Looking for quarters
In his odd, unclassifiable book Prometheus Rising, the writer Robert Anton Wilson, who has long been one of my intellectual heroes, proposes the following experiment:
1. Visualize a quarter vividly, and imagine vividly that you are going to find the quarter on the street. Then, look for the quarter every time you take a walk, meanwhile continuing to visualize it. See how long it takes you to find the quarter.
2. Explain the above experiment by the hypothesis of “selective attention”—that is, believe there are lots of lost quarters everywhere and you were bound to find one by continually looking. Go looking for a second quarter.
3. Explain the experiment by the alternative “mystical” hypothesis that “mind controls everything.” Believe that you made the quarter manifest in this universe. Go looking for a second quarter.
Wilson closes, crucially, by asking the reader to compare how long it takes to find the second quarter using either of the two hypotheses. And while I suspect that most of us instinctively come down in favor of one or the other model of reality, the whole point of Wilson’s exercise is to cultivate a healthy skepticism even—or especially—about what seems the most obvious.
Because there’s another, very similar exercise that’s much harder to dismiss. It involves going out into the world and looking, not for quarters, but ideas—and in particular for the kind of ideas that a writer needs when working on a story, which I think we can agree are worth more than a quarter apiece. These can range from a premise for an entire novel to solutions to specific narrative problems to self-contained observations of the kind that novelists use to fill out the fictional dream. Most writers don’t leave the house each day in the state of active visualization that Wilson describes, but what actually happens isn’t all that different: when you’re working on a writing project, your attentiveness to everything is subtly heightened, and you find yourself stumbling across useful material more often than seems explicable by chance. (A writer’s life can be seen as an ongoing experiment in observation: you alternate between stretches of work and inactivity, and you quickly become aware of the difference this makes in how you see the world.) You’ll frequently come across a detail or combination of ideas, totally by accident, that fits the story you’re developing so perfectly that it seems as if the universe is conspiring in your favor. There isn’t a writer who hasn’t felt this. And when we ask ourselves the same question that Wilson poses about those quarters, we find that the answer is harder to pin down. Is this a case of selective attention, with the writer finding more ideas because he or she is continually looking? Or has the writer’s mind somehow made these concepts manifest in the world?
I don’t think that the answer to this question is at all clear—which, I might add, is the secret moral behind Wilson’s exercise with the quarters. You could argue that whatever a writer puts into a story is something that already exists, if the result is meant to be an accurate reflection of human life, and that a writer’s ability lies in how fluently he or she can translate these common impressions into words. Graham Greene, whom I quoted here earlier this morning, was famously annoyed by reviewers who described his works as taking place in an imaginary “Greeneland,” and he countered: “They call it Greeneland, as though it bore no relation to the real world. And yet, one is simply trying to describe the real world as accurately as one sees it.” Which is true enough. But it also feels like a mistake to think of a novelist merely as a sedate repackager of sensory data. This applies to professional noticers like Nabokov or Updike, who seem to be willing quarters into existence that can be collected and spent as cold hard cash, but also to writers like Tolstoy, whose appeal rests on the illusion that he’s delivering reality to the reader with a minimum of authorial interference. There’s an element of active intervention even in fiction that defines itself as reportage, and it gets even stickier when you venture into nonfiction, which depends on the discovery, selection, and arrangement of details that no one else has collated before. It’s critical, even central, to nonfiction’s authority to imply that those quarters were there on the ground all along, but it often seems as if the writer has conjured them out of thin air. Which doesn’t mean that they aren’t legal tender.
All I know is that you find more ideas in certain states of mind than in others, which is a good argument for having a project brewing at all times. In fact, when writers are told that they should write every day, it’s less about the number of words produced or the habit of working—which are undeniably important in themselves—than about cultivating an intensity of awareness that persists even when you aren’t at your desk. (Note that it’s unclear which way the causal arrow runs: you could argue that an inhumanly fertile writer like Updike produced so many stories because he was noticing things all the time, but you could also say, with equal plausibility, that he was noticing things all the time because he was always writing a story.) It might even be worthwhile to conduct an experiment of the kind that Wilson proposes, and to see which approach is more effective: the writer as a transparent eyeball, or as an active inventor of meaning. In practice, you often find yourself alternating between one mindset and the other, as if you were switching between views of a Necker cube, which is ultimately a strategy for keeping your sanity intact. One is about receptivity, the other about imposition, and you can run into trouble if you neglect either one. But it’s also worth remembering that ideas exist to be used. All too many aspiring writers end up with the equivalent of a big jar of coins that never gets taken to the bank, or with something like fairy gold, which leaves the owner with nothing but a handful of withered blossoms at dawn. It’s important to find all the quarters you can. But it’s also important to spend them.