Sunday, 16 July 2017

In the Grist - Heather Dyer

'Grist’ was the corn brought to a mill to be ground into flour. Today, if a thing  is ‘grist for the mill’ it still refers to something that’s a potential source of profit. For a writer, being ‘in the grist’ can mean that rare but lovely mode of being in which everything you see and do seems to relate somehow to the book you’re working on.

When I’m working on a novel, taking a day off makes me feel guilty. But if I don't take days off, where will I find grist for my writing mill?

Curiously, I often wind up doing as much work on a day off as I do on a working day by taking notes or writing random scenes. Days off seem to liberate the mind and allow us to take detours that are sometimes profitable.

At the moment I’m working on a time travel book for children aged 7-11. I am resistant to getting down to write – I can't see my characters clearly yet, and am in a state of slightly-discomforting uncertainty. So, I shut down my writing mill and took a couple of days off, waiting for grist for the mill to arrive.

Here's what provided grist for my mill:

A fashion blog I subscribe to featured ‘gentlewoman style’ (wide trousers, waistcoats, brogues and oversize shirts). Looking at one of the models, I realized that one of my characters was a ‘gentlewoman’! Now that I could ‘see’ her, suddenly I knew her much better.

I idly opened a book I’d been meaning to read for ages: Take My Advice.

I opened it to an essay by Lucius Shepard on American politics. Written nearly 20 years ago, he says: 'The cornerstone of a successful democracy is an informed populace, and because we have let ourselves grow uninformed, we have licensed a dynasty of third-raters to govern our lives.'

He goes on to say that newspapers and media 'have become propaganda organs whose function is to manipulate, to soothe, to compose via the scripted dialogue of some blow-dried creep the government-sponsored view…’

I realized I could put similar words into one of my characters' mouths, and suddenly his motives became much clearer. There will be consequences for the plot.

Curious, I Googled ‘Lucius Shepard’ and discovered he was a science fiction writer. I immediately ordered one of his titles from the library and realized that the book I’m writing is also science fiction. My imagination feels strangely liberated.

That afternoon a Facebook post on recycling pictured an overflowing landfill. I envisaged the dystopian future that my characters will visit before they reach the utopian deep-future.

In my inbox was the latest email newsletter from Wait Not Why. It was all about Nerualink, a brain implant that can (and apparently already is) allowing us to communicate telepathically. I will put this in my book, too. I suddenly imagine how we will live in the deep future.

My bedtime reading is Mark Nepo’s Seven Thousand Ways to Listen. I decide that my political activist character is also as a dreadlocked Zen practitioner and homeless person. Perfect!

All these sources of inspiration are totally unrelated – yet my unconscious finds a way to weave them together in the world of my story. They are like missing pieces of a jigsaw. It’s as though my unconscious draws me to certain objects, images or lines of dialogue because they ‘fit’ an underlying theme or pattern that my unconscious already knows.

My desire to explore this storyline is driven by the same desire that draws me to gentlewoman style, the political essay, recycling, and Mark Nepo’s poetry. I suspect that this desire is driven by some lack in me, or something I want to understand or work through – and that, in following my yearnings in my life and in my storyline, this lack will be revealed if not resolved.

Carl Jung gave a talk once, in which a member of the audience asked: ‘What’s the quickest way to find my life’s true path?’ Jung said, ‘take a detour’. So, the moral of this story is: take a break, wander freely, pay attention, and who knows, maybe a clue is waiting out there, ready to be grist for the mill...

Heather Dyer, Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow


Sue Purkiss said...

You had a good day! I love that Jung quote.

I never heard it called 'grist' before, but I know just what you mean - lovely when it happens. I've always thought of it as serendipity. Or could you say it was being in a 'fugue' state? Not sure...

Heather Dyer said...

A fugue state! Never heard of that one. It does feel magical, doesn't it?

Lynne Benton said...

Fascinating stuff, Heather! Thank you.

Mystica said...

I think all the elements are coming together. Fascinating.

Rowena House said...

A wonderfully encouraging post. And what a fantastic cast of characters you've accumulated. Sounds like we should all detour more often.

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks everyone, sometimes it happens, it's lovely when it does :) I think the key is not thinking too hard, and following what intrigues you, especially when it feels indulgent.