Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 5:10 PM on Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Looking for an idea, any idea? You need to get acquainted with Fred

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

In my other career as a science fiction writer, I get paid modest sums of money to come up with really strange ideas and make stories of them. A friend of mine asked me recently how much of my ideas come from life experiences or dreams. This got me thinking about where I really get my ideas and how they emerge as fiction.


Michael Armstrong

The answer, of course, is Fred.

In the summer after my first year at New College of Florida, I went to the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop, then held at Justin Morrill College, Michigan State University. One of my teachers, the late Damon Knight, turned out to be a lifelong mentor who would help me through the crazy life of being a writer. In his book on writing, "Creating Short Fiction," Damon articulates the best explanation I know for discovering ideas.

The human brain has two parts, the conscious and unconscious mind, Damon writes in his book. Only he doesn't think of the unconscious mind as unconscious.

"It isn't unconscious," Damon writes. "It just has trouble communicating. The 'silent mind' would be better, maybe, or 'the tongue-tied mind,' but I prefer to call it 'Fred.'"

Everything we experience, all the dreams, emotions, knowledge and insight we absorb — all that goes into Fred. There our sum total life sits, ready to be tapped for ideas.

The trick, Damon notes, is that Fred doesn't give up these ideas easily.

In college, I took a course in Jungian psychology taught by Dr. Marion Hoppin. Dr. Hoppin had us keep a dream journal, a way to teach us about Jung's concept of the collective unconscious. Rarely do we remember our dreams. Dr. Hoppin taught me a trick. Keep pen and paper by my bed. Each night before falling asleep, tell yourself, "I will remember my dreams." Upon waking, while dreams remain fresh, quickly write down those dreams.

Danged if that didn't work.

Fred performs like that. To get ideas from Fred, we must ask Fred to give them up, Damon writes. More important, we must use those ideas. Writers who write constantly and consistently, whether for work or pleasure, receive ideas from Fred. The ideas don't come in a constant flow, or even a constant trickle, but sporadically, in great bursts followed by frustrating droughts.

Twenty-five years ago I wrote a novel, "Bridge Over Hell," that takes place in the "Heroes in Hell" series created by my writer and editor friends Janet and Chris Morris. Janet and Chris invited people to write stories set in hell, with real historical characters, the only rule being the characters had to be dead. I wound up writing a story involving the Biblical Job, hell's ombudsman, Ezra Pound, and Umberto Nobile, the designer of the Norge, the first airship to fly over the North Pole.

Why them? I had read Jung's "Answer to Job," an essay about the duality of God. While working on my master of fine arts in writing at the University of Alaska Anchorage, I took a course in modernist poetry with Tom Sexton. Pound was a major modernist poet. While researching blimps for my first novel, "After the Zap," I discovered the tragic history of Nobile.

"Bridge Over Hell" evolved from a Heroes in Hell story I wrote about Hart Crane, another modernist poet. (I really loved that class, by the way.) Crane lived in Brooklyn and became obsessed with the Brooklyn Bridge, the subject of his epic poem, "The Bridge." Crane proposed a poetic theory he called the logic of metaphor. The logic of metaphor is all about making associations between seemingly random connections. Random connections that have meaning is Jung's whole idea of synchronicity, and there we are back to Jung again and Dr. Marion Hoppin — and Fred. Stir all that together and I had the start of a novel.

Fred loves random, strange information. That's why I tell writing students to read as much as they can, as widely as they can. A broad knowledge of the world, by the way, also happens to be essential for being a journalist. Reporters live and breathe Fred. There is nothing more compelling to tap into Fred than a tight deadline and a stern editor.

That's the filling up part. The getting Fred to talk part ... well, that's the greater mystery. Damon was right in saying you have to ask Fred to communicate with you. He also was right in saying you have to use what Fred gives you, and do this often. What baffles me constantly is how that happens.

My only real understanding is this. Sometimes when I let my mind drift, when I remove myself from the chaos of the world, the ideas come. Sometimes I am alone in the kitchen, washing the dishes and thinking about, well, whatever. An idea comes. I grab a piece of paper and write it down.

Ideas come best when I walk on the beach. Maybe it's the white noise of the surf and wind. Maybe it's the steady rhythm of walking. Maybe it's disconnecting my mind and opening it up to the power of the universe. Whether looking for a creative lede or untangling a plot twist my latest novel has presented, Fred delivers. Ideas come.

They may be weird. They may be strange. But there they are, vivid, powerful and magnificent.

Keep Fred happy, and you'll have more ideas than you know what to do with them. Then all you have to do is find the time to write them down — but that's another subject.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael. armstrong@homernews.com.