mindfullness

Childlike thinking makes for creative writing

The transition from childhood to adulthood involves a mental development that allows for more abstract reasoning, logical complexity, a greater awareness of consequence and an understanding of the nuanced dynamics of human relationships. However there are ways that childlike thinking can get us back to the basics of life and enhance our creative endeavours.

Mindfulness

Babies and very young children are absorbed in the moment to moment awareness of their surroundings and the stimuli around them. The parents of young children often bemoan the snails pace at which a walk somewhere has to be undertaken but a key memory for me is when my youngest son was eighteen months and on one of his first walks in the big outside world. He became absolutely fascinated with a pebbledash wall, he looked at it, touched it, ran his fingers along it, went right up close. The other day I helped my daughter make daisy chains. To do so, we sat right down on the grass, feeling it under our fingers, surrounded by a galaxy of daisies, some fully open, some pink tipped. We selected the correct stems, just thick enough, made the delicate slice in the stem, threaded them through. There was a light breeze, bird sounds, occasional traffic, the concentration of the threading action. This slowing down and careful examination of things can bring us into the heart of a story or emotion. When describing a scene we can open it up around the mind of the reader by including the smallest of details, a cigarette butt, a shiny bottle top, a half-open fushia bud, the angle of a business man’s tie. 

Key characteristics

Children take things at face value; they make broad comparisons based on ‘similar’ or ‘different’. Only as they grow do they learn to make more nuanced distinctions. While the nuance is what differentiates a truly great writer from an adequate one, when we first introduce a character in a book, we need to use the broader brushstrokes, to give us a handle on the person, a hook. While it may not be politically correct; as humans we always make an initial judgement based on looks, similarity to ourselves, race, colour or accent. In our books our characters will make assumptions about one another based on initial impressions. These might later turn out to be incorrect. In writing, we can use the transition from the broad strokes to nuance to explore a developing relationship or an increasing or decreasing understanding between characters.

Fearlessness and Free thinking

Small babies have no depth perception and no sense of the danger of falling. Terrifyingly young children will run out onto a busy road with no sense of danger. Even older children, teenagers and even young adults carry with them a sense of invincibility. While many children invent rules for their games, there is a greater sense of freedom, where ‘let’s pretend’ means a car can fly or a giraffe can talk. As writers we need fearlessness to write at all and to take chances with our writing. We need to ‘run into the road’ into topics or subject areas that we find difficult to deal with in order to exercise our skill as writers. We also need to stretch our imaginations while making sure that our stories have their own internal logic.

Curiosity and Interest

Is a crane bigger than a whale?

Being party to my children’s homework, I realise how many facts they become aware of in a short space of time about history, mythology, geography, music, art, science. Browsing through their books I discover quirky interesting facts that are absolutely gripping. One of my favourite short stories ever is A Stone Woman  by AS.Byatt. She writes about a woman who literally turns to stone, but what stone! She is made up of so many different types that characterize the veins, the skins, the face, the limbs. The manifestations of stone also become more intricate over time. Stone happens to be one of my favourite things. In this story it was intrinsically fascinating, due to the level of detail employed but it also worked as a powerful descriptive device and metaphor. One of my sons knows everything there is to know about astronomy and I have used his knowledge in my work to provide an extra layer of interest in my stories. Facts are hooks that if used appropriately can inject life into writing.

Fundamental questions, fundamental themes

Why are we alive? Are you going to die? 

The parents of young children hear these sorts of questions every day, and often at bedtime when the impending darkness and separation may whirl up anxieties in the children. It is poignant to hear these existential questions from the mouths of babes and very often we don’t have the answers. But these questions can remind us of the archetypal themes that underpin all literary endeavours. It is commonly known that so called ‘children’s’ fairytales deal with dark themes. But these are the themes that are eminently and poignantly human. Whatever the style or genre of a book, whether its tone is light and fluffy or serious, the undercurrent of the archetypal concerns and themes will still be there. Often as adults we bury the fundamental fears and concerns under the flurry of everyday life. As writers we have to expose and deal with these raw terrors. These concerns translate into our characters’ complex motivations, make people take

The child I was

unusual decisions and do extraordinary things.

The child that you were and in some ways still are has special access to both wonder and fear. This child makes judgements and takes risks and sees things with fresh eyes. Use those qualities to create writing that has an extra edginess and magic. 

Note: I wrote this article originally in 2010 as a guest post for children’s author Olive O’ Brien.

Writing and Guilt

These days we call upon ourselves to be everything in perfection. In the wider world success and fame are seen to be a criterion for happiness. In all aspects of our existence, health, parenting, relationships, careers we have been assaulted by a multitude of ‘shoulds’. These have been substituted for common sense and instinct. Even if we are self-assured and confident people we still find ourselves,  through out networks, in contact with, aware of, and affected by the social norms and influences that run through the networks.

The voice of commonsense, of our mother’s perhaps (who we don’t want to listen to always) would tell us that we can’t do it all. We can’t blog, write an enormous amount of words a day, build our platform, take part in online writing communities, do reviews, interviews, take proper care of our loved ones, our children, hold down, perhaps, another job, keep the house clean, get a publishing deal and appear beautifully pristine in the local paper on the day of our launch, keep our partner, happy, ‘satisfied’, keep in regular contact with all our friends, keep fit, slim and win a Booker.

I often, in the social media channels see people apologising for not getting back to others, not doing #followfriday (where you recommend, on Twitter, good people to follow), not having a #fridayflash. I myself apologise for not getting back to people quickly, not doing a review I promised to do. I spend quite a bit of time thinking where I think I should have got to by now and getting annoyed with myself that I haven’t yet done what I hoped to do.

All this guilt. Sapping the energy out of our lives and our projects. Never mindfully living, concentrating on the experience or enjoyment of what we are doing at a particular moment.

It’s almost September. For many of us with children, it has a New Year feel about it. We want to organise and orient ourselves. Our lives feel cluttered. We can become overwhelmed and half-hearted about our lives and our writing. We can feel that we are not giving enough to either, that we are letting ourselves down in both spheres.For me, I’m pretty sure that the niggling feelings of guilt lead to LESS productivity, MORE stress and LESS satisfaction with life and my interactions and relationships with others.

In terms of writing, feelings of guilt may come from others if they do not appreciate the time spent on a ‘hobby’. We might feel guilty about taking time to do the thing we love when there are so many other pulls. Guilt might become a vicious cycle. We might try to write but it may take longer than we are happy with because we are not able to concentrate properly, because all the shoulds about where we should be now with our novel, what sort of book we should be writing, what we should be doing instead of this etc etc etc sap our energy and distract us from pure imagination and the joy of creating.

These are the ways that I am trying to move away from guilt both in writing and in life.

Give myself credit: Document each day what tasks, writing and otherwise I have accomplished, reflect on the pleasant activities or interactions I have had with family and friends. For writing specifically, review a monthly list of everything I have achieved in that time.

Outline my intentions: In a previous post I mentioned intention journaling, a method used by StudioMothers.com founder Miranda Hershey. She writes down every morning what she would like to achieve for the day. Writing them down clears our heads of our to do lists and allows us to check against them at the end. If short of time we can just jot down a short list in a diary and come back to it at the end of the day.

Outline small achieveable specific goals and check progress against them: This may be a daily wordcount that is highly achieveable (we can extend it more at a later point if we want). Realising that we have written 500 words a day, every day for the last month will show us that we are progressing.

Take breaks: We all have our own rhythms and after 40 mins on a particular task we begin to flag. It’s okay to take a break or to write in short bursts and the goals help us to do this because then we can work towards the goal and not just spend hours gluing ourselves to our writing chair hardly producing anything and feeling that we have ‘writer’s block’. Cut out distractions and stick with it but if you are overtired and it’s not working, go do one of the other tasks in your life, like sock pairing. Surely it’s time you spend some time on that!

Keep an eye on balance: Think about what you want in your life as well as writing.Good relationships, social outings, days out with family rest. Keep an eye on physical factors which hugely affect mood and energy, rest, good food, exercise. If some areas are flagging then make just take time to text, email or phone friends, have a regular family day out, take a daily walk, buy some delicious fresh fruit or ingredients for a delicious, healthy meal.

Kill two birds with one stone

The delicious meal can be prepared with your children, as a fun activiity, or you could do a writing course or visit an interesting venue with a friend.  Use your writing twice, exercise & find writing ideas as you walk.

Turn it all off

Sometimes it’s time to rest, to have fun, to turn off the computer, to go out of the house, to pick fruit, to mess about with boats or in the garden. You should not be writing your novel, you should not be keeping up to date with the forums or researching publishers, you should be out in the world living, filling up your energy and happiness for all your future endeavours, enjoying yourself just for sake of it.

Are you making plans to take the guilt out of your life and to organise yourself. Are there any things that you want to share that have worked for you?