Inspiration or the Subconscious Writer?


When my father died, I was working on a novel called Watershed. I think I had reached chapter ten. I had high hopes. Perhaps I might have hoped for his blessing, his guidance, but it didn’t work like that.

Where does inspiration come from?

Is there a capricious muse, an ethereal thing, all wisps and zephyrs? Or is there a subconscious writer like an adjunct to our intellect? One or the other, because I don’t think novels are solely the creation of the writer in the first person in a determinative way. But there is nothing external; they are the work of the mind, parts of which we may not understand or have not explored.

An idea appears from a place unknown. It may turn out to be inconsequential but, at this formative moment, freed, in the paperless mind of the imaginary pen, thoughts flow into the broad sweep of a plot thats always the greatest idea, perhaps dotted about with unattached, peerless sentences, until there it is, revealed from the mist, inchoate, but the best idea I’ve ever had, waiting to be written. It is mine, alone.

Which will not surrender easily to the real page.

Beginning is difficult; sitting down to begin is more difficult; being afraid to sit down to begin is the most difficult of all.

Because, before the beginning, when the idea’s bluff is called, when the pen is quivering over the paper, which is pristine white, waiting for the marvellous words to inscribe themselves beautifully like an illustrated manuscript (typing comes later), a shadow falls over it: fear of failure, the foretaste of lost time, disappointment and frustration. Somewhere beyond it, there may be light, something worthwhile, which is its generative ambition, but also the possibility of wasted years struggling with a project that was a bad idea but won’t be admitted as such until all possible means to save it have been exhausted and what vestige remains is glad to be put out of its misery and I am relieved to abandon it. How many ideas never get past this dangerous time?

But, just occasionally, the words do come: a page, pages, a chapter, chapters, and it begins to take form, to acquire substance and that great, elusive thing, momentum.

Then, gratefully, thankfully, it slowly reveals an innerness of its own, as if the writing has a separate mind, guiding progress from within. The plot connects itself in ways unnoticed at first, like synapses finding their own way to build consciousness.

At first, I am a spectator or a protagonist debating flow and structure, plot and words, after they have appeared: a reviewer but not a critic.

‘I didn’t realise that; that’s new,’ as I read it back. ‘Why did that character do that or say that at that precise time. Where’s it going with this?’ When did I think of that?

Muse or subconscious writer, we have become collaborators.

At any time, it can grind to a halt; momentum is lost. As collaborators we fall out; the writing partnership is unborn. We become bored with each other and become aware that we don’t really like each other, never did. We shouldn’t have tried; we shouldn’t have started. I’m not to blame, it was him. I am alone again.

But, sometimes, the novel gets finished and, like a painting, a sculpture or the physical form of a book with its title down the spine, it begins to distance itself. Its voice was not our voice; its words were not our words. They were a stranger’s.

At that point, separated by time from the writing of it, it’s possible to become the critic, to reach a judgement about whether it’s any good or not. More time passes and the judgement, the test, becomes more acute in its appraisal.

If the conclusion is that it’s not very good, then it’s all down to me. My collaborator has scuttled off to the other end of the bar, where he casts sly glances at me poring over my creation, searching for redeeming merits and filling with regret before, inevitably deciding I’m flogging a dead horse: into the bin it goes. The loneliness of failure.

But if it’s any good, he’s sitting on the stool next to me, slurping cold beers with a misty look in his eye. We’re the best of mates; the night is young.

Watershed was never published. But Aden to Zanzibar was. I dedicated that to my father instead. That seemed to be the right way to go about it, the honest way.