Years ago, I was on holiday in Portugal and went on a jeep tour to explore the forests and little farms that lie inland from the sparkling resorts of the coast. In the heat of late afternoon, we arrived at a dilapidated smallholding where the farmer kept bees and sold honey. He directed us into a windowless outbuilding where honey was extracted from the honeycombs and decanted into glass jars. When he’d finished his demonstration I turned to leave, and froze. The room was so dark that I hadn’t realized the air was alive with bees. I’d noticed the buzzing, of course, as I’d watched the farmer at work, but that was only to be expected in such a spot. Now, though, standing in the darkness and looking out through the open doorway into the glare of Portugal in high summer, I realized that I would have to walk through what seemed—to my inexpert eye—to be a swarm of bees. Don’t panic, said the farmer. Walk slowly. Don’t flail at them, or try to swat them. They won’t sting you unless you scare them. Just walk.
So I walked, s-l-o-w-l-y, fighting the instincts that were telling me to scream and thrash around like a woman-in-jeopardy in a low-budget horror movie. Once or twice a bee bumped into my bare arms, but no stings were stung.
When I think about my process as a writer, I think of that walk. For me, ideas are like those bees—multitudinous, ceaselessly in motion, distracting—and I spend most of my life wandering through their buzzing. Like the old Portuguese farmer, I’m all but oblivious to them, and try to get on with my work regardless.
This is the problem with ideas. There are just too many of them. Every writer who has ever lived has had an imagination seething with ideas that never went anywhere, and even a writer with the sternest work ethic and the longevity of Methuselah will not be able to turn a fraction of their ideas into pieces of literature.
To take the bee/idea analogy further—and at this point I must advice apiarists to stop reading, as my misunderstanding of bees and beekeeping will probably infuriate you—not every bee can found a colony, and not every idea can develop into something worth reading. The farmyard of my creative inner space is littered with wreckage. Half-built hives that I’ve abandoned in frustration or apathy. Crumpled piles of chip-board and beeswax that could have been marvelous if only my design had not been incompatible with, you know, staying upright. And buzzing aimlessly through the carnage, disconsolate solitary bees wondering where it all went wrong.
Sometimes—very occasionally—it works. And perhaps rather than poke through the detritus scattered around the farmyard of failure I should examine the successes. I don’t, of course, mean ‘success’ in the sense of best-selling publications, because that’s a pretty flawed way to judge if a piece of writing works. By ‘success’ I mean the novels, short stories and poems that got finished and feel aesthetically complete. Some of these have been published, and some haven’t.
Here’s the thing about my relationship with writing. I never really want to do it. I’m not one of those writers who take every opportunity to get words onto paper or computer screen. Stephen King says a day without writing is like a day without sunshine. For me a day without writing sounds just dandy. So why do I do it then? Well, I’ve noticed that when I don’t write I’m troubled with just about every downbeat feeling going: discontent, gloom, restlessness, and all the other symptoms a psychoanalyst might identify as resistance. When I force myself to write I feel the better for it. I suspect the root of my resistance is that I have conflicting notions of what literature is really for—or more specifically, what the literature I create is for. At heart I’m a utilitarian: literature should entertain the reader, offer them escape, excitement, novelty, consolation. But also, at heart, I’m an adventurer: literature should challenge the reader, unsettle them, bend their minds. A divided heart, at cross-purposes with itself—no wonder I struggle to write at all.
But back to the honeybees. Every successful colony needs a queen bee. Queen bees are made, not born. They start life as a regular baby bee, but with a very particular diet they grow up to be a queen. They lie around having loads of bee sex and producing thousands of offspring while the drones and workers do the hard work of making honey and building honeycombs. Sometimes their colony will be in the human-made confines of a hive, and less often they’ll build their own wild and wonderful nest in some nook or cranny of an old tree. So if the ideas that actually come to something are queen bees—fed and supported by an army of lesser ideas—the shape they take depends on whether the colony is feral or domesticated.
The trick, I think, is to let the ideas take however long they need. For me that’s often a very long time indeed. I let them buzz around me for years. Sometimes they’ll bump into me, or land on my hair, but I let them do their thing until I notice that one of them has—by some mysterious process of selection and nurture—become a queen. She needs a place to nest, and that’s the moment when I finally pay her some attention. What support does she need to establish her colony? The containment of a hive, or the organic folds and hollows of a tree? This is the key question, and most often the answer is the hive.
I find words, phrases, voices and images come easily and plentifully, but structure is hard, and it is structure—the home I choose for the idea—that will make or break it. I’ve spent too much of my writing life trying to come up with my own take on structure, only to end up creating something unwieldy or unstable. Often, when I thought I’d devised an original way of storytelling, I’ve found that someone else has done it before, and better. Lately I’ve come to appreciate the elegance of archetypal story structures—three acts, five acts, the arc of the genre novel—and found that, in fact, they are the most pleasing way to let those queen bee ideas develop and prosper.
And yet, and yet…My adventurous heart is still beating, and now and again an eccentric idea flies off into the woods and I follow it, wondering where it will settle, and how it will grow, and what it will look like when it’s done.
I’ve come to terms, I think, with the fact that I am several different writers. My creative inner space might be untidy, but there’s room for all of us in there. It doesn’t trouble me that most of the ideas buzzing around me will never come to anything. It’s enough that some of them already have, and—hopefully—more of them will in future. When I’m stuck—wrestling with my reluctance to write, perhaps—I take myself back to that hot afternoon all those years ago. Standing in a dim Portuguese room looking out through a doorway dancing with bees. And the air is sweet with honey.