“An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.”
The ideas that come to each of us do so for three reasons. Firstly, we are listening. Philip Pullman said, ‘I don’t know where my ideas come from, but I know where they come to. They come to my desk, and if I’m not there, they go away again.’ My ideas are rarely this polite. Instead they arrive at their own convenience, demanding to be heard and threatening to leave if they are ignored or treated badly. So if we are to capture ideas we must be there, waiting to receive them with gratitude and accept the responsibility for their maturation.
Secondly, we are the one person who can bring that particular idea to fruition at that particular time. In his book, Dreamgates, Robert Moss tells us that according to the Australian Aborigines, ‘the big stories—the stories worth telling and retelling, the ones in which you may find the meaning of your life—are forever stalking the right teller, sniffing and tracking like predators hunting their prey in the bush.’ Each of us has a unique combination of experience and skills, of themes that resonate within us and dreams that draw us onwards and inwards. The ideas that come to us do so because somewhere in the fusion of all that makes up our selves, lies the possibility of creating something harmonious that speaks beyond our limitations. A big story.
And finally, we receive an idea because we need to undertake that particular journey for reasons we may not understand until well after the journey is completed. Over time I have found that the ideas we accept and run with generally bring us face-to-face with something within us that needs resolution. This has certainly been the case with my own creative projects, particularly with novel writing, which because of its length and the inclusion of a character arc, enables me to weave a number of seemingly disparate ideas into a single unit. Unlike a short story, which so often starts and ends at a turning point, a novel explores the lead up to a turning point as well as its consequences and the conflicts and changes that are wrought on the character/s. As with most of the characters that inhabit a story, it is impossible for the author to emerge from the writing of it unchanged.
When our children were young, we returned to Australia for a number of years. I had already been writing for some time but my work reflected my own existential crisis, exploring the numbness I felt inside myself but at the same time resisting any change that might release that numbness. My stories were dark and hopeless. They were fictional. And they were about me. Only I hadn’t realized that yet. I hadn’t understood the power of story to heal and instead was stuck like a scratched record, going over and over the same point, telling myself the same stories, living fearfully and unable to liberate myself. Returning to Australia was a turning point for me because I was forced to face much of what I had been running from for years – my past.
Back in Australia we set out for fourteen months in a campervan to explore that vast continent. Sitting in our tiny home on wheels, I felt a rush of excitement mingled with fearful anticipation. We were heading into the unknown. Embarking on an adventure that would take us out of the structures of the ordinary world we normally inhabited and into a new world filled with different dangers and rewards. As yet I had no inkling that I would find a novel in this journey: that the idea would lodge itself in my mind; that the strands of character and plot would form and weave together as we drove; or that the themes and issues relevant to my own life would be explored and understood through the process of fiction. It didn’t cross my mind that my writing would eventually help me to resolve the past and learn how to live well in the present.
Unbeknownst to me the idea for my first novel was waiting for me in Outback Australia, though in retrospect I see that there were already intriguing themes circulating in the back of my mind, questions that needed answering about belonging and place and identity, questions that arose from my own sense of lack and the baggage I was carrying. We were in the van, travelling up through central Australia and I was scanning the horizon for a tree, just a little shade to shelter us while we stopped to eat our lunch in the scorching heat. There were no trees. When we pulled over to the side of the road, the temperature outside was in the high thirties and in just a few minutes the temperature inside the van rose to the mid-forties.
Stepping out into the sunlight I inhaled and gasped as hot air burnt all the way down and into my lungs. When Freda, our eighteen-month-old daughter clamboured out to stretch her legs, she was wearing only a nappy, so the sun was fierce on her skin but she didn’t seem to notice, just looked around eagerly, unaware of any danger or discomfort. Where Freda in her innocence and immediacy, saw the potential for adventure, the nervous mother in me saw the potential for disaster. The ground was littered with bones, bleached white by the sun and glistening. Bones. A landscape of death. It seemed to me that this was a world entirely without sentiment, a place where death was inconsequential. I shuddered and reached out to catch Freda as she made a barefooted dash for freedom and the termite mounds.
When the idea came it was a moment of synchronicity, a gift, from within or without, I could never tell. I stopped, almost afraid to breathe in case it disappeared. It was fragile and formless as yet, but nevertheless, the beginnings of a story. Instinctively I knew that I mustn’t force it or even try to grasp it, so instead I took little sideways glimpses. It was in the form of an image. A toddler about the same age as Freda, perhaps a little older but abandoned out here by the side of the road. The contrasts were extreme, the harsh unforgiving desert and a fragile, vulnerable child. As a mother of young children I felt sick letting my imagination take me there but it was already clear that this was an idea I needed to nurture.
Back in the van, I wrote a few words in my journal: toddler found wandering among the termite mounds on the Stuart Highway. Abandoned. Whiteness standing out against the deep orange earth. Threats: snakes, termites, sun, road trains thundering by. Looking around and understanding she is alone. Who finds child? Piece together her history. I drew a box around these words and wrote NOVEL above them, then shut the diary. A seed had been planted and now I had to tend it while it grew.
Little did I know that the evolution of my idea would force my own evolution or that the explorations I would make into the fictional world of my character’s psyche would be explorations of the shadows within my own psyche. If I had known, I might have embarked on the journey more tentatively, but I would not have turned away from it because the rewards are boundless. ‘I need to remember to overcome,’ wrote Isabel Allende, and Ben Okri concurs: ‘It is not what you have experienced that makes you greater, but what you have faced, what you have transcended, what you have unlearned.’ My journey inwards eventually became Gathering Storm, a fictional novel that bore no resemblance to my own life, aside from the themes which it explored. And yet, as Allende attests, ‘you can tell the deepest truths with the lies of fiction.’
You are welcome to share articles as long as copyright and contact information are always included. Thank you for your courtesy. Rosie Dub