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.

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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.

Far away

When you read this I’ll be far away.  I’ll be hiking, and reading books, and eating cake, and drinking wine.  Perhaps not all at the same time.

I suppose it’s not much of an adventure to some, toddling around a few English hills.  But I’ll be far away from home and far away from the everyday routine and that means my eyes will be open for new ideas without my having to remind myself.

Yes, I’ll bring a notebook.

The problem with books

Let me take you on a little tour of my bookshelves.  Just the ones in this room; if we go through the whole house we’ll be here all day.

Here are the work-related ones.  These are not the problem ones.  They aren’t many and they don’t get opened much but are particularly useful for pinching ideas from when I have to deal with a new subject or remind myself of things I used to know.

The problem ones are the knitting ones…

…the sewing ones…

…the historical ones I’ve been using for writing research…

…and the writing and creativity ones.  No, don’t touch the pile; there may be an avalanche and it would take days to dig you out.

If you added up all the time I’ve spent reading these books you’d have a big number of hours.  If you added up all the time I’ve spent actually knitting, sewing, writing – I fear you’d have a much smaller number of hours.

And that’s the problem with books.  They trick you into thinking that reading about doing something is the same as actually doing it.

Adding up the scribbles

I hadn’t written a word for weeks.  Granted, there were a few scribblings here and there: jottings on the back of a shopping list; scrawled phrases on a post-it; the odd page or two of disjointed notes.  Not real writing.  So I told myself, and I didn’t enjoy the telling.

Then I gathered them all together.  I began to type them up, expand them, string them together.

Um, I still haven’t finished.  The scribbles add up, you see.  They are the writing, quite as much as the hours spent at the desk.  Probably more so, because they aren’t punctuated by long periods of staring into space and reading other people’s words.

And although I’d already learnt that the scribbles add up to something bigger, I was fortunate enough to receive validation from elsewhere in the same week.  Mother’s Milk Books have awarded one of my pieces a Commended in their recent competition.  Cue much rejoicing!

I tell you this because it illustrates the point beautifully.  You see, I remember when I wrote the beginnings of that piece, and it wasn’t at my desk or even in the house.  I was tramping the fields in my wellies, watching the crows wheeling overhead and thinking about circles.  I’ve learnt to keep a tattered notebook and a pencil in my coat pocket on these walks, and I kept stopping and adding another phrase, another image.  What they were going to become I wasn’t sure, but I kept scribbling all the same.  (By the way, it’s always a pencil, never a pen.  Pencils don’t run out or leak in your pocket.)

And those images became a piece I was proud of, a piece that someone else enjoyed.  They were real writing, after all.

Yes, we need time to mould the jottings and the scribblings into their final form, but we can always be writing, wherever we are.  Mud optional.