Writing a book: a chapter about you, and how to find yourself.
I like a good meditate. It’s the way I start my day. Not thinking about anything is the ideal meditative state but (and don’t tell anyone) my mind is not good at doing nothing. So, I sit quietly, eyes focused on a spot in front of me. Getting comfortable is the first priority. I sit upright on a chair, although staying in bed flat on my back, but awake, is an alternative, much frowned upon by aficionados who need to be sitting on hard cushions, Buddha like, with contorted knees. Whatever makes you happy. Once a meditation session starts my aim is not to move, at all. If my nose itches it is ignored, I am as still as a statue. I start by breathing – I mean becoming conscious of my breathing I’ve no intentions of dying at this point! Counting the breaths: one in, one out, two in, two out until I’ve a regular rhythm. Reaching ten I start again. Keeping it simple. If a mistake is made I’ll just start again. That allows me to switch off my mind. Thoughts will arrive but are not considered just accepted and pushed to one side. Relax, remove all the tension from your body.
This takes practice, but is worth it. Simply explained we all have two minds. The everyday mind that keeps you aware, standing, walking, sitting and working away at dozens of bodily functions. Beyond this is another deeper being. It may be the real you – whatever or whoever you really are. This part of you is responsible for those flashes of intuition, and it works quietly in the background. It can be reckless, urging you on to foolish acts or circumspect, urging caution. Too often it is the part of your brain you ignore, often at your peril. How often do we say, ‘I knew I should have listened to myself’?
For me, and I’m not going to demand that you follow my example, it works. Those sudden thoughts that flashed through my mind as I meditated can be considered with more care later. They offer inspiration to the writer. They are the source of originality. OK, there’s nothing new in the universe but you didn’t know you had an opinion about keeping cats, or nuclear power, or your neighbour’s hairstyle, until that thought came into your mind.
If meditation doesn’t work find something that does. The pathway to choose is one that relaxes you, takes you away from the humdrum of daily life, that allows you to explore a new world. From those depths will come inspiration, perhaps give you the core of your next work.
Let’s move on from the esoteric to a more practical world. Let’s say that all writers should keep some form of diary or journal. They can be the start of the process of being a writer.
Even if you don’t know ‘famous’ writers for their novels or factual writings, you will probably have read or heard extracts from their diaries or about their lives. You might think there is nothing special enough about your life that’s worth recording, but think again. You’ve probably got more profound things to say than all the celebrities, often non-writers, whose memoirs are piled high, often unsold, in the bookshops. Look on the shelves of charity shops to see how many of these biographies are found. Massaging egos, using books as a marketing device, may work well for public relations but they rarely satisfy readers for very long. Bought as presents, often discarded unread.
Ordinary life is the main ingredient for every work of fiction, and the ability to put detail, explanation and subtlety into any piece of writing, hinges on the skill of interpreting actions into words on the page. The expertise is gained through practice. Even if the diaries you write never come to anything more than practice, you will gain a great deal by writing them.
Other People’s Diaries
There’s much to be gained from reading diaries and journals as well.
Diaries take many forms, from poetic exposition through personal experiences to love letters. There are personal viewpoints from, for example, expectant surrogate mothers, or a soldier’s view of his war: if you can find a diarist writing about your specialist interest, then reading these diaries can be the extremely useful research for your own writing.
Write about yourself
There is no doubt that writing about yourself can help to define who you are by outlining your beliefs and what you want to do with your life. This may demand an honesty that you have not needed previously in your life. Your mind will become focused and it may bring you peace and organisation.
Writing a diary will sort out problems, collect ideas together, organise your life and offer a sanctuary from the chaos that surrounds you in the world outside of your diary. In these writing focus pages you’ll find that personal writing is of the utmost importance in finding your voice and your style in being a writer.
Your diary will become an uncritical ‘shoulder to rely upon’, allowing your inner mind to express itself more clearly. Look at the positive and joyful parts of your life examining what makes you really happy or expose those hurtful bits that you think you don’t want to know about. Facing reality is always better than living in fear.
As the years roll by the diary will provide a record of your life, an aide-memoir for clarity, a record of events and of tasks you have accomplished. It will show that your life has not been wasted. It will show patterns of events that will surprise you when looking back and you will discover repetition, or linkages to other events that you’d never recognised.
Making you a better person
A diary will help you to communicate more effectively, because it is practice in putting words to something that might be incomprehensible to other people. As a spin-off it will serve as a family history for future generations to enjoy.
Put pen to paper to write everything that comes to your mind. Don’t stop to correct or read what you’ve written. Keep going, mistakes, rubbish and all for 10 to 30 minutes. Worry about grammar, punctuation and spelling later. Get those words down first.
Pick a topic before you begin and try to write everything that comes into your mind about that topic. Write for at least ten minutes.
Draw a shape (such as a box, oval, or circle) in the middle of a blank page and write the topic you wish to write about inside it. Draw lines branching off from your topic, ending with more shapes, each filled with sub-topics relating to the main topic. Some people call it a ‘Starburst’ of ideas. I use one of the mind map software programs to achieve the same task. Once mastered such programs allow even more free expression than paper and pencil.
Use a word bowl or a list of questions to spark ideas. A word bowl is a container full of words that you’ve cut out of magazines, or words you have written on slips of paper. Or ask someone else to give you a word or theme to get you going. The ‘distance’ of another person’s perspective can provide you with unusual freedom.
A list makes you only consider specific topics. Expansion is then easier, next time you come to write. If you are a list person, which I’m not.
Involves writing in vivid detail how you perceive the world around you. Write from your point of view. Sit down with a pen and pad and write what you see, just as an artist might set up easel and paint the landscape before him.
Capture another person on paper: their personality, mannerisms, opinions, relationship to you. Describe facial expressions and the way these change when they feel cold, miserable, happy, excited, et al.
Pause after several weeks of writing to reflect on your past thoughts and actions, and consider your future. If a diary is to be for self examination it’s important to write down how you feel about events.
Altered Point of View
Try putting yourself in another person’s shoes. Change sex, or become the omnipotent third party. This can really be quite an eye-opener, and will certainly make you a better person in that you’ll be able to empathise with those around you.
However much you try to write a total fiction, there will always be an element of yourself, your hopes and fears, within the pages. Don’t fight it. Your experience is good; and contrary to what you might think, if it came from the bottom of your heart then it will meet with your readers’ minds, and that is where it matters. True fiction comes from experience not just imagination.
Be very relaxed and clear your mind of all thoughts. This is meditation. Use an image to create fantasy, think upon the tranquil, serene or peaceful. Or you may be able to draw a picture, from intuition, drawing without thinking of what you are doing. Doodling is a version of this but instead of doodling while you talk on the phone or listen to a lecture, try doodling to simply fill a blank page. By the time the page is filled, your mind will be buzzing with ideas worth writing.
Writing can be a cathartic process, clearing out all the rubbish in your mind to produce clarity and peace. Highly emotional writing that is freely expressed but really says what you want to say. Scream at the page as you write.
Conduct a conversation in writing, representing both points of view. Talk to yourself, which is how George Sand worked.
Another way of clearing out the detritus in your mind is to tell someone how it really is, in writing, knowing that you will not send it. No need to be polite, to consider feelings – just sock it to them!
Having started and run a community radio station I have a love of radio. Today podcasts can easily play the same role, with you as the presenter. Radio, or podcasts, can be a lot of things: Radio can be a news report. Radio can be a commentary. Radio can be a conversation. Radio can be an audio postcard. Your story can be a combination of all this and more.
There is lots of good information and advice to help use this medium, and you can listen to many individual podcasts. Do so, with a critical ear. What makes one podcast compelling?
Talking into a voice recorder is very different to writing, and you might baulk at the thought. However, you’ll be surprised at what comes out of your head when you get used to talking to yourself (I do it all the time!).
Try keeping an audio journal. Create an online journal. Most mobile phones have a voice recorder that will allow you to create an electronic diary. Start with yourself then talk to your family and your friends; ask them to tell their stories. The politician Tony Benn has used this method to record every event in his life and now has an enormous collection of tapes.
Very quickly you will be sticking the microphone under all sorts of noses and finding that people are quite happy to answer your questions, often very revealingly. I like to sit down, with a cup of tea, and just talk, letting the recorder run quietly.
Soon you could be making radio documentaries, letting the audience participate and experience things as they happen, and carrying your recorder (mobile phone) wherever you go, like a press photographer and reporter, ready to record events as they happen.
Journals versus Diaries
Whereas a diary is thought of as a regular record (and consequently sometimes mundane), a journal is an occasional occupation. You write up an entry in your journal whenever you feel like putting something into words. It might be an observation you want to remember, or an occasion that deserves recording in complete detail.
Your journal entry will be more thoughtful and more discursive than a regular diary. My blog at www.trevorlockwood.com follows that format. I record all sorts of observations, and too often make political comments. Some people read them, and even comment occasionally. I use it as a cathartic exercise, to get it off my chest. There’s more about this aspect of life and writing in the Therapy chapter.
Diaries and journals keep you in the habit of writing and are a constant way of teaching yourself to write. Sooner or later the diary will be opened again and its subjects aired within the pages of your fiction or your documentary.
Audio Diaries are similarly useful as time goes on. A writer must seek detail to help make his work seem authentic, and sometimes the detail of a private life can only be found in a diary.
Learning to write
Diaries and journals are an excellent starting point. Keep a freewriting notebook and take it anywhere, everywhere. Keep a diary of special events, holidays, and hectic days when it will be useful to reap hindsight of the way events unfolded. By their very nature, daily diary entries are subtle in the telling, yet lively and concise. Reading them later will reveal secret crevices.
Record your dreams and your maddest ideas because they, too, will become useful in your writing.
One of the greatest ways to start feeling confident as a writer is to record your thoughts on how your writing feels to you, and monitoring – in words on the page – how you progress. As your writing career develops, so will your appreciation of your collection of diaries and journals that are loaded with meaningful source material.