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In Praise Of Not Writing

Making space for creativity

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

All the writing advice I’d ever read, prior to doing an MA in Creative Writing, said to keep your bum in the seat, stare at those pages until drops of blood appear on your forehead, and write every single day, no matter what. It’s no wonder a lot of writers give up before they’ve even begun. Life, as we all know, has a habit of getting in the way of a writing career, and many writers beat themselves up about every second spent away from the page. But in my first ever creative writing class at MA level, my tutor said something which was to have a profound effect on how I viewed the written word. She informed us that we could ‘Write a book while staring out of the window.’ I had no idea what she meant — she sounded mad! I’d paid a lot of money to do a writing course, but I can write a book while staring through a window? As it turned out, it was the most important piece of writing advice I’ve ever had.

Every knot in a plot, every character who won’t talk to me, every scene that’s ever gone wrong somewhere between my brain and the page, has been sorted out with a good long ‘stare out of the window.’ A walk, a run, a gym session, a chat with a friend in a public place away from that office space I’m always welded to helps me to plunger the soggy tangle of word hair from the drain. Sometimes I will write a scene, have a good long walk around the block, then come back to the desk and completely rewrite that same scene. This is because of the time spent away from it. Thinking about it. Mulling it over. Turning it through my ‘mind mangle’ to see what comes out the other side. And it’s only when I’m away from the page that I can be honest with myself: is that really the way this scene has to happen? Does that section I’ve just agonised over really fit into the novel? When I’m at the desk, I’m loath to cut anything — away from it, it’s much easier to make those tough decisions.

Distance is an underrated writing tool, and not just physical distance, but emotional distance too. When I’ve completed a novel, I will print it out and put it away in the drawer for a few weeks (where time allows) before going back to edit. ‘Putting it in the drawer’ physically and emotionally allows those scenes to marinate; to bathe in their own essence for a while and collect new flavours; new possibilities. Any creative writing group will tell you that ‘fresh eyes’ are vital on a long project because if one is too close to a story, especially one containing personal heartaches or experiences, mistakes can easily be missed. But when I go back to a project, after the break, the mistakes or errors or gaps in the plotline will invariably jump out like fleas from a scruffy dog. Fresh eyes, I’ve found, is also a useful tool for enabling a writer to ‘miss’ their characters. I love spending time with my protagonist in the Sweetpea books and saying goodbye to her after an instalment in her series is done is like saying goodbye to a friend who’s been staying with me to cheer me up. It makes me want to come back to her and be a better friend the next time.

The aforementioned fleabitten dog is another gang member of this writer’s best friend club. Usually, my trips around the block are accompanied by said mutt, who will trundle along beside me, sniffing or cocking his leg as I run through scenes or plotlines in my mind. I have a Notes app on my phone that’s full of new ideas or funny lines that have been conjured up as I’ve been walking the dog. There’s something about moving the legs; getting the heart pumping, filling the lungs with fresh air, noticing surroundings, leaves, litter, overheard chat, that energises my office dweller’s brain.

Sometimes on our walks, I listen to music, and this I’ve found has been the number one generator of new ideas. This dates back to a creative writing task I was set at school, aged about nine-years-old. We had to close our eyes and listen to the track the teacher played. When I woke from my Clannad-inspired slumber, we were tasked to set pencil to exercise book and allow our thoughts to pour forth. In my book, a stream of magic tumbled out about a knight called Miccias and his journey through a deadly maze to rescue a damsel in distress. If I’m honest, the story totally ripped off the Perseus and the Minotaur myth we’d read about in our Classics lessons, but I received five gold tickets for my efforts and was rewarded with much praise and a lifelong love of the written word. Now, if I’m having trouble getting to the heart of an angry scene, an angry piece of music seems to unplug the action for me. If I need to evoke an emotional goodbye or a sad death, a sad piece of music will invariably bring the tears to my eyes at the same time as my character’s. And remember, I am still away from my desk while I do all of this. I haven’t even touched the manuscript yet.

So, what’s the science behind all this? Why does getting away from the keyboard or walking the dog or listening to music contribute to squeezing those creative juices? Studies have shown that listening to music provides a unique ‘brain workout’ proven to reduce anxiety and depression, improve mental alertness and provoke memories — all of which have been cited as reasons why people write at all. Music can also facilitate recovery in subjects who’ve experienced catastrophic events like a stroke or brain injury, allowing them to access areas of the brain untouched by the traumatic episode, so it seems fitting that if music can access pre-existing neurological pathways, it can tap into new areas of inspiration for a writer too.

A 2014 study by Stanford University looked at the effect of walking on creative thinking and discovered that subjects who walked, rather than sat, showed significant improvement in their ability to access creative thoughts. The study pointed to aerobic exercise as the main contributing factor, rather than the surroundings of the walk, and how it facilitated fresh trails in the mind. However, another study by the University of British Columbia found that the colour blue considerably helps one to access the imagination and actively enhances performance in cognitive tasks, suggesting that walking on a clear, bright day could contribute to the ease with which imaginative thoughts arrive.

Indeed, the act of looking out of the window, or ‘daydreaming’ to allow for its more pejorative description, can be very beneficial. Another study by Harvard University points to the productivity of people who daydream — fantasising, wondering and dreaming are all vital activities for a growing child’s imagination. As Ursula K. LeGuin once said, ‘The creative adult is the child who survived,’ so it fits that constantly treating the mind as a muscle and exercising it with new experiences or chances to dream and wonder can help us access ‘dormant’ areas of our minds, which may provide solutions to creative problems.

At the end of the day, when the walk is over and I’m back inside the house with my cheeks hot, muddy wellies off and headphones blaring, the blank page still awaits, as stern and watchful as a disapproving matriarch at the top of the stairs, but by now I have fresh insight to show for my time away. There’s steam with which I can iron out that plot wrinkle. A hook to link together those pesky disjointed scenes. Or a teensy bit more bravery than I had hours earlier so I can delete that entire scene I’ve just written because I know, in my heart, it does not fit. Time away from the page can be just as important as time in front of it. Step away from the desk once in a while, stare out of that window, and you might be surprised by what flies in.

Claire Skuse is a bestselling author of young adult and adult crime novels. Her most recent publication is Dead Head (2021), the third in the Sweetpea series, which is currently in production for TV.

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