Happy February! I started this series of Agatha Christie quotes with the intention of sharing one on the first Wednesday of each month. However, the world keeps imploding on the first Wednesday of each month—election results, insurrections. And out of respect, I have been skipping those days. But thankfully, the world seems stable today (fingers crossed!), so I’m back to it!
“The trouble is that it is awfully hard for an author to put things in words when you have to do it in the course of conversation. You can do it with a pencil in your hand, or sitting in front of your typewriter — then the thing comes out already formed as it should come out — but you can’t describe things that you are only going to write; or at least I can’t. I learnt in the end never to say anything about a book before it was written. Criticism after you have written it is helpful. You can argue the point, or you can give in, but at least you know how it has struck one reader. Your own description of what you are going to write, however, sounds so futile, that to be told kindly that it won’t do meets with your instant agreement.”
The Context: Agatha opens this section by talking about how she would sometimes run book ideas by her first husband. She admits that even to her own ears, one of her attempts at explaining her story idea sounded “extraordinarily banal, futile, and a great many other adjectives which I will not particularize.” But in later years, that very same idea came to life again, and this time, in the absence of criticism or judgement, it blossomed and became one of her best books. That leads into this quote.
Why I Chose It: I think most creative people understand how difficult and fraught it is to describe your idea to someone else. They may offer exactly the encouragement and perspective you need. Or their feedback, well-intentioned though it may be, could squash the budding idea, crushing the delicate sprout back into the soil. It’s easy to hear someone offer what is probably constructive criticism and jump right to thinking it’s a terrible idea, especially if you weren’t sure it was particularly good to start with! Knowing that even a literary legend struggled with having confidence in her ideas is remarkably encouraging.
Creative ideas are so small and often amorphous; they grow and strengthen and develop more concrete form as we work on them. So describing them at the start can be difficult. Not to mention, capturing an idea in brief and direct terms is tricky (ask any writer who’s had to face down a synopsis!). We have to be gentle with our ideas. We have to protect and nurture them so they can grow. It’s only by allowing them space to mature and deepen that we discover what those budding ideas can become.
It’s the first Wednesday of December, so it’s time for an Agatha Day! (You’ll notice I skipped November. We all needed a little break in November, given *gestures to the state of the country last month*.) This month’s quote highlights a feeling I think every creative person knows well.
“It is an odd feeling to have a book growing inside you, for perhaps six or seven years knowing that one day you will write it, knowing that it is building up all the time to what it already is. Yes, it is there already — it just has to come more clearly out of the mist. All the people are there, ready, waiting in the wings, ready to come on to the stage when their cues are called — and then, suddenly, one gets a clear and sudden command: Now!
“Now is when you are ready. Now, you know all about it. Oh, the blessing that for once one is able to do it then and there, that now is really now.”
The Context: In this quote, Agatha is talking about when she wrote Absent in the Spring, a book published under her pseudonym, Mary Westmacott. She refers to it as the book that satisfied her the most, saying she had always wanted to write it and that it had been clear in her mind—all except the background, which came to her later, after finishing Death Comes as the End.
As sometimes happens when a book has been growing inside a person, when it was finally ready, Agatha wrote it quickly—in three days, actually. She even called in sick to her job at the hospital so she could finish it. (Relatable, am I right?) She wrote until it was finished, and then collapsed and slept for an entire day. Then she woke up and ate a huge meal. (Again, so relatable to any writer!)
Why I Chose It: I think it’s incredibly revealing to learn about the book an author considered the most satisfying to write. And I know exactly the sensation she’s referring to in this quote. Like most writers, I hold a lot of ideas in my mind. Some are ready to be explored, while others need time to simmer. And so I’ll let an idea sit and develop until one day, it’s ready. It practically bursts out of me, the setting clear, the characters fully formed, the concept holding the whole idea together. It’s utterly intoxicating. Releasing a new book from inside myself is the most satisfying feeling I know, and Agatha captures that feeling so accurately here.
It’s time for another Agatha Day! Usually this day falls on the first Wednesday of the month, but I pushed it a day due to the Vice Presidential debate. (On that note, please vote. I’m sure you’ve been seeing that reminder everywhere, but it’s so important. You have a voice. Don’t let anyone muffle it.)
In other news, the weather here in VA has turned beautifully crisp and I’m loving it. And while I love to write in every season, fall is my absolute favorite and seems to stir up extra creativity in me. While spring might be the season that represents new beginnings to most people, for me, it’s fall. And so today I’m sharing a quote that represents the beginning of something incredible for our dear Agatha Christie.
“Fired with all this [discussion of detective stories], I said I should like to try my hand at a detective story.
“‘I don’t think you could do it,’ said Madge. ‘They are very difficult to do. I’ve thought about it.’
“‘I should like to try.’
“‘Well, I bet you couldn’t,’ said Madge.
“There the matter rested. It was never a definite bet; we never set out terms — but the words had been said. From that moment I was fired by the determination that I would write a detective story. It didn’t go further than that. I didn’t start to write it then, or plan it out; the seed had been sown. At the back of my mind, where the stories of the books I am going to write take their place long before the germination of the seed occurs, the idea had been planted: some day I would write a detective story.”
The Context: Agatha is talking about her childhood and how her older sister, Madge, introduced her to detective stories through the tales of Sherlock Holmes, followed by The Leavenworth Casewhen Agatha was eight. She talks about how they used to love discussing their favorite mystery stories, and that memory leads into the statement that opens the quotation.
Why I Chose It: Everyone wants to know where the greats in every field began. When was the moment they decided to pursue that dream? And here we get a glimpse at it. Young Agatha, when talking about the detective stories she so deeply loves, wonders if she can write one. She’s immediately met with discouragement from her sister, which likely only strengthened her resolve. As Agatha points out, she didn’t start right then, but the seed was planted. The idea was there, and over the years, it would grow.
As they did for Agatha, the seeds of my own ideas and choices are planted long before they become anything. Some seeds just die in the dirt like some of my houseplants. Others lie dormant until one day they burst to life. Sometimes I don’t recognize the moment a seed is planted until the plant begins to grow and I trace its roots back to their origin. Sometimes the moment seems so insignificant and small, like this conversation Agatha had with her sister. It’s funny to read that conversation with the knowledge of the mystery legend Agatha Christie became.
Who knows what seeds might be within you, waiting for their chance to break through the surface? Who knows what seeds of ideas and inspiration you may plant in the hearts of others?