Until recently, whatever writing works I’ve had in progress were allowed to swim around my mind as they pleased. From poetry to commentary to short stories and – the biggie – the possible first novel, I’m usually working on between 5 and 12 pieces at any one time. Some months I finish several pieces and get to submitting – a great feeling. Other months it’s just a case of nurturing, editing and thinking. Every month though? Ideas and inspiration everywhere. Up character details crop in the fridge when I’m making a shopping list. Over scenes go with my gaze when I’m staring at hills and listening to a podcast. Down it’ll all go on a page when there’s opportunity. And when there wasn’t opportunity? Those ideas and inspirations kind of bottlenecked in a holding pen that became increasingly cramped. Whenever I could, I’d lift out my clearest thoughts and liberate them in emails to myself so my inbox could be a holding pen too, perhaps a safer one in terms of things not getting lost. Then it became impossible to deny that my inbox was becoming a mind boggling place to rock up in, too. Ideas and inspiration everywhere are great but were they becoming too abundant?
All in all, the confusion of real world and fictitious worlds was becoming at best distracting and at worst, confusingly destructive.
At around the same time I noticed the failing holding pens, I finished a 5 month series of workshops for writers with big works in progress at Edinburgh University. Lead by writing tuition supremo Helen Lamb, myself and another eleven students attempted to further nurture stories into the world. Feedback was the order of the day. A lot of the feedback that changed my work came from listening to other writers consider and adapt their work. It was an incredibly valuable process but my lack of mental organisation lead to something of a creative meltdown when the workshops ended; the feedback pushed more ideas into the holding pens with the consequence of my brain starting to forget everything I needed to remember to run my real world, i.e., the shopping list, kids’ schedules, getting to the dentist, etc.
Then, much worse than the forgetting of fairy liquid or fillings, my writing started to suffer. I’d sit down to type and find the conduit thoughts normally came through blocked. Coffee and music coaxed a few paragraphs onto the page here and there but cognitive disorder made it hard to tell if they were any good or not. Cue much deleting, restarting and a whole load of Word documents being saved with bizarre titles and not a lot of content. More holding pens, damnit. More doing of a thing that was clear in its intent to not yield good results. An invite to insanity, some say.
This was a terrifying situation to have arrived at after going through the long process of establishing a consistent writing habit over the last two years. The part of my brain that likes to catastrophise was whispering this was the beginning of the end. ‘See? You can’t handle it when the pace picks up’, it said, showing itself to be a callous little bastard with no vision, once again.
The part of my brain that believes everything’s possible kicked in about a fortnight later, thank fuck. ‘You can do this’, it said, and, ‘you just have no idea how, yet’. I had a little weep fuelled by relief and terror, picked myself up and asked for wisdom from more experienced writer friends about how they’d schooled their thoughts on world-building into forward moving productivity.
How had they dealt with creating worlds within a world?
With regards the novel there was a strong consensus in the advice: partition time for writing and world creation and stick to a plan as much as possible. For short stories, the feel was to let them happen as you work and worry less about what comes and goes – they always work out in the end (or hit the bin with rare regret) – this tallies with my experience too, hurrah. The rest of the time? Be in the real world. Stop taking the imagined world everywhere – keep it the fuck out of the fridge, especially; give yourself some headspace that isn’t a holding pen for anything, otherwise you’ll drown in your spiralling imagination and hold off new ideas from entering. The truths of creativity are riddled with paradoxes, I find.
I initially thought methods around disciplined partitioning were unrealistic for my messy, non-linear brain and kicked against them a bit. I’m a difficult mum, wife and friend, at those times of frowny adult-tantrumming. Pity those who encounter me when I’m not in flow. But, like any muscle used repeatedly, I’ve found the energy within getting stronger for a more disciplined course, with practice. I’ve stopped the hotch-potch method I was engaged in before of skipping from one part of the novel to another, sending ripples of change in every which direction that were hard to keep track of. Now, instead, I’m making extensive notes in a planning spreadsheet to stop impulse from wreaking havoc. I ultimately still don’t know if it’ll end in a book but, by fuck, I’m keeping on with the keeping on and definitely learning in the process.
So far, touch wood, the new method’s working. When I sit down to write the novel now there’s a new energy – the story’s evolving according to a plan and still offers room for spontaneity of the unreckless variety. In the name of Clearing40 clarity and minimalist joy, I’ve taken things a step further, too. For at least a while I’ve called a stop to feedback and discussing the novel in detail while it and my process are shape-shifting. This might sound counter-intuitive but the meltdown’s reminded me how easily influenced I am and that this plasticity is simultaneously a good and bad thing. Yet, with 5 months of feedback from twelve folk in the bag for that particular piece of work, I feel confident in thinking I’ve more than enough to chew on already.
There comes a point when, like with all things involving change, from haircuts to house moves to what to make for tea, I think we have to draw a line and own the process; sit with all the contributions, stop subconsciously taking suggestions and move forward making the thing into our own thing. Then…? Hello, cathartic relief and onward journey. Mistakes will be made, sure, but I find them more constructive in motion than stasis.