Thursday, 29 March 2012

I'm not sleeping, I'm working

I've reproduced below the full text of an article I wrote for the Spring 2012 issue of  The Author, the magazine of the Society of Authors. In the magazine the article is entitled The Thinker. I prefer to use my original title I'm not sleeping, I'm working.

The reason I am writing this article at this moment is not so much to share my thoughts as to appear busy at the computer screen should my wife walk into the room right now. Today, as yesterday, she is downstairs alternately painting the hall and sanding the kitchen chairs. Yesterday I was lying on top of our bed thinking through a storyline. When I came down to show willing, ask if she’d like a cup of tea, she let me know how she’d heard my snoring as she painted.

It’s true I had dropped off for a few seconds or, as I prefer to  think of it, had so far sunk into a creative reverie that my unconscious had briefly taken over, plunged deeper into the world my imagination had opened. Well, it does happen sometimes, but I must admit that yesterday I’d plain fallen asleep, having bored myself into blank submission.

Her painting, you see, was to blame. How could I tease a tale of hope from workhouse iniquity (my latest vague idea for a novel) with the smell of fresh paint drifting through and the noise of brush on wall? I was distracted by guilt. Couldn’t think for it. Eventually my consciousness closed down on my conscience, salved on waking by my offer of tea.

My wife puts me to shame. The thing is, her industry is so damn visible. Not to mention practical and useful; vital, even. Mine is none of these, unless you count stacking the dishwasher. The only time I achieve visibility is on the publication of a book or (mere squib) an article. Such products are so rare as to make some of my acquaintance doubt if I’m really doing anything that could be counted as work at all.

Every Sunday I go to watch a junior football team my son manages, and every week the same parent sidles along the touchline to ask, ‘So, what are you working on at the moment, David?’ ‘Oh, still the Stephenson book,’ has been my stock answer for the last two years. This man runs a plumbing business. He probably fits or fixes twenty bathrooms a month. It has never crossed my mind to ask, ‘So, what are you working on at the moment, Michael?’ Perhaps he’s waiting for the day.

Some people seem able to think while doing other things - visible things. Gladstone apparently liked to chop down trees as he pondered great matters of state, though whether he profited from the sale of logs afterwards history does not reveal. I really wish I could do that. I’d sweep leaves off the garden, pausing briefly every now and then to wave at my wife through the kitchen window. I’d sand furniture, even decorate the house while mentally composing chapters for my book... but I know from trying (honest, I have) that my brain fastens onto the tedium of the task, the brush-brush-brush repeating-repeating on the inside of my skull. I can’t even go for a walk without fixating on footsteps. Thank Apple for iPod, though I can’t think to music either except about the music.

Over the years I have tried a variety of techniques for kick-starting creativity – automatic writing, prop pile, keyword dip, collaborative writing, role play... so many that I used to package and sell them to corporate trainers at inflated prices, thereby paying the bills while I continued my search for one that worked for me – and I have discovered there is only one authentic Williams method. I lie flat in a perfectly quiet, preferably darkened room, close my eyes, and think.

Even to a trained observer (let’s say David Attenborough, or my wife) this activity is indistinguishable from sleep. I could be a sloth. Ironically, the better it’s working the more like sleep it seems. In deep thinking mode I’m oblivious to someone walking into the room, to a gentle enquiry, a tut. Like a finely-tuned sports professsional (hah) I’m in the zone.

And in good company too. Vincent Van Gogh said of his creative technique, ‘I dream my painting and then I paint my dream.’ Judging by his output (over 2,000 works) he must have put in a lot of dreaming. I wonder who did his decorating. Come to think of it my wife used to paint pictures, years ago, before the housework took over... Hmm, I’m beginning to feel guilty again. Perhaps it’s time I went downstairs. Put the kettle on.       


  1. Oh, this is good, David! I'll try it the next time my hubby is painting/sawing/hammering. In fact, he does most of the cleaning. Though the poor man would starve without me. ; )

    I do find that ideas perculate up through the tedium, but I must stop immediately stop and write them down of lose them forever.

    I say, whatever works. Happy ; )

  2. Oh, I have to confess to no cooking either. I'm just a sloth.

  3. As the great man said, 'We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep'. Very entertaining read, as always!

  4. Thanks Emma. Rafe S has just recalled a James Thurber quote with delicious ambiguity: "I'm not always writing when I'm writing." I think I'll add that to my Literary Quotes post too.

  5. Great piece! Fun and well-written, and of course I identified totally, as a writer married to an extremely industrious person who often puts me to shame, or would if I had any.

  6. Thanks, Barbara.I had fun writing the piece, and it made my wife laugh, which is always a delight.