Hoovering, cleaning the windows, clearing out a cupboard, cutting the grass, paying bills, tidying the wardrobe, making phone calls, catching up on Facebook… I term these displacement activities; the things we do instead of what we really want to do, which is sit down to write. How often have you arrived at the end of the day or the week and berated yourself for not having spent the time you promised yourself you would spend on your writing? It happens to us all.
My tactic in the face of the inevitable wave of ‘things I ought to do instead of write’ is to make them part of the process. If you think about it, the time we actually spend sitting at the computer or scribbling in our notebooks can be small compared with the time we spend imagining, observing, thinking, eavesdropping, dreaming, making connections, inventing and allowing our minds to wander around and through an idea; the creative part, if you like. I know that if I sit down to write too soon, it is like trying to embark on a journey without a map. Without the sort of musing and planning that goes on in the back of my mind while I am engaged in other activities (reference the above), I cannot get started.
As writers we do not just write. We spend time preparing to write. We are magpies, constantly on the lookout for ideas, images and solutions to problems. A few days ago, when I should have been at my desk (I had actually made a writing date with myself and put it in my diary), I felt driven to tidy a book case. In the process I found a bird book, the sort of pocket guide someone would take with them on a walk if they were the type of person who likes to know what the birds are. I am not really one of those people, but still I have the book. Turning it over in my hand I made a realisation. A character I have been writing about for some while now, but who was proving hard to pin down, was in fact a bird watcher.
This simple fact about his choice of hobby shone a light on his character. Suddenly a host of personality traits made sense; his ‘odd-one-outness’ among members of his art-loving family, for instance; his tendency to gaze towards the horizon rather than see what was in front of him; even his choice of shoes.
When I sat down to write about him I felt a fluency that had not been there before. It felt as if I was able to write about him truthfully for the first time, rather than making him up – all because the practical task of tidying a shelf allowed my mind to wander and speculate. Displacement activity is akin to multi-tasking. As writers we are fortunate to be able to use one urge to feed the other.