Picture via Old Chum.
Sometime last year my dad and I were sitting in the backyard of my old flat in Wellington, drinking cups of tea and sharing our traditional “parents visiting” silence, when suddenly the chair he was sitting on just disintegrated. The wood crumbled, the fabric gave way, and Dad folded up and fell through a hole in the middle where the seat had been. “My god,” he said. He hauled himself out of the hole, a bit breathless, and peered at the pieces of rotten, porous wood and torn vinyl lying on the grass. “Look at that! It’s just completely … gone.” After I’d finished laughing, I wanted to write it down. Not the most sympathetic response, I know. Well, every writer has a chip of ice in his heart.
Here’s my conundrum – I’ll see or hear something I find interesting or peculiar or funny, and I’ll think that the thing holds great creative promise. “Whooee, I’m definitely going to talk about that,” I say to myself. The hands of my brain are rubbing together at this point. Then after a few gung-ho attempts, looking for a home for the thing in the form of a poem or essay or article, I flatline. The bright shard has no apparent connection with anything else. I can’t find any meaning to couch it inside. (As you can see, I’ve cunningly solved the problem of the homeless scene of my dad busting through the chair – it lives on this blog now, so it’s Helen’s responsibility. You’ve got to give it away …)
I’ve been thinking about a book called Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson in which the central argument is that “Eureka!” moments – moments of dazzling, goggle-eyed clarity – do not happen. Johnson argues that you have to stalk those moments, bait them, wire-tap them. I don’t think he’s referring to disintegrating chairs when he talks about the spark: he’s referring more to a sense of connection; the feeling that you’ve discovered the links between seemingly disparate elements, or that you’ve realised the wider significance of a moment. And the spark is also about the excitement of possibility. No matter how quiet and routine a day, there’s always the possibility that a hole in the middle is about to open up and you’ll fall through (see how the chair comes back to resonate there?). You have to keep the proverbial eye out.
Johnson has a basic (I was going to say “helpful”, but one writer’s helpful is another writer’s hamstring) strategy for courting the spark of connection. “I have this Microsoft Word document that I call my spark file,” he says. “I’ve been keeping it for about six years now, and that’s where I write down every little half-baked, quarter-baked idea I have for anything … I spend no time organising it, but I try to reread the entire document once every couple of months.” An idea that once seemed cryptic or lacklustre may unexpectedly gleam weeks or months or years later: “because it connects to something else – and suddenly, it’s ready.”
Incredible: “Suddenly, it’s ready”! Almost without registering it, the simple act of collection becomes an act of creation. In the same way that big discussions and debates and ideas tend to come out of great cities – anywhere a multitude of connections are available – so too does story out of a network of fragments. Maybe the close proximity of elements allows us to better comprehend the possibilities. Johnson has a tidy way of putting it: “Chance favours the connected mind.”
The man makes sense! And in some ways I’ve been keeping an ad-hoc spark file for years, too – in notebooks, ancient Word documents, bookmarked pages, emails – and some of the connections I’ve made from these have become pieces of work that, for a time at least, feel meaningful.
But still, the anomalies haunt me.
The other day my brother JP told me about this old song lyric he’d come across. “Do you expect me to just quote King Lear/ While you hit me with your deck-chair?” When I read those lines I really felt like writing something. I thought about what might’ve led to that deranged moment of conflict. The old high-school copy of King Lear strewn on the floor. The expression on the singer’s face when his lover picked up the chair. The deck chair folded up for maximum impact. And I thought about the 18-year-old who wrote those lines. Maybe I should be worried that I found this scene of domestic violence so intriguing. I sat down a wrote a few lines that turned into a sort of terrible poem. In short, nothing good came of it. Many other lines and scenes and characters have failed to connect, have failed to become whole. They’re the lost souls of our manuscripts, trapped in some kind of purgatory.
You could call these things part of “the garbage heap” of experience, as Natalie Goldberg puts it in good old Writing Down the Bones (the garbage heap she describes is really more of a compost pile, where the eggshells, spinach leaves, coffee grinds, and “old steak bones of our minds” become fertile soil), but I think more than enough analogies have been drawn between composting and experience and the fertile soil coming out of the fingertips etcetera.
Not everything we experience can be part of our work. Some things are homeless. They flicker in and out of view but do not light up what surrounds them. Maybe the trick is to reflect this understanding in what we write – to acknowledge the broken chairs but to not, every time, attempt to rebuild them. (The one my dad fell through – a beloved old red chair from the basement of an early Wellington flat – was irreparable.)