Ian McMillan: Bum steer

Ian McMillan
Ian McMillan
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Ideas are the lifeblood of any creative writer, because without them you simply stare at the blank page scratching your chin until the sparks fly, looking into the air above your head in the hope that a lightbulb will illuminate.

Of course once you’ve had the idea the drafting and redrafting starts but the idea is always the architect’s drawing that has to be consulted before the great prose palace is built.

“Bonanza!” he shouted. “Bonanza! You’ve all seen it, haven’t you?”

However, what happens if you have an idea but it turns out that somebody has already had it, and the thing that you thought was bright and shiny and new turns out to be tarnished or shop soiled or fire-damaged? I remember years ago, at one of the many writing workshops I used to run all over South Yorkshire, a bloke turned up with nothing but his anger to sustain him.

As was our custom, we went round the circle introducing ourselves and then he introduced himself to the rest of us; I can’t remember his name now, but after all these years I can still recall the way his face went red and the way he jabbed his finger at the unfeeling sky.

Bonanza!” he shouted. “Bonanza! You’ve all seen it, haven’t you?” We nodded vigorously, even the ones who hadn’t seen it, because we were all a bit nervous of this volcano of emotion that was threatening to erupt. “Well, I had the idea for Bonanza in 1961 when I was a lad, and I wrote the idea down and then I wrote a scenario and invented the characters and some plots and I typed it all out and it took me ages and then I had to go to the library in Barnsley to change my books and anyway I must have been a bit flustered or it must have been too hot on the bus or something but, anyway, I left my manuscript on the bus! I didn’t realise until I’d got to the library and I ran back to the bus station and the bus was still there but the manuscript had gone. And then, a few months later I turned my telly on and there it was: Bonanza! My idea, pinched!” He stopped talking and wiped his brow with a handkerchief the size of Hoss’s neckerchief.

The room was silent. I could have spoken but I didn’t, because, being a fan of Bonanza, I knew that it started in 1959, two years before the man in the writing workshop said he’d had the idea. What I could have said, but didn’t have the heart to, was that he may well have seen the programme and then blocked that out, as people often do, then written the idea.

He got up and left, all passion spent, and we went back to discussing our stories on the theme of Fish. I think, in the end, ideas are in the air, and more than one person can catch them. It’s a matter of luck, I guess, and being in the right place at the right time. And in this case the right place wasn’t the Ponderosa.