Pierz Newton-John is a Melbourne-based fiction writer, currently focusing on short stories, but with a novel in the pipeline. Among other places, his work has appeared in the Sleepers Almanac, Overland, and Wet Ink. He was awarded the Boroondara Literary Award in 2006 and the Alan Marshall Short Story Award in 2008.
I used to think that there were different ideas for different kinds of projects. So an idea for a poem might not work for a novel. Then again, there have been novels that have dealt with the kind of romance better suited to a love poem. There are dense, intricate poems filled with philosophical fervour that a series of novels might not exhaust. So I’m not sure anymore. And it worries me at times, because Wallace Stegner wrote in his collected stories that his first agent warned him about writing short stories, saying that a short story writer ‘lives on his principal, using up beginnings and endings’. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on Ideas, and since you’re about to have a collection of stories published, about living on the principal.
I’m uncomfortable with the premise of this question, which seems to separate the idea from the execution, as if there were some underlying seminal concept to which a story, novel or poem could be reduced. Yet even in the case of a poem, where the notion of some single underlying idea seems most tenable, no poet wants her poem’s idea explained in words other than the poem itself. From the point of view of process of course—the writer’s process—we need ideas as starting points. Perhaps we think, ‘I want to write a story about the tragically ephemeral nature of romantic love’. In my experience such theoretical starting points are usually singularly sterile. It’s only when one becomes imaginatively enmeshed in a specific imaginative landscape that something resembling an interesting story starts to take shape. For me good ideas fall out of stories, out of the process of writing them, not the other way round. Sure, I have plenty of ideas for stories, but honestly, few of them ever survive intact all the way from lightbulb-over-the-head to finished product without being transformed significantly along the way.
A good example is a recent story of mine (soon to be published in Extempore) which began with the idea that I wanted to write a sort of requiem for my old jazz guitar teacher that would incidentally explore ideas about the way in which the passion for something essentially abstract like music can clash with the need for human connectedness. Well, in truth, even that is too after-the-fact. I just felt I needed to write a story about this man who both interested and saddened me. It ended up somewhere quite different, leaving the memory of the actual man completely behind and following an imaginative excursion sparked by something he once told me about hearing the song “A Whiter Shade of Pale” for the first time. In the process I discovered the core idea which I ended up encapsulating in the first line: “Loneliness and freedom are an amalgam that hardens with age”. But that came late in the process.
So in my view ideas are secondary and emerge from the living process of writing, and it is essentially an artificial abstraction to wonder if the same idea could be expressed in some other medium or genre. The work expresses precisely itself and only incidentally does it represent something else: an idea, theme or meaning. If novels could be reduced to their underlying ideas, Yann Martell wouldn’t have written The Life of Pi, he’d just have said something like: “Hey dude, in the absence of conclusive evidence one way or the other, why not believe in God? I mean, better to believe in the nice story than the horrible alternative, right?” I for one am glad he decided to be more long-winded about it.
As for Wallace Stegner’s agent’s remarks on “living off your principal”, well I scoff! We are talking about the guy’s agent here. Do writers have a finite store of beginnings and endings in them, like eggs in an ovary that once used up, can never be replaced? I’m equally skeptical of the Taoist notion that men shouldn’t ejaculate because they’ll use up their store of qi. Come on, we are creative beings. We draw from an endless wellspring, and if we get stuck somewhere, it’s not because we ran out. It’s because the pipe is blocked. So unblock it!
I used to be an idealist. Back then, I would have applauded the notion of an endless wellspring. Ironically, this was when I spent eight years working on one colossal novel. When I finally opened up and began flowing, the ideas began to arrive thick and fast. And yet I don’t believe in an endless wellspring anymore. In fact, I feel thankful whenever I get an idea for a story, poem, screenplay or novel.
Let’s look again for a moment at what that agent was saying (by the way, a literary agent shouldn’t be reduced to a paper pushing businessman – most are in fact, ardent, lifelong lovers of both literature and its makers.) By living on the principal, the agent is suggesting that a writer can live from eggs or the meat of that which produces them. In contrast to the agent, I’d suggest that we live on the meat, whether eggs form a large part of our diet or not.
Which gets us back to: the Idea. Henry James called it the donnee, and there was a somewhat mystical idea behind his concept of the ‘seed’ of a piece of work. It was the spark that gave something life.
We can all waffle on endlessly, with various plot points developing into narratives, with characters that draw from our experiences, and hope that in this way we have breathed life into our creations. But is it that straightforward? We might manufacture a story but an Idea is that animating principle, whether we think of it as a one sentence plot outline, a snatch of dialogue, or a vague idea of recapturing a moment of childhood.
Rather than think of these ‘Ideas’ as being part of a torrent of thought, which we need to simply open ourselves up to, I think of them as burning embers that have flown up into the air from some vast fire we never get to see directly. As writers we get more proficient in simply keeping our eyes open and letting these embers land in our carefully prepared baskets of paper.
When I’ve looked at Cri de Coeur, your blog, I’ve found you have addressed writer’s block often. Clearly you feel like you’ve now ‘unblocked’ that pipe, but was there one moment of insight that released that endless wellspring? Or was what you have written in this interview, a part of a philosophy that formed a map for getting yourself out into the wilds of literature?
Hehe, maybe one day I’ll run out of chickens and that’ll teach me! When I say endless wellspring, I don’t mean inspiration is always easy to come by, and certainly not cheap. Yes, writer’s block is something I used to talk about quite a bit on my blog because I never felt (and to an extent still don’t feel) as productive as I’d like. But ironically I’d now put part of that blocked experience down to believing too much in Idea over process. (In that sense, you’re still the idealist between us!) I was always looking for great ideas and if I didn’t have one, I’d stare mournfully at my computer screen, or randomly attack the whiteness with paragraphs that rapidly fizzled to naught. If I had what I thought was a good idea I’d often get to the 1500-word mark and then decide it wasn’t such a great idea after all and abandon it for the pristine promise of another white page. Nowadays I’m both more flexible and more committed. Sure, some stories are just duds, but most of the time, even if the initial idea doesn’t come off, there’s something good there, some thread that’s worth tugging on to see where it leads. I believe in Leonard Cohen’s approach, who said that a song might take much, much longer to write than you’d ever reasonably expect. Many of his songs took years to write. Well, usually I don’t take years, but I think an attitude of patience and commitment is essential. Sparks and flames and inspirations are all fire and air element metaphors, but I rather like Stephen King’s description of writing as the painstaking removal of a fossil from the surrounding earth.
There’s more though to the story of my unblockage than an attitude change. Writing is acutely personal and there’s no separating one’s psychological condition from one’s creative process. If you’re working five days a week in a soul-stifling office job, it’s a lot to expect you’ll come home at six, and be able to just turn on the creative taps. Same with being in a dead-end relationship, or just at a stagnant point in your own development. The work as a writer is to find some way to stay alive to yourself and to life despite the many forces that conspire to suffocate you. Sometimes a painful experience can do that. Pain can split you open and make you question things and force back to your creative source. It’s an opportunity. In my case, the break-up of a relationship served that function, but I’m now acutely aware of the need to maintain that openness, which I do through meditation and the continual willingness to do something new and different. Right now for instance I’m learning to dance, even though I’m remedial in the area of put-your-left-foot-in-and-your-right-foot-out. And I’m loving it!
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Pierz has had further thoughts regarding the nature of Ideas so he’s posted an article on his blog Cri de Coeur, which he’s asked me to link to here and that I’d encourage you to read. I love that Pierz wakes up with an brilliant idea after our interview. (He still doesn’t like Wallace Stegner’s agent though.) Pierz’s post is a delightful exploration of our creative sources; an essay that is illuminated by a brave spiritual earnestness. Perhaps our metaphors for understanding these invisibles of consciousness are by their very nature in a process of morphing flux. It makes me think of an author like Harper Lee, writer of the one masterpiece, To Kill A Mocking Bird, and nothing else. I can’t help but wonder who her agent was.