Where do ideas come from?

All new projects – whether in the arts, the sciences, business, domestic or personal life – originate from ideas. Where do these come from?
Some just seem to arise out of the blue – transmitted, it is widely believed, through vibrations of energy from ‘the Universe’ or the collective unconscious. The observation that several people who are not in contact with one other can get the same idea at around the same time would be in keeping with this. This can also happen with animals, as with the ‘Hundredth Monkey’ effect in which several groups of monkeys living on different islands learned how to to wash potatoes. The biologist Rupert Sheldrake made extensive studies of such phenomena while researching the concept of morphic fields.
Fully-fledged ideas sometimes present themselves through dreams. Well-known people said to have found creative inspiration through this channel include Frederich Kekule (chemical structure of the carbon ring), Elias Howe (invention of the sewing machine), Robert Louis Stevenson (plot of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) and Paul McCartney (composition of the song Yesterday).
Experiences during waking life – not just the major events, but everyday incidents such as a chance conversation with a stranger, a visit to a new place, seeing an unusual car numberplate – are a frequent source of ideas. I must have encountered many potential instances during my medical career, and though I never took most of them any further, it was the story of one particular patient which started me off on the research project about ‘Life events and breast cancer prognosis’ which was to occupy me for several years.
As another example, I once read a case report in the British Medical Journal which for some inexplicable reason stuck in my mind, providing the inspiration for the short novel Carmen’s Roses which I have finally published ten years later (I can’t say what the case report was about without giving away the plot). Many other writers of fiction have also found medical case histories to be a valuable source of material. The best-selling novel Everlasting Love was apparently based on a report in a psychiatric journal – though its author, Ian McEwen, later admitted that both the report and the journal were fictional too, which is perhaps just as well given the importance of respecting confidentiality where real patients are concerned.

Breaking the rules of creative writing

Regulations, bureaucracy and ‘guidelines’ pervade many aspects of modern life. This is especially true in public sector professions such as healthcare and teaching, but also affects workers in many other spheres including the self-employed. So I found it refreshing to hear from life coach Drew Rozell about a method of practice which he calls uncoaching. In summary, he suggests the best way is to ignore the rules – be yourself – and have fun!

Do these same principles apply for writers? I would say yes – to some extent. Like those in any other profession, writers do need to acquire relevant background knowledge and skills, respect certain ethical and legal standards, and devote sufficient time and effort to practising their craft. They can benefit greatly from attending courses, and seeking guidance and criticism from more experienced colleagues. This is all to the good if done in such a way as to help, and not hinder, development of each individual’s original ‘voice’.

Writers of fiction are often advised that a novel needs to fit a defined genre, conform to a standard structure, or be a certain length – see for example the detailed guidelines on the Mills & Boon websites. I realise there are sound commercial reasons for this, and that it is difficult for publishers to market books or for readers to find them unless they belong to a recognised category. But, if authors become too compliant with mainstream convention, the result may be an over-emphasis on form as opposed to content, and a stifling of creativity.

While writing these comments, I was reminded of the points for and against the ‘disease model’ used in orthodox medicine, which I discussed in my book Persons not Diseases. This model has enabled many advances in prevention and treatment, and it is obviously necessary to use some kind of classification in the healthcare setting. But if applied too rigidly or uncritically it can have drawbacks such as too much separation between medical specialties, unhelpful ‘labelling’ of patients, a poor deal for those whose symptoms do not fit with recognized patterns, and possibly discouraging new ideas and approaches. 

For writers, following a tried-and-tested recipe may well be the most reliable route to success. But, as a typical ‘Woman of Aquarius’ (see my other blog) I rate freedom as one of my top personal values and, for me, fulfilment through writing comes from original self-expression rather than the ability to follow a formula. This attitude has counted against me in the publication stakes and in younger days I wrote several novels which were given serious consideration by many publishers but always rejected in the end. The reason usually given was that they did not fit a recognised genre and were not good enough to flourish ‘outside the box’.  I don’t challenge that verdict, and if I ever look at those faded typescripts again I will probably be glad that they were not accepted.

But recently, after many years of non-fiction writing, I tried my hand at another novel and decided that in the modern era of independent publishing it is not so essential to conform to the guidelines. So I went straight for the indie option with Carmen’s Roses, now available on Amazon as both ebook and paperback. It breaks a number of the rules of creative writing. It is short, at 30,000 words. As ‘a story of mystery, romance and the paranormal’ it doesn’t fit any single category. It may not appeal to readers of my non-fiction books, with its different style and darker themes. But, if you’d like to take a look, here again is the link.

Bach flowers in fiction

In 1934 Edward Bach wrote a short piece called The Story of the Travellers about a group of sixteen people who have lost their way on a woodland walk. Each one of them responds differently to their predicament depending on their personality type, for example Oak is determined to struggle on to the end despite his exhaustion, Rock Rose gets into a panic, whereas Chicory is more concerned about the welfare of his companions than anything else.

Stories provide an excellent way of learning about the different flower remedies, and I remember that many of the exercises on my practitioner training course were based on characters from films and novels, or real-life personal accounts in magazines.

I have heard of three novels which feature the Bach flowers: The Pillow Boy of the Lady Onogoro by Alison Fell, Valis by Philip K Dick, and one by Mary Tabor which is currently out of print but may soon be posted on the Bach Centre website. And I’ve just published a novella in the ‘romantic suspense’ genre, Carmen’s Roses, in which the remedies play a minor role. If anyone knows of other relevant books I would be interested to hear about them.