The joy of words, spoken and written

Sometimes my working life seems to be in two distinct parts – the education work and the fiction writing – that have no connection with each other and are mutually exclusive. These days the balance of time has tipped towards the writing, but while working in a school yesterday I had the curious sensation of the two worlds colliding, not in terms of the content, but in terms of the skills and the way I’m using my brain.

The content of my education work is so embedded after thirty years of experience that It seems to occupy the same space as the imagination I use when I’m writing. This cognitive content may have been learned sequentially but now its different subsets merge and flow into each other, making connections without any effort on my part. I think of something, an idea or a fact, and it immediately connects with something else.

When I’m working, presenting to a large audience as I did yesterday at Rosebrook Primary School in Stockton, I have to find the words to describe and explain the connections that have jumped into my mind. Those words have to be spoken, and immediate. The fast processing and reaction is – for me – the intellectual equivalent of an extreme sport. I guess it gives me the same rush, although the only danger is that the words will dry up, or tumble out randomly, or offend someone. I’m pretty sure I have offended people in the past by saying exactly what I was thinking without employing the filters that kick in when you slow down. Very occasionally, when I’m tired or unwell, I can’t find the words I need, but that’s rare. Over time I’ve learned to just let my mind relax and focus, not distracted by anything except the focus or the question I’m responding to. I try not to listen to myself, although occasionally I’m aware that what I’m saying is just right. The downside is that the words are ephemeral and what my listeners actually hear, through the filter of their own experience and values, may be different than what was said.

My experience of writing is much shorter than my experience of speaking. If I write as fast as I talk, the words usually flow, but they sound like spoken words not written ones. To shift from the spoken to the written form requires different structures, tighter, more concise, more measured, more thoughtful – more ‘poetic’. That’s where the re-drafting and editing start, for which I need to slow down. Speaking the written words out loud helps, and I’m now half way through doing that for the penultimate version of ‘Fallout’, before it goes to Charlotte, my editor. This will be her first sight of most of the ms. and I value her judgement so much that waiting for her reaction has made me nervous. I know I will need to take more time, adding and deleting before any final polish, but that goes against the grain of my habitual impatience. ‘Life is short’ has been my motto for decades, probably since my father’s sudden death when I was nine: I’m learning slowly to control the urge to rush.

Spoken or written, fast or slower, words are a constant joy. I hope something else carries me off before I lose them.

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