Writerly Wisdom Wednesdays: Take 3
Where's your favourite place to write? I have many where I live in Cambridge: my cherished cafés, the Botanical Gardens, a bench in the local cemetery… Yet I often find that, in the immortal words of Agatha Christie: “the best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” This is a funny little piece of advice, but I find it’s true for me. This isn't to say that inspiration always strikes while my hands are deep in dishwater but – and this is the key element here – it very often does when I’m engaged in doing something that isn’t mental but physical. It might be hovering, or showering, or cycling; but, whatever it is, so long as the activity engages my body and frees up my mind, then I’m often subsequently blessed with the answer to a plot problem or inspired to think up a few satisfactory sentences...
This rather goes against the traditional notion that writing takes place when one is actually sitting down to write. In fact, as Joyce used to try and persuade his wife, a great deal of writing time doesn’t involve any actual writing. A great deal of writing is actually thinking, musing and mulling upon the story before the time comes to set words down upon the page.
To accommodate my thinking on the hoof, I often use the voice memos function on my phone to catch these moments of inspiration, be they plot twists or paragraphs, before they’re forgotten. Now, of course this adds to the writing time because it means that I then have to type up the words, but it also adds a simultaneous sneaky edit – between the ear and the hand, between the act of listening and typing – which is always a beneficial thing. So, nowadays whenever I find myself stuck on something in a story, I simply leave the laptop and go for a walk or a cycle ride and, instead of striving for inspiration, allow it to come to me.
While writing my first novel, The House at the End of Hope Street, there was a particularly dramatic scene towards the end of the book that I kept postponing, being nervous that I couldn’t pull it off. When the time finally came that I couldn’t procrastinate any longer, I spent a few hours trying to craft it, then gave up and went for a walk. I wasn’t halfway down the road when the first four sentences of the scene fell fully-formed into my head. Since I’d forgotten my phone, I immediately turned and ran all the way back home, slid huffing and puffing into my chair, typed up those four sentences then continued to write the entire scene in half an hour without stopping. I didn’t edit or change it and I still think it’s the best scene in the book.
Now, whenever I find myself staring at the blank screen and the blinking cursor, I get up and go for a little walk or, more often since having children, do a bit of housework. As I wash/hover/tidy the infinitely regenerating clutter of toys, I let my mind wander loosely around the scene I was writing, skirting it gently, mulling upon its finer points, and it usually isn’t too long before a spark of inspiration settles on my shoulder and I’m scurrying back to my desk again…
Menna van Praag
14th September, 2022