• West Cork Literary Festival 8-15 July 2022

You Don’t Have To Be Writing To Write: Helen Moorhouse

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Plotting and Planning

Helen Moorhouse

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Okay then writers, are you sitting comfortably? Pens poised over blank, white pages? Fingers twitching in anticipation over the keyboard, an empty screen in front of you, filled only by the outline of your own reflection? Feeling inspired? Productive? This writing lark is great, isn’t it? Living the dream we are  – now if we could just think of one thing to actually say…

It doesn’t help when we see our contemporaries on social media posting their achievements, their daily word counts: ‘eleventy-crillion words done today’, they brag. ‘Wine o’clock!!’ they tease, and then they hashtag ‘#amwriting’.

But we’ve all been in a place where we’re absolutely not ‘amwriting’. We’re anything but ‘amwriting’. We could hashtag ‘amstaringintospace’ or ‘amexaminingownfingernails’ or ‘ampickingatlint’ but definitely not ‘amwriting’. Sure you can’t, can you?

You can’t always be writing. Fact. You can’t always physically sit at your desk bashing out brilliance on your keyboard; or in cafes looking enigmatic until they run out of serviettes because you’ve scribbled on the entire stock. You can’t always isolate yourself to induce a creative frenzy – who’d want to? Haven’t we all read ‘Misery’?

Helen MoorhouseBut, you are always at work – you just don’t have to have a pen in your hand – you don’t even have to think about it. You don’t always have to be writing, to write.

I am a believer in the fact that writing is a muscle and as such needs to be exercised as regularly as one can manage it, to keep it working smoothly.

However it makes me slightly anxious when I read writing advice that instructs scribblers to just sit down every day in front of a screen or a page and force themselves to create something; to stay put until at least one word or sentence comes out.

Yes, writing needs a lot of pretty strict discipline – giving up won’t get anything done – but force? Surely any writer knows that, for everyone, sometime or another, having to force something out onto a page is as easy as teaching a fox to ride a unicycle using diagrams. And as likely to produce results.

One of my favourite quotes comes from Agatha Christie who said that “The best time to plan a book is when you’re doing the dishes”. Up until I completed my first novel I didn’t fully understand what that quote actually means, as straightforward as it looks. But it’s true. Sometimes, the best pieces of writing come when you’re least expecting them, by themselves, when you’re doing something else. You just have to learn to trust.

Writing is a slog, interspersed with moments of magic. But a magic that, like Tinkerbell, you have to believe in. For me, the best – the most enjoyable – writing sometimes ‘just happens’. And not necessarily at my desk, either.

I’ve been hanging out sheets when one of my characters has suddenly popped in to my head to say something pithy, something that was so them that it couldn’t be ignored – it led to a good line, plus a backstory that spawned a sequel in itself. Plotlines tend to fuse into place in the shower; I generally return from a long walk and need to make notes, often on structure. I have even written scenes – conversations – which have surprised me when I’ve read them back – oh, if only there were more of those wonderful ‘where did that come from?’ moments. Those unintended,unexpected bursts of brilliance.

And of course these are balanced with the unintended bouts of blankness. The ‘why am I bothering?’ moments.

I could never advocate throwing in the towel when it comes to writing – perseverance is essential. But over time and with experience, I have learned that when I get stumped, I can only persevere for so long until I reach a point where I know to step away and engage in something else. To some that may seem defeatist – but nine times out of ten it sorts a blockage. Job done.

I have learned that it is sometimes as important to not write as it is to write. Ours is a very unstructured profession – you don’t need much in the line of overheads – just your own mind, so it is easy to always be ‘on’, and to feel that you should be. But it’s the most basic common sense to be aware that if you leave anything ‘on’ for too long, it loses power and burns itself out.

So as it does for any job, it makes sense to take a break, to relax the mind – to lay down tools.

However as writers, we are sometimes loathe to do that, feeling that we should perhaps always be creating. That there should be no respite from the Muse. That if we stop will we ever, ever be able to start again?

Learn to trust yourself. It might not feel like it, but you are always writing. While your fingertips and your conscious mind are the front line of the creative process, your unconscious is a vast support system constantly filtering ideas and thoughts, absorbing things that you may not even be aware you’ve seen or heard and fine-tuning them until they are ready to be written in a way that belongs entirely to you. Learning new words; Giving characters voices and faces, making them converse and interact with their own purpose and identity.

Writing is a personal thing – everyone has their own system, but learn to trust in your subconscious and unconscious mind. They are as important a part of the process as the conscious part.

And they will surprise and delight you, sometimes when you least expect it.  And they won’t let you down. Plus, they’ll put an awful lot of fun back into the process of creating – and don’t we all know that we write our best when we’re enjoying it?

(c) Helen Moorhouse


About the author

Helen Moorhouse is the author of three novels – The Dead Summer, its sequel The Dark Water and just-published Sing Me To Sleep.

As well as writing fiction, Helen works as a freelance speechwriter, radio copywriter and voiceover artist, and is a regular contributor to the Irish Independent. She has also contributed short stories and articles to various anthologies and publications.

Originally from Co. Laois, Helen lives in Dublin with her husband and two daughters.  Her interests include writing, TV, cinema and things that go bump in the night. For more, see www.helenmoorhouse.weebly.com

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