The last of our lessons from the world of quantum physics: trust to serendipity to some degree; that you might pick up or generate the right idea at the right time.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot and although the terms are different, I think it’s true for writing. It’s hard to talk about inspiration without sounding weird, but the fact is, when you’re sitting down to write you need to have been grabbed by a thought or an image or an idea that you feel you need to grapple with; and those thoughts or ideas tend to emerge or come to you as gifts rather than the kind of thing you can consciously generate. So in writing there’s always going to be this kind of trusting – that something will come to you, one way or another.

The last week or so I’ve been reading Dorothea Brande’s 1934 book Becoming a Writer, which was given to me at the beginning of the course but which I’ve only just started reading. It’s not a ‘how-to’ book; in the introduction she writes that there are thousands of books and courses out there that can teach you plot and characterisation and so on, but what people need first is to learn to cultivate the habit of being a writer. Her main idea is that a writer is someone who can successfully manage the unconscious side of their personality (the spontaneous, childlike, wondering, imaginative side – where the ideas come from) as well as the conscious side (analytical, editorial, organised – which actually gets things done). You need both, but ‘in the ascendant’ at different times, to write well. I think there’s a lot of truth to what she says, and so I’ve been following her two main exercises, the first of which involves learning to draw on your unconscious – which is a way of trusting, I suppose. And that trusting is also remarkably freeing.

This post brought to you by good friends, summer heat and g&ts


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More lessons from a quantum physicist.

Being good at what you do isn’t just a question of being unusually talented or smart, it’s about developing good mental habits.

  • Do it yourself/be a punk. Don’t ask an expert to do something for you. Why? Because you learn how to do things by doing them; it’s easier to do interesting things when you don’t actually know how to do them; you discover all sorts of new things along the way; and it increases the chance of serendipity.
  • Say no to the unimportant things so you can say yes to the important things. (I suppose this is related to the previous post, about trying to do interesting/special things at all.)
  • Always be trying to do things that are too hard for you, that are just beyond your reach. There are limits to what you can do, obviously, but you should always be pushing yourself. I have to say I always start off thinking that writing anything is beyond my reach.
  • Make your head your office. You should always have a few problems/ideas that you can pick up and work on wherever you are, consciously or otherwise. I like this mental habit in particular, though I haven’t yet managed to cultivate it with any kind of success. Too much of the time I equate writing with sitting silently at my desk, but I know I need to learn to be puzzling things over more of the time, and I’ve definitely solved things or had good ideas while doing the washing up or whatever. I think those are the two key points of this habit: it assuages work guilt (you don’t have to be at your desk to be at work), and it allows you to mull things over more easily both consciously and unconsciously.
  • Be strict about doing a little of whatever it is you’re doing every day – even if just for fifteen minutes. Which is the same advice as not breaking the chain.
  • Have strategies in place for dealing with failure. If you’re going to be trying to do something special, as per the previous post, and if you’re continually pushing at the limits of what you can do, you’re going to fail a lot. So you need to learn to see that 95% of what’s wrong with getting something wrong is actually your own response to it.
  • Remember that what you’re working at is an act of discovery as well as an act of creation. Knowing that it’s not all internally created takes a lot of the pressure off: the difference between quarrying a piece of rock out, and thinking that with a bit of dust you have to actually make the rock yourself.

This post brought to you by butterflies in the tummy and much-missed sisters. Welcome home Rosie!

Part one: attitude.

It’s about wanting to do something special, not just putting the hours in.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I suppose as a starting point it’s similar to what Paul Graham talks about in the piece I linked to a while ago, where his first question is ‘What are the most important problems in your field?’  Obviously that kind of question is slightly different in an arts context, but when I first read that piece it challenged me a lot. What is the really important stuff? What should I be writing about? What should I be attempting to do in my writing?

Then for a while (perhaps a touch pretentiously?) I started thinking that perhaps writing poetry at all is an attempt to do something special, to say something of value, just by its nature. And because it’s not a day job (nor ever will be), there isn’t this temptation to just put the hours in.

But then I got to thinking again. There’s poetry, and there’s poetry that really does provide a moment of encounter, that is heart-stoppingly beautiful, that changes the way you think about things, that delights and surprises, that changes the way you see the world. And if every time I sit down I remind myself of that possibility, and the consequent desire to do something special, then that’s got to be a good thing.

Of course it’s not as simple as sitting down and saying ‘I am going to write something special’. It’s more ‘I’m going to attempt to write something special’. And the corollary of this is that you’re going to fail lots. So just accept it, and don’t be disheartened by the inevitable.

This post brought to you by four-day weekends, swifts and Dorothea Brande, but mainly inspiring friends