London is such a compost pile of history that it is not particularly impressive to say a thing like I used to be neighbors with Charles Dickens, because who isn’t somebody’s neighbor in London, and who isn’t somebody’s neighbor anywhere, anyway? But when I lived a few blocks from that little house-museum, I lived an equally short distance from a cinema, and at the time I had a black spiral-bound mess of notes for a screenplay that never materialized. The notes were all I wanted to make, really.
In her masterpiece Big Magic (and as prone to superlatives as I am, I do use that word genuinely here), Elizabeth Gilbert writes of her belief that ideas fret about looking for people to realize them. If they visit you, and you welcome them in, but fail to offer them hospitality beyond the entrance hall, they’ll go call on someone else. Like this screenplay did. I’m convinced, despite my more reasonable instincts, that she found hospitality elsewhere, and that someday my Thursday movie listings will land in my inbox and render this old friend in bold: NOW PLAYING.
It was in London that I read about form and matter for the first time, and despite my best efforts to quash my Catholic imagination of its active angels and demons, I catalogued Gilbert’s theory as somewhere between Plato and Dante, where ideas aren’t metaphysical so much as spiritual. I like to think of them as God’s suggestions. Hey, co-creator. What do you think about this? He’s got seven billion other collaborators to follow up with if I pass. Though of course, he might be persistent if I really am the best fit for this one.
My co-creator approached me on Doughty Street, and we thought of A Tale of Two Cities as a film. Open on a split screen: best times on the left (lovers in a garden), worst times on the right (they bury their child), flashing alternately and faster until we settle on London (left), Paris (right), 1775. All visual. Absolutely no voiceover, no matter how good those opening lines are. Imagine actually filming the rest of it so that each character speaks his own language. The English characters get subtitled in French and vice versa. I thanked Him for letting me watch it. It was delightful. But there was no room in the house for that particular idea, and so a second screenplay was handed off for someone else to realize. To this day I’ve never written one, though I’ve imagined many.
I find that for me creativity consists, most often, in deciding what not to do. This blog post was born out of my writing-topics tag in Evernote, which I cleaned up and mostly emptied out at the end of last semester. I grew frustrated with myself over the course of my most recent project, a semester-long pursuit of this colonial friar who wrote Maya dictionaries and evangelization-ethnographies (what a genre). I realized, toward the end, that I was not going to be able to produce anything I could point at. My research was mostly going to end up being background support for a university project that won’t be published for years. The paper I wrote was in dry academic Spanish and full of holes anyway—it satisfied the requirements of the course, but nobody else needed to see that. This project helped me name my need to make an article or a paper or a book I could point at and say look at all these things I know. Pride, of course.
Putting these ideas to rest, letting them walk back out into the night in pursuit of another host, is not always an inhospitable or cowardly or lazy act. Often, for me, it’s a challenge to humility, to recognizing what my actual goals are, and figuring out how to orient my energies toward things that I have the resources to do and that will help me grow in virtue. From time to time, you’re going to stay up all night talking with your idea. But most nights you need your rest, and you need to feed yourself first, and you need to take on guests for the sake of what you might make together, not because you want your neighbors to see how hardworking you are.
Lately I’ve found myself with too many idea-guests, and we were all going hungry, myself included, for lack of attention. It was time to make some decisions. Most were pretty easy to turn out, but this Dickens adaptation, for whatever reason, I wanted to give a parting gift. Here I’ve realized her only a little. Gave her a rough outline. A nice hat. I’ll let someone else fill in the rest.