We revere Robert Louis Stevenson for his adventure novels, but he was not a genre writer in the modern sense of that term. While Black Arrow, Kidnapped, The Master of Ballantrae, and Treasure Island may seem like straightforward romantic picaresque yarns, Stevenson was always deeply concerned with the moral aspects of his story. Among his fiction, the famous novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde most vividly reveals his other side. The story deals with Stevenson’s understanding of the subconscious mind and the idea that good and evil can reside in the same person. Issues of morality so vexed Stevenson that he called ethics his “veiled mistress.”
Questions of morality so concerned Stevenson that he called ethics his “veiled mistress.” All of his works carry his moral values. (Image: Wikimedia)
He may have acquired a theoretical concern with morality from his fiercely Calvinist nanny, but ethical concerns literally overwhelmed him when his artistic ambitions prompted a serious clash with his conventional and practical father. Unable to sway his obstinate parent, Stevenson had to justify to himself his decision to pursue art rather than a more realistic means of earning a living.
We can accomplish nothing in life without an idea. However, before we can successfully act, we must have a clear concept of what we are trying to accomplish, a concept that goes beyond the basic idea itself to encompass the entire endeavour. This may sound obvious, but the point is this: using ideas is more complicated than having just one and then vaguely trying to do something with it.
To succeed as a writer you need more than just a notebook full of story ideas. You also need a clear idea of where you are going with your writing.
Many writers, for example, have plenty of ideas for stories and novels; yet never manage to do anything with them. Their work falters for want of a central, organizing, and motivating idea of what they are doing and why they are doing it. They write, not for well-understood reasons, but because they think they like the work, hope to make some money, and yearn for fame or respect. Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that there are other enjoyable things to do, far easier and more reliable ways to make money, and fame is famously elusive. They fall by the wayside. As it happens, thinking, hoping, and yearning are not powerful enough reasons for doing anything, let alone tackling a tough long-term project that requires hard work and dedication.
Creative people view life a little differently than does the average person. They manifest a much greater degree of commitment to their work. A notable result of this dedication is their highly selective attitude towards what they will and will not do with their time. Much more than the typical individual, they recognize that time is a limited resource and must not be squandered if something is to be accomplished.
We have all heard the stories of how the creative Thomas Edison practically lived at his lab. (Photo: Wikimedia)
Creative individuals do not waste energy on unsolvable problems. They do not indulge in what Virginia Woolf so aptly referred to as “woolly thinking.” To achieve this efficiency, they develop the skill to recognize what is feasible and what is not. Going back another step, they are able to acquire the ability to assess feasibility because they immerse themselves completely in their work (commitment again) and learn its parameters and boundaries with unusual thoroughness. When they decide to tackle a project, they know it is workable in the long run.
Powerful artists infuse their work with a blend of deliberately chosen emotional themes, their own emotionally important ideas, and subtly distinguished shades of meaning. The great work always starts with the individual, yet manages to present universal aspects of life. Artists do this by looking for the universal elements of their own experience. They never lose sight of the simple fact that we are all human beings. What happens to one of us, in some specific way, has undoubtedly happened to others, in somewhat different ways. Artists suggest the underlying commonality and reveal the universal. In this way, they make the specific general, the individual universal.
Lighthouses and stars are examples of those images with a rich array of symbolic meanings favoured by writers, poets, and painters. (Image: public domain.)