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Wednesday, 22 July 2009


I know I do. I know this somewhere deep inside, but I forget it when I'm overwhelmed by deadlines. Because things like going for walks seem like luxuries when you're really busy. Which I am: coming up to Edinburgh Book Festival madness, with six* talks to prepare from scratch, two events to chair, an AGM to plan and chair; and I'm organising a hot-ticket party for 200 in one of the festival marquees - and yesterday I was called for jury service. For August. Oh. My. God. A breakdown looms. Or jail, if they don't let me off.

(* thought it was five but realised I'd not put one in my diary)

But all that pales into insignificance when you're trying to get a novel started. As I am. Desperately, because it would have been so great to have the first chapter written before August came and then it could mull away in my brain and I'd be ready to leap back in in September. But it's not working. The voice isn't coming. Why? Because I'm simply not ready. I haven't had enough time (or the right sort of time) to let the characters, particularly the main one whose voice it will mostly be, grow inside me and begin to talk.

Thing is - and here's my learning point for this post - you should never write until your characters are clamouring to get out of your head, till they're pestering you day and night, rattling their cage, till they start to force your hands to move over the keyboards, till, in short, they absolutely demand that their voices are heard.

In fact, Howard Nemerov said that writing was like the relationship with your bowels (stay with me): "First you can, then you can't, finally you must: only then should you reach for the paper ..."

I've talked about voice before - see here. Voice is not something you can order about. Voice has to come somewhat mysteriously, at least partially of its own accord. Sometimes it's easy, sometimes it's not. But you have to get it right and you have to nurture it very, very subtly, in a hands-off kind of way - though with utter ruthless control, too. If you don't get it right, your fabulous plot is stuffed. To be honest, in my case I don't have a fabulous plot either, but that's because for me voice comes first, plot follows; because the plot depends on the characters' actions and the characters' actions depend on their voice and the book's voice. I know, you'd think it was the other way round - but think about it, play with it, and see what happens to your relationship with your book when you do. Does it become more real?

So, what's this got to do with getting out more? In the words of my favourite film**, a lot.

I've noticed for a long time that different environments make me more or less creative. You've probably noticed the same. It's not surprising or rocket science. But there is some science behind it. This article in Sciam Mind is pretty eye-opening: it suggests that we are more creative in rooms with higher ceilings, for example. The article mentions research in which two groups of people were given a task. One group was in a room with an 8-foot ceiling and the other was in a room with a 10-foot ceiling. The second group came up with more abstract, imaginative and creative ideas.

In terms of ceilings, what greater ceiling can you have than the sky? I know that when my writing is stuck the only answer is to go for a walk, not to stay at my desk. "Environmental psychology" now explains it. And there's even a word for the tendency of people to work better when they can at least see a natural scene instead of a brick wall - biophilia. Love it! I am a biophiliac, not a drifter who keeps going outside instead of "working".

So, since I'm throughly blocked, writing-wise, I'm going to take Nemerov's advice and not reach for the paper yet. I'm going to get out, outside, out of my study, out of myself, into the biggest ceiling I know. I know from experience, and therefore have to trust, that this will work - ideas will come when I give them space. I'm going to stop trying to force this character to speak before she's ready; she must grow slowly, and one day, soon probably, she'll hit me between the eyes with her power and reality; she'll start yelling to be heard.

I just hope I'm not in the middle of doing an event when she does it. Pretty high ceilings those book festival tents have ...

Meanwhile, here's a picture of my husband (the one on the left) "standing and staring" beside a statue. The plaque in front of them is the first verse of that fab poem by William Henry Davies, titled Leisure. Obviously, I can't print it all here, or I'd be breaking the laws of copyright (by one year ...) but I think that "fair use" allows me to quote the first two lines:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?
Of course, if I were to be imprisoned for not doing jury service, I may have quite a lot of time to stand and stare. Mind you, I could get a great novel written.

** Pay attention at the back: Life of Brian. Could it be any other?

And while you're still with me, and talking about getting out more, I thought I'd show you this photo of the results of my minor gardening escapade during which I created an "alittlement" some weeks ago. These are the beans growing in two pots. Jack, where are you?

And finally, after writing this blog post, I decided I would practise what I was preaching and get out. So I did, and all the way up to my favourite hill in Edinburgh I walked. Considering I live in the middle of a city and it only took me twenty minutes to walk here, I think it's pretty inspirational for a writer to have that on her doorstep. No excuses for crappy writing, I'd say. The shot at the end is Edinburgh Castle - which you need me to tell you, as you'd never guess. I suggest you play it with your sound off - it's damned windy today (which is why I am wobbling a lot).