Go outside, find something – bring it back indoors, put it on your desk, write about it. I’ve done writing classes like this. Responses to this task rupture out of each other – each one, bringing two more, which in turn set off their own excruciating reactions. Worse, is the fact that piled on top is the feeling I’m terribly boring. Or, a nervousness breaks out, convincing me I’m not going to find anything to write about, and in my delusion I’ve no chance of even remembering how to go about the simple act of looking. Besides, what am I supposed to find?
I’m not much of a question asker in these situations, which tends to make me notice people that are.
How long have we got?
How much do you want us to write?
Can it be made up?
I was recently talking to George Saunders about the creative process and as he spoke I realised that whatever our reaction to writing, and more specifically to the beginning of an idea, the best way to continue is on the page.
I’ve just been given this completely dumb writing exercise that I don’t feel like doing because frankly I don’t know how long we are supposed to write, and whether we’re supposed to use our imagination or record accurately from life…
Often there is a final response of: just write! by the tutor when the questions refuse to abate. Hands thrown in the air: just write, it doesn’t matter.
And really, aren’t these questions – or endless internal thoughts that I’m not going to find something, and even if I do I won’t be able to write about it – just our dance of avoidance?
‘What kind of obstacles does one find oneself making, what is one’s vocabulary of impediments?’ Adam Phillips asks in ‘Worrying and its Discontents’.
According to Phillips, the obstacle is used to conceal unconscious desire.
If I say: no one’s going to be interested in what I have to say, aren’t I desiring – more than anything – for someone to be? And isn’t the pain of that desire – or that desire unmet – then transferred to the belief that it might be true, so that it does become true because of the supposed authenticity of my feelings? But what if this was the ache of not writing, rather than the ache of not being good enough to write?
What would you write if you could?
How easy do you to find it to answer that question? Do you have a very articulated answer – like a groove well worn – as to why just at this moment you can’t say.
Ah, well, it’s not that simple…
But it is simple if you allow yourself to write – and allowing it doesn’t mean having an articulated response, it’s beginning with: one thing I can’t quite get my head around is that I have this excruciating desire to write and yet no idea what to write about.
Surely, in writing this one line, you have at least begun?
I’m always better when I’ve got something on the page. A lot of the time I use a dictaphone – that way I don’t even have to look at what I’m thinking. Seeing sentences can often begin a whole new stage of self-criticism: once I get past the barrier in my mind, and allow the words out, there is the barrier of the page – the almost instantaneous ‘this is crap’ – at which point I get up and go and do something else, like dance, read a short story, or find someone to whinge to: choosing a topic that has absolutely nothing to do with writing, and everything to do with everyone but myself.
On the page, there is also the discomfort of facing my idea, and the possible subsequent feeling that I haven’t quite ‘got it’. So I spend ages on that first line, thinking if I can just get this right, everything else will flow. But how can you get it right, if you don’t allow yourself to explore it?
Of course there is a place for editing and George Saunders explained his system in that he starts with: Bob was sitting down on the blue couch. He might look at it with the sense that something isn’t right. This is the crucial moment for any writer. Rather than start up Phillip’s ‘vocabulary of impediments’ – this is such boring writing! – you could employ Saunders’ Buddhist art of observation without judgement. For example – do you need sitting and down? In fact, do you need either because was on the blue couch says enough. And while we’re at it – does the couch need to be blue? And really, is there even a couch?
By managing to hang on to this idea for all this time you suddenly find that it’s just you and Bob – no unnecessary language or objects. All you see is Bob. You realise the language and the couch were obstacles – to cover up the fact you were scared Bob would have nothing to say for himself: he needed to be sitting in an overly complex way in order to be interesting. Now the room is empty, Bob begins to open out, becoming appealing in his multitudinous options. With nothing to impede him, Bob is infinite.
I was out in the forest, scrambling across the scrub, jumping up on fallen trunks to photo a passage between the trees, waiting for clouds to shift to try and catch a paw print of light that had caught my attention. I noticed wooden bird houses with painted numbers, a red bug on a tree stump. The air carried warmed pine and the buttery pollen of rape. It had a thick quality to it so that I felt it catch on the hairs in my nose.
Alone like this, I expand. The world becomes mine. I am buttressed by my senses – safe. Thoughts come from a central place – not looking down, judging. Ideas radiate outwards, and I follow – like I might watch a bee, until the backdrop of burning yellow fields down the valley takes my fancy, until…
I become aware of a man ahead of me on the path. He has on hiking boots, a backpack. He is using those poles, taking great strides. I can hear the swish of his waterproof trousers – its efficient, purposeful rhythm. I feel a bit of an amateur – hopping about in corduroys with an Ipad. I want to hide it – imagining his disapproval of such business in the vast outdoors. And then I realise I’m drifting through the endlessness of someone else’s mind. I throw out an anchor, reminding myself of the impossibility of ever knowing a complete stranger’s opinion.
I feel jittery as I walk past him, but keep steadying myself, consoling myself with the peace that no matter what I’m feeling right now, at least I know what that is, which is the best starting point for anything, surely?
It struck me that this experience was a little like the process of ideas and obstacles: the mind’s course from unselfconscious roaming through to the moment that it doubles back on itself, stops looking at the world around, and focuses on every fleck within, which under such scrutiny is of course going to feel uncomfortable. Ah ha! I feel uncomfortable – there must be something wrong with this idea.
The discomfort becomes not only the obstacle, but also the justification: if I was interesting I wouldn’t be nervous about writing.
Perhaps I set off outside to find my object and tell myself – whatever I am feeling, thank god I am having a response: I am alive, my brain is working.
I am with myself – no need to compare – to worry about other people who might do this exercise a lot better. I am buttressed by my mind – by the fact that it is private until the moment I decide to make it otherwise.
Any doubt I may feel as I search for my object, is like the sudden appearance of the experienced hiker to my haphazard stroll. In wanting to write, I am suddenly aware of all that is written – all the prose that had seduced me. My ideas seem ill-equipped, soppy.
But where am I now? I am not alongside my thoughts, my observation a kindly chaperone. I have sprung up to some far hillside, from which I look at myself, disappointed to be so far down below. Embarrassed by an inexplicable urge to pick up a stick and write about it, I abandon myself.
If I could just moor alongside my idea, explore it, then it might stand a chance. Inside our heads, our thoughts are vulnerable to our frame of mind, to our becoming someone else’s frame of mind, but on the page they can gain an independence of sorts. They can be free of delusion.
The stick comes back with me. On my desk it becomes a branch, broken from above.
I see the storm the night before. First the leaves taken by the wind, shaking, until the rhythm builds and the whole bough is going. The tree holds, but the storm thuds, pounding, pounding until a branch gives and falls, snapping on the ground. A raw underarm of wood is left, vulnerable – so that a reluctant relinquishing becomes my words, which if kept within a closed mind would simply have composted down like that stick, to be dug up centuries later, no longer recognisable as wood.
A huge thank you to Karen for nominating me for the Inner Peace Award. You can reach Karen here and find out exciting things like the fact that she once lusted after a career in embalming.
This week I have been reading the gorgeous Miranda France. Don Quixote’s Delusions is a stunning piece of non-fiction. Miranda has a knack of tracing a point from here to there, packing it full of detail, keeping the whole thing effortless and then shrugging it all off when you ask her how she does it.
Equally breathless is the madcap Horatio Clare whose memoir Truant is a perfect example of his gift for observation. A storyteller in the flesh as well as on the page – the perfect antidote to a listless afternoon.