Essay: Julienne van Loonon writing

Where Do Writers Get Their Ideas From?

1. Living

‘Where do writers get their ideas from?’ This a question that comes up regularly for writers who find themselves released into polite company in the broader community. I suspect it is most commonly asked by people who do not often write imaginatively. One of the writers who has complained about being regularly asked where he gets his ideas from is Neil Gaiman. ‘In the beginning,’ he explains in one of his essays, ‘I used to tell people the not very funny answers, the flip ones: “From the Idea-of-the-Month Club,” I’d say, or “From a little ideas shop in [such and such a place],” … ‘Then I got tired of the not very funny answers, and these days I tell people the truth: “I make them up,” I tell them. “Out of my head.” People don’t like this answer. I don’t know why not.’

I don’t like Gaiman’s answer either, although I appreciate the humour. But the danger in it is that it subscribes to the idea that the writer is the originator, a fixed identity, the knower of all things (in brackets: better than, different to, not you). Who is the I that makes things up, actually? How isolated or contained is this I? And what is making up in this context?

Allow me an anecdote, here, at the beginning.

I have the had privilege of teaching creative writing, specifically fiction, in one form or another, since 1994, mostly in universities, occasionally in high schools, in prisons, in community arts settings, and, in the early days, for an 18-month period, in an Indigenous adult education program in the remote north-west of Australia. I want to share a story from that remote teaching experience, a story of a student who turned up in my classroom one week when we were working on writing short stories. He was in his mid-fifties, and we and the other six students in the classroom sat together for some hours across some days, working on a story each. I cannot exactly remember the prompt I gave, but I have a vague memory that the word we began with was ‘community’.

The man, who I will call Frank, wrote by hand in capital letters. There were no paragraphs. His sentences were sentences of a kind, but there were no full stops or commas and statements tended to run up against each other although sometimes there were small gaps where a full stop might have been. You could imagine them in. He was not bumping things into each other deliberately, in the style of Ania Walwicz, but there were sometimes accidental ambiguities.

When Frank handed in his story, he was very apologetic about never having learned to print in lower case and never having understood exactly where the full stops or the commas ought to go. Speech marks, too, he didn’t really get. It embarrassed him deeply, this lack, and he dealt with it by leaving all the punctuation out. All of it. I took the story from him and back in my office and at home I read it, and re-read it. It began: ‘He was born in…’ and gave the place and the year. It was the story of a childhood and then an adolescence, and it moved chronologically forward, each half a page or so focusing on the next phase. There were years spent as a shearer, there was a wife and a child, whom the man left, and then a stint in jail, and a bit more itinerant work in the form of truck driving.

It was, in short, a life story in five hand-written pages, and it was vibrant and well-observed, sometimes funny, sometimes revealing. It gave a picture of what it was like to be born in X place in Y year, and to a particular family, and of a particular community, but the overall tone was tinged with a poetic form of melancholy, and a deeply restless loneliness. It remains a stand-out for me in all the stories I have ever read. I ticked the boxes for the various competencies which the story demonstrated for the purposes of what was then called, unimaginatively, the Certificate of General Education for Adults, in which the student was enrolled. The competencies had nothing to do with the profound value and meaning of the story in front of me.

I began to daydream, then, to think about how to encourage this stranger to write more, to extend what he had given me, to lengthen and expand and to bring in more detail and a fuller sense of the characters he had met. I did not know whether it was all made up or not. That didn’t matter. I determined that this was a question I would not, at least initially, ask. I took the story with me back to the classroom and waited for the man who had written it to return. I would offer to teach him where to put the full stops and commas if that was what he wanted to get out of the exercise. I would teach him lower case if he wanted to learn it, but I would also explain that that the full stops and commas, and the size of the letters were, in many ways a secondary concern: he knew how stories worked and he had a good one to tell. But Frank never did step foot inside my classroom again. I asked the others about him, but none of them knew him well. He was not from here, they said. The general feeling was that he had moved on and that was who he was – someone who moved on – and if he came back some time that would also be fine with everyone, and we could take it from there if it happened.

I worked at that remote college a further year or so, and Frank’s story stayed in my in-tray, just in case, but when I got a new job in the city thousands of kilometres away I had to think about what to do with it. The story was not mine. The author had a name but no contact details that meant anything to anyone I knew. I had a strong feeling that his piece of writing was not my property to take with me. I read it once more, and then I put it in the recycling bin, along with all the other papers that were not coming with me and would not mean anything to the person or people who would come in my wake. I’ve never crossed paths with the author again.

When I hear commentary from the likes of Flannery O’Connor, who was once asked whether she thought university writing programs stifled creative writers and answered, that they do not stifle enough of them; or when I read, as I did recently in a Sydney Review of Books essay, the commentary of Michael Mohammed Ahmad in which he belittles fledgling attempts at the writing of fiction and poetry, I think of my capital-letter writer in Port Hedland and my response is immediately defensive. ‘Fuck you!’ I want to say to the captains of put-down and discouragement. Exclusivity and brutal ridicule have a price, and that price can be high.

Where do writers get their ideas from? Like everyone else, we get them from living in and with and amongst others, other people, other species, other forms of life. We get them through doing and through thinking, we get them through feeling and through reason, through imagination and through cold, hard restraint. We get them through speaking and through listening; they are ours and they are not ours and the distinction matters sometimes far less than you think. The thing is everybody has and should have them, and a quality language and literature education that values and encourages diversity and variation can provide us both the means and the confidence to express our ideas in writing, to refine them and sometimes to succeed in circulating them in the broader culture, which is no small thing. But publication is not everything. Sometimes we write simply to make sense of the life we’re living, or the places and times we’ve passed through; we might do it first and foremost for ourselves, or for the people we know directly, and that, too, is a valid idea with a meaningful function.

2. Unsatisfactoriness

One of my favourite Australian novelists is Simone Lazaroo. In her TAG Hungerford-award winning first novel, The World Waiting to be Made (1994), the protagonist is itchy, and the matriarchs in her world warn her off this itchiness, predicting both its arising and the consequences of her giving in to it. Alas, the protagonist can’t get past it. She is itchy. And it is because of her itchiness that everything in the story happens: she cannot and is not willing to let her itchiness go.

Conflict is often said to be the key ingredient for storytelling. Everyone who has ever thought usefully about how stories work talks about conflict.. There is a whole subgenre of how-to-write books that sell on the basis of formulae around how to invent, pace and manage dramatic conflict and few of them, I suspect, have it wrong. A common typology is to announce that there are three types of conflict: man against man, man against nature, man against himself. I’m not correcting the gendered and human-centric nature of this language because it is, in my opinion, already voicing the limits of its own vision.

But conflict is a key ingredient in fiction. Order is disrupted, so the story goes, by conflict, and the narrative progresses through further and further dramatic complications until the resolution and denouement. We turn the page (a) because conflict and disorder fascinate us and (b) because we want resolution. Really. We want it. Look at this beautiful opening line by Gabriel García Márquez in his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude: ‘Many years later, as he was due to face the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.’ It’s a superb opening and it places the potential of violent conflict right there in the first clause of the first sentence. I, the reader, don’t even know the Colonel yet, but I don’t want him to be killed. I turn the page to know. But, importantly, this is not the only way to start a narrative, and ideas do not have to have their roots in such violence. We can’t say that without violent conflict there would be no ideas.

Here’s another anecdote:

Once, many years ago, I spent some weeks living the life of an alms mendicant and meditation recluse in a remote forest monastery in the north-east of Thailand. All of my physical needs were met by donations from the local villagers, mainly women, who donated the single daily meal dutifully at half past nine in the morning. The rest of the days and evenings were spent in my kuti in meditation, walking and sitting. Reading was discouraged, with the exception of a couple of Buddhist philosophical treatises. At  five o’clock each evening I met with the handful of other women – three of us – for a shared pot of tea. This was the only twenty minutes of the day in which we spoke.

At the end of this period of immersion, I did not want to leave the monastery. I did not. There were particular, rather logical, reasons why I felt obliged to return to Australia, but if these had not impressed themselves upon me so heavily, I know I would still be there now. I remember climbing into the cab of a ute driven by a kind local who had come to pick me up from the monastery before dawn in order to meet a bus connection to take me back to Bangkok. I opened the door to the cab and wondered: would I follow through and get in?

The moment reminded me of standing on the footpath outside an abortion clinic in Sydney’s Lane Cove in 1989. Would I push open the gate and go in for the arranged appointment? That moment of pause — because the decision you have made has implications for so many things that will follow, and you’ve turned it over in your mind many, many times, and you’ve put in place the arrangements, and now all you need to do is move forward. So, I did it, I pushed open the gate, I got into the ute — but in each case the other option shadowed me. It took shelter in the un-obliged self, the one less moved by reason.

Back in Thailand, twenty minutes or so after I got into the cab, the ute approached the interstate bus-stop, and the driver slowed. There was the body of a woman lying in the middle of the road. As we got closer, it became clear that she was dead. The driver spoke to another man, who was standing at the road’s edge, overseeing the dead body. Nobody was to move her, he said, until the police arrived. She’d been reported. The woman had apparently been hit by a vehicle in the night. Hit and left. Her body had been there for an hour or two already, and it was only as a few people like ourselves, preparing to meet the four am bus, were beginning to appear in the town’s streets, that she had been discovered. I accepted the facts given to me about the woman and was moved but unsurprised by the cruelty: this was the world and I now knew myself to be back amongst it.

I got my bus. I travelled the nine hours back to Bangkok in air-conditioned comfort. And when I got back to my four star high-rise accommodation, complete with internal bathroom, and carpet, and reliable internet, I thought I would never, ever sit down to write another word. I had nothing whatever to say.

No itchiness. None.

Fiction is concerned with itchiness. Or, to put it differently, storytelling is concerned with some kind of friction. But let’s extend it further: I would argue that the urge to write something substantial at all, in a way that requires imaginative effort, to shift ideas from fleeting feelings or impressions towards more fully realised and substantial creative works, requires a certain dis-ease, often a rather deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction: anger, confusion, disbelief, disapproval, or just an inkling, a subtle desire, for things to be, in whatever way, other than this. Sometimes this feeling comes from lived experience, sometimes from the observation of the lived experiences of others close to us in a way that hooks us and won’t let go. Sometimes an experience, good or bad, shifts our perspective to such an extent that dissonance arrives. This is a key ‘place’ – if we can call it that – for the origin of ideas. The anger, confusion, disbelief, discomfort and dis-ease we draw from the world, from suffering or from oppression, whatever its scale, calls us to write.

So, this is my first key point. Unsatisfactoriness is not only everpresent: it is a key source of ideas. We need to look at it. If I want to write a book, and I am after ideas, I look at the unsatisfactory. I ask myself what I know about it. We all know something about it. I look at it, and I look hard. Where do ideas come from? They come from unsatisfactoriness in all its shapes and forms, at every scale, in every direction. There is a particular form of it that each of us has seen up close, that we have struggled with either intensely, darkly, deeply, or consistently, long-field, never quite getting our heads above it. We know it. And because of that, it can propel what we write.

My shift of emphasis from conflict to the unsatisfactory as a key source of ideas is also a shift from singular to plural. I am with Mikhail Bakhtin and his assertion that the novel is many-voiced, that part of the project of the writer is to speak back to an other who is already, always, implicated in whatever it is we have to say. We write in and through the other, and if ideas can be said to come from, then they come from an us, not an I, because I am only ever ‘I’ in and through and because of, and on account of you. And this unsatisfactory business… we’re in it together. That is actually how things tend to work.

3. Curiosity

This leads me directly to another key point: curiosity. Curiosity is central to the notion of the idea. Curiosity has often been framed as a vice. I’m a fan of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. ‘Curiouser and curiouser,’ cries Alice, when she finds herself ‘opening out like the largest telescope that ever was!’ I’m also a fan of Marina Warner, who has written a wonderful essay on curiosity, in which she argues that it’s no coincidence that Carroll’s curious central character is a girl child. ‘For two thousand years,’ writes Warner, ‘Christian teaching has singled out Eve, the Mother of all the living, as the chief culprit in the Fall of humanity because she wanted to eat the apple of knowledge and inveigled Adam into taking a bite.’

If I reflect on my own practice as a novelist, and this question of where ideas come from, or, what makes a book idea grow, it is in the first instance about immersion (living) in a particular time and place, and along with that, a peculiar canvas of unsatisfactoriness, but  intertwined with these is a deep-seated sense of curiosity. Questions arise.

My first novel, Road Story grew out of questions about language and power, that arose as a result of my immersion in working-class country Australia as a child and a teenager. It has taken me many years to realise that my parents were intellectually-inclined individuals living in an anti-intellectual community. I could describe you to them as a nurseryman and a nurse. This is, indeed, the basis on which their contributions were measured, externally, in the community in which they lived. But my father was also a European who spoke eight languages, and his bookshelves included novels and essays in French by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. He drank at the Dubbo RSL, where he gleaned the local gossip, but he was also someone who, as a new Australian, preferred his news in copies of the New York Times that were delivered via international airmail. My mother used her nursing qualifications to work in child care, which remains one of the most poorly paid professions in the country, but she was educated at a prestigious private girl’s school in Adelaide, read voraciously (still does), and has a deep interest in – and thorough understanding of – Eastern philosophy.

My siblings and I learned to speak the local, bastardised version of English in the country NSW public school yard, and brought home words and phrases like fuckwit and silly cunt to our parents, who turned them over, and learnt to use them, both with and without irony, on us and on one another. In one of my first academic papers, titled ‘Galah Session: Writing with and amongst the voices of home,’ I write about the curiosity I had then, and still have, about how a working-class country Australian girl might speak – if at all – in and through the country working-class Australian dialect through which she has emerged. It is a dialect that, as Graham Seal has observed, contains a ‘muscular virility’ and a ‘strongly male orientation.’ Western New South Wales is a place where ‘oaths, imprecations, maledictions, curses, insults, invectives, vulgarities, and associated abuse form a significant portion of the lingo’ writes Seal. How might such a lingo shape, I wondered, how its users think, and beyond that, what and how and who they might become. The conflicts that drive Diana in Road Story arose primarily out of that curiosity, and not out of placing increasingly complicated forms of dramatic conflict along a story arc.

Of curiosity’s changing value, Marina Warner writes:

Once condemned in classical philosophy as well as Christian, [curiosity] is now widely endorsed as the principle of intellectual vitality for individuals and in society at large: the space voyager that has landed on Mars is even called Curiosity, to celebrate its quest for understanding of that planet. With the exception of voyeurism and gawking (at accidents, at crimes), the inquisitive drive is seen as good, necessary to awareness of self and others, while an absence of curiosity now implies passivity and torpor, mental and moral decline, dreadful in a person and dangerous in a social body.

Alongside curiosity and wonder, some of Warner’s other key interests are in transformation and metamorphosis. She contrasts the conflict narratives so prevalent in popular culture post 9-11, in which good and evil struggle in a simple binary to the death, with what she calls narratives of transformation, more often prevalent in the genre of fantasy and fairy-tale.

Charlotte Wood’s curiosity about the question of where writers get their ideas from, and how the creative process works, led her to establish a long-standing interview series with Australian writers, available initially via digital subscription, and collected and published last year in book form as The Writer’s Room. Wood’s interviews are engaging and the conversations with her chosen subjects meander productively. One of her interviewees is the fantasy writer Margo Lanagan, who shares Marina Warner’s interest in the notion of transformation. When Wood questions Lanagan on why physical transformation – ‘physical slippage between human and animal, between forms, between different worlds’ – seems to be such interest to her, Lanagan replies, ‘I want to know what [transformation] feels like, I want to know what it looks like, and I want to feel the disorientation of anybody who’s watching this transformation take place. I want to feel how uncomfortable that would be, and what it would be like to be in a new body.’

‘In fantasy and the fairy tale,’ writes Warner, ‘we are caught up in something. And what is that something? Well, it’s hard to define, [but] it’s about escaping the conditions that constrain us… It’s positing some sort of hope, so underneath the sense of hope is marveling that, My God, something could be different.’ The novelist Kim Scott has said that stories are, for him, a way of thinking. ‘So if I write about identity [in the form of fiction], which it seems I do,’ he told Wood in The Writer’s Room, ‘I get further than I would be able to, say, in academic or political discourse. In fiction, you sort of half-apprehend things, start to shape them a little bit, which leads to thinking more about those things in other areas.’

So here is my second key point. As writers, it’s productive to ask ourselves what it is we are most curious about. What don’t I get? For me, I sometimes feel that there’s nothing I’m not curious about. Perhaps there’s nothing I actually get. It’s not that writing fiction provides a definitive answer to a question, but it can constitute an important exploration, it can approach a set of questions that were not possible to imagine before.

By answering the question where do writers get their ideas from? with a word like curiosity, I am turning the question on its head, in some ways. To answer this way is to say that it’s not all about origins. It’s not all about one thing leading logically to another. It’s also about the process and the doing.

Further into his conversation with Wood, Kim Scott responded to a question about why he writes. He said:

I think temperament – being introspective and solitary and shy and all that sort of stuff – is part of it. I used to draw a lot, and I think that’s connected to it. In my childhood I got a lot of pleasure from that sort of stuff, from the absorption. The best thing about writing is this ‘ceremony of innocence’ – I think that’s what Yeats called it. I think that’s what he meant, the absorption, getting lost in the makingness of things.

So we don’t just need to be disturbed by life, and curious, to come up with an idea or group of ideas: we need to be with and stay with those ideas in a certain way.  Which leads me to my third key point: immersive play.

4. Immersive play

Play can be central to idea-formation, but it is absolutely essential for the next part: the shifting on. I’m thinking here about the play of ideas between and among different texts we have read, or art we have seen, or landscapes we have inhabited. I’m thinking about the playful movement of writing and then erasing, and then writing up again, that goes into a long-haul manuscript that is shifting and uneven, bumpy and smooth all the way from beginning to end. I’m thinking, also, about the way we, as writers and as humans, are drawn to trying things out, to the kind of thinking out loud that goes into the imaginative role play we were all involved in during early childhood. I’m talking about energy and joyfulness, too. Notional good ideas can be around for a long time, but an idea that is in development is an idea in play. Play is activity. We begin to do. But immersive play is also a mode of being. It is transformative.

Not all of the play we are engaged in, in writing, is useful or of great significance. But the act of being engaged in and by and with the ideas you’re working is crucial. The neuroscientist Stuart Brown, a play scholar, posits that the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression. ‘Nothing lights up the brain like play,’ he says. Neuroscientists, like children, love pictures!

For Hélène Cixous, the kind of empathetic identification that a writer needs to make when representing another constitutes an extraordinary pilgrimage into another self. Cixous’ focus  investigation and reflection. ‘I become, I inhabit, I enter,’ she writes. ‘Inhabiting someone, at that moment, I can feel myself traversed by that person’s initiatives and actions.’ As Cixous understands it, identification with the other is not about erasure, but rather about ‘permeability’ or a ‘peopling’ of the self. You inhabit and are inhabited by turn. Or as she puts it, ‘one is always far more than one.’  Writing, for Cixous, is the primary means by which we can engage in this to-and-fro.

This sense of one’s writing being peopled by others was affirmed by some recent research by Paul Magee, who conducted a series of interviews with fourteen Australian poets. One of his interviewees, Jenny Harrison told him that when composing, ‘it’s almost as if you can inhabit both the subjective and objective positions at the same time.’ Another, Alex Skovron, commented that, ‘the writing is coming out of the writer, of course, yet in a strange way it also isn’t.’

The American novelist Siri Hustvedt has both a writerly and a philosophical interest in neuro-psychoanalysis and play. During a period working as a volunteer writing teacher in a New York hospital, she observed a girl who seemed not only unable to write, but unable, at all, to play. The girl ‘had been neglected and also raped,’ Hustvedt told me during an interview in 2014. ‘And, you know, this was a long story. It was not an isolated case of rape trauma, it was a [complex case of sustained abuse]. And she was so concrete. She could not understand metaphor. There may well be work on this, I don’t really know. But this concreteness seemed to me to be connected to a lack of being able to play. She also told me at one point that she had never learned how to jump rope. You know, I said, “Well, that could just be fun.” We were talking about jumping rope. She never learned how to do it. And she never learned how to swim. I think that this was just a catalogue of neglect that had shaped one unit, you know, the body-mind into a profoundly unimaginative, concrete, non-metaphorical, finally damaged being. Regaining that at, you know, twelve or thirteen is extremely hard.’

The girl is an extreme case. Her story reminds me, above all, of the importance of care. But it also demonstrates just how important it is that we enable ourselves, and each other, the opportunity to play. As children, most of us are granted that opportunity without question. As adults we need to ask why shouldn’t we enable it for ourselves? Launching ideas into writing, and sustaining them through immersive play is one way of doing that. It’s also, in my experience, the best way to produce interesting new work.

The play scholar Miguel Sicart hints at this when he argues that play is a portable tool for being. His is a complex view of the practice of immersive play, an activity which is capable of producing both dangerous and exhilarating results. Play appropriates and mocks, at turns pleasurable and dark. ‘Through play,’ writes Sicart, ‘we experience the world, we construct it and we destroy it, and we explore who we are and what we can say… We need play precisely because we need occasional freedom and distance from our conventional understanding of the moral fabric… we play because we are human and we need to understand what makes us human.’

5. The Long In-Between

In the final part of this essay, an attempt to answer a question that is itself questionable, I want to draw attention to the importance, in writing, of interrogating unfinished thinking. It seems to me that we need, in imaginative writing, a combination of openness and commitment. Commitment doesn’t mean a novelist never throws out an idea. It means that when the project fails to work, fails to reach its full potential, the writer makes it her project to ask why, and she stays the course to deliver.

How you tell a story is a political decision. So this business of ideas, again, it’s not just about the ingredients, it’s not that an idea is some kind of mythological foundling, like Moses, a baby cast into the reeds: it’s more likely that a fully-fledged creative work involves a great deal more complexity, agency, assertiveness, and control. But importantly, this stage that I call ‘the long-in-between’ is also about letting things go.

A few weeks ago, I received a ten-page structural editorial report on a 60,000 word manuscript that I’ve been working on for three years. The report contained some positive and encouraging feedback – contained in the first few paragraphs – and then went on to detail in nine A4 pages, all the things that were not working, in the editor’s opinion, as well as some ideas about how to solve the various problems she had identified. Interrogating your unfinished thinking is not a comfortable thing to do. It is, in some ways, a full circle thing. Unsatisfactoriness makes a home for itself in your work.

When I was writing my first novel I had two readers who helped me a great deal. One was the feminist crime novelist Jan McKemmish who, when I complained to her that I had no story, only a pile of disconnected scenes, asked me to give them to her to read. I fussed over the order of the scenes, then handed them over. She read them, and then said to me: here’s the story. She summarised my plot in two sentences.

‘It’s all there,’ she said. ‘Can’t you see it?’

‘I can now,’ I said. ‘Thank you. I can now.’

Whose leaf? From which tree did it fall?

My second influential reader came in much closer to the end of the process. The manuscript was just about done, but the ending wasn’t working. Another wonderful Australian novelist, Amanda Lohrey, read it and confronted me bluntly: ‘Why have you got this ridiculous Hollywood ending here? It doesn’t fit. Take it out.’

‘But that was the ending I had in mind right from the early days,’ I protested. ‘I’ve been writing towards that ending the whole time.’

‘Get rid of it,’ she said. And she was right. Its work was done. It could go now.

What I have learned in the long stages of drafting and re-drafting a lengthy manuscript is that interrogating unfinished ideas takes courage. It becomes clear here that some ideas you’ve had right from the beginning are not the right ideas. And a timely, thoughtful reader can help you to see that. But I think writers also have to remain open to the possibility of new ideas emerging from the problems we and others are only just now starting to identify. A smart, professional reader like the editor who has just looked at my most recent manuscript is not always right. Alongside the wit and wisdom we each need to sort the more useful suggestions from others for improvement, we’ve got to remain open, both to the integrity of the early frictions or curiosities that first propelled us, and to possibilities of the form we’ve chosen to engage with. Kim Scott talked of a fiction that can ‘sort of half-apprehend things’ and ‘start to shape them a little bit.’ The philosopher, Rosi Braidotti, says that ‘to be worthy of our times we need to be pragmatic: we need schemes of thought and figurations that enable us to account in empowering terms for the changes and transformations currently on the way.’ It seems to me that in developing and interrogating ideas and modes of being in and through creative or imaginative writing, we are enabling ourselves ‘the ability to enter [other] modes of relation, to affect and be affected, sustaining qualitative shifts and tensions accordingly,’ which is also, Braidotti argues, ‘the prerogative of art.’

6. Succeeding

I sub-titled the previous section of this essay ‘interrogating unfinished thinking’ but actually, the thinking is never finished. When the book is done and sitting on the bookshop shelves, the writing is – I always hope – a gift I’ve given to readers, in and through ideas, a commitment to a certain vision and aesthetic. But is a reader’s thinking on it ever finished? I would hope not. Is my own? Wouldn’t that be awful?

So perhaps I need to rephrase my line here about interrogating unfinished thinking. Yes, we need to interrogate our work, and change it accordingly, as problems are identified and require resolutions, as new ideas arise and others are let go, but we can’t finish…. not conclusively. Thinking should remain, to some extent, unfinished. This is, in part, what I mean, by being in praise of openness. It is, I think, what Kim Scott means when he says that fiction ‘half-apprehends.’

An idea can come in many forms. It can be an inkling, a notion, a concept, a feeling, a thought, an understanding, a hint, a picture, an awareness, even, contentiously, a form of knowledge. Ideas arise out of embodied experience and out of the intellect. They arise out of plurality. They are changeable and multiplicitous and sometimes don’t need to be anything more than fleeting. So the problem with the question – Where do writers get their ideas from? – is that it is the wrong question. Ideas not only have no single point of origin, but they have no end. They don’t require one. And we, for sure, would be devastated (literally and imaginatively) by their complete exhaustion. Ideas don’t just propel writing and writers, but they can and should succeed them both.

This is an edited version of a public lecture delivered as part of the Celebrate Writing @ RMIT: Present Tense series at the Design Hub, RMIT University City Campus, 21 November 2016.


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– ‘Contradictory Curiosity.’ Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing. Hayward Publishing, 2013, pp. 25-41.
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