Creating a mental bookshelf: an exercise for the aspiring writer.
I have had a couple of conversations recently about writing. Specifically, eek, my writing. In the space of a few days, two friends who are both writers themselves (one an academic, the other a journalist) each separately gave me a gentle but searching interrogation about my plans for writing something developed from Dancing Beastie: something on paper, for publication, for sale. A book, in other words.
Since we all know that the world is full of wannabe-authors who think they have a book in them, I’m not going to enter into that discussion. Suffice to say that yes, ladies and gentlemen, I am one of them. One of those children who wrote and illustrated stories from the moment she could form letters. One of those teenagers who poured her thoughts into furtive diaries, longing to be understood and terrified of being discovered. One of those students who took pleasure in scribbling copious longhand notes and ideas, whose fingers developed callouses and dents from being wrapped around a pencil.
And in adulthood…well, as career and family have taken up my creative energy, the instinct to write has often been pushed into the background, but has never faded. All over the house, in bags and drawers, in backs of cupboards and under piles of paperwork, there are notebooks where I have found myself scrawling down something I needed to get on to paper. (It has occurred to me that some people might become writers in order to justify their compulsive blank-notebook-buying habit – but that’s another post.)
And so I must also confess that one of my reasons for starting a blog was to limber up my creative writing muscles, which I felt had not been properly exercised since finishing my doctoral thesis in the mid 1990s. The idea has always been that the blog would lead onto something more. Barely six months after I started Dancing Beastie, however, I had that brain injury, which knocked me sideways for a couple of years. And just as I felt I was starting to emerge from that, and was feeling positive about life’s possibilities, our family suffered two bereavements and all my emotional energy was directed towards their aftermath.
This year, though, I have no excuse. Hurray! So I was a bit dismayed to realise, when questioned by my two friends, that my grand plans for writing have been lying stagnant. A few searching questions were exactly what I needed to re-focus my attention. The most basic question – and perhaps the most important of all – was, what sort of thing do you want to write?
This is probably the first question which any of us who want to develop our writing should ask ourselves. How would you answer it? To help you to come up with an answer, think about the authors whose writing you have admired over the past few years; the ones whose style and content make you think, yes, that’s the kind of thing I would love to be able to write. When I did this myself, I realised that I could immediately access a sort of mental bookshelf of selected books which are my creative inspiration. They have clearly been collecting there without my paying them much conscious attention. Mine are (not exclusively) these:
Once you have collected a mental bookshelf, you can start to analyse what it is which attracts you to these books. On my own shelf, the books are:
2. concerning the natural world in various aspects
3. written with an exquisite sense of place, with evocative attention to detail
4. luminously aware of the connections between emotions and the physical world; between inner and outer landscapes. (One of my selected authors is an exception to this: Sara Wheeler consciously avoids any introspection, but I include her because she writes so well on place. Plus she is very funny.)
5. mostly in blue covers. I thought it was an odd coincidence, until I realised that it is a result of point 2: the blue is of flowers, snow and sky.
Thus in considering the authors who have inspired me, I find the answer to what I want to write about myself. More than that, I find that I am already trying to write about it: here, on this blog. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if you were to discover the same.
Leafing through your mental bookshelf does not make you an author. But as an exercise in sharpening your focus, it’s a useful place to begin. Baby steps, dear reader, baby steps.