Ever since I was a teenager I have believed in trying to learn something before going to sleep. The evening study period has always been a productive time for me, even if I have not succeeded in the learning I have set myself. I close my notes, read an enjoyable book and then go to sleep. On waking in the morning I consult my notes again and often found that I have remembered more than I thought I had or I have worked out the problem that was out of reach the night before.
Rest is very important for the mind. The subconscious does some magical things when the mind is given some rest. We are at our most unproductive when we try to work excessive hours. Our productivity diminishes as we try to push through our tiredness and ignore the need to socialise with family, go for a walk or have a leisurely meal. Worrying about a problem and obsessing over it can drive the solution away. People may boast of long working hours, but all they are declaring is how unproductive they are.
This time last year we were in the midst of purchasing a house, selling excess household stuff and moving to Singapore. I had one last significant commitment in Australia – to deliver a paper on my research to the annual Religious History Association conference. This was to be the finale of my work of the last couple of years. I had already done a lot of reading and found my primary sources. All I had to do was write it up.
Yet I found writing impossible. There was too much clutter in my mind.
“Remember to get this form signed and witnessed at the post office. These boxes have to go into this room. What stuff needs to be moved into the garage for this week’s sale? Don’t forget to ring my brother tonight. Keep this stuff unpacked until the last minute. Make sure…”
It was impossible to write when surrounded by boxes and legal forms. The date of the conference was looming. I snatched time every morning to write before the household woke up, but the word drought continued.
However, I remained calm. I have enough writing experience to know the words will come and I know the conditions I need for the writing to flow. Busyness is anathema to writing for me.
I arrived in my room at a college at the University of Queensland with barely a paragraph written. My paper was to be delivered in three days. I walked through the grounds of the university, registered and attended the opening session, then slept calmly.
Over the next two days the words gushed forth. I skipped sessions that were not relevant to my research topic or which coincided with the times of the day I know are most prolific for me – the morning and the evening. I attended sessions when I knew that I would be wasting time attempting to write. Deep into the night and the early hours of the morning I wrote. I knew that what was streaming out of my mind would be good. Writing that flows easily is often the best.
I was nervous when delivering my paper but I had finished with enough time to do a couple of practice runs so I knew it would work within the allotted time. I was delighted with the interest shown in the questions after my paper and conversations during the conference.
I had not known at the time, but this was the paper that launched my book project.
I was reminded of this experience yesterday when driving to the supermarket. For almost a year I have been puzzling over the entry point of my book. I have played around with ideas and have a folder of several first pages. These attempts have not given me what I have been seeking but I have been relaxed about playing around with the first chapter. Something would come.
Over the last few weeks I have been concentrating on another chapter. I have made some exciting breakthroughs in my research and surfing the wave. Now I have to consolidate what I have discovered by doing more reading of the work of other historians on the topic.
I have not been giving any thought to the first page.
It is not often that driving to buy some groceries warrants a mention, but the four-minute drive yesterday was significant for me. Unbidden, words for the first page came to me. As I was turning right and left through the back streets of our suburb, phrases and ideas poured through my mind. All of a sudden I not only had the outline of my first page, but workable ideas for the first chapter.
Thank goodness for mobile phones! I didn’t have pen or paper, but I sat in the dark underground car park at the shopping centre and typed my thoughts into my mobile phone.
The lesson I have learned over many years is that I should not get stressed when I am stuck on a writing project. More recently I have finally recognised the best writing times of day for me. Even though I had not been giving the first chapter much thought over the last couple of weeks, something has been going on in my subconscious.
I have been giving my creative mind the conditions it needs to do its work.