On Writing

Click on image to read Clare Jay’s ‘Dreamwriting’ article which appeared in the spring 2011 edition of Mslexia.

clarejay_butterflyClick on image to read Clare Jay’s workshop, ‘Dream Emotions and Word Beauty: Dreaming into Creative Writing.’ This interactive online workshop was designed for the 2008 IASD Psiberdreaming conference. Participants and I then corresponded, exchanging writing and sharing our creative process.


Kindred Spirit CoverClick on Kindred Spirit cover to read Clare Jay’s article, ‘Lucid Dream Your Way To Creativity’, March 2009

clarejay_plot_devClick on image to read Clare Jay’s article, ‘Lucid Dreaming & Plot Development.’ This was published in the Winter 2005 edition of Dream Time.

synaesthesia4Click on image to read Clare Jay’s article ‘Lucid Dreaming, Synaesthesia and Sleep Disorders: Dreaming into Fiction’, presented at the 2009 IASD Conference, Chicago.

The dreaming editor

Every writer needs two people inside him or her. One is a fearless dreamer, the other is a sharp-eyed editor. In Naomi Epel’s book Writers Dreaming, Allan Gurganus says of writing: ‘It takes a strange combination of being enormously intellectual and wilful and smart and also being as trusting as a baby… it’s very hard to get both of them together in one body.’ Ernest Hemingway told it straight when he said that ‘the most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof shit detector’. The secret seems to be balancing the guided dream of writing with the right amount of critical judgement. Leonard Michaels (in Epel) stresses the importance of ‘allowing [the writing’s] freedom and dream nature to continue to exist, to continue to be felt and respected’.

Every writer develops their own balance of dreaming and editing. My own way is to flip from one to the other depending on how I feel that particular day, or even that particular hour. I work organically, developing dream images or other strong images which have been pushed into my mind when listening to other people’s stories, watching television, or through witnessing events firsthand. Flow-writing techniques (as described on the ‘Writer’s Trance’ page) help develop the images: writing without stopping, allowing myself to sink deeply into the instinctual part of my mind so that what emerges doesn’t come from my boring, restricted ego-self, but from the dreaming, wider unconscious that we all have inside us, where there are no parameters.

It’s tremendous fun to surrender to this unconscious process and lose my sense of self while pages of very rough material mount up. Then, when I’m all imaged-out, it’s time to switch into a different mode: alert, organised, critical. Rigorous editing and a sense of structure kick in so that the material takes solid shape. This is the part where swathes of material are cut and reordered, so that hopefully what remains is powerful and relevant to the storyline.

Rocking between these two writing selves thousands of times during the writing of a novel can make you feel slightly schizophrenic, but it’s also good to be able to choose depending on your mood who you fancy being that day – the straight-backed, eagle-eyed editor, or the floaty day-dreamer.

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Wild writing

As a creative writing tutor, I’ve had the opportunity to teach and personally try out all manner of writing exercises. Here are a couple of my favourites. They are primarily intended to be fun, with the desirable off-shoot of sometimes helping the writer to dream into a subject, grow a different skin, explore a new sensation or an old memory. They can also bring up startlingly original images, memories, or emotions, which can then be put to use in poems or developed into longer pieces. Strangely, if there’s one exercise you feel inclined to sneer at, that one could well turn out to be the most beneficial to you. It’s always surprised me to see that if people have a resistance to something, but then shrug and say, what the heck, I’ll give it a try, it often makes the experience a deeper one in terms of the writing imagery and the surprises that emerge. I don’t know why this should be, but it’s always good when it happens.

Here’s one I baulked at the idea of doing because it sounded like tiresome, chronological work, but which ended up bringing me enormous insights into the patterns in my life. I think I first did this at a creative writing weekend in Stuttgart, many years ago:

Write a paragraph for each five-year period of your life, touching on central experiences, memories, tastes, people. Write quickly and don’t pause to think – let the images come.

When I re-read my paragraphs, I could clearly see the development of this person (myself); the memories she clings to, the defining moments in her life. She seemed to be so many different people. I took the exercise further:

Write a character study (one paragraph per character) for each of these five-year-selves. How do they spend their time? Give each character a name.

Through this exercise I discovered that I was (or had once been) composed of a dare-devil rebel who sleeps in a hammock on a cliff face and parties her life into oblivion; a writing girl called Solitaire with eyes like big, dreaming jewels; Ms Organised – a scarily focused woman who ignores sunlight and atrophies at her academic desk; a cultural chameleon whose hippie-chick-traveller-heart turns to granite when she’s not on the move; a sparkling socialite who hides her weariness behind a dazzling smile; an apple-crumble-eating child who wishes on stray eyelashes and stars… and other selves too private to mention here.

Doing the exercise brought me a whole cast of characters I could then bend and twist into my writing, and through the years I’ve kept the pink-scribbled A4 pages this writing activity was done on, and still refer to them at times, if only to remind myself that I never have to feel restricted within myself – we are all made up of many selves and can be whoever we choose to be.

Here’s a simple and potentially beautiful one:

Think of an incident or event you feel strongly about. Draw or paint it. Doesn’t matter if you ‘can’t draw’! Take colours, put on music if that helps, and let it all out. Then write about the shapes, the feelings, the experience of drawing.

If a character is irritating or blocking you in your writing, set them free and learn more about them at the same time. Take a pen and paper. Sit somewhere quietly and conjure them up so that you can see the pimples on their chin, the nostalgia in their eyes.

Now imagine your character on a flying carpet. Write without stopping for five minutes. Don’t think – just follow the imagery. How does the character feel, up there in the sky? Where is she going? What does she see?

If with any of these flow-writing exercises, you find it hard to get into the flow and leave your critical mind behind, have a look at the Writer’s Trance page of this site and/or my ‘Dream Emotions and Word Beauty’ article on this page, for tips on how to relax into a receptive writing state.

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The sensory word-box

Here’s a fun one, designed to get you focused on the senses. Again, be ready for surprises. This activity is adapted from one in Anderson’s Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings.

What’s been on your mind recently? Flames because it’s winter and you have an open fire? Infidelity? Your son’s cough? Boil whatever it is down to one word, then imagine that word inside a box. The box has a hole in it big enough for your hand to enter.
Touch your word: what does it feel like? Texture? Temperature?
Now put your nose to the hole and sniff: what exactly does it smell like? Does the smell remind you of anything?
Put your ear to the hole and listen to your word. What does it sound like? Is it saying anything? Whining, threatening, singing?
Put your mouth to the hole and stick out your tongue: What does it taste like? Salty, syrupy, or with a hint of vanilla? Be specific.
Take your word out of the box and hold it in your arms – is this even possible? Does it wriggle away, disappear, is it too heavy to lift? Does it have feelings? Is it lonely, enraged? How does it feel about you? Is there anything it wants to tell you?
Drop it: what does it do? Explode? Turn into something else? Chuckle?

This is one of the exercises some students are reluctant to engage with as it’s all just so silly… but hey, it can bring up some great lines. You might end up with a load of short lines such as ‘It twists in the air like a cat when dropped’, or ‘It whispers circular mantras.’ Don’t limit yourself to one line per sensory perception – write as many as you like, so that you can choose the best ones later and turn them into a poem, or flow-write off the most intriguing one or two and see if a short story idea emerges.

Please see the Bookshelf page for links to websites with writing exercises, resources, and competitions.

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