An Idea Arrives
Now that we’re done talking about fear, we can finally talk about magic.
Let me begin by telling you the most magical thing that’s ever happened to me.
It’s about a book that I failed to write.
My tale begins in the early spring of 2006. I had recently published Eat Pray Love, and I was trying to figure out what to do with myself next, creatively speaking. My instincts told me it was time to return to my literary roots and write a work of fiction—something I hadn’t done in years. In fact, I hadn’t written a novel in so long, I feared I had forgotten how to do it at all. I feared that fiction had become a language I could no longer speak. But now I had an idea for a novel—an idea that excited me tremendously.
The idea was based on a story that my sweetheart, Felipe, had told me one night about something that had happened in Brazil, back when he was growing up there in the 1960s. Apparently, the Brazilian government got a notion to build a giant highway across the Amazon jungle. This was during an era of rampant development and modernization, and such a scheme must have seemed stupendously forward-thinking at the time. The Brazilians poured a fortune into this ambitious plan. The international development community poured in many more millions. A staggering portion of this money immediately disappeared into a black hole of corruption and disorganization, but eventually enough cash trickled into the right places that the highway project finally began. All was going well for a few months. Progress was made. A short section of the road was completed. The jungle was being conquered.
Then it started to rain.
It seems that none of the planners of this project had fully grasped the reality of what the rainy season means in the Amazon. The construction site was immediately inundated and rendered uninhabitable. The crew had no choice but to walk away, leaving behind all their equipment under several feet of water. And when they returned many months later, after the rains had subsided, they discovered to their horror that the jungle had basically devoured their highway project. Their efforts had been erased by nature, as if the laborers and the road had never existed at all. They couldn’t even tell where they had been working. All their heavy equipment was missing, too. It had not been stolen; it had simply been swallowed. As Felipe told it, “Bulldozers with tires as tall as a man had been sucked into the earth and disappeared forever. It was all gone.”
When he told me this story—especially the part about the jungle swallowing up the machines—chills ran up my arms. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up for an instant, and I felt a little sick, a little dizzy. I felt like I was falling in love, or had just heard alarming news, or was looking over a precipice at something beautiful and mesmerizing, but dangerous.
I’d experienced these symptoms before, so I knew immediately what was going on. Such an intense emotional and physiological reaction doesn’t strike me often, but it happens enough (and is consistent enough with symptoms reported by people all over the world, all throughout history) that I believe I can confidently call it by its name: inspiration.
This is what it feels like when an idea comes to you.