Call him Jonathan: Eig to discuss mighty themes and bad ideas



“Call me Ishmael” might be the most-recognized line from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but there’s another line from Melville’s whale tale that writer Jonathan Eig finds important: “To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.”

Eig opens the description of his Brown Bag lecture with this quote. He said he’s noticed that writers nowadays can forget the “mighty theme” when they’re telling their stories.

“It’s a really common problem in the literary world today,” Eig said. “You know, we all want to write about ourselves and our various afflictions and feelings. And very often the response is, ‘Who cares?’ If you’re writing an essay about your bout with some illness that was very real to you, you still have to get over that hurdle of ‘Why should I care?’”

Eig, the Writers’ Center prose writer-in-residence for Week Two, will discuss the crucial nature of ideas and themes in writing with his Brown Bag lecture, “The Importance of Bad Ideas,” at 12:15 p.m. today on the Literary Arts Center porch.

“The idea is 90 percent of a book’s success,” Eig said. “Finding the right idea is crucial, and that means going through a lot of bad ideas, and knowing which ones need to be dumped. And it means thinking about why those ideas are bad and reflecting on them, and turning them around if possible and looking at them from different angles until you see a good idea.”

Eig has had personal experience with bad ideas. He has written four books and is currently working on his fifth. His most recent book, Get Capone, focuses on the plot that led to the capture of infamous gangster Al Capone, and his upcoming book is called Birth of the Pill.

“That sounds like a lot to me, and I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to write four books and that I’ve settled on an idea for the fifth,” Eig said. “But when I think about how many bad ideas I went through to get those five, it can be depressing sometimes.”

He also emphasized that reflecting on one’s work is much simpler than actually creating the work itself.

“It’s always easy to look at the results of your work and think, ‘Great, I came up with four ideas,’ ” Eig said. “But you have to remember that behind that there are 40 or 400 lousy ones. But you couldn’t get the four if you didn’t do the 400 lousy ones.”

Eig hopes that his experience will help those who attend his lecture realize that they have to wade through the bad to get to the good.

“Failure’s not just an option; failure’s a part of the process,” Eig said. “And you’ve got to try not to be discouraged by it, but learn how you can turn it around and learn from the bad ideas as well as the good ideas.”

One idea that Eig hopes that people will take from his Brown Bag is that they should keep searching for the mightiest theme they can find.

“I want to encourage people to think big,” Eig said. “Even if you’re writing about yourself, or your mother or about your father’s business that he ran out of the garage — what are the big themes that you can explore? Even in a small, family story, themes of love and loss are big. So how do you take those stories that might seem small and find the ‘mighty theme’?”

Eig also hopes that his Brown Bag will help attendees gain better insight into the writing process and have more confidence about their own writing.

“I hope it will help them to feel less discouraged,” Eig said. “Because coming up with ideas is not only the most important part of the writing process — I think it’s the hardest part. And to acknowledge that is important.”

This will be Eig’s fourth time visiting Chautauqua. He missed last year, but before that he visited three times in a row, and he’s excited to visit again. Eig said part of what makes Chautauqua so special is its indescribable nature.

“It’s kind of a hard place to explain,” Eig said. “I still have a hard time telling my friends what it’s all about because it’s so unusual and so special.”

Eig is also a fan of the casual and intimate nature of the Brown Bag lecture format.

“You get all kinds of different themes, different ideas — really as different as each writer’s personality,” Eig said. “And, of course, it’s in an intimate setting, where you can ask questions. I love attending these, and I like being on the podium, too. But given the choice, I’d probably just attend a bunch of them and listen.”