Little Grey Sells
People often ask me where I get my ideas from. Okay, that’s a lie. They rarely do. I think someone might’ve asked me once and it was more along the lines of ‘Where the hell did that come from?’. Which was a fair question considering what they’d just read.
I know people cringe at the cliché of that question, but I wonder if the cringing hasn’t blinded us to the fact it’s a good one. Particularly when you get to a time of year that revolves around a miracle or two.
You see, I’m not what you’d label as faithful. I loaded myself up with a heavy dose of cynicism as a kid and it stops me from comfortably believing most commonly accepted miracles. Although there are some things in this world that can catch me off guard. Things that appeared to have reached in from beyond the beige walls of our rather ready salted existence. Great inventions. Scientific breakthroughs. Moments of hope or moments of true charity. Great works of art or music that can grab you by the soul.
I’ve watched a lot of art documentaries over the last 5 months. In fact, I’ve watched more art documentaries than Netflix made Marvel shows. Which sometimes makes me wonder if I’m growing up, or maybe sideways at least. Recently, I’ve seen a few programmes that have featured the wonderfully mad mind of Dali. The man could be brilliant when he wanted to be and he did attempt to explain his process from time to time. He would dance around it in vintage interviews, but rarely ever talked about where the melted clocks and stilt legged elephants came from.
Strip away the moustache and the façade for a moment and we know those otherworldly ideas started somewhere in his fantastically wired brain. There was a moment where he saw some form in a secret little corner of himself. A primordial thought that intrigued him enough to toy with the concept. Commit to it. Pick up a brush and explore it over blank canvas.
The life of an idea always intrigues me after I’ve finished something. You get this brief chance to appreciate the journey it went through, before it moves off to live in other people’s heads. My second novel came whilst I was at work. I’m pretty sure I was walking to a meeting, my mind wandering more than my feet. I’d just given up an idea that I’d spent months working on and felt pretty hopeless for it.
I was trying to work out how I’d lost my way without noticing. I was also thinking about my favourite horror stories, which are primarily classic ghost stories. Or stories that borrow from that ever so slightly dusty genre. I was trying to work out how I would tell a novel length version of my own spin on a ghost story. I was craving a direct sort of simplicity. A chance to talk about what haunted me. About moments of abstract, paranormal terror in a modern world.
As I reached my floor, it struck me that you’d need to change the spectre to step past the accepted stereotype. The ever-popular ‘warning to the curious’ has always served the genre well, but there are problems in the repetitive shape a character’s doom can take. The cliché of twitching sheets, tortured spirits and the wailing woman in white all felt a bit overplayed to me.
When I was young, I’d always accepted the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters on face value, without understanding the joke. Maybe it was because I’d seen him in the cartoon before I saw him in the original movie. He was simply a monster to me. It took the movie to show me the idea at heart of him. The idea of transforming something so everyday into the destructive and impossible.
Waiting for the meeting to begin, that turned out to be exactly where my second novel started. I scrawled down a note about a disappearing soft toy and, before I knew it, the idea had put down roots. It wasn’t long before I began to see its potential. So where did that come from? Where do any of those ideas come from?
I don’t think ideas start in the rarefied, slippery place we find when we get into the right process, mid-flow. They rarely come when I sit in front of blank screen and think ‘write something’. No, they appear when I’m distracted, like mental sleight of hand. Whilst you’re looking one way, your brain makes something unexpected appear in the corner of your mind’s eye.
I’d guess they come from a part of the subconscious far beneath the surface, where there’s input being gathered from everything we’ve experienced. Our conversations. Our past. Our worries. Maybe it’s the same tide that brings our dreams. That untappable undertow that steers without explanation or reason.
If you listen to David Lynch talk about his use of Transcendental Meditation, he refers to reaching deep into something beyond himself. He’s opened himself to that current and lets it steer his art. His stories. Which certainly explains some of the twists, stretches and leaps of last year’s Twin Peaks.
Maybe the idea for my novel came from there. A tangled knot of things I’d heard on the radio or caught a glimpse of on TV, as I flicked between channels. Or maybe I’d been chewing on it for weeks without realising. Some obtuse, mingling connection between old ideas and a random, new spark.
That’s it, isn’t it? The random spark. That’s the secret ingredient. Some people would happily mark that with a religious sticker, because it seems connected by a thin thread to something beyond ourselves. Other people would probably talk about the collective unconscious or the subliminal nature of our modern lives.
God is in the TV. God is in the need for mini eggs.
I’m never sure I want to label it one way or the other. Although I do wonder whether it’s a door that swings both ways. There’ve been days when I’ve had an idea that has no use or purpose in my life and questioned whether it was one for the hive mind. Maybe a few of us are working on it for someone else. A little extra processing power. That would be something. The true human internet.
It’s tricky to talk about this stuff without sounding incredibly pretentious or incredibly clueless. After all, as of yet, there’s no common language for this talk. I know about broken bones. Sprained joints. Failing senses. Germs and a little basic phycological terminology. I even know a little of the simplest version of quantum physics. There’s that cat in a box, for a start. When it comes to trying to describe the spark of an idea, the seed of it, we’re reaching beyond language. It came from before then. In the same way it came from before the concept of time or money or politics. Those were all our ideas in the first place. It’s like looking for the name of the car part in the pieces of its disassembled engine. Maybe our ideas are the greatest version of something being more than the sum of its parts.
Whatever it is, it comes from the crooked, crumpled mass in our head. That side of the brain still feels like a dark art to me. It holds our expectations. Our frustrations. Our wildest hopes and dreams. Our most private part of ourselves lives there and no one else will ever know them. Not truly. It’s our own little, fragile super computer. Maybe that’s the miracle. Everything that is us and has been us is locked in that wet, mutant jelly. It’s stored there. It grows there. It evolves and thinks there. Which is amazing.
There’s another way of looking at the power of the spark of the idea. One which links nicely with the foundations of Easter and spring. One of my friends is the broodiest man in the world. He knows he is and he knows who he is without me mentioning names.
When we were all young and stupid, he wanted kids. For as long as I’ve known than man, he’s wanted kids. He’s a hugger. A good friend. A man built for parenting and occasional jaunts into dungeons to face down dragons. Well, last year, that spark took and now he has a kid. A healthy little boy. They’re just a tiny seed person at the moment. Eating, sleeping, crying when things get too much. Blinking at bright lights. Smiling at his parents and protectors. Getting ready to learn how to do everything he ever needs to do to survive by himself. As that happens, his own grey cells will start to fire and absorb. He’s going to start having some ideas of his own. Ideas which are coming from within him, influenced by what’s outside him.
Who knows, maybe one of those ideas will be to have a family one day.
It’s not so much a circle of life as a path. The path of a river. An actual stream of consciousness feeding into a river of consciousness that leads out into an ocean of ideas, dreams and aspirations. Maybe that is the collective unconscious. Maybe that is god. Faithful or not. Cynical or hopeful. That sounds pretty damn miraculous to me.
Happy Easter, everyone!