arc back, bypassing 35 years of jobs and relationships and movies watched and holidays and dozens of novels written . . .

“You could stay at the old school,” says one of the locals. I’m feeling a little unsteady from the Guinness but I swear his mates are smiling oddly, like they do at the start of a horror movie.

But instead of grabbing my rucksack and taking my chances on the streets of Cork, I do exactly what the outsider dupe in the movies does and say, “Sounds great. Where is it?”

Then the pub’s closed and I’m walking up an unlit lane in the midnight dark. The road curves around to the right then opens up into a wide expanse of tarmac in front of a huge Gothic-looking building that’s utterly dark.

I go to the front door of the school and knock but really don’t expect anyone to respond.

Yet the door opens, weak yellow light falling out into the yard.

“Hello,” says a tiny girl, maybe eight years old. Dimly, I wonder why she isn’t in bed.

“Sorry to bother you,” I say. “But is there anywhere for me to stay around here?”

She points behind me. “The old school room’s open. You can sleep there.”

I thank her and head over to a one-room building, its windows sheening faint silver in the moonlight. It’s not locked and I go inside. I can’t find a light switch but can see enough by the moon to appreciate that I’m in a Victorian kind of room: long wooden benches, a standalone blackboard, high teacher’s desk at the front.

I get out my sleeping bag and lay it on one of the benches. I’m tired so despite the strangeness of my surroundings, I fall asleep quickly. I’m not sure if I’m dreaming or half-awake and hearing reality but for some time there are strange muffled sounds from outside, soft scratchings, faint cooings . . .

I don’t know what time it is, but a couple of hours later, I fully wake and sit up.

Just inside the doorway stands a man in a glowing white suit. He doesn’t have a coat or any luggage with him.

He speaks to me but I can’t quite make out his words.

“Sorry,” I say. “I didn’t catch what you said.”

“Do you know how I can get to the bus station?” I think he says.

Absurdly, I tell him I’m not sure but I he could try going back to the main road then turn left and keep walking.

He thanks me and leaves. I go back to sleep.

When I wake up in the morning to normal sunlight showing me just how dusty and neglected this room is, I ask myself some questions, like, what was he doing here in the middle of the night? How did he even find it? Why would he be looking for the bus station at an hour when no buses are running? And why didn’t he have any luggage with him?

I pack away my sleeping bag and go across to the main building, intending to thank the little girl for letting me stay here. But although I knock on the door again, it’s clear that the building is deserted, derelict even. No one lives here.

And now I realise the guys in the pub knew that.

This is what I wrote in my diary that day:


“Saturday, 10th September, 1977: Seven and a half hours to hitch 40 miles. Irish must know I’m English and haven’t forgotten the Potato Famine. End up trundling down to Cork where locals buy me a pint or two. Then stagger into some kind of old school where nice little girl shows me where to sleep. Crash out on old classroom benches. Weird noises all night and mysterious man in white suit appears about 2 a.m., mumbles a few things then takes off.”


Here and now in my London street, I feel in my mind and heart and spirit that strange but utterly natural confluence of myth and event and perception.

What is the truth? I don’t think it’s just the description of an event, or even the mythical interpretation of it. A ghost? A real man in a white suit that just happened to seem to glow in the moonlight, who really was looking for a bus station? A little girl who was actually a folk archetype? Or a real girl who lived in the back of the building where her family had made a home despite the main school being decrepit?

The real truth is story. The reason it has lost some of its grasp on our minds today is because we’ve become polarised between, for instance, Evolutionary Theory on the one hand and Creationism on the other.

As I sit here tonight, weighing the value of my memories and searching them for stories that others may enjoy, I feel comfortable in not accepting either pole. Happy to just not know.

I don’t believe in ghosts but I think that man in Cork in 1977 really was one.