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You will perhaps be familiar with the novelist Ali Smith’s ongoing series of seasonal books: Autumn, published in October 2016; Winter published in November 2017; Spring, published recently in March; and Summer scheduled for some summer sometime soon. The books are a hugely ambitious project in which Smith responds to contemporary events, as they happen: they’re all very now; they’re all very novel. But they’ve also had a long gestation: Smith says that she’s been thinking about the books for 20 years or more.

That’s the thing with ideas: they can be knocking around for ages before you can find a use for them. We’re all having ideas all the time. The problem is not so much having ideas as knowing what on earth to do with them.

The first thing to do, of course, is to find a way to record them: most of us forget our ideas almost as soon as they occur to us. By the time you’ve finished reading this article, for example, dozens of new thoughts and ideas will have occurred to you. (Including, doubtless, ’I could write a better article than this.’)

The second thing to do is to stop worrying about being inventive and creative. ‘The word creative drives me crazy,’ said the poet Elizabeth Bishop. Me too. If you spend too much time worrying about being creative you won’t have much time to actually be creative.

The third thing to do is to remember that most of your ideas will be no good – which is perfectly OK, because most ideas are no good. The great Cynthia Ozick has an essay in which she claims that ‘To be a writer is to be an autodidact, with all the limitations, gaps, and gaucheries typical of the autodidact, who belabors clichés as though they were sacral revelation.’ It’s in the working out of your ideas that they’ll become interesting: when you first jot them down, they’re probably not going to sound like much at all.

And finally, to be absolutely clear: having good ideas has almost no relationship to having a good education. The most brilliant writers are not usually those with the most brilliant exam results. David Markson has a novel, Reader’s Block (1996) in which he reminds readers that ‘Dickens, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Maxim Gorky never finished grade school.’ (Mr Markson, it should be noted, was American: Dickens definitely didn’t finish grade school, because in England there is not such thing as a grade school.) Markson also notes that Sean O’Casey, aged forty-three, was still working with a pick and shovel when his first play was produced. You can have ideas at any age, in any place.

Apparently, when she was young, Ali Smith wanted to be a rubbish collector. ‘I thought it was the most romantic thing you could be because down the road came a truck full of the most interesting things, all thrown away.’ All writers, in fact, are rubbish collectors: we learn to make use of what others choose to discard.


This article is from a series of ‘How To...’ guides for emerging and developing writers, written in 2019/20 by Ian Sansom.

Ian Sansom is the author of the Mobile Library and the County Guides series of novels. He writes regularly for the Guardian, the TLS, and the Spectator. He teaches at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. iansansom.net

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