When I used to teach Creative Writing I sometimes would have the students troop of out of classroom or lecture hall into a nearby forest or field, just after the first snow had fallen, or at least a good frost, or when a coating of thin ice had covered grasses and branches. They were not allowed to wear coats or gloves, and I’d have them plunge their hand into the snow for a minute, or breakthrough the ice over puddles.
Then I’d tell them to write their last letter to the world. Some would be shivering. But all would write – and fast – creativity used to come crystal clear. On most occasions these student would be using English not as their mother tongue, but as a second, or third language. Most could knock off a few pages in minutes. I would walk around the group that I would scatter far and wide throughout the forest, motivating them by telling them how cold they felt, how their fingers were getting numb (they were) and how they had to get their ideas out on page before it became more and more difficult to write.
I prefaced these sessions by looking at Scott of the Antarctic’s last letter, or a meditation exercise, or other features, before going outside.
When the students read their ‘letters’ at a later date, some of the material was quite emotional.
For those who want to write, have the will to write, need to, have to, breathe to, but still get blocked, there is sometimes no other way than to put one’s self into a position where only by concentrating on the given story and getting it out onto paper brings warmth. Forcing the story that you know is there out of you.
This winter I am heading north again to Lappland, to live as the Sámi did, in a tipi for as long as I think will be beneficial. There its write or..well, there is no ‘or’ in these conditions. Writing is the only way to escape the cold. And the book must come, or defeat stares back, numbing defeat, mixed with the plunging cold. My method is not madness, as you instinctively know – those who know that the novel is not merely scribbled out onto paper, or tapped onto screen over a pre-planned duration of something commonly known as time. You already know the toll. The difference here is to keep the turmoil physical as much as possible, so that mentally, it flows – instead of the normal opposite when writing.
So buy a thick sleeping bag, the kind that can see you to a mountain top in the Himalayas. You will need dried foods, a small burner, a mattress, animal skin or straw, tea bags, coffee, pens and paper, gloves with fingers, a spade – the spade is to ensure the ‘floor’ of your tipi has two levels, so that the cold air settles down at a lower level than where you are. Lastly you will need candles or torches. Candles are extremely dangerous for obvious reasons. There is no daylight for the winter months in northern Lappland. This works to your advantage, but it is often more motivating to write in the beginning of the year, when daylight slowly creeps back for a few more minutes every day; somehow that fits well with the progress of your work.
Try it. Or try it with me. The productivity and creativity reaches record-breaking levels. And yep, it hurts. But is there one writer among you who can say it doesn’t; whatever approach we use to get the best, the very best work out?
Sámi in summertime (source local)
Sámi tipi in summer