Tuesday 22 October 2019

Bird by Bird - Heather Dyer

In my last post, I enthused about how much easier it is to write at a writer’s retreat. And I stand by this. But now I’m going to argue that, sometimes, it’s more productive to write in short time slots, fitting your writing in around more pressing tasks.

There are good reasons for this:

1. We may not have the luxury of being able to write all day, every day
Unless we are supported by someone else, or independently wealthy, there will be the day job or other freelance work to do. And unless we have staff, there may be children to care for, dogs to walk, meals to cook and homes to clean. If we don’t grab the hour after the children have gone to bed, or half an hour in the morning before everyone else wakes up – or our lunch break, or the commute – we could end up waiting for ever to ‘find time’ to achieve our creative goals.

2. Little and often can feel more manageable
In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about a school project (on birds) that her brother had delayed doing until the weekend before it was due. Their father sat the boy down and said, ‘Bird by bird, son. Bird by bird.’ And, bird by bird, he managed to get it done.

A long project like a book can feel overwhelming. But by focusing on the next small chunk of work, it’s surprising how much can be achieved before you know it.

3. You can gestate ideas between bouts of writing
Often, I suddenly realize what could happen next in a scene when I’ve just shut my laptop and am doing the dishes. Likewise, I frequently think of something I ought to have said the moment I’ve pressed ‘send’ on an email. There’s something about letting go that allows the mind to wander and allows new insights to arise. Working in short stretches can allow this to happen.

One way to take advantage of this is to note down which scene or section you want to work on the following day, to prime unconscious to work on it in the meantime. Hemingway famously stopped in the middle of a scene (or even a sentence). Apparently, when he knew what was coming next, it made it easier to return to work the following day. But I suspect it also allowed his unconscious to ‘work’ on the scene in the meantime.

4. Life inspires art
Writers need to live as well as write, because inspiration comes from living. It's surprising how life and creative output cross-pollinate each other.  When we have a project on the go, things we see, hear, read, experience - it's all grist for the mill, and can trigger ideas or solutions.

5. Creativity is like a muscle - use it or lose it
I've heard it said that writing is like going to the gym. Little and often is the best way to keep the creative muscle active. And our ability to be creative isn't just restricted to our 'creative' projects, either. The intuitive, exploratory, open mindset that creativity requires is indispensable in life, as well.

6. Writing for long periods, just because we can, can be counterproductive
Particularly in the early stages of a project, pushing ahead can force its growth unnaturally. Sometimes, working in short stretches over a longer duration allows a storyline to develop more slowly and organically - and reach its full potential.

Maybe it depends on the writer, or maybe on the stage of a particular project. Sometimes, having the opportunity to dive in and push full steam ahead without distractions can be wonderful. At other times, adding to your work in short stints can be even more effective.

Heather Dyer is a consultant in writing for children. She provides writing and publishing advice through The Literary Consultancy, The Writers' Advice Centre for Children's Books, and privately. If you’re ready for feedback on your work-in-progress contact Heather at heatherdyerbooks@gmail.com. 

Heather’s children’s novel The Girl with the Broken Wing was one of Richard and Judy’s book club picks, and The Boy in the Biscuit Tin was nominated for a Galaxy Best British Children’s Book award. Heather also teaches creative writing for the University of the Creative Arts, and facilitates workshops in creative thinking techniques for creatives and academics.


Anne Booth said...

I think this is very true and wise.

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks, Anne! x

Steve Way said...

Thank you for this Heather as Anne says it's wise and also very supportive!

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks Steve, I need to remind myself as much as anyone else - little and often can be really effective. :)