I’ve long been curious where artists, thinkers, writers, et al obtain their inspiration. If it’s true that writing is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration, where does that 10 percent hide? In years past I could count on a car trip to provide ideas, and almost always they were “big ideas”—usually a screenplay or a novel. But in those instances I had to be driving, and in every single instance while driving alone; when I was but a humble passenger nothing would come save for the urge to subtly tell the driver (usually my spouse) to please slow down and would you mind turning off the radio, I can’t stand your music.
More irritating than that (from my perspective at least; I can’t imagine what my spouse would be irritated with) was how, when I was driving, an idea would inevitably surface unexpectedly, and before I could pull over safely and write it down or dictate it into a phone, it would evaporate into the stale air of the car. Even with the memory-addling that comes our way with age, I am aware I lost at least three ideas for full-length stories. If the ideas were so great, why haven’t they come back? Because that’s not how creativity works. Of the many resonant clichés about the creative process, possibly the most accurate one is that it’s not possible to wake up and say to the world “Today is the day! Here comes the next Booker Award winner!”
In fairness, other ideas that have emerged while I was driving and that I remembered have blossomed into three full-length projects that, though they have thus far amounted to nothing, were beneficial to my development as an artist. They were, in other words, good experiences. And we all know what “experience” is: “that what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”
What is also niggling about the phenomenon of ideas lost/ideas recalled is, even though there’s no real reason to believe the lost ideas would turn into anything more than the recalled ones, the absolute certitude of that being the exact scenario. My ticket to a book contract got away, and the stories I had to work with weren’t all that great apparently. Ideas are always brighter on the other side of the fog of memory.
When it comes to shorter pieces—an essay like this one, or a travel essay—that is less complicated, thank goodness. Doubtless I lose small ideas too, but they are more numerous, and as a result I can always pluck a falling leaf and use it while two or seven others swivel harmlessly to the ground.
My ideas, it turns out, are like children, as they probably are for most artists. At a book signing event for Moonglow at Book Passage—a wonderful independent bookstore in Marin County, CA—Michael Chabon said he lost a novel for every child he had. With four kids, that’s an awful lot of writing to lose—and for his readers, that’s a lot of stories they’re missing. Looking at it from the Panglossian best-of-all-worlds perspective, maybe I’ve been going about this the wrong way; I may not have the ideas any more, but nor do I have three children to send to college/subsidise their life-long counseling.
What would my three lost ideas have turned into? Most likely nothing. Even if they had joined the ranks of my finished projects, a finished, unsold manuscript is still an unsold manuscript. It is unclear how many unfinished and/or unsold works an established writer like Chabon has in his dustbin, but it’s better to have one published novel and three ideas in purgatory than to have those three ideas converted into useless megabytes on a computer.
Still, it is better to have a finished, unsold manuscript than an unfinished, unsold one. All that’s wanting are ideas. You know which ones I mean.