Toilet training and the art of writing

Try this: Enter a space or activity without expectations, without attachment to a specific outcome. Very Zen like and not one bit easy. Most days, most times I find myself attached to a certain limited outcome. For instance this morning my aim was first to get the puppy outdoor for its morning poop and then give it just enough activity coupled with a bit of training, which is new to me, and then settle. 

All those things I finally achieved within my limited aim of one hour, except the puppy won’t poop on demand. She’ll pee or at least give the appearance of peeing to the word ‘toilet’ but for the rest of her bodily functions, we can’t control them on command. 

Anyone who’s toilet trained a puppy will know how tedious it is. Eye on the clock. A constant sense of the need to take the dog out for a pee or poop whenever you’re on duty. Hardly the stuff of ‘eschewing memory and desire’ which are the words of the late great Wilfred Bion who urged the people he trained in therapy and analysis to approach each session without any expectation of the outcome and without any sense of immediacy from previous sessions. That way you come in on the moment and don’t derail the process with your own expectations. 

It’s another tough one but with a memory like mine, one that holds onto events. Not all of course, but many over time, that can get in the way of a fresh approach. The same applies to the business of puppy training and of writing. 

The first time I learned to stop rehearsing my writing was under the guidance of the Canadian writer and teacher Barbara Turner Vesselago. She holds five precepts for writing. The first to use as much sensuous detail as possible. And by sensuous she means use all your senses, your taste your touch, not just sight and sound, your smell. Get into the scene with as much detail as possible. In other words lean into the particular. 

Her second precept is based on the idea that as you sit in front of your blank screen or sheet of paper you let things settle in your mind and wait for a bite, like a fish nibbling at the end of your line. But not just any fish, many might come along and have a nibble. The best ones for writers are the ones of which we’re afraid. 

Go fear wards Turner Vesselago argues. Her third precept. Write what makes you sweat. For the fourth she urges you to write without correcting. Write without even going back on the words you’ve written so that your flow remains uninterrupted. Don’t even correct spelling mistakes. Just let it sit on the page as it emerges. For some folks this is hard. Not for me. I’m good with mess knowing that I can come back later to correct but not at the time of the writing. Writing and reading as in writing and editing require different parts of the brain. The one is a more right brain activity the task of ordering and logic, the other the more creative and freewheeling, is a left brain activity and one that uses your left brain. 

The final precept suggests it’s best to write about material that’s composted, the ten-year rule. 

Most freefall writing as I describe, at least in its early days, brings up autobiographical material and therefore it helps to write about stuff that’s ten years old or more.But this is not a hard and fast rule, as many of us who have write about events that happened yesterday can testify. But it’s a good point to bear in mind. When you write about experiences from the past you have more of a sense of closure around them even as they might impact on you in the here and now. An event in the past tends to have a beginning middle and end, not so the events you’re in the process of sorting and you can er too close to the material to allow for the writing that best captures a reader’s imagination.

These then are the precepts I follow when I write. Not having much of a clue about where I’m going until I get there.

It fuels the joy of discovery. The pleasure of suddenly winding up back where I began with a puppy who is starting to yelp once more for my attention and a day ahead that demands my attention.

2 thoughts on “Toilet training and the art of writing”

  1. I think I wrote a blog about rules of writing and had a crack my own. Kind if thing I would’ve done for the sake of the blog but never taken seriously. Writing has changed for me since I was a kid and if I were to boil down my rules for writing to a single one it would be : Go with the flow. I thought of myself as a poet but one day a play arrived and a children’s book, then novels, more plays, short stories, back to novels, novellas and now I’m writing poems like they’re going out of fashion. 50+ this year so far. For me the words come first and the form makes itself apparent very shorty thereafter. I knew Milligan and Murphy was going to be a novel after five words. I wish I had a method but I’ve never been remotely interested in replication. I couldn’t write a series of crime novels with the same protagonist to save myself. That would be work. In that respect I’m happy to see where each new project takes me. The recent poems, for example, have been, by my standards, massive things with long, meandering lines. I mean, seriously, where did that comes from? But we don’t turn up our nose when a good idea (or even a half-baked one) comes along. I suppose that would be my second rule.

    The ten year “rule” is an interesting one. I do agree that it sometimes helps to allow time for perspective to set in but that can also be the death of good writing. My three recent Birdy poems fed off the pain of the moment. Distance diminishes everything. Nothing I wrote now would be as good. Poetry especially prefers the slice of life approach.

    1. Maybe we need fewer rules all round, Jim, when it comes to writing. Beyond the fact of practice. We need to practice. But those freefall writing ideas are precepts, not rules. Thanks Jim.

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