I've heard persuasive arguments that it could be because because a writer's main fear is running out of ideas, so the process has to be swaddled in superstition and mystery, left unexamined, for fear of stultifying it. But there are others who argue that the idea generation process can be examined and even jump-started. Scarlett Thomas, in her book Monkeys with Typewriters, has fascinating things to say about how writers deliberately weave together elements of their experience into new forms (Scarlett herself wrote her fourth book by making a list of everything she was interested in at the time and challenging herself to include it all - and the result is an excellent, fascinating novel of ideas). Neil Gaiman has very interesting things to say about the dreaded 'ideas' question here. Ideas, he concludes, come from somewhere simple: 'I make them up. Out of my head.' His answer is an honest one, of course. At root, there doesn't need to be a mystery. But still we look for explanations.
At an event I attended recently, the ideas question came up. It was in a slightly different form here: 'Which books or experiences inspire you to write?', I think. There were about eight or nine writers at this event (including me), and something fascinating happened: our answers were all different.
Firstly, there were those people who talked about the books that had inspired them, or where they saw themselves fitting into the great body of existing literature: my work is X meets Y; I loved Z's books, but wanted to do something slightly different with the theme. Secondly, there were people who spoke about ideas coming from life, things overheard or read or observed or dwelt upon until a story emerged. I tried to talk about craft. I said something vague about voice, I think, The Catcher in the Rye being an instrumental part of my own development as a writer, wanting to capture the human voice with a strength like Salinger's. I felt at the time what an unsatisfactory answer it was. No one writes a whole book, 100,000 words, and crafts it and struggles over it and brings it to life, because they're mildly fascinated by the way Salinger presents the character of Holden Caulfield on page 111. Of course they don't. The thought itself is ridiculous, like suggesting an Olympic swimmer swims because they once enjoyed a seaside holiday in Torbay. That thing might be the catalyst; it certainly isn't the fundamental heart of the matter. But all of our answers were true. We were talking about all the millions of different things that happen in life and literature and language and thinking that can spark the beginnings of something more: a work of literature, a story.
Then, one or two writers spoke about something very different, something more urgent that can only be described as their mission, their vocation. They talked about wanting to capture experiences - of nationality, or identity - or narratives, or ways of writing, that had, as yet, and painfully so, no place in the literature they loved. They stopped talking about ideas and started talking about their fundamental drive to write. And I think those writers tapped a vein into an entirely different truth, an exciting one - that has nothing and everything to do with where ideas come from. It's a truth to do with where the writer themselves comes from. Raymond Carver, one of my favourite writers, called one of his short story collections 'Where I'm Calling From'. These writers knew exactly where they were calling from. They knew what they were trying to do, and it made me look back at my own writing and wonder if I could say the same.
I came away grateful for the way that these writers had gone beyond the question of ideas and addressed something else important that I knew I had to think about. So I went back to my hotel room and thought. In the end, the conclusion I came to was startling: when people ask about ideas, they aren't really asking about the main thing, the reason writers write. And that deeper thing is less mysterious than the ideas themselves, once you look at it carefully, and also more fundamental. A story overheard on a bus or a local news article about a weird event isn't the thing itself, or not exactly. It opens a vein, lights a spark - it's the road we travel in a more ancient and perilous journey towards truth. To borrow Seamus Heaney's metaphor: like divining for water, it opens the way into the story. The idea chimes with something half-remembered, half-known - and if writers are vague when talking about the ideas, what I realised as I researched this further is that they're often able to talk about this deeper motivation with startling clarity. They always have been.
So for example my favourite writer, Derek Walcott, a Nobel prizewinner, has an urgent vocation as a writer to tell certain truths. He writes out of a fierce desire to put down in words the island which he comes from, St Lucia, an island of startling beauty and reality which never had a place in the literature he loved as a boy. Salman Rushdie, interviewed about Midnight's Children, spoke about not finding a book that was true to the India he knew, and setting out to create that book. Isabel Allende, discussing The House of the Spirits, has spoken of wanting to record stories and experiences belonging to her family, her childhood, with a kind of urgency that compelled her to write, that showed her where the story was going when she started with no map and no idea. And all of these writers are innovative in the way they approach craft, just as all of the new writers whose work I had the pleasure of hearing a few weeks ago were innovative. Out of the wish to tell a new thing, a new way of telling emerges.
I believe that somewhere in a writer's career, often quite early, a fundamental shift happens. You go from seeing the world as material for your writing - looking for ideas - to seeing the world as a particular set of experiences or realities that you have witnessed and want to uphold and capture - looking for ways to tell the truth as you know it. It's a complete reversal. Instead of recreating reality, you mine the depths of your reality and bring it forth intact, upholding its worth. Instead of asking yourself where you can find material for a story, you ask yourself how you can tell the stories around you, the existing stories about the world that haven't been written before, so that they can be lit up with the light of significance. When this happens, you realise that you have a kind of mission - you've had it all along. Most writers have it, I'm certain. Most writers, I'm certain, start from a love for the craft and with a true, urgent story they want to tell. These dual impulses are where your writing comes from, and the ideas are difficult to talk about because they're the unpredictable part, the sparks and connections that show the way in.
I realised suddenly that I know where I'm calling from: I must have always known it, at some subterranean level. I write about the small person, the ordinary family or community, in history, and I always have. That's where The Last Descendants came from; that's what preoccupied me the most, and what I kept returning to. Probably I'll go on telling the same story in new ways, sparked by new ideas, with every book I write. And I'm OK with that. In fact, I'm in good company. George Eliot kept riffing beautifully on the theme of disappointment and no one minded, and I'm sure Thomas Hardy's publishers weren't disappointed when he wrote a third, a fourth, a fifth book about chances missed and lives become tragic. In fact, it's better. Probably, it's what every writer I admire does: keep telling the one true story that hasn't been told before until you're satisfied you've done it justice, or at least done your best. And if we ask, 'Well then, if ideas are just the catalyst, where does that central thread come from?', there's no mystery. It comes, like Neil Gaiman said, from inside your head, from you. Your own particular reality. I'd imagine Neil Gaimain's own driving force is probably something like his sense of wonder, of mystery, of magic. It's certainly something that comes out strongly and in beautiful variations from his work and his sense of purpose as a writer.
I wrote, ten days ago, in my post about starting a new project, that an important part of the research and planning process as a writer involves examining your own perspective carefully, and deciding what your concerns are. Beginning a new piece of writing demands that you turn your vision inward to consider which stories you actually want to tell, which stories you think need to be brought into the light of the world, and whether you can do these stories justice. Somehow, I've ended up writing about people on the edges of Europe, people whose reality is a small town at the edge of a bigger world, whose ambitions are large and small at the same time, and what happens to them when history knocks at their door. That's where my ideas come from - or, rather, where my ideas lead. That's probably the plot of every single book I'll ever write, if you dig down far enough. And if I decide my central concern as a writer is something different, it will more likely be because I've seen it more clearly than because it's changed.
That's where I'm calling from. I hope it doesn't spoil the mystery. Because, of course, it's only the very beginning of the story.