Monday, 8 July 2013

Streaming Notebooks


In September last year, I mentioned an experiment where I’d asked a handful of writers to join with me and undertake a creative writing technique, called Morning Pages, to see if it boosted a writer’s creativity. (You’ll be able to read about in more detail in a future issue of Writers’ Forum magazine.) The post explained Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages technique where she encourages writers to wake up and before doing anything else, write three pages of anything that enters your head, to clear it ready for a day of productive writing, whilst also capturing any ideas that you might have had overnight. (You can read the post in question here: http://simonwhaleytutor.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/morning-pages.html.)

The idea of such stream-of-consciousness writing is that you don’t evaluate what you write, you simply write, and when you’ve written your three pages, then you review and see what’s there. Hopefully, you’ll discover some little gems of ideas for you to develop.

However, this stream-of-consciousness writing technique is not just for first thing in the morning. I’ve had a couple of projects recently where I’ve got stuck and not known what to write next. One was a novel, one an article and one a short story. So I simply picked up my notebook and just started writing. Why am I stuck? What is it that isn’t flowing? Why can’t I get going again? What is missing? By asking (and writing down) a series of questions, I then began answering them - simply jotting down any answers my brain came up with - and every time a solution became apparent. I literally wrote my way out of the problem. When you begin writing Perhaps I should … or what about if I … and what would happen to X if I let Y do this? you might surprise yourself with the answers that flow from your pen. Particularly with the novel, thoughts came to me that tied up neatly other aspects of the novel. And with the article, I realised that a whole different structure was needed. Sometimes, this stream of consciousness writing reveals what our subconscious has been thinking.

I found that my answers usually came to me after about ten minutes of writing. Once I had those answers I stopped and got on with my projects. Over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself doing this more and more. If I get stuck, or the words just don’t flow, I pick up my notebook and start writing, simply putting my thoughts down on paper. When the answers arrive, I go back to my projects and continue. I don’t write three pages - I write enough to get me going again.

I still do Julia Cameron’s Three Pages technique many mornings a week (not every morning, though). One of the criticisms of the technique is that the goal is three pages - you have to keep going until you have written three pages, which isn’t always easy. Sometimes I’ve felt that after two pages I’ve cleared my head and solved some problems for the day. As a technique, though, it generally works well for me. But looking back now, I can see how I’ve also adapted it to suit my needs during the day, too. If I get stuck, I start writing about my problem, and then, somehow, capturing these thoughts writes me out of the difficulty.

Next time you find yourself getting stuck, pick up a pen and some paper and write. Ask yourself what the problem is. Write down why you feel something isn’t working. You might be surprised what you end up writing. And when you’ve found your solution, go back to your project and use it right away - whilst the excitement of having that solution is still within you. 

Good luck.

7 comments:

  1. I do this every morning (Mon-Frid not w/es), but rarely write 3 pages. Life is too short to worry about this so I'm happy with 1-2 most days. I find it does help to write questions about plot problems etc and yes they do often then resolve themselves later in the day. Usually when I'm NOT writing, oddly. Have found my stream of conciousness is more like a flood of things to do, but it does help to download them first thing. I try and do this on waking, with a cup of tea (essential), before breakfast.

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    1. It's strange how it works, isn't it? What I've been doing more of is undertaking this exercise whenever I get stuck. Simply writing about it seems to oil the brain and get it going again. I may only be free-writing for ten minutes and then I'm off again! One day, I did this six times at different stages. Whereas before I might have switched to another project - i've found this keeps me more focussed on the one project for much longer.

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  2. I always find inspiration to write from the books I read. I am usually encouraged to write a review of what I read and find the ideas to write about when it comes to writing fiction or even trying to solve a problem. A good example here would be: Why did Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations find pleasure in the heartaches of men? Answering such a question can lead to a very good article about the way women view men in different circumstances.

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    1. Yes, Helmut, with a bit of thinking, there's no need to be stuck for too long, is there?

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  3. I've read Julias's books and know about Morning Pages but have to get out with my dog forst thing every day so I don't do them. I write commissioned articles so always have to start with research. I put a working title in the centre of a blank page and then jot notes from the research around it mind map style. As I go I often end up linking the notes on the page to help me organise the finished piece. I find I quickly get into writing mode and can then copy whole sentences into the article. It works really well for me, even when my heart sinks at the thought of writing something original about a well worn subject or a really difficult one.

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    1. It sounds as though the act of writing encourages writing, doesn't it, Jean? I think this just goes to show that staring at a blank page is the wrong thing to do - simply writing something, whether it be some sort of sentence, or a mind map, seems to generate that brain into gear!

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  4. Yeah, sometimes you do get stuck in the morning about what to write or how to start. I've had several different techniques but they are all related to the 3-page idea you advocate. Mine is simply a disciplined approach of writing not less than 500 words every morning about whatever it is that comes to mind,be it my night's dream(s), deep personal reflection, the day's plan or whatever. Funnily, the problem is to stick to the five hundred words for mostly after the 500-word mark I keep on flowing and have to stop myself and do the writing project of the day or other things on my time-table! Yes, it's good to preserver with everyday morning writing to keep your gears running... Thanks Simon

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