The first time

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Do you remember what it’s like to experience the world for the first time?  As writers and artists, it’s our job to help people to see the world in a different way.  At our best, we throw light on a part of experience that wows someone, gives them a moment of epiphany, encourages them to appreciate the beauty (or sometimes the ugliness) of the world in a way they’ve never experienced it.  We seek ways to describe things as they have never been described before.  We pay attention to the look, feel, taste and sound of things in a way that others don’t.  But as we go about our daily lives, how often do we view the world as though it’s our first time?

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Recently, my one-year-old dog met a horse for the first time.  I can only imagine what he thought as this enormous, strange-looking creature walked towards him.  As they first made contact, they sniffed one another gently, as though there was nothing curious about the situation.  Perhaps my dog thought it was just another kind of canine that he’d never come across before.  Or maybe there was something in the smell of the horse that made him realise this was something else altogether.  How would you describe a horse if it was something you never knew existed before you met one?  Would you explore it, as my dog did, with sight, smell, touch, until you had a concept of the animal in your mind?  How would you then put your experience into words, or describe it on canvas?

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Recently, my dog paddled in the sea for the first time.  He walked reluctantly into the water, lifting his legs awkwardly as he experienced the soft sand beneath his feet and the gentle pull of the tide.  He stood very still, not quite sure what to do now he was in the water and, despite encouragement, he certainly didn’t want to go any deeper.  Water has always been part of his life, but usually contained within a drinking bowl.  I wonder what he made of this water that went on as far as he could see and strangely, tasted nothing like the water he was used to drinking.  What would you do if you walked into the sea for the first time, never knowing it existed before you were in it?  Would you stand still, as my dog did, surveying the scene and exploring it by smell and taste until you could begin to understand what it might be?

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Recently, my dog travelled on a bus for the first time.  He climbed onto this odd-looking vehicle, that perhaps seemed just like a big room loaded with people, and it began to move.  When he climbed off, he was in a completely different place to where he’d begun, despite not walking anywhere.  How would you describe travelling on a bus, a metro, in a car, having never experienced it before?  How would you begin to understand the concept that it’s possible to travel from one place to another with no effort?

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Recently, my dog experienced thunder for the first time.  A huge storm rolled in, with mammoth claps of thunder immediately over the house.  He was unbothered by it, took it in his stride.  But I wonder what he must have been thinking about this enormous noise coming out of nowhere.  What if you didn’t know that thunder existed?  What stories would you invent to account for the phenomenon?  Would you be afraid, transfixed, awed?

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We forget what it’s like to experience things for the first time.  Life goes on and despite the odd chink of beauty, it’s easy to forget how mysterious and wonderful the world is.  To experience the power of a thunderstorm and not know what it is.  To meet a new creature for the first time.  To experience the limitless water of the sea, which is so different to the tamed water that comes out of the tap.  To start in one place and end up in another, without using your feet.  The world must be a baffling, astonishing place for my dog.  And if we want to be truly great at writing, at art, we must hold onto that sense of mystery, that feeling of awe.  Whether we’re describing the world around us, or describing a character in a certain situation, it can only help us to imagine that we’re seeing it for the first time.   To step back and forget that this is something we’ve seen before, done before and attempt to describe it as though it’s something we don’t know or understand.

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Living with a puppy has made me appreciate the world anew and consider how I begin to look at the way I create, literally, with fresh eyes.  How do you make sure you remember the mystery and wonder of the world as though you were seeing it for the first time?

Destination inspiration

I’ve spent hours of my life on buses, but the time has rarely been wasted. A bus journey is often a source of inspiration and a space to meditate on whichever creative project I’m working on at the time.

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Buses don’t have the same sense of glamour or excitement as some types of transport. There’s no doubt it’s easier to jump in a car than to wait for a bus that may be late. Journeys may take longer and you may still have some distance to walk to your destination. There’s little joy in waiting at a bus stop in freezing weather or pouring rain. And you have no say in who shares the journey with you.

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But I’ve always found bus journeys to be a perfect trigger for creativity. There’s a feeling of respite in boarding a bus and allowing it to take you where you need to go. You have little control over the journey, so you may as well surrender to it. On buses, you can be anonymous. Other passengers, armoured by their ipods or newspapers, rarely pay you any attention. On buses, you don’t have to watch the road, so you can notice things you wouldn’t on a journey by car. Usually, you can take a window seat and simply gaze at an array of scenery slowly passing by.

Buses give me time to think. The majority of my journeys last about half an hour, which is plenty of time to ponder. I’ve had many good ideas for writing on bus journeys. I’ve reshaped plots, developed characters and changed the whole direction of stories, all because I’ve had that time to think. I often scan passengers as they board the bus, watching how they behave and inventing theories about who they are. Thinking on a bus is different to thinking at home or in another place. Perhaps it’s the fact that for half an hour there’s nothing else I have to do. Or maybe it’s something about the forward movement through changing scenery and the regular drone of the engine that takes me to another place. A bus journey is never just a trip between destinations: I travel into other worlds on a bus.

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Let me take you on one of my regular bus journeys. Imagine yourself settled comfortably beside the window. It’s been raining outside and the bus is warm and steamy. You can feel the hum of the engine, lulling you into a meditative state. We travel first down a quiet road, past warehouses and compounds filled with rusting cranes. The road has an air of dereliction, but there’s also a kind of beauty in the twisted metal and decaying buildings. You just begin to wonder about the characters and the activities that might take place there, when the road opens out onto a panorama of the river. It’s not long after sunrise and the light is clear and tinted with pale blue and pinks, ideal for painting. You scan the buildings lining the banks, including the ruins of the priory overlooking the river mouth and you watch the small ferry crossing from north to south. There are layers of history and experience along the river, waiting to be brought to life.

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Next, we pass through a small housing estate and reach a bridge. On one side is a park, with cascades of water running down the hill towards the river. On the edge of the park is a hospice and you consider the stories of the people coming to the end of their lives there. Perhaps they think about their lives as they watch the assortment of boats sailing in and out of the marina on the other side of the bridge. They may mark the days in the daily arrivals and departures of the ferry from Holland, or watch the oil rigs and cranes lining the river and remember when ships were built here.

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Further on, we pass through an industrial estate, where the streets are named after Swedish cities, and through wasteland, dotted with pylons. We cross a bridge over the line used by the railway museum for steam train rides, and pass the old wagon ways, which were once used to transport coal from the mines to the river. Our final destination is the business park, packed with newly built, perfectly landscaped buildings that are standing empty, like shiny sentinels, waiting for someone to inhabit them and bring them to life.

Any of these things on their own could spark a story or a painting, but a bus journey is a kaleidoscope of sights unfurling one after the other. Some are barely registered, but they percolate in my imagination, sparking ideas and connections which I might use in the future.

So, if you don’t usually take the bus, why not try it? You don’t have to have a destination in mind. Choose a time outside of the rush hour – mid-morning is good – when you’re likely to get a seat to yourself. The type of route and the scenery don’t matter, it’s the movement and the letting go that do. See what comes of your journey. And if you can’t take a bus journey of your own, perhaps you can take a little inspiration from mine to help you on your way. I’d love you to share your experiences.