Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Hunting the great white shark

with 9 comments

Last week, my good friend Erin Chan Ding interviewed Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City and the recent In the Garden of Beasts, for the Huffington Post. The interview is well worth reading in its entirety, but I was especially struck by Larson’s description of how he got the idea for his latest book, which focuses on the experience of William Dodd, the first United States ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, and his daughter Martha. Larson says:

I mean, the way the whole thing got started was that I was looking for an idea and reading William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I was following my own advice and reading voraciously and promiscuously when I was looking for an idea. That book had always been on my list of book to read, and I was instantly enthralled…I was looking for characters through whose eyes I can tell that story. At some point, I came across Dodd’s diary and at some point after that, I came across Martha’s memoir…So once I found them, and I got a sense of the interesting characters. Then it was a question of finding as much about them as I could.

What I love about this account is that it treats a writer’s search for ideas as an active, focused process that involves wide reading and deep thinking. This may seem obvious, but it’s not the way we tend to think about creative ideas, which sometimes feel like external events that come to us by luck and happenstance. I’m currently reading Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which argues that until around 1200 BC, humans weren’t fully conscious or introspective in the way they are now, but experienced important decisions as auditory hallucinations originating in the right hemisphere of the brain, which were interpreted as the voices of gods or muses. And while the jury is still out on Jaynes’s overall thesis, it strikes me as very similar to how we still think about the origin of creative ideas.

Ideas, we’re often told, arise from somewhere outside the artist, who is occasionally fortunate enough to catch one as it drifts by. Even the language we use in discussing this problem implies that ideas originate from a specific, mystical place. The very questions “Where do ideas come from?” and “Where do you get your ideas?” implicitly assume, in their wording, that there’s a location, external to the author, where ideas can be obtained. Hence the slightly flip response of authors like Neil Gaiman, who has been known to say that he gets his ideas “from a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis,” or Stephen King, who at one point in his career said he got his ideas from Utica. (Perhaps, in the parlance of No Country For Old Men, we can say that we get ideas from “the gettin’ place.”)

Yet the reality is often closer to what Larson describes above, when he says that he “voraciously and promiscuously” sought an idea. And this is as true for novelists as it is for nonfiction writers. The issue is slightly obscured, of course, by the fact that such intellectual voracity is inseparable from a professional writer’s daily routine. But when you look at the origins of great works of fiction, you often find that external inspiration can’t be separated from the deliberate pursuit of ideas. One of the most famous such origin stories, which William Goldman says changed novels and movies forever, was when Peter Benchley was walking along a beach and thought to himself: “What if the shark got territorial?” The idea, apparently, came out of nowhere. But Benchley was already thinking about sharks when the idea came, and spent years researching and developing the idea before he wrote Jaws.

Looking for ideas, then, is something like fishing. Clearly there’s a lot of luck involved: even the best fisherman is constrained, to a point, by what happens to swim by. But there are ways in which you can control the circumstances. You select your equipment, pick your location, know how to use your tools, and above all else, know how to react when you feel that first tug on the line. All of these things come with time and experience. Similarly, as a writer, you hone your craft until it becomes intuitive, choose a promising area to start exploring, and learn to recognize a good idea when you see one. (As a writer, you can even use a net instead of a rod and reel, or, in certain situations, dynamite.) Sooner or later, if you’ve done your work properly, you’ll catch something. And sometimes, very occasionally, it might even be a shark.

9 Responses

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  1. Sooner or later, if you’ve done your work properly, you’ll catch something. And sometimes, very occasionally, it might even be a shark”

    Who ARE you dating these days…?

    Oh that’s right you’re married. She sounds like quite the girl.


    May 24, 2011 at 10:10 am

  2. “know how to use your tools, and above all else, know how to react when you feel that first tug on the line”

    Was she worth the effort?


    May 24, 2011 at 10:11 am

  3. Arthur, your comments are starting to give me a haddock. Or are you commenting just for the halibut?


    May 24, 2011 at 10:18 am

  4. Baring your sole on line can open a can of worms.


    May 24, 2011 at 10:27 am

  5. Now you’re just floundering!


    May 24, 2011 at 10:38 am

  6. I know this must take a chunk out of your day, but I find these posts inspiring! As for the bicameral mind–a while back some scientist made a by-the-way comment about how our interactions with electronica will affect how our brains evolve over time. I remember reading about the bicameral mind long ago, and indeed it is about as appreciated as one scientist’s suggestion that the pyramids were built by aliens. But more and more I find something persuasive in thinking that a mind that has evolved never to see television, or even printed matter, might be quite different.

    Along those lines, my heart sinks that “wide reading and deep thinking” and even meaningful discussion about those things, are becoming something we must push ourselves to do.


    May 24, 2011 at 6:32 pm

  7. @kirsten: Bill Keller had a nice, if rather crotchety essay about this recently, where he points out that the invention of printing drastically reduced the capacity of the human memory. It isn’t clear what impact modern technology will have, but I know that I’m already outsourcing large amounts of my brain to Google.


    May 24, 2011 at 6:54 pm

  8. Alec! I’m just now catching up to this blog post. Thanks for the shout out. I love your observations, and I think Erik Larson would be quite proud that you extrapolated his quote into such a thoughtful post. I’ll have to shoot a link to his publicist at Random House. :)

    Erin Chan Ding

    July 12, 2011 at 12:41 am

  9. You should! Although maybe I should actually read his book first. :)


    July 12, 2011 at 7:36 am

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