Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Copious Spare Time

In our house we like to laughingly talk about Copious Spare Time - or simply CST, if we haven't got enough time left to say the phrase Copious Spare Time. CST is that imaginary 25th hour in the day when we do the things we don't have time to do otherwise. Like remembering to get the chimney swept or finding time to go and pay the council tax [and my quarterly National Insurance Contributions from freelancers, come to that]. CST is when you do some ironing, or have a nice long soak in the bath, or cut the lawn, or read a book for pleasure, or watch a weekly TV drama when it's actually being broadcast - instead of on DVD a year later.

Despite everything else I should be doing, I've been trying to carve out a little slice of CST every day. A few minutes here and there, some downtime from fretting about the dozen different projects I should be progressing. Writing and creating and plotting and writing some more are all very well, but I can't help thinking you need to let the well of inspiration stand idle every now and then, in the hope it'll fill up some more. Usually these moments get filled by replying to email Q&A interview requests, or watching trash on the TV. Having given up performing for the next six months, that should free up some CST for other activities, too.

The last few days I've been reading Birb by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. Despite the pompous title, it's a wonderfully informal and frequently droll book about the life of a writer and how to survive it. Lamott peppers it with anecdotes about how life and experience, as both a prose fiction scribe and teacher of creative writing. Some sections of the book I disagree with, but it's healthy to have your own prejudices and habits challenged. For example, Lamott writes character-driven novels, but my work is most definitely plot-driven. I'm trying to inject more character and thematic content into my writing, but without a clear plot before I start I am lost.

Best of all, she's produced some cracking chapters on subjects that writers of all denominations will recognise: Shitty First Drafts, False Starts, Finding Your Voice and - best of all - Jealousy. I doubt a writer would be human if they hadn't felt pangs of jealousy at the success of another writer. How can they have a bestseller and I don't? How come they find writing so easy and I struggle? How did they get that prize/bursary/opportunity and I didn't? All those feelings certainly run through my mind, eating at the creative soul like a gnawing, hungry cancer. So, Lamott's got some good advice on how to cope with jealousy, though she offers no easy solutions. Perhaps my favourite sentence in the whole book is about perfectionism, something she describes as the voice of the oppressor: 'Perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force [these are words we are allowed to use in California].'

Lamott also offers a simple mnemonic for writing short stories, one she heard a writer called Alice Adams mention in a lectur: ABDCE - compelling Action to start, delve into the Background of the situation and your characters, Developing the people and plot, bringing everything to a Climax before delivering the Ending. Simple, but neat. I think that could just as easily be applied to so many other kinds of creative writing, with added structural carpentry to sustain that progression over the necessary length. So, anyways, that's what I've been spending my CST on lately, re-reading Bird by Bird. Makes a nice change from Stephen King's On Writing.

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