We get used to thinking about stress as a bad thing. A negative to be avoided. And I’d probably agree – in fact I’ve turned my life round to get away from intolerable levels of stress that I just didn’t want to live with any more.
But I think those negatives only apply to some forms of stress: the sort that eats away at you, day after day, week after week, pressure building up, anxiety crawling round your insides, making you feel small, and powerless and like everything’s on top of you rather than the other way round.
There is another sort which can be exhilarating, creative and maybe even fun.
I was thinking about this when I was trying to work out what on earth to write for this month’s What I Learned From… group writing project. The theme is stress, and I, like you, have been through plenty of stressful experiences in my time… but I wanted to find one I could relate to writing. (I’m sad like that.)
It got me thinking about some of the most stressful situations I’ve had to write in.
My previous job included writing speeches that would be delivered by politicians (our government ministers). Most of them were fairly mundane affairs: openings of projects, responding to a policy report, providing the introductory remarks at conferences.
But there were a couple of occasions when the speeches were for highly charged political debates, to be delivered in the Parliamentary chamber, which meant they had (had, had) to be finished to a deadline so the material could be circulated to the other parties and relevant authorities.
Of course this also meant the speech wasn’t finalised until the last possible minute, right down to the wire. Which leads to a situation where there are about 10 or 12 people in a small, badly ventilated room, reading through the speech, coming up with new ideas, arguing about old ideas, dictating new material and generally starting to squabble more as the clock ticks ever faster.
One of the people in the room is the poor soul who has to deliver the speech once the well-wishers and advisers have disappeared.
One of the other people is me: hands poised over the pc.
Now at face value this had all the ingredients of a stressful situation: too many cooks, not enough time, high stakes, fraught atmosphere, inadequate resources to do the job…
And yet, when I look back on it I realise that I enjoyed writing in that pressure cooker.
Why? Well I think it’s to do with focus.
My job was to keep focused on the words, the writing, the flow of the speech. I was responsible (sorry, had to fit that in!) for making the writing work.
I found that I was able to tune out the background noise and focus on:
the deadline: making sure we’d worked through the whole text on time
the sense: reading it through to make sure the speech would work for those listening in the chamber
the patterns, rhythm and flow: ‘listening’ to the way the words fell to make sure it could be read out loud
common sense: telling someone (even someone ‘important’) that a bad idea needed to be dropped, quickly
the words: however crazy the process the words still had to work. The speech still had to hang together. And it was my job to make it so. Finding the ability to tune out the noise and tune into the writing was an experience almost of stillness, of focus and concentration, even in the eye of the storm.
I’m not saying this was the best writing I’ve ever done. In fact I’d probably squirm if I were to look back on the material now – and yes at the time, as I listened to delivery there’d still be points where I’d think “ouch! that sentence just doesn’t work!”
But the process of writing under that kind of pressure? It definitely brought its own form of enjoyment.
A sense of power, control and responsibility. Getting into that ‘zone’ where you’re focused on the job that needs to be done.
And turning away from the sound and the fury to the writing, to the words, which still need to have meaning, and structure, and pattern, and flow, however much hot air we blow.
What do you think? Are there some forms of stress that are good for the creative process or that can help us to write?
This piece is a contribution to this month’s What I Learned From… project, on the theme of stress. If you’d like to join in you’re very welcome.
It’s a stress free way to meet new bloggers, attract new readers to your site, generate some comments and conversation, have a bit of fun and/or do some serious reflection and learning.
To avoid stressing Robert Hruzek out too much though you’ll need to have your entry with him by midnight on Sunday (12th).
Thanks Robert for organising another thought-provoking project.