The Quiet Words: Week 4
And now this:
There are so many arguments over the “write what you know” adage. I find the whole thing a little redundant and I find quotes like Ishiguro’s unduly harsh and, honestly, a little patronising about how most of us interpret “write what you know.”
“Write what you know” is obviously not a literal command. No one expects a blow-by-blow, minute-by-minute, chronological account of your life (chronology has no real place in creating tension or drama, which you are going to need if you’re going to structure an engaging plot). If I were to only write what I know in such a literal sense, I’d be writing about nappy changes and nursery runs. We know we all have more depth to us than the daily, everyday tasks we do that don’t define us.
I believe that when it comes to searching for ideas, then yes, there’s far more adventure and imagination in writing what you don’t know, especially if you’re going to write creatively for fiction. Writing what you don’t know is where you start to have fun, where you live the life of a thrillseeker, where you can be anyone, anywhere.
But if you’re writing creatively for a memoir piece for your blog, for instance, then writing what you know is naturally your point of reference. Some of the most powerful non-fiction pieces I’ve written for national newspapers (including the one that got me a book deal) and also my own long reads on my blog have all been writing what I know - writing my truth, my past and my present, in a creative, thoughtful and inspiring way, so that my feelings resonate with others. Just because something is real or truthful, it does not always make it mundane.
Whether you want to write non-fiction or fiction, writing what you know is the best place to start. And by writing what you know, what I mean is writing what you feel. It’s your feelings that will speak to people, your feelings that will power through your writing and lift it off the page, as I explained last week. Feelings make stories come to life. It’s why I’ve encouraged you all to start a writer’s journal. The ability to express your feelings in a way that might resonate with others is how you start to make your writing feel real - and that’s writing creatively. The act of journaling will get you there.
Following creative intuition
“But where do you find your ideas?” is something I’m asked all the time by people. Sometimes, when you have a deadline, you have to search hard for ideas - but in my experience, those ideas are never the most natural or spontaneous or energetic. When you try too hard, it shows. Those are the ideas that often end up not quite having enough longevity to follow through or, if you do end up writing them, the writing is not quite as natural and it shows.
But other times, when you least expect it, is when the best ideas come. You do, however, have to be creatively conscious enough to spot a good idea, hold onto it and know that one day, it will be worth writing about.
Morning pages will help you by giving you the space in your head you need in order to notice when something really is a brilliant idea; journaling will help you remember your observations; writing creatively will turn those observations into a moving piece of writing.
The best way to find ideas? Embrace thinking in a wide, open way. Don’t choose to leave a thought mid-air; follow it all the way through and always question whether there’s something deeper to that thought - something that might make a meaningful idea to write creatively about. One thought always leads to another. Connect the dots. That’s what following your creative intuition means.
Let me give you an example of following creative intuition in practice.
A short while ago, I took my children to the Wellcome Collection. They are fascinated by the human body so we spent a morning exploring bones and teeth and lighting up the organs on a skeleton model. Whilst we were there, I happened to notice a small auditorium space where two short films were being screened. I was unable to watch the films, with my busy children in tow, but I was haunted by the description of them.
The films were by an artist and they explored the subject of mirror-touch synaesthesia, the experience of physically feeling what somebody else feels. It’s something I know absolutely nothing about. But I was particularly struck by the description of one of the films being about a mother and son who both experienced mirror-touch - so both experienced what the other was touching and feeling all the time - and so both were forever a part of each other.
I couldn’t stop thinking about this (I’m still thinking about it now). I keep watching my children, wondering what it would feel like if I felt what they were feeling at the same time as them. If someone were to cuddle them, I would feel that warmth too. But if someone were to hit them or hurt them in anyway, I would feel their pain. I am fascinated by this concept of experiencing someone else’s physical sensations and I have been wondering about what it would be like if you could feel not just somebody’s physical sensations but their emotional ones too.
I began searching online for more information, tracked down the films and watched them (they happen to be so incredibly beautiful), as well as several interviews with the artist and then numerous articles about the experience of mirror-touch. When my little boy fell sick with chickenpox, I caught myself subconsciously scratching when he was; I wondered whether my fascination with exploring mirror-touch had made its way into my subconscious life. My creative intuition was taking over.
From all of this, I’ve developed an outline for a story about a brother and sister who are born with mirror-touch and share their very own private, interior world, a landscape of broken toys then broken hearts as they grow up, and it’s something I’m working on right now. It’s a story I’m writing purely for my own creativity but I’m happy to see where it leads. It’s just my way of exploring something that simply fascinates me. My point is that rather than simply notice the films at the Wellcome Collection that day, stop and think - “Oh, that sounds interesting” and leave it there (for how many times have we all done that?), I have allowed myself to follow through and wonder deeper. I am following my creative intuition.
Imagine if we followed our creative intuition every time something sparked our curiosity! We’d surely have no time left at all - but it just goes to show, that there is so much out there. One idea can lead to another and then another. It’s like origami; you fold a piece of paper once, twice and then over and over, creasing and smoothing the corners, until you end up with something beautiful and complex - but it all came from just one piece of paper. You just need one idea, one fold, and the rest will follow. All of it is waiting to be discovered by us. We cannot say we have no ideas, when there are ideas everywhere.
By sharing this example with you, I want to show you that it is always worth asking yourself more. So always notice. Always wonder. Always follow through. Children do it all the time. We need to remember how to embrace that childlike wonder too.
When you start being intuitive and curious, you open your mind to imagination and that’s when you find you’re able to write what you don’t know as if it’s something that’s so natural to you, it’s a part of who you are.
Read with a writer’s eye
I wrote last week that writers become better writers by writing. That is true. But writers become even better writers by reading.
I read once that reading is a writer’s homework, that it is the act of reading which is the true study of a writer and not the writing itself. This is also so very true.
So read, read, read.
Read everything. Magazines, books, short stories, poetry, blogs, newspapers. Read it all.
Read for inspiration. Every writer does it. Read to be lifted up and feel infused. Read writing that sets expectations of yourself, the sort of writing that leaves you demanding more of yourself. Don’t think “I can’t write like this.” Think instead: “What can I do to learn to write like this?”
Finally, read to enrich your vocabulary. As adults, we read far too passively. We tell ourselves we read for escape, for enjoyment, for downtime. And yet when we read to our children, we are teaching them all the time, asking them if they understand, explaining what this or that word means. We teach our children new words constantly so that they have the means to express themselves and I believe that should not stop with age or time. The more exposed you are to language, the more fluent you become in articulating yourself, the more you can do it with the sort of flair that will set you apart and lift your writing off the page. Developing your own vocabulary into a reflection of you is how you begin to discover the consistency that sets the foundation of your writing voice and style.
Keep a favourite set of books and writers close to you for just this purpose: to be inspired, uplifted, to challenge yourself and to learn from their choice of vocabulary. I have about five books that I will always turn to whenever I want or need to be inspired or feel like I could learn a thing or two. I call these books my Dazzling books.
One of my Dazzling books is Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, a devastating novel about a long marriage of hidden secrets. It’s beautiful in the way that it is written - the very first lines are haunting - but it’s also a fascinating study of plot, enthrall and intrigue. Her descriptions make me want to write better descriptions too. Then there’s Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, Alys, Always by Harriet Lane and Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. They are always close to hand on my bookshelf, heavily underlined and noted upon. I read them for enjoyment, yes, but also as a writer, I turn to them time and time again to learn about structure, sparse but impactful writing and tight plots, and bewitchingly beautiful descriptions. It doesn’t matter that I’m not even writing a book right now - they help me get into the right frame of mind for writing long reads for my blog just as well too.
Read the genre or style of the writing you want to write yourself. So if you want to write short stories, read them; you can learn a lot from Alice Munro or Jhumpa Lahiri. If you want to write an epic novel, turn to Dickens or Dave Eggers or Hilary Mantel (although, may I suggest you dream big, but start the length small).
Similarly, if you want to write a personal blog post but don’t know where to start, then return to the bloggers you love, the ones that write the sort of posts you wish you could write, the posts you want to read again and again, and look what they did. I don’t mean subject matter, I mean language. Observe, make notes. What are the sentences that make you catch your breath? How do they hold your attention? How much do they give away in their first paragraph?
This is not imitating. Take inspiration but don’t paraphrase - we are not mimicking ideas or writing styles, we are learning to develop our own. You are simply dissecting somebody else’s words, and it’s okay to do that. Your style is your very own.
So take notice of pacing, of language, of the way description is used. Stimulate your brain. Ask yourself if the description slows or speeds up the writing. What imagery blows you away? What imagery doesn’t? What holds your interest? Do you ever glaze over, and if so, why? What makes you like or dislike a writer’s work? Think about all these things. Read with an open, inquisitive, curious mind.
Read closely. Note the details that make a sentence work and write down the particular sentences that inspire you (I keep a notepad just for this purpose). Ask yourself what it is about that sentence that made you stop still. How did that sentence come to be? What does each adjective tell you about the subject? Read it outloud - what does it sound like? What’s the rhythm? What do they not tell you? What do they leave out? Those omissions are often the secrets which keep you, the reader, hooked because you have to figure it out for yourself.
Study the words and look them up if you don’t understand them (I still do this!). If you have an idea for a novel, but don’t know how to start, read the opening paragraphs of three of your favourite books and see how they did it. Chances are it’ll fire you up a little. But don’t listen to your self-doubt - because else you’ll never start. You just have to get some words down and the rest will follow.
One: Create your own Dazzling list of three books by three different writers which you can keep close on your desk or bedside to lift you up when you’re in need of inspiration, and share the books and writers you choose on this week’s Facebook thread. I’d love to know what works for you.
Two: Brainstorm ideas, follow your creative intuition and begin work on your creative project. From this week onwards, you have three weeks to start and complete a piece of writing of up to 1,200 words that I will read and send back to you with my notes. All writers need deadlines, so I've even set one for you. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your work by midday, Monday 11th November in order to receive personal feedback. I'll be working through your pieces on a first-sent basis. Please put your name followed by “writing project" in the subject line.
If you’re writing fiction, a short story or an opening chapter, then perhaps you already have an idea in mind. If not, then start afresh. Look for ideas in hidden places - watch a film by yourself, take yourself to an exhibition, read newspaper articles and look out for something that interests you (Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine was inspired by a newspaper article on loneliness that Gail Honeyman had read and couldn’t get out of her head.). Follow through on what sparks come to you.
If you’re writing non-fiction - a reflective memoir piece or an essay or a first-person experience perhaps, that might then be something you’d consider publishing on your blog or pitching as an article even, then follow your creative intuition to tell your story not as as something chronological but as something meaningful and impactful.
Three: Meanwhile, keep up with your morning pages, journal entries and re-reading your favourite writer’s work. Don’t forget to find your still. It’ll all help you stay open to ideas, connect with your creativity and piece your own words together.