The mysterious geometry of writing

In Becoming a Writer Dorothea Brande points out that it isn’t only themes and characters that emerge from the unconscious mind through writing. She says the unconscious is also ‘the home of form.’

So as well as trusting the flow of ideas if we open our mind by entering the ‘writer’s trance,’ we can also trust that the ideas will organise themselves into the shapes of books and stories.

I definitely find this in my own work.

When I’m writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I start with a sketchy plan and head off from Start in the general direction of Finish, wondering how on earth I’m going to get from one to the other, until suddenly I begin to see the shape of the whole thing in my head like a geometrical figure or a pattern of numbers.

At that point, I become fully engaged. I dash along like a mad thing, joining the dots to make the beautiful shape of the book I’m creating.

This means all my books have a sort of symmetry in the contents – the four Peony Pinkers, for example, all have 17 chapters. Why 17? I’ve no idea, only that that was the number they needed, and I knew each story was on the right track the moment I could see how it could make 17 chapters.

 

The Peony Pinkers - 4 times 17
The Peony Pinkers – four perfect 17s

Writing in the House of Dreams came out as four parts, each part having three chapters.

4 Parts, 3 chapters each in the House of Dreams
4 Parts, 3 chapters each in the House of Dreams

My brand new book, The Binding, has three parts and each one seven chapters.

The Binding - 3 parts, 7 chapters each
The Binding – 3 parts, 7 chapters each

This mysterious geometry is very marked in my own writing practice but not all books divide so obviously into a balance of parts, so it can’t be exactly the same for all writers.

Still I imagine there must come a time for everyone when something clarifies in the mind; you see the finished shape of the whole book, and the writing steps up a notch to engage with it.

If you are a writer, do you recognise what I’m talking about, or am I just weird?!

It’s publication day!

Today is publication day for my latest children’s book, The Binding. 

'A tense, compulsive exploration of the effects of secrets, authority, boredom and fear.'
‘A tense, compulsive exploration of the effects of secrets, authority, boredom and fear.’

I started thinking about the idea ten years ago, after witnessing an unsettling incident in a remote part of Scotland.

I was walking past a ruined crofter’s cottage when I heard a commotion inside and went to see what was going on. I found four children, out of breath and flushed with excitement, the biggest one grasping in his fist a baby bird.

They flashed each other a guilty look, before the big boy rallied, took the chick to the nearest window and opened his hand. It fell to the ground.

‘It was stuck in here,’ he said. ‘We were trying to catch it so we could help it to get out.’

We all knew that wasn’t what they were doing, but the bird was free now, and I stayed there watching it limp away to the nearest cover while the children ran back towards their houses.

I got to thinking, how would it be for a child to live in a place where there were few other children, and virtually no adult supervision?

Then, in the wonderful way that fiction works, that little nugget of an idea began to layer up with other ideas. It resonated with memories from my own childhood, particularly the secret club I had with my three siblings, which we called ‘the meeting.’

My big sister was in charge of the meeting. She it was who made the box which contained all the secret business of the meeting. She decided the tasks and set the penalties.

On the less serious side, we had the mischief club, where I was in charge, being the second oldest, but it burnt out long before the meeting because it didn’t have the same magic and I lacked the power to hold it together.

My own childhood memories, stories other people had told me and new fantasies were called into my mind by this seed idea, and transformed in imagination to fit into it.

I love this process. It makes me feel energised and happy. And when, as occasionally happens, it also grows into a publishable book, well that’s just the icing on the cake.

 

 

The dark place, sad dreams, antidepressants and creativity…

Looking back over my blog stats for 2014, I discovered the three posts that got by far the most views were:

  1. Do antidepressants help or hinder creativity?
  2. The dark place where talent leads
  3. How can a really sad dream be a really good thing?

This surprised me at first, but when I thought about it, it seemed less surprising. The people who call by the House of Dreams are almost all dreamers and writers, and dreamers and writers are acquainted with their own inner darkness, and know how powerful it can be.

When you first engage with the darkness, it can be terrifying, and you may look for reassurance that you will not come to harm.

As you explore further, you find the darkness is full of meaning, and then you may look for other explorers who will understand your experience.

Carl Jung said that he stopped trying to cure people of depression when he realised that the way to make your darkness less dark was to accept it and inhabit it.

When creative people and depressives, and dreamers like me, are called to the darkness, that is a gift of opportunity, even though it is a gift nobody wants.

The sick man has not to learn how to get rid of his neurosis, but how to bear it. For the illness is not a superfluous and senseless burden, it is himself.

CG Jung

The darkness holds the keys to the self, and more. On the other side of meaning, where both the dark and the light are dissolved, all is energy and possibility, and we can experience pure creative freedom.

I believe in this journey. It can be long, and bewildering; it can feel unbearable. But if we can learn to bear the darkness, there is treasure to be found.

I hesitate to write about depression because it may sound as if I don’t understand how terrible it can be. I do. I suffered from  depression for many years before I stopped fighting it and, paradoxically, began to win.

These three posts about the darkness brought a wealth of wisdom and experience in the comments, which I hope you will take the time to read.

Has depression or the creative journey ever brought healing and insights for you? 

 

From which the sky may be viewed

Jenny Alexander:

I’ve blogged about dream places here in the House of Dreams, so I was delighted to find this recent post by Victoria Field on her Poetry Therapy News, which is one of my favourite blogs. I was double delighted when I found that it includes a lovely mention of my book!

Originally posted on Poetry Therapy News:

ststephens    baretrees

Most Sunday mornings, I cycle home from a zumba class soon after ten.  After crossing the railway, I tentatively signal right, cross the traffic, and then follow a path around what was once the village green of St Stephens, Hackington. It’s now a suburb of Canterbury, just under a mile from the cathedral.  The green is bordered by an old wall, giant beech trees, with a little playground next to the church on the side away from the main road. The Sunday Eucharist is at 10.30 so, as I pedal home, the church bells are usually ringing.  And I often end up making a little video on my phone of the trees, variously bare, or in the full leaf of early summer, or the glory of autumn, or just looking splendid against the sky.

Why do I like this little patch of earth so much?  What is it…

View original 363 more words

Have you spotted your guiding symbols and scenes?

Any experienced dreamer will recognise the recurring symbols and scenes that characterise their personal dreamworld, but have you noticed how that happens in your writing life as well?

This has been an unfolding awareness for me because with writing as with dreams, we enter the unconscious world and only see the patterns as they emerge,  often weeks, months or even years later.

I’d written several books before I noticed that there always seemed to be an old person who played an important role, in giving support or guidance to my young protagonist.

In my first book, Looking After Auntie,  it was Great Aunt Fontaine, and in my second, Miss Fischer’s Jewels, it was the lovely old lady who lived next door. In Car-mad Jack, it’s Grannie Bright, and in Peony Pinker, another lovely neighbour, old Mr Kaminski.

I’d noticed also that my protagonists always had certain character traits in common; they often felt disempowered and had to find ways of gaining control. A lot of my stories present some kind of bullying situation, although I wasn’t thinking about bullying as such at the time of writing.

These big ticket items are easy to spot, but this week I’ve been thinking about covers for my YA novel ‘Drift’ and trying to choose an iconic image from one of the scenes or settings.

In doing so, I noticed how even very particular images recur in my writing. In Miss Fischer’s Jewels there is a run down potting shed where the protagonist goes when she feels upset. In ‘Drift’, which I wrote more than 20 years later, there is also an old potting shed. In both books, key scenes are set in the potting shed.

In ‘Drift’ there is a big scene involving a bonfire, where symbolic objects are burnt. Symbolic objects are also put on a bonfire in my upcoming children’s novel, The Binding.

My burning bin
My burning bin

I realise as I’m writing this that in my life as well, I’ve marked endings in the same way, by placing symbolic objects in the flames.

In Writing in the House of DreamsI talk about these recurring symbols as the guiding structure rather than random ornaments in dreams, writing and our individual lives.

I knew from trying to write my autobiography, that life wasn’t a tidy line of events. It was a pattern of themes and characters, plots and subplots, twists and coincidences; of past, present and future, all interwoven.
It was a fabric with a scattering of strong images that stood out from the rest – a dusty ditch, a dead rat, a dancing ballerina. Threads and specks of pink, a jacket, a strawberry. Patches of brilliant aquamarine. An iridescent fleck of dragonfly.

Symbols are not static, but develop in the developing psyche, so uncovering and working with our guiding symbols is a life-long journey, full of new discoveries.

Have you noticed the big and little scenes and symbols that guide your life and writing?

Have you tried NaNoWriMo?

My guest today is writer, Julie Newman. She did NaNoWriMo last year  and she’s come into the House of Dreams to tell us all about it. 

Julie Newman reading at the Vital Spark in Liskeard
Julie Newman reading at the Vital Spark in Liskeard

The NaNoWriMo experience, by Julie Newman

On a late October afternoon at The Writers and Illustrators group in Liskeard, we all decided to have a go at the National Novel Writing Month in November. We all signed up and became ‘writing buddies’ on the NaNoWriMo website, hoping that by watching one another’s progress and competing, it would make us write. And write we did! Even the members who are usually reluctant to write regularly achieved much more by joining in.

As for myself, I didn’t expect it to take over my life. To start with I only had a rough plot outline of a fragmented family. I didn’t have the time to do any research so I used the old adage – ‘write what you know’ – so some of the plot came from my family history. We had the whole of November to complete a novel of 50,000 words. This meant on average writing 1700 words a day. Some days I wrote more than this, sometimes less, but I completed it in 27 days and although I felt as if I was chained to the computer most of the time, what came out of it was amazing. My characters blossomed and told me what they wanted to happen. I lived and breathed the novel. Everywhere I went I took my note book; I even went to bed with it and wrote down the ideas as they came to me and the same when I woke up in the morning. Fortunately my husband was understanding and encouraged me to stick with it!

When I finished I had an amazing sense of achievement; even more so when I read the novel through from beginning to end. It was as though the story had written itself, somewhere in my subconscious, but I didn’t expect it to be so rounded. There seems to be something very honest about writing like this.

I think what I gained from NaNoWriMo is to know that I can write without editing as I go, and to leave my inner critic at the door. But in the process I lost most of November living in another world.

On the website, one of the perks for the ‘winners’ is a hard cover book of our novel, and even though it’s only a first draft in a plain blue cover, it’s wonderful to be able to hold it in my hand.

As for doing it again, I think I would try and plan it better prior to November 1st so I didn’t have to spend so much time at the computer!

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Julie Newman has had seven magazine articles published, the first of which, ‘A Day Trip to Ely’ was sparked by a non-fiction exercise in one of my workshops. You can read her article ‘Bodmin Moor’on the Cornwall Life website and her story, ‘Open all hours’ here.
Julie’s other published work includes short stories in The Caradon Writers’ anthologies – ‘Mining For Words’ and ‘Write To Remember.’ She’s currently working on a memoir called ‘No One Comes Close.’

What is your purpose? Try this experiment and see!

When I read Tzivia Gover’s blog post a few days ago about asking a dream symbol, ‘What is your purpose?’ it felt timely for me because I had just dreamt about an image that recurs fairly frequently in my dreams, so I had an obvious one to try the technique on.

In the dream, I was walking along a cliff path, looking out across the clear blue water. I felt happy and full of energy. As I came down towards the bay, I saw a woman in a bright floral summer’s dress  lying languidly in a wide shallow boat, gently rocking.

I noticed an enormous fish, almost as big as the boat, swimming around in the water  nearby. There was no sense of danger. It was, as I recorded in my dream diary, simply ‘extraordinary and remarkable.’

I walked on, and saw several more of these huge colourful fish, as I came down onto the beach and crossed a wide rushing stream.

2013-06-08 18.35.09

These days, I don’t usually try to interpret individual symbols in my dreams, I just enjoy them, but today I asked the enormous fish, ‘What is your purpose?’

Nothing came to me immediately, so while I was waiting for a reply I pondered, ‘What is it about this enormous fish? It’s not scary, it’s just swimming around in its natural element of water. Yet it is a remarkable fish.’

Then I realised, ‘What is the purpose of this remarkable fish? To be remarkable!’

I feel my life is remarkable, as anyone who has close contact with their dreams and imaginary worlds will feel. I seek the remarkable in my work, always trying to break new ground.

My book Bullies, Bigmouths and So-called Friendswas identified by the Independent critic as the first real self-help book for children; Writing in the House of Dreams and the book I’m working on at the moment, When a Writer Isn’t Writing: How to beat your blocks and find your flow, both mix themes to make unusual hybrids.

My fish is an ordinary fish in its ordinary element and yet it feels remarkable. My life is an ordinary life but my purpose is to find the extra-ordinary within it. That’s what brings me pleasure, the same as  when these enormous fishes swim into my dreams.

You can find your symbol too; you don’t have to wait for a dream. Simply sit quietly for a few moments and take a few slow breaths. Still your mind.

Lower or close your eyes, and move into your inner space. Ask, ‘What is my life’s purpose?’ and let the question float away, as you take a few more slow easy breaths.

Now think of an object, and accept the very first thing that drops into your mind. Don’t judge or rationalise it away.

Examine your object from every angle, noticing its particular characteristics. I notice that my huge fish is always brightly coloured, always swimming in clear water and always on its own.

Ask your object, ‘What is your purpose?’

Again, don’t censor or rationalise; go with the first answer that pops into your head.

If you try this, because my purpose is to find and celebrate remarkable things, please share! What was your symbol, and what insight did it bring?

 

 

Creative dreaming, creative writing

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