Digressions are beside the point

I’ll get to the point in a minute.  But first I have to digress.  (Is it a digression if you do it before you’ve started on the other subject?  A pre-digression maybe.  And what do you call a digression when you’re digressing from a digression?  Which might not have been a digression in the first place if you hadn’t started yet…)


I had a pile of post-its which then became a neat list of subjects for blog posts.  I have another neat list of chapter headings and subjects for other projects.  A kind of collection of inspirations.  Every time I come to a point where I need to decide on the next writing direction, I look at my lists.

Then, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I go and write something entirely different.

It’s like cooking.  I look in the recipe books for dinner inspiration.  For hours sometimes.  Then I either make one of my tried-and-tested fall-back meals, or something which is kind of loosely based on a recipe I’ve read, but made with an entirely different set of ingredients using an entirely different method.

Is it that inspiration that isn’t used immediately goes stale?  Or is it that most of the ideas which seem good ones in the moment actually turn out to be a bit rubbish on closer inspection?  Do I not keep detailed enough notes of what the inspiration actually was?  Should I just bite the bullet and start writing about the subject to see if I can breathe life back into it?  Am I just undisciplined?

I’d be interested in your answers to any of those questions that takes your fancy, but, in my case, I think my inability to use my notes is often related to the old writing chestnut, “show, don’t tell.”

When I consciously think about what I want to write about, I seem to go into “telling” mode.  I want to give a message about something, share some kind of insight – basically, tell the reader something.  And that’s what my notes often are: summaries of the message.  But writing only comes alive for me when I have a story to tell.  So, when I look at my notes all I get is a dry lesson.  No wonder I wander off topic and tell you today’s pressing story instead. Perhaps I need to start writing my notes as mini-stories.

This was going to be a post about digital books versus paper ones.  I’ve been going to write it for ages – mostly because I once said I would.  But I’ll save it until there’s a story to tell about it.  Today, all I can offer you is one long digression.


They are not your people

The words I read came from the heart.  Admittedly, they were written a long while ago and never fully polished.  Perhaps they weren’t quite ready for a public airing.  Plus, they were a part of something longer which hadn’t yet been completed either.  And the audience was expecting a fictional story, not a personal essay.

Is that why the words were misunderstood when they were read to an audience?  Is that why the listeners took issue with the philosophy when all they’d been asked for was a view on the writing itself?  Is that why the whole thing was so painful and annoying?

I learned three things that evening:

  • Make sure the work that you share with others is work that you are truly happy with.  If you have none ready, share nothing and keep writing.
  • If they don’t understand what you’re saying, check whether you’ve written what you thought you had.  What’s clear in your heart and head may not be clear on paper.  It doesn’t mean you’re wrong.
  • If you stand by your writing and your words, then those who didn’t understand are not your people.  They can be your friends, but they are not your audience.

What stops or slows your writing?

I can write in complete silence.  That’s my favourite writing environment.  Birdsong and the wind in the trees are acceptable background sounds.

I can write in a busy, noisy place too – as long as I can’t hear the specifics of the noise.  (So a huge hum of conversation is fine, but if I can hear every word my neighbour is saying to his companion, it drives me nuts.  I have been known to move tables in cafes and trains.)

I can write while someone is watching television in the same room – but it takes ten times as long (for once I’m not exaggerating) and is an almost unpleasant experience.  Having someone else’s words collide with my own makes me almost seasick.  I think that’s why I can’t even write to music; the words in my head crash into the words of the song or notes of the music and create what It feels like a physical disturbance.

Sometimes, though, if writing is to happen, it has to happen in less than ideal circumstances.  Such as writing slowly and haltingly in the room where a kids’ film is playing – so I don’t have to choose between being Mummy on Duty for a poorly boy and being Writer on Duty so I can continue to be true to myself.

What stops or slows your writing?  And do you write anyway?

Changing tack

Today was supposed to be a writing day but it went off course.  Life happened.  There was worry and upset and other things to do.  So I didn’t write.  I tried.  But there was noise and there were distractions and nothing was right.

Perhaps I should have stopped trying.  Instead I tried different things: reading for Changing tackinspiration (more distraction); making a cake (creative, perhaps, and tasty, but more distraction); giving in to the more pressing needs of the day (necessary, but the writing still niggled).

Nothing was right.  Neither the writing nor the not-writing nor the sitting-in-front-of-the-screen-sort-of-writing.

Then at the end of the day I picked up a pen and write this post.  It’s not what I intended to write today, but it’s an achievement.  And I’ve learnt something (or re-learnt it – why do we have to learn things so many times?): changing the writing medium, or the subject, or both, can help.  Somehow a blank page seems kinder to me than a blank screen, and a blog post less accusing than a chapter.

Put it on the wall

There’s something powerful about putting a work in progress, a thought process, up on the wall: you can’t hide from it.

Sheets of flipchart paper and a whiteboard have attached themselves to my office wall.  They hold lists of words, spider diagrams, dates, timelines, post-its.  They are not organised or pretty but they serve two useful purposes: they catch and hold my random thoughts and, by reflecting them back at me whenever I step into the room, they remind me of this work I have committed to doing.  This book I am writing.  They make it harder to “forget” or let it slip.  They demand commitment, but gently, by beckoning me back.

They might not understand (and that’s ok)

You’re sitting in a cafe with a friend, catching up on all the news.  She asks what you’ve been up to, and you mention writing.  She looks blank.  You tell her of your two recently-published articles, and after a bemused pause, she asks, “Can you make money doing that, or is it just…”  She trails off, leaving you to wonder what she would have completed her thought with.

“Just…a hobby?”

“Just…a waste of time?”

“Just…something to do while you look for a proper job?”

Or is it just something she doesn’t understand?

Would you be defensive in that situation, justifying yourself and explaining the writer’s life in great detail?  Would you find yourself curling up inside and thinking, she’s right.  I’m wasting time.  I should stop playing around and get a real job.  I’m no good at this anyway?  Would you get angry and flounce out, vowing never to associate with such a Philistine again?

Or would you stop and think about it?

Do you understand every one of her decisions?  Do you really ‘get’ what she spends her time doing?  Does working in a bank / horseracing / collecting toy pigs (or whatever it is that she loves doing) make your heart sing in the same way it does hers?  And if it doesn’t, why would you expect her to understand your need to write?

Many people won’t understand.  And that’s ok.  If we all wanted to be writers, the world would be lacking an awful lot of plumbers, actors, farmers and a lot more besides.

When they don’t understand, write anyway.  There will be others who do understand.  Write for them, write for you, but write.

PS. In case you were wondering how I responded (because you really weren’t fooled into believing this was a hypothetical situation, were you – although the pig-collecting etc was made up), I simply said, “Yes, you can make money from it,” and moved on to something else.  We’re still friends.


We can all get a bit too serious about our writing sometimes.  Especially me, with my introspection and my close-up views of everyday life. (Although I’m not sure I agree with Socrates that “An unexamined life is not worth living” – but there I go again, getting all serious.  And giving you the impression that I’ve read the works of Socrates.  I haven’t; it’s one of those quotes I picked up along life’s merry way and then merrily disagreed with.)

The digression illustrates my point, though.  Getting too serious makes life – and writing – a bit dull, frankly.  Here’s a much more cheerful quote which I’ve just come across in Chop Wood Carry Water.  (I know I mentioned this book last time.  I still haven’t actually read it; opening it randomly is working for me at the moment!)

Laughter is tremendously healthy.  Playfulness is as sacred as any prayer, or maybe more sacred than any prayer, because playfulness, laughter, singing, dancing will relax you.  And the truth is only possible in a relaxed state of being.

And isn’t writing all about showing the truth?