Friday, January 22, 2010

Idea Strain

Last night, I received in the mail three books. One of them -- The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington -- is not so important, apart from the fact that I want to read it. The other two are by Jeff VanderMeer: City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterword. I want to read the VanderMeer books, too, obviously, but they're important beyond that, in the sense that, after reading about the books, I have to ask myself why I don't really write much fiction anymore.

I never wrote a lot, but when an idea struck me, and I found that the idea worked, I would write flat out, for as long as I could, until the thing was done. I've experienced few greater pleasures in my life then when a story I was writing started to take shape, and I could see the finish line, and felt that the destination was one worth reaching. The absence of any significant fiction writing in my life these days boils down to two things. Laziness is unquestionably one of them. The other is a dearth of good ideas. Ideas that I think are both good and workable are pretty hard to come by, but I think laziness plays a part here as well -- sometimes, one has to put in work to come up with an idea. You can't always expect them to just pop into your head. That's my preferred method, but you can't count on it.

The thing about the two VanderMeer books is that they both sound like exactly the kind of thing I'd be writing if I could kick over these hurdles I've set up for myself. In the books (and in Finch, VanderMeer's most recent), he constructs a fictional city called Ambergris, a sort of Victorian London otherworld in which any kind of strange, disturbing story can take place. A lot of writers have done similar things -- some, of course, have created, and populated, entire planets -- but there's something to do with what I've gleaned about what VanderMeer is up to that makes me think "Damn it, I should be doing that." Or something like it. The gist, I suppose, is that you often hear writers say that they write the kind of books that they'd like to read, but which aren't being written. I've often felt the same way, but I now have the uneasy feeling that VanderMeer is already writing the books I'd like to read, but which aren't being written.

Mind you, I haven't read VanderMeer's books yet. I don't know what's in store for me. But City of Saints and Madmen is, to simplify what the book appears to be, a collection of novellas set in Ambergris, and a brief summary on the back of the book describing the first novella perked my ears up. These summaries are rarely to be trusted, and I thought, "Well, if that story doesn't turn out to match what popped into my head when I read the summary, then maybe I have an idea." I don't know. Is that cheating? Anyway, we'll see what shakes out, I guess.


Greg said...

One of the ones I create music, in fact the primary way, is by listening to other music. Same with writing. If I didn't read I couldn't write. It's not cheating at all, it's the work that goes into inspiration. I'll often hear a bass line and think, "Oh, if only he'd gone this way with it I would've liked it so much better." Then I think, "Well, he didn't so I might as well," and I do and as the end result is a completely different line and melody it's not cheating, it's creating.

Greg said...

So yeah... guess I'm just talking to myself on this thread.

bill r. said...

Sorry. No you're not. I just haven't been on-line that much this weekend. And you're right, of course. The problem I was sort of facing was if the vague story outline that popped into my head after reading the description was closely matched by what I actually ended up reading, then I'd have nothing. And also, it felt a little weird to be inspired by a book-jacket summary. In any case, VandeMeer's novella, which is excellent, bears almost know relation to what I though of reading the back of his book, so I should be okay, as long as I can make the story work, and also actually sit down to write it.

Anonymous said...

When you've read COS&M and SHRIEK, check out VandeMeer's Predator novel. It's a fun way to kill an evening and the degree to which some of his... preoccupations carry over is fascinating and amusing.

bill r. said...

otherbill - I'll do that. I'm really, really enjoying CITY OF SAINTS AND MADMEN so far. I found it very difficult to put it down today in favor of football.

Have you read FINCH yet?

Anonymous said...

I've not read FINCH yet. But a combo of VanderMeer's milieu and hard-boiled private eye seems tailor made for my sensibilities.

I'm trying to avoid football today. I'm a lifelong MA/RI native and Pats fan so all I care about is seeing a Saints or Vikings title. I cannot deal with the psychic impact of seeing the Lakers, Yankees, and Colts/Jets win league titles in a nine month span.

Greg said...

I wrote a lot more before computers came along. I used to write short-stories longhand but then for some reason once computers made typing and correcting and deleting and re-doing everything simple I just stopped. I haven't written a story in probably 15 years.

But I have the same problems with music. It's mainly just sitting down at the keyboard and playing but I can't seem to do that on any kind of a regular basis anymore. And I don't know why!