Following a thread

Planning your writing: is it a necessary evil; essential for success; a vital part of the writing process; a killer of creativity – or all (or none) of these?

Journeys vary.  We may set off with a firm destination and a route in mind.  We may wander and see where the fancy takes us.  Or we may know where we want to end up but have no fixed plan for how to get there.   And each of these works as a metaphor for someone‘s writing process – what works for yours?

It seems to me that it’s like following threads.  Strands of yarn, all different colours, lengths and thicknesses.  Like Theseus in the labyrinth, I follow a strand, running it through my fingers to see where it leads.  Sometimes it leads to a tangle, a ball of other threads, or a dead end.  Sometimes I choose a different thread, or sit down to unpick the knots in the one in my hand.  Sometimes I knit a length of yarn into a square and tuck it into my pocket for later, and sometimes I knit strands together and see the beginnings of a blanket growing.  And there’s the occasional mass unravelling.

Sometimes it all seems like an almighty mess, but it’s a necessary part of not just the writing process but the planning process as well.  I can’t separate planning from writing; they seem to happen alongside one another: follow a thread towards what I think may be the ultimate destination (always accepting that I may not be going where I think I’m heading), write that thread down (or knit it up), get distracted or excited by another bright strand, and follow that to see where it leads – only to discover that it’s connected to the original one in a way I hadn’t imagined at the beginning.  It’s the same with research and idea-gathering: I find a spaghetti-plate of strings to follow and make sense of.  Eventually I may be able to braid them together into something coherent, but for most of the process it pays to get comfortable with uncertain wanderings.

What’s your metaphor for your writing process?

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It’s always a rat’s nest before it’s done

Do you ever think about how one part of your life can inform another?

In my other life I spend a lot of time writing grant applications.  (For organisations, not for me!)  There’s a bit of a formula to it, a structure imposed either by an application form or by the funder’s guidelines.  I slot things in here and there, working out the best place to mention this bit of the project and the best way to ‘sell’ its importance.  I make notes to myself and my collaborators in brackets: “(We need to mention the links with X here)”; “(I’m not sure what this means – can you explain?)”; “(Is this actually true?)”  I move paragraphs about and work on some of them in separate documents.  Sometimes I start again.

And these are the things I know:

It always looks like a rat’s nest before it’s finished.

I always reach a point where I think, this time I can’t make it work.

I always manage it in the end.

So why, oh why, do I expect my creative writing to be any different?  Why should I be surprised and discouraged because I read through something I’ve written and realise it’s not what I thought it was when I was writing it?  Why should I expect it to flow from my fingers with ease?

Writing is a stop-start thing.  Sometimes it flows, but then you hit a bump and maybe you just have to put a note in brackets, “(something about badgers in here)”, and come back to it later.  Eventually you’ll always have to stop and edit, and sometimes you’ll realise the best editing you can do is the kind that starts with a fresh blank page and a fresh cup of tea.

And, for me this week, the best lesson from all of this is that sometimes you have to take what you know from the rest of your life and apply it to your creative writing.  In my grants writing, I work best within a structure, even if I change that structure seventeen times in an afternoon.  Doesn’t this tell me that my creative brain would also thank me for a bit of structure?  And it also helps my creative brain to remember this pearl of wisdom from my grants-writing self:

It’s always a rat’s nest before it’s done.  And that’s ok.

A blessed relief

At the weekend I wandered around a windswept farm cooing over newborn piglets and boisterous lambs and big highland cattle.  I did this for no reason whatsoever, except that they were cute and we needed a family day out.  I didn’t read an interesting or edifying book.  I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know about pigs or sheep.*  I didn’t have any great ideas or ponder any deep questions.  I didn’t even think about much except pigs and sheep and how cold my nose was and whether it was time for a scone or two and how a cow’s tongue can possibly be so long.

What a rest for the creative mind to get out of my head and into the world.  A blessed relief.

*Oh, wait, there was one thing.  English sheep counting words.  I knew the first few: yan, tan, tethera…  But did you know how they go on?  Oh, the linguistic and juvenile pleasure my family and I got from this:

Yan, Tan, Tethera, Methera, Pimp, Sethera, Lethera, Hovera, Covera, Dik, Yan-a-dik, Tan-a-dik, Tethera-dik, Pethera-dik, Bumfit, Yan-a-bumfit, Tan-a-bumfit, Tethera-bumfit, Methera-bumfit, Figgot.

I’m still chuckling with sheer delight.