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Achieving the Art of Flow - the Lilies of the Field vs the Wagging Finger

Ever notice, when you put pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – a little voice in your head wags its finger and says things like: ‘you should be doing something more useful, more lucrative’ or, if that doesn’t work, it carries on with: ‘you’re useless at characterisation’, ‘your dialogue doesn’t ring true’, ‘you’ve clearly got trouble with plot’, ‘grammar’, etcetera, etcetera.  I bet you can recall dozens of similar whisperings that plague you endlessly, as you try to get words on the page.

The impact on your writing can be paralysing.  At the very least, you tighten up, become anxious or, even worse, stop altogether.  As if that weren’t enough, these little criticisms often become self-fulfilling prophesies, as Timothy Gallwey points out in his inner game strategies for success at sport or business.  His principles and methodology could equally apply to writing; his insights into the process of overcoming blocks which prevent us from living/writing to our full potential, offer a roadmap to success.  Very helpful for those times when the wagging finger threatens to overwhelm.

Now, it may actually be true that you need to focus a little more on authentic dialogue, deepen your characterisation – what I would call the ‘nuts and bolts’ of writing.  But paying too much attention to the wagging finger of writing when you’re writing your first draft can mess up the side you’re relying on to write the story – the creative you.

How to quieten the wagging finger:

• Make a list of what it says, be-friend it

• If you agree that your characterisation lacks depth, your dialogue is stilted, etc., work on these – but separately to your work-in-progress

• Don’t try to stop the wagging finger from speaking – say ‘I hear you, your time will come but not now’ - and continue to write.

• Each draft is, as T S Eliot put it, a ‘raid on the inarticulate’.  It’s not supposed to be perfect.

How to let the glory of the lily shine

• The lily doesn’t ‘toil’ or ‘spin’ – and, to stretch the analogy, neither does the creative you.  It simply expresses itself, without effort.  A journal is good practice to get this effortless effort or flow going so that, in time, you can sit before a blank page, anytime, anywhere and write.

• Just as the lily needs sun, water and soil to thrive, your writing self has its own needs, unique to you.  These could be anything from sitting, daydreaming for a few minutes/hours a day, to spending time doing something non-verbal.  A day at the art gallery works for some (me); simply walking worked for Charles Dickens – and we all know how productive he was.

• We also need to fill the creative well by reading and listening to good writing­, so that it’s there, in our sub-conscious, waiting till you put fingers to keyboard …

• Speaking of good writing, have a listen to this:


Editing and the Art of Sheep Shearing:

three necessary things

 Gosh! you say, there’s so much wool here – how can I tell where the flesh begins and the wool ends?  And the novel you thought was terrific – well … not bad – is back from the editor with masses of comments and suggestions.  Mind overload - where to begin?  How much do I cut, shape and seamlessly mould into a good story?

A lesson in Anatomy: Study the bones of the thing, as you would the anatomy of a sheep.  Write out your plot.  Groan.  Yes, I know, yet again.  But this time, the purpose is different: to find out where the vital organs lie, so you don’t do them a mischief.

Experience: Best gained by doing, I’m afraid.  However, armed with your anatomy lesson, easier than going in blind.  Help can be gleaned from the many books on the subject.  Ditto the courses that daily pop into your ‘in’ box.  Unfortunately, nothing and no one can do the job for you.  For that you need to have …

Courage: Grab your sheep and coolly and calmly hold her for a moment or two.  Get acquainted.  Let her listen to the whirr of the machine, tell her you know your stuff, that she will look and feel much better without that heavy, woolly coat.

 Life would be so much easier if sheep didn’t need to be shorn and books came off the PC clean, crisp and clear.  I console myself that even (or especially) Jane Austen did major revisions, as a rare, surviving draft of Persuasion shows.  Compare Chapter 24, as published, with its original (re-printed in the Penguin edition).  A wonderful example of that editor’s chestnut: showing rather than telling.  It makes all that pain and misery worthwhile.

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Louise Couper