I sometimes work in my local library, the AK Bell in Perth. On the walls of its café are quotations about literature and writing from famous literary figures. There’s one by Goethe that often catches my eye: ‘When ideas fail, words come in very handy.’
The first time I saw it I was confused. What are words if not the expression of ideas? But then I started to think about an exercise that’s well known to teachers of creative writing, and that we often use with business writers too.
Sometimes known as automatic writing (though I avoid the expression – it makes me think of séances), it involves writing continuously, in longhand, on a given subject for three or four minutes.
At its best it produces a stream of consciousness, unfettered by the remembrance of rules or the anticipation of readership; and the results are often surprising, because Goethe was right – the simple act of putting words down on the page, one after the other, fast and with as little thought as possible, becomes a kind of lubricant for the imagination.
It can work on a purely personal level, unlocking memories and emotions, but it can also work creatively as a way of getting at trapped or unrealised ideas. And in the world of work, where the prospect of a report, or even an email, can sometimes seem impossibly daunting, five minutes letting your thoughts flow freely onto paper, safe in the knowledge that no one else will read them, can be a wonderful way of priming the creative, or even simply the narrative, pump.
Next time you’re stuck, try it.
On the subject of Goethe, and à propos last week’s posting about constraints, Tessa Ransford, founder of the Scottish Poetry Library, sent me her splendid translation of Goethe’s Natur und Kunst. Click here to read it and the original.