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Writing on the run, playing and joking around: why there’s no place for order when it comes to ideas

Updated: Jul 17, 2019

At home and work, I like neat categories and organised schedules. But I am learning that order and separation can safely be left behind when it comes to the first part of the creative writing process: coming up with a good idea.

Good advice?

My maternal grandfather imparted many useful pieces of advice* that I think of often. One of them was Benjamin Franklin's famous "a place for everything, everything in its place". This is a rule I generally ascribe to when it comes to tin openers, shoes and car keys. For the creative process of writing, it's a different matter and so I have some different advice: mess around. Here are three examples of what I mean.

1. Deal with the disorder

Ideas are going to arrive whenever and wherever they like. True, it is possible to generate creativity by habit forming: knuckling down even when you don't feel like it. That's an important part of writing. But you also have to know what to do with the ideas that come seemingly out of nowhere.

The really good stuff may well knock at the window, not at the writing desk, but when cooking dinner, having a shower or drifting off to sleep. Okay, you may be able to capture the idea in brief by asking Alexa to record a voice memo, shouting out to your partner or writing yourself a reminder. However, it's unlikely that you are going to be able to put the idea in its place in the usual way when you're chopping an onion.

The last time I kept a blog, nearly a decade ago, I would often get an idea I wanted to write about as I left the house to walk to work in the mornings. This was massively inconvenient, especially for someone who rarely remembers anything unless it is written down. And I didn't have a smartphone back then to try and type something on the go. But, not wanting to let the idea slip by or be late for work, I had to learn a new skill: writing in my head. I used the 40 minute walk to write, drafting what I would say and visualising how the words would look on the page. Then I had seven or so hours at work before I could read through and edit the draft in my mind on the walk home.

What surprised me was how much I could remember from the morning, down to exact turns of phrase. There were gaps, of course, but without its comfort blanket of a notebook and pen, my brain stepped up to the job. By the time I actually got home I was ready to type up my now third draft of the blog. This is certainly not my preferred way to write, I love the connection and pace of pen and paper, but it did show me that I didn't have to wait for the writing to happen 'in its place'.

2. Mix it up on purpose with others...

A participant in a group I was working with recently created a brilliant piece by collaging photos of wildlife and then matching them with the names of totally different creatures selected by another participant. "This'll get people thinking," they said as they stuck the word 'dolphin' on a picture of a bee.

And it really works: a simple, instinctive and powerfully effective intervention that disrupts our thinking. Its simple playfulness can spark a new framing of the known world. In other words, it creates new ideas.

Playing around and mismatching is what makes games from "consequences" to 'Cards Against Humanity' so hilarious, and the bolder you are the more thrilling it is. A key ingredient is the unknown that comes from creating ideas with another person. With writing, telling someone else your new idea can often take the oomph out of it. But true collaboration, which includes playing, is hugely generative. Welcoming someone else's thoughts before your own ideas are fully formed takes your writing in a new direction.

3. ... and alone

More often than not, writing poetry is a solitary process. As a poet, you've got to find ways of playing with ideas even when you're not collaborating. In jokes are important even when you are a team of one. Of course, in-jokes fall apart as soon as anyone tries to explain them. But I've noticed a joke-to-self that has been helping my writing recently so here goes:

Next to my writing desk, I have a set of those IKEA 'Helmer' metal drawers that are assembled like Meccano. The flat-pack parcel comes complete with a set of little card labels that slot in to the front of each of the six drawers. In contrast to the satisfyingly sturdy construction of the drawers, the labels provided are flimsy and a poor fit. When I first started using them it was really annoying. Every time I opened a drawer, a label would get caught by the knuckle of my index finger, flip and fly out across the room. By the end of a day's writing, 'CHARGERS & USBs', 'PRINTER PAPER', 'STATIONERY' and - I'll be honest - 'MORE STATIONERY' and 'TO SORT', would be face down on the carpet.

Of course, this is a problem that would have been easily solved with some sticky tape, tack or glue. But instead, I found a set of vintage suspension-file labels that were up to the job of staying in place. I liked the aesthetics of these vintage labels so much that it hardly seemed to matter that there were only three of them nor that they were pre-printed with categories that were of little or no use to my writing tools (!): 'HOUSEHOLD ACCOUNTS'**, 'INVESTMENTS' and 'HOLIDAYS'.

However, while the labels are a nonsense when it comes to remembering which drawer my pencil sharpener lives in (yes I still write with a pencil), I discovered that the mislabelling actually helped when it came to creating.

In 'INVESTMENTS', I keep a continually topped-up collection of materials (found ephemera, photos, leaflets, recipes, letters) that have caught my eye and that I'll use as prompts for poems. At the moment, the contents includes a Manchester textile shipper's label c.1930s, a bleached-out polaroid of someone else's cat and a 1977 copy of Which? with 'verdicts on 17 sewing machines' (!).

These things being in the 'wrong' drawer is what gets me thinking in exactly the way that will help me to use them. Playing with ideas in a very simple way of putting stuff in the wrong place is a sort of literal out-of-the-box thinking that triggers a useful creative rush. Instead of the confidence of sound investments, the drawer contains the ingredients for a very precarious career of writing poems, usually ones that nobody asked me to write! It's a joke to myself that I'm helps stop my writing from being too earnest. And actually it also helps me decide what to focus on. What weird item of ephemera is going to be valuable enough to me to class as an 'investment' of my time and skills?


*another was 'close the gap!' when serving at the dinner table (think gravy, peas, red wine). You're welcome.

** I do have things like household accounts, just not 39 x 25 x 8 cms of them, so their 'place' is elsewhere... mostly in the cloud now.

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