‘The Write Tools’: a blog series featuring authors, artists and their favourite tools.
Today's guest is novelist and writer Claire Corbett. Claire's first novel, When We Have Wings, was published in 2011. She has also written journalism, essays and shorts stories for outlets including Rolling Stone and The Sydney Morning Herald. Claire is now working on her second novel.
Writers don’t get to choose what they write about. Unless some aspect of the unconscious has been at work, your writing will lie dead on the page. This is the real meaning of the mysterious fairytale of the Elves and the Shoemaker; the shoemaker is a good craftsman, he works hard but he and his wife are starving.
One night elves appear in the shoemaker’s workshop after he’s gone to bed in despair. All night the elves cut and hammer and sew exquisite shoes with perfect tiny stitches. The shoemaker sells them, buys more leather and on it goes until one night the shoemaker leaves the elves a gift of handmade clothes to show his gratitude.
Delighted, the elves vanish with the clothes. The shoemaker’s success continues; whatever magic the elves used is now absorbed into the shoemaker’s craft. The elves, like the creative unconscious, cannot be commanded. They may appear when the workshop is swept, gleaming and stocked with tools, when the years of apprenticeship in the craft have been completed and when the shoemaker, or writer, has gone to bed exhausted.
So, how to clear the way for these elves to appear, what to do to welcome them?
A craftperson’s tools are certainly important. They help create the grooves the brain settles in to work. What tool to write about? My computer is undoubtedly the most important external tool. Though I wrote my first novel at age twelve in longhand, I’d be lost without the various Macs I’ve had over the years. I briefly considered writing about the dishwasher which would lead into the practicalities of freeing up domestic space and time.
What I want to write about is a tool that helps manage the connection between body and mind: massage.
Once a month our masseur does the rounds of his clients; it feels like an unaffordable luxury, which is one of the best things about it, but in fact it’s necessary. Most writers feel all too keenly the toll sitting at the computer takes, the niggling back, neck and arm pains. Massage relieves the pain and more importantly helps prevent it from becoming chronic and debilitating. Massage aids the flow of lymphatic fluid around the body, as does exercise, and this strengthens the immune system.
A barrier to the focused and pleasurable state termed flow, when we do our best creative work, is the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol helps us get up in the morning and feel alert but too much makes us feel scattered and stressed. It interferes with memory, planning and other higher brain functions needed for sustained work because it is preparing us for ‘fight or flight’.
Massage turns off the stress response, switching the nervous system from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic system. This is when all the repair happens in the body.
This is all wonderful but over the years I’ve found massage leading to even more profound benefits, creative insights and ideas that came whole and unbidden. This goes beyond the kind of problem-solving that every writer is familiar with; the scene that isn’t working, the plot hole that needs resolving.
Most writers are practised at redirecting their attention into something disciplined, monotonous and relaxing – the walk or the yoga class – to solve problems they’ve been wrestling with for hours. You can’t avoid the hours of effort but you can’t solve the problem solely by that effort either. The elves don’t respond to orders but only to the most graceful invitation; either that or sometimes complete despair will do.
Tapping into the creative unconscious requires something deeper than the problem-solving walk and it has happened quite a few times for me during a massage. The first time I was lying in an airy opensided pavilion on a forested hillside in Thailand.
As I drifted deeper into relaxation but not towards sleep, my whole mind seemed to open out in a most unusual way. The entire story and setting for my second novel came to me. This was so exciting I almost wanted to jump up and make notes but as I drifted, more and more ideas came, whole chapters and subplots.
I rewrote, in my mind, some chapters of When We Have Wings while in a similar mind state of falling deeper into relaxation: the shoemaker has to go to bed before the elves appear. When I got up I would sit down and rewrite the chapter pretty much the way it had unfurled in my mind.
Of course when I sit down to write this second novel, the one that appeared to me during the massage on the hillside, a lot of that inspiration will transform into something else but the ideas, the settings, the feelings remain. It felt as if the altered state I entered during the massage allowed many different areas of my mind to work together, presenting me with images and ideas that were complete, not fragmented like ordinary thought.
This kind of inspiration is a gift but it is just the beginning; it does not take one bit of the difficulty or hard work out of writing. It is simply the spark that brings all that material you’ve created to life.