A Pilgrim's Guide

The Art of Creative Writing

 Part One

The Art of Creative Writing

The Four Keys

At some stage in our life, almost all of us experience the urge to transcribe our thoughts and experiences on paper. Hard on the heels of this desire come a flood of doubts. ‘Do I really have the talent to write anything worth reading? Am I good enough’? A better question to ask ourselves might be: ‘Do I have sufficient passion to express my thoughts on paper?’ Every one of us has things to say that will be of benefit and interest to others. There is no reason why the great majority of us cannot hone and sharpen the talents we already have and learn to write well, provided only that our desire and determination are strong enough.

My intention in this publication is not primarily to point the way for developing niche markets and lucrative contracts, but rather to explore how we can develop our creativity and come in touch with the source of inspiration. After that we are in a better position to explore in parts Two and Three the ‘nuts and bolts’ that are integral to the craft of writing.

The sequence is logical. Without genuine inspiration, no amount of technique will ever be quite enough. But even if we possess great ability there will still be battles to face. Part Seven is completely different in the subject matter that it covers, but equally as important for writers at any stage of their development. This is where we examine the emotional pressures that stall and stunt our creativity.

Four central themes weave their way in and out of almost every section of this book. These are not sequential steps but rather that, at any given moment, one of them will prove the most appropriate response. The secret lies in having the wisdom and the experience to know which one to apply.

1) Cultivate the Still Small Voice

All artists possess some form of a ‘sixth sense’. It taps into our subconscious store of experiences and supplies us with fresh insights, as well as warning us when something needs amending or sharpening. So far from merely being something that we are either blessed with or not (and many of us might instinctively feel that we are not) we shall explore some of the many things we can do to cultivate this all important source of inspiration.

2) Maintain Friends and Activities away from the Word-Bank

As we shall be seeing, priceless insights often come our way during seemingly ‘fallow’ periods. Certain types of wordless recreation are as important as hard graft for releasing our creative potential.

3) Hold up Banners of Truth

Discouraging thoughts bombard the writer’s mind. To help us refute their persistent suggestions, we have suggested mentally unfurling specific “banners” for each theme that we address. Repeating and insisting on these slogans will highlight the key principles we are eager to communicate. Best of all, we can apply these principles to any size or shape of writing project.

4) Resolve to Pursue your Vocation.

How can we refocus our gaze in the face of pressing worries and distractions? By making the pursuit of our vocation our first and last resort. By doing this, we will rapidly increase the size and scale of our output and increasingly master the tools of our trade.

The One per cent of Inspiration

‘Tis God gives skill,
But not without men’s hands:
He could not make Antonio Stradivari’s violin
without Antonio’. (George Eliot)

No workshop rack stocks it, it cannot be bought and it can barely be taught, yet it is utterly essential to the writer’s calling. What is this vital element which enables us to share our insights effectively and creatively? In a word, inspiration.

In a celebrated newspaper interview, Thomas Edison claimed that:

‘Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration’.

Most of us are familiar with this quote and approve it readily. We may, however, merely end up subconsciously glorifying the great work ethic and miss the vital point. Of what value is the ninety-nine percent hard graft if the all-important one per cent ingredient of inspiration is missing? It would be as meaningless as knitting metres and metres of wool without thought to pattern or design.

We can balance our text according to rhyme, rhythm and reason at any stage of the revision process. What we cannot do without is the still small voice of inspiration, which provides us with our distinctive starting point and particular way of expressing our central themes. This ‘still small voice’ is a combination of flashes of genuine intuition and the fruit of sound judgement. It enables us to embrace new thoughts, to see the potential in life’s many different experiences, and to single out and follow promising leads.

The ancient Greeks used to speak of ‘The Muse,’ and of the ‘chairos’ – the special moment at which revelation is imparted and matters become clear. To a greater or lesser extent, all successful writers know that they are dependent on it. They also know how important it is to cultivate it by getting away from our noise-driven world and to be in places where conducive to receiving inspiration. Whether it takes the form of a hobby, walking, or doing the housework, it will almost certainly come under a ‘non-academic’ heading and involve something that might appear monotonous and repetitive to outsiders.

Herein lies our first great paradox: to bring something distinctive to the word-face requires spending time well away from it. Writers have perfectly legitimate reasons why they adopt mildly eccentric and antisocial social habits!

A few days ago I was dandling our two-year-old on my knee when I suddenly ‘knew’ how to solve a thorny issue that had been stumping me for over a year. Being unsure of which way to develop one of the central themes in a novel I was sketching out, I reluctantly laid it to one side. Knowing there was nothing more I could do until this problem was resolved, I ‘possessed my soul in patience,’ to use the Biblical expression, and pressed on with other projects.

One single unexpected moment of illumination imparted the direction and the impetus I so badly needed. Now I can face the mountain of hard work that lies ahead because I have received the one percent of inspiration.

Let me give another illustration. I am currently writing a manual on Grief, to which I gave profoundly original working title of ‘Grief’. I read extensively and by the end of several weeks’ hard work I had produced – no surprise this – a manual on the Grief process. We printed a limited number of copies and distributed them at a retreat we held for those who were mourning. It served its apprenticeship and fulfilled its purpose, but even though I had poured my heart into the text, it still felt too impersonal, too cerebral. The worst thing was, I could think of no way of making it less stiff and stilted. And then, a few weeks ago, while having a bath, it became crystal clear to me that the book could be rewritten much more creatively in the form of an extended meditation.

The longed for ‘chairos’ had occurred. In an instant the project moved from head to heart. The still small voice had spoken and a far more original title sprang to mind: ‘Veil of Tears’. Most of the material I have prepared will doubtless end up being incorporated in one form or another, but the theme and tonality will be infinitely sharper.

We cannot always trace the coming of inspiration so precisely to one date and place. Often, it emerges over a period of time, like dew drops accumulating on the grass. But since we prize the Tool of Inspiration so highly, we must not be deterred by its apparent intangibility. Although it may often seem tantalizingly elusive, there is much we can learn about making ourselves more receptive to it. If we can learn to coral and cultivate the insights and half nudges that come our way, we can provide far richer light and shade to enhance both the fore and back-grounds for our writing.

As the second of our maxims suggests (Maintain Friends and Activities away from the Word-Bank) our best ideas often come when we are farthest from the writing desk. It is these precious steering touches which make it possible for us to make sense of apparently disparate and random elements, and to integrate them into our work.

We can see, then, that the real process of writing begins long before we pick up a pen or switch on the computer. It is already under way, as we subconsciously process the stimuli and experiences of life. Most of us never do anything about these half-formed ideas that flit through our mind, except perhaps to share them as casual thoughts with close friends and intimates. But we, as writers, cannot permit such promising material to escape so lightly. To limit the events and happenings of life to casual conversation would be to lose forever the possibility that they could one day be turned into something worth reading.

At all costs, therefore, we must translate these thoughts and ideas onto paper. Whatever form they finally assume, whether reflective meditation, white-hot article of protest, or, at several stages removed as fictitious episodes, the most important thing is to record the core experience: not only what happened, but how did the people involved feel about what happened. The material itself can be shaped and fashioned at leisure, but the original moment of inspiration can never be fully recaptured. There is no second chance to record first impressions.

Why pretend that this process of transcribing seemingly random thoughts and experiences onto paper is an effortless one? That would be as naive as to suppose that top runners are merely blessed with a better than average pair of legs. Writing well requires something of the same degree of commitment that it takes to run a sub four minute mile.

Since this one per cent of inspiration provides both the bedrock substratum of our work and the final top soil too, we must be prepared to take whatever steps are necessary in order to cultivate a lifestyle that is conducive to receiving such revelation.

This brings us to the first of the many key banners we shall be unfurling: ‘Be open to receive inspiration at unlikely times and in improbable places’. Right alongside it, however, we must place another: ‘Record these insights in an easily retrievable form’.

Excruciating Excuses

‘Hell is paved with good intentions
And roofed with lost opportunities’. (Anon)

I met a new friend unexpectedly for lunch the other day in the hospital cafeteria. ‘Writers,’ he mused, pondering my profession. ‘They spend most of their time making excuses for not doing it, don’t they?’ Unpalatable though it is to admit, I have a sneaking feeling that he is probably right.

How pertinently Browning put it when he asked, ‘Does he write? He fain would paint a picture. Does he paint? He fain would write a poem’. Anything, in other words, rather than get on with the hard work of writing. Jesus made it clear in two of His parables that feeble excuses could cause people to miss out on His heavenly kingdom. Laziness, likewise, can cause us to forfeit many achievements we could achieve if we were prepared to stretch ourselves a bit more.

In the story Jesus told about a banquet in Luke 14, people came up with a variety of excuses for not accepting the invitations they had received. The least convincing was the person who had just bought a field, and who felt an overwhelming need to go and inspect it. After all, the field would still have been there the following day. Another had just bought a tractor (well, five yoke of oxen at any rate!) and was keen to put them through their paces.

I have rather more sympathy for the person who had just got married, but when we take these excuses together we find that they centre on property, possessions, and priorities. All of these are perfectly good things in themselves, as long as they serve rather than quench out calling to write.

When it comes to overcoming our excuses, we have to move beyond the need to ‘feel’ inspired, and to write, pray, paint or whatever it is that we are called to do. To keep proffering the pretext that we are too tired / unqualified / or lacking in inspiration effectively dooms us to getting nowhere.

We shall plumb the reasons for our emotional reluctance to write in Part Four. For the moment, we need to come face to face with our proneness to making excuses. Our primary need is to develop frameworks that will facilitate our creativity. Are there simple practical steps we can take to make our writing environment more conducive? Even something as simple as switching the answer phone on can spare us time-consuming interruptions and free us to attend to the business in hand.

Where our resolve is fixed, we can usually find solutions. Baby-sitters can be brought in to give us time to write, and the care of elderly parent be swapped with others in order to buy ourselves a few precious writing hours.

But perhaps something even more radical may be called for: structural changes even to the house in order to carve out the seclusion that we need. Staying up late, or getting up way before dawn may well be the only way in which we will ever bring a cherished project to completion. After all, if students are willing to do this to complete their studies, then should we do less in pursuit of our goal? Anything is better than failing to finish our work!

If at all possible, keep the writing zone separate from the area where we attend to administrative tasks. The reason for this is simple. The Craft of Writing can seem at times so dauntingly demanding that we would cheerfully put anything ahead of doing it – even to the point of attending to repairs we have successfully been putting off for months.

It is the willingness to overcome excuses that separates would-be writers from real ones. When the talking horse, Bree, escapes from Archenland in CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, he is under the illusion that he is pushing himself hard. In reality, he has forgotten what it is like to have a rider who would have spurred him on to considerably greater efforts. Can we recognise that our proneness to making excuses has made us somewhat lazy?

It is here that we face our first and most crucial obstacle. There are serious psychological barriers to writing that need to be overcome. Like a bucking restless horse, our inner reluctance to pick up our pen must be broken. How will we advance beyond pointless reverie while we remain a-bed a-dreaming?

There is nothing easy or automatic about defeating these deeply-ingrained excuses. Competing and complicated circumstances are hard enough to deal with, but the plaintive whines of our inmost being are still more inveigling. ‘I need another hour in bed,’ we protest, vehemently or sluggishly, depending which mode we think stands the most chance of prevailing against our better intentions. ‘Surely there’s no harm, in that?’ Wrong! Such attitudes may actually matter a great deal. It is only by constantly overcoming our inertia that we will mature as writers who have the unique capacity to inspire others.

Let me go still farther. If we are not prepared to exercise this sort of discipline, our writing will remain forever a chance affair; a ‘hit’ when times are good, but a distant ‘miss’ when competing attractions or difficulties come our way.

By careful observation and experience, we must learn to recognise which people, places and situations stimulate and refresh our creativity, and which hinder the freedom of our spirit. Our goal should be that when we return to our work we feel refreshed by our chosen activity. If walking, cycling, swimming and watching or playing ball games are our thing, then step out and enjoy them to the full – but be aware that not all forms of recreation will prove equally conducive to writing. While some plays or films may inspire us profoundly, others will drag our emotions into dead-end alleys, and leave us feeling confused and distracted. Why? Because we have shared too deeply in someone else’s vision and, as a consequence, drifted too far from our own writing projects.

Maturity as a writer consists of knowing when it is perfectly in order to rest and relax, and when we need to dig deep and push through external obstacles and our own inner reluctance. As surely as people following a diet must avoid certain foods, so those who are serious about developing the Craft of Writing must take care not to fill their minds with unhelpful material. ‘Do not be deceived,’ St Paul warns, ‘bad company, (like bad reading or undisciplined viewing habits) corrupts good character’. (1 Corinthians 15:33)

Our banner reminds us of the maxim “Develop the Resolve to Pursue our Vocation” and prods at our conscience: ‘Excuses are inexcusable’.

Pause and Ponder.

What are the excuses you most frequently use to avoid getting on with some writing project?

What underlying attitudes do these indicate?

More to the point, what are you going to do to overcome them?

Moment-Mosting

‘What shelter to grow ripe is ours?
What leisure to grow wise?
Too fast we live, too much are tried,
Too harass’d to attain
Wordsworth’s sweet clam,
or Goethe’s wide
And luminous view to gain.’

(Matthew Arnold, Obermann Once More)

There is only one thing in life that can never be redeemed, and that is wasted time. Every day is a gift to treasure: a unique chance to love and cherish others and to use the time we have been given to create something beautiful.

As always, the big picture is best achieved by making the most of the small opportunities that come our way. Rachel Simon describes how a former French Chancellor, d’Aguesseau, used to write each evening for a quarter of an hour, while he waited for his wife, who was regularly late for dinner. How much more creative than calling her names while the soup got cold! One year later his book was complete. It proved to be a best-seller!

Since most of us lead pressurized lives, we are deluding ourselves if we hope to be able to find enough time to write. We need to be more pro-active than that and make it. This is a vital distinction.

If at all possible, we should aim to complete the targets we set ourselves each day. Rachel urges beginner writers to find seven hours a week in which to write. One hour a day may not sound much, but most of us have to juggle competing commitments to the point where this slot needs to be factored in carefully. Two things will help us to achieve this:

    1. The ability to prioritise.
    2. The flexibility to write wherever we are.

If we are making pursuing the Craft of Writing our priority, we will find that far more activities than we would ever have thought possible can be postponed or set aside. The world will not come to end. to compensate for the things we no longer have the time to attend to personally, then maybe we are opening a door and giving that person the break they were looking for. Just as families routinely make complicated child-care arrangements if both parents go out to work, so we must look upon this writing hour as a priority engagement.

We are writers, and we must give ourselves permission to escape for our hallowed hour away from the television, the kids and everything else. Politely but firmly we may sometimes have to insist on being ‘antisocial’ and turn down attractive-sounding invitations. We know from much experience that we will never complete our quiver of writings so long as we remain set on living a full social life. We rush after so many things that are, in reality, peripheral to our calling. We waste time and energy rehearsing endless ‘what if’ scenarios, trying to fathom out hypothetical issues we are not actually required to face at this moment. Why not just get on with the real work instead?

As for trying to meet everyone else’s expectations for our lives, we are on a hiding to nothing. Unless we set the boundaries carefully, placing ourselves on an endless merry-go-round. Of course, one reason we may be trying so hard to take care of other people’s needs and feelings is that we are subconsciously deriving a large part of our own self-worth from trying to meet these needs. Psychologists call it ‘co-dependency’ when we transfer our attention away from ourselves and focus instead on the needs of others.

In relational terms, our empathy with others is proof of our sensitivity and generous spirit. In terms of pursuing the craft of writing it tends to make us inefficient and prone to burn out. Worse, leaping to meet the needs of others gives us the excuse we were subconsciously looking for to avoid putting in the long hours of hard work that are needed to bring our projects to completion.

Moment-mosting is all about putting the stray opportunities of life to good use and turning wherever we happen to be a special writing place. Many are the times I have sat on benches in shopping malls and leisure centres revising texts, while family members complete their activities – just as I have scribbled countless ideas on trains, planes and buses. I have even spent long hours in freezing cars revising texts in the chill of the pre-dawn hours, afraid to turn the engine back on once the motion has finally rocked my all too wide awake baby back to sleep. For the record, I began this section in a leisure centre waiting for my son to finish his kayak session, and revised it on a ferry boat, waiting to get into a fog-bound Aberdeen Harbour.

If we find our home environment too constrictive for creative writing, then why not ring the changes and use a friend’s house instead? It makes an excellent alternative to a public library and may be a real haven of peace during the working day. If we find other places conducive, then go there again.

As we progress farther into the calling, the distractions become more sophisticated. Because writing is such a solitary calling, it is only natural that we should seek out like-minded people. Before we know where we are, however, we may find our new interest leading us to attend (or teach) so many writing classes and conferences that we end up mistaking our first hand acquaintance with the literary world with actually doing the nitty-gritty hard work of writing.

Pause and Ponder

Make a simple audit over a four-week period of how you spend your time. This will quickly show you whether or not you are on track for finding the seven sacred hours a week to write. For the professional, this figure should be more like twenty five or thirty hours.

If you are regularly failing to meet your quota, what activities are there that you can legitimately shelve or jettison? Is there anyone who can be recruited to help you with your non writing activities? Or, if they are competent on computers, to type in your amendments?

No matter what constricting circumstances we may have to contend with, there are always ways to make the most of the time. Take a look at how you plan your holidays, for example. Are you able to make them ‘combined affairs’ – necessary time-out to recharge minds, bodies and family life but also a priceless opportunity to see new sights and to record fresh thoughts and experiences?

Our banner for this section is the nearest thing I know to a magic shortcut for achieving a finished result. When leaving a piece of work, make a mental agreement with yourself to return to it again soon. Respect this engagement as a firm commitment, and treat it as a high priority. This will avoid leaving a project so long on the back boiler that we lose touch with it. Such a firm arrangement will increase our output, maintain the unity of thought and tone in the writing – and prove to ourselves if to no one else that we are committed to becoming a ‘real’ writer.

Cultivating a Receptive Spirit

The Muse, nae poet ever fand her,
Till by himself he learned to wander,
Adown some trotting burn’s meander,
An’ no think lang’. (Robert Burns)

It may come as a shock to westerners reared on the ethos of hard graft and long hours to realise that it is at moments of apparent idleness that we are at our most receptive to our sharpest insights and impressions. The more we appreciate this paradox, the more willing we will be to allow ourselves to close down the busy bustling of our brain for a season and to nurture a ‘slower’ pace of life. Not so slow that we fall asleep and rust away; just relaxed enough to tap into the endless resources of the still small voice.

The better we understand this link between recreation and inspiration, the more willing we will be to give ourselves permission and take time out. As our third key maxim reminds us, it makes every sense for writers to escape for a season from the word-bank and indulge in wordless recreation. Dorothea Brand’s masterly book ‘Becoming a Writer’ focuses almost exclusively on the crucial role of the subconscious in the writing process.

Deep within our subconscious lies an almost inexhaustible stream of ideas and experiences, along with the emotions that accompanied these episodes. We may suppose most of these to be long since forgotten, yet they are not beyond recall. If we can find ways to tap into this vast fund, we will rediscover a pool of events and anecdotes and release a deeper degree of identification to illustrate the points we are eager to convey. Even the most painful experiences can be reworked on paper and used for the benefit of others.

We must co-operate, too, with our body rhythms. We were designed to alternate between active hours, when our senses are on full alert, and quiescent ones, when our inner being has the chance to catch up with itself. It is because society’s norms are so out of kilter that unbridled stress places such demands on people and wreaks such havoc in our lives.

For many years I was tempted to regard my propensity to feel sleepy in the afternoon as an embarrassing weakness. Seen and used creatively, this quieter period often proves to be a time of enlightenment as well as of much needed refreshment. A semi-drowsy state can restore our soul to peace and reward us with solutions to problems that had long been defeating our ‘conscious’ minds. Other experiences and associations that come to mind can be ‘processed’ and turned into insights that will come across as both fresh and interesting.

There are times when artists must refrain from looking guiltily across at their curriculum-driven hard-working peers and stop and stare into space. This is not to be confused with the deadness induced by exhaustion. Neither is this idleness. We are speaking rather of the essential preparation which frees the subconscious to achieve its deeper work within our soul. Liberated from the excessively rational critiques and limitations of our conscious minds, our writing will soon show new signs of vigour and freshness.

Since the subconscious is such a promising well of inspiration, it is unfortunate that Freud has corrupted the way we view it – almost to the point where we are tempted to look down on it, as though we are dealing with a lesser species. Perhaps we should dispense with the term ‘subconscious’ altogether and speak rather of developing the life of the spirit within us.

Rest and ‘play’ times are as important for grown-up writers as they are for children. Did the Lord not create children with an instinct to play because He was putting something of His own nature into them? Referring to children’s willingness to play the same game over and again, G. K. Chesterton delightfully declared, ‘Our Father is younger than us’.

We can develop this life of the spirit in us by cultivating what I have rather euphemistically termed ‘The Daily Review’. (I believe in the value of this concept passionately, however intermittently I manage to perform it!) At the end of the day I play back the key events as if watching them on a video, recalling the emotions associated with them as well as what actually happened. Sometimes I ‘pause the video frame’ and replay particular scenes to see if there were pointers hidden within them: ‘nudges’ to nurture or which require further action, or – more painfully – attitudes I have struck and comments I have made that need to be put right. The Daily Review helps us recover lost insights, and brings back to our consciousness insights that would otherwise have been lost for ever.

And then we must write them down. As we hinted earlier, inspiration arrives at the most unlikely times and place, but because it is normally so fleeting we must train ourselves to write these insights down in an easily retrievable form. We will be grateful later that we took the trouble to do this.

In this quest to move beyond a world dominated by words, there are deeper links to explore between music and inspiration. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called music, ‘The universal language of mankind’. Martin Luther went so far as to describe it as ‘The Art of the Prophets – the only Art that can calm the agitations of the soul’.

Do you know which styles of music regularly inspire creativity and which divert from it? Try putting some music on while writing: music that moves, smooths or inspires; that expresses our emotions and which helps us to identify with other people’s hopes and griefs. Now try an entirely different style of music. How does it affect the way we approach our subject material?

In all this we are seeking to make it easier to hear the still small voice speak. To be led by the spirit means having the eagerness of a child to learn and discover new facets of life. Why settle for the safe and predictable? To recognize that our preoccupations and mental horizons have shrunk may be the first stirring towards an inner awakening. The more commitments we take on board, the more quality time off we need to compensate against the increased demands. It is in these seemingly fallow moments that our pool of experiences and insights being is constantly renewed.

We can look on the thoughts and ideas which come during these moments of quiet inspiration as being like dormant seeds that await a latter-day flowering. What we receive at such times distils like dew into our hearts, and from there passes on in due time to water many other lives as well.

For many of us, the waking moments are all-important. Before we find ourselves overwhelmed by the thought of all we have to do today (and all we failed to do yesterday); before the radio and television bring us tidings of the world’s disasters, and the bills arrive to challenge our bank balance, and with it our mental equilibrium, it is good to still the soul and to open ourselves to new thoughts and possibilities.

Because writing is such a lengthy and emotionally stretching process, we must be gentle with ourselves. Berating ourselves is nearly always counterproductive – but gentleness should not be confused with flabbiness. In the original Greek, I am told, the word contains the notion of breaking in a wild stallion. Gentleness is strength harnessed and put to its proper use.

Pause and Put into Practice

When we reach a place of stillness, beyond the clutter of words and troubling thoughts, we may be close to the borderlands of inspiration. This requires regular practice. Try going to quiet places and practising being still. What are the sounds that fill the air and catch our attention? Are we hearing too many of our own conflicting thoughts, or are we tuning into our surroundings? Don’t start thinking about current writing projects unless they force themselves on us. Just absorb the atmosphere and listen.

Practise holding the mind still. If we can manage to do that (and we may not be able to do so every single time we try) then now is the time to think our way into our material. Focus intently and in turn on each character or detail of our latest writing project. Let aspects of their personality and actions become real. The more fully we can envisage them, the more passionate and convincing each scene will be when we come to write them up. It is this inner conviction and authenticity which draws readers to identify with the themes we are exploring and the world we are creating.

Tuning up and Tuning in

Orchestral musicians tune up carefully before the music begins, just as athletes warm up thoroughly before a race. We too as creative artists must warm up and tune in. We do this best by simply giving freer rein to whatever thoughts and ideas are uppermost in our minds. Most writers find that they are at their most receptive in the distraction-free early hours. But whether we gravitate towards predawn, mid-noon or post nightfall will depend on our circumstances as well as on whether we are larks or owls.

Much that we write during this warmup period between being sleep and wakefulness may stray and ramble, but that is of no consequence. For the moment, all that matters is to be guided by the ideas and concerns that seem most pressing.

To pursue the metaphor, we could liken these early morning jottings to musicians tuning their instruments, and athletes warming up. The only difference is that whereas athletes do not break records and musicians do not make recordings while they are practising, it is entirely possible for us to record thoughts and impressions we may later be able to shape into something of real value.

Many people like to warm up by journaling first thing in the morning. The great advantage of doing this is that we do not need to concern ourselves with how some imaginary ‘outside reader’ might view our text; we are writing for our own edification and nobody else’s. In this sense, it is akin to ‘stream of consciousness’ writing. As we record the flow of interests, ideas and hurts we may long have been storing up, the mere fact of setting them down on paper helps us to find clarity and release.

The crucial need here is not to allow pride and self-protectiveness a landing strip. They invariably reduce the truth and honesty flow. Why make the effort to portray ourselves in a good light? It is not as though anybody else need ever read these scribblings.

The one thing I would not recommend is starting the day with anything that demands too much thought. If there is any room for manoeuvre, leave the heavy stuff till later. We will find it much harder to switch back later into a more creative mode.

For the same reason, I prefer to leave writing letters and e-mails till later in the day. Occasionally, however, I do start here. Taking time to address people’s concerns can play its part in sharpening our literary craft, as well as keeping us in touch with their real needs.

Rather than seeking to stoke our intellect to fever pitch too early in the day, this is the time to be instinctive, to allow our spirit to have its day. We can afford to let the rationalistic editor within have a lie-in. When this fellow wakes us, nothing will stop him from wielding his blue pen, and having a heyday – but for the moment we are creators not critics. Our only concern is to capture our innermost thoughts and ideas. Later, as we reflect on what we have written, we may be able to see threads that connect and make sense of the jumble of thoughts, impressions, memories and anecdotes that come to mind; for the moment, we can be content just to write and record. Our banner for these times is a prescriptive one: ‘Don’t analyse – just write’.