Creativity comes rushing once invited.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve hesitated and abandoned bits of writing in the past. I loathe setting down ideas that are half-formed: things that have ended up on this blog are usually written in more or less one go. Yes, there’s always editing, but my first drafts are fast, come rushing out, and I have a pretty good idea at the start what I want the whole to say. This means that, on the whole, I tend not to finish things, or write much at all.
The interesting thing about keeping a notebook – one of the central recommendations and requirements of my writing course – is that you have somewhere to store and put down absolutely all and any ideas that come to you. With hindsight, this is obvious, but pursuing the discipline of notebooking ideas as and when they come is not something I’ve really done before, and I’ve been slightly amazed by what has burst forth.
Next time you’re in a situation where your mind is free to wander, try to take note of your thoughts, rather than simply experiencing them. I don’t mean when you’re busy at work, but instead when your consciousness is withdrawn somewhat, like on the bus. Pull out your earphones and put your phone on silent. Observe the world around you and your conscious reactions to it, and see what happens. You might find a constant babble of questions, connections, ideas, and descriptions, as the mind tries to capture and make sense of what it sees. Not all of these are interesting, but some are: for example, the leaps I make from noticing the posture of someone sitting on the bus, to an inference about their mental state, to an implicit question about why they are feeling like that, to the imagining of possible answers to that question. The inference and the answer may bear no relation to reality: I don’t know whether they feel as I suppose they do, or why how. But it’s the process of indulging the imagination, giving it play, that I’ve been so taken aback by.
Einstein is supposed to have said: “The environment is everything that isn’t me”. An urban and technological environment, with its assault of stimuli, doesn’t offer me many opportunities for this kind of indulgence. We have to steal them by defying it, though fortunately the theft is easy once you have the knack.
Hence ‘pull out your earphones and put your phone on silent’. Hence carrying a notebook and having it to hand all the time. (There are even some technological issues here: the notebook I have is too large for a pocket, and so goes in my bag, where I often forget it and don’t use it. I’ve ordered some pocket-sized ones, and have been thinking of putting my phone in my bag, so that my notebook is there instead in my pocket, for playful, idle moments.) I see this as a way of trying to fill some of my empty mind for myself, rather than inviting an unmediated stream of clickbait drivel to colonise my consciousness.
The results of capturing and reading back over some of what bubbles up from my unconscious have been astounding. Not so much because it’s any different, or any better, than what I have written before. There’s just more of it, and it comes so bloody fast. I feel like I did one day when walking two large, very strong, badly-trained dogs which had not learned to walk to heel. They dragged me half-running, half-stumbling, all the way down the hill to the park, their single-minded eagerness to run and chase squirrels as tight and certain as the leads that held them back and choked their progress. I suppose what I’m saying is that once you give space to an idea, it develops a life of its own, and you’re really just along for the ride.
Not all of the ideas in the notebook are worth keeping. They’re fragmentary. But allowing them headspace whatever their lack of polish, and then looking back over them and thinking, ‘what could I do with that?’ is a cycle of positive feedback. Perhaps the existence of so many stimuli prevents us realising that some proportion of our thoughts can be quite interesting. Under normal conditions, if you don’t catch them, the bulk of them become as ephemeral as smoke.