Category Archives: Outwitting Nigel

Journal Friday: More about Privacy

sussex church

Herstmonceaux Church, East Sussex

I’ve been thinking a lot about boundaries lately, and about the freedom they afford us to be ourselves.  We talk a lot about the boundaries we set for ourselves in the external world – saying no to doing too much, closing the door for some quiet time, backing off from an over-needy friend who is monopolising us.  What we rarely seem to do is think about the internal boundaries we set up, or fail to set up.

I think one of the things women, especially, do is to set up one set of boundaries for themselves, and one for everyone else, and not in a good way.

Let me give you an example:  my mother is a nice lady.  People like her.  She is charming and good company.  But she speaks to herself in ways she would never dream of using to others.  ‘You stupid bloody woman,’ I hear her saying to herself when she gets frustrated that she can’t remember things anymore now she’s in her 80s, ‘You idiot, can’t you do anything right?’  My mother does not have a boundary about treating herself in acceptable, compassionate and loving ways. I suppose I must have learnt the same trick from her, because sometimes, I catch myself doing it too.

It is hard enough to put your foot down when you need to set external boundaries.  It is even harder to do it when those oh-so-flexible standards are inside your own head. We need to destroy those self-sabotaging habits as much as we can.  This is what my husband calls:

‘Locating and Killing Your Inner Nigel.’

(You’ve heard about my ‘Nigel’ voice before!)  Sometimes Nigel is just your inner critic, telling you the story you just wrote, the sculpture you just made, is crap.  Sometimes he is a complete Hitler, out to annihilate you with core beliefs you didn’t even know you had!

Keeping a journal is a great way to kick the crap out of Nigel.

To do this, you have to feel free within your journal’s pages to say and do whatever you want.  Rubbish spelling?  Fine.  No punctuation?  Great.  Scribbly handwriting, not being neat? Perfect.  And those scrappy drawings?  Absolutely compulsory, if you feel the need.  The rule is this:

No Judgement.

Tell Nigel to go copulate with himself.  You say and do what you want.  Only then wil your journal come into its own, only then can it be your complete friend, your safe place, without self-censorship.

I wrote in a previous post about who you write your journal for, and although I still stand by that piece, it has been bothering me.  Because you see, if you always have an eye on posterity, on what people who come after you will with think of you, then you will never be honest.  And you must be honest, otherwise why bother?  Without honesty, you are wasting your time.  Who cares if you are being petulant, smug, dull or sulky inside your journal’s pages?  No one is perfect all the time.

Your diary must be, first and foremost, always for you alone, whatever else it is.

Journal Exercise:

When you write this week, do not judge yourself. Do not think about what anybody who reads your journal in years to come will think of you.  Pay no attention to Nigel the Neat Nazi, who wants everything in pukka little rows, with perfect handwriting and impeccable grammar, spelling and punctuation.  Scribble.  Make a mess.  Be what ever you are inside.  Set yourself this new internal boundary.

When it comes to my diary, I will be completely myself, whoever that is at this moment.

Happy Journalling,

EF

On Process: A Room of One’s Own

In this new series of posts, On Process, we will talk a little about discovering your own creativity cycles, and how best to optimise them.  We’ll start with the most basic requirement: space.

Virginia Woolf coined the term ‘A Room of One’s Own’ in her book of the same name, in which she explored creativity and feminism.  Her thesis is that in order to be a serious artist, you have to have dedicated private space in which to work.  While I don’t think this is entirely true – many great books have been written at kitchen tables, for instance – I think it is an important consideration, and it really does help.

These days I am lucky enough to have a room of my own.

My study 1As you can see, its a mess.  Currently, it has a very nasty case of piles. (Piles of paper and junk, that is.)  The fact that it has become such a dumping ground, to the extent that I am now doing most of my writing sitting downstairs on the sofa, and I’m not doing any painting at all, is an important barometer for how much value I am attaching to my own art and writing practise.  In other words, not much.

One of my goals is to revamp my study.  This is because I need a Room of My Own.  Psychologically, I need to recognise my right to my own creative independence, and that is what my study signifies to me.  I need to make a gift to my creative self of a loving and beautiful space in which to make my dreams happen.  Its hard to claim that right, but I’m working on it.

You may not have the luxury of your own space, in which case, I sympathise because I spent many years in the same position, sharing a desk in the corner of our dining room with my husband.  (Even though he had his own office at work – not that I’m bitter, you understand!)  Still, there are ways to mark out some territory that you can call your own, a space where you feel totally free to create as you want.  That may be a corner of a shared room, the luxury of an actual studio, garden shed or study, or if you are not so territorial as I am, maybe a favourite table at a local cafe where you go to write, think or journal.

Where ever you choose, consider this space as not only a private area, safe from others, but also as sacred to your art – whatever form that takes.  When you go there, it should signal to your Artist Brain  that it is time to create.

Light candles, perhaps, and if you are so inclined, make a little altar to attract creative energy.  Surround yourself with pretty, evocative things.  Get some nice stationary and writing instruments.  A few pebbles can be delicious to handle and look at.  Make some inspiring signs to stick up, to remind yourself that you are entitled to this, that your voice is unique and deserves to be heard.  A painting that you like, objects that have emotional value for you, some nice furniture if you can afford it (I would love a comfy armchair to read in for my study), a noticeboard with inspiring images on it, wll all help to make even a small corner your own.

My Study 2In this picture of my study, you can see some of the things I cherish as part of my creative process.  (Sorry for the small lettering, I haven’t quite got the hang of Paint yet!)

I got the lovely chair for my birthday last year.  I’d never had a special, proper chair for my home office before. It still feels like an outrageous luxury!  There are fairy lights in the shape of roses around the window, which are nice when I am writing at night, as I usually prefer to.  There is my collection of books about writing, and books for reference, my Image Box for inspiration, and of course, my much cherished Benedict Cumberbatch calendar, which my adored niece made by hand for me last year.  On my desk, I keep a framed photograph of Virginia Woolf herself, because she is such an inspiration to me, both as a writer and as a person.

Try to carve out some personal space within your home environment to dedicate to your creativity.  Even if you are only able to keep your journals in a favourite tote bag down the side of the sofa to use when you can, it still counts.  It will help to enhance your creative process, and enable you to battle those critical voices that tell you your work isn’t good enough.

I’ll keep you updated on my efforts to reclaim my study from the mess and make it a place to snuggle down in to create.

There’s No Time to Write! (Part 2 – in which the author comes clean about what being a writer is really like)

So today, according to my editorial calendar, you were supposed to be reading a detailed and amusing essay on why writing exercises are a great way to get yourself writing, even when there is little time.

And then life got in the way.

It does that, doesn’t it?

I am a big devotee of those home interiors and lifestyle blogs that tell you all about how to organise your cleaning equipment, how to update that hideous credenza with a quick lick of paint (here’s one I did earlier), and offer funky downloadable printouts of chore lists and records for when you last took the dog for his shots.  You know the ones?  The ones that are supposed to make you feel like your life is amazing and completely within your control, but actually make you feel like one of those weird hoarding people who live on indoor garbage heaps in documentaries.

Reading this blog, you might feel just that way too.  You may think I’ve got it all together.  That I write oodles of books and I’m so productive.  Well, I’ll let you into a dirty little secret – I’m not.

Just like the lovely ladies who write those amazing lifestyle and organising blogs, I have mess, and piles of dirty laundry, and weeds in the garden.  I get up in the morning and really don’t feel like writing.  Or there is just no time.  Like today.  I seriously did not feel like doing my Morning Pages today.  I felt ill and all I wanted to do was sleep.  I wanted to scream at anybody who came near me, and then get under the duvet and have the world just GO AWAY AND LEAVE ME ALONE THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!!!

(I’m sure you are familiar with those kinds of days.)

Sometimes it happens.  It probably even happened to Dickens.  What the hell.

I didn’t beat myself up about it.  Instead, I wrote my Morning Pages.  I scribbled three pages of growls and groans about how I have no time to do the things I want to do because I’m faffing about doing a bunch of other stuff that is urgent but not important.  In the course of those three pages, I realised that the reason why I am so crabby today is that I haven’t written a story in weeks.

I’m crabby because I am not writing.

Duh.

At this point, it becomes profoundly obvious that even a fifteen minute writing exercise has to be fitted in to today.  Otherwise I will be up before the beak for homicide!

This is why you have to make time to write:  because if you are a writer, you need to write in the same way as you need to eat your greens and take exercise.  Writing makes you sane.

The distance between sanity and insanity is the width of a pen nib.

(I wrote that years ago, it’s good isn’t it?!)

And you’d better believe it.

So join me in stopping the grumps.  Get out your writers notebook and try the following exercise.  I guarantee it will make you feel better.

Writing Exercise:

Get a timer and set it for fifteen minutes – ten, if you are really pushed.  Write down the following phrase and then finish it as a sentence.

I haven’t written anything lately because….

Let your mind tumble onto the page.  It doesn’t matter if it is a list of reasons, like that your husband ought to put the kids to bed a bit more often so that you can have some time to yourself, or that you’ve got the finish that damned presentation to give at work first thing tomorrow.  Maybe it’s that you have a character rumbling about in your head but you are having trouble with some aspect of him or her, in which case, write that down too, and expand on the problem.  If you keep on writing until the pinger goes, you may just have found the edge of a solution.

Write whatever comes to mind.  Complain, moan, plan, get excited, drone, create, wonder what subjects you are interested in.  Whatever you need to get down.   At the end of fifteen minutes, I guarantee you will have either worked out what is stopping you (and if you are anything like me, it may turn out to be that YOU are what is stopping you), or you may have come up with a plan of how to carve out some time to write, or you may even have come up with a new story idea or scene.

Whatever.  The important thing is that you just spent fifteen minutes writing.  Hooray!  Now do it again.  Maybe today.  Maybe tomorrow.  But do it.

Journal Friday: Morning Pages

The Artists Way 2

If you read creative blogs of any kind, you are bound to come across Julia Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way’ eventually.  It’s cover bills it as ‘A Course in Discovering and Recovering your Creative Self’, and yes, it does exactly what it says on the tin.  I first completed the whole 12 week course in 2004, and now I am about to embark on a refresher.  I’ve pulled my much loved, somewhat dog-eared copy off the shelf and on Monday 6th May 2013 I shall launch into the unknown once more.

Cameron proposes two tools for this course, Morning Pages and Artist Dates.  No doubt we will talk about Artist Dates at some point soon, but today, let us think about morning pages, because they are enormously beneficial, whether you are a creative or not.

“What are morning pages?  Put simply, the morning pages are three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness…”

Julia Cameron, ‘The Artist’s Way‘ Pan Boo 1995  pp9-10

Basically, what we are talking about here is three pages of brain dump.  You write them by hand because it enables your subconscious to express itself.  You don’t judge them, you don’t ty to be neat, you don’t reread them.  Cameron suggests doing them on loose sheets of A4/letter size paper, but I prefer to keep them in a notebook, the same kind I use for my writing notebook.

You can whine, complain, rave, drool, scream, laugh, giggle, rant, enthuse, or just repeat ‘I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write’ over and over again until something presents itself to be set down. Three pages.  Inane babble or heartfelt planning.  As scribbly as you like. (I realised after I had taken the photo above that this particular example of my pages is considerably neater than my usual.  Believe me, most of it is a real mess!)

Whatever comes out.  Three pages every day, no matter what.  Three pages to ground yourself in the very core of your psyche, to drain out the poison and find the shimmering gold doubloons resting on the sea bed beneath.

I have kept morning pages on and off for 9 years.  I have never reread any of them.  But when I do them, I find myself making sense of the world and my feelings, finding a way to my dreams and interests, naming new ideas and enthusiasms, letting out the bile that is getting in the way of health and healing.

I profoundly believe in the healing power of these pages in draining the poison and pain from life.  I have recommended it to several friends and acquaintences who were struggling with clinical depression.  They have found them enormously beneficial, as do I.  I now recommend them to you, not because I think you need help, but because they will help you find yourself, because they will help you become more of who you really are under all the OUGHTS and SHOULDS.

Journal Exercise:

Set your alarm half an hour earlier this week.  Get yourself a decent large notebook and a pen you like to write with (I do mine with a lovely old Parker fountain pen).  Write your three pages every day.  Do not judge yourself.  Do not censor yourself.  Get the dross and the sparkles alike down on paper.

If you would like to join me on the Artists Way, you are more than welcome.  I shall be writing more about my progress on this blog, and I would love to hear from you in the comments if you are game.

Journal Friday: The Rules

2013 diary

There is something about keeping a diary that makes us think there has to be rules. It may be something to do with those little lockable five year diaries girls were bought by well-meaning aunts in the 1970s.

If we aren’t careful, diaries become about OUGHTS – you know, how you OUGHT to do things – and I gave up doing OUGHTS about 10 years ago.  I don’t live in SHOULDland anymore.

The truth is that there are as many ways of keeping a diary as there are diarists.  But over the last 38 years I have found that the following guidelines are useful, for me and for friends I have helped with diary writing.

Guideline # 1:  Absolute Privacy is Non-Negotiable.

A journal/diary is a place you need to be able to be yourself.  Otherwise it is no good to you.  Where else can you say all the things you really need to express, but daren’t because someone might get upset or hurt.  Where else can you confide your deepest desires, wildest fantasies, greatest irritations, and the things you plan to do to Brad Pitt if you every get your hands on him?

I suppose this is what the lockable diary was about, all those years ago – I never had one, but I had a friend who did, and I envied her’s so much.  Funny – she never wrote in it.  I wonder why?  Maybe for her, it was an OUGHT.  Or maybe, she was worried that the lock was an invitation for her brother to break in and read her most intimate thoughts.

However you ensure privacy is up to you.  Maybe you need to get the agreement of those with whom you live.  My husband and I have shared a home for the last 16 years, and he has never once looked at my diary.  He knows it is my private place.  (I respect his privacy in turn.)

You may have to physcally hide your journal from prying eyes, which seems a shame to me, but then I don’t live with annoying siblings anymore.  You may need to keep it in a locked drawer at work, or hide it under a loose floorboard (I hope you don’t), but whatever you do, you need to be satisifed that whatever you say is safe and for you alone.  Otherwise you will not say what is in your heart, and that is not only defeating the object, but denying the healing power of the diary.

If your partner is upset and worried about your keeping a diary, comfort them that it is not a threat to your relationship with them.  Reassure them that it is a place for you to express yourself, to have a freedom that will in turn invigorate your relationship with them.

Guideline # 2:  Date Every Entry

Duh!  Yeah, this seems obvious, but sometimes people forget.  You need some kind of way to navigate this mountain of paper you are going to create.  Chronology is the way human beings connect things within their own lives, so it makes sense to use that.

Guideline # 3:  Write when you have something to say

Don’t allow yourself to fall for the tyranny of writing every day.  Sometimes you will write every day.  This is especially useful to do when experiencing difficult and demanding times, when you are trying to work out how you feel, or where you want your life to go next.  But do not force it.  Write only when you have something you wish to record, understand or work out.  And don’t beat yourself up if you look back and find a gap of months at a time.  Those were the times when you were too busy living to write, and thats okay too.

Guideline # 4:  It doesn’t have to be perfect

This is especially true if you have the nasty habit like I do, of perfectionism.  After all, whats the point in doing something unless you can do it perfect first time?

Reject perfectionism.  Make a mess.  Scribble.  Write scruffily.  Make blots.  Have fun.  Use different colours.  Play.

If you are doing art journals, beware of perfectionism in the images you create.  Its just for you.  You aren’t going to show this to anybody, so it doesn’t have to be Leonardo first time.

Aways tell Nigel (your perfectionist’s voice, remember him?) to bugger off, and just enjoy yourself.  Have fun.  It really doesn’t have to be perfect.

Journal Exercise – Where am I right now?

I hope that following last week’s post, you have been out and bought yourself a lovely notebook to write in.  Maybe you are already scribbling down your thoughts.  But perhaps you feel a bit stuck.  Sometimes it is a bit hard to get started.  Here is what I do:

Write down the sentence:  This is where I am right now.

Now, write whatever comes to mind after that.  You might want to describe the room you are sitting in, the town you may be visiting, the lover, friends or colleagues you are with.  Or you might want to talk about where you are in your life, the joys and frustrations you are experiencing, the hopes and fears lurking in the back of your mind.  Write whatever comes out, and don’t censor it.  No judging, no Nigels, remember?  Just do a brain dump.

Then, when you have finished saying where you are right now, maybe you can go on from there, and write about whatever else pops into your head.  Or maybe you can stop.  And use the same prompt tomorrow.

Whenever you feel you need to write, but don’t know where to start, this prompt is a great one.  It grounds you in your life and your feelings.  It often tells you things you didn’t know about yourself right now.  It illuminates, as well as getting the wheels rolling.

Happy journalling!

How to begin?

If you want to write, just write.  If you want to paint, just paint.  If you want to do anything creative, as the Nike people say, ‘just do it’.

Only, its not that simple is it?  How do you get out of your own way?  How do you crush all those voices in your head, the teacher who told you that you were rubbish at art, the music teacher who threw you out of choir because she said you couldn’ sing (actually she didn’t like me, but thats another story!), and the old Devil Himself, the Perfectionist voice (I call mine Nigel for some reason) that says nothing you do will ever be good enough.

Well, let me begin by telling you a little story about how I gave my Nigel voice a good kicking, and ended up here, writing my first post on this website about Writing and Creativity.

About two years ago, I was stuck in a creative hole.  I have been writing for as long as I can remember, literally since I could hold a pen, but I didn’t take my writing seriously until 2001,  Since then I had written seven novels and dozens of short stories, but none of them satisfied me, felt good enough, or finished enough.  I was not achieving the standard of writing that I wanted.  I was not getting published.  I had ground to a halt.

Then I heard about fanfiction.

Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard all about that stuff thanks to ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’.  Well, let me tell you something you don’t know about fanfiction.  There are literally thousands of people writing it out there, and the standard is at times gobsmackingly good, as good as anything you would find listed on the Man Booker shortlist.  Yes, some of it is terrible, but a lot of it is written by people for whom English is not a first language, or by college students, so you have to take that into account.  (Anyway, this is not intended to be a defence of fanfiction.)

What happened next:  it occurred to me that I had been writing fanfiction for years.  I just didn’t know it had a name.  I tell myself stories every night while I wait to go to sleep (insomnia has been my constant companion since childhood).  Often they are peopled by the characters I see in TV and films – in other words, they are fanfiction.  I decided to write the stories down.

By the end of the first year, I had written over 100,000 words, was writing every day, sometimes two or three thousand words a day (which any writer will tell you is an enviable productivity rate) and I was getting better at my craft.  I was learning.  Fanfiction turned out to be a great playground to test out techniques and ideas.

And all I was doing was writing down my daydreams.

It was money for old rope, as they say here in Britain.

The day I hit the ‘publish’ button on my first story at fanfiction.net was a huge turning point.  My work was out there.  People could read it.  It was terrifying.  Nigel was having a nervous breakdown!  But you know what?  The readers were kind.  They loved my work.

Fanfiction doesn’t have to be perfect.  That is why it is perfect.  The perfect learning place, a supportive community of writers and readers who give you positive feedback, encourage you and help you to do better.

Since my first publication day, I have put out 27 works in various fandoms, and get on average over 100 readers per day.  In one month last year, I had over 44,000 readers for my works.  How many conventionally published writers can say that?

What I am asking you to do today is to think about this story.  I went from scribbling down a daydream to a massive readership, because I found a way to outwit my own fears.  I’m still terrified, don’t get me wrong.  But there is a way, and if I can do it, you can too.

This is what this website will be about.  Outwitting our Nigels.  Taking baby steps.  Finding ways to be creative.  Being gentle with ourselves.  I hope you will join me on the ride, and I hope we will have fun making glorious pictures in the clouds together.

Best Wishes,

Evenlode’s friend.

(You can find my fanfictions at fanfiction.net and at An Archive of Our Own, but be warned, these are NSFW and deal with VERY adult issues.)