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Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Dead lambs

My good friend Claire has introduced me to an interesting concept:

In the James Herriot books, one of the recurring jobs he's called to perform as a country vet is delivering lambs. In crisis births, sometimes one lamb can die in utero, generally the lamb that's stuck halfway born. When that happens, a vet has to extract the dead lamb as gentle as possible, because until that lamb comes out, the live ones can't be born.

Some ideas can be like that. You have them in your head for ages, not quite getting them down, not quite working them out, but they've been there for so long that you can't quite lose the idea that they ought to be ideas you can use. Even if they're not completely workable, and quite possibly never were, or never will be because the moment to write them has passed. As long as they're in there, they may be taking up space and energy you need to create new stories.

Those are dead lambs, blocking the delivery of live ones.

How to deal with them? One way, if you can find a gentle enough vet, is to tell them; get them out in the open, so that your subconscious has some sense of having finished them, even if it's finished them in a conversation. (The subconscious does sometimes think telling a story in a conversation counts as finishing it, which is why it's not always a good idea to tell stories before you've written them.) Another way is simply to decide against them; consider them finished, deliver them yourself and acknowledge them dead. Other people may have other methods; I'd be interested to hear.

The main thing to remember is this: they're not the only lambs you'll ever have. The sheep remains fertile. If you can have one idea, you can have others, better ones. The really bad thing is if you continue to pound at them, trying to revive them, rather than turning your attention to ideas that might actually benefit from your care. Have faith in your future ideas; there's always more ideas where the first ones came from.

Wow, I really like this. And thinking of them as lambs makes them seem so unthreatening. Just a gentle little lamb.

Sometimes I get these big huge ideas and they scare me because I don't think I'll ever be a good enough writer to do them justice. So there they sit, blocking the other ideas. But a lamb? Yeah, I can handle that.
This coincides with an idea I picked up from "Writing Down the Bones" that writers need to practice writing just as musicians need to practice on their instrument. These "dead lamb" ideas are also good practice. Once I accepted the idea of practicing my writing I found myself less stressed. Not everything I write has to be perfect or even be finished. Sometimes they are just "dead lambs," just for practice.
An interesting way of putting it...though now as I'm brainstorming, I keep getting the disturbing mental of dead lambs getting shoved out of my ears.

Another way I enjoy getting cold ideas off the stove to make way for other pots to boil is to simply store them. I have an "idea" document where I type up most anything I think of if it doesn't apply to my current project. That way I don't worry about forgetting it, but I can go back anytime to reference it. Also, if I browse through it and see an idea that, at the time, I thought was brilliant and now recognize to be rather..well..dull or stupid, I can delete it.
Yes, that can work. I think of it, inelegantly, as something like dropping half-ideas on the compost heap and seeing if they mutate into anything interesting. Generally the best results are when a couple of half-ideas suddenly interbreed into a whole one.

The main thing, I find, is to simply drop them into the back of my mind and stop worrying about them. If you poke them, they won't mutate, they'll just die of stress; on the other hand, if you leave them alone, they can surprise you. The germ of the book I'm working on now occurred to me about a year before I actually started writing it, for instance...
I love this image.

You can always make lamb stew. Or lamb curry perhaps?

That said, it's good to recognise a dead lamb when you see one.
This way of thinking about writing chimes with the idea of "kill your darlings" which my dad always bastardises as "sacrifice your babies"... the idea of taking away your children (your favourite children) for the good of the work as a whole. It makes sense that those children are infact stillborn.

It also reminds me of Nick Cave's discription of his songs as "my crooked brood of sad eyed children".

It's a very dark metaphor for thinking about writing. I know branfan see's the fact that they are lambs as comforting, but I find it upsetting, the idea of dead baby creatures that I have failed to give life to. I've seen lambs being born in the way you describe and its an amazing and wonderful site, when they suddenly click into life after they are delivered in gore and fear. Sometimes those lambs or ideas can be saved, and sometimes they die.

I prefer Josh's pot metaphor in terms of considering my own ideas and work, simply because its less traumatic and death filled. But I prefer the dead lamb thing as an idea, it's darkness and the vividness of the idea make it one that sticks (unpleasently) in the mind.
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