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?

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 same side of two coins?

He said, “I’ve never written anything just for fun.

I wish I could show you the look of absolute incredulity on his face as he said it.  I’m sure it was identical to my own expression at the time.  You see, he was responding to my remark that my writing group “gets me writing things I wouldn’t normally, just for fun.”

Fun.

I could see it in his eyes.  Did Not Compute.  Whereas I couldn’t process the idea of writing not being fun.

He has a message to deliver to the world, and his writing life is geared towards developing the right voice to broadcast his message.  I am the kid playing in the corner with coloured pens and strings of words while the grown-ups do the Important Stuff.

Good for him.  And good for me too.  Both approaches are equally valid.  We all have our own ways of being and our own ways of writing – not to mention our own reasons for doing it in the first place.  There’s no one Right Way.  Your way, his way, my way: they’re all right.  And one day, for a time, I might adopt his way, or he might try mine, or we might both discover yours.  If it works, do it.  If it doesn’t, try something new.

I have to end with one of my favourite quotes.  I’m not sure I fully understand it (I am, after all, a child at heart), but I love the playful use of words, and it seems appropriate to so many things.  It’s from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead:

For some of us it is performance, for others patronage. They are two sides of the same coin, or, let us say, being as there are so many of us, the same side of two coins.”

Words in print

I could open a debate about the relative merits of the printed word and the digital word. But I won’t.

I’ll just say that, for me, nothing quite compares to seeing my own words in the pages of a book, or magazine, or in this case, the Earth Pathways Diary 2016.

I’ve loved using my 2015 diary and am delighted to have my writing in next year’s.  I’ve just received my advance copy this morning and it’s beautiful.

Can’t wait until the week of 29th September 2016 when I will be ‘casually’ showing everyone my words in print on the page.

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.

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.

An invitation to play

Open up an imaginary bag in front of you. Just for a while, put into it your judgement and self-criticism; the mental to-do list you’re continually adding to; your ticking inner clock; your need to be right and sensible and useful. Add anything else that feels heavy. Then zip up the invisible bag and put it to one side.

Grab a pen – any pen – and paper, nothing fancy.

Lie down on your belly on the floor, pen in hand and paper in front of you. Kicking your heels in the air is optional, but it helps release the child inside.

(I appreciate that getting down to floor level may not be as easy as it once was, but there are alternatives: sitting on a beanbag; curling up in a corner of the sofa; even sitting on a cushion and leaning against the wall. But do try the floor if you possibly can. Your child-mind will respond.)

Write.

Write words you like; write a story about goblins and fairies; write something that makes you laugh; write a poem where the first letter of every line spells your favourite rude word. It doesn’t matter what you write. It only matters that you do it. It’s not work, it’s play.

Enjoy your playing, and when you’ve finished, go and bake chocolate chip fairy cakes.

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.