Every day I go to the place where I write. How do I get there? Sometimes it’s easy. Often I have to give myself directions and a downright good talking to …
The physical location is one thing: time and space, a place to be. Some writers can compose in their heads while walking, or play the violin to settle the brain waves and get in the mood; others need to shut themselves away with no distractions. I try to be adaptable so that I can write anywhere but I like to use a laptop for prose and prefer to have peace, uninterrupted time and some way to be comfortable so I can keep at it – with breaks to stretch – for as long as possible – ideally, as long as takes to do a good day’s work.
You might have only five minutes before the world impinges or you might have several hours. However long – and thinking you’re restricted is often the way to productivity – it’s up to you to start. This can be the most difficult thing of all. Yet, when written down it seems so easy! Just do it – as I keep telling myself.
A slip of paper covering my laptop camera has this quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi; it reminds me every time I look at it that ‘The future depends on what we do in the present’. (Discuss.) If it’s a doubtful day – when I’m not sure what I’m doing – I use this as a spur and make myself begin.
What if it seems particularly hard to leave the real world behind and concentrate on something you have made up yourself? There are times when writing fiction that it flows and other times when it feels as if my brain is trying to squeeze a lemon.
The world of the story is waiting for me: I tell myself. And since I’m mostly writing fiction that is where I need to be. I might get there by having a tiny scene already in mind or a phrase or two. Or just a picture that moves and has sound and smell and feel but not yet any words.
Once there and writing, that beautiful feeling of flow calms you down, you’re immersed and it feels natural. Time loses meaning and there is only the pleasure of fitting words, sentences, paragraphs into something meaningful, beautiful, funny (fill in your own blanks) following some notion, some line or development, some description of conflict, some character some plot some theme some thing. There are so many possibilities. This in itself can be daunting.
But let’s say you have picked a place to go and you know what’s going to happen. This brings you so much closer to being able to describe it. Don’t delay if you’re worried it will fade. Just get it down.
Still not started? Are you overwhelmed by daily concerns? Is it hard to disengage, switch off from all the trivial or important things that demand your attention? Anything from an item you really ought to put on your shopping list to anxieties about climate change, politics, world hunger. Shouldn’t you really be doing something practical about homelessness?
Again, you are overwhelmed. And it feels somewhat selfish to absent yourself and long to be only where the magic happens.
The beginnings of the C19 pandemic had me so anxious that I found it difficult to take myself to any fictional place where ‘all this’ wasn’t happening. But after a few days I took it as a challenge to go there anyway and almost immediately found it helped me to make sense of things. In giving me a sense of purpose and a focus my writing world became a place of refuge.
Over the years in which I’ve been developing the writing habit, various metaphors have helped me to get to the creative side. Sometimes I’ve thought of the world of my imagination as being on the other side of a high wall. I can hear the characters from various unfinished works chattering away or think of them moodily wandering wondering when I’m going to turn up. But I have to want to go there, to have the courage and the confidence that I can do it. As a showjumper once told me, you have to throw your heart over first.
This idea of the walled garden of delight always brings to mind the Oscar Wilde story of ‘The Selfish Giant‘ who keeps his beautiful garden to himself behind a wall. He chases the children away; winter comes to the garden and will not leave. When the giant’s heart is changed by the sight of one tiny child reaching up to climb into a tree, which is reaching down its branches to him to no avail, he lifts the child and places him at the top and the tree erupts in leaf and blossom. Then ‘he took a great axe and knocked down the wall’ and in come the children and the springtime. Although the story has well-known religious connotations it also seems to me now to be a metaphor about creativity, about letting all those possibilities in, about the need for innocence and playfulness when trying to make something new.
By innocence I don’t mean that no serious subjects should be tackled but that whatever you’re doing it can be approached as if it’s never been done before, without fretting about comparisons between what you achieve and what someone else has done.
By playfulness I mean that you might write to entertain, and that there are no limits – even if boundaries like word counts are sometimes marvellous for creating a particular focus with more depth than you had been able to achieve in something longer, in which you were more easily distracted from your main purpose.
On good days I know where I’m going before I try to get there. Perhaps after a day or two of what felt like hopeless muddle and meandering, in which I’ve despaired I’ll ever have another coherent thought or find an honest phrase and have wandered round the outside of everything hearing the cacophony and not knowing where to focus, the right thought strikes me and I think I know exactly what to do. Then I hurry to get there. The wall does not exist. I leap it, pass through it, knock it down or don’t even think of it all. The barrier dissolves. It’s a bit like lucid dreaming.
My aim is to make it easier to get there – consistently, every time. Lately, I have been drawn to a different metaphor for ‘getting there’ prompted by the tunnels of greenery formed by trees along paths – of the kind I see on my daily walks. We often cut back the shooting brambles to keep them from snagging clothes and hair. There’s something enticing about the look of a path going onwards. Even if I don’t yet know where it’s leading there’s no need to be afraid. Just go and look. I’m constantly learning the knack of transformation – of reaching that magical place.
And yet there are still times when it’s hard to shake off the way we feel and be creative. Difficulties crowd in: anxieties, arguments, the experiences of grieving. Though inner turmoil and outward conflicts can sometimes form the substance of our work, they can also lead us away from the particular story we’ve been working on.
After my husband died, I couldn’t absent myself from my thoughts about all that had happened – and by continually thinking of him I felt I was holding on to the thread that led back to the time when he was alive. To let go of it, to stop thinking of him even for a moment felt like a terrible rejection of his right to existence. I certainly couldn’t go back to the novel I’d been writing. It didn’t make sense any more to the person I’d become. Although now I could perhaps even go there again – ten years creates distance however much you wish that it had not.
What changed things for me when grief was still quite new – towards the end of the first year – was the knowledge that despair almost brought about my own destruction. And I was given the blessing of a deadline to write a story for New Welsh Review. The deadline loomed just as I was recovering from a major operation and I didn’t think I could do it – I even tried to wriggle out of it – but I’m glad I saw it through, because writing that story felt like my salvation. It was a piece of fiction called ‘Slaughterhouse Field’, written as as a response to Margiad Evans’ novel Turf or Stone. Thematically, it had to do with borderlands. I did it and have been writing ever since. I have not forgotten my loss – but in terms of writing I have been able to go forwards. To try – and more than that – to do my best.
Now the old problem has returned – too many ideas spinning and so I try to remember another piece of good advice that someone gave me years ago: Pick something. Finish it. And carry on. Get to the other side.
And then? A little moment of pure joy. Followed by the realisation that though time has no meaning when you’re writing, you only have so many days hours and minutes of your life left, so you’d better get going again.
Perhaps this time you don’t know where you’re heading or what you’re doing. There might follow a period in which you write to find out what you think. For that I have a virtual diary into which anything can go, and out of which I pick things to develop and complete.
Writing in and of itself is soothing but finishing things gives a special kind of peace. It’s probably why I still go through the torture of wondering what to write in a blog post every month. From what I’ve said so far, you’d think I was saying that only writing fiction can be hard. But no, as the month drifts by, I feel the weight of the days increasing. The day looms, I write the words, I find the pictures – publish. And breathe. Nearly always I think – I enjoyed that. Why don’t I do it more often? So many ideas for blog posts drift past like clouds and I don’t catch them.
Almost immediately, I will go back to writing fiction, a process that makes me invisible most of the time. I’m working full time, every day and I want to enjoy the process as well as the result. On a bad day I remind myself to keep the faith; another day it will feel good and even magical again. I don’t want the transition into writing mode to be something to fear or fret about but if it feels that way, it doesn’t matter because I’m still going to do it.
There’s a jungle of metaphors we could employ – all kinds of advice out there for writers. The important thing is doing what works for you. But most of all – doing the work.
Emotionally there are all kinds of ups and down in the writing life. Sometimes it flows and sometimes it’s a struggle. But nothing beats that feeling of being on the other side.
Thanks for reading! And if you have any thoughts to share about getting to ‘that place’ or anything else, I’m always grateful to receive your comments. All the best, Maria.