Douglas Adams on Where Ideas Come From

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from Douglas Adams.

4Douglas Noël Adams, born March 11th 1952 was an author, scriptwriter, essayist, humorist, satirist and dramatist best known for his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which originated in 1978 as a BBC radio comedy before developing into a “trilogy” of five books that sold more than 15 million copies in his lifetime and generated a television series, several stage plays, a comic book series, a computer game, and in 2005 a feature film that was completed after Adams’ death.

Adams’s contribution to UK radio is commemorated in The Radio Academy’s Hall of Fame.

Adams also wrote Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, and co-wrote The Meaning of Liff, The Deeper Meaning of Liff, Last Chance to See, and three stories for the television series Doctor Who; he also served as script editor for the show’s seventeenth season in 1979. A posthumous collection of his works, including an unfinished novel, was published as The Salmon of Doubt in 2002.

In the early 1980s, Adams had an affair with novelist Sally Emerson, who was separated from her husband at that time. Adams later dedicated his book Life, the Universe and Everything to Emerson. In 1981 Emerson returned to her husband, Peter Stothard, a contemporary of Adams’s at Brentwood School, and later editor of The Times.

Adams was soon introduced by friends to Jane Belson, with whom he later became romantically involved. The two lived in Los Angeles together during 1983 while Adams worked on an early screenplay adaptation of Hitchhiker’s. When the deal fell through, they moved back to London, and after several separations and an aborted engagement, they married on November 25th, 1991.

Adams and Belson had one daughter together, Polly Jane Rocket Adams, born on June 22nd, 1994.

Adams died of a heart attack on May 11th, 2001, at the age 49.

 

Toward the end of his life, he was a sought-after lecturer on topics including technology and the environment. He was known as an advocate for environmentalism and conservation, as a lover of fast cars, cameras, technological innovation and the Apple Macintosh, and as a “devout atheist.”

“The fact is, I don’t know where my ideas come from. Nor does any writer. The only real answer is to drink way too much coffee and buy yourself a desk that doesn’t collapse when you beat your head against it.”

— Douglas Adams

I’m suffering from a real writing crisis here. I am a writer with no ideas! I love to put pen to paper, to type away all day the thoughts that pop into my head, thoughts that don’t mean much and in the end don’t leave me feeling very fulfilled, accomplished, and are not at all as lucrative as I’d like.

To say I have no ideas isn’t exactly the truth. I have ideas, they are just bad ideas, and I don’t know how to find good ones.

I want to be a good writer, and that means that I can’t write stupid or pointless things, but I’m not a good writer, yet. The catch is I can’t become a good writer without writing all the stupid and pointless things first. It seems simple enough, just write, and you will get better, so write already! But the embarrassment hurts! It’s paralyzing to be such a noob! The shame of being bad at what you love and sharing it with the world freezes you at your keyboard.

But summer is coming, and I have to use the time to move forward. I’ve been stuck lately. I had found something, a community and publication to be a part of but just as I was really getting into it, they decided to move in another direction. I’m sad, but I’m trying to think of it in a positive light. This was never something that I thought I could do as a job, it was always a stepping stone, a place for feedback and practice. I’ll miss that, but maybe now I can finally make something of my own. But what?

I want to be a freelance writer, but I’m afraid without school or a ton of connections that dream feels too far away.

I want to write a book, but I’m not sure I have enough passion or talent for fiction.

I want to be an artist too but my confidence is low, and I have no idea where to begin.

Nothing feels small enough to start with. I don’t have experience, I don’t have mentors or peers to learn from and work with. I only have idols who are light-years ahead of me and the internet which seems severely lacking in information about how to go from knowing nothing about writing to knowing something about it.

Oh, sure there is plenty of information on the rules of writing and the best practices of publishing. Even if everything contradicts everything else you at least have an idea of where to start, but what do you do if you have a desire to be a writer or an artist, but you have no idea what it is you are trying to say or how to even say it?! What do you do when you feel like a stupid noob and you can’t muster courage enough to start?

I know how to write a blog post, I know how to fill a page of my journal, I don’t know how to make something someone might pay for. I don’t know how to put together a project that is unique and valuable. I don’t know what I don’t know, and I have no idea where to begin to get an idea.

But maybe I am going about it all wrong. No, not maybe, I am certain I am. I am waiting for the ideas and the inspiration, to come to me before I get started and if there is one piece of advice I have read over and over again from author after author it has been that you just have to do something until you stumble upon something worth pursuing and sharing.

So, I’ve been rethinking everything.

I’m pushing my big dreams back to work on something small, something tangible, something that feels like a place to start. I’m working with what I know and love. I love non-fiction. I love essays. I love creative non-fiction and stories about real people and what we feel and know. I love I am putting that together with simple art, doodles, and collage, and I’m spinning these ingredients around in my mind for a little bit every day and seeing what I can come up with.

I am taking the summer to make something, and I’m doing it before I have the inspiration and the ideas all squared away. I am just going to drink coffee and bang my head until something interesting happens.

And you know what? I have a feeling that is what everyone else is doing too. It isn’t magic, or maybe it is, just not the kind of magic we are used to wishing for. We want to walk through fields of flowers, or fall in love and let the words just come to us, but that’s just not how it works. Instead, maybe we just have to brainstorm like hell, write something, post something, draw something, and decide what we think afterward. Then wake up tomorrow and do it again, only a little bit better, and a little bit better, and a little bit better, again and again. You gotta bang your head like hell and drink liquid energy, or liquid courage, whichever you need, until one day someone declares that you are finally a “good writer.”

That is the fucking magic. That is where the ideas come from, and that is the only way to get the work done. The miracle is doing the work, and I plan to work until magic and miracles happen for me too.

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Virginia Woolf on the Path from Reading to Writing

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from renowned English writer Virginia Woolf.

george_charles_beresford_-_virginia_woolf_in_1902_-_restoration

Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on January 25th, 1882 in Kensington, London. She was educated by her parents in their literate and well-connected household.

Her parents had each been married previously and been widowed, and, consequently, the household contained the children of three marriages. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was a notable historian, author, critic, and mountaineer. He was a founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, a work that would influence Woolf’s later experimental biographies.

The sudden death of her mother in 1895, when Virginia was 13, and that of her half-sister Stella two years later, led to the first of Virginia’s several nervous breakdowns. After her mother and half-sister, she quickly lost her surrogate mother, Stella Duckworth, as well as her cherished brother Thoby, when he was in his mid-20s. She was, however, able to take courses of study (some at degree level) in Ancient Greek, Latin, German and history at the Ladies’ Department of King’s College London between 1897 and 1901. This brought her into contact with some of the early reformers of women’s higher education

Her most famous works include the novels Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando, and the book-length essay A Room of One’s Own, with its famous dictum, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”

Woolf suffered from severe bouts of mental illness throughout her life, thought to have been what is now termed bipolar disorder. She spent three short periods in 1910, 1912 and 1913 at Burley House, which is described as “a private nursing home for women with nervous disorder.” Though this instability often affected her social life, her literary productivity continued with few breaks throughout her life.

Woolf committed suicide by drowning in 1941 at the age of 59.

“For once the disease of reading has laid upon the system it weakens so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing.”

― Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Every since I can remember I have loved books. I learned to read early and easily, and my comprehension levels were always well advanced for my age. Books felt to me what watching TV must feel like to other people. I was transported right into the action, the emotion, into whole different worlds with different ways of thinking and doing things. I felt most alive, most like I was becoming future myself when I was reading.

During my 6th grade year, I volunteered to work in my school for part of my lunch period. It was so quiet in there, and it smelled like books rather than sweaty kids like the rest of the building. My job was to put the returned books back on the right shelves, but most of the time I just walked the rows and ran my hands over the worn spines. I flipped through the ones with dragons or spaceships on the front and scoffed at the ones about cheerleaders and love.

The ones I took home I could never put down. I read in the dark after my mother insisted we go to be until she grew tired of trying to force me and asked that I only keep to my room and keep quiet.

My father and his father loved reading too, and I often stole books with subject matters much too advanced for me from their collections.

I loved reading so much, and then I became a teenager, and between the depression and trying to be cool, I forgot all about reading. Then I became an adult and life got too busy for books. At first, I was busy falling in love and making a home. Then I was busy fighting for love and always working harder to build a better and better home. And no matter what there never seemed to be enough time for love and home and work and friends and sleep and reading.

Things have changed. Reading has come back to me. I realized that I had let something I loved go and I wasn’t at all happier for it. I realized I wanted something for myself. I remembered how good it felt to learn things and see the world in new ways. I remembered how reading made me feel more like myself all those years ago. So, I went looking for my old friend, my first love, and I found that she had been waiting for me all along to return. We picked up right where we left off, and we’ve been going strong ever since.

I’ve also come back to writing, another old love from my childhood. I’ve come a long way since those old angsty journals, and I want to go further still, and I know that in order to get there I can never take reading or writing for granted again. I have to make them a priority in my life along with love and home and work and friends and sleep. With them, never behind. Not when I can find the time, but when I make the time!

I wish I had learned this lesson a long time ago. If I had spent more time with books than I may be a better writer now, or at least a better person. But I am still grateful for the time I had, without having experienced the magic of words being worked on me I would never have craved such power myself, to wield over other minds and time itself.

I am grateful that books never leave you entirely and that reading is a patient and understanding friend who will let you leave and return as often as you wish. I have come back to my first love and friend, and I found that our passion for one another never really waned. I had only been a stupid human who forgot what life was really about, doing what makes you happy.

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If you like this post, check out my weekly-ish newsletter for some existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering + important reads from others, or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

See also: Short and Sweet Reviews // Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

Featured image via George Charles Beresford [Public domain], Wikimedia Commons

Margaret Atwood on Existing in Two Places

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes daily practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the Canadian poet and novelist, Margaret Atwood.

mg_5527Margaret Eleanor Atwood was born on November 18, 1939, in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Because of her father’s work and research in forest entomology, Atwood spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of northern Quebec and traveling back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, and Toronto. She did not attend school full-time until she was eight years old.

Atwood began writing plays and poems at the age of six and realized she wanted to write professionally by the time she was 16.

In 1957, she began studying at Victoria College in the University of Toronto, where she published poems and articles in Acta Victoriana, the college literary journal. She graduated in 1961 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in philosophy and French.

She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman, The Handmaid’s Tale, and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000.

She has also published fifteen books of poetry. Many of her poems have been inspired by myths and fairy tales, which have been interests of hers from an early age. She has also published four collections of stories and three collections of unclassifiable short prose works.

Atwood is also the inventor, and developer, of the LongPen and associated technologies that facilitate the remote robotic writing of documents.

She is a noted humanist, and, in 1987, she was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association.

“I exist in two places,
here and where you are.”

— Margaret Atwood

This week I’m thinking a lot about Atwood and her book The Handmaid’s Tale. Of course, because today her book becomes a show, and I’m pretty stoked about that since I recently read it, but I’ve also been thinking about time. I’ve been thinking about what it means to be the writer and the reader, and for time to pass between both. I’ve been wondering what it means for me to exist as I am now, and for me to exist again with you when you read these words. I wonder in what forms I will exist when I am read after I am long gone?

I know that I am a human and I know that all humans are mortal and still my own death seems impossible to me. How can there ever come a time when I will not breathe, or think, or write, or love, or look to the sky and feel small, and here, and so myself and so a part of everything that exists? How can there come a time when my heart stops and with it the thoughts in my head while the world goes on spinning and humans go one warring, inventing, and evolving, doing things I will never witness or be a part of?

This makes no sense, and yet it is a certainty, and it hurts me so every time I remember it.

I am afraid, I admit, not to be anymore. I want to face the fact, but I also want to keep it out of my mind. Why let the inevitable distract me and keep me frozen? Then again, the fear can be a motivating and focusing force until my end comes. If I want to live on after my death, I must remember that I am going to die and use what I have to limit my fading into the nothingness.

When I read the words of other writers they come into me, into my time and place, or some form of them does anyway, and I am happy to give them life again. I suppose I want a bit of that too. I want to know what it feels like to exist again and again and yet still be me, growing and changing here and now.

I want to live in every human and in every time after this one and words seem to be the only way to do that. It is a selfish thing to want, but I can’t help wanting it either. I am afraid of not being.

I am angry too. To be limited to this body, to this mind, and to this time feels so petty and unfair. One day there may be better ways to circumvent these pesky limitations, but for now, all I have are words. I have the imperfect ability to write down who I am and the improbable hope that in the future, minutes or eons from now, you will read them and remember me.

But who will it be that you remember? By the time this goes out I will be a little different, and the longer the distance between now and then the more the difference between the Lisa that wrote this and the Lisa that exists. So, I suppose no part of me will live on really, only bits of who I was. Only a snapshot in my history. Still, it’s all I have, and I am happy to give it to you.

Because even though I am not that Lisa anymore that does not mean she cannot be of some use. She can be a friend, a comfort, and warning, or a dream for you. She can walk with you when you feel alone, same as she walks within me. She can exist far longer than I. She can travel through space and time and be what I cannot.

And because the Lisa I am now is jealous of where that past me is able to go and where she is able to be, I will send this out and immediately sit sown to write again. I will send myself out to you over and over again, and one day, if all my works, everything from my little notes and journal entries, to the stories I’ve endeavored to tell here, and the books I may one day write, were to be put together it would be the closest a person could come to time travel. To real, complete, existence in another place and time.

I hope it happens for me one day, and that something like magic will allow me to feel what it is like to be here and there, now and then, and me, with you.

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Check out my weekly-ish newsletter for interesting reads + some of my own existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering, or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.

Biographical information via Wikipedia and Goodreads

See also: Margaret Atwood on Writing Poetry

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M.H. Abrams on a Writer’s Desperation

Writing, like any art or discipline, takes practice and dedication to learning about the craft from those who have come before you. In learning, I like to teach, so each week I will take a piece of advice from the greats, both living and dead, famous and not, and apply their lessons to my own work and share my thoughts and progress with you.

This week I have chosen a quote from the American author and literary critic M.H. Abrams.

23abrams-1-obit-blog427Meyer Howard “Mike” Abrams, born July 23, 1912, was the son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in Long Branch, New Jersey.The

The son of a house painter and first in his family to go to college, he entered Harvard University as an undergraduate in 1930. He went into English because, he says, “there weren’t jobs in any other profession…, so I thought I might as well enjoy starving, instead of starving while doing something I didn’t enjoy.” After earning his baccalaureate in 1934, Abrams won a Henry fellowship to Magdalene College, Cambridge, where his tutor was I. A. Richards. He returned to Harvard for graduate school in 1935 and received a master’s degree in 1937 and a Ph.D. in 1940.

During World War II, he served at the Psycho-Acoustics Laboratory at Harvard. He describes his work as solving the problem of voice communications in a noisy military environment by establishing military codes that are highly audible and inventing selection tests for personnel who had a superior ability to recognize sound in a noisy background.

In 1945 Abrams became a professor at Cornell University. The literary critics Harold Bloom, Gayatri Spivak and E. D. Hirsch, and the novelists William H. Gass and Thomas Pynchon were among his students.

Abrams was an American literary critic, best known for works on Romanticism, in particular, his book The Mirror and the Lamp. In it Abrams shows that until the Romantics, literature was typically understood as a mirror reflecting the real world in some kind of mimesis; whereas for the Romantics, writing was more like a lamp: the light of the writer’s inner soul spilled out to illuminate the world. In 1998, Modern Library ranked The Mirror and the Lamp one of the 100 greatest English-language nonfiction books of the 20th century.

Under Abrams’s editorship, The Norton Anthology of English Literature became the standard text for undergraduate survey courses across the U.S. and a major trendsetter in literary canon formation.Abrams was not only the general editor of The Norton Anthology, but he was also the editor of The Romantic Period (1798–1832) in that anthology, and he evaluated writers and their reputations.

Abrams died on April 21, 2015, in Ithaca, New York, at the age of 102

“I think most of the things I published have been published out of desperation—not because they were perfected.”

— M.H. Abrams

I still do not have the honor of calling myself a published author. My book has stalled, and I am looking to other things, for now, but I think I do know something of a writer’s desperation and reasons for publishing. I have felt it with the publishing of every post, poem, personal essay, and story I have posted here and elsewhere on the internet. Surely these published pieces, bits and parts of my life and larger themes, were pushed out into the world out of at the same sort of desperation too and surely none of them left me perfected.

The word desperate, to lovers of this craft, means two things:

  1. (of a person) having a great need or desire for something.
  2. (of an act or attempt) tried in despair or when everything else has failed; having little hope of success.

A writer is a person with a great need for expression and communication. We write because there is nothing else that will satisfy that need. Art maybe, but writers often gravitate toward the clear expression that language can offer over the murky interpretations of art. We work to satisfy these needs, and we do it with very little hope for success. Still, we persist. Our need outweighs the hopelessness I suppose. Our need will not allow us to feel hopeless. It has to work, because if it doesn’t, who are we?

I am desperate to say something, to tell you something. All writers are. A writer’s work is at least hard, even if it is not always fast. Writers bend all their time, giving as much as they can give to words, words, words, always the words. Giving everything they h to getting them out of ourselves and into the world hoping to have an effect. Hoping to move someone, hoping to become and move themselves.

Why the urgency? Why the intensity? Why do whole worlds hinge on our abilities and dedication?. Why do these things scratch at us so? Why do we hurt ourselves this way? What do we hope to achieve?

The desperation stems from our inevitable deaths I am certain. No tomorrow is promised, we know that, and writers feel it more acutely than most. We know that if we hope to leave behind the thing in our chests beating to get out, we must work hard and fast. We must make choices and sacrifices in our lives, and in the work too, to do just enough, to say just enough, to get the message out in a way you can live and die with.

Desperation is a writer’s friend. Desperation leads to an outpouring of work. It leads to pens flying across pages and fingers flying across keyboards. It leads to a body of work that might be less than perfect but at least says what you were meant to say.

But I wonder, what will happen to the ones who don’t make it?  With a life lived straining toward work we may never get right? How can a writer cope with in obscurity without acknowledgment? What if I am among those who no one reads, hears of, or remembers? The thought alone makes me want to pick up a pencil and write furiously whatever comes to mind. The thought alone fills me with anxiety and hunger. I am reminded of my drive and my reason: To tell my truth. To get at what makes us all so great and terrible a force in this universe, even while we mean nothing and matter, not at all.

Desperation is a writer’s friend, and it may be the very defining thing that sets a writer apart from dabblers and fakes. Charles Bukowski wrote that a writer without desperation is nothing at all, and I am inclined to agree. Writer’s need to feel always on the verge of losing life and sanity without words or our work wanes both in quality and quantity. We forget to care about the truth and telling it, in just enough time.

When you sit down to write you should be sweating like you’ve just sat down to disarm and disassemble a bomb set to go off in seconds. You have to be struggling like you need food, water, or air. Write like the world depends on it, like your loved ones lives depended on it, like your life and legacy depend on it, no matter what your subject, from dystopian future to sci-fi, to memoir, to children’s books, and on down to little blog posts like these. Write like it truly matters whether you succeed or fail.

Of course, there ought to be balance, like all things. Walk the line between desperation and contentment, between urgency and patience. There has to be positivity and joy when you sit to write too, not just fear and anxiety. Find peace and focus in the knowledge that you are doing the work you were made for and that someone out there will agree. Even if it is one person you save through your sweating, you will have achieved your objective.

Balance is what keeps you getting better. It’s what keeps your ideas clear, organized, and coherent. Your words will mean nothing if rushed out there disjointed and jumbled.

Do not fear the desperation, the need, let it push you to stay dedicated to getting better and getting your name out there. Keep hold of that need, it will keep you going, and remember that without it, you are no writer. Keep it, cultivate it, let it guide you, but do not let it control you and never let it hinder your message.

Be desperate to get better, to learn, and to hone your craft. Be desperate to be different, desperate to show the world something new.

 

Be desperate to get it right.

 

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Quote via Alec Nevala-Lee

Biographical information via Goodreads and Wikipedia

Featured image via Unsplash