The Quiet Words: Week 2
Quietening the chaos
The overwhelming importance of calm
I believe that when it comes to writing, the calmer you are, the more creative you are. Writing is more than just the words - it’s the whole journey of listening to your ideas before you even set them down on paper.
But the problem is, well, life gets in the way. Daily life is… crazy. Work, home, deadlines, phones, computers, emails, Netflix; babies, children, dogs, pick-up, drop-off, dinner; husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, date night, family night. Where’s the time for just you and your thoughts, right?
The thing is - and you have to believe me when I tell you this - but your creativity is already there. You just have to take the time to slow down, still the chaos and uncover it.
My yoga teacher always says that our conscious minds are like rivers, constantly rippling with thoughts - such beautiful, amazing thoughts. But we’re being pushed along by the current of circumstance and so we don’t get a chance to stop and dive in and see what’s there. We don’t get a chance to break the surface, go deep and strongly within. But that’s what we need to do, to uncover what is already inside of us. We simply have to stop and notice it, nurture it and bring it to life. That’s what connecting with your creativity is about.
So right now, you’ll have maybe seven story ideas or blog ideas or just ideas that interest you, that you’d like to delve into floating around in your head without you even realising it. Maybe there’s even a couple of half-formed characters buzzing around in there too, if fiction happens to be your thing. But because daily life and its demands have got in the way, you haven’t noticed them. All these ideas; they’re desperate for your attention. They’re waving at you, but you walk on by.
And because you don’t notice them, they give up. Shrug their shoulders and disappear. And the thing is, you’ll never even notice they’ve gone. Your ideas will fade before you’ve even thought them because you were too busy. And one day you’ll watch a movie or read a book and there’ll be something about it that feels familiar but you can’t quite put your finger on why - you don’t quite realise that it’s because somewhere in that movie or that book was an idea you once had too.
It sounds like it’s impossible to dive in and find this creative place inside of you. You can’t stop the current of water, after all. But it isn’t impossible. You simply need to find your still.
Find your still
My life is full of small voices asking for a snack, sticky little hands tugging at my hair or a toddler waking loudly from a nap demanding my immediate attention. I know what the reality of chaotic, busy, blurry days feels like. Those days don’t always feel creative.
But in all my time as a writer, and especially while writing around the demands of small children, I’ve learnt ways to manage the frustration that stops me from writing and engaging with my creativity.
First, I’ve established a writing practice, which we’ll talk about next week. This practice means I know better than to try and engage with my creativity when I’m with my children - they deserve my full attention, and I want to give them that too and be there for them in the moment.
Second, I’ve found a way to find my still; a way to clear the clutter and the noise both inside and outside of my head and step into my own private world.
I find my still in so many different ways - running, learning to step back from a screen, choosing to live with less and also through surrounding myself by work that inspires me. You may already know what works best for you to quieten your mind and escape the rush of daily life (and if you don’t know, I encourage you to take the time to question what gives you the calm you need). It may be time alone walking in nature, meditation or immersing yourself in what you love - be it art, music, poetry - to lift you to the place you need to be.
It’s not for me to tell you what your private methods of finding your still should be. But I am going to share with you something that I promise will help you declutter your mind and have a direct impact on your ability to commune with ideas in your head and, forthwith, write creatively. Ready? Let’s go there now.
A secret shared before we begin
I am about to tell you something that nobody else knows about other than my husband.
I’m telling you this because it’s the only way of explaining just how valuable the following exercise is in helping you find your still and then your creativity.
Last year, I was stuck with a plot synopsis I was working on for my literary agent. I simply couldn’t get my lead character from a to b, from the point where she was to the point where I knew she was going to end up. My character was a lonely, highly intelligent introvert and she lived very much in the shadow of her glamorous mother. Yet by the end of the book, I wanted my character to be triumphant albeit in a darkly thrilling and deeply manipulative, powerful way. It was to be her victory over her mother, even if she wasn’t entirely likeable for it.
But I was so stuck. I couldn’t get her to transform from downtrodden daughter full of passive aggression to essentially having the final say and the last, slightly sinister laugh. I was facing a giant creative block.
At the same time as I was struggling with this, I happened to be seeing a therapist (this is the bit that nobody else has known about).
She was helping me learn to set boundaries with some difficult relationships in my life. I spoke to her about how helpless I felt because all I could think about was everybody else’s burdens which I carried upon my shoulders. I wished and longed to be free of them. I knew these feelings were stopping me on my creative journey because they occupied my every thought. I spent every day anxious, worried about who was going to make demands of me next. I felt weighed down and uninspired.
It was my therapist, a kind woman with a handsome, weathered face of wisdom, who introduced me to the concept of morning pages in order to help me through this difficult time.
Morning pages refer to the practice of writing by hand a stream of consciousness first thing every morning. Morning pages prepare the way for creativity.
The term was coined by Julia Cameron, an acclaimed novelist, poet and screenwriter, who has since devoted her career to helping creatives get unstuck. This is what she says:
Within a fortnight of practicing morning pages, I made a breakthrough with my synopsis and mapped it out so strongly that I was finally able to start writing the book.
Now, I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t finish the book (that’s another story) and I probably never will because it isn’t what I need right now. But my point is morning pages freed my mind and helped me reclaim the headspace I needed to connect with my creativity and then write creatively. Morning pages helped me quieten the chaos.
Everyday when I woke up, I set a timer for ten minutes and I just wrote. I wrote enough to fill three pages every morning in large notebooks, just simple and inexpensive ones, and all this stuff came pouring out. It was like emptying the unworn contents of a bottom drawer into bin bags for the charity shop. I felt lighter. My mind felt freer, clearer and more focused. Even just the act of writing longhand instead of typing helped me feel in some way more grounded, more in touch with myself.
I have no doubt that the practice of morning pages made my day-to-day life calmer in so many ways that I might not have even recognised at the time. I absolutely credit morning pages with helping me to find the clarity and calm I needed to simply escape the noise and engage with some thoughtful imagination and start to write. That’s why morning pages are going to be the first step for you to connect with your creativity and help you find your writing words.
You are about to put morning pages in practice to help you declutter your head of the excess and find your still and allow your creative ideas and words come to you instead.
So: buy a stack of notebooks. They don’t have to be pretty ones or Instagrammable because no one else will ever see these apart from you, but if it makes you feel more inspired to have a beautiful notebook, then by all means, go ahead. This is all about you. I prefer lined pages because otherwise my stream of consciousness gets very sprawling; you may prefer the definition of blank pages. Writer’s choice.
Set one of those books next to your bed before you got to sleep, along with a pen or pencil, because you’ll need to write your morning pages as soon as you wake up (I know some people wait until they’ve got dressed or had breakfast or have dropped the children at school - but to really feel the benefits of this practice, you need to do it spontaneously, before you’ve had the chance to settle into your morning because that’s when your consciousness is just awakening). Put the other books in a drawer close by - you’ll need them sooner than you think.
The night before you start, set your alarm to wake you ten minutes earlier. And the minute you wake up - before you do anything else at all - just pick up the notebook and the pen or pencil that will already be waiting for you beside your bed. And then just write. Write anything at all. It might just be a word. Doesn’t matter. Just write it. Then write the next word. And the next. And so on. Keep writing, until you’ve written for ten minutes and you’ve covered three pages. Stop.
Don’t think about what you’re going to write. This is the hardest part, really. You have to stop yourself from planning or knowing what you’re going to write about because this is free writing. No thought is required at all. You are not even expected to write full sentences if they don’t come to your consciousness. There are no expectations at all.
Never read back what you’ve written. Ever. Otherwise all the stuff you’ve just dumped out will work its way right back into your head again. The whole point is that you’re emptying out your head of the excess, not recycling it. The minute you’ve finished your three pages within ten minutes, shut your notebook. When you open it the next day, don’t look at the old pages - start on a fresh page so you can’t see any of your previous thoughts.
Never show your morning pages notebook to anyone and keep it somewhere safe where it won’t fall into the hands of someone who might not understand. There’ll be an awful lot of stuff in there that you might not even mean, just thoughts that have happened to cross your mind momentarily. You don’t want anyone, not lovers, not friends, to read this.
Throw the notebooks away without thinking as soon as you’ve finished the last page. Again, these are not diaries. They are not journals. You do not need to hold onto these, at all. As soon as you’re done with one notebook, toss it in the recycling. Let the notebooks go.
Keep going for as long as you need to to break through all the things - fear, self-doubt - that are blocking your creative path. I committed to morning pages for a year and a half in the end. I kept a notebook and a pen clipped to it permanently in my travel bag so that I had no excuse even while we were away. It was a huge part of my routine, and I came to miss it on the days I didn’t get around to it.
At the moment, I’m in a creative place and a lot is coming together for me, so I don’t feel like I need morning pages in my life right now. And you might come to the same conclusion yourself. But try it for the duration of this course and see how it leaves you feeling. See if your thoughts feel brighter, lighter. See if you find yourself noticing the details of your everyday - the sort of details that might just lead to details you could write about. You’ll notice sooner than you think.
You can also watch this video, in which Julia Cameron explains morning pages.
It can feel strange embarking upon this practice - I mean, after all, I’m asking you to write whatever comes into your head, not even read it back and then throw it away - which sounds absurd, I know. It gets easier to do after the first few days and you will reap the benefits of it sooner than you think. If any point, you simply can’t get your head around morning pages, or it’s not coming naturally to you, or for whatever reason, you open your notebook first thing in the morning and the words just don’t come, then jump onto our Facebook page and I’ll do my best to help you through.