We’ve all seen heartstopping documentary footage of baby sea-turtles in their frantic race to the sea. The sands seethe with hundreds of tiny, awkward hatchlings who propel themselves towards the water with such urgency they might have been warned about the predators that lie in wait for them, on land and in the air. Hawks, terns and frigate birds hover, their beaks all but gaping with anticipation; dogs, foxes, even crabs, will catch them if they can. Some unfortunate hatchlings, unlucky enough to emerge on beaches infested with humans, have to run the gauntlet of squealing tourists, making noise, getting in their way. Once in the water, their chances of survival improve, although sharks and seals will snack on them if they’re unlucky. This is why there have to be hundreds, maybe even thousands, of hatchlings. Only a small proportion (10%) of the original number will make it to adulthood, but adult turtles have few predators, due to those magnificent shells. The lucky ones can live to be more than 100 years old.
I have a folder – several folders, actually – of ideas, lines, openings and half-developed scenes that are far too invertebrate to be dignified with the term work-in-progress. Every now and again I look through these folders, and, struck by how workable an idea might be, I’ll dust it off and bring it to the point where it becomes an almost-draft. From there, it has about a 1 in 10 chance of making it to print. And every so often, I read another writer’s treatment of a story or an image stored in those files, waiting to be developed. It’s a common enough experience, I suspect. There are stories that seem to be in the air at a given time – look at the coincidence of novels about Henry James a few years ago, for example. How discouraging would that be, to complete an original, ambitious novel only to find someone else has tackled the same subject at the same time? I bet it’s happened to you, on a smaller scale: you pick up a book that echoes an experience of your own, or a story you read in a newspaper, or overheard on a bus. At the time you thought – I’ll write that some day. But did you do anything about it?
Ideas are like sea-turtles. Some may be inherently flawed. Weak or inbred, they’re doomed from the outset, unable to so much as pierce their shells. For the rest, distractions and inhospitable environments predominate, predators abound. The strangely plastic little beings still coated in albumen that emerge directly into the mouths of waiting gulls are the stories talked out in workshops or pubs, given away as anecdotes at dinner parties. Maybe they hear the distant surf, or else the smell of salt draws them along their ungainly course – these are the drafts that struggle to achieve their proper form, tone, expression. One by one, the embryonic image, the line of dialogue, the paragraph that could turn the hatchling towards the movement of the sea, are lost, snatched from the water’s edge. Pity the ones that encounter the tourists with their cameras, their goggles, their many legs and waving arms, the clamour of encouragement or derision. The fledgling draft might even be thwarted by well-meaning, would-be guides who (in the turtles’ case literally) throw buckets of water over them. Hot or cold, hardly matters, premature praise or blame being equally confusing.
These days, we’re in the grip of many things, in Ireland. Disastrous economies, the opacity of our own – and our children’s – futures, financial worries, political incompetence, civic impotence and shock, fury. Even the weather has us in its icy clutch … everywhere you turn, people talk worry, dread, powerlessness.
It helps to do something constructive. Commit yourself to an idea, today. See it through.