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Alison: 5 Ways to Be a Writer When You’re Not Writing

I recently made the acquaintance of blogger and writer Alison Wells via Twitter, which just goes to show you that Twitter is NOT the useless waste of time that some people think it is.

Alison, who lives in Ireland, describes herself this way: “I am a full-time mother of four young children. Writing is the space place at the eye of the storm. I wrote my first poem at eight and have been writing since. A non-fiction piece ‘The Flask’ was included in the latest RTE’s Sunday Miscellany anthology. My short story ‘Bog Body’ was recently published in the Sunday Tribune‘s new writing slot and goes forward for the Hennessy Literary awards, winner to be announced April 2010!”

Alison generously contributed this cross-post from her own blog, which is a timely post for all NaNoWriMo participants. Welcome to Studio Mothers, Alison!

5 Ways to Be a Writer When You’re Not Writing

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.


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

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 my 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.

Record your dreams when you wake3: 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.

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.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Hi,
    Thanks for this great post! It is really very helpful. I’m not a mother, but I am a creativity coach and many of the women who take my creativity workshops are mothers who are trying to find more space for their creative expression. I will definitely pass on your blog to others.

    Come visit me when you get a chance. I’m a creativity coach, professor, yoga teacher and write a blog, ‘The Practice of Creativity’:

    Michele Tracy Berger

    November 2, 2009
  2. thanks, i really needed to hear this. this is exactly what i am doing when i am not writing, therefore i am never actually not writing, just not necessarily putting it to page….i incubated for two months between ‘finishing’ novel 1 and starting novel 2 in nanowrimo.

    ireland, eh? you wouldn’t happen to be anywhere near meath? 😉 (novel 2 is happening there and silly me, i’ve never been!)

    November 2, 2009
  3. alisonwells #

    Hi Michele,

    It’s great to receive these positive comments from you and your creativity website will definately receive an interested visit. Thanks and all the best.

    Hi Cath,

    I really think that incubation is totally underrated. It’s what Archimedes was doing (having a nice bath) when he had his Eureka moment. Those two months you spent between novels sound absolutely necessary to refill the well and stir up the connections. As for Ireland, I grew up in Kerry in the South West and am now in Wicklow – not too far from Meath. But if you think I can be of any help, let me know.


    November 2, 2009
  4. great post! though as the regulars here know that i have a master’s in english and teach college english part-time, i don’t consider myself a writer as many in our group do. i don’t have that burning desire to write. i really enjoyed the suggestions though because i think they truly translate to any creative endeavor!

    November 2, 2009
  5. I agree, Kelly — Alison, your ideas translate to most any creative medium. These strategies are wonderful for helping to “blend” motherhood and creativity. The more that one has to compartmentalize between “now I’m a mother” and “OK, now I’m a creative person,” the more one is likely to feel miserable and resentful — because doing the one thing requires NOT doing the other. I’m so grateful for these concrete suggestions for reducing that sense of division. Thank you!

    November 2, 2009
  6. Diana #

    Oh, I love this, too!
    I did start carrying around one of those index card thingys .. you know, the pack of index cards held together by a screwy thing, and there are different colored cards and a string that wraps around them. Anyway, I jot down things as they pop into my head. Sometimes they are complete ideas and other times they are just titles or topics I want to explore in writing. Sometimes I go back to my pack of cards and discover I have no memory of what I was hoping to write about, but other things do “stick” and when I finally do have the time to sit and write, I am happy I kept that collection of ideas.

    November 2, 2009
  7. alisonwells #

    Hi Kelly, Miranda and Diana,

    Thanks for sharing your comments and experiences. I really love the idea of having more of a seamlessness between your creative and mother self and not having to feel a dicotomy or pull between two halves. I want to try to be in my writing head as much as possible and I am very touched of late by how much my kids are picking up on my identification of myself as a writer. Even at the ages of 8, 7 and 5 they bring it up in conversation with me and mention about my writing to their teachers. It can have a positive impact all round as each endeavour feeds into the other.

    November 3, 2009

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