Analysing the creative process ~ part one

I’ve been trying to frame my ideas for this and it has simply been like trying to herd cats!

First I must say that this is purely personal and I can only really speak about what I do most and that is to write. I suspect something similar may go on with art and music and other modalities but since these are not my areas of expertise( if that sounds pompous, sorry!) I can’t comment there.

When I write I often get a feeling that I am not creating anything but that I am re-creating something or discovering something that already exists, rather like an archaeologist happening upon a lost temple that has been forgotten about for centuries. The temple has always been there but people have forgotten it and the lianas have grown up and the jungle has expanded and covered it, and eventually even legends concerning it become vague.

Now I know this sounds rather strange and in some ways completely at odds with the idea of the writer as story-smith and creator of the tales they tell. But I feel I am retelling tales that have been lost. Terry Pratchett wrote quite extensively in Witches Abroad about the concept of Story as a symbiotic or even parasitic life form and while I wouldn’t go so far, it often feels very much as though the stories that I find in my head are alive and evolving.

Quite where the stories actually exist I do not know. I’ve been desperately trying to get my head round ideas to do with Space/time and so on but it simply won’t come right at the moment. But maybe since as Eliot said, in The Four Quartets, all time is eternally present, the stories I write exist in my head because they already exist in the future and the past simultaneously. I might not be making sense here but the echoes of what I hear are not very clear yet and I am trying to translate them into concepts I really do not have the vocabulary for.

I have heard of David existing inside the block of stone and Michaelangelo chiselling away all that wasn’t David; it’s a similar process of identifying which scene is from what story and which lines belong where. Like a combination of excavation and reconstruction, I sift through the images and story-lines and characters and try and use my rather inadequate brain to decide what goes where and I am often left with numerous bits and pieces that fit nowhere that I file away for future use, much like the way comedians collect humour and jokes for the right set.

I’d very much welcome discussion and comment on this issue as it perplexes and baffles me. I’d like to take credit for creation but in some ways I never can; only for allowing the book or poem to “come through” the layers of sand and the detritus of maybe centuries or millennia and cleaning it up.

When Iguanodon was first reassembled by early palaeontologists, they made a right dog’s dinner of him and put his thumb claws on the end of his nose and had his whole structure wrong. Maybe sometimes I do the same with stories and poems but only experience and intuition can tell this, and I suspect that much of what I uncover and reassemble is as accurate as can be hoped for. 

(Ed: I found this article in my archives; I think I wrote it for Cafe Creme, the multi-authored blog I started with three years ago. It’s dated 2009. I’m feeling very flat and lifeless creatively, so hopefully this set of ideas from when I was a bit more lively may be of some use)

How to write

I was pretty tempted to echo that old thing about, “You know how to whistle, dont you? You just pucker up and….”  but I thought better of it. The subject is a lot more complicated than that.

I’ve read and heard an awful lot about writing and especially how to write and I figured it was time to add my pennyworth. Anything said here is purely my opinion and I offer no facts and figures and statistics. It also needs to be said that I have as much right(or as little) as anyone to offer my opinion on this subject.

I’ve heard a lot about shoulds and gifts and discipline and planning and intuition and inspiration. I’ve heard that if you consider yourself a writer you should write every day even if you don’t want to. I’ve heard that you should plan every detail of your plot before you ever pen the opening lines. I’ve heard that you must honour your gift. I’ve heard of people who determine how many words they produce every day and those who write as much or as little as they feel is right. You can compare and contrast Anthony Trollope who wrote exactly a thousand words every day before his work as a postmaster began with William Golding, whose masterpiece Lord of the Flies was written in a frenzy of creativity in a space of about three days.



Got it?

There are as many ways and methods of writing as there are writers. We are each unique. In the course of a writing lifetime, you may try out many ways and be trying new methods till the day you die, or you may try a few, settle on what feels best and stick with it. I’ve tried a lot of things over my long writing career so far and I know that what works best for me can and will change. I generally write fiction in the third person but I have written one novel and a number of short stories in the first.  I do write almost every day, but there are days when all I write are a few emails, and maybe a shopping list. I know that if I make a rule for myself (a thousand words a day, two poems before breakfast..) I will almost immediately sabotage myself and find it impossible to do. It’s the same reason why the only exercise routines that have ever worked for me require me to not make it a matter of rule and why having a dog is the only reason I get fresh air almost every day in winter….

We are complex beings and when it comes to writing, there are no rules. Oh, and if you worry about grammar and spelling, don’t. Your grammar is probably better by far that you imagine; just because you can’t name tenses or tell me what a parenthesis is doesn’t mean you don’t have grammar. You grew up learning grammar as naturally as breathing. If your spelling is rubbish, invest in a good spellchecker or get a friend to look it over. Grammar and spelling are the bricks and mortar of writing and not, to be honest, terribly interesting in themselves or even very useful in writing well. If it really worries you, do a course in English language or buy a few books on grammar so you can check your grammar if you have uncertainties.

To write well is a nebulous thing that is almost impossible to quantify but good writing is often unobtrusive writing. You notice the story and not the elegance of the sentence construction or the choice of adjectives. Like the cut of a good suit, it should draw attention to the body inside it and not the outward appearance that clothes it.

I’m not a fan of experimental writing, because it does seem to be drawing attention to itself and not what it is trying to express. It can be terribly clever but it’s not something I want to read because I read generally for the story. Story is the animal that drives fiction. In simple terms, to write fiction you have to have something to say, and that something is a story. Even if your purpose is ideological (Animal Farm anyone?) the story is the meat of the thing. If you have nothing to say, then say nothing, or wait until you have something to say.

I’m also not a fan of creative writing courses. This is partly an irrational dislike that is linked to my resistance to rules but it’s more than that. I do wonder how many naturally talented people have had their talent warped or crushed by such courses. I’ve heard a few accounts of courses that made me shudder, ones led by people with huge egos and a massive need to put others down. Such people want to make people write like them or the favourite writer of the moment; the students are asked to write in the style of X, Y or Z and are marked on that. For me, a course needs to help people find their own style, by trial and error and not by mimicking others. Of course, one does this to some extent, especially as a teenager, but ultimately every writer needs to find their own voice. So many of the courses seem to do just the opposite. In addition to this, I don’t believe you can teach anyone to write who lacks the basic talents. There are plenty of people who like the thought of being a writer but have no heartfelt understanding of what this actually means;  for those, it means maybe playing with words in an entertaining way.  

Write your way, whatever that is. If that means blank verse only or haikus, or short stories or whatever, fine. If you write best at night, don’t listen to anyone who tells you that the best writing is done in the morning when the day is fresh. If it helps you to have a daily goal of so many words, great, stick with it. If you can only write on a Sunday, then write on a Sunday. If you can’t plan but you can splurge and write ten thousand words at a go and then work out where you go from there, then do that. If you can only begin when you’ve got every freckle and line on your heroine’s face mapped out in triplicate, then go for it.

You are you and I am I. What works for me may not work for you and vice versa. By all means try other things; it’s good for you to experiment and explore but above all, be true to yourself and listen to your own inner voice. If that voice tells you that you can write a novel when you’ve only ever written short stories, listen to it.

Be the writer you want to be and not what other people tell you you should be. Just as your DNA is unique, so too is your writing voice.