The 500th Postiversary Competition closes on 31st May
This Happy Fellow: my year at Goldsmiths

Tomorrow to fresh finds and problems new

The other day, something I was reading tossed a tasty short-story idea into my lap: two people in a particular situation with dramatic possibilities. If you think of craft as a process of problem-finding, as Richard Sennet puts it, then the problem I had found was how those possibilities might be realised. And I worked out how quite quickly  - how the problem could be solved - how it could be written. I knew what the voice would be, how the structure would work, and that it would end up as a decent short story that quite a few readers would enjoy. At which point, all desire to write it melted away. I knew the answer to the problem that the idea presented, and felt no urge to glue the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair for several days, in order to spell it out word by word.

Obviously, in one sense, I was wrong: that spelling-out is also, in itself, a process of finding problems, and then solving them: "How do I write this sentence?" is really a question of "What am I trying to do with this sentence?", and once you answer that, the how is answered too, within the limits of your current capabilities at choosing and arranging words. And, of course, I was wrong in the sense that one can always do it better, or worse, in terms of the effect on readers or the money in the contract.

But I wasn't wrong, creatively speaking, to set aside an idea that was reasonably certain to result in a decent story. These days, some of the time, I know my writerly self: I had not only found the problem, I had solved it, and it was that very certainty that meant there was nothing to fire up and fuel my creative engines. Imagine a scientist who gets fascinated by a phenomenon, and spends a year or ten observing and imagining and analysing it, to work out how it works. The human, physical-mental joy of creative thinking is at full-tilt; that's why she came into this business. Once she has a theory that is proved to express and explain how that phenomenon operates, the job is done and there's no more of that joy to be had from it. The scientist moves on to something else: either a new phenomenon, or a new puzzle posed by this one. And mountaineers, too, can't find the fire and energy to put themselves through all the sweat and agony to do the same climb again. Saying, "But there's one tricky bit where the path's washed away," isn't enough to sustain the desire to climb the whole route and reach a top you've already climbed and reached: they look for a new route, or a new mountain. Why should writers be different?

And would I have been wrong in commercial terms to set aside an idea that was reasonably certain to result in a saleable story? Perhaps: I have rent to pay. If I'd had to try - if it had been a commission, say - I would have taken a leaf from Rachel Aaron's book, and gone on trying to find a problem, inside that story-idea, that I did feel an urgent, passionate desire to solve. 

Maybe I would have been wrong to refuse to write it on spec, too, if it was a story which might get me lots of readers or money or both. But perhaps not. A deliberately found, not naturally-arising, problem is not such rich or efficient fuel. Things not working out is always a possibility a creative artist has to live with, of course: human creativity is nothing if not wasteful. But with something that doesn't arise naturally I know from experience that I often make the wrong judgements about the project: I stick where I should twist, and cut where I should add. It might not, in other words, have turned out as successful as it looked as if it would.

So, as ever, I'm not saying that I - or you - should ever refuse a project because it will do well as art or commerce, or refuse a project it because it won't. There's no merit in the snobbery that assumes that anything written for money is whoredom, nor in the snobbery that assumes that refusing to write something saleable makes you an idle dilettante. Snobbery is sterile, and this is a decision about fertility: about the fundamental mental-physical joy of creative thinking, and its relationship, in each of us, to our own particular, writerly self.


Keep those entries coming! Closing date Friday 31st May; full details here.