Because sometimes I need a nudge.

bookshelvesIn a flurry of office-rearrangement heavily disguised as tidying, I paused to flick through some old writing magazines.  Surely, I thought, it was time to re-use their space.

With a heap of books waiting for their turn on a shelf, I had determined to be ruthless, but it’s hard to overcome a natural instinct for hoarding.  I decided to compromise, and rip out pages worthy of saving.  That’s how I found myself rereading an interview Debbie Taylor did with Helen Dunmore for Mslexia, back in 2002. It concluded with this quote from Dunmore:

The more you do creatively, the more you can do.  You have to keep the momentum going.  If you are a musician and you don’t keep building it into your fingers for several hours every day, you will lose your edge.  It’s the same with writing.  It isn’t really the output that matters.  Sometimes it’s just the act of doing it.

I don’t see creativity as this fragile little flame that needs to be cherished.  I see it as an immensely powerful aeroplane.  as long as you don’t deliberately keep turning off the runway and going back to the terminal, it will take you wherever you want to go.

I put the magazine back in place, left the heap of books in their corner by the bookshelf and sat down at my desk – in the pilot-seat.

Dorothy Sebastian pilot, 1929I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for take-off.

Returning to Blogging

Don’t look now, but I’ve just stepped back into the blog room.

I’ve been working up the courage for this over the last couple of weeks, wondering whether to go for a shame-faced sidle back into view, or some kind of extra-large, brazenly arm-waving sparkling and unapologetic tad-da.  I’ll leave you to decide where this post comes on that scale.

What’ve I  been up to?

Work: researching, preparing and delivering classes.  I have to admit I’ve been having a lovely time.  The reading and the writing combine advantageously.  I’ve learned loads, and have notes for all sorts of new ideas.

And, on the practical front, there are all those blah, blah- economic – blah, blah reasons for being able to pay bills.  But in the course of the last two weeks, while I’ve been running smaller classes, and have been discussing managing-time-for-writing with one of my groups, it’s occurred to me that I’ve not been practicing what I preach.

My student, Alice, who’s writing a quirky and engaging YA fantasy story/novel, is self employed.  She spends long days on her computer, and loves her job.  It involves skyping with people in other countries.  She often brings into class snippets of fascinating information about languages and lives.

Detail from,  The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dahli

Detail from, The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dahli

She comes to class bubbling with story ideas, but struggles to find time for writing them.  Her homeworks, beautifully worded, tend to be fragments.  On busy weeks, she brings in something from an old notebook.  When I ask about her YA novel she says, ‘I really want to get it finished, but there’s not time now.’

‘Make time,’ I tell her, and suggest a simple plan.  ‘Five minutes writing every day,’ I say.  ‘You can fit that in can’t you?’

She agrees.  In fact she likes the idea, it could replace the internet browsing and shopping she usually does in her lunch hour.

Writing, I remind myself is not just about inspiration, it’s discipline.  I to have been drifting since Easter, filling my time with what are, when I’m honest, displacement activities.  What I need is a realistic timetable.

The reason I had to cut blogging out last September was because I’d stopped thinking ahead.  Excuse me while I take a justifying side-track to say that I also abandoned Facebook and the twitter account that I’d been attempting to master…

Well, this morning I’m taking control.  I will get back to blogging regularly.  Five minutes a day is apt for me too.  So hello to anyone out there.  Thank you for your patience.  I’m making a resolution to be consistent, so I hope you’ll continue to drop by.

Aagh, I’m being bombarded…

…with tempting promises.  Every time I turn on my computer I get offers.  All I have to do, each advert assures me, is click on some flickering link and I’ll have a gift card for some class-appeal store.

Tenniel's 'Alice'

Tenniel’s ‘Alice’

I’ve checked in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the definition of gift is something ‘given willingly to someone without payment’. So this would be a present, not cash-back, easily forgotten, spent on mundane, sensible items.  This is about self-indulgence.

It’s FREE money, isn’t it? That’s got to be better than working. Especially in this heat.

I know, us Brits are always wittering on about our weather.  Here we are after a few days of sun and half of us are wilting.  In Washington, a newly-returned friend tells me, most people just don’t go out in it. Although, eighty degrees, he says, is considered quite a moderate temperature for summer there, where air-conditioned cars transport people from air-conditioned homes to air-conditioned work.

I linger in the chilled aisles of the supermarket while my car turns into an oven.  Yes, I did forget to get it’s environmental control system re-gassed, and now it’s too hot to face making an extra journey to sit in the garage waiting while they top it up.

Besides, teaching is pretty much finished for the summer, I won’t need to travel much until it’s cooler.  Better to return home, open the windows and doors and hope for a passing breeze, as I refill my glass with ice and water.

DSCF5356Summer, I like to claim, is ‘me’ time.  All through the rest of the year, when I have to snatch writing-hours from between class preparation and delivery, I anticipate this writing space.

I visualize myself, under the dappled shade of our tree, working through the heap of notes I’ve brought out from my desk. I’m comfortably cool, wearing a floppy hat and sunglasses.  Effortless, about sums the picture up.  Unhindered by a realistic recognition of my commitments to family, friends, dog,house or garden, in this idyll I will create a perfect first draft.  Seems like I’ve neatly sidestepped the usual displacement activities, doesn’t it?

The danger of such fantasies though, is that I forget these are as much a fiction as the gifts that the double glazing, insurance and internet companies offer me. While I wait for the perfect conditions for writing, the long lazy weeks of summer dissolve and that heap of ideas remain on the side of my desk.

Displacement activites – building the nest

I’ve rearranged the furniture in my office this week.  The mood takes me every so often to face my desk in another direction.  It’s usually with the idea that I can create more workspace, as if furniture were like words, capable of becoming expansive or concise according to their surroundings.

Feeling a little cramped in here.

Feeling a little cramped in here.

The illusion is heightened, no doubt, because the process naturally involves some sorting and even ditching of the detritus that I accumulate.  I’ve even been known to empty the wastepaper basket, which is normally treated as a rough backup filing system.  I won’t admit here how often I’ve resorted to sorting through the contents for old notes that I’ve had second thoughts on, though.

I’ve been in offices where the waste-basket is emptied with awful regularity.  They look lost notessuper-efficient, but whenever I’ve tried to emulate this effect over-enthusiasm has resulted in the loss of some valuable and unrepeatable ideas or phrases.   Hence the occasional sight of me up-ended in the wheelie bin, throwing out cans and bottles as I sift through the recycling.  Of course, if I do find what I’m looking for it won’t turn out to be the wise gem I thought it was, but at least I’m no longer haunted by it.  However, the usual scenario is that I start to think about those notes at least a day after the recycling lorry came, and even I draw the line at going to the depot and sifting through a district sized heap of waste papers.

I can’t get a bigger rubbish bin for the office, there’s not enough room left, despite my new arrangement.  So I’ve started a new filing system, along the Heath Robinson line.  Take an A4 envelope, scrawl the name of the writing project on it with a marker pen – can’t help but use big letters that way.  Now, instead of putting my used notes in the bin, they are tucked into envelopes.  There’s no other order to this method, which I’m sure would pain the owners of those immaculate minimal offices, but some of us just aren’t programmed that way, and emptying an envelope is much less time consuming than my old paper trail.

So here’s me, seeing the view through the left side of the window today, still blinded by the reflected sunshine off the greenhouse roof around mid-morning, but this time it’s hitting my right eye. You know what, it does feel better in here.  If I just lower the blind a bit I almost think I might get some writing done.  Now which drawer am I storing those enveloped notes in?

I’ve got that noted, somewhere.

Despite the fact that the temperature has fallen back several degrees again, and a sharp wind cuts across the front of the house, spring has finally arrived.  I can say this with certainty, because I’m now finding it hard to ignore the dusty cobwebs in the corner of the window, and because my friends too, are suddenly busy taking down curtains or pressure washing their patios.

Detail from 'The Courtesan Nakagawa of the Matsuba-ya (circa 1796)

Detail from ‘The Courtesan Nakagawa of the Matsuba-ya’ (circa 1796)

It’s the ‘spring-instinct’, driving me towards displacement activities.  All winter I’ve been able to ignore the messy garden and the accumulating muddles around my desk, but a couple of hours of sunshine and they take on an insidious importance.  Time for a list, I decide.  I’m fond of making lists.  Check out my coat pockets and you’re bound to find one or two.

A list is such an individual affair, from the paper it’s written on to the content. They seem so perishable, and yet they survive, often for years, in unexpected places.  I tend to use mine as page-marks during research, then forget to take them out again.  I’m not alone.

One of the reasons I like second-hand books is for their detritus.  Usually, that means notes written in the margins, or between the lines.  I like the idea that something incensed a reader to the point where they had to reply, or contradict; isn’t that a shadow of the oral tradition persisting?

Occasionally though, there is a receipt, or ticket which can be just as telling.  What for instance, do I make of the yellowed shoe repair ticket in the middle of The Magus?  Did the owner of the brown boots in need of re-soling get bored with the story and give up?  Why?  What didn’t they like?  Or did something interrupt them?

And, did they forget the boots, or just that they’d left the ticket in this book?  As for the foccacio, roses and anchovies they’d written on the back of it, I’ve so many possible answers to the Who, What, Why, When and How of that. I know nothing, and then everything about the previous reader of this novel.

I suppose, with all our worries about identity theft, and the rising use of electronic memory systems, fragments of shopping information will be obsolete soon; unless, of course, we can access the databases of supermarkets and on-line shops.  With access to that, I could work out what the contents of ‘Brown Boots’ owner’s larder are, which would mean a much more educated guess at the meal being planned.  I could probably go further, and by looking at their history of purchases, figure out the who, what, why and when questions of their life.  If only I could hack.

Then again, how much more interesting it has been to sift through the possibilities, discarding and refining, building a picture from the brown boots, a novel and a ticket, making my own creation up.  I think I’ll continue to risk losing scraps of list in library books, and if you should happen to find one, good luck with your imaginings too.

Writing Strategies – Displacing Procrastination

I’ve had my other hat on recently, not the writing, but the reading one.  Over the Christmas break I read a lot of novels, for pleasure.  I have a significant backlog of books on my ‘to-read’ shelf, which always seems to load up faster than I can keep up with.

Another HatThat’s an excuse, of course, because I’d really intended to use the time for writing.  I have several short stories that need more work to finish them, and lots of notes on new ideas to follow up.  I’d been looking forward to this desk-time for weeks.

So what went wrong?  I could give you a list… it would begin with Christmas, because I always forget how much time is involved with preparing, celebrating and clearing up.  It might move on to that spell of icy weather we had, and the temptations of an armchair by the fire.  It would certainly include Anna Karenina, because studying it closely with my reading group last autumn re-awoke my old love of novels, and set me thinking about whether that short story that I’ve got lost with is really part of something less compact.

Perhaps, I thought, this time I’ll ‘knock off’ a novel.  I have a lot of ideas about this character.  It seems a shame not to use them.  Then I could use several of the story strands I’ve developed, and build-up the other characters.  Yes, there’s plenty to be said for extending this piece of writing.

So I gathered together all the notes and fragments of story I’ve played about with over the last six months – yes, it has been on the boil that long, and no, I don’t see that as a problem.  Sometimes a story evolves in a rush, others it takes time to see the ‘true’ line to take.

Re-reading it all, I surprised myself.  I’d forgotten several of those early ideas, and I was glad to find that although they were fragments, the writing was pretty good.  Of course, there was room for editing.  Isn’t there always? However, the overall picture was of a consistent ‘story world’.  Great, I thought.  I shan’t need to waste anything.  I’ll just figure out how to put it together.

Which is what I’ve been doing for the last two months, really.  I’ve been justifying my reading as research, and my fiddling about with those sketches and scenes as plotting, but, I’ve not added any new writing to the original story or the potential novel.  There’s nothing to show for the hours at my desk.

So I realise that what I’ve written today could be described as a confession.  I’ve been a little more subtle than washing the floor or cleaning the windows, but have I just found another variation on my old enemy, The Displacement Activity?

Well, I’m not so sure.  It seems to me that The Displacement Activity is as much about state of mind, as it is the physical action involved. Perhaps this is just me, trying to make myself feel better.  But it could be because this week I went back to reading short stories with a group again, and in the process of discussing with them the nature of short stories, I reminded myself of the Iceburg Theory.

You’ve probably come across it, but just in case, here’s the relevant quote from Hemingway’s, Death in The Afternoon.

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

No, I haven’t figured out how to pull my short story together, but that doesn’t matter, because I’ve remembered now how I was able to discard those old ideas, and I’m ready to move forwards with it, when the time comes.  Meanwhile, I’ve improved my understanding of how story works – both long and short and I’ve got a fresh story idea to start on today.  That’s got to be worthwhile, hasn’t it?

Writing Blocks – strategy 1

So I’ve had this blog site for five months and, apart from some occasional fragments about gardening, all I’ve really done is make lists and dither about creating suitable content.  Of course, I have all sorts of great excuses to justify this inactivity, but I logged on this morning because I have now admitted to myself that all my reasons for not writing this blog have been exactly what I warn my students about: displacement activities.

Okay, so I haven’t been washing the kitchen floor rather than write this (though I do keep the house clean, honest), or tidying my bookshelves, but I have invented a whole raft of reasonable excuses, and what they come to, is fear.

They are, of course, the same fears that inhibit most writers at some point:

  1. What can I write about that has not been written before?
  2. Why would anyone want to read about what I think?

I tell my students that they have to develop strategies to get around that kind of thinking or nothing would ever get written.  ‘If you don’t write it,’ I say, ‘someone else will.  Not in the way you would have done, but someone will do something so close to it that it will feel like they stole your idea.’

They say, ‘That’s all very well, but what if I’m not good enough?’

I tell them, ‘You’ll never know if you don’t try, so I’m going to help you put that first word on the page.’

Then I set them an anti-displacement activity exercise.

One of them goes like this:

  • Read this list of well-used displacement activities.

Washing up

Walking the dog

Cleaning the car

Tidying the room

Mowing the lawn

Cleaning the windows

  • It is a terrible list, isn’t it?  But this is how far some of us will go to avoid writing.  If we let this kind of thinking get a hold on us we will soon have immaculate households, but have nothing written down.
  • How strong are these excuses really?  It can be tough making time to write.
  • Displacement activities are habits, just like smoking or chocolate.  All we have to do is break our habit.
  • It can be difficult to break habits, ask a smoker, so we’re going to use some lateral thinking.
  • Look at the list again and find an activity that would not naturally occur to you.  Write it at the top of your page.
  • It is now your major barrier to writing, so create a strategy to side-step it. This is an opportunity to take a creative approach.   Think laterally and write a full page response to this problem.

I like this exercise.

But it occurs to me that in passing this exercise on now I have just completed a displacement activity of my own, as my intention when I switched on the computer was to complete the story I have been working on.  So, maybe all activities could be counted as displacements.

I’m sure there is something you should be doing instead of reading this.