All good writing comes from paying attention to — observing — yourself, others, your environment. You know this already, but it is so easy to let your attention become dulled, to become too busy to really notice anything,to become immersed in paying bills, getting to the office, washing up, arranging to go to the dentist. Naturally, writers must earn a living and do these daily chores — probably not many of you have maidservants and unicorns in your lives — but you can do your ordinary activities with attention so that the mind is trained, ready to write, when you sit down. See the bubbles in the washing water, hear the whirr of a bicycle tyre on a wet road. It is a quiet awareness amongst the busyness of life that Buddhists call 'right attention' or 'wakefulness'. It means being properly 'awake', that is, being aware of what you are doing, seeing, feeling, thinking. How do you wake yourself up? Here are a few possibilities.
Find time each day, even just a few minutes first thing in the morning, to pay 'right attention' to your immediate environment, to really observe at least an aspect of your world with focused attention, with all your senses. Look at your own hand, listen to the sound of a car horn at night in a quiet street, smell the scent of a freshly opened book. Notice the myriad textures of lived experience. It doesn’t have to be beautiful — you may observe a crushed snail. There is as much revelation in an act of violence accurately witnessed as a field of poppies delicately observed. Contemplate the extraordinariness of any blade of grass existing at all. Note down what you see, hear, smell, even for ten minutes of every day. It will reawaken and sharpen your writing mind.
Go back to a writer who has 'woken you up' in the past. Re-read passages that startle you with their insights and observations — it can be like taking a perception enhancing potion. For me, Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is always a refreshing draught. Remind yourself that you have the same capacity to observe your world.
Seek out an inspiring work from another art form: a powerful painting, a piece of music, a song, a poem, a film — even a tapestry. Immerse yourself in it; give yourself over to another form of expression. Find artists who are 'tearing the veil of habit' that normally drapes itself over life. It might be a singer who wakes you up to the detail of a crumpled dress, or to the sound of a footfall in the passage at three o'clock in the morning. Experiencing art of every genre is one of the best ways to refresh a dull awareness; all kinds of neurones will begin firing and forming new neural pathways in your brain.
One of the rewards that I love most about journal writing is giving myself the chance to receive the unsought and sometimes emotionally very powerful associations that come to mind because journal writing makes space for them. These are the associations that would never occur without first writing something down, first giving myself a prompt. (And I don't need to know in advance what the prompt is. For me, for Marion Milner whom I quoted above, and for countless other journal writers, the prompt is sometimes, indeed often, at the far side of what I believe I am most caught up with.)
For example, as I wrote that final phrase in the section above, 'rise up to meet it', in a very 'journal writing' way I was flooded with a vivid memory of sitting in my car with my daughter just a few months ago listening to the words of an old song that has recently been re-released and made newly popular – 'You raise me up ...' – and how much we enjoyed listening to that together. We were in fact 'raised up' by it. But then with no effort from me, I found myself remembering in a rush so many times when music has enchanted or sustained my children and me, or given us a lovely respite from thinking about more pressing or difficult things, as we sat in different cars travelling from one place to another through all the years of their growing up. In journal writing, linear time gives way to sensual time. This is exactly how I would write in my own journal. Letting one sentence take me to the next. And sometimes not sentences at all. ('Tenors singing corny heavenly songs. Tender beautiful daughter, so loved. Gabriel making us laugh. Little kids in the old Volvo. Noisy kids – sometimes six in the car pool. Car filled with children. Life filled with children. Driving home from school across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Music moving through everything. Forgetting what was hard. Gifted again by all that was good.')
Wherever you are, right now, let your eyes or attention fall on something outside yourself. It could be the sofa on which you are sitting. It could be a vase of flowers that a day ago were so fragrant and are now about ready to be thrown out. It could be the smell of dinner cooking. It could be the silence that you are suddenly 'hearing'. It could be the roar of traffic, or the sound of someone talking on the phone in another room. It could be the toys that are littered across the floor. Or a story in the newspaper that you discarded this morning. Whatever feels promising or engages you, choose that, then pick up your pen, open your journal or notebook, and simply let yourself write for at least ten minutes using what's engaged you as your jumping-off point. If you go off at a tangent at once, that's fine. If you keep coming back to the vase of flowers and how your uncle grew the most fragrant roses you have ever smelt ... that's also fine. The crucial thing is to keep writing for at least ten minutes, to incorporate your hesitations or obstructions in your actual writing ('This seems forced to me but on the other hand my writing hand is still moving and so are my thoughts ...') and to let your imagination and your senses off the leash. Fly!
My suggestion is to use this written form of free associating very freely! And keep in mind that it is very different from ruminating without writing things down. When you are setting out on your journal writing life, use free associating as often as you can to increase your writing flexibility. Take yourself off the tracks of linear thinking and into the pathless spaces of creative thinking. You may even want to free associate on the idea of creative thinking; or the word 'creative'; or the word 'thinking'. The same simple principles apply. Surrender, write and discover. All the senses offer an astonishingly powerful direct route to memories.