Calliope or Circe?
An idea for a new book came to me recently. The idea isn’t fully formed, but it is real, insistent and somewhat impatient. Its timing, though, couldn’t be worse. I am already late with the other works I am trying to finish and the burden of another selfish book may prove far too much for my poor brain. My only hope is to tuck the new idea safely away somewhere until I can get round to doing it justice; which means writing down everything I can think of and saving it in its own little nest on my computer.
Writing down ideas when they occur to you is essential for a writer, but I have to admit that I’m not very good at it. I used to carry a notebook with me for just that purpose but found that either I was always leaving it somewhere, or that many ideas were coming to me while driving (and if you think the police take dim view of using one’s mobile while driving, then the one they take of someone writing in a notebook while driving is immeasurably darker.) Frequently, I found myself without it; it was in my other jacket, or lying on the desk rather than in my pocket, or some such inconvenience and I’d have to stop and buy another one. Consequently, I’ve ended up with an impressive collection of half-filled notebooks. Invariably, then, I find myself going over everything again and again in my head in a desperate attempt to remember it long enough to type it.
This particular story seems very promising and I’m quite excited by it. (Forgive me for not sharing too many details but they’d not be particularly interesting, anyway. Books just conceived are very much like babies just born: hard to tell apart, full of wrinkles and looking nothing like they will when they mature into proper beings.) In short, I really want to write it.
Experience, though, gives me pause. As I once remarked to someone, I’m full of good ideas – I just can’t tell them from the bad ones. I don’t know which this is; is it a terrific idea, or a tantalising delusion? A gift from the Muse or the Enchantress?
For any pedants who read this, yes I know that Calliope was actually the Muse of epic poetry. But there isn’t a muse for novels. When Zeus impregnated Mnemosyne and the poor goddess gave birth to the nine charming darlings who became the Muses, no one had even the vaguest notion of literature in novel form. So I’ve appropriated Calliope, whose own speciality was surely the progenitor of the modern novel.
If it was Circe who visited me, I’m reasonable sure that I won’t suddenly turn into a pig or lion half-way through writing it. But I will waste an awful lot of time and words before I realise that the good idea was, in fact, a bloody awful one. That’s one of the troubles with writing: a lot of good words can go into a bad idea.
They’re not wasted, of course. A good sentence is a gem, far too precious to throw away just because it’s found in a pig sty. So I throw them into a sort of writer’s hope chest which I pillage from time to time. Only to find, of course, that once again I was deceived and what I thought was a gift from Calliope is yet another piece of Circe’s fool’s gold.
I would give anything to be able to tell the good from the bad the moment it hits me. Some, of course, are so bad that they are are immediately obvious; some, though, have just enough gloss to hide the rot beneath and it is not until much later – usually when the book has been published – that the extent of the rot becomes evident. It’s one thing to have a momentary lapse but quite another to immortalise it in print. It’s why many writers adopt what Ian McEwan calls the FLF (‘flickering log fire’) strategy: trusted first readers who can detect cliches, hackneyed phrases and other slips of the pen that the writer doesn’t notice. It doesn’t always work, of course, and even trusted literary bloodhounds can miss the stale odour of platitude.
My problem is that either my ego – or my insecurity – gets in the way (it depends on how I feel on the day which of the two it is) and I’m convinced that I should be able to detect the nonsense myself without a circle of FLF friends; an hubristic trait which makes me thank my lucky stars for editors who don’t hesitate for an instant to ride roughshod over both ego and insecurity.
The worst thing, though, is something I don’t like thinking about: that the idea really is from the Muse, that Calliope has given me a precious gift but I turn out to be the true villain of the piece, the Circe who changes a silk purse into a sow’s ear. Of course, that could never possibly happen but it does prove that the only thing greater than a writer’s vanity is a writer’s insecurity.