Monday, 31 March 2014

The "NOT THE THREE PAGES AGAIN" Report. By Penny Dolan

(I know it’s the first of April, but this isn’t a Fools Day post. )

Silence. It’s a horrid thing to have happen. The words in the head gone, or never hanging around long enough to be useful. The shameful feeling of no longer being able to be the writer I've thought I was,.

The silence crept up on me, bit by bit, started by several petty reasons. A sudden family incident that it doesn't help to go on about. A smattering of nagging anxieties, boring and best suppressed. A while with scaffolding rattling outside my workroom window, and similar. A longish Arts Project ,and a worthy commitment that both ate up too much administration time. (Oh, why didn’t I weigh up the time involved at the start?) As well as all the good stuff of life that still needs planning and attention and enjoyment. Way too much on your mind? Best keep your mouth shut, and just get on with it all.

The silence grew, added to by the shadow of a “big book” not doing as it should, and one single minor review that hurt badly. Beware too thin a skin. Then there was that guard-down, coming-out-of-the-loo moment slap into the face of a slightly sneery librarian’s harsh remark. (Just who did I think I was, pretending to be a writer, I thought.) Then that one twisted school visit – out of many good ones, I know, I know - that didn’t go quite right. (Curse you, Powerpoint facilities!)  Gradually the book that should be being written, is half-written, has paused for far too long a time.

Don't worry. I don't need a large red-spotted hanky or sympathy to wallow in. 

This is just my explanation of why, slowly, the words had stopped, and that some kind of action was urgently required. 

What action? I decided to try the “Artist’s Way” again, again. So the rest of this post is about is the famous Three Pages -  or my version of how I did, and how I DO do them.

A quick aside, if you haven't yet heard  that expression yet. The Three Pages writing exercise comes from the American writer and creative renewal guru, Julia Cameron. Her first book (1994) had the title “THE ARTIST'S WAY: A COURSE IN DISCOVERING YOUR CREATIVE SELF", and took the model of the AA 12-step programme. Julia continued with more books on this theme and a strong on-line presence. Her books do offer good and wise suggestions and I respect her enormously, especially for fighting her personal demons.


Julia writes very American, and I am not. When she lyrically describes breakfasting on her sunlit porch, or riding her horse through the desert, or spending money on sparkly pencils in stores, or walking the streets of Manhattan, or meeting up with this or that creative film or theatre person in her cafe, or suddenly having a dream about putting on a musical and that happens . . .

Oh dear. Apologies. Julia. The crabby bit of me makes me shrug my shoulders and go “meh”. I'm sure it is all true, but that life is not my life. Never has been my life. These events may be a movie or life elsewhere, but not here. (Peers out at the grey drizzle outside)

Julia’s main demand, echoing Dorothea Brande’s original and earlier book Becoming A Writer, is this. Every morning, as you wake up, you write three pages. I tried this often, as my family grew from babbling to teen-sulking around me. Sorry, Julia, but I failed too soon each time I tried. ( Back then, I was a working, work-worn mum. Somehow my role was to get everyone out there each morning or we starved. Time management wasn’t my thing - and I was doing diplomas and degrees around that time too, studying in the evenings. Not a good mix.)

Last November, with that cold grey dog Silence crouched by my ankles, I decided to try the Three Pages method again. (Not Page Three, please note.) However this time I would do it MY way. I would scribble those Three Pages down whenever I could. If I couldn’t, I wouldn’t grieve. Or feel bad. Or all that other negative stuff that cascaded down. Agreed? Yes.

I did -  and have now been doing - the Three Pages. I've done them for (counts on fingers . . .) about five months now, and the good news is that - even in my revised, occasionally feeble and now-guiltless version - the Three Pages have worked. I miss it when I don;t do them. Words and ideas have started whispering in my head - and something’s begun ticking again on my big project.

I use a large A4 yellow-paged notebook. Yellow because it isn’t white work paper, and the colour cheers me. Size is important too. Three large pages gives a generous space for you to listen to your muttering mind, and let all the low-level, hidden frets to rise up to the surface, to spill out somewhere around mid-second page. Aha, you think. So that’s what’s really making me so cross and fidgety!

I use a beautiful old green art-deco fountain pen, inherited from my father, which makes for comfortable writing. I keep away from the scary computer screen, the scene of my failure. The physical act of writing by hand seems to feed the task.

I use green ink, because this is not work, right? (Blue ink: school. Black ink: for depression or drawing Red ink : corrections and being marked. ) Green ink? Yes! Interesting and inspiring. Even if my fingers are always covered in green stains.

I note the day, date and year at the start, keeping a light watch on when I last made time for myself. If I have missed any days, I let myself wonder why, then start again. I even note where I’m scribbling. “Writing this in bed  . . .” or “At my desk. 4.30am”.

I note the time I start, out of curiosity, and when I end. Dawn, morning, afternoon, late night, before I sleep. All sorts of times, whenever I can. The aim is to do it, not to be perfect. (Sometimes my three pages take 50 minutes. I note that I lose focus, get distracted. Small must-be-done’s arrive, start yapping and too soon I give in, but I try better next time. Yet, thinking about this blog, I got three pages covered in 20 minutes.

I use the Three Pages for . . what? Not for “writing on a given theme” at all, nor as a diary, although some entries do sound a bit like that. Nor are they reflective odes to all that is lovely around me, ever searching for the precise, right , perfect word. The Three Pages work by getting the hand and head moving, and even if angry thoughts flicker on some pages, somehow the yellow paper isn’t greyed over with gloom.

The Three Pages are just me writing, however the writing turns out, whatever the words think: a sort of low-level meditation. The pages are private: what’s in three pages stays in three pages, or they did until I used one set to consider my thoughts for this blogpost. Maybe the pages are changing? Maybe they are becoming about what I write about? Who knows?

For me, the Three Pages have become a place to rest and be alone. No readers, no editors, no revisions, a space where inspiration is not demanded, where my writing doesn’t matter - although in a way, it does, very much. And day after day - or almost - the pages have helped the other, the “Real Writing” begin again, too.
I’m sure that, to some of you, this wittering about silence will sound self-indulgent and weak. "Lives are different" is all I can say, and I have worked on some briefs that ended up in print and cheered me immensely. It was the big writing thing I'm wanting to finish that scared me. Onwards - and this post makes sense to anyone, thank you for reading.

 Penny Dolan


Penny Dolan said...

Oops! "and IF this post makes sense to anyone . . .". Next blogpost to be on failing eyesight, perhaps.

Joan Lennon said...

Excellent. Just excellent. Thank you!

John Dougherty said...

For a blogpost on 'not being able to write', Penny, this is beautifully written! I'm tempted to print it out and hang it somewhere...

Nick Green said...

Wonderful post.

It does make me laugh when people offer well-meaning but thoroughly unsuitable advice. Such as the well-meaning but somewhat out-of-touch friend who recommended that I hire a particular castle in Switzerland for my 40th birthday party, because they'd done it and it had been great.

Katherine Langrish said...

Thanks for this post, Penny. Writing can be scary, very scary. All those doubts, fears - what can I write? Can I, in fact, write? Will I ever write anything good again? Did I ever write anything good in the first place? Who is it for? Who will want this? What if they don't? We've all got to find a way through this dark and tangled wood. Glad your yellow pages and green ink are lighting the way a little.

adele said...

A truly wonderful post Penny and very helpful. I am gong to try this 3 pages thing. It sounds brilliant. Need to get started myself and this might do the trick...Thank you!

Pippa Goodhart said...

Penny, I want to know more about that brooding, threatening, but somehow sensitive and delicate character, 'that cold grey dog Silence'. Ask him to tell you about himself, and perhaps he can dictate what he says down that wonderful pen full of green ink .... and, no, it's not work; it's a game with no further purpose in sight than that conversation.

Charlotte Guillain said...

Thank you so much for writing this Penny. So much of it rang true for me! I think I might try those 3 pages too. x

Lucy Coats said...

"I’m sure that, to some of you, this wittering about silence will sound self-indulgent and weak.' Nope. Not one bit, Penny. It's a brave and useful post. If the cold grey dog, Silence bites, we all heal those wounds in the way that works best for us. I'm so glad your three pages have worked for you - and that your fingers are stained with green ink. Mine too! I take a perverse delight in writing with the colour most often assigned to Mr/s Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. Reclaim the Green, I say!

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for your kind words, and unexpected replies of recognition.

"Hang it somewhere", John? Could suggest . . . And, Nick, words do fail at times like that. "No, I only pretend to have no money."

So are we all feeling like this inside then, Kath? And it's so at odds with that "Showtime Author" persona, isn't it?

Not sure about making friends with the cold grey dog, Pippa, but will ponder on't. Thanks. :-)

Lucy, "Reclaim the Green" is one of my mottoes as writing friends from a certain summer retreat might know, but it's definitely becoming a fine green ink fixation too.

Adele & Charlotte: The three pages are worth trying - and the A4 pages do give enough space for the bothersome stuff to come out, especially if you have big handwriting. (If I can truly only manage two pages, have decided not to fret.)

John Dougherty said...

Penny, I think most of us do feel like this, at least sometimes. And, yes, it's very much at odds with the persona we often project.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

This is has had the affect of a wonderful soothing balm. I like that the pages don't have to be at a definite time. Love the idea of yellow pages and green ink to free one up. I needed this blog right now when all sorts of things seem to be unravelling. Thank you Penny!

Sue Eves said...

this is a wonderful post - I soon ditched the "Morning" in favour of "Daily" pages too - I don't have a great body of published writing but your post makes utter sense. So pleased you found your own way forward.

Penny Dolan said...

Thank you so much too, Dianne and Sue.

Linda Strachan said...

Great post, Penny. Thank you for sharing this, and explaining the 'three pages' so well. I love green ink, too! (must invest in a yellow pad.)

The comments show how you have touched a nerve with all of us.

It takes courage to launch yourself into a big project, especially if there is no guarantee that all that work will end up with a home, but that is often the nature of what we do!

Savita Kalhan said...

That was amazing to read, Penny. Thank you for sharing. I've had those days, weeks and months, and I'm also not a great showtime author, so what does that leave? In the end it's about finding a way forward and I'm so glad you have. I shall be investing in a yellow A4 notepad...

julia lee said...

Wonderful - and liberating. Thank you, Penny! I totally empathise with you about the off-puttingly unrecognisable lives of some American writer-advisers. Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down The Bones) is the same...deserts sunrises and friendly corner coffee-shops. And I found 'morning pages' so hard when I tried them because - duh - they were first thing in the morning! Then my priorities were: more sleep, please, if poss; getting ready to go out to the day job, thinking what the hell I could wear for the weather and where I was supposed to be that day; and actually communicating with my family about necessary stuff, rather than communing with my muse. But your idea of doing them as and when possible and not every single day - fabulous. Three pages, and keeping your pen on the page, IS a really good exercise if it's not a penance and does change your thinking over time and yield a few surprises.

Penny Dolan said...

Think I said this before, but thank you all for your comments. So glad that it made sense, rather than sounding crabby. I also know that when I was in the depths of that cold grey panicky place, I couldn't have blogged about it.

Julia Lee, great laughs of recognition here at your so-similar reactions to those sunny-place gurus!