Last weekend Ian and I visited the nearby city of Rotterdam for a 24-hour break. The weather was glorious and so we decided to take advantage of our host nation’s efficiency and hire bicycles direct from the train station. It was cheaper than taking our own bikes on the train – our usual train cards could simply be swiped and we’d be on our way.
Only, it was not that simple.
The Dutch are tall and can cycle straight from the womb. They pootle around the country’s cycle lanes with their arms folded. Their bikes don’t mess about with handlebar brakes. Oh no, they just back pedal a bit while keeping those long old arms folded.
No one would describe me as a robust driver. I find it very hard to look over my shoulder and not turn the bike (or steering wheel) in the same direction as my eyes. Even when I do manage it, my varifocals present me with a useless blur.
I am short. Even with the saddle set to child height my feet could not touch the floor. Stopping the darn thing meant I had to back pedal and then jump. I soon realised that I was used to slowing down (using handbrakes) before looking over my shoulder to check for overtakers before coming to a total halt. How on earth was I supposed to brake before I needed to brake, then? So, I didn’t, I fell off.
This is just the start of a gorgeous weekend somewhat blighted by bruised elbows and egos. It was a shame because I love cycling so much I quote it as the best thing about this country.
Could you spot ten ideas in two days?
The day before our trip I had set some of my students the task of noticing things that happened to them in the context of living abroad and making a note. It is these seemingly mundane experiences that can be the catalyst to an insight or a parallel that could become a blog post or article. I had asked my students to spot 10 things over the course of two days and so in good humour I decided that it was only fair that I did the exercise too. Indeed, I gleaned at least 10 ideas from the bicycle fiasco alone.
Let me give you three examples of how the writer’s mind should work, taking a fragment of what happened that weekend and using it to create a larger piece:
On a Writing Me-Treat I encourage students to pay attention and notice where ideas are lurking. If you want to be a real writer and want to get published and paid for it then you need to be able to come up with ideas all the time.
I ran my first online writers’ circle last week and was discussing the writing of articles with my students.
“I think I am more of a gardener,” said Nikki.
“Eh?” I think I responded. I had never heard this phrase before, well, certainly not in the context of writing.
“I am more of a gardener than an architect,” she continued.
I was none the wiser so asked for more explanation. And after she had explained I asked her to repeat it so I could take notes.
You see, some writers like to plan it all out first – to create a structure and then start writing. Others are more of the ‘put the pen on the paper and just go’ type of writer, as Natalie Goldberg writes in her book Writing Down the Bones, like me.
Nikki told me that the original concept is attributed to George RR Martin, the guy behind the Game of Thrones novel, who wrote:
“I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be.
George RR Martin
The gardening bit
In the online writers’ circle, in my workshops and on Me-Treats I always include plenty of spontaneous exercises where I present an idea and immediately give students five, 10 or 15 minutes in which to write something. I give them with a seed of an idea, let them start gardening and just see where it takes them; how it grows.
For me, I start with the germ of an idea, one that is not yet fully formed, put fingers to keyboard and go with the flow, writing from my gut until my ideas run out. I work out what I am going to say while I am writing it.
The architect bit
After a break (a few hours or more) I return to the piece to put some structure onto it, adding subheadings if I feel I need them, maybe moving the text around a bit and cutting unnecessary words. I always ensure I include some kind of insight or takeaway because I like my readers to feel that my words are worth reading enough to come back again.
It makes no difference whether you are a gardener or an architect, or, better still a bit of both. It is okay to start off with a detailed plan or with just a seed. What matters is that you accept who you are and learn to craft your natural style into a coherent piece worth reading.
I’ve just finished preparing the notes for my next Writing Me-Treat. This one will take place in Charente-Maritime, about an hour inland from Bordeaux. We are going to take advantage of the incomparable hospitality and setting of a 19th Century distillery called Chez Vallée that is now home to Amanda and Fraser Graham and Praana Wellness.
As usual on a Me-Treat we are going to take our cues from the place in which we find ourselves. We will take mindful walks and remind ourselves how to pay attention and really take in our surroundings, not just so that we enter a peaceful state of mind but in order to allow the inspiration to flood in. And it is while we are away from our normal routines that we will notice things that are ‘out there’ and find resonance with our own stories. Which is just the beginning.
I’m currently reading and loving The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr and taking tons of notes. Boy, that woman is wise. Mind you, she is the English Literature Professor at Syraceuse University and her memoir classes are woefully over-subscribed.
So, there I am, writing notes from almost every page it seems when one of them leaps out at me:
“Truth is not the enemy – it’s the bannister you grab for when feeling around on the dark cellar stairs.”
Wow! Many budding, talented writers struggle with their truth, with finding it in the first place and then with teasing it out into a piece of writing that has some meaning.
“You get a fragment of a ‘something’ and hang on for dear life until the ‘end’ appears and you can pull and untangle into something that just might be useful,” writes Karr.
It’s a big ask and it’s ambitious but this is my hope for all the students who attend one of my Writing Me-Treats, that somehow, through being in a safe, gentle and inspiring place, a fragment of a something will emerge, and then, thanks to a small group of generous-spirited like-minded cheerleaders to lend a hand, the untangling can begin.
Yes, a Me-Treat will help you to find your voice and it will help you to believe in yourself and your story. It may be a little challenging and you may not be quite sure of the colour of the wool that you start to extract, but you will start to find the meaning you have been searching for.
author, journalist, teacher and poet
'Sharing what I know to help others to grow.'
Jo Parfitt has published 31 books, helped more than 100 authors get into print and more than 1,000 to begin writing. She's an inspiring, compassionate and encouraging teacher.
Jo has run Summertime Publishing since 1997. She has lived abroad for almost 30 years – in France, Dubai, Oman, Norway, the Netherlands, Brunei and Malaysia. She specialises in inspiring others who write about expatriate issues.
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