Maybe it’s the season – it’s still winter here in Western Australia, and an unusually chilly one. Maybe it’s the sequence of truly horrifying events that have played out internationally in recent times. Perhaps it’s the disquiet that comes from a society that increasingly seems to place populist sentiment above logic or morality. Most likely all of the above have contributed to a phenomenon I’ve noticed over the last few months – writers feeling sad and unproductive.
Writing is a roller-coaster ride, like any other creative occupation; the highs can be stunning, thrilling, euphoric, and the lows can be crippling. On one end there’s the new contract, the fabulous review, the royalty cheque, the feeling of having made a difference. On the other there are the rejections, the opportunities that come to nothing, the one star reviews, the falling sales figures. The unfinished manuscript you just can’t see your way to working on.
I’m seldom subject to depression. My self-belief is generally healthy and my approach to my work is pragmatic. (To put this in context, I earn my living as a novelist.) This winter has been different. I’m not the only writer to find herself despondent and lacking in energy, thanks to the factors mentioned above plus some personal issues. Within my circle of writers, a remarkably high proportion of friends are feeling low in spirits – anything from mild general malaise to full-blown clinical depression. To a greater or lesser extent, that is impacting on people’s ability to get good words down on the page.
I wish I had a magic charm to make writers happy and productive, politicians humane, and human beings wiser. In place of that, I suggest we focus on something far smaller. Here’s an exercise that might help us both as writers and as individuals feeling overwhelmed, whether by the volume of our personal workload, our domestic issues or the tide of world events. Sit down, or lie down, somewhere comfortable. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply and feel yourself relax. Now let’s do an exercise with our five senses.
Lying still, breathing slowly, not moving, consider the sense of touch. Think of five different touch sensations that are related but subtly contrasting – choose something familiar to you. Imagine your fingers moving against each in turn. For this exercise, I thought of the hair of each of my five dogs, whom I touch a lot. Pip: short and straight, with a little whorl on the head. Bodhi: long and wiry, high in natural oils. Fergal: sparse, dry and wispy, the skin exposed. Zen: soft, fine and silky. Reggie: warm, dense and curly, almost like a sheep’s fleece. You might think of five cooking ingredients; five types of fabric; five kinds of foliage in your garden; five tools in your workshop. Take your time over each. Imagine the sensation before you let words come to describe it.
Breathe for a while, then repeat the exercise with another of the senses. I’m imagining five breakfast smells or five garden smells. Take plenty of time to relax and breathe as this exercise goes on. The sense of sound would be wonderful to play with – how about five different bells ringing, from a wind chime to the deep voice of Big Ben? Or five contrasting bird calls. Or, of course, five distinctive ways of barking!
Take time for each of the senses, with an allowance for simply breathing a while before you go on to the next. When you’re finished, lie there a little longer, then slowly bring your body back to wakefulness by wriggling fingers and toes, flexing feet and hands, eventually rolling onto your side and, when you are ready, sitting up. Take time over this. The exercise will not only help you feel better, it should remind you of the many small wonders that still exist around us, gifts that deserve to be valued.
Writers are keen observers, good at storing things away. Those sensory memories are grist to the writer’s mill. They’ll provide vital ingredients for your next creative project.They can help make your writing convincingly real even when it is entirely fictional.
Don’t rest on your laurels, though. Every time you write, you’re using what those past years of being observant have given you. And every day you should be replenishing that creative well, using your senses to experience, to learn, to build up new material for your future writing. So, undertake your daily life, whatever it may hold, in an awareness of sensory experience. See, hear, smell, touch, taste. Store away what is memorable; if it helps, jot down words for what is striking, lovely, scary, powerful. That practice will make you a better writer. And, who knows? It may make you a wiser human being.
How about a little exercise now? Choose one of the senses, and post in the comments below a set of five personal observations from today, related to that sense. Or if you prefer, post one observation from today on each of the five senses.
Photo of Fergal: copyright Glenn Ware