Archive for September, 2009



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.  


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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.

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 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.

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