Rob McNamamara Archive

40before40, Writing Blog, Writing vs. The Ego

Learning how to work (better)

Sometimes, the only thing one can do is lie on the floor. If it’s outside on grass or sand, even better. It’s still a little too cold for that. So indoors is fine. I had a presentiment, not totally disconnected to knowing that Carl Jung, on splitting with Freud, returned to childhood play to re-find his way back into what was for him ‘meaningful work’, that to lie on the floor as I worked through a writing problem would resolve at least half the problem.

Lying on the floor feels wholly unprofessional, and as such, much more fun and relaxed than how one normally works out problems. I only wish we could introduce it to conference proceedings.

Anyway. I’ve been fiddling with this question for a few weeks now: how can I work better? There are subtexts of efficiency and productivity in this, but truthfully, the question is more soulful and grounded than this (and why lying on the floor helps). I’ve peeled back a few layers over the last few weeks (and posts here, on practising, on omnivorous reading, on finding writing models) that are about craft, inspiration, technique.

But what it comes down to is this. I have a 10-page document culled from somewhere of provocative, audacious anonymous aphorisms, and in the very centre of it, it says this:

“Address the objects that are at the centre of you.” There are only a few of them, of these truly vital objects of yours. Turn to them, speak to them, speak of them. Speak from your centre of gravity.

Clearing the desk space, filing the journal articles, organising the piles of scraps of newspapers and stories for stimulation, only go so far in helping make you a writer. What you need to do is make an address to yourself. Find your centre of gravity.

And so I went to the floor.

I went to the floor after sitting for a while, after editing a piece of flash fiction and entering it into a competition, and then finding I didn’t know where else to begin. So I went to the floor, and took with me this 10-pager filled with provocation. “Kick Shakespeare in the balls and shove Homer down the stairs. Writing is easy—it costs you no less than your life.”

I’d sat in the chair for a while and burnt out the first thoughts, as advised by Natalie Goldberg, and got through to a place where I could address myself to this question: how can I work better? Because I’d realised it is not ‘how to write’ or ‘what should I write about’ that needed addressing. It is simply this: how to work. What does it mean to work as a writer? What does it take?

The presentiment I had was of drawing out the problem—literally. So I got out the big pad of paper and a pen and I began to draw some islands. (And make lists). I wanted to think of bodies of work. My body, but also the body of the writing. My body as the work, the writing, but also the writing, the vital object, that is my body’s centre of gravity. What would this be? So I drew some islands of work in a body of water, around a central question, one of great gravitas for how to work: ‘Say for example I spent 2014 working on a body of work around…’ and then drew in the islands.

islands

They are the Island of Love and Relationships; Conservation Isle, the animal reserve; The Island of Running through Place; the Critical Tower; Vegania; the Island of the Craft.

The problem, which is also the same for many creative people, is that I’m an island hopper. I find it difficult to settle in any one community of expertise for long enough to get to know the earth, dig my feet into the soil. Make a home for my writing. My centre of gravity, perhaps, is not in any of these places, but in the journey around them.

Which may be fine, in the long term. But when hopping becomes spinning, when the feet barely touch the ground, when there is no opportunity or time to lay down, what becomes of the body of work, the work of the body?

For me, what was interesting, was that this question came out of the question not of writing, but of reading. Reading is invaluable, essential, such a part of writing that there is no suture between them, no divisible line, no mark, or re-mark, as Derrida might say, to make a definition. My reading felt scattergun. I began from my reading, and saw that, indeed, I was not spending long enough on any of these islands for my reading to compost into writing. To nurture the seeds of the idea that might grow into the body of the work, and ripen.

And then (still on the floor, still drawing, mapping, writing, like a child) I recalled a phrase I’d read on a writer’s website (I stalk, I stalk, but only to learn) about their ‘current writing projects’ and I thought, okay, so, what are mine? And I listed 13. Woeful! Unlucky! Overwhelming! As the Jungian analyst James Hollis rightly identifies, overwhelming is a wounding, a not-dealing with the world, “a manifestation of our sensed powerlessness to alter the course of the outer world.” Or as my friend K quotes to me, “as above / so below.” We create in our outer world the fears that we cannot face in the inner world. And so in my attempts to alter the outer world, through gaining knowledge, by doing things, what I am doing (still doing) is overwhelming myself innerly.

how to write

So back to the question. How can I work better? It’s a question of responsibility, of soul-activism, in the psychotherapist Steve Thorp’s terminology, to become, as Rob McNamara says of us, our most elegant self.

This. And recalling the poet Abi Curtis’s words said to me a decade ago on West Drive, Brighton. “You’re working on six projects? I can only manage two, at maximum.”

And it has served her very well.

So not 13 projects. Two. Two. My current writing projects are…

later, later

(Those empty boxes… Don’t make me choose! Later. Later.)

The most powerful thing this narrowing down does is guide my reading and working hours. Rather than focus on those big questions “how to write”, or “in what genre”, or “what to write at all”, a renewed focus on the process identifies the problems with the process, and so clears away the obstructions. “How to work” is the question, and it is a question of the body, perhaps first, and the mind only later, after. That’s why I needed to get down onto the floor. And perhaps why, in a bizarre admission to this post, I spent last night not hoovering, but going over the carpet a thin strip at a time with masking tape, cleaning it of its imperfections and cat hair and dirt. I knew already I would be lying on it this morning. That was the presentiment. That was the gift of gravity at the centre of this morning’s contribution to the growing body of work. (Soon to become nothing more than a bed for Misha, anyway.)

misha gets in