At a literary event I heard someone say, “The thing to do is put the idea in your subconscious. Your brain will do the work.”
It takes time for our experience to make its way through our consciousness. For example, it is hard to write about a journey while you are still in the midst of the adventure. We have no distance from what is happening to us. The only things we seem to be able to say are “having a great time”, “the weather is good”, “wish you were here”. It is also hard to write about a place we just moved to, we haven’t absorbed it yet. We don’t really know where we are, even if we can walk to the train station without losing our way. We haven’t experienced three scorching summers in this country or seen the dolphins migrating south along the coast in the winter.
“Maybe away from Paris I could write about Paris as in Paris I could write about Michigan. I did not know it was too early for that because I did not know Paris well enough.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964).
So we take in experience, but we need to let things make their way through our consciousness for a while and be absorbed by our whole selves. We are bower birds, collecting experience, and from the thrown away apple skins, outer lettuce layers, tea leaves, and chicken bones of our minds come our ideas for stories and poems and songs. But this does not come any time soon. It takes a very long time (three to ten years in the case of literary fiction). We need to keep picking through those scraps until some of the thoughts together form a pattern or can be organised around a central theme, something we can shape into a narrative. We mine our hidden thoughts for ideas. But the ideas need time to percolate: to slowly filter through.
Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi poet, summed up what could be the creative process when he wrote “The Guest House”:
This being human is a guest house.
Each morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing and invite
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Jalaluddin Rumi, in The Essential Rumi
Translated by Coleman Barks, 1999
Our work is to keep rummaging through the rubbish bins of our minds, exercising the writing muscle, in readiness to answer that knock at the door when it comes.
As the author Vivian Gornick said, “The writers life is the pits. You live alone and you work alone, every day I have to recreate myself.” She paused and laughed. “But when the work is going well there is nothing that compares.”
What about you? Are you ready to answer the knock at the door?