Mining for Ideas

Mining for IdeasThe one question that writers get asked all the time is: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’

The world is full of things that inspire us every day; what we see around us, the things we hear, the events we experience. No one should ever be short of ideas for stories, once they know how to look. This stuff gets into our heads, whether we want it or not. Even if you’re not writing stories, your thoughts are being influenced by these things. I write in a range of genres, though most of them will have a weird aspect that could categorize a story as science fiction, fantasy, mystery or horror. I am fascinated by the strange, the unexpected, the challenging and by how often ‘ordinary life’ thrusts these in front of me. Most writers of fiction make up stories to describe their experience of reality.

But our ideas influence our surroundings too. I am working with Weather Stations to explore this mutual influence. We decide to mine the earth, dredge the sea-bed, burn fuel that sends carbon and other pollutants into our air. We affect the environment that has such a profound effect upon us. And that’s where I’ll be getting my ideas.

(This piece was originally written for the Tallaght Community Arts newsletter)

Colouring Judgement

 

The man gulped air like a fish thrown onto the deck of a boat. Which was ironic, given that he felt as if he was breathing water. A humid summer day in Melbourne. The air was so thick he wished for gills. He had been here less than a week and this was the second time the weather had caught him off guard.

His face, arms and the back of his neck were salmon pink with sunburn after wandering around the city the day before. The straps of his small backpack made his t-shirt feel like sand-paper on his shoulders. The damp air had deceived him. The clear heat of the summers in his own country did less damage than the radiation that scorched your skin here. In the soupy atmosphere, he had burned before the heat had offered any warning.

Today was worse. Walking around with the backpack, sweat clung to his back and armpits as the oppressive humidity filled the air like a fog. Walking down Swanston Street, he listened to snatches of conversation from the people he passed, trying to pick up English phrases, but the language was as difficult to understand as the air was to breathe. The man felt he was wading sluggishly through both. It seemed Australians did not speak the kind of English he had learned in his classes back home. They used phrases he had never heard: ‘As full as a boot’; ‘A face like a dropped pie’; ‘I’ve got to hit the frog and toad’; ‘As useful as an arsehole on your elbow’. He did not understand these phrases.

Also, his teacher had spoken with an American accent, teaching her students to speak in the same way which, combined with the man’s own accent, was apparently making it hard for anyone here to understand him. Even though he and the Australians were speaking the same language, they were each making very different sounds. And then there were so many other nationalities here, with different accents of their own, some of whom had English only marginally better than his. And Australians spoke too quickly for him. He had to keep asking people to repeat themselves, which made conversation a strain.

Without fluency, his language was crude and mechanical and now, unaccustomed as he was to this smothering weather, he knew he looked out of place, as well as sounding it. A sunburnt, sweating, awkward, clumsy-tongued foreigner. To those who didn’t know him, he seemed a very different person to the man he actually was. It was exhausting, trying to be himself in this other place. This environment made him someone else.

Strewth!’ he exclaimed, wiping his forehead as he gazed up at the unrelenting blue of the sky.

His sister, who watched a lot of Australian soap operas, had told him that if he wanted to speak like an Australian, he had to learn to swear like one. He wasn’t sure the list of swear words she had given him was that accurate . . . or up to date. But they were easy to pronounce and he was fond of swearing, and he thought they were improving his Australian accent, so he had made a conscious effort to use them whenever he could.

Bugger!’ he muttered, shifting the straps on his shoulders before he started walking again.

He had forgotten how sore sunburn could be. And it was starting to itch like crazy. He had not put sun-cream on yesterday – he hated the stuff and hardly ever used it at home. His sister had told him Australian sun was different. Something about the hole in the ozone layer. The UV rays were stronger. She had warned him not to be macho and stubborn and to wear the bloody sun-cream. Well, now he was burnt. ‘Dumb as a box of rocks’, as the Australians said . . . according to the soaps. He could imagine the self-righteous cow folding her arms and jutting her chin out in satisfaction. He rubbed the back of his neck and winced at the warm sting of it. He’d put the bloody stuff on today, all right. Pain was a great persuader.

He caught a few people smiling at his glowing pink skin and scowled to himself. Yes, yes, he had been caught out. What of it? Let them try living through one of the winters at home and see how they fared. He remembered a time when an Aussie immigrant he knew was out in sub-zero temperatures, working on his car. Library-1The idiot had put a bolt between his lips to hold it while he went to undo a second one. And then was shocked to find the bolt had frozen to his lips. He had quickly stopped the Aussie from trying to pull it free, telling him to take a drink from his mug of coffee instead, to warm the freezing metal. Pulling the bolt free would have torn the skin off his lips.

The man shook his head at the memory as he came to another cross-roads of wide streets – they were all wide streets around here; if there was one thing this country wasn’t lacking, it was space. Looking across the junction, he saw the state library on the opposite corner. People in brightly-coloured clothes sat out on the grass at the front and skateboarders practised their moves along benches and kerbs on the wide pavement. To his left, he saw a building that look like it had a roof built out of plastic frogs.

Bloody hell!’ he muttered.

That was another thing here; the colours. People seemed to be able tolerate the most garish colours in the most prominent places. The television in the mornings was filled with images coloured like children’s toys. Was that an effect of the sun too? Did it dazzle their eyes so much, they could only see in primary hues? Or was his own judgement ‘coloured’ by the light back home?  Could an entire nation’s taste be influenced by its weather? He supposed it could. Compared to the muted tones he was used to at home, this place looked like a crèche, but then there were some who might find his home town a depressing place. He often did. It was one of the reasons he had accepted the job with the mining company here.

Walking into the library, up the steps and past the pillars that towered over its entrance, he was awestruck by its scale. This was not a palace or a corporation headquarters but a place for holding books and information, a place people could just wander into and use. And yet it was a majestic place. Instead of one great hall to impress visitors and then, as you might expect, a collection of smaller, more utilitarian rooms, the place seemed to consist of one spacious, individually designed room after another. An architect’s showcase.

Crikey!’ he gasped in his thick accent.

The air was cooler and clearer here and the man breathed easier, strolling slowly, his head turning from one side to the other constantly as he took it all in. And the books, of course. This was not a borrowing library, but still, there was plenty of space to sit and read, there were plenty of computers to use. Library-2This place seemed created to remind him that reading was a chance to share in the thoughts of others, but at his own speed. He did not have to be hurried by the pace of someone else’s speech.

He walked through a gallery space that looked like it had been transported from one of the great old galleries of Europe and transplanted here. In a smaller chamber off to one side, he was surprised to find an exhibition of illustrations from children’s books. Moving from one to the next, he was more touched by them than the grander oil paintings in the room beyond. Simple, but nuanced; bold, but delicate, they were so like the pictures in the books he had grown up with. Sitting here, surrounded by these images from Australian children’s books, he felt strangely at home. A tension dissolved out of him and, without thinking, he sat down on a bench to let the moment take effect.

Why had he never learned how to draw? Why was it not taught as a language in schools? Everyone understood pictures. Library-3He had enjoyed it when he was a child, but he had not kept it up as he got older. Looking at these pictures, he regretted that decision, if it had been a decision at all.

You little rippers!’ he murmured, with a faint smile.

After nearly fifteen minutes of just sitting there, enjoying the lightness of the room, he moved on and found the yawning space at the centre of the library, beneath the giant dome. Walking in, he tilted his head back, his neck straining to let him take in the full view above. The sky was an aching, intense blue framed within the panes of glass. My God, that blue! How had he not noticed it before? Was this what it took to for him to truly see it? Did it have to be framed like this, like a piece of artwork? At this moment, at home, the winter sky would most likely be overcast or a pale blue at best, but this colour was like a force of nature, holding onto his eyes. What a blue!

After leaving the library, he found a Chinese restaurant for lunch. Sitting down, he took his notebook and pen from his bag. When the waitress came over, he ordered some noodles, pointing to the menu when the waitress failed to understand the words spoken in his strong accent. When he was about to ask her another question and realized he didn’t know the right words, he opened his notebook and drew a very rough paintbrush and pallet.

Oh, art supplies!’ she exclaimed with a smile, nodding and taking the pen from his hand. ‘Yes, there’s a shop nearby. Here, I’ll draw you some directions . . .’

‘Deep Down, Do I Really Care?’

 

You do have to ask yourself.

There’s no question that the issue of climate change is important . . . right? Everyone who knows anything about this stuff tells us it’s important. There are eminent, articulate scientists all over the world, going blue in the face trying to impress upon us just how cataclysmic the changes in our weather could be.

Yet, there’s still that question, that grotesque beast of a question, scratching at the undersides of the floorboards in your brain, grunting at you to let it out into the light. Yes, you’ve been informed. You’ve accepted the facts. You’ve been convinced. You’re a reasonable, rational human being who cares what happens to the world and the people who live in it. You have no doubt about it. But still, those claws keep scraping at the wood.

That question.

‘Deep down, do I really care?’

Because, let’s face it; if human beings were spurred into action by something as straightforward as facts, we’d have solved most of society’s problems a long time ago.

The changes that we have inflicted upon our world occupy many of society’s greatest minds, so you might think things are getting really desperate when the experts start looking to storytellers for help. Writers of fiction. ThinkerSure, we use facts all the time. To make up stories. We weave contrived lies for the purposes of entertainment. Not a good qualification if you’re being asked to engage people in a very complicated, scientific problem.

None of the five Weather Stations writers is a scientist. Even if we were, climate change is a vast, intangible and mind-bogglingly complex subject that very few have a comprehensive knowledge of. It is a baffling world of degrees, percentages and long-range predictions based on minute measurements across an array of variants. So what’s the point of dragging five storytellers into this?

It’s not my job to appeal to the rational mind. It’s my job to lie down, press my eye to a gap in the boards and address my words to that beast of a question under the floor.

Do you really care?’ I whisper to it. ‘Perhaps . . . if you’ll let me, I can show you why I do.’

Then I start prising up the nails that hold those floorboards down.

Science is founded upon logic and the elegant purity of posing a question and finding the tangible answer that best withstands the challenges of rational investigation. In science, there is such thing as the best answer to a question. Or, at least, the best answer so far . . .

In storytelling, we have questions like ‘What is happening?’; ‘Why is it happening?’; ‘Who am I?’; ‘Where have I come from?’; ‘What is the difference between us?’; ‘What effect is this place having on me?’; ‘What will happen next?’. And most importantly, that most head-wrecking question for any writer of fiction: ‘Why should you, the reader, care about any of this stuff I’m just making up?’

None of these questions have a single tangible answer that will guarantee satisfaction. Their most satisfying answers change from story to story, moment to moment, character to character and from reader to reader. But once writers have learned to ask these questions in the right way, in the right tone, with the right inflection, at the right speed and in the right order – if we can then deliver the answers with sufficient skill, we can inspire sadness and happiness, excitement and fear.

If the reader will only consent to take our hand, we can lead them on a dance, and in the course of that dance, in that whirling momentum, we can steer them in new directions. If they invite us into their minds, we can seed new thoughts. We can show them the world through our eyes. We can manipulate emotions.

And it is emotion, far more than reason, that compels us to act. Facts may offer a compelling reason for doing something, but if you want to provoke people into action, you have to get personal.

At any given moment, each of us has a chaotic storm of thoughts in our heads. Composing those thoughts into something coherent that can be communicated is a skill every human being spends a lifetime learning. The WriterWe have limited means: speech, facial expressions, body language, writing and perhaps drawing. When a writer is telling a story, it’s not enough to just relate the events. You can’t take your audience’s attention for granted. They must be helped to understand the ideas you’re trying to plant in their minds.

A reader really is more like a dance partner than a film viewer. They have to take an active part in the telling of the story.

And to keep them in receiving mode, they must feel compelled to give a damn about the end result. I even have to bear you in mind, as you read this piece. In order to tell you my story, I must make you curious, make you wonder what happens next, and I have to make you care enough to find out. I must be deliberate about what I pass from my imagination to yours – and do so in a way that ensures you will continue to accept it.

We are bombarded every day with news of disasters and tragedies, tales of horrible injustice. But what is often lacking in the myriad of ‘shocking’ statistics about various issues we hear about, are the little details that can really engage the emotions. If you tell me that there are over eight hundred million people around the world who are starving, for instance, I can act shocked, but it is frankly impossible to empathize with eight hundred million people. I can appreciate it on an intellectual level, but at a gut level, I just don’t care. And it’s the gut level that really counts.

These people are a faceless multitude, and it takes a great deal of effort to give that number any kind of reality. It’s too big, too distant. The scale of it would overwhelm me if I had that kind of perspective. I have too many other problems closer to home to worry about. Most humans are not motivated by numbers. But tell them a story about just one engaging character, someone we can imagine liking if they were real, someone who is suffering from a clawing hunger that is causing their gums to recede so their teeth begin falling out, causing sores on their skin, causing their vision to fail, all as their body starts to essentially digest itself. Tell them that character’s story, and people might be more likely to sit up and take notice.

Now, instead of millions of starving people, let’s imagine you have to make people care about changes in the weather. Some places will get hotter, others will get colder. Or wetter. We’re not sure how much. The sea’s going to rise. A bit. We’re not sure how much. Apparently, things could get really bad.

It doesn’t really set the heart racing, does it? And yet it’s the biggest environmental crisis we’ve ever faced. It could be the biggest crisis of any kind, that we’ve ever faced.

This, to my mind, is why Weather Stations was set up, and why so many other writers around the world are getting engaged in this issue. Any storyteller must ignite his or her audience’s imaginations and create empathy, to make their audience care about their characters, to hold their attention.

And now that’s what we have to do with the facts that should do the job for us, but don’t.

We’re only human. For most of us, our motives, perceptions and concerns are largely selfish, extending beyond our immediate loved ones and environment only when we can spare our attention and our resources. We just can’t be expected to care about millions of people – imagine even trying to count to a million – or even worse, be expected to be care, deep down, about the world’s oceans, the land, the atmosphere. It’s too big an idea to get your head around.

All I undertake to do with any story is get my reader to take an interest – even in some small way – on a visceral level; to engage their emotions and through that, their imaginations and, perhaps, aim their attention in a given direction. When that ugly monster of a question bursts up through the floorboards and demands an answer, I’ll have one to give. I do care, because this is my problem. I’m making it my problem.

Other people have more valuable, more substantive roles to play in this enormous task we must set for ourselves. But finding the words and pictures that will seed new thoughts in people’s imaginations? That’s my bit.