The art of becoming an original writer in three days!

We talk about that first ‘bite’ we get as a writer, the first punch of an idea. Something catches our eye – a painting, or a conversation between two people across the room. We watch. Suddenly we start to imagine what they are saying. We picture what one of them might do next – or what the other has previously done; perhaps something they are now withholding. A story begins to form. But then suddenly Reason asks: how do you know this is the right story?

Rose

In her book, Psychoanalysis: the impossible profession, Janet Malcolm quotes from a letter that Friedrich Schiller wrote in 1788 in reply to a friend who had complained of meagre literary production: the ground for your complaint seems to me to lie in the constraint imposed by your reason on your imagination…It seems a bad thing and detrimental to the creative work of the mind if Reason make too close an examination of the ideas as they come pouring in…

Roses

If we’re unconstrained, we might be able to sit and examine the painting, or watch these two people, chatting across the room. We remain calm. We observe, allowing ideas to take shape. We might imagine to ourselves: a funeral – two people, talking after a funeral.

Two women – sisters; no, sisters-in-law. One touches the hand of the other, so it is the younger of the two, the blond one, who is the widow. Both wear black. Both have been crying. The widow nods and gives a funeral smile before getting up and excusing herself to the kitchen where the sister-in-law follows and they continue to talk.

But now you might find yourself in the kitchen and think: how did I get here; what am I doing?

Suddenly, you’ve gone from familiar surroundings – the room where the reception was going on: the dim chatter, the smell of the food on the table in the bay window that is beginning to heat in the sun, coming through the glass; the sandwiches are forming a crust, even though the crusts have been removed.

But now in the kitchen, with these two women, you’re not sure.

Why did the widow get up? Why didn’t she simply sit there with the hand of her sister-in-law, providing comfort? The hand certainly was providing comfort. You’re certain of that.

Is it that the widow doesn’t want people to make a fuss; that it’s all too much? That she’s not yet ready to let herself go and is busying herself?

The trouble is that at the first sign of the inner judge, the imagination will become knocked about. From its initial meander, careless, aimless, aim-free – it is now aware that someone is watching. It is now aware that there are right and wrong paths to take. It doesn’t want to fail.

 Rose

How, once this inner judge has stepped in, can you carry on with the freedom of imagination? Freud was to liken his process of free association – or ‘allowing’ – to that of the poet, during the act of creation. The patient – or poet – must suspend his critical faculties and say anything that comes to mind, regardless of its irrelevance, triviality, or unpleasantness.

When Reason creeps in, inhibiting the story, firstly acknowledge that you are now no longer in the sitting room, wandering the post-funeral reception. See that you are now in your head, wandering your self – your own memories, your own failings, your own doubts, perhaps your own funeral.

In the introduction to his Collected Essays, Hanif Kureishi says: More or less the whole of my formal education was concerned with enforced inhibition and constraint. I had to unfetter my imagination myself and learn to let it run. It sounds awkward to say that you might train your imagination, but you might learn, at least, to hear what it has to say, and respond.

Hanif, since a period when he found that he couldn’t move forward in his work, has used Freud’s method of free association each morning, which he himself discovered – oddly enough – in a writing manual by Ludwig Börne called: the art of becoming an original writer in three days.

Roses

Return to the story of the funeral – allow. Put yourself in the kitchen. See what comes. A kitchen that you know? You still have something of before to start you off because you can still hear the voices of the guests. Perhaps there were two boys, playing. Listen to their game – their innocent, high notes, rising above the muffled base of mourners who are taking their job seriously.

You can still smell the buffet lunch. But perhaps there is a new smell in the kitchen so that you can transition from one to the other, using the path of your senses. There are new sounds in the kitchen, allowing you to cross the threshold into a new room. How has the light changed?

Keep exploring these impressions and, at every stage, observe to see when you inhabit the character – the widow – and when you are simply standing back as the narrator. Are you illustrating the setting from an authorial distance, or have you stepped further in to describe from within the character?

It’s best not to jump around too many characters. Don’t suddenly panic and jump into the sister-in-law’s head, thinking: I don’t know the widow anymore – I never did – perhaps I’m not her, perhaps I’m this person instead. Of course, investigate, play around – don’t become too rigid. There’s no point starting a story in one character’s head and forcing your way through – ploughing through frozen earth without allowing yourself breathing space.

Investigate, explore, and know that the inner judge will butt in – even into the more sure ideas. It’s arrival it’s not a sign of fault. The inner judge simply interferes when the other senses, the feeling senses, become faint. When the tangible connection to your imagination becomes fragile, then there is space for doubt to enter – see it as the flailing of the mind when the floor disappears.

But don’t think you have to be absolutely on top of your story, crowding it, so that there’s no room for misgiving to enter. By doing this you’ll lose your perception in another way – by writing in panic. Even whilst floating, a connection can be found. Breathe. If you cannot feel the story, you can at least feel that you, the artist, are alive. Sit with that artist – on the sofa, chair, wherever it is you’re trying to write. Sit with that artist and breathe, and rather than carry yourself away in thoughts, admonitions and doubt, notice sensations – how your chest rises, how it falls, how it clenches, how it releases, how it stutters, how is wheezes.

There are so many things to notice that one never need enter back into the line of thinking – the doubt, the ruin. But if you enter that line of thinking, you haven’t failed either, you are simply walking the artist’s path. It’s like being a pinball in a machine: darting about, setting off alarms, lights, buzzers; sometimes winning a prize, sometimes falling down a hole – nothing won at all.

Rose

I spent a very long time, exploring this funeral – and in fact it was a scene that never made it into the final draft of the story, but it was necessary for the process as a whole. The story came about because of a painting I saw in a museum. I was in Ireland for the launch of an anthology a short story of mine had been published in, and was full of inspiration to write another.

To me, this new story was Irish, the sisters were Irish. It was the husband who was dead.

‘The funeral passes beneath a silver sky, but there is enough light to create gentle shadows on the grass. She watches a cluster of men from the village lower William into the ground, and wonders what he will do in there.’

Rose

The painting I saw in Ireland shows a husband and wife, sitting at a table. They have become disconnected somehow.

The painting is called The Consultation, which already gave an idea of a lack of ease and intimacy. But the way the objects are placed suggests it isn’t simply an emotional difference these two people have. It is something greater.

A chair, in the doorway beyond, is empty – conveying absence. Looking at the woman, I felt she was in grief – frozen at breakfast, in her duties. The man is waiting for her, watching. Somehow, although they are separated – by life, by death – although their eyes are no longer level, there is something that has levelled. In this moment, they finally feel love for each other. He, at long last, sees her emotion – the tears – and his heart bursts.

Her sudden realisation is that this breakfast routine, which she’d found so formal, is impossible without him. Even though they never said much to each other, he had always been there, a quiet presence, buttering his toast. She never thought he would leave.

Rose

‘It was him. It wasn’t a memory. He was standing, waiting for her. He was smiling. He was holding out his hand. And she thinks of how she knew what to cook for him after a time, from him leaving small piles of things on the plate, which he had no taste for; never saying, I don’t care for this or that, but in those leavings she grew to know him. She hurries back home, up the path, and bangs open the kitchen door, rushing through, calling, William! William! running up the stairs…’

For those of you interested in reading the full short story – The Courting – which was published by Virago, click here for an online version. The piece is less than 4,000 words long – but I wrote many more as I searched for the thread of the tale. Seen in isolation an idea may seem trivial – but do not reject too soon because it may be made more worthy by another idea that comes after. Freud talked of free association as the ore from which the analyst extracts its content of precious metal. Where imagination has freedom, Reason relaxes its watch, allowing ideas to rush in, knowing that the time for arrangement comes later.

Rose

About gabrielablandy

Some history, a bit of fiction, with me in there somewhere.
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29 Responses to The art of becoming an original writer in three days!

  1. Gabs, your words are always so light, even when you talk about serious things, your words just float and dance across the page. I don’t know how you do it. Both in your fiction and in your factual. Loved this piece and loved the story. I always imagine you to be as ethereal as your writing.

    • Thanks V! So, am I ethereal in person…? Depends how stressed I am ;-) My friends and students do say that I have a calming presence – though, after a few Margaritas I would say that my energy changes a little! I become a little domineering and start dragging people towards the dancefloor. Maybe I should just take one of my stories, next time I go out, and see if I can get the words to shake their thing with me. Thanks for popping by!

  2. Tim Diggles says:

    This is really interesting and I will pass it on to the writers groups I know. I always think how important visual stimulation is and am using Pinterest a lot in a novel I am writing, creating a board to bring things together and visualise how people look, where things happen and see them in different ways.

  3. I found this post to be a well written post and helpful reminder to let go and be in the moment, capture the senses. I’m going to take your advice and get to it now!

    • That’s kind – thanks. It’s not necessarily new advice, but I just wanted to provide a way to make people think of Reason in a way that might help them ‘diagnose’ its presence sooner. I find (even though I can sit and write a blog post about using the imagination, man) that I often go a whole morning, writing, and it’s only the evening that I realise why it was such a miserable experience and that Reason was breathing down my neck the whole time! Happy writing (and snoring – sorry, couldn’t resist!)

  4. laurasmess says:

    What a wonderful post Gabriela! As per usual, I found myself drawn into your web of words and images… light and dark, soft and heavy, flitting between fact and prose seamlessly. This is a fantastic tutorial for the imagination. You’re amazing xx

    • Laura – you really spoil me ;-) (but don’t stop!) I’m actually writing a proper short story at the moment to really try and draw people into my web. I figure, it’s all very well talking about ‘how to write’ but I should grow some balls and put my work on the line!

      • laurasmess says:

        Ha! Nope, honesty isn’t spoiling! :) Glad to offer some encouragement though, as you deserve it. I’d love to read your short story! Are you going to post it on here? And in regards to putting your work ‘on the line’, I think you’ve already done exactly that! Each piece on here is testament to your writing ability. Yes, they’re shorter, occasionally tangential and less structured than a ‘proper short story’ but each is testament to your skill in constructing a beautifully intoxicating literary web of words! x

      • :-)
        And yes, the story will be on the site tomorrow…

  5. It’s like that Annie Dillard anecdote: “One line of a poem, the poet said – only one line, but thank God for that one line – drops from the ceiling”. (We have to, as you say, learn to allow the rest…) http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/03/28/specials/dillard-drop.html

    • I’d never heard of that anecdote – so thank you. This is the wonderful thing about blogging – not only meeting new people (welcome!), but having those people pass on what they know. So, I appreciate it, and the link. I actually just came upstairs to write, having got a first line for a rewrite of a story I knew I needed to do. So, here’s to the second draft (and writing without Reason!!) ;-)

  6. You write about writing and tell a story as if no classroom is needed for we see it all in your wonderful words that skip across the page and us with it. Thank you once again Gabs – the funeral scenarios were of particular interest. Also allowing our minds not to become sedentary, to ‘view’ the subjects and all around them as well as being inside their head. Another superb write my friend. xx

    • That made me smile about you finding the funeral bits interesting! I’m glad you liked this one – there were quite a few threads with this piece. I’m finding it a good discipline to try and get something out each week, because it forces me to keep as clear as possible, and it also stops me hoarding things, thinking they are not ready. I’m building up to publishing a short story for next week – so people can really see if I’m a total fraud…

  7. Gabs, as usual, you have a way of turning my mind in circles until I’m finally pointed in the right direction. I thought of the short story I’ve been working on and the writing session I had yesterday. I wondered why I only cranked out ~300 words in an hour. I was so sure my ‘reasoning self’ had been out of the room. But thinking back, no, he was there, second guessing, *reasoning*, trying to tell me not so much what made sense, but how most everything I was typing DIDN’T make sense.

    Thanks for your reminder. :) Hope you’re doing well and the back is healing.

    • Phillip, I think you’ve pointed out something really relevant here, which should probably be part two of this piece. Don’t worry, I’ll give you full credit! Anyway, that bit about often only realising that Reason has been breathing down your shoulder after the day, or in some cases week’s writing has been done. What I’m trying to do now is work on a short story to post next week where I really take this advice about following imagination to heart. I hope it pays off!
      Thanks for your kind concern about my back. Since taking up swimming I feel like I’m getting into a better place with it.

  8. The mind just goes where it wants sometimes. Maybe it needs to.

    The swans dance on the water, then retire to the fuchsia bushes on the shore.

  9. Chris Edgar says:

    Yes, in the same vein, I’ve taken to constantly calling myself on my phone and singing a melody, or spontaneously whipping out my computer, firing up Audacity, and singing into the built-in mic — no matter where I am when inspiration strikes. The refinement can come later — capturing the raw idea in the moment is priceless aspect of the process, at least for me.

  10. Loved the story Gabriela, so haunting and a study of living with someone and not understanding until it’s too late.

  11. mrs fringe says:

    I’m so glad you found my blog, leading me to yours. I love this piece, and suspect I will return to reread as I move forward with my WIP.

  12. marianbeaman says:

    Thanks to Sherrey Meyer, I have been led to your polished pages. Your title “The Art of Becoming an Original Writer in 3 Days” piqued my interest. Yes, it’s all about following the “bite” of that first idea and then sensing whether it is true. And, yes, sensory images have a lot to do with great writing.

    Your association with Oxford University reminds me of a delicious week at the Oxford Roundtable several summers ago. We stayed at Manchester House then.

    • Hi Marian. I do love the way one can go on a real journey through the blogging world and meeting people through people. How lovely that you visited. I feel so lucky to live in Oxford. Whenever I’m lacking inspiration I just take a stroll through the collages ;-)

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