For reasons which need not concern my readers, I have hit the ground running this week because – due to recent events and indeed those to come next month – I have just four days to accomplish a great deal.
On Monday I opened proceedings by making a list of the things that I needed to do – there were nineteen of them. Four of them are technically my control because (once I have initiated them) they will rely primarily upon the efforts of others in order to reach fruition.
The same day I came across the first frustrations – two of the recipients of my phone calls did not answer and so I had to leave voicemails requesting that they call me back. Result – I could no progress upon either of them until that happened.
Next I had an article to write and a great deal of work to do within my computer.
When it comes to the former (English compositions) I have a something of a love/hate relationship with deadlines. Sometimes being, or placing myself, under time pressure helps my creative juices flow, sometimes it doesn’t. I also tend to have a similar issue when I am not under time pressure – sometimes that helps, sometimes it doesn’t.
Eight years ago I had to write an appreciation of my mother for her funeral service. As you might expect, I started with a feeling of some dread, fearful that my meagre writing talent – even if by chance I could summon it at the height of its quality-quotient within my given deadline – would simply not be up to the task of ‘doing her justice’.
Not quite knowing where to start, I began by amassing notes upon the milestones in her life, some jokes and anecdotes that I recalled and then some thoughts about her character. Next I sought comments, anecdotes and ‘suggestions as to what to mention’ from other members of the family. Having done that, I did nothing for 48 hours, hoping that in my dreams, quieter moments and maybe also whilst taking exercise, some serviceable idea or theme might come to me.
Finally I had to put pen to paper, or in my case finger to keyboard. I did so without referring to any of the pile of notes in my file, preferring instead to begin by simply ‘letting it flow’ (if it would). I was pleasantly surprised by the results, which turned into a first draft that did indeed cover the main events of her life, whilst also mentioning some of her character traits, attitudes and an amusing incident or two. I could not claim that the God of Creativity suddenly came down from on high and bestowed inspiration upon me – against all odds and indeed previous experience, the explanation could just be that I got lucky – but, with a tweak or two, that first draft effectively became the final one. Once it was finished, I knew that (at the very least) it was the best I could do. Fortunately other family members also gave it a hearty ‘thumbs-up’, including my father to whom, of course, it was more important than any other.
Looking back now, I suspect the key to how and why that particular effort worked as well as it did is contained in the first sentence of the above paragraph. Somehow, faced with what was an important and potentially difficult brief, the decision to simply sit in front of the computer screen and – as it were – write what amounted to a stream of consciousness from the heart had worked to my advantage.
I had been given less than 72 hours to produce an appreciation of a famous sportsman to commemorate the centenary of his death, this for a website with a significant standing in its field.
Although, via history, I knew more than enough to produce something – I’d even go so far to deploy that well-worn phrase ‘I’ve probably forgotten more about him that other people know’ – I approached the project on Monday with a metaphorical large bird of prey sitting upon my shoulder, this representing the heavy responsibility of seeking to do the subject of the piece justice (in terms of summing up his career and importance) in a different way to the many times I had done it previously. It didn’t help that not only my prospective readership was probably well-primed with knowledge about both the sport and sportsman concerned, but that I had been given an absolute maximum of 400 words within which to deliver.
[I’d like to pause here and ask my readers to consider a situation in which they have 400 words to sum up a person well known to them. 400 words is a total a lot less than you might think for such a task.]
Through a combination of inertia and deliberate decision, I soon resorted to the ‘leave it for half a day and then just start writing’ ruse I have outlined above.
Though I like to subscribe to the view that creative writing is akin to high art (decades ago this was probably the reason I opted not to pursue a career in print journalism), the blunt truth is that it is more a skill. Inspiration and creativity come into it, of course, but essentially writing is a craft that can be honed and improved through practice and effort.
Eventually – after a great deal of graft, both line-by-line and general ‘trial and effort’ – I produced a piece. It had the drawback of overshooting the maximum wordage I had been given by 18 words but it was the best I could do. I duly sent it off to my editor, adding a cover note to the effect that, although I wasn’t happy with it (by the ‘doing him justice’ yardstick), it was the best I could do in the time and, as far as I was concerned, he was quite at liberty to alter, edit or improve it as he wished.
Last night he responded by email. He proposed to change just one word and commented that he thought the article summed up its subject perfectly. By this route I retired to bed accompanied by a minor sense of positive achievement but also suffering from the conviction that I – and certainly a large number of better scribes than me – could have done better.