Image source: Lviv Polytechnic National University
I was reviewing my archive of bookish podcasts while I was pondering this when I had a vague recollection of something I heard a few years back from Alice Walker so I went back and listened to it.
"I prepared by changing my life almost completely. I was living in New York City, I was an editor at Ms. Magazine, I was married... and I knew that I could not write this story which started coming to me in the actual voices of the people... I knew I couldn't write it in the city because of the tall buildings, the noise... I also knew that I could not remain with my husband because the world that we had was charming and good but not large enough for these people and he would not have been able to understand them and he would not have been able to understand who I was to write this, so I got a divorce... we sold our house, eventually got my half of the money from the house, moved here. The people of the story, they were very real to me. They loved the beauty of San Francisco... a lot. They didn't like the earthquakes though so I knew then I had to take them out of the city to the countryside."
Alice Walker, speaking about writing The Color Purple
BBC World Service "World Book Club: Alice Walker"
Released as a podcast 18 November 2008
Small wonder, listening to this, that I have this embedded idea when I heard such a highly respected author saying she was so inspired that she had to get divorced, quit her job and move cross-country! Then I wondered if I had heard this from other authors and found this from J K Rowling...
Sue Lawley (DID presenter): I've heard writers before, Joanne, say that stories come into their mind and demand to be written. Is that how it was with Harry?
J K Rowling: Absolutely. It was, yes. I was 25 when I had the idea for Harry and I had been writing, if you include all of the embarrassing teenaged rubbish, for years and years and I had never been so excited by an idea in my life. I'd abandoned two novels for adults prior to that, actually the second novel I was still writing when I had the idea for Harry. For six months I tried to write them both simultaneously but then Harry just took over completely.
J K Rowling speaking about writing Harry Potter
BBC Radio 4 "Desert Island Discs"
First released 5 November 2000
If we consider here what Alice Walker and J K Rowling have said, then it really does sound like a story moves in from some other place and takes over. It's the divine inspiration idea that's been around for centuries. It's a perfectly lovely idea, of course for those who want an easy explanation of how and why art of any kind is created and why it is that some art affects some people more deeply than others does. However, for those of us sat in front of a blank computer screen with only a cold cup of coffee to hand and a defiantly blinking cursor tormenting us, it's not much comfort. What are we supposed to do? Sit around and wait for inspiration to strike? Where does this inspiration come? New York city, like Alice Walker? On a delayed British Rail train, like J K Rowling? Personally, I couldn't think of two more diametrically opposed locations in terms of potential for inspiration. What do we do in the meantime?
I like to take comfort from this quote from Khaled Hosseini. To me, this is a more realistic tale of how a great book came into being. It started off with an idea from the piece of news that the Taliban were going to ban kite-flying in Afghanistan, something which was personally significant to Hosseini since he had loved to do this when he was younger. From there, he said, it grew.
"So then I sat down, and I thought I would just write this whimsical story about kite-flying in Kabul... and of course, stories take a life of their own and gradually what started as this little kite story became a 25-page short story about this kind of complicated friendship between these two boys, this doomed friendship. And it became a story about cowardice and betrayal and honour and guilt and forgiveness and so on. And then the short story sat around for a couple of years until the March of 2001 when my wife discovered it and read it... and then I revisited the story and realised that even though it was really flawed it had a big heart and maybe the nucleus of what could become a really interesting piece of longer fiction. And that was the basis for the novel."
Khaled Hosseini, speaking about The Kite Runner
BBC World Service "World Book Club: Khaled Hosseini"
Released as a podcast 27 May 2008
From an idea to an abandoned short story to a hugely successful novel. It took was his wife's interest and enjoyment of the story for him to realise that this story was one that had massive potential, that 'big heart' despite all of the flaws that he could also see in it.
I know that all stories have to come from somewhere, but I'm starting to think that they don't have to necessarily be that lightning strike of inspiration. Perhaps not everything we write is going to be that number one bestseller or Booker Prize winning story. Maybe we need to write a bunch of so-so stories before we can write the really good one. In the same way that you would never imagine that you'd go out and run a marathon with no prior training, maybe I should reconfigure my view to think of all writing as training for the 'big event', that hoped for and dreamed of published book. I mean, seriously. Even J K Rowling said that she'd been writing for 'years and years' before Harry came along and do you think that Alice Walker never wrote anything before The Color Purple? Exactly. I don't doubt that they really did experience that extraordinary 'boom' of inspiration but looking at Hosseini's story, it doesn't seem like it is as necessary as I once thought it was. Sure you need an idea, but that idea can just as easily germinate from a small seed as it can be transplanted into your brain.
Looks like I just need to get myself into training for when that idea comes along.
How about you? What do you think of the "story that just had to be written" idea?