I’ve been struggling with my writing of late. As I explained in my last post – Fearing the Blank Page – I’ve halted work on my novel and intended to return to the short stories I used to love writing; immediate gratification the greatest reward! However, I found myself turning away from my writing and realised that what I needed was some way to help me rediscover my passion for it. Hence the following:
1. Go back to the expectation that I really only have to ‘write one sentence a day. Just one sentence a day. Everyday. How easy is that?’
2. Attempt an activity Rosie Garland reveals as one of her creative rituals:
“ I…write six images. What a snail looks like climbing up a leaf, what it felt like to stub your toe. I do it every morning without fail, if miss one I do a catch up session later.”
3. Remember that I write because I want to, not because I should.
I have to admit, allowing myself ‘permission’ to step back and just enjoy the production of simple sentences and revel in the construction of language really helped. There was no pressure to perform and if I didn’t write anything worthwhile then – what did it matter? – I had tomorrow’s efforts to look forward to. Relieving myself of the expectation that everything I wrote had to make sense or contribute to a greater piece left me freer to explore the whims that writing can often lead to and, as a result, made me realise that I enjoy writing just for writing’s sake.
Having said that, the activity about describing six images was by far the most successful technique I put in place to help me find my desire to write again. The first morning I sat down to it I decided to attempt at least three; a living room, a snail on a leaf and a tree in the wind. Here’s what I came up with:
The carpet is bobbly; a result of too much wear and not enough care. There are dog toys strewn across the floor, but no dog. On most surfaces there is a layer of dust. You can imagine the half-hearted shrug of a losing battle – homeowner versus dust, neither claiming ultimate victory.
Snail on Leaf
The colours are dull. The leaf, damp with rain, is a deep green and the snail is various tones of brown. It’d hidden right now, head and tail carefully tucked within, but it was awake not long ago. A sparkling, slithering trail reveals the way of the snail. The path is damp and sticky, fading in the downpour. I watch until it disappears.
Tree in Wind
Every year I come back. I watch the young twigs turn into sturdy branches swaying in the autumn breeze. Depending on the summer we’ve had the tree is either resplendent in deep emerald tones or on the verge of turning. This year the leaves are mostly green, a hint of red beginning to creep outward.
That last one led to me writing a longer piece, about a woman who has planted a memorial tree for her dead child and how she watches it grow – like she would that child – and is relieved that the tree will outlive her, as her child should have done. I had been trying for days to write a piece about change; about what it means and the consequences of such. Suddenly, within ten minutes I had the basis for an idea and I spent the week refining it. I submitted that piece into a competition this weekend – not because I had to, but because the theme had appealed to me and I had finally found some inspiration for it. An experience so lacking in the weeks prior to this exercise I tried.
Two nights later as I was trying to sleep I was considering possible images for the next morning’s exercise and I got a clear vision of an elderly couple getting into bed. ‘That’ll be an interesting image,’ I thought and then closed my eyes. Twenty minutes later I had to turn the light back on and jot down the basis for a story. Not just any story, but one that I had been grasping at for around three weeks. I had a concept and I previously discussed the options with my writing group, but I hadn’t been able to reconcile the time differences in the story that were needed to explore the historical significance of the events (especially within the competition word count limitations). That night, it all came together.
I haven’t yet written that story, as I realised that it needs more research in order to compose a first draft. However, it’s got me excited about the possibilities it provides and has made me realise that creativity needs time to develop and a free environment in which to thrive. Naively, I had put writing exercises behind me thinking that they were simply a means to an end. I was wrong. They are so much more than that. Writing exercises are a way to train the mind, to explore the crevasses within our imagination that can lead to flashes of inspiration. A story rarely just appears – it takes presence of mind and needs distraction to ferment before it can be coaxed out. Writing exercises allow that, especially ones so basic as the one used by Rosie Garland that focuses not on story or motivation or conflict but simple description: stripping the words back to their true purpose by transmitting information and sharing experience.
I’ve learnt a lot from stepping back from a while. Although I’ve had story ideas and have entered two competitions over the past week alone (both also work-related), I haven’t written when I didn’t feel like it and have spent far more time relaxing, socialising and even a weekend camping – which was great fun (for the most part). Now I feel I can move forward, start the ‘school year’ with some positivity and focus. So, over the next week I’ll be trying to set myself some goals for September and keep up my daily exercise, even if it is only one sentence per day.
What writing techniques work for you when you’re struggling to write? Have you tried writing exercises; what have you done and did it help?
Let me know in comments or Tweet Me.