We use words like a tree uses light:
there is a process we don’t see but do.
— Jennifer Kronovet, With the boy, with myself
I need to be discovering it as I am writing it.
— Paul Auster interviewed at Senate House
When something assembles itself that fast, it’s clear that it’s been composing itself somewhere in the unknowable back of the mind for a long time. It wanted to be written; it was restless for the racetrack; it galloped along once I sat down at the computer.
— Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me
The ride passed in a blur. Clearly, I had been functioning at some conscious level, aware of traffic, stopping at lights and junctions, checking over my shoulder before manoeuvring. But the details were instantly lost. I had arranged to meet my family at a country house in the Cheshire countryside but had opted to ride my bike there rather than pile into the car with the rest of them.
The ride, however, turned out not to be one of natural appreciation and contemplation but of rapid, free-flowing composition. As I left the Manchester suburbs, words and sentences bubbled up from hidden depths. I engaged in a form of mental moulding, crafting paragraphs, revising and editing, frequently delighted by the mash-up of long-standing thematic interest and the recently read or experienced.
It was a process of creation, fuelled by memory fragments. An assembly of disparate pieces, and their shaping into something coherent. By the clock, the ride did not take long, perhaps 30-40 minutes. But as a writing experience it was timeless, unquantifiable. As soon as I had located the family car, I leant my bike against it and fished out my smartphone. I needed to catch the butterfly of this fully formed blog post before it flew away and was lost to me for good.
I spent several minutes typing on the phone’s screen, further editing and refining, but making minimal changes to what had taken shape in my head during the ride. When we returned to Manchester later in the day, I topped-and-tailed the piece, as is my wont, with some relevant quotes and posted Knowledge horizons to this site. It is a post that has woven through it motifs about knowledge, sense-making and detection, identity, and the distrust of expertise; the subjects of numerous conversations and research, feeding a book project that I was then beginning to work on.
Changes of scene, pauses, cycling or walking, switching from non-fiction to fiction or poetry, re-familiarising myself with an old film or book… all of these can have an uncorking effect either alone or in conjunction. The experience of this particular bike ride was unique in that I captured a complete blog post during it. Nevertheless, both before and since that day, I frequently have had to punctuate bike rides and walks with sudden stops to capture notes and ideas. I have also experienced the benefits of a two-week holiday as the prelude to an immersive writing experience that produced the bulk of my first book.
What I tend to find, however, is that I truly discover what I want to say in the act of writing. That writing itself can be relatively quick, albeit the end product is slowed a little by the subsequent editorial and review process. The really hard yards, though, are made during the research period. Everything I read, everything I watch, every conversation I have, therefore, is work – most of it of a highly pleasurable variety. At the initial point of consumption, I rarely know when or where it will come in useful. Which is why, for example, over the past few years, I have taken notes on all the books I have read.
Art in its broadest definition – painting, poems, plays, films, songs, novels – provides a sense-making lens, helping me, with a few twists and turns, to make kaleidoscopic pictures of my own. I re-read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being for pleasure on holiday, having read it for the first time in the 1980s. I had no clue when I picked it up again that it would unlock so much, that it would give shape to a blog post that would suddenly emerge from the mist during a bike ride. A past artefact released memories, which intertwined with and shed light on recent ideas.
The seed planting and cultivation happened subconsciously. But it was writing, even writing in my mind while astride a bike, that allowed me to harvest what had subsequently grown.
It may simply be that artists know they don’t control their work. When you paint or write or compose, things happen that you don’t understand. I have often felt that writing fiction is connected to dreaming, a state of altered consciousness, during which material I didn’t know was there begins to assert itself, to take over, which may explain the bizarre feeling I have had on occasion that a text is writing itself.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking
The insight presumably occurs when a subconscious connection between ideas fits so well that it is forced to pop out into awareness, like a cork held underwater breaking out into the air after it is released.
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity
In that state, I do not know what I am doing, I do not know where I am going, but I do know that I have to take the journey and follow wherever it goes.
— Kyna Leski, The Storm of Creativity