Category Archives: Inspiration

The Friday Review No. 1

go away bag

Dear Reader,

As promised in my last post, my intention is to update you on my progress in resuscitating my creativity on a weekly basis, and Friday seems as good a time as any.  So here we go.

Friday Review No 1:

Well, the week got off to an excellent start with the aforementioned post and recovery plan, followed by a day of frenzied ideas for blog posts.  I’ve sketched out 12 in total so far, so you’ve got lots of exciting content to look forward to.

And then the wheels fell off the waggon.

I received news of a not-unexpected but nevertheless devastating medical diagnosis for someone close to me.  It was hard to cope with all the emotions that came up as a result.

Instead of forcing myself to take action, I simply sat with those emotions, and felt them.  And slowly, slowly, the pain began to lift.  I know this is only the beginning of a diffcult and life-changing process, but I also know that my creative practice is not only going to help me get through this new phase, it is also going to feed into my future work.

I was worried my plan for creative recovery would be completely derailed before it had even properly started, but thankfully, that hasn’t happened.  I have kept my appointments with myself this week to do my writing practice, thoroughly enjoyed then, and even (imho) done some good work.  I have discovered some new blogs about writing, which I hope to share with you in future posts.  I have continued with my reading adventure, though Umberto Eco’s habit of dropping into Latin in ‘The Name of the Rose’ has proved something of a labour to me, since I don’t understand Latin.  But I am keeping on keeping on.  And thats the point.

This is what I learned:

How to journal when you need to get stuff out, but you just can’t face explaining.

Let me introduce you to your friend in extremis, the list.

Yes, dear reader, the facts are too horrible to cope with, but you know getting them on paper will a) get some of the poison outside your body, and b) begin the process of helping you to see not only some context, but also how to navigate your way through the battlefield with your sanity (or at least most of it) intact. This is the moment when you each for your pen and make a list.

Write down a list of what happened:

This happened.

and then this.

(I used bullet points.)  And what you remember:

I remember the paper on the desk when he told me.

The phone showed the duration of the call so far.

The consultant will do x,y,z.

I said.

He said.

She said.

Then I did this.  And this.

Then this person rang.

Just getting the facts down on the paper relieves you from having to remember them, or to explain them in future to your diary.  You don’t need to give any detail.  Just bald facts. You don’t need to write them out at length.  Just make notes.  And then let them go.

Now is not the time to analyse.  Just be with the feelings.  You can go back to your usual journal practice of writing at length when you are ready.  But only when you are ready.

The important thing is not to neglect your journal during the crisis.  If you do, you will begin to feel that the mass of painful information you have to record is building up into a barrier that will stop you from using your writing to coach yourself through in the future.  Even if you just sketch down a couple of bullet points every day until you are ready to write more, you are keeping that mountain cut down to size.

This is what I have done this week, a completely new approach to life crises for me – before, when things have happened, I have written nothing, and then felt unequal to the task of resuming when so much has changed.  I’m so glad my creative muse rescued me this time with the idea of the list.  It eased the pain immeasurably, made me feel so much less overwhelmed by events.  I offer this technique to you, in the hope that it may help you in any challenges you may meet.

With love,





A Bit of a Staycation

We had this plan to go on a proper summer holiday this year.  You know, beach parasols, bikinis, sun tan lotion etc.

And then Life Happened.  Primarily in the form of unexpected expense: me needing new spectacles (£650) and Husband needing a new crown on a tooth (£220).  Ouch!

So having assessed just how depleted our holiday fund became, we figured a staycation might be an idea. The nice thing about a staycation is that you don’t have to worry about luggage allowances.   So this is what I am taking on my staycation this year:

My staycation goodies

My staycation goodies

I’ve given myself permission to read EXACTLY what I want, not what I think I OUGHT to read, or anything along the lines of my usual reading list.  So I went to my favourite second-hand bookshop and picked out a book that just sounded really, really interesting.

‘Explaining Hitler: the search for the origins of his evil’ by Ron Rosenbaum.  Its not so much about Hitler, in the biographical sense, as about the way we talk about Hitler, about what we talk about when we talk about him.  It is about our ideas about the nature of evil, something I have been interested in for a long time, and spans everything from first hand witness accounts of his life, through philosophy and history, to theology and cultural studies.  It will be a demanding read, bit I can’t wait to get stuck into it!

‘What are you looking at? 150 years of Modern Art in the blink of an eye’ by Will Gompertz, was lent to me by a friend who knows I love modern art.  I read Norbert Lynton’s seminal book on the subject when I was doing my art ‘A’ level exams as a teenager, and recently I’ve been looking for a book as accessible that would explain and update my knowledge.  My pal suggested this one, and though I don’t particularly like Will Gompertz as a BBC correspondent, I think its mainly because I can’t bear to look at him.  Well, he can’t help looking weird and smug.  I guess he was born like that, so I shouldn’t hold it against him.  And my friend says his book is the business, so I’m looking forward to diving into that one while lounging in the garden with a chilled elderflower pressé too.

A couple of DVDs.  I don’t know why, but around this time of year, my system starts preparing me for autumn, and I get the urge to watch ‘Practical Magic’ and ‘The Witches of Eastwick’.  We had both of these films on video for years, but when we got rid of all our videos some months back, my copies went to the charity shop along with the rest.  The other day, I decided I would treat myself to new copies, and I’m looking forward to spending some of my break snuggled up on the sofa watching these much beloved, familiar movies.

My journal.  I just listened to Susannah Conway talking about journaling on this podcast, and its brilliant.  I’ve been contemplating my journaling practice for a while, and this seems like a good time to expand my skills.

A few nice girlie things too:  Divine Oil by Caudalie, which smells as good as it sounds, and makes my skin feel wonderful, and Sally Hansen Complete Salon Manicure nail varnish in ‘So Much Fawn’, which is just neutral enough, and just pink enough too.  I usually wear the loudest red on my toenails that I can find, so this is a bit of a departure into the realms of subtle for me, but I like it.

So I’m off on my staycation to chill out, read, write, paint my toenails and hatch a few plans for the coming months.  If you are off on holidays too, I hope you have a wonderful time, where ever you choose to go, or not go!

Happy Creating,


Inspiration Monday: The Fun of Childhood or My Quilting Adventure

lotties stockingLately I’ve been rediscovering sewing. In a fit of madness, I offered to make a Christmas stocking for my dear guide daughter, Lottie. I bought some of that lovely fabric, where the stocking is printed on the surface, and all you have to do is cut it out and sew it together. So far, so simple. But then I had the bright idea that it would look lovely quilted. I had some batting and calico at home, so that could be had free. Why not?

I haven’t quilted properly in years. To be really honest, I haven’t done proper quilting since the winter after my dad died in 1982, when my mother and I made a quilt for my bed. We sat through the winter evenings with the quilt over our laps, sewing together. It was one of the most profound and loving ways we found to survive our grief.

pink quilt

Pink Quilt made by my mother and I, Winter 1982-3.

I still have that quilt. We have voyaged through life together, through college, university, adversity and marriage, my quilt and me. Now it sits, pride of place on the futon in my study, ready to wrap around me when I’m reading on a chilly afternoon. It is a bit threadbare now, the cheap cotton we used almost see-through. But it still gets used on our bed on cold nights, and I’ll occasionally patch it up if it develops a hole.

For me, quilting is an emotionally important skill.

Pride of place on the futon in my study, ready for snuggling duty.

Pride of place on the futon in my study, ready for snuggling duty.

It is not really hard, just running stitch. You just have to make sure you get your needle through all three layers on each upstroke and downstroke. Of course, you can make it more complicated than that, but I don’t.

I’m really enjoying my simple running stitch work on this stocking. I’ve finally finished the first side, the one with Father Christmas’s sleigh. There were lots of fiddly bits on that one, and I began to realise the wisdom of a lady I once saw demonstrating Durham quilting at a quilt exhibition. (For more about exquisite Durham quilting, try here.)  She was using a frame to hold the fabric layers taut while she worked. You have to with Durham quilting because it is incredibly detailed. I always fancied doing it, but it was one of those crafts that I got all the books from the library about, but never had the guts to have a go.

When I was a kid, not having the guts would never have occurred to me. If I didn’t have a book or a pencil in my hand, I had a needle. I made all kinds of things, but mainly dolls clothes. As I got older, a branched out into making historical costumes. Tudor and Elizabethan ones particularly. I spent hours researching the historically accurate way of dressing, the different layers required. I dressed my Sindy dolls in bead-encrusted gowns, each bead sewn on with my own hand. I even made ruffs!

I loved doing the tiny stitches. I still do, it turns out. That’s why I’m now addicted to quilting again. I’m so pleased with my little stocking. Its so satisfying to see the work develop. I had forgotten that simple running stitch could be so enjoyable. And I know that Lottie will enjoy her stocking when she gets it, and in years to come, I hope that she will regard it as an heirloom, just as I do the pink quilt I made with my mother when I was a teenager.

What crafts did you used to enjoy when you were a child? Did you love pottery, felt crafts, beading? Did you make things with matchsticks or balsa wood? Did you put together plastic models, or build go-karts?

The run up to Christmas is a great time to remember those simple activities you used to enjoy as a kid, and maybe have another go. Maybe, like me, you can rediscover a new outlet for your creativity. Because, let me tell you, when I’m finished with this stocking, I’m going to try some Durham quilting. Nothing is going to stop me this time!

Happy Creating,


Be Open. Don’t Try So Hard.

On Ardnave Beach, Islay, which I am yearning for dreadfully at the moment.

On Ardnave Beach, Islay, which I am yearning for dreadfully at the moment.

Lately, I keep coming back to the same thought:

Be present.  Turn Up.  Be still and open.  Don’t try so hard.

I was watching Jamie Ridler’s morning vlog, in which she talked about how people strive so hard to find their Life Purpose.  We make such a BIG DEAL out of it.

What if we just let it happen?

I’m not saying you can just expect your art to pop up out of nowhere.  You have to be present, make yourself ready.

You do your core practises.  Your morning pages.  Your writing exercises. Your artist dates.  Your scales or your practise sketches.  Your barre exercises.  You make sure that you are ready when the inspiration comes.

When I used to read about writers who sat down at their desks in the morning and stayed there for an alotted number of hours, regardless of whether the work came or not, I used to think they were mad.  It seems like working too hard. It seems like self-punishment.

Maybe you don’t just have to sit at your desk.

Maybe you can cultivate a mindset of being open.  Where ever you are, and whatever you are doing.

Maybe we are all trying too hard.

Forcing it just doesn’t work.  Every writer who has ever been blocked knows that.  But if you keep up the practises, the ideas come.  They come because your mind is constantly in a place where it is curious and open, and like a lamp in the darkness, it attracts the fluttering moths of inspiration.

So keep her steady as she goes.  Turn up for your daily creative habits.  Relax into them, and don’t panic.

The work will come.

Happy Creating,


Help will come

Life Org kit I was working on my Life Organiser last night for the first time in a couple weeks (it’s been a hell of a couple of weeks), and the quote at the top of the page for Week 43 in Jennifer Louden’s book just jumped right out at me:

A thunderbolt illuminates your heart: it isn’t your job alone to fulfil your dreams and give birth to your yearnings. You can relax and ask for help, and help will come.

It was that last sentence that jumped off the page at me.

Help will come.

Help will come.

All you have to do is ask.

Lately, I haven’t been asking. Actually, let’s be honest here, I have the greatest difficulty in asking for anything, ever. It’s one of the hardest lessons I have had to face with chronic illness. Sometimes, you just can’t be perfect and do it all. Or maybe, do any of it. You have to ask for help.

Whether I need to ask for help cleaning the house because I’m too exhausted to push the vacuum cleaner, or I need help from my Muse because frankly, ain’t nothin’ goin’ on in my storyworld, it is really, really hard to admit I need help.

Usually, I do the passive-aggressive woman thing of wearing myself out, reducing myself to a stressy heap of tears and vitriol, and then Husband put his hands on his hips and says in a despairing tone: ‘well, you only had to ask.’

I’ve been feeling really stressed for the last few days, and not very well at all, and if I was one of those organised bloggers who writes their posts weeks in advance, I would have had a bunch of spare posts backed up to cover me for the times where my brain goes blank. But I‘m not. I’m a ‘fly by the seat of my pants’ kinda gal, and I really like being able to write what I need to write when I need to write it. I need my posts to feel current for me, otherwise they come out creaky and preachy. Or at least, I think so.

So I didn’t write on Monday. I just couldn’t.

Instead, I had a bit of a meltdown.

On Tuesday, I decided to trust to the Muse. You could say that I asked for help. I trusted that some inspiration would come along. I listened. And while I was listening, I got down to a few other things, including my Life Organiser.


The action became the lesson. Trust. Ask. (Keep busy while you are waiting.) Help will come.

And it did.

If you are struggling with your creativity right now, ask for help.

Maybe you just need Grandma to come and look after your baby for an hour so you can write or read a book by yourself. Maybe you need someone to hoover the carpet, which will give you enough time to do something for yourself, something creative.

Or maybe you need to ask the Universe for help, to look up to the sky and say ‘Please could you send me some inspiration, because right now, I’m a bit blank.’

Then listen.

(The listening part is the important bit.)

As I mentioned in a recent post, silence helps.

If you can’t find silence, do something that will allow your Muse to speak. Morning pages; perhaps, a walk around your neighbourhood with your camera; a few writing exercises. Do your Life organiser, or read a book. Allow yourself to be open. Make peace with your temporary stuckness, but act in a way that will allow whatever message your Muse has for you to come through.

Help will come.

Your job is to be gently open to it.

Happy Creating,


Inspiration Monday: Silence

pat oxburgh b&w

Husband sitting in the partially ruined church at Oxburgh, Norfolk

I was reading the chapter on silence in Christina Baldwin’s book ‘Life’s Companion: Journal Writing as Spiritual Practise’, and it immediately rang bells for me. I have a particular reason for this. Let me explain:

One of the symptoms of the chronic illness with which I live, ME/CFS, is sensitivity to noise. Some days are better than others, but there are everyday sounds in modern life that can create physical agony for me. And no, I’m not kidding.  I mean, I get actual pain. A cold electric current feeling up and down my spine and a nauseating icy pain in the back of my skull. Unpleasant to say the least.

For the first three years of my illness, I couldn’t listen to any music with a beat at all. Every thud of bass was like a knitting needle jabbed into my neck. No pop radio, no rock, no hand jiving in the car to the Stone Roses or the Pet Shop Boys. No Elvis.  No Beatles.  Nothing.

I couldn’t listen to anything much. Mozart and Bach worked, a little Handel mixed in. Beethoven proved too noisy, as did anything after him, although I did find I could handle some Vaughan Williams. Opera was right out, so goodbye to my favourite tenor, Placido Domingo. I just couldn’t bear to listen to him anymore.

Most of the time, though, any kind of noise was painful.

So for three years I avoided places where the music was piped, and had to ask friends who listened to music perpetually to turn down their stereos, which was mortifying because they just didn’t understand.

I adjusted to a world without music.

I learnt a different way of listening.

I listened to the birds, the ones that make pretty sounds, and the ones that don’t. I learnt I could set my watch by the rooks in the tree opposite the house. (They all get together and start shouting at one another at 3.30pm, no matter what time of year it is.) They’re funny, like one of those noisy markets where everyone is shouting about their wares.  I’m rather fond of rooks now.

I learnt to hear the vegetation around me too, the creaking trees and rustling shrubs, the fresh new spring leaves and the rattle of the dried autumn ones.

And the animals. The scuttle of mice in the undergrowth, the mewling squeaks the rabbits make, the scrabble of the squirrels on the roof tiles. The buzz of the mason bees under the window in the summer, the drone and thump of the hornets throwing themselves against the window, attracted by the light, in autumn.

I came to realise how much noise pollution we endure, day after day, the constant onslaught of a life lived with continual racket, the radio, the TV, the iPod, the piped music, the slot machines, even the roar of conversation echoing in the cavernous, sound-reflecting spaces of shopping malls. And how much we use recorded sound to blot out our minds, to stop us thinking too much.

The Christian mystics said that prayer is talking to God, but it isn’t much use if you don’t listen for when He speaks back. To hear the Divine, we have to be in silence. This is just as important when the voice that speaks inside us is the big, blousy, shriek as when it is the almost inaudible whisper. The practise of creativity demands that we listen. Sometimes, we have to listen hard, and without distractions.

When did you last spend time in silence? Do you make space for a little quiet time daily? Do you relish that moment when the kids are in bed, and you can sit down at the kitchen table with a glass of wine, take a deep breath, and just listen to the noises the house makes around you as it settles for the night? Or do you fill every waking hour with a constant cacophony to drown out the voices inside your head that are telling you the life you are living is not fulfilling you?

Out of the quiet comes not only spiritual fulfilment, spoken of in all religions, but human creativity. Out of silence come the stories we tell, the fantasies and day dreams that grow into novels, plays, paintings, films, concertos and ballets.

When we cultivate stillness, when we listen, we give our brains space to breathe. And yes, sometimes we then have to face up to the uncomfortable truths of our lives. But often, we have the opportunity to tap into wells of creative inspiration previously unknown to us. Our Muse’s voice can be heard.

You don’t have to take a vow of silence to benefit from stillness, and I’m not saying you should give up the joy of music. (I’m back on it now, and believe me, its one of my greatest inspirations.)

Listen to yourself.

What I am suggesting is that you take time daily to be in stillness. To listen to the sounds of the world around you instead of filling the void with canned synthetic noise. To listen to yourself. It may only be ten minutes, or the time you spend in the bathroom every morning, or half an hour before bed without the telly on. You don’t have to meditate, although that is good too. No, this is a different idea, a way of being quiet with ourselves, a way of listening for the inspiration to come. I know you lead a busy life, no doubt, and that quiet in a city is hard to find. But I assure you, it is there. You can find it. And when you do, immerse yourself in its balm, as often as you can, and allow it to feed your creative life.

Happy Creating,


Losing myself amongst the ‘Woolves’

Virginia Woolf as a young woman.  I keep a copy of this portrait on my desk.

Virginia Woolf as a young woman. I keep a copy of this portrait on my desk.

So I spent Monday in London, escorted by my wonderful fangrrrl niece Amelia, at the ‘Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.  And it was wonderful.

We saw innumerable portraits and photographs, but I think the personal papers were the most moving.  There were pages from her diary describing the bombing of Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Tavistock Square home in October 1940, the original manuscript of ‘A Room of One’s Own’, love letters from Leonard written before their marriage,  and most moving of all, the little note she left for him when she set out to drown herself in the River Ouse in 1941.

One of the things that particularly struck me was that Woolf bound all her own notebooks and manuscripts, having taken bookbinding lessons in her teenage years as some kind of therapy for her mental illness.  The result was that she could make the perfect notebook for her own needs – which is, for a stationery addict like me, absolute nirvana.  Her books are big, too, slightly larger than A4, leaving plenty of space for her to explore her ideas.

Another interesting detail for me was that the page from her diary about the bombing had no crossings out on it at all.  My diary is a veritable Somme of scribblings-out, but she wrote a stream of consciousness with a self-assurance that seems absolute.  She had no doubts about what she was trying to convey.

The original copies of her books, published by the Hogarth Press, which she ran with her husband, still with their book jackets designed by her sister Vanessa Bell, look crisp and radical even now.  Amelia (a bookseller) and I both commented on the fact that the many editions of the novels for sale in the gallery shop had an assortment of different covers, none of which were so attractive, expressive, and frankly Modern-looking, as the originals.

Woolf is my writing hero for so many reasons.  She battled mental and physical illness, misogyny, and childhood sexual abuse to become one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, reinventing the novel form in a way that would be emulated and built upon in succeeding decades.  She was self-educated, too, and could read Greek and Latin, despite the fact that her parents refused to send her to school as they did her brothers, a fact she railed against.

She is often criticised for being classist and racist, but I would argue that she was a product of her time, and it is to her credit that she did so much to counteract the snobbery and distrust of the working classes, which she inherited from her social millieu, through her political work.

Virginia Woolf was a great writer and feminist, a patron of the visual and applied arts, and a creative giant,  as well as a truly great human being who overcame enormous adversity to achieve what she did.  If you cannot get on with her novels, I wouldn’t judge you, but I urge you to dip into her enlightening and often witty diaries for inspiration on how to live a creative life despite so many difficulties.

Happy Creating,