Where do you have your best ideas? In the shower? In bed, in the middle of the night? In the car?
In the era before we carried tiny computers around with us, I always kept a notebook close at hand wherever I went. At night, it sat on my bedside table and tended to fill up, more often than not, during the hours of darkness. I put it there after countless experiences where a groundbreaking thought materialised in my head in the middle of the night and then just as quickly passed out of my mind, before I had the chance to commit it to memory or paper.
Imagine what I could have achieved had I captured all those thoughts!!
And I am clearly not the only one to have suffered! Recent research has begun to give us a far greater understanding of the science behind this. For a layman like me, this article (https://buffer.com/resources/shower-thoughts-science-of-creativity/) has a good go at communicating some of what is going on in our brains.
There is clearly a strong connection between feeling relaxed and generating ideas and it is comforting to know that this is not a new phenomenon.
One of the reasons why the English language is so rich and eloquent is the number of words it uses for similar ideas. I recently explored the derivation of the verb “saunter” (https://twitter.com/claretandwhite), having done a fair bit of sauntering myself over the last year.
Like many words, there is some debate as to its origin but the following explanation seems very appropriate.
Saunter had no connection with walking until the 17th century. Until then the middle English verb was “santer”, which meant to muse or to be in a dream-like state. The theory is that this in turn was connected to the noun “sawnterell”, which was the word for a pretended saint - a thinker, a ponderer, you might say.
And then, presumably, people walking slowly looked so like they were contemplating great thoughts and musing on the purpose of life that suddenly they were “sauntering”.
I am a saunterer - there, I admit it! I often get told off for walking too slowly but the walking police do not realise what damage they are doing to the percolations going on in my mind. By sauntering, I am formulating ideas. When I am stuck for something to write, I go for a walk.
The concept of “writer’s block” has probably been around since writing began but the term itself was first used in the 1940s by a psychiatrist called Edmund Bergler, who had been trained in the Freudian school of psychoanalysis. In 1950, he published a paper in American Imago entitled “Does Writer’s Block Exist?” This was after spending years with “blocked” writers, interviewing and researching.
His conclusion, unsurprisingly, was that they needed therapy; their “blockages” with writing were the result of personal psychological problems. Unblock their own lives and their writing would flourish.
Vague though this was, it has been supported to a certain degree by more recent research. Psychologists Jerome Singer and Michael Barrios took on the issue in the 1970s and 1980s and their conclusions, while more nuanced, broadly highlighted the same problem. A lack of motivation to write had some connection to a lack of overall joy in their lives. This article in The New Yorker provides more detail and also contains stories about the great Graham Greene! (https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/how-to-beat-writers-block)
So, clearing your mind, as best you can, may be the answer and going for a walk may be how to achieve this.
But whether it is the woods, the shower, the bedroom or the car, take note of where you have your great ideas and be ready to record them before they wash away, for ever. And if they still don’t come, try going for a nice, long saunter!
Have you ever heard of Swansea Jack?
He was a black retriever who lived with his owner, William Thomas, near the River Tawe in Wales. In 1931 Jack jumped into the river to save a drowning 12 year old boy. Then, a few weeks later, this time in front of a small crowd, he rescued a swimmer from the docks.
And it was this second rescue that began to propel Jack towards the superhero status he acquired in later life.
His photograph appeared in the local newspaper and he was awarded a silver collar by the local council. And, after more rescues, the Star newspaper in London bestowed on him the title of “Bravest Dog of the Year.” He received a silver cup from the Lord Mayor of London and two bronze medals from The National Canine Defence League (now known as The Dogs Trust).
It is thought that over his lifetime Swansea Jack may have saved 29 lives. Not bad for a seven year career … especially when you have four legs and a relatively unsophisticated brain!
Animals are amazing.
Did you know a snail can sleep for three years at a time? A bat can eat up to a thousand insects in an hour, apparently. And honey bees flap their wings 200 times per second.
It’s funny where research takes you, sometimes. I recently came across the story of St Cuthbert and the otters, recorded in an account by Saint Bede of Jarrow (AD672 - 735).
It seems St Cuthbert enjoyed a nice walk to the seashore after dark, on his own. One night he was followed, however, by a monk who was intrigued to see what St Cuthbert got up to in the dead of night by the sea.
What happened next amazed him so much that it was recorded in the annals.
After wading out into the sea, up to his neck, and singing meditative psalms - a process that lasted until dawn, apparently - St Cuthbert then made his way back to the shore, with sopping wet, cold feet, no doubt. It was then that the two otters appeared. They raced across the beach, rubbed themselves against his feet and dried them with their fur. Cuthbert gave them a blessing and off they went, back home again.
No doubt the otters enjoyed the process as much as St Cuthbert was warmed by it. But animals do have such a capacity to do selfless, wonderful things.
In 2012, David Martin in Surrey was doing some renovations on his house. These involved taking down and repairing a chimney breast. No doubt it is common, when doing such work, to find a dead bird in the chimney. But the pigeon that Mr Martin found was anything but ordinary.
When they looked closer at what was left of the body of the bird, they found attached to one leg a red canister. And inside the canister was a thin piece of paper, which had the words “Pigeon Service” at the top followed by 27 hand-written sections of code.
What, of course, they had discovered was a WW2 pigeon, carrying a secret, coded message from the war in Europe back to Bletchley Park, where it should have been decoded and passed to intelligence services.
Pigeons were regularly used in WW2 by all services to carry messages. They played a vital role in the decoding effort at Bletchley Park, which itself was crucial to eventual Allied success.
At the brilliant Bletchley Park site (bletchleypark.org.uk), there is a display dedicated to animals who have been awarded the Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross. The first award was to Winkie, a blue chequered carrier pigeon, who saved a RAF Bomber crew who had ditched in the North Sea in February 1942. She was released by the crew, flew home (some 120 miles) and despite not carrying a message, the base was able to calculate the position of the downed crew and launch a rescue.
Winkie had been found exhausted and covered in oil. She was later awarded the Dickin Medal for “delivering a message under exceptional circumstances”. The whole story can be read here : https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-tayside-central-17138990#:~:text=Seventy%20years%20ago%20a%20carrier,PDSA%20during%20World%20War%20II.
So, when you get annoyed again with your 6 month old Labrador puppy who has chewed another one of your shoes or with your tabby cat’s unstoppable determination to ruin the upholstery of your favourite chair, remember Swansea Jack, Winkie and all the others.
Animals really can be incredible.