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Working Backward

The way of the mind

(c) A Beautiful Mind

I have just finished a short story and, as always happens when I get to this point of the writing process, I find myself very reflective. The individual, John, I was just writing about made a comment during our interview that I can’t get out of my head. I didn’t include it in the story, because it didn’t fit, or maybe, really, because I wanted to expand on this concept in a deeper way than a short story would permit. Whatever the case, here it is:

“When you come up with an idea, you must work backwards to figure out why that idea came to you.”

That’s it.

Why am I so drawn to this? The way I see it, it’s a reminder that our thoughts and words are the subconscious made conscious. It’s often acknowledged that the way we see the world is individual. But how often do we discuss the fact that the words that flow right out of our mouths are often the by-product of some line of thinking that we are not even aware of? And how often do we explore that line of thinking, to the point where we find the very start of it all?

Where do our ideas come from? In John’s case, part of the idea to start his company GRAB came from his desire to do his part to preserve the environment, a desire that bloomed only after spending years skiing and noticing the winter season getting shorter and shorter.

When it comes to myself, I started to think about where the idea to become a writer came from. Where did I get it in my head that this is what I should do? That this is what I like? After putting in some time to reflect, I realized it was a few things (as many conclusions tend to stem from: a collection of facts). First, this very exercise of pondering ideas, mulling them over, and trying to work through them while searching their origin in the recesses of my mind is part of the allure for me of this craft. It feels meditative. In fact, it feels damn near self-indulgent. When else are you more so than when you are sitting at a desk, in a quiet room, thinking about what’s on your mind? It doesn’t even have to be in such a blatant, obvious way, such as this. Engaging in any form writing will conjure up the same process. In fiction, for instance, you’re explore your mindset, how you’d react to certain scenarios, and that’s how you go about building a character. Maybe not all characters you build will be based on your own perception of the world (that would be very monotonous), but most will have at least some sliver of yourself in them—they are after all the by product of your pen.

This leads me to something I’ve been wondering about for a long time now. Are creative professionals inherently selfish? Is the desire to create at all costs, for your days to be spent in their entirety—or to whichever degree you can stand it—in the act of creating self-absorption at its finest? Is that a bad a thing? Would it not be more “correct” to take up another job that serves others? Or is indulging in whatever creative act you feel yourself drawn to precisely what you should be doing, not only because it feels good to you as the creator, but also because it’s where you’re most likely to do your best work, thereby ultimately servicing others who may receive said work? What is the answer?

Here’s the thing—and now I’m completely going off course the original line of thinking, but so goes the wandering mind—I’m inclined to think the latter. In fact, I’ll bet on it. If everyone was a little more “selfish” and pursued their genuine interests, would not society be a happier place? Surely there would still be people wanting to teach others, people wanting to do manual labour, people wanting to heal, people wanting to entertain. In that world, there would be an increased level of happiness and fulfilment. And, importantly, there would be a great level of innovation. If we were all encouraged to find something, anything, we like and just go all in, we’d find the minds of one another freed to explore, to be curious, to play.

So, getting back to the question I asked, I think my mind settled on writing as a form of happiness because the first time I felt this winning trio of emotions—curious, playful and exploratory—resulted, for the first time, out my saying to myself, This book’s good. Why don’t I try to make one? I was 11 years old, knew nothing about grammar and admittedly spelled many words incorrectly. But that wasn’t the point. Storytelling’s not about that. It’s about, for me anyway, feeling alive—free to explore the world, human nature, my unpredictable mind, and whatever other trail I feel compelled to go down.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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