The Two Dreaded Questions for a Writer


Where do you get your ideas from?

What is it about?

I am incredibly fond of Neil Gaiman’s answer to the first question.

I make them up… Out of my head.’

In fact he has an excellent essay on the subject, or more accurately on the creative process, the link to which I will hide somewhere in the essay in the hope that I can entice you to read this entire blog post first. It’s not like he needs the web traffic.

Whilst I am on a roll with quotes, I see this one from Barbara Hepworth as being a good metaphor for the dreaded question regarding what your book is about.

It would very difficult to explain in words the full context of a sculpture….
you can open the door, however, to a fuller understanding.”

I am on holiday at the moment, which means not only that I get to go out and explore, but if, whilst out I discover new inspirations to replenish my store of ideas, and the mood takes me to write something different for my blog, then I have time to sit down and do it.

Having heard effusive praise for the Barbara Hepworth museum in St. Ives from my sister-in-law and her family as well as my parents, we made a point of making sure to visit it whilst we are down in Cornwall.

Firstly, if you are anywhere near St. Ives you have to go, trust me on this, it is well worth the visit.

It pretty quickly started firing the writer bits of my brain into gear. One of the first things I loved wasn’t even the sculptures, but whilst going through the initial exhibit on her life there was a wonderful series of photographs that showed Hepworth through the years, ageing but staying absolutely herself. I love how the series showed a sculptor who had found something of the essence of who they were early in their life, and that her bearing and the relation to her work remained through the years. There was something profoundly beautiful about it.

Then there was the work itself. There is always something essentially tactile about sculpture, and it is always this art form that seems to call to me to be touched, even if there are entirely appropriate signs reminding me that I am not allowed to.

All my early memories are of forms and shapes and textures. Moving through and over the West Riding landscape with my father in his car, the hills were sculptures; the roads defined the form. Above all, there was the sensation of moving physically over the contours of fulnesses and concavities, through hollows and over peaks – feeling, touching, seeing, through mind and hand and eye. This sensation has never left me. I, the sculptor, am the landscape. I am the form and I am the hollow, the thrust and the contour.

I won’t steal the moments of discovery from you should you go there yourself, but the photo at the start of this blog is from Conversation with Magic Stones, and even before I knew the title it spoke to me of someone who was familiar with Britain’s prehistoric monuments.

I had already been put into that place where mind and heart were open to creation, and this is where the ideas come from. That spark, a reaction to something we’ve seen or connect to in that moment.

That’s the easy part. Then come the hours of trying to craft together what you want to create out of what your talents and hours of practice allow you to actually do.

To stretch a metaphor dangerously thin, a story is a sculpture honed out of words and ideas. (That is it with that metaphor I promise, but if you’re too upset to continue then the Neil Gaiman blog is here but please bear with me, I’m nearly done)

I could explain a story to you, but never fully, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Part of the process for me once that first draft is finished, is to hone and whittle what I have written into what is needed to best tell that story. There are always favourite ideas that have to be cut because they don’t serve the story, things working away in the background that don’t need to be shown.

Sometime a little mystery is the best polish for a story. Sometimes too much mystery leaves your editor confused. Luckily, if you have fully realised your world then you know the answers needed to make sure your bemused editor, and therefore your readers, can follow what is going on.

Of course, if you don’t have those details then you can always make them up.

Language is an imperfect tool, and all art produces different reactions in different people so I don’t think I could fully explain one of my stories to you even if I wanted to. If I could then what would be the point in writing it in the first place.

I know that I make up stories out of my head in response to the world around me. I never truly know what art, science, maths, philosophy, history, or any other aspect of the world is going to spark my next idea.

I just keep an open mind and make sure to make a note of it when the spark happens.

I know that somewhere in my brain an alien monument is subtly altering the brainwaves of the visitors to a sculpture museum in England, but to what end I can not say.

I haven’t written that far yet…