“The first sentence of every novel should be: ‘Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.’ Meander if you want to get to town.” – Michael Ondaatje.
This well-known quote from Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of a Lion speaks not only to the style of writing that Ondaatje employed, but also to the writing process as a whole. I read this text as a student and this quote has stayed with me, in particular, the notion that the way to get to somewhere is to wander without direction.
Writing is an elusive and somewhat unpredictable process. When one begins to write, one is not always certain where one will end up. One may begin with a plot in mind, a character to follow, or a key message to convey. But something curious happens when one actually puts pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard.
The story changes. Characters say and do things that you never intended for them to say. You begin to wander down side streets and alleyways, determining to make your way back to the main highway but finding yourself in a different city altogether. The process of being creative can sometimes lead you to places, as a writer, to which you were initially unprepared to travel.
I have dabbled in fiction and non-fiction writing, but my main creative focus is on songwriting. I believe that he meandering principle holds just as true for songwriting as for literary forms of writing. Sometimes a song begins with a germ of an idea, a possibility, a lyric, a chord progression, even a single word. I can sit down to write a song, intending to express a particular concept in a particular way, and end up writing an entirely different piece.
As an example, I once sat down to write a song about how life was different after meeting Christ. I had originally intended to make it a very meaningful, serious piece, musically like a ballad. However, the way it came out was in the form of a C&W/bush dance song. You know the style: it makes you want to stamp your feet on the ground, slap your thigh, and yell, “Yeeehah!” Not what I originally had in mind.
(By the way, keep a lookout for that song next year. It’s called No More Bitterness.)
This is the nature of creating. One cannot put their mind to a time of creativity and then lock in the exact nature of the outcome. That flies in the face of creativity. One needs to be open to the possibilities, be prepared to brainstorm, and even be willing to have one’s mind changed.
Such a notion of directionlessness may freak some out. It may come across as being unorganised, problematic or even lazy. But it is in the directionlessness that one may find direction, from a position of choice rather than from obligation. It is in fact a process of liberation for the mind and the soul.
Ondaatje urges his readers to trust his wanderings. I think creativity is largely about trust. We are required to trust ourselves and trust the creative process, knowing that it will lead us home eventually. We are all that sure of where home is when we set out upon our journey, but then again, knowing is not required.
Finally, we can trust in God in our creative endeavours. This might sound strange – after all, we don’t need to be Christian in order to be creative – but for those who accept this marvellous Creator as Lord, there emerges the possibility of God participating in their creations.
I wonder what might be possible if we invited the Holy Spirit to be part of our writing. He might challenge us, inspire our thinking, lead us down unexpected detours and open unfamiliar doors to us. He might take us to our destination or simply accompany us on the journey.
Whatever writing or creativity you undertake, I hope you find joy in your meanderings.