5 ways to be a writer when you’re not writing.

When you're not writing, get into your writing mind
When you’re not writing, get into your writing mind

You may burn to be a writer, you may understand that it is your true calling and be prepared to put in the hours tapping away on the keyboard or scribbling with your pen but depending on your work situation and personal/family circumstances, there may be stretches of time when you are not able to be physically present with your manuscript. It’s still possible to be in your writing head and to progress with your story or piece even when away from it.


1: Let things simmer (incubation 1)

Psychological research has identified incubation as one of the key elements in creativity. Incubation is defined as ‘a process of unconscious recombination of thought elements that were stimulated through conscious work at one point in time, resulting in novel ideas at some later point in time’ [2]. Seabrook Rachel, Dienes Zoltan (2003). Incubation in Problem Solving as a context Effect (Wiki)

Incubation is the period between your conscious and practical outlining of your piece and the point where you come up with the hook or the usual slant on your proposed story. It’s the time when all your ideas mingle and coalesce and form unusual associations.

Writer Louise Wise recently commented on this blog Once I’m in my writer’s head my best writing has come from cooking the family dinner, wiping a 5 year old’s runny nose and mopping up a grazed knee! Somehow in between all that I’ve written a lovey dovey scene! Multi tasking? No sweat!!

Let things simmer


Sometimes when you are finding it difficult to begin or to progress with your writing you may just need to give your ideas time to incubate. While going about your daily chores, travelling, listening to music etc you can still orient your mind towards your writing project and with a sort of Zen wait and watch approach be receptive to new ideas rising to the surface of consciousness. By placing the elements of your story into a pot and letting it simmer you may find resolutions to your sticky writing problems, you may find an exchange between characters rising fully formed from the stew or a plot angle from a real news story attaching itself successfully to a stuck place in your novel.

2: Get the pot really hot: Engage in a cultural activity (incubation 2)

One writer I know makes it a policy to set aside time for regular cultural trips to museums, art galleries, music recitals, readings, and dance shows. Exposing yourself to a hotch potch of creative ideas allows you to come at stories from different angles, to experience them through a number of senses, to see the world upside down and back to front. Benedict Carey in the New York Times recently wrote on How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect. The article outlines psychological research which shows that the human brain strives for order. Exposing it to the bizarre makes it work harder to make sense of the world and preserve narrative cohesion by identifying patterns. Thus ‘disorientation begets creative thinking’. So while you are immersing yourself in a flood of fascinating ideas, your brain will be working to find a common thread and the juxtaposition of unusual ideas may result in a unique story or piece of writing.


3: Remember and record your dreams (incubation 3)

We all dream, whether we remember or not. Freud made a career out of the Interpretation of Dreams as part of his psychotherapeutic technique. It is true that our dreams may carry many of our conscious and unconscious concerns. Dream interpretation also suggests that many aspects of our dreams can be symbolic. For example a dream of a bath, can mean a tub, or a vessel that carries something important. I am not convinced that we can be absolutely reductionist about our dreams. Any analysis should be done broadly. I believe that our dreams are our subconscious efforts at creating narrative out of our experiences, fragments of memories, subliminal cues, peripheral inputs. We are programmed to make sense of things, to tell stories and our dreams do that while we sleep.

Record your dreams when you wake
Record your dreams when you wake

It is the narrative genius of dreams – making sense out of the utterly bizarre – that makes it so worthwhile to try to recall and record them. It’s not often possible to do this and if we are woken suddenly our dreams often retreat out of reach. However I did, for a time, keep a dream notebook and with practice was able to write down many dreams.

There are, of course, many common themes, what may be called Archetypal stories, and these may as Jung suggested be common universal concerns. As a novelist we aspire to make explicit these universal stories. Our dreams can present us with unusual paths through our personal material that can give us an original voice when dealing with those themes.

4: Pay attention and Notice Difference


Decide to take notice (or notes) of things. I have spoken about this before but compared to children, for example, we take so much for granted, we are rushed, preoccupied etc and don’t take the time to notice the small details surrounding us, the details that can make a reader catch their breath with delight.

Psychology also tells us that we are attracted to people who are similar to ourselves, we are also programmed to gather evidence to support our own theories of life and notice environmental cues that feed into our preoccupations. For example if you are buying a house a drive around the neighbourhood will have you noticing all the For Sale signs. If you are into cars, you might take note of what is parked in the driveways. We need to make an effort to see things differently, to pay attention to the kinds of people we normally disregard, to take an interest in a different aspect of a scene, to watch or read something we might normally never consider.

This puts me in mind of an entertaining BBC comedy quiz show called Have I Got News For You. One of the quiz rounds is the fill in the missing word round. Phrases are taken from a guest publication. The guest publications chosen are a esoteric and ecletic mix including Welding and Metal Fabrication Monthly, Barbed Wire Collector, Hairdressers Journal International, Vacuum Cleaner Collectors Club Newsletter. While some examples are hilarious, these publications go to show that there are so many specialized interests out there, some you may never have imagined. What kind of people are interested in these sorts of things, what sort of lives do they lead? Aspire to see difference where ever you go.


Inspiration at the washing line

5: Finally find Inspiration at the washing line (Inspiration 1)

/in the car wash/emptying the dishwasher/having a shower

I don’t think there is a reason I chose washing related examples but it’s at moments of mindless activity where our garrulous consciousness coasts into automatic and goes quiet  that the subconscious gets a chance to speak its mind. I knew many years ago that I wanted to be a writer but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what to write about. It’s true to say that the experience of years provides material. It strengthens associations and references that lend depth to writing. However I have discovered since I decided to just BE a writer that you can write about absolutely anything. And it’s at the washing line that all the phrases, news items, emotions, characters merge together and instantaneously throw out several fascinating ideas.

Why the washing line? It’s peaceful. I am momentarily (and I mean momentarily) away from the clamour of the children. It’s usually pleasant, uplifting weather (the reason I’m hanging out the washing in the first place). There may be a fresh breeze or bird song. The action of hanging out the washing is repetitive and soothing and requires little concentrated brain power. It is here that the fruits of all that incubation are realised, I become inspired and I find my way through. I trace the narrative thread of the line until a story falls from the bright blue sky. A man with an obsession with weeding is an emotional tyrant who bullies his wife. A pigeon’s coo reminds me of a time and a place and first love. A jokey remark made to one of the children becomes a possible children’s picture book story.

I am a writer in my head, in my dreams, in my outlook, in the middle of my chores. I nearly trip over the washing basket as I run back inside to find a pen to pen the ideas in and prevent them from getting away. So don’t sweat when you can’t be writing, get into your writing head, feed your subconscious and let it do the work for you.

Five fives for inspiring the mind

Use the five fives to inspire you
Use the five fives to inspire you

The overarching theme of this blog, as you know, is head space. In the context of my endeavours as a writer this in particular means the kind of head space that will engender creativity, that feeling of flow that connects you with the wellspring that is your subconscious and your memory, allowing you to draw on it as you develop your characters and their stories. The space in your brain where slumbering synapses flicker alive, stirring up old thoughts or rememberences but connecting them your current context so that they become fresh and novel.

I am lucky that I have a wonderful physical space in which to write, a dormer room that looks out at trees and is the most tranquil room in the house, elevated as it is from the tramp and everyday clatter of the four young children. What is difficult is finding the temporal and the mental space to ‘chill’ and take breath before embarking each day on a current project, novel-in-progress or story. I have begun getting up at 6am to give myself that temporal space but mentally and physically the frantic pace of life, particularly since the schools term began has left me a little flat, unable to breathe life into myself, my characters or stories.

There are many excellent writing exercises out there for helping you overcome writer’s block or generate creative ideas. (I am aware as I write, I don’t mean to imply that writing isn’t about hard slog and writing even when you don’t feel inspired). Last night, overcome with tiredness but feeling cut off from my writing life, I sat in bed with a notebook and ask myself to consider these Five Fives.

FIVE FIVES Writing exercise for clearing the fog/mental fug

1: Write down 5 people who interested you lately

2: Write down 5 unusual dilemmas

3: Describe 5 phenomenon (social, natural, psychological, etc) that fascinate you

4: Detail 5 striking places

5: Document 5 emotional reactions that struck a chord with you or surprised you

Look for the texture
Look for the texture

Do the exercises quickly and without censor. The aim of this exercise is just to slow down the mind and to orient it to take note. A good example of this process is in my poem Now where the panic of the everyday is contrasted by slow observances. Your aim in using this exercise over several occasions is to achieve greater and greater subtlety in your observances. When describing a place that interested you, you first might say ‘Paris’ or a ‘local train station’ but as time goes by your observances might become more detailed, such as ‘a pebbledashed wall with a lovely texture’, or ‘The rafters of the station roof where pigeons were tightrope walking’. This exercise may help you pay attention when out and about in daily life. When considering the ’emotional reaction’ or ‘people’ exercise you may find yourself taking note of people in conversation and their facial expressions or physical characteristics and mannerisms that make them unique.

The five phenomenon that I listed were ‘The Twitter Community, An unexpected flash of light (the bulb of one of the lights in the room later blew), Transparent Fish (from a national geographic magazine), Geysers and Death Valley.’  I realised I could use the symbolism of the transparent fish in a short story I am writing about a woman who feels that she is leaving no lasting imprint on the world. The other locations and experiences might well end up as landscapes or images in other stories.

The 5 dilemmas of course are fabulous ways to generate plot and motivation for your stories, they give you an immediate hook around which a story sometimes begins to coalesce almost by itself.

So, if you are in a mental fug, are weary or stuck, try out these exercises and please comment on whether or not you found them useful and why. In the meantime I will try to follow my own advice and get back to putting layers in my stories.

Head space at dawn

Last night the baby woke again.  His Dad, who deserves a shelf of parenting accolades, got up yet again.  But if I don’t keep my eyes absolutely shut and resist the urge to turn over I start to wake up and if its almost midsummer and the bloody birds, bless them, think that the faint light of three forty five means its morning and they are going to sing their hearts out telling me that, then the wires connect and there you go, the brain’s awake and spinning. 

Hubby comes back to bed and to the sound of his gentle snoring, I think of a fabulous (ideas are either horrifying or fabulous at that time of the morning) idea for a new website for creative parents. I think of several new ideas for blogging and find two lines of a short story I am writing sitting on the kitchen table of my mind with a mug of coffee beside them.  I compose a e-letter to a friend and work out the logistics of pick ups and drop offs and the events of the forthcoming day.

How productive am I. It is 4am on a Monday morning of a very busy week.  The kids are all asleep, I am alone in my head for once and so I find there is plenty of space there after all.

Creative Writing Exercise

You arrive at the supermarket and bump into an old friend. What does she look like now? What was your relationship with her? How do you feel when you see her? How do you want to present yourself to her. Is there something in particular you really don’t want her to know?

She invites you and your husband to dinner. Do you go? If so, what happens. What happens if your secret slips out in conversation, are there consequences? Write up to 500 words just to see where it takes you.