‘In spring, it is the dawn. The sky at the edge of the mountains slowly starts to brighten with the approach of day, and the thinly trailing clouds nearby are tinted purple.’
Sei Shônagon, The Pillow Book
Sei Shônagon was a 10-11th century Japanese lady at court and author who is most famous for her collection of notes, published as The Pillow Book. Without exaggeration or understatement, it is a compilation of notes, anecdotes, lists, and other general bits and bobs which came to mind for her. The original was supposedly written on sheets she kept under her pillow, hence the name.
Today, unless you’re already a celebrity of some outrageous measure, you’ll find it hard for anyone to be interested in your nightly scribbles, should you produce your own Pillow Book. But the idea is worth lingering on. For what is fiction, or writing altogether, but an image of life in one way or another? It might be a negative photograph of life, or completely removed from reality: but even such a relationship requires in the first instance a reality to detach from.
This means that whatever occurs around you might be of use to your writing. And you need to note it down, quick. Yes, I’m encouraging you to eavesdrop. Go ahead! Listen! And do write your own Pillow Book: not with the intention of publishing, or even for anybody to read – but for your own flowing spring of ideas. A dream, an overheard conversation, an absurd complex of thoughts.
For me, it’s often when I read – books or critical journals – that ideas come to mind (that’s how developed my focus is), and I jot them down and return to them later. Sometimes it’s rubbish, but every now and then there will be a glimmer of gold in the piles of sand. I believe that the reading of something else works as a suit of armour, a protection from the pressure of a blank screen or an empty spread in the note pad, and it allows the mind to move freely – like when dreaming.
And that’s why you should immediately place a note pad under your pillow. Go on. Done it? Good. Now it’s there, ready to take down dreams, thoughts you had while in the dream, or the moment you wake up, or just before you fall asleep.
Because one morning those ‘thin trailing clouds’ you’ve noted down may begin to take shape, to rise above the mountaintops, and ‘brighten with the approach of day.’ And so the story begins.