Find The Ideas You Want To Work With

     Something I’ve not heard bandied about much on writing blogs and the like is the idea of reading philosophy to find the ideas that you want to work with in your fiction. I think it’s perhaps quite a good one as without ideas, stories can’t exist. And who have the best, biggest, most out-there and profound ideas? Philosophers, of course.

     Well, we all know that good writing knows its own themes and knows, in a larger sense, what it’s asking or trying to say to the world.  For instance, at a basic level, E.M. Forster wants us to reconcile the opposing parts of ourselves and society and only connect; Kazuo Ishiguro wants us to quietly consider what we misinterpret in life and what we, as humans, can bear.  Jane Austen thinks the world is difficult and confusing (for women, especially) but that (true) love can be a balm and a haven from it, and Jilly Cooper thinks that sex, money and laughter are all engaging until love undoes us all (in a sexy/privileged/good-natured way). My interpretations, of course, but hopefully it show how an idea, an ideal or a question can lead a writer through a book or even an entire career.

The World As Will and Representation, In Two Volumes: Vol. I     So, how do you find your big idea? It’s very likely that you already know, in a vague sense, what your big idea or ideas is, because you have an idea of the narrative and setting type that you want to work within. But how well can you articulate it? Do you know the wider context of that idea?

     To give you a brief insight into my own personal experience with this: for my very first attempt at writing I decided to write a novel (I know) which germinated in part from the reading of a quote from Arthur Schopenhauer in the Wordsworth Classics edition of Anna Karenina that claimed that: 

      ‘No man has lived in the past, and none will ever live in the future; the present alone is the form of all life…’ 

     I was intrigued, so thought about weaving it into a story (chin on hand, philospher-like) and realised that an literisation of this idea might involve an instance of time travel where the protagonist moved seamlessly from the treadmill of one historical period directly to another, and to show how her resources equipped her equally to deal with both, rendering time almost irrelevant. I wrote about 30,000 words of this story and submitted it to a friend of a friend who was thinking of becoming an agent (I know) before realising (and being told) that it was on the bad side of good (i.e. bad), and also that I should stop reading Twilight so intensely as I was not at all suited to writing for the young adult, and that’s what I unconsciously was doing. A good learning experience, in any case.

Paris Review     I am, however, still intrigued and stimulated by this particular idea of time being irrelevant apart from providing 'a stage' for events, and funnily enough I noticed a few weeks ago that Ian McEwan had voiced a similar sentiment in an interview in the Paris Review: 

      ‘Novels help us to resist the temptation to think of the past as deficient of everything that informs the present’, (Issue No. 162, summer 2002). 

      Maybe I’ll come back to it someday, or just replace it with another. In any case, it’s great food for thought… *thinking* …just as ‘I think, therefore I am’ might be for someone interested in ideas of consciousness (Descartes), or ‘The world's airport departure lounges filled with people overwhelmed by love for their families: the world's kitchens a little less so’ for a kitchen-sink drama about the terrors of intimacy (Alain de Botton, Twitter, 13th Feb 2011)…


  1. Another great post from Lyndsay on a blog which just gets better and better every week. Always a great read.

  2. Thanks James. You are far too kind.


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