In Draft Mode

It would be fair to say that I live a lot in my head. An active imagination will do that for you. But what I’m thinking about specifically is how I do quite a lot of my writing in my mind, editing and rephrasing and tweaking, before it gets the chance to come to life on the page. This might not be unusual, but I wanted to tease the idea out a bit.

I have become more aware of my perpetual drafting as I think about topics to blog about. There are some weeks when it is easy to tap in to a recent experience or something I’ve been researching and create a post around the contents. There are other times when it feels as though a deadline is approaching and my mind is a crisp unsullied page and I wonder what I will pull out of my ear this time. Because that’s the thing – my mind will always come up with something. I have written before about ‘don’t ask, don’t get‘ and I rely on my subconscious mind to keep toiling away whilst I’m doing other things so there are at least a couple of ideas that I can work with.

This is where the drafting process comes in. Once there is a kernel of an idea, regardless of how remote or absurd, my mind will start to play, to tease out threads of thought. Through word association or a mental mind map, the kernel starts to expand and grow, and through drafting I start to sense the shape of what is possible. Sometimes I need to get pen and paper out, or tap out some words in a document, to get things moving, but by this time there is at least a trickle of thought that can be tapped.

Letters are another format where I do a lot of mental drafting before I begin. I have mentioned the joy of writing and receiving letters before, and I will usually take a bit of time to think about the essence of what I want to communicate before putting it on paper.

This perpetual drafting, of playing with words, thoughts, ideas, concepts, helps in the expression of what I want to communicate as well as ensuring that my mind is always at work.

Do you give much thought to what your mind gets up to?

[Photo of Strahan Harbour, Tasmania]

A Friend for All Seasons

Recently I was able to catch up with one of my oldest friends, LJ. We met in primary school playing handball, or KP as it was known in our school. Throughout the decades we have remained in touch although our lives have taken various tangents and we now live in different states.

One of our ways of keeping in contact has been through correspondence. This ranges from postcards to lengthy letters, often on exquisite stationery and sent with a stack of photos to keep each other up to date with what matters most. If you have ever received a stylish envelope holding several folded pages of news, observations and updates, you will know the joy that it brings.

LJ has surprised me several times with carefully chosen books. When I moved to the mountains she gave me a copy of In The Service of Clouds by Delia Falconer, the perfect introduction to living under dynamic, cloud-studded skies. In a nod to our continuing correspondence, she also sent me Women of Letters, a wide-ranging collection of heartfelt letters filled with humour and honesty.

Our long friendship means that we know habits and mannerisms, not only of each other, but of families and friends. We can commiserate and share stories of work place triumphs and challenges, along with the wisdom that comes with getting a little older. It also means that the back story is already there; we can communicate in shorthand, regardless of how long it is between catch ups. When we do connect there is a crossfire of ideas and stories, as well as sharing lists of books, music, podcasts and movies that each other might enjoy.

There are many attributes that I admire in LJ, including intelligence, compassion, humour and integrity. She has a keen sense of the absurd and doesn’t take everything too seriously. She has been there for me whenever I have needed her, as well as when I have been unable to see that I needed a friend. I know how lucky I am to have someone like her in my life.

Do you have a friend for all seasons?

[Photo: old tile spotted in a pub at Strathfield]

 

 

 

Creativity On Hold

Lately I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like to, and it’s been bothering me. There have been external factors which have pushed their way into the time I usually have to daydream and scribble and think up new stories or ideas. There are times when I need to be a responsible adult, which is fine, but there is a feeling of restlessness and irritation at this incursion. As if I’m existing rather than living.

So what to do? I’m sure that normal transmission will resume sometime soon, but there will be other times where what makes me feel most alive – the daydreaming, creative side of me – will be jostled aside. I don’t want to feel like I’m going through the motions so I need to have a strategy for when this creative time is only available in small sips, rather than big gulps.

Here are some thoughts I’ve had on how to make the most of the available time.

Snatch Time. The little bursts of minutes when you’re waiting for someone or something, leave the mobile alone for a moment and look around. Take in what is going on, or spot something that you wouldn’t normally see and look, really look. There might be the trigger for a character or short story idea, or you might overhear the perfect phrasing for some dialogue.

Be Spontaneous. More challenging for a methodical mind such as mine. One of my highlights in the past week involved just stopping my usual point A to point B routine to take a photo for the #MyISpy game that I have been writing blog posts about. It was less than a handful of minutes in my day but there was the exhilaration of doing something out of the ordinary, and it still makes me smile days later.

Turn Up. I’ve been tired and grumpy and yawny and generally not in the mood to do anything creative at my usual time. But I know that if I get up and write the morning pages I can shoehorn at least a bit of creativity into my day, even if it is a jumble of thoughts that I can unwind at a later date when I have a bit more time.

Accept Limitations. Things happen. Great plans become unstuck. Guilting myself won’t help but understanding that I have to focus my attention elsewhere for a while makes it easier to endure, and I know that if I jot down bits and pieces when I can, there will be something that I can work with when my time is more my own.

What do you do when life gets in the way of your creative output?

[Photo: old postal and telephone switchboard equipment at the Wyalong Museum]

 

 

We fall into old habits*

I like routines. I find comfort in habits and having things in their place. By creating structure I find I have more freedom and mindspace to think about other things.

Routines do need a bit of room for give and take as things inevitably happen. I’ve written before about morning pages, which are an enduring legacy for me from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Since January 2014 I have been writing three pages daily in A5 journals, emptying out my head, ranting when I need to, testing out ideas, plot points and thinking through work related challenges. I was surprised that I kept to it, even though I have kept a journal intermittently for years. There is now a growing collection of these journals, swollen with the ink of many pens, marching their way along the desk in my study.

The routine of writing these three pages, preferably in the morning, has saved my sanity at times. There are other days when sleep is too tempting, or I have an early start, or there is some other hurdle to sitting down and getting the words out. But if I do miss this morning session, I tend to feel less ready to deal with the day ahead. There are some days when, before sitting down, I can’t think of a single thing that would be worth writing. And yet, with the weight of a pen in my fingers, the flow begins. If I miss the morning, I usually write when I get home, knowing that I’ll feel better for spending 20 minutes doing it, and vowing that I’ll get up earlier to honour this time tomorrow.

I know that keeping this routine matters to me when I miss breakfast or coffee to get the words out before I face the work day. If I do a self-scan at some point in the day, I will recognise a restlessness if I’ve missed a part of my morning routine including daily pages, meditation or walking my dog. These activities provide structure, but all of them also give me time to think, to dawdle a bit if I need to, to look up and see something other than the challenges of work or chores or the endless to-do list that keeps spitting out tasks like a dot matrix printer in my mind.

Sometimes routine is turning up at the desk even though the well feels a little dry. Pick up a pen or poise fingers over the keyboard and see what comes out. It might be slow and sluggish at first, but by creating the framework for creativity the chance of having something to show for the admission price of turning up is greatly enhanced.

How important is a routine in your creative life?

* The opening line from ‘Laugh in their Faces‘ by The Whitlams.

[Photo: winter landscape near Cooerwull in Lithgow]

Don’t ask, don’t get.

Something that never ceases to amaze me is the power and capability of the mind. Whilst I’m quietly confident that I seriously under utilise my mind’s capacity, there is comfort in knowing that I can call upon it to help me out and that it will usually deliver. This is particularly true in relation to creativity.

A little while ago I was walking my dog late one night after a long day. I was really tired and although it was frosty outside, it seemed like every fascinating scent was out and my dog insisted on careful inspection of all that was on offer. We finally turned the corner for home and an idea popped into my head for a short story. It was incomplete but with enough shape and structure to get started. We made it home and I shrugged off my weariness to capture the words and images that were tumbling through my mind.

Recently I reviewed the rough draft, tweaking it and making some changes. The two main characters were really clear to me, but I hadn’t named them in my haste to get the story down. What to call them? I left my brain to work on that problem overnight and woke up  with a handful of possibilities. The characters now have names and that tricky ending that I was worried about has been replaced with something better.

There is another short story idea that I have simmering away in the back of my mind. The images are clear and I’ve jotted down some notes for when the time is right to start it, but again I was thinking about the name of the main character. There were a couple of secondary characters who were easy to identify, but I wanted the main character to have a surname that could be mispronounced by a child and end up as one of those abbreviations that becomes a nickname which ends up as the main form of address for someone. A name with a couple of levels of meaning or significance in the story. I was driving recently when there was a discussion on the local radio and one word literally rang a bell for me. It was the perfect fit.

Putting it out there may not always be entirely reliable or a quick solution, but if you have a bit of time and space to let your mind sort through the possibilities, or listen out for solutions, the results can be pleasantly surprising. Don’t ask, don’t get.

How do you find solutions for your creative challenges?

[Photo: part of a phrenology head spotted at a local market]

Why write?

There are as many reasons to ask this question as there are ways to answer it. For many, writing is a uniquely personal form of expression, offering a way of creating another world or trying to make sense of the world in which they live. It can be a compulsion, or something that feels as though it is dragged, kicking and screaming, into existence. Writing means different things to different people, and its meaning can change over time.

I was thinking about this recently following an invitation to participate in a creative project which was a bit outside of my normal scope. As evidenced on this blog and in my stories and journal entries and letters and the like, I love words. I like to play with them, test out their mettle, carefully select the ones which suit my current purpose and help me to express the sometimes apparently inexplicable. I don’t always know where I’m going when I start to create something, and quite often I finish in a location that is unexpected, but for me that is part of the joy of creation.

The creative endeavour is the Deep Red Scarlet Pen project. This project is orchestrated by the artistically talented Emma Kay Inks, and it began with an accidental over-ordering of scarlet red pens for drawing. What to do with them? Offer to send them out to interested people to participate in creating something with pen and paper. This came to my attention through a mutual writing friend and I thought I’d give it a go. It seemed like a good theory until the package arrived by post and I had to give serious consideration to what I could do with it. Drawing would be an option for some, but my artistic endeavors with pens and pencils are crude at best. Then it occurred to me. What would I normally do with such a brilliant pen? Write, of course. This is what I came up with, captured in a spiral with a scarlet red pen.

Why write? To find out what I really think. To make stuff up. To create new worlds, give life to characters who inhabit my head in places both real and imagined. To test out what it’s like to be what I know I’m not. To create new stories. To entertain. To encourage. To record in some small way the awe and wonder of life as I experience it. To quest, to search for a deeper layer of meaning. To be playful. To show a different way of seeing and being. To be heard. To surprise. To make myself laugh. To take another viewpoint. To exact revenge in a literary style. To capture snapshot moments and snatches of eavesdropped conversations. To create empathy for people and situations. To make sense of it all. To be. 

Why do you write?

[Photo: a foggy road through the Hartley valley]

The Archies are @ Katoomba

It is fantastic how some of the exhibitions in our national and state art galleries are encouraged to roam around the countryside. Of course it is far more strategic than that with months, if not years, of planning required to share some of the amazing work and collections with people in regional areas. These touring exhibitions bring amazing talent to people who may otherwise not have the chance to see them or to experience the transformative moments that come with experiencing something different.

I was delighted when I found out that the Archibald Prize 2015 exhibition was making its final regional tour stop at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre. I had seen the national portrait prize a few times when I lived in Sydney, and had been an ambassador at the Western Plains Cultural Centre in Dubbo when the 2009 exhibition of the award finalists came to visit. The winner that year was Guy Maestri’s portrait of Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu which was incredible. Other highlights included Brandon by Vincent Fantauzzo and Jan Williamson’s portrait of Nancy Kunoth Petyarr. As an ambassador, it was an experience not only to be able to walk around the exhibition to assist as required, but to hear people’s impressions of the artwork as they experienced it first hand.

At the opening on Friday night, Jacquie Riddell from the Art Gallery of NSW gave an interesting overview of the history of the Archibald Prize. She also spoke of how this year’s prize was about to open, and that the gallery was expecting about 1000 entries. The paintings arrive upon a variety of transport methods, from cars, vans and bikes to mules. Well, okay, perhaps not mules. But the competition is intense, the quality of work and array of portraiture methods extensive. And the gallery smells different during this time – all the fresh artwork gathering together, pending the judgement of the board.

The work of the finalists is a staggering scope of artistic talent and method. I do not pretend to know anything about art – I like to look but have no dialect for methods and styles. All I can note is my reaction to the work which is typical of how subjective art is for everyone. The luminosity of the portrait of Michael Caton by Bruno Jean Grasswill stayed with me, and even when I moved away from the painting I had to look back and see it again. The creativity behind Paul Ryan’s portraits of Noah Taylor (Thirteen Noahs), employing a collection of paintings and pictures and even table tennis paddles gathered at op shops and the like as the background to the work really appealed. The winning portrait Judo house pt 6 (the white bird) of Charles Waterstreet by Nigel Milsom was mesmerising – particularly the hands and face. One of my favourites was Paul Kelly as painted by Jason Benjamin. The artist’s notes included how he tried a couple of approaches before painting PK as a landscape. That is another aspect of getting out and seeing art up close – you can find out more, understand a little better what has influenced the artist in the act of creation.

The exhibition is on at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre until July 24 and is well worth the outing. Also check out The Exhibition, a sample of the gallery’s own collection which I’ll write about in a future post.

How often do you get to wander around an inspirational exhibition?

[Photo: Blue Mountains Cultural Centre from viewing platform – the Carrington Hotel forms the backdrop]

Taking Note

Lately I’ve been thinking about ways to keep track of the tendrils of thoughts and ideas that come to the surface when I’m trying to do something else. These snippets seem to arise alongside, despite of and as a consequence of what I am writing, reading and listening to at the time.

Not all of these are recorded and rightly so. They are tenuous at best when I look over them at a later date, and sometimes I wonder what I was thinking when the need to record the essence of whatever it was took hold. These days we are subject to an increasing tide of information and stimulation. It can sometimes feel like grabbing handfuls of sand whilst being tossed on a thundering incoming wave. Recording snippets helps me to feel a modicum of control, as well as providing prompts and ideas for future writing.

I wish I could write that I have perfected the art of keeping track of these moments, but that would be a fib. I scribble bits and pieces in an A5 lined notebook. The pages include motley collections of lists including things I want to do when I have time (optimist!), musicians that I’ve heard and want to explore further, the name of a subject matter expert that a friend mentioned, a word that I hadn’t come across before (senescence, if you must know) and other miscellany.

Other pages contain prose relating to a short story where I was working on an ending, and some paragraphs where I was playing with a character’s viewpoint. There are to-do items along with song titles or lyric lines that have captured my attention for future use as writing prompts or just because I like them. There are a myriad of apps that also help with capturing the flotsam and jetsam. I like to use Evernote because I can group thoughts and images and links into journals, but I’m sure there are lots of other options out there.

This consideration of the compulsion to take notes was inspired by an article written by Joan Didion called ‘On Keeping a Notebook’. I’m quite sure this was referred to by Annabel Crabb or Leigh Sales in one of the early Chat 10, Looks 3 podcasts. There is a link to the article here. I found it encouraging to read that someone else feels the need capture these moments, such as they are. Didion writes about the necessity to record things, the mix of truth and fiction, the snatches of conversation, the need to capture how something felt.

How do you keep track of the flotsam and jetsam in your life?

[Photo: View from Mt Tomah Botanical Gardens]

The solution is seldom where you look for it

When it comes to writing fiction, my natural inclination is the short story form. It is a self-contained slice which can cover the transformation of a person or situation, allowing for amazing depth within a confined word count. My starting point is often a writing prompt, a what if, a snatch of conversation or something that I’ve glimpsed.

Early on my journey of writing short stories, I read an interview with a short story writer who said that she took months to write a short story. This surprised me initially, but the more I thought about it, and the more I write, the closer to the truth it is for me. Sometimes I can dash off a first draft that feels deceptively complete. It is the euphoria that comes with writing, particularly whilst in the zone when words seem to appear on the page in a flurry of ink. But it is best to put it aside and come back to it in a day or two, or longer if needed. Some perspective is required to see if the piece really holds together as it should or whether some tweaking or major re-writing is required.

It is easy to become impatient and settle for what you have written, telling yourself it is the best you can do. But there is usually room for improvement and you need to give yourself, and the work, some time for this to happen. It is like giving your subconscious a special project to work on: clearly list what you need to revisit (a saggy middle, a lacklustre conclusion, a twist that isn’t quite right) and leave it to get on with it.

Meanwhile, get on with your life. Start another story or work on a longer project, go and do the grocery shopping or walk the dog. The brain continues to rifle through the options, and will come up with ideas and suggestions as you continue on living. Some of my best fixes have come whilst doing something completely unrelated to writing, such as hanging out laundry, being on a conference call at work or walking the dog. It is invigorating when the idea seeps through, you test it mentally for soundness and realise that it will work.

How do you solve problems in your writing?

[Photo of the railway viaducts near Lithgow, NSW]

Desk bound

I was inspired by a recent post about writing space to reflect on what works best for me. This changes, and due to work and family commitments I have developed the ability to write in most places. Tapping out notes and snatches of dialogue and prose on Evernote if I’m on the move works well, and I do try and keep a small notebook handy just in case I need to physically write instead. That may just be a personal quirk – like most people I type much faster than I write, but sometimes it works better if I slow it down. If I need to really think something through, nothing beats pen and paper for me.

Recently my sister pointed out that I carve out a study of sorts wherever I live. It seemed obvious when she drew attention to it, but I hadn’t recognised that it was something unusual. I have had beautiful old office desks, card tables, computer desks and dining room tables that have formed the basis of my evolving writing life. Whilst I can write nearly anywhere, I do like to keep the serious stuff and revision to home where the distractions are minimal and I can spread out.

My home has a small study off the living room, a space that can be closed off if required. I have bookshelves along one wall, a computer desk and filing cabinet on one side and an old office desk with a hutch below the window. This is where I do most of my writing and journal work. It sounds a bit bland as I write it, but this room is my favourite place. I have lots of different books on writing and an expansive dictionary and thesaurus collection, along with photos and trinkets from my travels. There are whiteboard stickers on the doors which I use for plotting and problem solving.

I am lucky, I know, to have this special spot in which to create and imagine and dream.

Where do you go to write?

With special thanks to the post by Dannie Travers for the idea.