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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I’m gonna be the one who’s havering

“We put a lot of bunk around the notion of being a writer.  We make a big deal out of putting words on paper instead of simply releasing them to the air.  We have a mythology that tells us that writing is a torturous activity.  Believing that, we don’t even try it or, if we do, and if we find it unexpectedly easy, we stop, freeze up and tell ourselves that whatever it is we’re doing, it can’t be “real” writing.” (Julia Cameron, The Right to Write.)

Recently I’ve been just writing.  Not writing something, just writing. Words on loose pages, because somehow that seems less Serious than writing in a notebook or saving a digital document.  They’re just scraps of paper, and they’re not for anything.  They don’t have to be anything.  They don’t even have to be any good.

I just mis-typed “have” as “haver”.  Now that’s appropriate.   “Haver” is a Scottish verb meaning “to talk foolishly, to babble.” (And if you’re a Proclaimers* fan, you can sing along with me: “I know I’m gonna be, I’m gonna be the one who’s havering to you”.)

“Havering” on paper takes all the pressure off, and sometimes you find that what might have seemed foolish is actually quite wise, even useable.  Even your mis-spellings!

*The song is “I’m gonna be (500 miles)”.

Circling the chair

There’s a lot of faffing to be done before you can actually write, isn’t there?  Or is it just me?

A lovely friend of mine recently referred to this inability to just sit down and write as “circling the chair”.  How long do you have to circle the chair before you actually manage to sit in it and put pen to paper?

There’s a way round it, and it’s to do your chair-circling away from the chair.

Bear with me.

You know what you want to write.  (I mean the basics: a blog post, a short story.  You needn’t be any more specific than that.)  Hold the thought in your mind as you go about your business.  Write down anything, however mundane it seems, that comes into your mind about it as you load the dishwasher, change a nappy, write a business strategy – whatever you’re spending your time on each day.  That way, when you do have your Chair Time, you don’t need to circle because you’ve got a small stack of random thoughts to work with.  It doesn’t matter if you think they’re rubbish, or you don’t know where they’re going.  Even if you just spend a few minutes typing them out, at least you’ll have started writing.  And, like rolling downhill, once you’ve started it’s easier to keep going!

The desert

The desert haunts me. My dreams are parched and dusty and I wake to drink glass after glass of cool water but it doesn’t wash away the dryness. Is this your last game, your final torment? I longed to return to the desert, yet now it seeps into my nightmares so I can never go back. In this damp corner of the world even thoughts of returning bring no relief. Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have their nests, but I have nowhere to lay my head.

A rock, heated to baking by the blinding sun, would make a welcome pillow now. I would embrace a second skin of dust and the shimmering haze distorting time and distance. I would walk to you across the blistering plains with joy in every step, but I cannot cross the street to post this letter to you. The rain is a curtain of glass needles between me and my salvation.

I cannot dream this place. I cannot walk it or live it. Here in this land of damp sponge there is no line in the earth or song in the air to draw me onward. The trails are silent, lost to me beneath the endless water that pools beneath my feet, and I can only sink into the deepening mire.

When you wove your tales of ever-green landscapes, flowing streams and verdant trees I could hardly imagine such a place. But you were the living water to me and I would have followed you anywhere, even across the endless ocean. I did: here I am in the sinkhole of the earth. Like a watering hole in the high heat of summer you evaporated, a wavering mirage vanished into the dust.

I waited so long. In the end it was easier to believe that you were dead than to believe you’d abandoned me; I had to believe that if you still had breath you would have come back to me. You wouldn’t have abandoned me, like a child crying behind a rock, too small to know the predator but full of terror nonetheless.

I was a child of the great, wide world. I knew the joy of the sky and the breath of the night and the deep inner warmth of a body held in the eternal sun. I saw the magic in every rock and thorn bush, and the paths that led between them and the salt pans and I knew survival. Now I am drowning in mud. I cannot hear the songs for its roaring, or see the safe trails for the smears across my eyes. Walls bar my way and I haven’t the strength to open the door, for I know that beyond it are miles and miles of grey and green ribbon, and they will never lead me to brown-orange-yellow warmth. I am lost with nowhere to go.

[Note: Yes, this is fiction.]

[Another note: a friend advised me to rewrite this as a poem.  What do you think?]

Keeping the momentum

I understand why people advocate writing every day.  It’s all about keeping the momentum and building a habit.

If you work on something regularly it stays in your head.  Ideas come when you’re in the shower, and when you sit down to work on it again you can plunge straight in; you don’t have to spend half of your previous writing time trying to get back into it or working out where on earth it was going.

As I’ve written elsewhere today, habits stop you having to think.  Training your brain to switch to autopilot – it’s 7am; I write at 7am – means you’re more likely to just sit down and begin.  And it might just free up a few neurons to come up with creative ideas – even when you’re not in the shower.

Progress: unpicking the knot

I’ve written over 3,000 words today.  Mostly just notes, and thoughts to follow up, but still – 3,000 words.  Does it matter?

If I’d only written 100 words, would I be feeling as positive as I do now?  Well, yes.  The point is to make progress.

Over the last few days (weeks, really) I’ve been making progress, but mostly in my head.  Thinking things through, working things out.  It didn’t feel like progress at the time, but now that the words are spilling out of me, I can see that I needed that time of seeming inaction, of stuckness.  Like unpicking a tight knot: there’s a period of time where you pick and pick and nothing seems to give, until eventually you feel that slight loosening that gives you hope.

If I’d written 100 words today, it would still feel like progress.  Because now I have a glimmer of an idea of where I’m going.

Rusty

Yes, we get rusty.  We take time away from our writing and we forget how.  We pursue shiny new ideas that have nothing to do with our creative dreams.  But eventually we come back.  We always come back.

We come back and nothing is right.  Ideas are clunky, word choices even more so.

The urge to stop and do something – anything – else is strong.  After all, there are so very many other things that need to be done.

But the only cure for this is to keep going.  To fill the waste paper bin if we must, but keep going.  Even when every word has to be dragged from the depths.  Even when those hard-won words will never see the light of day.

The only cure is to keep going.

I will if you will.