For those who weren’t aware, which is probably 95% of my blog readers given that I didn’t mention it, I’m currently away on a camp in the north of England. It’s a Christian camp, actually, which basically means a chance to ask all the difficult questions that you can’t get away with in your usual church or youth group environment because after this week you’ll likely never see these people again.
In our evening meeting yesterday, we were creating an ‘illuminated manuscript’. Obviously, they weren’t going to be anything like a real manuscript, especially since we were following instructions like ‘write this part without looking’ and ‘write this part backwards’. The idea was to focus on what we were writing, in many ways more than on the act of writing it.
But I got a little bit invested in the exercise. You can’t blame me. Calligraphy and decorated writing was one of my major hobbies when I was a kid (from about the age of nine I owned multiple dip pens and a large collection of inks), and it’s been a long time since I had a chance to exercise it.
When I first started writing again after I hurt my wrists, I realised how much you take writing for granted. Writing a single letter doesn’t feel like a victory until you know what it’s like not to be able to hold a pen. Typing was much the same, although it felt like slightly less of a miracle. Eight months down the line, I hardly even think about it.
I’m always thinking about what I’m writing. What emotions I’m trying to convey, what point I’m trying to make, what image I’m trying to paint in a reader’s mind. When I write the words are just a vessel for the story itself, and as for typing… well, it’s just another way of getting the words in my head onto the screen. Especially when I’m sometimes dictating, sometimes writing on my phone while I’m on a bus or lying awake at night, sometimes handwriting — they don’t have any bearing on the story itself, unless it’s on the style I write with.
But I rarely think about the act of writing.
Creating my illuminated manuscript, I became way too focused on the pictures, on the curl of my calligraphic letter I, on the borders between words. I knew what I was writing, in theory, but that didn’t seem particularly important. I can write a prayer or a verse whenever I want to, but I don’t always take the time to draw and decorate.
Back when I did GCSE Art, taking a long time over a single page was not only commonplace but something I associated with homework, despair, and Frank Turner playing very loudly on a paint-spattered CD player in my parents’ conservatory. As a result, despite the joys of Frank Turner who quite possibly kept me sane, I sort of avoided anything that took a long time for a couple of years. In year twelve I did some artwork, trying to teach myself to actually draw (which wasn’t something I was ever taught during school), but killing my wrists kind of scuppered that one. And while I’ve spent some time working on drawings of actors-who-look-creepily-like-my-characters-like-exactly-how-did-that-happen, I haven’t really expended much time or energy on art.
So this might’ve been the first time I became single-mindedly absorbed in creating something with a bunch of slightly dodgy felt-tip pens and a sheet of plain computer paper. I did parts carefully that were supposed to be messy. I carried on working on it long after everybody else had considered theirs ready to be blutacked to the wall. And I was pretty proud of the result.
Maybe we were supposed to be focusing on the words in order to create it in a prayerful, meditative state, but I found that focusing on the artwork was more helpful. I focus on words every day — I don’t focus on creative processes, and I don’t allow myself to take as long as I want to create something that serves no purpose whatsoever beyond the decorative. Everything has to happen because of deadlines, or because I’m carried away, or because I’m sick of it and just want it to be done.
But sometimes, you’ve got take that time. You’ve got to do things over and over again: in pencil, twice, so that you get it right; in pen, to outline; in another pen, to fill in and colour. You’ve got to take what’s possibly the most time-consuming method of colouring (tiny dots) because the process allows you to focus.
When was the last time you took an hour to create something for no reason other than that you could? When was the last time you wrote something that wasn’t intended for publication, a competition, a blog audience, but was just for yourself? Even my journal, which nobody reads except for me, is for a purpose: tracking my moods, keeping an eye on emotions or problems as they develop, and then later I sometimes turn them into poems.
But this creation, it wasn’t for anything. It’s currently blutacked to a door that doesn’t belong to me in a chalet I’ll be leaving at the end of the week (and I’m not sure what’ll happen to it after that). It was solely created for the process of creation.
And I think that’s something I forget to do sometimes. I’m a creative person, but I’m very goal-focused. I write in order to do something, to achieve something, to finish something. Though I love the process, I rarely write simply for the sake of it, because that would be a waste of time.
I want to encourage you to waste time. Create something that’s meaningless. Play a piece of music in a room where nobody can hear you. Write something that won’t be read. Spend an hour drawing something simply because you can, and focus on the act. Because it gave me a curious sense of peace, and focus, that I rarely feel, and I think that’s important.