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Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag On The Beginning of an Idea

“Boredom is a function of attention,” wrote Susan Sontag in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980There are creative benefits to be found in being bored, for Sontag there was also creative influence from reading because it stalled her from writing. “Stalling by way of reading and of listening to music, which energizes me and also makes me restless. Feeling guilty about not writing.”

“Getting started to write is never an easy feat. The handsome devil that is procrastination can play a recurring role for many writers, much like the overwhelming sense of having too many ideas and not knowing where to start. Add to that the relatively unquenchable desire of discovery of new things to enlarge not only our minds, but our hearts also.”

But where do our ideas come from? This got me thinking about other writers and what the beginning of an idea looks like.

I came across this extract from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journal,

“Saw the morn rise from the hilltop but could not wait for the sun. Those long slender bard of cloud swim like fishes in the sea of crimson light. [“] Nor am I ashamed to be A lover of that silent sea.[“] How does Nature deify us with a few cheap elements. Give me health and a Day & I possess more magnificence than emperors covet. The Morning sky before sunrise is my Assyira; the sunset my Paphos & unimaginable realms of Faerie[;] the night is my Germany.”

How does nature deify us, he asks. For Emerson, nature was more than a season or a plant. For him there was a kind of genre, a representation, a metaphor.

“But nature is a picture frame which fits equally well a comic (piece) or a (funeral sketch) mourning piece.”

The substance of an idea is omnipresent when we think about it in terms of nature, and it can represent. Think of personification: the sea was angry, from there the seed begins, and incubates in our minds.

I also found this extract from Virginia Woolf’s diaries,

“Life is, soberly and accurately, the oddest affair; has in it the essence of reality. I  used to feel this as a child, couldn’t step across a puddle once, I remember for thinking how strange — what am I? Etc But by writing I don’t reach anything. All I mean to make is a note of a curious state of mind. I hazard the guess that it may be the impulse behind another book. At present my mind is totally blank and virgin of books. I want to watch and see how the idea first occurs. I want to trace my own process.”

“All I mean to make is a note of a curious state of mind…”

Any odd thought, or reflection shouldn’t be totally ignored, for it could be the seed of a grander idea — even a book.

Ideas can come from anywhere, even the places that we might not have even thought of. We can train our minds to see the idea in anything.

 featured image: Daniel Tabas /  Flickr CC


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