I very seldom compose anything in my head which later finds its way into text, except character names sometimes – I’m often very much inspired by things that I misunderstand. Have you ever seen Brian Eno’s deck of Oblique Strategies? One of them is “Honor thy error as a hidden intention.” That’s my favorite. [At a] hotel in New York a couple of days ago, the young woman who checked me in said what sounded to me like, “Thank you, sir; my name is Tyranny. If there’s anything you need …” I’m not enough of an extrovert to go, “Your name’s what?” … For the rest of the day, I was thinking of young, benevolent female characters with the first name “Tyranny.” Possibly an Asian character, where it’s kind of an ESL issue. Those things inspire me, but what you’re talking about is a result of the process of composition having spun itself up to a certain wonderfully flaky level, where it says something that I transcribe without quite being able to understand it. I’ve learned to trust that, and it seldom lets me down. Occasionally if I look back at something I’ve written I’ll find one of those that I don’t understand, but that’s a bad thing – the unconscious has dealt me a bad hand.
Last night [fellow science fiction author] Rob Sawyer pointed out how opposite his idea of creativity was to what I describe in the introduction to this book. He said that he had to be able to decide beforehand what [a book] was about, how he was going to do it, and then as he went along, he would compare what he was composing to this directive that he had arrived at prior to the work. To me, that’s absolutely incomprehensible; the part of me that sits here having this conversation with you is incapable of doing any very original literary work. The part of me that creates stuff is right now largely offline and unavailable, and I couldn’t summon it if my life depended on it. I have to make myself available and hope it turns up. To me, that’s where the good stuff comes from.
As William Burroughs liked to say, “A writer always gets his pound of flesh.” No matter what I’m going through, I can always step back and go, “This is material.” [He pulls out his iPad, encased in a black sleeve, and calls up a picture he took of a house in Key West with strange curved shutters that open out into awning-like structures.] I could get a whole novel out of that house. That’s got some mojo going on! Not just the window, but the front door has got at least one layer of inch-thick plywood, no hinges.
I’m a fairly visual writer; I can get an awful lot out of really closely examining a photograph like that. It’s a very interesting exercise that I would recommend to anyone. Take any photograph – preferably a photograph that contains relatively little information (no humans or animals in it) – and catalog everything visible. It usually can’t be done in less than a thousand words, and it can’t be done well in less than about two [thousand]. It always leaves me thinking that pictures really are worth a thousand words, at least, that the visual matrix is so incredibly rich with stuff and meaning, that there’s actually no place to stop. People who have tried it find they stop because they just get exhausted.