March 28, 2013

Writing Advice: sleepwalking through a sentence

As a child I used to wish that I sleepwalked – how strange and thrilling for your body to do something your mind is  unaware of. I recall my sister telling me that I spoke in my sleep sometimes, but I wondered what it meant to not just talk but stand up and go someplace. What would my unconscious self choose to do? Where would I go?
I no longer really want to sleepwalk, now that I am older I am aware of the danger present everywhere. What if I fell down the stairs? Or decided to climb over the balcony railing? What if I walked to the grocery store in my pyjamas and forgot to put on my glasses first? I’d probably be hit by a car trying to cross the road.IMG_0060
But there is one place where, I realise, I have been occasionally guilty of sleepwalking. As Zadie Smith puts it – ‘sleepwalking through a sentence’. A writing mentor passed on to me a piece that Zadie Smith wrote for the Guardian in 2007 called “Fail better”. Within it she writes about cliche and admits to using a typical one – to rummage through a purse:

To rummage through a purse is to sleepwalk through a sentence – small enough betrayal of self, but a betrayal all the same. To speak personally, the very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life. But it is easy to admit that a sentence makes you wince; less easy to confront the fact that for many writers there will be paragraphs, whole characters, whole books through which one sleepwalks and for which “inauthentic” is truly the correct term.

Ouch. Nothing like truth to wake you up. It is so easy to slip into cliche when writing – to use words which come together easily in my barely conscious mind because I have heard them together so many times. What is hard is to be constantly aware. Vigilant against my own laziness. It is hard to ask myself – how do I really see this? What does rain actually smell like, and how does it feel when the salt from the ocean dries on your skin? Do tears really roll down our cheeks, or do we only think so because we have read that phrase so many times? A teardrop isn’t like a ball. It can’t actually roll. 

One of the biggest challenges of sitting alone in a room for hours a day and writing is not loneliness, not boredom, but doing what comes easily and not challenging yourself. I went to a physio awhile ago when I had some chronic pain in my neck and he asked me what kind of exercise I do. ‘Mostly yoga,’ I replied. ‘But you’re hyper mobile,’ he said. ‘Isn’t yoga really easy for you?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘That’s why I like to go. I’m good at it.’
He told me that I needed to do something that wasn’t easy. I needed to build my strength so the muscles in my neck would support it without locking up. I started doing some weight training, and I haven’t had neck pain since. I’m really weak at lifting weights, and I’m always doing the lightest weights in the class. But it’s about improving my own strength, challenging myself. It’s hard, just like sitting at the desk, writing things that don’t come easily. But when I read back over something I have struggled with that strikes me as authentic – as uniquely my own, I feel strong. I feel a jolt stronger than a double-shot of espresso. I feel wide awake.
Here is the full piece by Zadie Smith.


Mike Kidner

Truly paying full attention to what you do, and being objectively critical is difficult, but you don’t need to do it much to make a marked change, true for practising an instrument, using hand tools, or as you point out, writing. Nice piece Eleanor, thanks.

March 28, 2013 at 8:32 pm


    Thanks Mike, and you are so right that it makes a difference to pay full attention in nearly anything we do. And it is increasingly harder to do so given all of the demands on our time, but it is always worth doing. Lovely to hear from you.

    April 2, 2013 at 9:52 am

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