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Simplicity

For a long time I promised myself that, some day, I’d bake my own bread.  It made so much sense: it would be tastier, healthier, there’d be no packaging.  The issue was finding the time.  Then, through a friend, I discovered an adapted recipe for the Grant loaf.  It took me a while to get round to trying, but now I’m hooked.  I love the making of it: the feel of the dough in my fingers, the alchemy of the yeast causing the mixture to rise and how, when I bake it, the bread fills the house with its smell.  And I love that I can do it so fast, by heart now.  Seriously, the time it takes to mix it is the time it takes to walk to the village shop.

The recipe has only four ingredients.  You can’t get much simpler than that.  There are no preservatives or additives – just flour, yeast, water and salt (I’m afraid I do need the salt).  It struck me when I made the last batch that my new ritual of bread-baking chimes with one of my aims for this year.  At the start of January, inspired by Chris Brogan, I chose three words to guide my direction for 2010.  One of these is: ‘Simplify.’   For me, simplifying means trying to focus on one task at a time – something I hope will make me less stressed and irritable.  Simplifying means, in fact, doing less (or, being absolutely clear about why I’m doing it in the first place).  It means having the conviction to say no to yet another enticing project or idea that would clutter up my already too-full head. 

Simplify.  It also works with writing.  To simplify is to be clear about the ‘through lines’ of story and character which, in turn, influences the purpose of a particular scene, or section, or chapter of the novel.  With simplicity in mind, I consciously ask myself at the end of each writing session ‘so what?’ and ‘what next?’  Writing more simply is to ‘say it once’ – cutting out extraneous passages or sentences which, however well written I think they might be, obscure the real point of things.  I find it fascinating how the act of creating a product with fewer, good quality, ingredients allows us to focus more on the process.  It allows things to breathe: dough expanding, the characters on the page; and the rise and fall of the writer’s breath in time with the words on the page.

Followings

A friend of mine has a finely tuned sense of intuition.  It shapes the way she lives.  Whether it’s the solution to a maths problem, the conclusion of an essay, a decision or a process to be implemented, my friend has a glimmer, an inspired glimpse of how things should be.  She works out the steps needed to make that thing possible.  Then she moves towards it, aware of potential twists and turns and necessary re-tracings, being sure at each point to test the rightness of the path she is taking. 

I find this inspirational on so many levels: a model for life, for effective relationships, for work, play, and creativity. 

My own intuitive followings, when they happen, occur most frequently in the mornings.  It’s the time I feel closest to my unconscious self, on the threshold between sleep and wakefulness.   It’s no coincidence, I think, that in The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron advocates the use of freeform journal writing in the morning, first thing, before the conscious mind has woken up.   These ‘morning pages’ – or any regular journaling habit – establish discipline and routine.  But more importantly, this process enables us to listen to ourselves.  Containing, perhaps, exhilaration, pain, surprise, the creative engagement speaks our emotional journey.  But the writing itself – the fact that we do it – can also provide us with a map, a way of testing our route, of assessing how far we’ve come from that vision of ourselves or our creative project.  The writing helps us see, at each twist and turn, whether we’re following the power of the initial intention that set us off on the journey in the first place.  

And, of course, the writing can foster awareness of what the journey needs to be. 

When it comes to fiction, I try to listen for those followings by entering the dream world of the story.  I’m sure I’m not alone in finding this process easier when in motion or on an actual journey: running, walking, musing on a train.  Then I plan each scene quickly, measuring the framework against my first impulse, usually having a sense of where it should end.  As I write, I return often to that intuitive following, but always remaining open to how things might need to be altered, changes in direction, a new design.  In this sense I’m more architect than journeyman, more builder than traveller.  For me, writing is a spirit level.  The key is to be true to the bubble that floats in the small, clear window in the centre – the absolute rightness of the original idea. 

What tools, for you, are most effective in life and creativity?  I’d love to hear.

Gift

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For my birthday this year, my partner gave me this painting.  It’s an image of where we live – a hilltop village in the Pennines surrounded by a wooded valley – and he’d commissioned our artist friend Kate to paint it.  To receive something so beautifully crafted, and given with such thoughtful care, was deeply moving.  I thought of the time and effort my partner put into planning the gift; and of Kate working on the canvas in her studio, of the intention that went into her choice of colours that now add such richness to our home. 

 

Focusing on intention in a recent post, Joanna Young offers some wonderful reflections and practical tips for writers preparing to write: think of the journey; ‘think about what kind of state you want to evoke in your reader.’  And of course, the same can be said for a viewer of film, a spectator of art, a listener of music.  Think how you want to move them, affect them.  What, in short, you want to give them.  

           

In terms of my own writing, I find things flow best when I hold someone else in mind.  That person can sometimes be someone specific; but often – when I’m writing fiction – it’s no more than a ghostly kind of presence, a reader ‘warm and breathing on the other side of the page,’ to borrow from Virginia Woolf.  In a technical sense, I’m sure it makes for better writing.  I become more aware of the cadences of each sentence.   At a structural level, I’m thinking about the inner rhythm and resonances of the story, what motivates the reader to turn the page.  One of the most significant pieces of advice I’ve read about writing comes from Sol Stein, who says in Solutions for Novelists: ‘think of your fiction as a gift for a stranger.’  Now, when I’m devising a plot, I ask myself: what will make the reader’s journey more heightened or pleasurable?  What do I want them to be moved by? 

 

It hasn’t always been like that.  There’ve been times when I’ve been detached from the reader and so bound up with the words on the page that my ghostly ‘other’ was no more than that – a ghost.  But in recent months I’ve realised more fully the power of creativity: if we let it, it opens space beyond our own egos, enabling us to connect with others.  This can be terrifying, of course, threatening in all kinds of ways; it leads us into the unknown, allowing the potential to be hurt or ridiculed, or for our work to be considered worthless (or even worse, dull).  But if we’re focused on who we’re creating for, the critical inner voice – the one that is rooted in fear of inadequacy – is quietened.  

 

Creating with intention, being aware of that flow between self and other, mindfulness of what we are giving, means we move beyond our ownership of the words or images or music.  We still ourselves, and listen.  We play in dialogue with the listener, and with the silence.  And, as if in a circle of giving and return, the gift we give to the receiver gives back to us.  We give intention not just to others, but also to ourselves – employing a quality of listening that at its best is both energising and transformative.  

 

And this playfulness, this transformation is – I think – what creativity requires of us.  

The Art of Washing Up

washing up

When we moved house, six years ago now, we asked for the dishwasher to be taken out.  Some people were bemused by this (how usual is it, after all, to have a dishwasher removed from a kitchen?).  Others were quietly impressed by what they saw as our eco-credentials.  I’m not geeky enough to know whether a dishwasher actually saves water (these days, quite possibly, it does).  But anyone doing the dishes in our house (we like our morning porridge and our lasagne-with-a-crusty-top) would, by the third bowl of clean water, undoubtedly side with the dishwasher lovers.

There are countless things I’d far rather be doing than washing up.  It’s tedious and time consuming.  If I delegated it to our ten-year old, she might demand payment (although admittedly she does it sometimes out of love- or boredom).  But there’s something about the action – the wiping of the surface of each knife or dish, the rhythm that builds as I wash, rinse, stack – that liberates, but also quietens, the mind.  The same might be said of any repetitive task (ironing, cleaning, and running on a treadmill).  But washing up is my favourite necessary non-displacement activity.  While my hands are occupied with something simple, something that happens on a daily basis, my mind is free to range over more imaginative things – a knotty plot issue, for example; a snippet of dialogue that surfaces when I’m thinking about a character.  Habit, repetition, ritual: they’re crucial for any creative individual.  And routine, as Twyla Tharp tells us – in her wonderful book, The Creative Habit – is fundamentally democratic.  It’s available to everyone. 

For me, there’s a definite order to washing up.  As with a piece of writing, we might start with the easy things – the water glasses, the wine glasses – that require only a cursory wipe.   We progress to plates and, finally, to the pans and serving dishes with the burnt-on, stubborn bits of grime.  These are the parts of story you dig at with a scourer, or sometimes a fingernail or a piece of steel wool. 

But perhaps the real art of washing up is to know when to stop.  There’s always the steeping method: fill the dish with water, put it to one side.  Let it soak for a day or two, then come back to it when you have more energy, when things have loosened up.  Sometimes I wonder if elbow grease might be overrated.

Beginnings

 When I was at school, September meant a new pencil case.  It sent me rooting in the cupboard under the stairs for whatever scraps of wallpaper my Dad could spare to back my exercise books.  Clean pages, white space; new possibilities.  For years, working in higher education, I retained that feeling of September newness, of things starting up and the excitement of what might be.  Autumn is still like that, even now (though my notebooks, these days, come from Paperchase or Moleskine).  For me, it’s the new year; a time of taking stock and reviewing priorities – both in life and in my creative projects.   It has to be said, I feel happier starting September with a list. 

So it’s appropriate that I should start this blog in September.  The ‘white space’ is different – less physical and more ether-eal (if you’ll excuse the pun).  But there’s still the excitement, the what-might-be, the ‘where will I go next?’  The best way to start something, I’ve realised, is to try and let go of that left brained, list-focused way of thinking and let the story breathe.   Let the characters emerge from what I observe around me and whatever half formed images or voices make themselves seen or heard.  And, interestingly, that’s where I am at the moment: at the very start of a new project with a cast of characters who don’t exist as characters quite yet but are glimpses or fragments of something that is still part of me – events, memories, desires. 

Thing is, I also need the lists.  They prepare me.  In the end, they create space: the time I allot myself to write, the mental freedom from the minutiae of life, which are important but can be distracting.  With a schedule in place I know the time for all that is taken care of, elsewhere.  And that means, hopefully, that the white space in the exercise begins to be filled up.  With possibility and potential; with the ‘what if?’ that makes writing (and reading) stories so exciting and full of magic.