To quote Hamilton – a musical I have listened to on loop to such an extent that my collie Gypsy now barks along in tune! – ‘every action’s an act of creation’. For me, particularly when it comes to novel writing, this is a reminder that we are not only creating when we consciously sit down with pen and paper (or Macbook and fingers, but that’s not quite as catchy, is it?) Instead, we are making choices and ‘creating’ our own worlds all day long. We can’t control everything, of course, but there are many small ways in which we can express what power we do have over our lives. Can that power be harnessed when it comes to writing? This week, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be creative about creativity.
One important aspect is considering not just what to write but how to write. How best to organise creative sessions? One fellow novel writer I know is a devotee of the method used by Graham Greene: writing 500 words a day and stopping precisely when you reach your deadline. Whether the last words are ‘and then’, ‘she said' or even ‘don’t shoot!', the writer halts at the correct moment every time and, slowly but surely, your story will take shape. As Greene noted in The End of the Affair, ‘I have always been very methodical, and when my quota of work is done I break off, even in the middle of a scene.’
Now, Pentimenti is not exactly classed as a cliffhanger (although it does have a couple of twists and turns, if I do say so myself!) but the few times I’ve tried this method even I found it frustrating. I naturally gravitate towards completing a miniature ‘section’ of the novel every time I write (for example, a scene, description or conversation) but the rigidity of having a set amount of words makes me worry that it could encourage quantity rather than quality. Equally, I wouldn’t want to discourage a creative streak simply for the sake of discipline (in fact that’s an interesting question: we’re often told to stick to our plans despite adversity, but does the same apply when things are going better than expected?)
An alternative to the 500 approach is to schedule writing sessions by time. Especially if you’re prone to writer’s block, committing to working an hour or two regardless of what happens might suddenly make writing preferable to simply staring at a blank page! And yet once again, I believe it’s useful to retain flexibility. After all, sometimes the exact period of time you’ve committed to may not be available, but I’d argue that it’s better to do a little than none at all. I prefer to choose small sections of time focused on my novel, every day I can: sometimes that involves formal writing, but it could also be structuring, blocking out scenes or conversations, revising previous work or simply thinking about the book’s direction. As Graham Greene himself acknowledged, ‘so much of a novelist’s writing takes place in the unconscious; in those depths the last word is written before the first word appears on paper.’
This week I was delighted to hear that a poem of mine is one of ten that Voluntary Arts Scotland and the Scottish Poetry Library have selected to publish as part of their ‘My Time’ project. The theme for this event was creative time, and I was inspired by thinking about women like my mother and grandmother who have often sacrificed their own time to empower and support others, yet undoubtedly also have rich creative potential themselves. I wrote the poem instinctively, quickly and late at night, so its selection was a lesson for me in being unafraid to make the mechanics of writing work for you.
It seems to me that there’s no one way to write, and perhaps not even one way to write the same book: what suits the first chapter might not suit the next! In Pentimenti, Ellen is learning how to live freely after years spent in the shadows: finding her feet one step at a time. If I can infuse my creative process with her patience and freedom then, to quote Hamilton once again, 'that would be enough'.
Line of the Week (my favourite line I've written this week - although whether it makes the final cut is another story!)
An awkward window sticks out from the original cottage framework like the bulbous eye of a Cyclops. I can visualise this building: I hope you can too!
Bookmark (what I've been reading when I need a break from writing - otherwise known as often!)
Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks. Like most film fans, I have a lot of time for Mr Hanks, and his first collection of short stories - inspired by his passion for vintage typewriters - actually has the same funny, heartening effect as some of his greatest movies. I've been assuming that the Nora he dedicates the collection to is the late writer and director Nora Ephron, and the tales of Uncommon Type definitely share her sense of humour: authentically American but with a sting in the tale that avoids being saccharine.