Friday, May 29, 2009

Finding your muse

Whenever I'm stuck while writing a story I use a simple technique to find out what my characters will do next. I can't guarantee it'll work for anyone else, but I'm comforted by the thought that at least one other writer uses the same technique.

I found this out several years ago while watching a television program that followed various writers along their book writing journey from the first idea through to publication, even if that was many years. I was amazed to find that one of the profiled authors did something I did. This surprised me because we inhabit a writing world that is so different we might as well live in alternative universes. I write western yarns that aim to provide a few hours of light-entertainment. She wrote award-winning literary masterpieces in which every word has been precisely crafted to say something profound about the human condition.

If the program was an accurate representation, her life was one I'd thought existed only in Merchant & Ivory films in which delicate socialites loll around beside the river suffering angst because their favourite teddy-bear has lost an ear. While preparing to write, she held glittering dinner parties attended by cravat-wearing men called Tristam and cape-wearing women called Jocasta. They sat around the dinner table and said things like: I thing it was Oscar Wilde who said, "a good book is like an oyster in that both are easy to open, but not everyone can appreciate the contents." And then everyone laughed uproariously. Suffice to say if anyone were to invite me to that kind of party, I'd hide in the loft until they went away!

Even her writing environment was jaw-droppingly different. She didn't bang away on a keyboard in the spare room. She went to her chateau in the south of France and on the veranda she wrote in long-hand with a gold-plated fountain pen while her assistant did the typing. When she finished, she held a novel-finishing party for her literary chums where everyone drank Pimms and chortled while they waited for the publisher to send a courier round to collect the completed masterpiece. This made my finishing tradition of bunging a print-out into an envelope and queuing up down the post office feel a bit tacky.

Anyhow, despite inhabiting a different world, she had still developed the same technique for solving plotting problems that I had developed. Now I apologize for the writers' jargon as this technique is an advanced one. But here is the technique: I go for a walk.

The 'go for a walk' methodology works like this: I'm stuck. The white space isn’t getting any smaller, so I tell the pooch to stop snoring and drag him out the house. I have a favourite walk that goes through the woods and comes out in the field before my house. For the first thirty minutes the walk is through trees, but I tell myself that when I see my house for the first time, I'll have thought through the plotting problem and I'll know what comes next in my story.

But being a champion procrastinator, for the first thirty minutes I do anything but think about writing. My thoughts will be devoted to a constant stream of 'stop chasing that squirrel up a tree' and 'if you roll in that horse poo you're going under the cold tap'. So by the time I see my house it comes as a shock. I panic. I had all that time to think and I haven't. I try to think, but I can't. Nothing comes. I get closer and closer to the house and there's nothing. The gate is a few yards away and still I have nothing.

Then, with disaster looming and the pooch hoping we'll go around again so he can have a second go at the squirrel and horse poo, it comes. I remember my last written line and I can see my characters talking and one says one thing, a reply comes, and then they start moving around. And there, out of nowhere, I have the start of the next scene and a sense of direction. Thirty-four minutes of nothing, but one great minute at the end, and now I can start writing.

I guess it's a left brain / right brain thing and so this technique is no different to listening to music, or taking a long shower, or baking, or playing squash. But the method appears to be that if you think about a problem (not necessarily writing) you can never think of the answer. So take yourself away and do something completely different. When your brain is no longer cluttered with the issue and it's happily devoting itself to something else, then the solution will spring into your mind as if from nowhere.

So, going for a walk? I do it. Anyone else?


LaVerne St. George said...

Ian, this is great! A counselor once told me that 90% of our behavior and decisions come from the the subconscious. And you have to "take that walk" to let the subconscious do its thing. Sometimes, I handle it by lying in bed right before I drift to sleep, clear my mind and simply state what the problem is I'm trying to solve. When I wake up, Voile! Solution appears. It is amazing. Thanks for the post. Made me grin.

Joanne Walpole said...

I've always done this. I came up with the title Long Shadows on a late afternoon walk. Sound advice. :-)

David Cranmer said...

I tend to sit on the back porch or balcony (I do a lot of traveling) and stare into space. Folks always ask what's wrong and I have to explain I'm cogitating... probably if I was walking they wouldn't ask.

Sandy Cody said...

No, I don't do anything different. In fact, walking is my best thinking time too. You are so right about letting go and giving your brain a little time off from the plot problem so it can solve itself. I think all writers live for that "one great minute at th end."

Thanks for sharing.

Elisabeth Rose said...

I meditate every day, have done for over twenty years as part of my Tai Chi training, and very often some plot solution pops into my head during a session. It's the same principle as the walk and the staring into space--relaxing the mind clears out the rubbish. Thoughts are like ripples in a pond disturbing the surface and obscuring the depths. When the water, or mind, is calm, deeper thoughts can rise to the surface.

I.J. Parnham said...

Thanks for the comments everyone. Today I went for a walk and again I solved the problem of what I'll write today... nothing, it's a nice day and I'm spending it in the garden!

Ray said...

Going to lower the tone here - I don't walk far just down the hall to the loo. The system is the same though.

Elisabeth Rose said...

Maybe my husband is in there all that time solving plot problems . . . hmmmm But he doesn't write.

Beate Boeker said...

Loved that post, Ian! I bake a cake when I need to relax and get something else on my mind. Or dig up something in the garden. It helps too!

Christine Bush said...

Quiet and close to nature sometimes works for me, or specific meditation to clear my (sometimes? often?)hyper mind. But the other thing that works (not on purpose) is driving. Alone, quiet in the car, sometimes the ideas just pop into my head, and off I go. Whatever works, I guess!