Man reading should be man intensely alive. The book should be a ball of light in one’s hand.
-Ezra Pound (1885 – 1972)
As you would know from your own browsing in bookshops, a book probably has about fifteen seconds to grab a reader’s attention. Poems or shorter works have even less time.
We have to add a proviso here which applies in almost all cases and which can pass unnoticed easily enough - before you even go into a bookshop or begin to browse for something to read, in the physical world or over the internet, you are, by your very nature as a unique human being, already looking for something, knowingly or unknowingly. You might be specifically looking for a very particular title or work, or you might be generally seeking a kind of experience. It is probably quite rare for you, or any reader, to be drifting in a completely aimless way, or you would walk right past the shop or click right past the website. In your mind or in the mind of a potential reader (and that could be almost everyone in some cases) a quest has already begun - browsing through a bookshop, you or a reader are going to either get interested or not in that split instant of picking up a book and reading its first paragraph or even just the blurb on the back. Therefore the opening sentences (or the blurb) and the first couple of paragraphs are key to establishing how things will develop - will they connect with what is being sought?
Even when you’re not consciously thinking, your mind can be bubbling away on a super-conscious level. Why ‘super-conscious’ and not ‘subconscious’? The word ‘subconscious’ has taken on so many connotations in the last hundred years or so that it will probably not be helpful to use it. ‘Super-conscious’, on the other hand, though perhaps a little clumsy, is a term we can use without much fear of it being confused with anything, and so we employ it here to get a fresh view of something commonplace. We can define superconscious as being ‘something which takes place on a mental level above that of ordinary, routine thinking.’
Superconsciously, then, as the ordinary, everyday mind goes about a daily routine, thinking is taking place. It’s partly based on observation of the world around you, but is partly - probably largely - made up of musings of your own, whether about concerns you have or daydreams about nothing in particular. In all honesty, it’s probably more difficult to stop doing this kind of thinking than most other things - we can call it the ‘stream-of-consciousness’ that forms the existential background to observable human life, were it not for the fact that these terms also have connotations. Suffice it to say that the mind is doing something pretty much continuously while we are awake and continues to do so, in dreams, when we go to sleep.
Depending on how exactly we define ‘creativity’, we could say that the mind is a continually creative device to some degree or another. This activity is not always clearly apparent to you, let alone anyone else - the subjective world is, perhaps thankfully in many cases, invisible from the outside, but isn’t always entirely clear from the inside either. It can be obscured, confused, dulled or randomised by various events, external and internal, but it is probably undeniable that it is a fundamental of existence: it may even be what we call ‘existence’.
Descartes said, ‘I think, therefore I am’, but for our purposes this could be rephrased to become ‘I am, therefore I think’.
It’s almost a definition of thought. Creative activity goes on in some way all the time.
Purely from a writers’ perspective, all that advice about keeping a notebook suddenly makes sense in a new way. Keeping notebooks, or dictaphones, or some kind of recording device with you to record insights as they become visible or enter your normal consciousness becomes suddenly a very good idea, especially when a quick analysis will tell you immediately that well over 90% of what passes through your mind on any given day is lost forever because it is purely subjective and internal. Of course some of it - if not most of it - won’t be particularly noteworthy, but a fair proportion of it will be. By writing down the insight or idea or image, you’re moving it from the phantasmal and ephemeral world within to the more solid and long-lasting world without, as well as training your mind to produce more of the same, and, once you get into the swing of this, by the end of each day your notebook will be full of bright and special ideas.
It’s possible to improve your creative writing immediately, by the way, just by doing this, keeping notes on scrap paper, then keeping notebooks, then expanding the notebooks into a journal. There are several great writers who do or did just this. Many of them - the authors we truly admire for their generous and prolific output, ideas which seem far too grand and numerous for one person – have simply recorded material which the majority of us allow to slip away down the stream of consciousness to be lost forever: we forget even that we had an idea, let alone what that idea was.
Some famous authors have kept a journal next to their beds to instantly record dreams or dream images before they vanish even more completely. Reading back these notes weeks or months later can be an odd experience, as what seems to make complete sense within a dream can, in the light of a day far removed from the moment, appear bizarre or nonsensical, but even the shadow of a memory of a dream experience can become the seed of something much greater.
Rather than being an entirely rational process, then, story-writing can begin on this purely imaginative level.
C.S. Lewis, famous author of the Chronicles of Narnia as well as many other works of fiction and non-fiction, encountered many of the more powerful images and ideas of the Narnia books in this way. He wrote in the book Of Other Worlds:
Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument, then collected information about child psychology and decided what age group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out 'allegories' to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way. It all began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion.
Putting your thoughts into words also allows you to think more clearly about what you’re exploring or doing with your writing. Written words conjure up other words; words paint images, images yield concepts. Write in your journal, in your blog, on scrap paper. After a short while you will see that writing is a powerful medium for developing your thinking which can take you beyond what you can accomplish in other ways.
This is, however, only the first broad step you can take to creating firm foundations for your writing. To use a gardening analogy, it is important to find fertility in the soil of our ever-active minds, but once these imaginative seeds are discovered, they need to be trained to grow in particular ways.
Nevertheless, the fertility of the mind, encouraged in this way, can yield the beginnings of great things.