Monday, February 18, 2008

Petrol fumes

Inspiration is a curious beast - capricious and generous in equal measure. Sometimes days can go by without hearing a peep, when thoughts about a story rattle around your head like a coin clattering on a cathedral floor.

And then there are days when you can hardly keep up with the ideas and you risk a high-speed writing injury as you struggle to get them all down without losing a precious word. Sometimes I'm convinced that I haven't got all the fragments and rack my brains for what I have missed.

Though when I can't I console myself with the thought that I may be like the man described by William James about the man who under the influence of laughing gas knew, just knew, the secret of the Universe. Sadly, as he came to the knowledge evaporated. With a huge effort he managed to write down the shattering insight which turned out to be: "A smell of petroleum prevails throughout".

I used to regard the words gifted by inspiration as a manna from heaven and such strong stuff that they had to be laid with care in any story. Such gilded words, of course, would elevate any story about the quotidian and render it startling to the reader. Now, of course, I realise it's not like that. At all. From time to time inspiration has produced a corking phrase or idea, and I can remember exactly where I was when the best ones struck, but most of the time it is just another idea that needs to be assessed like its less blessed brethren. Some I discard or they change in the process of working on a story, others go in the ideas file (mine now runs to 66 pages) for later use.

Far better are the ideas that emerge as a story is being written - though at times the part of me that produces them can be reluctant to co-operate. This can delay a story getting going but I've learned to trust that Secret Partner (As Kate Wilhelm calls it) and wait for the right moment. It does mean I'm much clumsier than usual when this is going on because a good part of my attention is focussed internally.

But the reason I trust that SP is because, to be honest, it seems to be much smarter than me. I'm sometimes impressed when I go back and read some of the stuff I've written because there are parts of I could never come up with alone. People who know me well have often asked me after reading some of my stories - "Did you think of that yourself?" Something they have never said to me.

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