Woolgathering Works

With so many distractions and fewer places that remain “undiscovered,” it’s increasingly hard to find the time and space to just sit and do nothing. No screens, no noise—not even a book.

We’re not doing nothing, of course; we’re doing what I call “woolgathering,” and it’s incredibly important to my quality of life—and my fiction. I’ve written before about being distracted by my imagination; the benefit is that when I’m not actively thinking about anything at all, I “learn” things about my characters. It could be just a small detail (Oh! He used to wear a pirate earring!). Or it could be as big as my next book idea.

Like any other skill, woolgathering takes practice. Sitting still is hard, and the less we do it, the harder it gets. There’s only one way to solve that; just, well, sit down with nothing in hand and try. (It will get easier, I promise.)

Woolgathering (for me at least) requires silence. No radio, no TV; just me and (with luck) a water view. My mind is free to drift away, thinking about people: friends, family, characters. Mulling over recent experiences. Puzzling through upcoming jobs, projects, regatta logistics. There’s no set agenda, no fixed goal; just me and my imagination, out for a mental walk around the block.

My novelist grandmother was an expert woolgatherer. I can remember asking her what she was thinking about, sitting in a chair, visibly doing nothing at all. I didn’t understand her answer then, but it makes sense to me now; “I’m writing.” It’s a different process from actually putting words on a page, but an equally important part of telling a good story.

These days, I admit, I often interrupt my woolgathering to check tomorrow’s weather or tide. But I make sure that screen-staring and reading don’t eat up all of my valuable down time, because screens, books, and magazines are not where I will find new characters or enrich the ones I’ve already dreamed up.  I don’t know where most of this stuff comes from, but I do know how to access it; by doing nothing.

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