Lindsay Johnstone is a writer, literary critic and workshop facilitator based in Glasgow, Scotland. An extract from her memoir won Lindsay the John Byrne Award and she was shortlisted for a Writers’ Award at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival. Here she shares her hints and tips for creating happy writing habits.
I really welcomed Sarah’s invitation to reflect upon how we can nurture our inner writer, and I’m reminded that when I first wrote for myself, I had yet to understand why I was compelled to do so.
I had no goal. I wrote simply because it felt necessary. As I developed a consistent writing practice, my ‘why’ became clear. I came to understand that I write because forming stories helps me wrestle internal and external chaos into something beautiful. I write because I cannot get enough of those vapoury, blissful moments of flow. Above all, I write because I am fiercely protective of my mental health. Writing is medicine. It’s not my only medicine, but it is one of the most potent. Its salve is failsafe.
Here are some of the ways I cultivate my practice. From this place of doing, perhaps your own ‘why’ might emerge, too.
When we lift our pen or take ourselves to the keyboard and begin without fear or expectation, both inspiration and motivation strike.
5 tips to nurture your inner writer
1. A, B, C.
Writer and teacher Kathy Fish publishes writing tips on her Substack, The Art of Flash Fiction. She has a motto: A, B, C. Always Be Collecting. Gather material – squirrel it away – ready to be produced in service to your creativity. You might ‘collect’ images, objects, quotations, anecdotes, overheard conversations…whatever. Carry a notebook and pen with you. A sturdy envelope, too. View these collections as ready inspiration. Use them as writing prompts. And view reading as an exercise in collecting, too. I invite you to read as a writer. What is it you admire about a particular writer’s craft? Their ideas? The way they utilise form or genre?
2. Step into the zone
Before any planned writing session, pull on your comfiest shoes and pound the pavements, paths or even the parquet. It doesn’t matter how prosaic your surroundings – you could even be walking indoors on a treadmill – the act of rhythmically placing one foot in front of the other has a positive impact on our creativity and literally lays the groundwork for our ideas to spark and take flight. A creativity study conducted by Stanford University suggests that the benefit can be reaped for some time afterwards. Maybe you can combine this with tip one?
3. Words beget words beget words…
Or to quote Parmenides, ‘Nothing comes from nothing.’ When we lift our pen or take ourselves to the keyboard and begin without fear or expectation, both inspiration and motivation strike. Perhaps you like to write from a prompt? If so, use material you’ve squirrelled away or seek out writers whose words you resonate with and see what flows. Maybe you have an idea of which genre you’d like to write in or have a sense of a longer-term project? Why not begin with one moment and set yourself the goal of telling that smaller story? You’ll be amazed at what might flow from that one scene.
Give yourself permission to play. Don’t overthink each word or allow anxiety about what the words might become to cloud your vision.
4. Be careless
And, for that matter, care less:
“E.L. Doctorow once said that, ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Give yourself permission to play. Don’t overthink each word or allow anxiety about what the words might become to cloud your vision. Just allow the words to flow and be ready to be surprised by what might appear. Remember that we all struggle to realise in words what we can conjure readily in our minds. Even the brightest minds will admit that the words appearing on the page can only go some way to articulating feelings and thoughts. Yes, this could be stymying, but perhaps it’s freeing? Maybe by letting go of thinking each word is precious, we can allow ourselves to enjoy the journey? Who knows where these paths might take us. Maybe to someplace we could never have predicted.
5. Curate your soundtrack
For me, each big creative project eventually has a playlist from which just a few songs become vastly important to my process. I don’t always know which tracks will make it, but I find myself on those pre-writing walks returning to the same handful of tracks. They become imbued with a magical power which instantly keys me into a mood, character or event.
For my memoir, I started out listening to a lot of The Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac and Gerry Rafferty, eventually settling on Stevie Nicks’ Edge of Seventeen and three tracks from King Creosote’s album, From Scotland With Love as my essential pre-writing songs.
I’m working on a novel right now, and one narrative strand is set at the turn of the millennium. This has a completely different feel to my memoir. The soundtrack? Moby’s 1999 album, Play, with a bit of Coldplay’s Parachutes thrown in for good measure.
I hope these insights can support your writing practice and would love to know how you tend to your writer self.
You can learn more about Lindsay on her website, follow her on Instagram or join her thriving Substack community, What Now?, where she shares more words on writing, mental health and perimenopausal midlife. In early 2024, registration opens for both of her courses – Writing for Better Mental Health and Memoir in a Month. Before all that, though, tune in for the launch of her new podcast excerpting her memoir, Held in Mind. I, for one, cannot wait to listen!