Thursday Pick & Mix (#1)
Why do writers write?
The answer, of course, is as varied and diverse as the writing community itself. Many writers say that they don't actually enjoy writing, but only - as Dorothy Parker famously admitted - having written.
However, I'm willing to bet that somewhere eons ago in the mists of yesterday most people first put pen to notebook, fingertip to typewriter key, or crayon to bedroom wall, because they did find pleasure in some aspect of the writing process. Something about writing attracted them. Drew them in. Hooked them. Perhaps it was telling themselves a story, imagining and building a world. Playing with the sounds or look or rhythms of words. Creating and developing characters. Describing things in lush and sensory detail (a personal favourite). Or maybe just the meditative repetitive motion of typing or moving the freshly sharpened pencil across a page.
What most writers also have in common is that, the more time and effort we invest in becoming better at our craft, the more we look for external markers of success such as academic qualifications, publication, sales or commissions. And the more we care about what other people think of our work (necessarily!) the further we distance ourselves from that first pure spark of joy that motivated us to give the reins over to our imagination and start making things up in the first place.
Early in 2021 I found myself in what my mother would refer to, delicately, as 'a state'. In the middle of doing some yoga (an attempt to destress) I broke down, and literally ended up curled in a ball on the floor, weeping like a child. Why? Because I didn't want to write. You might feel this was an over-reaction, but I'm not talking about an ordinary day of laziness, reluctance to grind through a tedious but necessary bit of exposition or tackle a stubborn plot hole, or resist my favourite author's new book waiting tantalizingly on my ereader. I mean that every time I tried sit down and work, I was miserable. I hated it. I couldn't push through it.
Oh, I could force myself to produce a few paragraphs here and there, a couple of new pages a week. But not only were they the kind of rotten, empty words that served no purpose in moving my work forward (and I couldn't even tell myself that they could be edited and fixed later because they were all-too-obviously pointless) but making myself do it made my misery worse. It got to the point where just the sight of one of my notebooks or the familiar Word logo - even going into my study to dust and vaccuum - was enough to fill me with a visceral kind of revulsion and anxiety. I didn't want to write, and quite frankly it felt as if I would never want to write. A single word, ever again.
Since my childhood, making up stories and then figuring out the best way to tell them had been my whole identity. Through sixteen hard-scrabble years as a professional writer and occasional writing teacher, through chronic illness and personal strife, through financial stress and even the death of my beloved father, disappearing into words was my refuge. My safe place. During that dark January, for the first time in my life, my refuge had locked its doors against me. Safety was gone. In the void left behind, fear and insecurity expanded like an airbag until I barely felt that I could breathe. And of course, writing was my coping stategy for fear and insecurity. What was I supposed to do when writing itself suddenly caused me fear and insecurity? Apart from locking myself into the dark, cobweb draped cupboard under the stairs and laughing like the echo of someone's murdered hopes until I died and could then impart my misery to the next ten generations of people who dared move into my house after me... no ideas presented.
Kind and well-meaning friends advised me that I was probably just burned out. I needed a break. I should take up some other hobby, find comfort and refuge some other way. And I did try. I didn't really have a choice. I bought modelling clay and other art supplies, I gave myself permission to catch up on all those Netflix shows in my list, I read popcorn books and re-read old favourites. I increased my yoga to every single day and took up HIIT training too, and got ambitious with my cooking. The end result? When I ran out of displacement activities I was still miserable, afraid and insecure, and now none of my shirts would fit over my new biceps. Dammit.
Rather than force on you a detailed account of the fevered and desperate contortions that came next, I'll skip to the Big Realisation: of course, the problem was that I had lost my joy.
Which is to say that I had lost touch with my ability to find pleasure in writing itself, the writing process, the meditative movement of pencil across page - rather than having written. Being a professional writer for so long, then writing for my MA, and finally writing approximately one thousand slightly different thesis proposals for different University English departments (Thesis Prop Draft, Thesis Prop Draft 2-8, Final Thesis Prop, Final Thesis Prop 1, The Final Thesis Prop, New Thesis Prop, New Thesis Prop 1) had brought me to a place where my brain was engraved with the knowledge that no matter what was happening in my life, no matter what I was going through physically or emotionally or how I felt about the words I was producing, I had to write. And write and write. And write some more. Not because it brought me any pleasure whatsoever: because it was my job. What did joy have to do with it? Drop and give me 2000 words young lady and they had better be formatted to industry standard and employ the semicolon correctly!
The cure for this - the cure that brought me back to joy - was to disconnect writing from results once more. To travel back through those mists of yesterday to that small child I once was, hiding in the tiny cubbyhole formed by the bunkbeds in my childhood room and scribbling on scraps of paper until the pen ran out or I figured out how to end this epic tale of a pig and a rabbit and their tea party, and every single delicious thing that they ate at their tea party, whichever came first. To write without caring what form it took, what purpose it served, if it was any good in anyone else's eyes, or even if I finished it. Just because it was fun.
For me, this took (and still takes) the form of an absolute boatload of extremely weird experimental freeverse, some killer openings to novels or short stories (who knows?) in various random or perhaps even nonexistent genres that I am not remotely bothered about ever creating an actual plot for or attempting to finish, and some self-reflective journal work that has actually, genuinely helped me experience some flashes of what I think they might call... 'peace'?
And so I bring to you, my new blog readers, a feature I am going to call Thursday Pick & Mix because (as I believe we have conclusively established) I can occasionally display the same mental age as the little girl who created that undiscovered masterpiece 'Pig & Rabbit's Tea Party'. And that isn't a bad thing.
This is a creativity kickstart, and by design it's really simple. I will give you three prompts for writing - though they can of course be used as inspiration for any creative work. One will be an image from my Pinterest board, one a link to a piece of music, and one a word, or line of poetry or prose. You may chose one of these, two of these, or combine all of these together - go wild. Who am I to tell you what to do?
Well, except to say that having accepted the Thursday Pick & Mix challenge, the idea is to take whatever little spark of joy sprang to life for you from looking at these random prompts and write (or sculpt or make nail-art or perform interpretive dance) for no more than ten, count them TEN minutes without stopping, self-editing or or second-guessing.
If you write long-hand, maybe have a loose piece of paper to draw down the page after you finish each line. If you type, you could set your font to match the page colour, making it invisible. But don't look. Writing is what you're doing, not reading, definitely not editing. And then, having written madly and joyfully for those ten minutes... walk away.
This part will be the hardest. Of course you're going to want to see what you've written, to see if it's really as good, bad, weird or intriguing as you thought. To see if it should be rewritten, improved, continued. But that is exactly the opposite of the point of the exercise. The point is just to enjoy the doing of it.
So walk away. Leave it for an hour or a couple of hours or a day or a couple of days. Whenever the burning need to look at it - to evaluate it for worth - is so far gone that you remember the unread work with a little start of surprise and pleasure, then you can go back and laugh or grimace or even say 'Hey, I could make that into a decent poem...' And if you decide, after an hour or a day, that you don't need to look at it at all, that's also fine.
This is the way that I, day by day, re-discovered the spark of joy that initially hooked me on writing. Playing with words, imagery and description, trying to encompass huge or tiny ideas on the page just for myself in that moment without any thought of past or future. So if you, too, feel that you may have lost track of joy in your writing practise? I invite you to take part in Thursday Pix and Mix. And if you'd like to talk about your experiences with this - how your ten minutes went, what you struggled with during it, if you gave in and peeked or how it felt not to peek - in the comments, I promise to read and respond non-judgementally to anything you might say.
Now, without further ado... this week's Pix and Mix.
"The wind rolled over the deck with a low, wavering moan, bringing salt spray to sting my face..."
Get writing. I wish you joy.