Pay Attention

Being creative doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Before your art can reflect life, or vice versa, you first must have a life. For some of us, the life is mundane and common. For others, life is a grand adventure. Both circumstances hold grist for the creative mill as long as we heed the lessons. Our next guest explains how the act of creation becomes an exercise in paying attention. Nathan Lowell Presents…

Sophie Nicholls

Sophie NichollsThey never told me that the ink gets under your skin.

I spent most of my childhood escaping into books. I read on the front step or curled up on the windowsill in the sun or under the duvet with my pocket torch, long into the early hours.

I wrote too – stories on miniature sewn-together pages and, much later, diaries in careful calligraphic handwriting. In those teenage years – italicised! Capitalised! – part of me was always somewhere up high on the Yorkshire Moors, the rain in my face, the wind in my hair, with Charlotte Bronte, the writer I most admired in the world. I wrote to escape my life in a small town where I never felt that I fitted in. But Reader, he never married me.

At some point, after an English degree (plenty of books but very little room for my own writing), I drifted into a string of dissatisfying jobs in London. I felt increasingly frustrated. I knew that I had things to say but I didn’t know how to say them, or how to make a life for myself that would give me time for what I really wanted to do. Which was to write. Anything.

And then I started some voluntary work for an organisation called Freedom from Torture. I became a ‘writing mentor’ for a project called Write to Life, running writing workshops and working one-to-one with people arriving in the UK from the Congo, Rwanda, Syria, Iran and Afghanistan. The idea of the project, which was initially set up by my friend, the playwright Sonja Linden, was to help people to process their difficult experiences through writing, to enable them to get their feelings out onto the page where they could be read and witnessed by others, to help them to shape some kind of meaning out of events that often seemed utterly meaningless.

I met incredible and inspiring people. I listened to their stories. Finally, I felt useful. I was reminded of how powerful writing could be in my own life.

I went back to university and did my doctoral research, developing a framework for the use of writing in therapy and health care. I trained as a therapist and began to use writing with many of my clients.

Now I write every day and I can’t stop. I write in order to slow down and notice what’s happening around me. I write to bear witness to the things that make me feel grateful, angry or powerless. Most of all, I write to try to make a kind of home for myself in the world.

I would probably keep writing and writing, even if no one ever read my words. For me – and for so many of the clients I work with – it’s ultimately the process that counts. It’s about the feeling of getting what you’re carrying around inside yourself out onto the page. It’s about working things through, crafting them into the form that feels like the ‘right’ fit for your feelings, or sometimes just the sheer pleasure of playing with words, of making shapes with the pen.

I’m interested in what happens in our brains and our bodies when we write.

I’m fascinated by that trance-like state when we’re fully immersed in the flow of our writing; and what happens for us when we stand outside of what’s emerged on the page, begin to craft it and redraft it.

And I’ve discovered a wonderful thing over the last few years. This process of writing as a way of paying attention, of staying awake, of making something new, is actually making me a better writer. It’s giving me a deeper understanding of voice and form, of writing with my eyes, tongue, teeth, breath, hips – and not just my head. And I see this happening for so many of the people in my courses and workshops too.

Now there are people who actually want to read what I’m making and I don’t think I’ll ever stop savouring this. It seems like such a gift – to be able to share my writing with others.

In one sense, I’ll always be an apprentice to writing. Each time I sit down to write, I start again. And I love that.

Cover art for The DressFind out more about Sophie Nicholls at Wordsaucery. A collection of poems inspired by her work with Freedom From Torture – ‘Refugee’ – is forthcoming from Salt. In addition to her writing, Sophie offers courses on writing online.

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2 Responses to Pay Attention

  1. Anita Lewis says:

    Thanks for the post, Sophie. I enjoyed this peek into your life so far. You’ve found a great field of work for yourself!

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