Category Archives: SHOULDS

I Think I Just Rescued Myself

Peter Mothersole's House

A Bit of a Wobble.

I had a wobble today.

The ‘Writers Block’ wobble.

You know the one:

I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I cant I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I cant I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I cant I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I cant I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I cant I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I cant I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I cantI can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I cant I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I cantI can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I cant I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I cant I can’t

and so on and so forth.

That moment when you think:

I have nothing to write about, nothing to say, no way of saying  it.  I am empty, dry.  I will never write another word again.

Oh, the horror, the horror…

But that’s not true.

The real truth is that I am avoiding writing what I know I should be writing. (oh yes, oops, prizes for all those who picked out the Bingo! word there – SHOULD.  Because we don’t do SHOULDS here at Evenlode’s Friend, do we?)

I have a great list of ideas of things to tell you about.  But right now, the juice is not flowing.  I don’t want to do them. I feel like the idea of my writing about writing or creativity is preposterous.  I mean, what the hell do I know?

It is a very short step from here to writers block, the neurosis that prevents otherwise creative people from writing for months, years, sometimes forever.  It is a scary thought.  I don’t want to go there.

Maybe I am just not ready yet.  Maybe I am still getting over my family care stint.  It was, after all, pretty emotionally demanding in so many ways.  And physically too.  Frankly, I don’t feel well, either.

So, instead of beating myself up about all the things I SHOULD be writing, I decided to write what I COULD write.  I always have a little story going on my head, something to pass the time, a little tale to entertain me, a bit of dialogue, a few jokes, anything from a silly children’s fable to a torrid love scene.  Something was definitely developing while I was ironing pillowcases after lunch, so I decided I would write it down and see what happened.

Pen to paper.

Two hours later, and here I am with a 2000 word fanfic done and able to write the blog post I never thought I would be able to get to you today.

The Moral of the Story:

Write something.

Write anything.

It doesn’t matter what it is, or if its good, or whether anybody will ever see it.  It doesn’t matter what it is about, whether it is part of your novel, or a section of your non-fiction book, a bit of memoir or just a few lines of description.

Just write something.

And once you get a few words lined up on the page, you will find you can get a few more lined up.  And then a few more.  And then, O Wonder of Wonders!  You will be writing again.

Crisis averted.

Please do not allow yourself to tip over the edge into CAN’T.  Take a deep breath, get out your pen and write a shopping list.  Or a list of the things you can hear right now.  Or what that smell reminds you of.

Because you CAN.

Happy Creating,

EF

 

The Power of Acceptance

Lilac Phone Box found in the garden of a pub in Dersingham, Norfolk.  Doesn't that warm your heart?

Lilac Phone Box found in the garden of a pub in Dersingham, Norfolk. Doesn’t that warm your heart?

Life is, at the moment, a constant exercise in the power of acceptance.

Right now, its hot.

I’m not very good at extremes of weather, and heat just makes me want to sleep continually.  Plus my eyes are bleary and swollen as a result of hayfever, such that my sight is affected.  Frankly, I might as well have a pair of apples glued to the front of my head – I’d probably see better!  Because of the hot nights, I’m nto sleeping either, which makes the eyes and the heat all the more difficult to handle.

So I am not.

(Handling it, I mean.)

I am hiding away from the heat in my cool Victorian brick home, which retains the cold of the night all day, thank goodness, meaning it is miserable to heat in winter, but bliss in summer.

I am accepting that I can’t cope with the heat like I used to.  No more lying on beaches in the Greek Islands, sweltering in 38 degrees for me, thank you very much.

I am accepting that my capacity for doing anything much is greatly reduced.

I am accepting that my body needs to be nurtured through this extreme weather, so I am giving it lots of water, and light but nourishing foods.  A raw vegan diet is easy to eat in this weather because I just don’t want to eat much anyway.

I am sitting in front of my electric fan with my feet up, and honestly, I am loving it.  Its so nice not to have to feel I SHOULD be productive.

And as a result, I have written two stories this week.

Yes, two.

Taking the SHOULDS out of the equation is a recipe for creative freedom.  Moral of the story is:

Stop trying to force it.

Let it flow.

Be who you are.

What can you do to help yourself practise the art of acceptance this week?

Happy creating,

EF

Journal Friday: Solitude

Shadow Selfie

Shadow Selfie

I’ve been making huge leaps this week, but one of the results has been a deep gloom opening up inside me.  The exact opposite of the feeling of exhilaration I SHOULD been feeling when I make massive learning gains with my creativity.

(Did you notice the Bingo! word there – give yourself a pat on the back if you picked out the poisonous SHOULD in that sentence!)

Instead of bouncing around like Tigger on a coke spree, I feel like a sodden blanket.

Why?

Because writing is a solitary art.  And human beings are social animals.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m the first to admit that I need to be on my own a lot.  I like my own company.  But there are also limits.  If I get left on my own for long periods, I get mournful, bad-tempered, sick of myself, sick of everybody else.  I start feeling like I want to stab myself in the forearms with a compass point.  This is obviously not a good place to be.

Husband has been out pretty much every night this week, playing sports and meeting up with business colleagues.  He has commitments that sometimes pan out like this, and I’m fine with that.  But occasionally it means I get a week like this one.   I’ve been on my own from eight in the morning till eleven at night for four days on the trot.  Thats enough time on my own for me to go slightly round the twist, to over-react to everything, and end up in a grumpy hole.  From whence no writing, or anything positive, emerges.

I’ve spent a lot of time struggling to get out of my grumpy hole.  “I ought to be able to get over this, I SHOULD have worked out strategies by now to combat this,”  I told myself.  (There are two Bingo! words in that sentence, can you spot them?.

But then I thought maybe the thing to do was to allow myself to feel the feeling of misery, and then perhaps it would leave.  In other words, not to fight against it, but to be with it, and see where it took me.  Because lets face it, after 44 years of living with depression, I can safely say that a) the odd blue day is a doddle compared with the major depressions I’ve experienced, and b)  I know I get this when I’ve been on my own too much, so maybe I can work out what its trying to tell me.

It turns out that its trying to tell me that I need to get out more.

I get exhausted.  That is part of my ongoing health problems, and I need to take account of that, but I also need to accept that one of the basic needs I have is for a change of scene, and seeing people.  It doesn’t necessarily have to be conscious socialising.  It can be just getting out into town, seeing other human beings in the street in their infinite variety.  Maybe two days a week would be good maintenance treatment for me.  To get out, to see the world, interract with it.  And rest at home the remainer of the time.

(I should probably point out that I live in the middle of nowhere, literally, and I can go days without seeing anybody, which can be very isolating.  We are two miles from the nearest village, not a distance I can walk, so it is not like I can just pop out to the corner shop for a natter and some social contact.  Given that we can only afford one car, and that Husband’s access to work has to take priority, getting about has to be carefully planned.)

I need to take this awareness of my own needs forward.  I’m enjoying my writing so much, but I need to take care of myself too.  And that means going in to work maybe a day or two a week with Husband, settling down at the library or the cafe, and writing there instead of at home.  So that I see people.  So that I have the stimualtion I need.

Journal Exercise:

You may not have the same ‘shut-in’ issues that I have, but I invite you today to examine the ordinary activities and lifestyle factors that help you to be creative in a regular way.  Do you need to drink more water, take regular walks, get a new chair because the one you have gives you back ache, and makes you reticient to sit in it to draw or write?  Does eating dairy give you sinus headaches so that you feel all fuzzy, and you can’t think straight?  Do you need a holiday, a long bath, a place to work where next door’s dog isn’t barking?  Maybe your partner could look after the baby an hour a week so you can have time on your own, or perhaps you need to get up an hour earlier so you can be peaceful with yourself before the rest of the family rises.

Spend some time exploring in your journal the basic things you need to operate at your best: good food, 8 glasses of water a day, cuddles, exercise, Whatever your core requirements are.

Now write about the little things that you could do for yourself that would help you to function above just the basic level of proficiency that you explored above.  Think about the times when you have been really crackling creatively.  What made those times special?  Are there factors you could replicate, to recapture that sense of being in the flow?  What really makes your motor run?  It could be listening to rock music while you work, hanging out at the cafe, carrot cake, more cuddles, or anything else.

A note of caution:  The whole myth about artists having to be self-destructive is exactly that –  a myth.  Try copying F Scott Fitzgerald or Jack Kerouac, and drinking to promote creativity, and I can guarantee what you will end up with is not increased creativity.  You will just end up being dead.

All the actions you take should be self-caring and self-nurturing.

I hope that you can uncover some new ways to nurture your creative flow, or maybe just work out how you sabotage yourself with having too much of one thing, and not enough of another, as I do.  Writing is a solitary act, but you don’t have to be on your own to do it, as I have been reminded this week.

Take care of yourselves, and happy creating,

EF

Scottish Sunshine

If you are wondering why things have been quiet here at Evenlodesfriend lately, its because I am soaking up the sun in Scotland while attending the Islay Whisky Festival.  Now, I don’t drink, but Husband’s ‘on the side’ business is in whisky, so its a bit of a work ‘jolly’.

Nevertheless, here I am on this beautiful island with a bunch of friends and a toddler, staying in a little house on the beach.  The weather is distinctly Un-Scottish.  In other words, 22 degrees most days, and lots of sun (and resulting sunburn).  The midges love it, but so do I.

Drawing in progess - the ruins of the summer castle of the Lords of the Isles, Lagavulin Bay.

Drawing in progess – the ruins of the summer castle of the Lords of the Isles, Lagavulin Bay.

One of the things that strikes me about being on holiday is the tendency to carry on the drive to stay busy that we bring with us.  I’ve been feeling a bit ‘If its Tuesday, it must be Caol Ila’, if you know what I mean.  We have been filling up the time with rushing around, doing the sights, and whilst this is to expected with a different distillery putting on events every day, there comes a point when you have to say:

I am on holiday and I want to stay still.

Even if its just for one day.

With a two-year-old in tow, its hard to make time to be still, but nap times help.  While she’s asleep, we can journal, draw, write, read, stare into space, go for a quick walk along the strand, or just doze.  Even so its easy to get sucked into the OUGHTS and SHOULDS when you only have a week to get around and see all the wonderful sights this island has to offer.

I have been rediscovering drawing and photography.  There is lots to take pictures of here, from the rock formations on the beach to the bleak mountains.

But today, I am staying still.  I am sitting on the bed with my laptop, staring out over the bay through the window.  From here I can see across Loch Indaal to Bowmore, where the distillery makes a solid white edge to the water, its name painted in huge black letters on the whitewashed sea wall of the bonded warehouse.  The sky is bright, the cloud high, and cows are ambling along the water’s edge.  I find it hard to write when I am away from home, but of all the places I could be, this seems pretty good right now.  And after all, I am on holiday…

If you are interested in knowing more about our whisky adventures, you can read about it all here.

(I’d upload dozens of fabulous photos of Islay here, but the broadband is iffy so I shall save that for another post.)

Happy Creating,

EF

Journal Friday: Lists

Your house and your life will be full of lists.  Most likely shopping lists, most infamously, To Do lists.  We all make them.  They are the most efficient way to remind your brain about the important, and the not-so-important things.

But did you know they can add an extra dimension to your journal practise?

We keep lists because they are an easy way to record a series of items, whether they are things we already possess, things we need to get (like shopping lists),things we need to do, or remember, or worry about, or understand.

Lists also allow us to create hierarchies within them.  You can order your list in terms of importance or urgency.  You can use each item as a heading, and include a sub-list beneath it.  Or you can just scribble items down in the order they come into your head – which is in itself a kind of order, though the meaning of that order may only be understood by you.  And yes, I do use mind maps too, but I don’t find them half so useful, because they don’t have the implied order that a list does.  You have to impose the order on them afterwards, which seems a waste of time to me – why not do it as you go along?

I like using lists in my diary to gather together thoughts that are floating about in my head which don’t really fit anywhere.  For instance, the other day, I made a list of all the items I wanted to buy which would need to be saved for:  new spectacles, a juicer, a steam floor cleaner, and other things.  Each of these items came from a separate train of thought:   ‘I can’t see to read these days, I need to get an eye test’;  ‘Maybe drinking green juice would help me feel better’;  ‘Its really muddy outside and we are trailing a lot of mud into the house, and I am fed up with mopping the floor all the time, maybe there is a quick alternative.’

None of these things really go together.  Normally, I would put them under headings like ‘Health care’, ‘Diet’ and ‘Housecleaning’.  But I don’t have a place to record any of these ideas (I confess – mea maxima culpa – I don’t keep a Home Management binder or a GTD planner, shame on me!)  They are all good ideas, but if I don’t write them down, they will get forgotten, and I will no doubt then waste valuable mental energy thinking them up again, or coming up with new solutions.  Now I have a list recorded, I can forget about it until I need it.

Something else I have been doing for years is using lists to help with emotional challenges.  I frequently get myself into a state of profound anxiety by worrying about half a dozen things at once.  Or sometimes more!  Usually, when I get like this, I find myself struck down with a migraine, so its something I prefer to avoid, if I can.  Out comes the diary, then, and away I go, writing down a list of all the things I am worried about, and why.  I may end up with pages of bullet points.  Then I revue them.  Usually I can see a pattern emerging, and I can work out that there are one or two core issues coming up that the sheer volume of worries are masking.  Once I have identified what is really wrong, I can make a list of things I can do about the problem – because taking action of some kind, however small, always makes me feel better.

When I am feeling completely overwhelmed by everything I feel I have to do, I take the time to make a list of everything.  Then I can identify the SHOULDS I am imposing on myself can rule them out, because they are usually neither Urgent nor Important* in the grand scheme of things.  Also, writing all the things I have to get through somehow makes the mountain less intimidating.  Life seems more manageable when you can get it down on a sheet of paper.

(*Knowing the difference between Urgent and Important is crucial when you have limited resources.  Urgent is something that has to be done NOW.  Important is something which needs to be done as a matter of priority for your future wellbeing/happiness/security etc.  For example, Urgent could be putting the laundry in the machine because you won’t have any clean knickers tomorrow if you don’t.  Important is getting your tax return in to avoid late filing fines.  Of course, tax returns could also be Urgent, if you are within a few hours of the deadline, and the laundry might be Important if tomorrow is also the day when you have an interview for a potentially life-changing new job!  But you can see the difference.  Urgent changes your immediate future, whereas Important is more long term.  Which is why a list helps you to identify which is which!)

I also really like using lists to explore an idea.  I give myself time to visualise the concept in my mind, for example, that of Bear energy, which I was talking about the other day.  Then I do a word association around that idea, writing down all the words and feelings and thoughts that pop into my head in a list which depicts what that idea means to me.  I can then use that list as a starting point for exploring deeper meanings and related areas.

I mainly use lists to dump everything out of my brain because I invariably have a cranium so full of stuff that something has to be offloaded or I will go mad.  Quick, thumbnail sketches of stories, plans, thoughts, worries, household jobs, recipes, things to tell my husband when he gets home, and food items we have just run out of, all end up on lists in my journal.  It has only been through writing this post that I have begun to realise how addicted to lists I actually am!

The other thing about lists is that they are easily accessible when you read them back.  Even a series of one word items can remind you of a whole Mind Palace of thoughts.  And once these thoughts are outside your head, you can use your brain to come up with lots of lovely new ones!  What liberation!

Tips for Keeping Lists:

  • Make sure you label your list especially if it is connected with a word association or particular project.
  • I often scribble lists on loose sheets of paper that I find hanging around the house, and stick them into my diary later – this means I feel I can be as messy as I want with the list because I am not messing up my nice, neat diary page. (When the list is stuck in, I can decorate it and make it nice if I like.)
  • If you make several lists on several sheets, stick them in your journal together so they make sense on reading back.
  • Give yourself space when you make a list.  There will always be something else you want to add!

Journal Exercise:

You could use any of the techniques with lists that I have mentioned above, but you might like to try this one, from the field of Gestalt therapy.

This technique can help you access unconscious feelings that are causing your trouble.

Do you have an ache or pain that has been grumbling away recently?  A dogged headache that resists all medication, a sprained ankle, an aching hip?

Take out your journal and sit quietly, away from noise and distractions.  (Give yourself plenty of time for this.)

Focus your mind now on the part of your body that is troubling you, and really dive deep into experiencing the pain, ache, or discomfort, or whatever feeling is going on there.  Let the feeling fill you up.  Connect with it.

Now take out your pen and, continuing to focus on the feeling.  How would you describe the feeling?  Whatever word first pops into your head, no matter how unlikely it seems, write it down.  Now focus again and look for the next word.  And the next.  Keep going until your mind empties and no more words appear.

Now read back your list.  Are there any words that particularly jump out at you?  Any themes that seem apparent?  Some unlikely or seemingly unconnected words may turn out to be linked to things that are going on in your life, in friendships, your career or family.  They may remind you of emotional issues you have not confronted, or point to something in your life that feels unfinished, unfair or unsatisfying.

Now take some time to journal about the words that seem most meaningful to you.  Allow yourself to explore what comes up and see where it takes you.  You may find yourself planning a new adventure, resolving old conflicts, or seeing situations in a new light.  It can be very enlightening.

You may feel this exercise is a bit mumbo-jumbo, but I assure you, it’s a great way to access things going on in your head ‘behind the scenes’ so to speak, and it can explain a lot.  You may also find it difficult to start off with, but practise and you will find it easier over time.  You might even want to have a friend help you by writing down the words that come up as you concentrate on your own body.  And if you get a recurring pain in the same place, you can go back to your list and do the exercise again, and compare the two to see if something new comes up.  You may even find, as I frequently have, that the pain you focus on is significantly reduced or even disappears as a result of its ‘being heard’.  It’s is a great way to use lists, and I encourage you to have a go.

Happy list-making,

EF

Why I don’t set Goals anymore

I love deadlines.  I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

Douglas Adams

 Following on from my previous post about celebrating our creative achievements, I’d like to talk a bit about goals.

There is a lot of talk about setting goals and resolutions for the New Year around in the blogosphere at the moment.  I’m a sucker for all kinds of productivity systems, believe me.  I’ve got a cupboard full of Filofaxes, and I’ve read David Allen’s book ‘Getting Things Done’ more time than I can possibly count.  (I still don’t really understand it, though.  But that’s another story.)  Anything that requires a list, a planner, a diary, a system, I love it.

Except.

The thing about goals is that they are just another tyranny of the Scarcity culture, the trend in society that persuades us that we are not enough.

Meet your goals and you will be enough, they say.

Except.

What if they are not the right goals?  What if they are someone else’s goals that you are just pursuing because you feel you have to in order to please them?  What if life gets in the way and simply prevents you from completing them?

And.

Once you have achieved your goal, there is always, always another one.  One goal is never enough.  Because you are never enough.

What if you were enough?

What would you do if you couldn’t fail?

More importantly, what would you do if it didn’t matter if you failed?

The Catch-22 is this:  Our success-oriented culture tells us that we must have goals in order to be successful.  (For a very narrowly defined value of success, that is.)  If you don’t achieve your goals, you are a failure.  If you do achieve your goals, then you have to have more goals.  We are on a twenty-first century hamster wheel.

Let me illustrate:

Your goal is to write a novel.  How do you measure that goal?  Is it to write 50,000 words, as NaNoWriMo would have it?  Is it to complete a first draft?  Is it to get to a drafting stage where an agent accepts your work?  Is it to get it to the drafting stage where an editor is satisfied?  Or to publication?

And when you get there, what next?  Write another novel?  Does this one only count if it wins the Man Booker Prize?  Or if it tops the Amazon bestseller lists?  Or if you make your first million from it?

You see what I am getting at?  When do you say ‘when’?  When is it ‘enough’?  When does the goal, the To Do list, end?

Yes, goals motivate us.  They help us to get things done.  They help us build businesses and careers.  They help us expand our expertise, our creativity, our skills and range.  As creative people, goals help us to plot a course of where we want to go with our talents, what we want to explore.  And that is all good.

Except when it isn’t.

Intentions

The Douglas Adams quote at the top of this post says everything I feel about goals.  For me they are stressful, and because of my health, I need to eliminate all the stress from my life that I can.  That’s why I set intentions.

Intentions are gentler.  Intentions allow room to grow and explore.  They don’t stop me from achieving things.  They allow me to achieve far more, in fact, because they allow me space to find out more about my creativity than a narrow, specific goal might.  They also take account of the times when my health does not allow me to pursue timed objectives.  Intentions are better for my kind of creativity and my own personal challenges than goals.  And they take account of who I am as a whole being.  They allow me and my creativity to grow at a slower and more mindful pace.

If you are wondering what an intention might be, how about this illustration:  This year I decided on the Intention to make our home a calmer place filled with light and peaceful colours.  Now, I could make a whole To Do list based on this intention:

  • Paint bathroom white
  • Buy new living room rug
  • Sew new curtains and cushions
  • Declutter every room

And so on.  These might be classified as goals.  They might even be timed, with one goal set for every month of the year.

Instead, this Intention can evolve over the coming months.  Each of these items may indeed be included in the things I do to fulfil my Intention, but they are part of a wider, more fluid way of living that allows for evolution and expansion.  Intentions don’t stay still.  They move and change shape.  They allow me to go at my own pace, a pace that I can afford, both in terms of personal stress, time and finance.  If I decide an action doesn’t fit with my Intention, then I am at liberty not to do it.  And I know I am not going to wake up the morning after I have put up the new curtains and realise they are completely horrendous in the light at this time of year!

Perhaps the two things I like most about Intentions are that they are:

Not static

Slow.

Perhaps you might feel that Intentions are a luxury that you cannot afford in your time-pressured, stressful existence.  If you feel that way, I invite you to consider seriously how you are living.  If you are all rush-rush-rush, how are you ever going to have time to notice and experience your life as it passes?

Journal Exercise:

In the next few posts I am going to talk about the process of setting (particularly creative) intentions.  And it is a process, something that evolves and takes time.

In the meantime, take some time out with your journal to think about what goals mean for you.  Are you one of those people who always fails with their New Year resolutions?  Do you have goals, and if you do, do you achieve what you set out to do?  Do you consistently set them so high you can’t but fail to achieve them, or so low that you don’t value them because they take no effort to achieve?  How do you use goals to beat yourself up, to tell yourself that you are not good enough?  Where do you fail, fizzle out, fall off the waggon, and do you know why?

Alternatively, how do goals motivate you?  What have they helped you to achieve?  How do you feel when you complete a goal –are you proud of what you have done, excited about the next step, satisfied that you did what you set out to do, or disappointed because you don’t feel as if the result is quite what you expected or wanted?  Was it the right goal for you in the first place? (Indeed, whose goal was it?)

While doing this exercise, be kind to yourself.  Don’t judge.  Be gentle.  Treat yourself as if you were a dear friend whom you want to support to the utmost.  Be patient.  Don’t rush.  You are not seeking to punish yourself.  The goals have done that effectively enough already.  You are on the journey to find a new way of being.  A new way of sparking your creativity and enriching your life.

Happy Journaling,

EF

 

Preparing for a Writing Retreat

I’m so excited.  I’m going on a writing retreat!

This weekend, my writers group is convening at a nearby conference centre for a weekend of writing and eating and talking about writing and eating some more, and maybe a little bit of dozing or walking, and then some more writing.

We normally do this once a year, but this year, we enjoyed ourselves so much we thought we’d do it again at the end of the year.  So here I am, thinking about a weekend spent solely with my friends and the Work.

Over years of doing this, I’ve found I need to do a few things to prepare myself so that I get the most out of the time:

Plan:

I usually like to sit down with my writers notebook or my journal, and think about two things:

  • where I am, and
  • where I want to be.

This year I am thinking about the goals or intentions I have set myself for this website, for my publications, and for moving my writing on to the next level.  Its one of the few truly extended, uninterrupted periods I get to just write, so I like to choose a project that I can get my teeth into, but also one that really needs to be tackled.   Something pressing.

This year, I am toying with the idea of doing NaNoWriMo, because I want to crank out a novel as fast as possible.  So I have decided to lay the groundwork on this new idea, and throw myself into it, immerse myself in it as much as I can.  In previous years, I have redrafted novels or short stories, polished specific sections of a novel, worked specifically on character, or redrawn a dodgey plot.

My goal this year is especially fuelled with the knowledge that I need to be writing something original, something other than fanfiction.  Nothing wrong with fanfiction.  Its given me marvellous confidence in my work, and I love writing it.  I just think I need push myself, to do something new.

Manage expectations: 

I’m not going to finish an entire novel in a weekend.  I may even get no further than writing 500 words.  And I am okay with that.

When I first started going on retreats, I had HUGE expectations of myself and what I could achieve.  I thought I could crank out 20,000 words in two days, a third of a novel.  I thought I could create publisher-ready prose.  The truth is that even on retreat, there is only a limited amount of time, and making really good prose takes time.  A lot of time.  I have only learnt this with experience.

There have been several retreats where I have slept badly on the first night, or felt ill, and as a result have really been unable to do anything much at all apart from eat, sleep, talk with my fellow writers, and be.  Sometimes that is what a retreat is for.  I have gained from those experiences.  These days I am ready to allow my retreat to be whatever it needs to be, and to trust that whatever happens is part of the process.

So I make plans, but I don’t get too attached to them.

Be present:

Being aware of my physical wellbeing is very important on retreat, and not simply because I suffer from chronic illness.  I need to be present in my body, so I do yoga and meditate, go for walks, stand in the shower and feel the water on my skin, and take naps.  (One friend uses the annual retreat to undulge in long, hot, scented baths because she doesn’t have a tub at home!)  This might all seem time away from writing, but it is crucial.  Self care is part of retreating.  Doing these things allows me time to think about the writing, to form scenes and sentences in my head.  But it also allows me to come to the laptop refreshed afterwards.  So it is an investment in my writing, as well as my body.

Packing: 

As a result, packing right is really important.  I always make sure I take warm, snuggly clothes, my yoga mat and yoga clothes, a hot water bottle, walking boots and, on occasion, even a teddy bear for cuddling purposes.  And because I have weird dietary issues, I make sure I take an extra supply of good, healthy foods and my favourite herbal teas too.  The centre staff are really great in catering for my diet, but there are those in-between-meals moments, when what you really need to fuel the Muse is your own favourite brand of chocolate!

Be absent: 

I get very anxious when I am away from home.  I need to be grounded in my safe environment in order for my imagination to work properly.  It helps that we have been going on retreat to the same place for years, and also that it really isn’t very far from my own home, so I feel like I am on home turf.  Other people find their imagination is stimulated by unfamiliar territory.  Mine just shuts down so that my emotional system can cope with the panic attacks.

To counter this, I take music and listen to it doggedly in order to transport me to safe psychic territory.  I put on my headphones, close my eyes and fly away.  And then I can write.

It is a major diffence to how I normally write, which is in silence.  So part of my preparation ritual is to gather music around me.  I make playlists for different characters, delve into iTunes and my CD collection,  choose music that evokes particular memories or landscapes for me, or none at all.

Allow it: 

Going on retreat is supposed to be calming, an activity to feed your soul.  Its supposed to be downtime from your usual life.  As a result it is easy to get really wound up about how good it is going to be, and then find yourself disappointed.  To feel like you just aren’t calm enough, or getting enough done, or maybe even that you are wasting time that should be spent looking after the kids, doing the washing or writing that sales report.  This harks back to managing expectations.  But it also has a deeper meaning.

you are allowed to have time to yourself

You aren’t being selfish.  Leave all your SHOULDS and OUGHTS at home.  You deserve to have this time spent solely with yourself, doing something you love.  I continue to struggle with this.  I tend to make retreat a time which is about productivity rather than identity – about being myself and giving myself what I need.  When you accept retreat as a gift to yourself, managing expectations becomes easier.  And that precious dimension of writing that no one seems to talk about – moodling – becomes possible.  Have a weekend’s moodle.  Because you are worth it.

I heartily recommend going on a retreat if you can manage it.  Maybe for a day, or even overnight.  Maybe just for an afternoon.  If you are looking for ideas and guidance, I also recommend Judy Reeves’ wonderful ‘A Writers Retreat Kit:  A Guide for Creative Exploration and Personal Expression’, which I ordered recently from Amazon in preparation for this weekend.

Now I had better get back to my packing!

Happy writing (and moodling)

EF

Outflow: Stand Still and Listen

Shadow Selfie

Shadow Selfie

You didn’t get a post this morning.  You got an empty space where your post should have been.

Sometimes, life gets in the way.

Best Laid Plans, and all that.

I am in The Red Tent.  My Moon Palace.  The Painters have arrived.  Auntie Flo is in town.  And all the other euphemisms you can think of. A weekend spent caring for my elderly and very frail in-laws followed a busy week, alongside a developing cold, has caught up with me, and now my period has arrived.  And there is no juice left.  Nothing spare.  All I can do is lie here and contemplate.  Try to withstand the OUGHTs and the SHOULDs that are crowding my brain right now, pointing their fingers in accusation because of all that is left undone.

Learning to stop is the hardest thing about my illness.

At primary school, our teachers utilised a very simple form of crowd control.  On the first day, we were instructed about the first rule of school.  If the teacher says ‘Stand Still and Listen,’ thats what you do.  You stand where you are, don’t move.  You open your ears and your mind, and wait for the next instuction.  This was ostensibly about the need for safety, but it also meant that we learnt to pay attention.

Over the years, I have forgotten the importance of ‘Stand Still and Listen’.

Today I’ve been wondering whether ‘Stand Still and Listen’ is what my ME is here to teach me.

To listen to my body.

To listen for the pain.

To listen to my life.

To listen to the world and the people around me.

To be still, and know that I Am.

I will be gone soon enough.  We all are, eventually.  Better make the most of it while we are here.  But that doesn’t mean a frenzied whirl of activity, filling every moment with busyness because we are afraid of death.  It means savouring the moment, being mindful of NOW.

I am sure I have spoken on this theme many times on this blog, and I will do so, no doubt, over and over again in future.  I struggle to learn this lesson every day.  And yet, as a writer, I need to Stand Still and Listen even more than most other people.  Because if I do not observe the world around me with quiet reverence, if I do not record it with compassion and objectivity in my mind and in my notebook, then how can I record it in my stories?  How can I make my story worlds into believable places?

Whether you are a writer, an artist, or any other sort of creative, or whether you are someone who does not see themselves as such, take the time over the next week to practise Stand Still and Listen.  Whether you actually physically stand still or not is up to you.  But take a moment to be still and aware, a moment or a day or a week, or however long you need.  Take stock.  Be in the moment.  I promise the world will grow and deepen for you when you do.

With love from the Red Tent,

EF

On Perfectionism (and Timing)

Carpet makers in Turkey weave a mistake into every carpet they produce - because, they say, only what God makes is perfect.

Carpet makers in Turkey weave a mistake into every carpet they produce because, they say, only what God makes is perfect.

A friend was trying to finish his novel.

‘So many grammatical errors,’ he moaned.  ‘So many mistakes.’

He worked so hard that he wept.  It would never be perfect.  It would never be good enough.

All this effort, two days before he was due to be married.

There is perfectionism, and there is timing.

Perfectionism is a disease I suffer from myself.  It has blocked me for years.  Nothing can ever be good enough.

I set my standards so high, I never fail to fail.  And then I look at what I have failed to do, and tell myself I am useless, and that I will never finish anything.  Without noticing (conveniently) that I have set myself up for the perfect fall.

I am perfect at this.

So it is with this blog.  It had to be perfect.  It had to be faultless.

Never mind that I have a serious chronic illness that regularly prevents me from leaving the house, which affects my cognitive function to the extent that at times I can neither read nor write, nor understand what is said to me.

The blog still had to be perfect.  And I had to post three times a week.  Regardless.

Regardless of my health, or looking after elderly, sick parents, or my husband’s workload, or my marriage, or the weather, or having to attend friends’ weddings, or making time for much-needed holidays, or anything else that comprises having a life.

Add in the blog and perfectionism and you have a recipe for disaster.  Or at least a very poorly blogger.

This is as insane as my friend trying to perfect his novel two days before one of the most important and stressful days of his life.  (And happiest, lest we forget.)

Sometimes, you have to sit down and recognise that perfectionism is a disease created by Nigel.  Sometimes you have to stop, and realise you haven’t been very realistic about what you can achieve.

And you have to move the bar.

Perfectionism and timing have combined to create the perfect storm in my life right now.  I have been going through a bout of severe illness, and just at the start of August, the busiest month of my year so far.  My mother is coming to stay for a week.  Friends are getting married, and babies are being welcomed into the clan.  The garden needs watering, and I have a craving to write original fiction that I have not felt in many months.  With limited energy, and limited time, I can only do so much.

Conclusion:  this blog cannot be perfect.  It only has to be good enough.

It only has to be here to encourage you, dear reader, on your own journey of writing and creative discovery.  It only has to be witness to my own creative process, as I try to navigate a way through illness and into producing a novel that will make my soul sing, and make you turn the page with delight.  It doesn’t need to be the be-all and end-all of teaching writing – there are plenty of other people who can do that so much better than me.

Here are my good enough dreams:

I want to write that novel.  I want to write an ebook on journaling for you, too.

WARNING: RIDICULOUS DREAM SHARE ALERT

I want to make a collectors’ edition of my novel, illustrated with my own art, for you to buy.  Yes, I know, it’s crazy, but it’s something that is calling me, and somehow I know I have to follow its siren song.  And you are supposed to share your creative dreams, aren’t you, to help make them happen?  So I am sharing my dream with you to give it some karmic weight.  (Yeah, I believe in this stuff.  Bear with me.)

I also want to be well, have a holiday, enjoy some quality time with my mum, have a happy marriage (i.e. see my husband occasionally), water the garden and, well, have a life, really.

And I don’t want either perfectionism or bad timing to get in the way.

So I’ll make a deal with you:

I’m going to blog twice a week, instead of three times.

Sometimes I might only manage once, but if I do, I want you to know that the time I haven’t spent writing a blog post for you has been spent either a) getting well or, b) working on a creative project like my novel.  Because the blog can’t take up all my creative energy.  That just doesn’t make sense.  The blog is not the purpose, it is secondary to the purpose.  The purpose is the writing.

There was a time, this time last year, when I thought I would never have the courage to set up this blog.  Right now, I am scared that I will never have either an ebook or a novel to offer through it.  This time next year, I hope I’ll have proved at least one of those fears wrong.  In the meantime, I am moving the goalposts, lowering the bar, and whatever other clichés you care to insert.

I hope that you will stick with me.  I hope that you will share my journey, and tell me about yours too.  I hope that we can learn this together, that we can kick Nigel into touch and fill our lives with creative joy.

Happy creating,

EF

Outflow: What is Your Definition of Success?

I was having a conversation yesterday with my therapist about the definition of success, and Life Purpose.  If you are a bit of an addict for self-help blogs, as I am, you will be familiar of the idea of Life Purpose.  Everybody talks about it.  Why am I here?  The self help industry wants you to define your Life Purpose, because they say it will help with setting goals and achieving success – yes, there is that word again.  The thing we all want to achieve, or are told we do.

I always believed that my Life Purpose was to write and publish books.

Unfortunately that sentence has a big fat bear trap in it.

When I meet someone new at a party, and they ask me (as people invariably do when they are making small talk with strangers) “what do you do?”, I have always replied:  “I am a writer.”  Two questions then follow:

“What sort of books do you write?”

and, “Can I get your books in Waterstones?” (Insert the name of your local bookseller chain as appropriate).

When I explain that I haven’t been published by a conventional publisher yet, I can see the light die in their eyes.  The words are practically written in neon on their faces:

“Oh, well you aren’t really a writer then, are you?  You’re just one of those hobbyists who likes to talk about themselves like they are the next JK Rowling, but what you actually do is write crap that nobody wants to read!

Society’s definition of success is publication by the conventional publishing trade.  You aren’t a writer till you are in print.

The fact is, I have written seven novels.  I have published nearly thirty short stories and novellas which get an average of 100+ readers a day on the internet, an audience size which most conventionally published writers would kill for.  I have taught writing dayschools, mentored other writers and judged short story competitions.  I have written a monthly column for a paper with a circulation of 7000, and have two academic papers to my name.  And I have kept a diary for more than thirty years.  What part of this does not constitute success?

The more I have written, the more I have realised that my definition of Life Purpose is flawed.  My purpose is not to get published, because that is only half the story, and frankly, its really not the important, interesting or exciting half.  I have realised that the part of writing I really love is the writing part, the process.  I love coming up with new stories and characters.  I love visualising scenes and dialogue.  I love the rush I get when I am in full flow, in the middle of writing a scene or chapter, when I am in the action, experiencing what my characters do, feeling their feelings, seeing through their eyes.  And I love the sense of satisfaction when I come out the other end  and look at what I’ve done.

My purpose is to write.  Simply that.

Because the thing is, you are a writer if you write.

Talking about getting your novels published, dreaming of a bestseller, imagining yourself on talk shows explaining how your stories have been adapted for film or TV – none of these things are what a writer is, although it is true that they may occasionally have to do these things.  To be a writer, you have to love the process enough to do it.

The point I think I am trying to make here is this:  what is your definition of success as a writer (or in whatever art form you choose)?  Are you measuring yourself against society’s outdated or material idea of success, or do you really see what you have achieved, regardless of what other people think?

I struggle continuously with the idea that I have failed in life or as a writer because I am still at the bottom of somebody’s slush pile.  I have to fight constantly against that prejudice within myself, as well as in others.  But the truth is, I am a writer because I write.

These days, when someone asks me what I do at a party, I say:

“I write gay erotic fiction for the Internet.”

This solves both the patronising questions at once, gives me a sense of my own achievement, and also tells me a lot about the person I am talking to, through their response.  Either they blanch and change the subject, or they look fascinated or perplexed, and want to find out more.  And then we really have a conversation worth taking part in!

Happy Creating,

EF