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Writing Tips: An imaginative life

For the past ten months I’ve been talking about aspects of writing craft. These are some of the things I’ve learned over the years as a writer and a teacher of creative writing. I’m stepping aside after this blog to take a break and do my own writing. So I thought I’d leave on a slightly different note.


As a mentor I hear my students talk about how long it takes to write a novel. They aren’t responding to the Age of Speed we live in, where we can send messages around the world as if the globe has shrunk and Africa or the Arctic Circle are living in the next room. These writers haven’t asked for miracles of instantaneousness. They have dedicated part of their lives to writing a novel. They have worked on it with passionate devotion. They have lived their characters, mourned over their losses, triumphed at their victories, while never taking their eyes off the claims of craft.

But then they get to the stage where they realise how much time they have spent on this one project. Generally, this happens at a critical moment in the development of their novel, where they have written several drafts and now the story is clear to them, the mysteries of character and plot have been unveiled.

My students tell me they have spent three or four or even five years on their novel and they want it to be over. They feel they have wasted their time because they don’t have a book contract to show for all their effort. They feel isolated and unrewarded.

 Nothing in our outward life prepares us for the claims of an imaginative life. Out here in this world we measure time by the clock, which has conveniently divided up our days into blocks of seconds, minutes, hours. We pack the kids off to school at this time, go to work at that time, shop for groceries during our lunch break. If someone asks us to do something on this day, at this time, we consult our diary to see if we are free then.

We measure our worth by signs such as promotion, mortgages, pay rises and the kinds of people we associate with. We feel a sense of achievement every time we complete a load of washing or finish a day’s work. This sense of everyday achievement is so customary that we don’t even notice it until it’s taken away.

 But imagination lives according to its own time. You can’t book in a session with your imagination and expect it to be there waiting for you. It might be. It might not be. It lives by its own rules. If you have to go to your nine-to-five job when it’s ready to work, it will vanish and might not come back for weeks, or even months.

It flows like an underground river that occasionally breaks the surface in a fountain of activity and then subsides to a trickle. It's unreliable―if your idea of reliability is based on the rules that organise an external life. 

 One of the most important lessons I try to teach my students has nothing to do with craft. It is the need to surrender to the imaginative life. If you tell it to do things your way, it will rebel. If you demand it give you a sense of achievement on your terms, it will disappoint you.

If you say, ‘Why don’t I have a book contract yet? What is wrong with you?’ it will answer with silence. The more you demand it follow the rules of your external life, the less it will speak to you.

 We all have to engage with our external life. It has its own rewards. But the life of the imagination gives us access to another way of living, a different kind of consciousness, a current that flows under and through our daily lives. Book contracts come and go.

Our novels jostle for attention amongst the hundreds of other novels that are published every month, and then they’re taken off the shelf.

But our imagination is more lasting than any book contract and lives beyond the limits of time and commerce.


Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. 


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