Thursday, 26 November 2009

Goethe got it

I sometimes work in my local library, the AK Bell in Perth. On the walls of its café are quotations about literature and writing from famous literary figures. There’s one by Goethe that often catches my eye: ‘When ideas fail, words come in very handy.’

The first time I saw it I was confused. What are words if not the expression of ideas? But then I started to think about an exercise that’s well known to teachers of creative writing, and that we often use with business writers too.

Sometimes known as automatic writing (though I avoid the expression – it makes me think of séances), it involves writing continuously, in longhand, on a given subject for three or four minutes.

At its best it produces a stream of consciousness, unfettered by the remembrance of rules or the anticipation of readership; and the results are often surprising, because Goethe was right - the simple act of putting words down on the page, one after the other, fast and with as little thought as possible, becomes a kind of lubricant for the imagination.

It can work on a purely personal level, unlocking memories and emotions, but it can also work creatively as a way of getting at trapped or unrealised ideas. And in the world of work, where the prospect of a report, or even an email, can sometimes seem impossibly daunting, five minutes letting your thoughts flow freely onto paper, safe in the knowledge that no one else will read them, can be a wonderful way of priming the creative, or even simply the narrative, pump.

Next time you’re stuck, try it.

On the subject of Goethe, and à propos last week’s posting about constraints, Tessa Ransford, founder of the Scottish Poetry Library, sent me her splendid translation of Goethe’s Natur und Kunst. Click here to read it and the original.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Creative constraints

I listened to an intriguing programme on Radio Four yesterday while driving south down the M6 in horizontal rain. Presented by the miscellaneous Ben Schott, it documented the Oulipo movement, one of whose members, Georges Perec, famously wrote a novel from which the letter ‘e’ was entirely absent – a so-called lipogram.

Founded in France in the 1960s, the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle held as its central philosophical plank the notion that constraints encourage enjoyment and creativity. So Perec’s experiment was true to its aims, as were those of the members who wrote sonnets with interchangeable lines, palindromic poems and, the one I liked best, texts in which each noun was substituted with the one that came seven entries after it in the dictionary - with particularly hilarious results when applied to the opening sentence of the Book of Genesis.

The creative value of constraint is a theme that my friend and fellow writer John Simmons has regularly explored, most recently in 26 ways of looking at a Blackberry (A&C Black, £9.99), in which he challenges himself to rewrite a piece of bland corporate text in 26 different ways ranging from a fairy tale to a presidential speech, a text message to a song lyric. The point is not so much to improve on the original but to show how the strictures of different forms can make you think harder about what you’re saying and bring life to dull expression or tired ideas.

At work we may not choose to experiment like the Oulipo writers but we do face constraints all the time in the form of deadlines, word counts, specific audiences to be addressed, themes to be followed or arguments to be made. And they can help us to be more creative simply by forcing us to focus and direct our energy; while the alternative, the blank page, can be paralysing in its very lack of boundaries.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Healing talk

Six months ago I ran a workshop for a group of doctors, healthcare workers and former cancer patients. The object was to consider how to improve the quality of information that people receive at different stages along the cancer ‘journey’.

We looked at examples which ranged from the very informative to the virtually unintelligible, the simple to the terrifying. The one thing that many of them had in common was a tendency to speak in the clinical, rather peremptory, often condescending and largely masculine language of the consultant physician. What an equally large number lacked was any kind of empathy.

Yesterday, I received an email from one of the workshop participants, an oncologist, enclosing a copy of a leaflet that she and her team had subsequently written ‘in a very different style from the one it would have been without your input’.

It was clear, direct, warm, empathetic, authoritative, helpful, respectful. It treated the readers as human beings, it subtly acknowledged their predicament, and it spoke to them as equals. I simply couldn’t fault it and I don’t mind admitting that it made me feel immensely proud.

The NHS has mountainous lessons to learn about language, as anyone will know who has ever been summoned to a hospital appointment (‘you are required to attend …’), let alone been handed a ‘patient information’ leaflet on any subject.

And the starting point, the absolute foundation of any learning, is that language can, should, must be part of the healing process. As my oncologist friend so beautifully demonstrated, it just takes a little imagination, a bit of graft, and the will to connect. The opposite doesn’t really bear thinking about.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Significant detail

In need of escape I recently read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo. It’s a long time since I’ve read a thriller and it took me a little while to get used to the style – the reportage and long passages of exposition. Once I did, I was hooked. The story is utterly gripping, twists like an eel, and is cleverly rooted in a social issue that few people could take exception to – the abuse of women.

But there was one thing that grated throughout, and that was the naming of brands; not Fleming-like exotica - cocktails, wrist-watches, sports cars - but the terminally mundane such as second-hand cars and computer software.

Irrelevant detail with a weird, faintly macho whiff about it, this did nothing for plot, characterisation or colour. It was a world away from the significant detail that illuminates good writing by lending plausibility, emotional weight, shades of definition.

I once interviewed an old fiddle-maker who showed me a caliper he’d made from the metal heel of his boot, a piece of an old steel ruler, a welding rod and the top of a tube of eye ointment. Writers dream of that kind of information because it’s impossible to make up.

But businesses have trouble distinguishing between the two. So often business literature is full of information the reader really doesn’t need. Project names, department names, job titles – these are the equivalents of Larsson’s Volvos; while the significant detail that would really bring the writing to life is nowhere to be seen.

Once again it's down to being able to make the imaginative leap of being both writer and reader simultaneously, something that even the most successful thriller-writers, let alone business writers, often fail to manage.