Last month I came across a session 2017 Nobel winner Kazuo Ishiguro held in Japan for budding writers titled “My secrets of writing”. It is available on YouTube in two parts: part-1 and part-2 (embedded below). I had read four of Ishiguro novels (some of them twice) when I watched part-1. Then I read his latest novel, The Buried Giant. And then I watched part-2 which refers to the novel. I am a fan of Ishiguro and I really enjoyed listening to the session. I thought the quality of questions was very good and that brought out interesting process Ishiguro follows for his writing. I am not a fiction writer (yet). However, I thought some of the elements Ishiguro mentioned could be relevant for anyone involved in a creative endeavour. Here are 3 of my takeaways from the session:
1. 2-3-4 sentence ideas: This is what Ishiguro said – “I try to make sure that the idea can be expressed very simply in 2 or 3 sentences. If it can’t then the idea isn’t very strong or it’s not yet mature.” And what criteria does he use for picking an idea? He said, “When I look at the idea on a page, I want to be able to feel a real potential, real emotion that comes from these sentences. I want to think that there is a whole world in there. I want those few sentences to trouble me and stimulate me. Then I feel I could build a whole novel on it.”
He gave an example of his most famous novel – Remains of the day. The idea can be expressed as: This is a story about a man who wants to be the perfect servant. And he is willing to sacrifice his personal life and many things to be an absolutely perfect servant.
The point is, the essence of an idea can be expressed in a simple way in a few sentences. And yet it may carry the potential to excite you, trouble you etc.
2. Ideas can be re-located in time & space: Ishiguro says, “I made this discovery… The setting isn’t an essential part of the story. You can move stories to different settings, different places in history. And also I suppose different genres: sci-fi, gothic world, thriller world etc.” In fact, for his third novel, Remains of the day, he re-used his idea from his second novel - “The artist of the floating world” (location: Japan, time: 1950s, 60s) and relocated it in a different time and place (location: England, time: 1920s, 30s). This creates a huge canvas for his stories and also it creates a problem of “location hunting”. His last novel “The buried giant” is placed in 5th century Britain and belongs to a fantasy genre. It contains ogres, pixies and dragons.
3. Metaphor as a criterion: One criterion Ishiguro applies in selecting an idea for further development is by looking at its power as a metaphor. Ishiguro said, “As a writer, I am drawn to big metaphors that dominate the entire story. One of the ways I decide if an idea is powerful or not, is I ask - Is this a powerful metaphor for something important or something very big?” For example, he mentions his latest novel The buried giant presents a story where people lose memories very fast – in a day or so – because of the breath of a giant dragon living in the mountains. Some people want to kill the dragon to bring the buried memories alive, some others want to protect the giant because they feel it is keeping the society from going into a civil war. What is the right thing to do? Ishiguro feels that a story like this can be a metaphor for something all individuals and all societies face all the time. The metaphor is certainly relevant for the centuries old memories related to the communal conflicts and the caste conflicts in India which keep getting resurrected from time to time.
image source: part-1 of the session - My secrets of writing