Most non-writers probably have a concept of writing as the art of making shit up. Shit that’s meaningful or entertaining, anyway. Some, like myself, disagree. This gets to the heart of the “in there” vs “out there” debate about creativity, best illustrated by mathematics. Are mathematical concepts such as π inventions of the human mind, or discoveries of the real world? If you were to poll mathematicians, most would probably say theirs is the process of discovering real world truths that are already “out there,” and that it takes a creative mind to endeavor on this process. I feel the same way about writing. Stories are not constructions made up out of thin air, constituted only by a writer’s creative thoughts. Unwritten stories already exist in the vast sea of our collective unconscious, and writers are those divers skilled at bringing them up.
The following excerpt from Stephen King’s On Writing illustrates this superbly:
I agree with this sentiment because it’s been my experience in reading and writing. When I first read Atlas Shrugged (at the impressionable age of 15) I distinctly felt I’d discovered something, been made aware of an idea’s existence. In similar fashion, Watership Down got me thinking about how much of our psychology we inherited from our animal ancestors. I’ve never been drawn to serial works or “genre fiction,” that which feels like the same basic idea repeated ad nauseam in slightly different garb. And that’s the reason: If the idea is the same, why read 10 reboots of the same book?
This is what draws me to literary fiction. My personal definition of “literary fiction” is “that which does not fall into a genre.” It’s not all I read. I love The Cruelest Miles (nonfiction), Ender’s Game (sci-fi), and Free Culture (legal). But East of Eden? The Snow Child? The Shell Collector? To me, there is a direct connection between great writing and its resistance to categorization. Each of my favorite books represent a solitary idea, something unique, original, and intuitive, despite my never having imagined it before reading the book.
When I write, it’s not good enough to write by inspiration. My brain is wired for writing. Every conversation I hold, every movie I watch, every book I read, I’m fictionalizing. I’m imagining spinoff ideas, ideas that would never be put to paper because they’ve already been done. Experiencing others’ fiction is like being led to the spot at which they found their fossil. It’s beautiful and intellectually gratifying, but it’s already dug up. My mind may go off on how I would have dug it up differently, but those thoughts are overshadowed by that satisfying feeling of place, of having planted my feet on these specific coordinates on the landscape of our collective unconscious. What are some of the plots of virgin soil I’ve found, some undug fossils? That’s the ultimate needle to thread. King’s fossil, to me, is an intuitive idea that’s compelling, nuanced, and totally original. The excitement I feel for synthesizing a story comes from the thought that no one else out there thought of this before. Obviously I can’t know this for sure, since it’s impossible to read every book ever written, but I do read extensively. If anybody is qualified to certify an idea as original, it’s an avid reader.
Reading definitely feels like mining, in a way. I’m constantly dredging for new ideas, new ways of thinking of things, burning down my ever-expanding list of “must reads.” Lolita, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Child Thief, these are my greatest discoveries, amid a sea of good, bad, and okay books. Writing is like mining too. By living life to the fullest, full of love, travel, food, books, and nature, I am exploring my outer world and my own symbolic inner world. Amid this sea of symbols, some recombine in just the right way to suggest an original story. This is my conception of a muse. “She” is my capacity to recognize a diamond in the rough, a fossil worth digging up, and the experience I have of my outer, surrounding world informs the plot and setting, “getting it out of the ground as intact as possible.”