Paying Close Attention, Thinking to Some Purpose

In the early stages of writing The Former Boy Wonder, I decided that two principles were going to be at the centre of my creative processes: paying close attention and thinking to some purpose.  The decision, if that’s what it was, didn’t come out of the blue.  It arose from thirty years of fiction writing and twenty years of teaching Creative Writing in universities.  I had discovered where ideas come from and how to tap them and I had learned about the importance to writers of reflection.  When I talk about paying close attention, I mean paying close attention to the ideas for a piece of writing that arise during it, and when I talk about thinking to some purpose I mean reflection. 

The Greek word skopos means “look out for” or “pay close attention”.  In English, we form the words ‘telescope’ and ‘microscope’ from skopos.  This is instructive.  We use a telescope better to see things that are some distance away, and we use a microscope to observe things so small we would otherwise miss them.  To begin with, I am going to look at how I paid close attention to my unconscious mind during the writing of this novel, The Former Boy Wonder.

All of us, writers, artists, scientists – anyone – experience the unconscious mind, but we may not all have considered how it works.  It’s the part of us which sends out ideas when the mind is in neutral, not far from sleep.  It’s possible to note when it’s in action and, with that knowledge, to understand how we can trigger it.  The ideas which emerge from the unconscious come when we’re doing something repetitive and hypnotic.  Driving for miles on a quiet motorway.  Ironing shirts.  Going for a walk. Having a swim.  It’s the lightbulb moment, which also comes when we wake in the middle of the night or ten minutes before the alarm in the morning and we’re lying there crawling towards consciousness. In all of these instances, we are either entering or leaving the unconscious mind.  Good ideas – what Hemingway calls “the juice” – emerge from the unconscious mind.  In her classic book, Becoming A Writer, Dorothea Brande argues that it isn’t by labouring, chiselling, revising, or restructuring ‘that an excellent piece of art is born.  It takes shape and has its origin outside the region of the conscious intellect.’ [i] We could picture the flash of inspiration as a postcard from the unconscious, inviting us to discover the whole of what that inspired moment intimates.  Brandeexplains the functions of the unconscious mind from a variety of angles and suggests that it is not just where ideas come from, but also a facility for developing those ideas until they reach their final, fully realised form:

Every author, in some way which he has come on by luck or long search, puts himself in a very light state of hypnosis…Far behind the mind’s surface, so deep that he is seldom aware (unless at last observation of himself has taught him) that any activity is going forward, his story is being fused and welded into an integrated work.’ [ii]

One way in which we may tap into the fully realised form of the inspired idea is in the writing itself.  As I’ve said, inspiration may arrive when the mind has been stilled by rhythmic, repetitive activity.  Well, the act of writing itself, whether on a keyboard or with pen and paper, is rhythmic and repetitive.  In the production of the first draft, in the typing or the writing by hand, aren’t we experiencing something similar to being hypnotised by the proverbial pocket watch swinging back and forth before our eyes?  ‘The process of imagination that underlies creative writing,’ says Madison Smartt Bell, ‘what happens just as or just before you are putting the words down on the page, must inevitably involve a process of autohypnosis.’ [iii]

The auto-hypnosis that helps us tap the unconscious in that act of writing is further articulated by Natalie Goldberg, when she recommends that we

let everything run through us and grab as much as we can of it with pen and paper.  Let yourself live in something that is already rightfully yours – your own wild mind…This is all about loss of control. [iv]

This is my starting point.  The original idea emerges from the unconscious and that’s where all the ideas that develop it come from, too.

§

At the beginning of the lengthy journey that led to the completion of The Former Boy Wonder, I had my themes – first love, father-son issues and mid-life crisis – a set of characters and a rough idea of where I was going, of where, if not how, the novel would end.  The themes and the characters came from two novels I had started but abandoned, and a way of combining some of my existing material and of the destination of the story came during a family holiday in Guernsey.  I had no real plan; I just looked at the fragments I had to see if anything could be made from them.  And then I was inspired.  The ideas came thick and fast, but where did they come from? “Where is the story?’ Margaret Atwood asks.  ‘The story is in the dark.  That is why inspiration is thought of as coming in flashes.’ [v] These flashes are the lightbulb moments I spoke of.  Atwood’s observation prompts the question: where is the dark?  Is it inside or outside the writer? The former, according to Brent Royster:

“Rather than claiming that this inspiration came from somewhere beyond the writer, it seems more apt to suggest that the mind of the artist has reached an opportune moment in which rhythms, sounds and connotations seem to arise unbidden from memory.’ [vi]

As I hope I have made clear, I subscribe to the theory that ideas emerge from the unconscious.  However, for the sake of illumination, it’s perhaps helpful to think of the story as living elsewhere, in another dimension, what Michele Roberts calls “this big country which sends you messages if you tune in and do your work.” [vii] The perfect form of the story already exists, but not in this world.  The writer’s job is to tune into its wavelength and pick up its broadcasts. 

No science about creativity is certain, and the idea of the conscious and the unconscious mind has been disputed, but whether it comes from a particular part of the mind or through a portal from another dimension we all have the experience of original ideas suddenly appearing.

Paying close attention begins with the ideas that come to writers and ends with what they do with them, but the process an idea makes from inception to its creative conclusion may die at birth if it isn’t recorded.  Without taking a concrete step to save an idea it will be gone almost as quickly as it arrives.  We should take note of Emerson’s observation that ‘A man should learn to protect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within.’[viii]  During the years I spent writing this novel, I got into the habit of scrupulously capturing ideas as they flew across my mind, and recording them not only in notebooks, but also on the back of envelopes, in the margins of newspapers, on random pieces of paper.  I wrote them down on trains or buses, in cafes or shops.  In the course of writing The Former Boy Wonder, I filled over a dozen notebooks.  ‘Think of your notebooks as a way of capturing the things that go through your head,’ [ix] Paul Magrs has said. Much of what fills them is first draft material, but also notes that capture Emerson’s flashes and what Magrs describes as the things that go through your head abound.  These notes record ideas that came when I was out on a walk or staring out the window or when my mind was in the dream induced by a film or a piece of music that swept me away. Here’s one such note from 2013: “Alter the plot so that it is harder to find Sanchia [the lost love] again.”  This turned out to be one of my good ideas, and I acted on it.  In another notebook, this: ”Sanchia would be metropolitan – London attitudes – London is a country, the centre of the world for Londoners.  Juxtaposed with this, Peter is provincial.” This came to be one of the central conflicts of the novel.  Manchester and London became key oppositions in the book, and one of the main sources of conflict between the lovers is that divide between the capital and the provinces.  This was an insight well worth recording, and acted as a path into various plot developments.  If I look through an earlier notebook, I can see notes about two (unconnected) characters, Maddie and Hannah, whom I eventually dropped.  Similarly, I can find notes to develop a reading in a bookshop by an author called Quentin Brewster.  At one stage, this episode was a chapter of a couple of thousand words, but eventually it was cut down to two brief allusions to it by other characters.  In other words, I had ideas about how to develop something I had thought of as mildly significant but which in the end I cut. Thus, in both illustrations, some ideas writers record will turn out to be more useful than others – but we won’t be able to tell if we haven’t recorded them.

My principle means of developing this novel was walking the dog.  Ideas would occur to me through any of the ways in which the unconscious mind kicks in, most of which I’ve listed above, but the most habitual way my novel spoke to me from the unconscious was when I took my dog out for his daily walks.  A substantial number of these ideas – maybe the majority of them – were about other ideas. Whether they were entirely fresh or a development of an existing idea, each came to me unbidden.  It’s as if the unconscious is saying, “Here are some ideas.  See what you can make of them.” As long as I had been working on the novel that day, my walk could prompt my mind to throw up any ideas about it that it wanted to.  I gave it no brief.  But sometimes as we set off I consciously tried to trigger my unconscious to give me particular ideas.  I learned this from Dorothea Brande, who not only argues that knowing when our unconscious mind is in the ascendant will benefit the writer, but also that ‘it is possible to learn to tap it at will, and even to direct it.’ [x]  At an advanced stage in a story’s gestation, during the work that leads to completing it, she talks of inducing ‘the artistic coma’, of pausing the mind in order to mine the unconscious. ‘Learn to hold your mind as still as your body,’ she tells us [1] and puts forward a model that amounts, really, to meditation: stilling the mind by focussing on a word or an object.  I got in the habit of using the artistic comma to enlist the help of my unconscious mind.  I would set out on a walk with a question and could be confident that an answer would be provided within 45 minutes.  For example, one difficulty I had was that I needed Sanchia to turn up at their friend Caitlin’s 50th birthday party, but Caitlin had already told Peter that she wouldn’t invite her.  I took the problem out with the dog and by the end of the walk I had a solution.  I had already established that Caitlin liked a drink.  The idea which came to me was that after one glass too many over lunch, she runs into Sanchia and lets it slip that she’s having the party. Once I had that idea, I went back and added another reference or two to Caitlin’s fondness for wine, and then, I hoped, readers might believe it when she explains how she ended up inviting Sanchia.

Walking the dog developed my novel more than anything else I did and to make sure I missed nothing, I needed a more appropriate means of recording my ideas; it’s not that convenient writing in a notebook in the rain. If I had nothing with me to capture the thought before it vanished, I began to make a mantra of it, repeating it over and over until I had memorised it.  Then, when I got home I could write the idea down. This, as you can imagine, isn’t terribly effective.  The way to record ideas on the hoof isn’t ever far from hand, though: your phone. Once I cottoned onto this, I made sure to take mine with me every time I went out with the dog and as I walked and ideas came to me, I dictated them into the phone’s voice recorder.  All I had to do when I got home was transcribe them, the work of a few minutes.

If I were to sum up this process of managing the ideas that the unconscious throws up, I would say that the writer needs to pay close attention in order to record the ideas themselves, but also the ideas about these ideas that the unconscious broadcasts later.

§

A few years ago, in an antique shop in Cheshire, I found a battered copy of a Pelican book from 1939.  It’s called Thinking To Some Purpose, it stuck a chord and as I began The Former Boy Wonder, I set it facing out on a bookshelf above my desk. 

The late writer and novelist John Singleton says 

We should start with mess and stay with it as long as possible. The mess I mean here is represented by all the initial verbal doodles, half phrases, aide memoirs, scribblings that form the fruitful compost of the poem or short story or whatever. Mess in my view is the first and most critical phrase of composition.” [xi]                                                                                          

I didn’t plan much.  My view is that the trouble with too much planning is that a plan will probably come out of your conscious mind, which is not necessarily good at creating.  On the other hand, if you don’t plan, but allow the plot to emerge from your unconscious mind it may be more organic, more natural – better.  My idea was to leave the conscious mind for later.  I was happy to begin with chaos, without any order.  I started with a few ideas and each one of them led to another.  I started with first drafts and bits and pieces of plot and character and they formed a mess.  Anne Lamott suggests that chaos is the starting point of the journey to the completed novel, a journey which involves, ”flail[ing] around, kvetching and growing despondent, on the way to finding a plot and structure that work.” [xii]

Chaos was my starting point and yes, the journey involved a great deal of kvetching ( Yiddish term that might be translated as whining and complaining) and growing despondent, but as I organised the chaos order came out of that, and the principal means of discovering that order was reflection: thinking to some purpose.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of reflection: we grow much faster as we examine our own and others’ work.  Equally, we develop more quickly if we’re able to articulate our creative processes and if we learn to become self-aware and self-critical.  My reflection, I have learned, has to be in writing.  If I don’t write down my thoughts, they are never more than half-formed.  Unless and until I try to articulate these thoughts in writing, they are vague and unformed; they are only embryonic.  But when I put them in writing, I find out what I am thinking.  Thoughts are of limited use until they have been articulated.  As Gertrude Stein famously said, ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I say?’  Reflection is a way of thinking on paper so that we can see our thoughts, organise them and decide what we want to do with them.  So, I think about my writing in writing, I think about 

narrative shape and structure, about characters, settings, plotlines and more.  In completing this novel, I examined the constituent elements of the fiction, thought in writing about them and made my decisions on the basis of which options would be most effective for the novel I was writing. 

‘The composition of fiction can, at least theoretically, be broken into two stages,’ Madison Smartt Bell says. ‘First, and most important, comes imagination.  Next is rendering.’ [xiii] If the unconscious is the source of creativity, is where the good ideas come from, the conscious mind’s functions include criticism, reflection and analysis.  The conscious mind helps us with analysing, organising, structuring, reshaping, and redrafting.  It may reveal to us what is wrong with a draft, even if we depend on the unconscious to come up with the solution to that.  Dorothea Brande proposes a way in which the unconscious and the unconscious may be used to complement one another:  

The unconscious must flow freely and richly, bringing at demand all the treasures of memory, all the emotions, incidents, scenes, intimations of character and relationship which it has stored away in its depths; the conscious mind must control, combine, and discriminate between these materials without hampering the unconscious flow.’ [xiv]

For writers, this has several implications.  I’ve already gone into some detail about what our unconscious is capable of, so I want to consider now the functions of the conscious mind for the writer.  They include reading as a writer, the study of narrative craft and how published fiction writers achieve their effects.  Above all else, the conscious mind is used to reflect.

Reflection takes several forms. One of the most important for me was thinking carefully about the novels that fed into mine.  For the reading that helped to shape my writing, I chose works that were thematically linked to The Former Boy Wonder – principally The Great Gatsby, Le Grand Meaulnes and Billy Liar.  I read these texts as a writer, analysing them to see what I could learn and apply in my own novel, which involved dismantling aspects of each novel to see how it worked. 

For example, I carefully examined the way Fitzgerald prepares the reader for the car crash that is the dramatic peak of The Great Gatsby – the way he puts in many plants to prepare us for the crash in which Myrtle Wilson, Tom Buchanan’s mistress, is killed.  The first reference to a car is when we learn that her husband wants to buy Tom’s car. At one of Gatsby’s parties, a drunken guest wrecks his car on the driveway.  Later, the five principal characters, Gatsby, Tom and Daisy and Nick and Jordan Baker, drive into New York.  On the way, they call in with Wilson for gas, and again Wilson tells Tom he wants to buy his car. When the five drive back from New York, Myrtle fleeing from her husband, runs out on the road in front of the gas station and is killed by Gatsby’s car, which it appears Gatsby was driving, although later Gatsby tells Nick that Daisy had been driving and he had lie to cover her.  What I learned was that by putting in these references to cars, Fitzgerald prepares the reader for the climactic accident.  Because of the many plants, when the dramatic peak of the novel involves a fatal car accident, readers are not surprised.  Rather, the incident confirms something they half-knew, which in a narrative is satisfying.

There were from first draft stage many references to cars in The Former Boy Wonder.  I can’t say whether this is because of my study of Gatsby or my own interest in cars – although I suspect the latter.  In a way, it doesn’t matter, which I’ll come on to in a moment.  In my novel, the young Peter, my protagonist, borrows a car to get him to the party where he meets and falls in love with Sanchia, the love he loses.  Also in the past of the novel, another character worries that she will have a run-in with the police when she is drunk-driving and another throws a tiny party in a clapped-out car that won’t move.   After they’ve broken up, Peter spots Sanchia in a car and pursues her. In mid-life, Peter’s wrecked Fiat is juxtaposed with his wife’s rock-solid German SUV.  For years, I struggled with finding a credible way for Peter and his wife, Lucy, to be reunited at the end of the novel.  It only came close to completion of the novel, when I realised that she could easily crash coming home from Caitlin’s 50th, and that the shock of this might bring them back to their senses and lead to them appreciating each other more than they have been doing. I didn’t deliberately set out to duplicate the Gatsby car crash; the idea for mine came in a flash of inspiration.  However, once I had had the idea, it dawned on me that the novel was littered with car references and that using a crash to resolve a major conflict might satisfy the reader for the same reason that the car plants in Gatsby did: by preparing the reader for the pay-off, the crash.  I didn’t deliberately lift Fitzgerald’s ending – as I say, the idea came in a moment of inspiration – but I’m sure that using a car crash as the dramatic peak of a story had seeped into my unconscious as a result of my study of The Great Gatsby

In completing this novel, reflective writing helped me redraft.  Redrafting involves looking at a draft with a view to improving and developing it.  One side of that has to do with revising and remaking the most significant aspects of the story: plot, character, narrative tension, structure, the way you handle time, tone.  Here you improve the larger elements of the story, you work above line level or, more accurately, below the surface.  Macro-editing. The other side, micro-editing, involves line-level tasks: vocabulary choices, accuracy, concision, syntax, sentences, rhythm, paragraphs.  Macro-editing may be about realising that two characters serve the same function, so one of them can go, while micro-editing may mean moving a conjunction, wondering how the removal of a present participle might improve a sentence’s effectiveness, altering the syntax. Whether macro- or micro-editing, the process requires looking at the work and seeing what it says to you. 

With macro-editing, the process of redrafting isn’t linear.  It’s not a case of Draft A leads to Draft B leads to Draft C, with each version being merely an improved version of the one that preceded it.  Rather, each draft is a new entity.  Draft B isn’t a better form of Draft A.  It has become something new; Draft B isn’t Draft A +.  In How We Write, Mike Sharples describes drafting and redrafting as ‘a cycle of contemplating ideas, specifying plans and intentions, composing text and interpreting the text, leading to further ideas and continued composition’ [xv] Draft A gives birth to Draft B, a new creation. This is all part of the process that leads from mess to order, which is achieved through thinking to some purpose.

It can be difficult to maintain a focus on macro-editing.  At least, that’s the case for me.  When I’m redrafting, I naturally drift towards line-level corrections: re-ordering syntax or correcting typos.  As I was producing this novel, I found a way around this, which isn’t fool proof, but it does help.  For years now, my practice has been that of many, perhaps most, writers: I redraft from a print-off, I work with pen and paper.  It’s an accepted piece of wisdom that we notice things on a hard copy that we won’t on a screen. This time, I discovered that it was easier to avoid line-editing if I worked from a Kindle.  Here, I could neither revise by keyboard nor pen.  I was impelled to think below line level.  When I look back over notes made from reading my manuscript on a Kindle, I find that I’ve thought about, for example, plot:

At the last party, lead the reader on: both that Peter is doing the wrong thing [in wanting to leave with Sanchia], but also perhaps the right thing, because readers will want him to have his shot at happiness – that despite all the odds and Caitlin’s sensible advice in the last chapter, Sanchia isn’t so grown up that she doesn’t feel attracted to Peter, as she was in the first place.

I acted on this note, and for one reader at least, it appears to have worked.  A friend who read a close to final draft told me that he wanted Peter and Sanchia to get back together again, but when in the end they didn’t, he saw that this was the only way the story could have gone.  For Peter, doing the wrong thing, which might seem at a certain stage appear to be the right thing, does in the end turn out to be the wrong thing.

Some reflecting about the macro-level ends up being re-thought (and sometimes rethought and rethought).  In the final chapter, Peter is on the point of burning his bridges when a kid appears wearing a T-shirt that connects not only to his son, Jack, but also to his father, Ray.  The T-shirt has Batman’s emblem on its front.  My notes read:

At the moment – beyond the moment – when he has made the wrong decision, he sees the Batman T-shirt and remembers his Dad coming back from England and giving him a Batman comic. 

There, when the father who has abandoned the family has returned for a brief visit and is about to leave again, the 8-year-old Peter says, ‘I knew he had to go.’  The older Peter is often shown reading Batman comics with the young Jack, so Batman is associated with his father – who abandoned him – and his son, whom he is on the verge of abandoning.  When he sees the kid in this Batman T-shirt, Peter decides that he can’t go with Sanchia and lose Jack.  Here, he avoids doing what his father did, which has been his expressed intention earlier in the novel.  Now, he’s sitting in the passenger seat of Sanchia’s car and about to leave his family when he realises that he can’t and gets out again, saying he’s left something in the house.  He goes back and kills time in the hope that Sanchia will give up and go.  That idea came from the end of Billy Liar, when Billy is on a train about to go to London with the free-spirited Liz and bottles out and goes back to get them a carton of milk each.  He delays by the milk machine until the train has left.  A few drafts late, I thought better of the Billy Liar inspired version of this scene.  I wanted Peter to make the decision and be bold about it.  I didn’t want him hiding to avoid telling Sanchia what he had decided.  He had to be proactive.  I also wanted the decision to be executed quickly and dramatically.  As a result, he simply tells Sanchia he can’t go with her, which is more dynamic as well more accelerated.  The process here demonstrates what goes on in the redrafting process.  We examine a draft, think hard about it and change it.  Then, perhaps, we may examine that next draft, think about it again and change it further.  This is Sharples’ cycle of composition.   

Ideas, according to Guy Claxton, come from “layers of mind over which [we] have little or no control.” [xvi] I doubt anyone would dispute this.  Where the control comes in is with what happens afterwards.  The ideas arrive without our willing them, but we begin to control them when we capture and record them, and, by giving them our careful attention, we develop them in a cycle of composition.  At the heart of any piece of creative writing are these two approaches which work in tandem: paying close attention and thinking to some purpose.

[First published in New Writing The International Journal of Practice and Theory of Creative Writing Volume 17, 2020 – Issue 3.]

Bibliography

Atwood, M. (2002) Negotiating With The Dead: A Writer on Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bell, J., and Magrs, P. (eds.),(2001) The Creative Writing Coursebook. London: Macmillan.

Brande, D. (1934) Becoming A Writer. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.

Claxton, G. (1998)Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less.  London: Fourth Estate.

Brent, R. (2007 ) “Inspiration, creativity and crisis: the Romantic myth of the writer meets the postmodern classroom’, in Earnshaw, S (ed.) The Handbook of Creative Writing. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Goldberg, N. (1991) Wild Mind. London: Rider.

Graham, R. Leach, H. and Newall, H. (eds.), (2004) The Road to Somewhere: A Creative Writing Companion. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Monteith, S. Newman, J. and Wheeler, P. (eds.).  (2004) Contemporary British and Irish Fiction: An Introduction Through Interviews. London: Arnold.

Lamott, A. (1980) Bird By Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Anchor Books.

Sharples, M. (1999) How We Write. London: Routledge.


[1] Brande, p 164.


[i] Dorothea Brande, p 149.

[ii] Brande, pp 159-60.

[iii] Smartt Bell, p 15.

[iv] Goldberg, pp 32-33

[v] Atwood, p 176.

[vi] Royster, p 15.

[vii] In Monteith, Newman, Wheeler (eds.), p 128.

[viii] In Claxton, p 81.

[ix] In Bell. Julia, and Magrs, Paul. (eds.), pp. 11-12.

[x] Brande, p 164.

[xi] Singleton in TRTS, p 33

[xii] Lamott, p 55

[xiii] Smartt Bell, p18.

[xiv] Brande, pp 45-46.

[xv] Sharples, pp. 71-73.

[xvi] Claxton, p 3.

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