Lots of bloggers are concentrating on lists at the moment. Lists of how to get published, how to write, how to plot, how to write main characters. There seems to be a list of ‘must do’s’ for almost every aspect of writing.
These lists are fantastic tools for shaping your work into a genre and a style and getting in a fit shape to submit to an agent or publisher. In fact, full length books on ‘how to write’ often sell better than fiction novels. Why is this? It’s all about the prize of publication and the associated validation of sharing your work with other, appreciative people.
I’ve never been a list person. Not that I can’t construct or follow lists, quite the opposite, I fully understand why instructions and structure are important. Yet there is another side to writing. It’s the gut feeling that you need to write, the germination of an idea and the gestation period before writing.
Of course, there will be those people who have crossed over to the dark side (only joking for those easily offended by Star Wars metaphors) and have been published and paid. Those who have turned their writing into a job. Does working to deadlines and lists of publication stages affect creative thinking, crowding the mind with how things ‘should’ be as opposed to the freedom of creating something unique?
There are parallels to be drawn here in the way that narratives are described. Ricoeur suggested that the difference between a story with a beginning, middle and end and a list of instructions was (*drum roll*) meaning. This can be construed as plot or timeline. The language of a story is imbued with meaning that carries it along, whereas a list of instructions is static.
Following on from this, creativity involves a certain amount of thinking. To construct a story the timeline lies in the past, present and future of the character in elements of backstory, dialogue and suspense. A list of instructions, however, may hint at the future and certainly reflects a past in terms of a fixed ‘truth’ or ‘should’ but does not involve a timeline as such, just a statement of what will rigidly happen. No suspense there then.
So, when thinking about a story, when ruminating over characters and places, eras and timelines, plots, would the creative process be stifled by referring to rules and lists? Would more original work emerge from freethinking?
Having recently freed myself from the shackles of a writing hierarchy where fixed truth was considered sacred, I was refreshed by the story of Steven Kelman, who wrote ‘Pigeon English’. Contrary to rules and regulations and ‘how to do’ lists, he sent in a manuscript that hadn’t been read by anyone but himself, no peer review, no literary report, no creative writing MSc, no real writing experience, and was picked off the ‘slush pile’. It seems that someone has been able to think, really think, about a story, free from the pressures of validation, of ‘how to do’ lists and of finance, produce something original and still get published.
Not that I am unsupportive of all of the above validation structures, they are a fantastic scaffolding industry for those invested in it. It’s just good to realise that the other benefits of writing are not overlooked.
Today’s benefit is thinking. Really deep thinking. Not worrying about whether it’s right or wrong, whether it will sell or even about getting it down on paper, just freethinking about a plot. Imagining a world that doesn’t quite exist yet, until you share it with language. Thinking about resonances such as music or a particular colour. Or thinking about a concept. A deep rooted conceptualised idea that is still a little like setting jelly, not yet solid.
The benefit of this is nothing to do with money or validation, it’s about spending time with yourself. About the process before lists or structure or shoulds, the private chaotic world before the story is measured up and constrained by the objectivity, and even subjectivity of others.
To be continued…