In my early twenties I went on an Arvon writing course with Ray French and Jean Sprakland. On our first evening, Ray asked us to write down the the things that interest us, obsess us even, the things we love and hate, the things we surround ourselves with and, whether for good or ill, seek out. It could be an idea or an object or a place or a scent. It could be an emotion, an animal, a colour or a relationship. Anything that forms part of our unique atmosphere as writers makes the list.
Ray said that we should look back to that list throughout our lives and that we’d be amazed at how those things we feel drawn to crop up time and again in our writing.
What’s more, by giving these obsessions some thought and by writing them down, we create mental hooks that will be ready to receive all those wonderful connections that the universe offers us, even when we are not writing. Most interestingly, connections will form between the most unexpected items in our lists. I believe that it is this unique combination and these original connections which creates our voice as a writers.
Try to write down at least twenty things. Writing a long list forces us to get past the obvious – the things we might list in a twitter profile, for example or the things we write down because we like the idea of being associated with them. By digging deep we find those tiny, quirky – even slightly embarrassing – loves and obsessions that we’d maybe forgotten about or didn’t quite realise were there.
Challenge: take five minutes today to write down 20 things that fascinate you or that you love or obsess about and pin this up above your desk or stick it into the front of your notebook. You could build a collection of images and objects connected to those things – my desk is filled with physical expressions of my writer’s mind and heart.
Here are some of the things that I come to again and again. My list is much longer than 20 and I keep adding to it, but there are a few key items that remain constant and that you will find in both What Milo Saw and The Astonishing Return of Norah Wells.
Light, old shoes, silence, animals, houses, obsessive behaviour, lies, queues, how children see the world, spying, rain, living alone, residential streets, mothers & daughters, picture frames, water, ordinary towns, loss, twins, family life, romantic love, wood, parks, disappointment, running away, hope, injustice, secrets, envy, sleep, roads, ordinary jobs, belonging.