Sunday 31 January 2021

Searching for silence and stillness


My time is squeezed at the moment. From having no shape at all apart from what I imposed on it, my day is now divided up by other people’s timetables. I’m going to school every day. I’ve been a supply learning assistant for several years, but when I get asked to do it, it’s mostly too short notice and I have other things on. But just before Christmas I was asked to go and help in school when the new term started, and I thought, why not? I’m not going anywhere, nothing is happening. A week later, it was announced that the school wouldn’t reopen after Christmas. So I spent the Christmas holidays assuming that I wouldn’t be needed. But as it turns out, they do need me. The teachers aren’t coming into school, they’re doing all their teaching online, but someone needs to be there for the kids who need to come to school and one of the someones is me.


I thought about taking a break from my writing. After all, I have no deadlines, no one’s depending on me getting anything finished. But I had a plan and I hate to set aside a plan. So, I thought I’d try working very early each morning. I haven’t had a desk in our house for a couple of months since everyone came home, but if I got up and worked first thing, I thought I could get an hour at my old desk before it was time for its current occupant to clock in.


And so I got up, I fed the dogs, I made myself a cup of peppermint tea. I kept the lights dim in the kitchen; I switched on only the desk lamp in the living room. I sat at the desk with my tea and I started to edit chapter one of my rough first draft. Working first thing is not new for me. I’ve long grabbed my laptop from beside my bed, set a timer and let the words flow through my fingers for an hour. That time in the morning my brain is fluid. The ideas come and my inner critic is silent. I can write to a plan or I can write freeform. Just a little later in the day I find myself at the mercy of hunger or I find I need to tidy things away, do chores, organise things before I can settle to do creative work.


I knew that writing in the early morning worked for me. The question was would editing work? It’s a very different skill, after all. There’s problem-solving involved and you need that inner critic up and firing. That first morning when I turned on the desk lamp and started in on chapter one, I took it very gently. Just read it. Just comment. Don’t start with anything sweeping. And the happy answer is that yes, I can edit first thing in the morning too. It’s extraordinary. When my alarm goes off I simply sleepwalk through all the things I have to do. Ten or fifteen minutes later, I’m at the computer and I just fall straight into the manuscript, picking up where I was the day before. I hear the bin men, I hear the dogs moving around, the family getting up, but the door between me and them is shut and they don’t disturb me. I immerse myself in the words on the page, I question them, I move them about, I polish them; I find gaps and I fill them; I find waffle and I excise it. I give that manuscript my all until my timer goes off, then I shut down the computer and go and get in the shower. I don’t give the manuscript another thought until I’m at the desk the following morning.


I’ve been searching all through this year for physical and mental space to do my creative work in my busy, full household. I’m used to working in silence and stillness and there’s been very little of that here. But through this new turn of events I’ve found my silence and stillness. It’s a joy.


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