Category Archives: Writing Every Day

The Benefits of Giving Up

The Cumberbatch

Gratuitous Cumberbatch photo. Just because I felt like it!

Dear Reader,

I want to tell you about why its sometimes a really good idea to give up.

You weren’t expecting that, were you?

In my last post, I wrote about the folly of trying.  Of pushing ourselves beyond endurance, and as a result, being unable to achieve the things we want.

That post was an example of me writing my own permission slip.  That day, I took my own advice.  I gave up trying.  I spent a lot of time just lying around.  I felt terrible, so why do anything else? I simply surrendered to what my body was trying to tell me.  Which was, in essence, ‘STOP’.

So far, so good.

The next day, I woke up at 8.30am, earlier than I am normally able to do, and in addition, woke with a clear head.

I grabbed my laptop and opened it up.

And I wrote.

I wrote all day.

In between spells of writing, I stripped the bed, put clean sheets on, did three loads of washing, tidied the kitchen, ironed some fresh pillowcases, made some long overdue phonecalls, and cooked a lovely supper for Husband and myself. I got so much done!

By close of play, i.e.11pm, I had written (get this) 6470 words.  Thats 27 pages.

The most I have ever written in one day.

(Round of applause, please.)

And all because I had given myself some much-needed space.

This is why you must learn to stop.  Yes, it is important to write every day.  Little and often is imperative.  Regular practise for any art form is necessary.

And there will be days when you sit down at your desk or in your studio and think:  ‘I really don’t want to do this today.’  And when you start, the brush strokes will be ugly or the words will come out like lumps of lead.  And then you will get going and things will flow and it will be alright.  (In fact it will be better than alright.  Because all the pain and depression you may have been struggling with will fly away, and creating will heal you.)  That is the point of any practise.

I am not saying you should only write when you feel like it.

What I am saying is that you must recognise that there are some days when your body is leeched to a husk, when your brain is too full or too empty to do anything but be.  Those are the days when you need to be gentle with yourself.  To put away the expectations.  And you will know those days.  The days of crisis.  The days when Life just steps in and pulls the carpet from under you.

If, like me, you live with chronic illness, working out which those days are becomes a little harder.  After 17 years, I am getting better at it, but I’m still not great.

The important thing to remember is that when you release the pressure on yourself, the result is often magic.

Its very Zen to say: let go of perfectionism, let go of expectations, but its easier said than done.  We all carry expectations from society, our upbringing, our peers and ourselves.  Letting them go is a daily practise in itself.  I am reminded however of an old saying I once heard:

“Let go, and Let God.”

Once we stop trying, once we stop tensing up and forcing things, the creativity flows through us freely onto the page or the canvas or the keyboard.  When we are free to make crap art, we learn.  And invariably, in my experience at least, when we give ourselves permission to make crap, what comes out is pure gold.

So here I am, in the aftermath of this great day of writing, assessing what I have learnt, what I can take with me from this experience.  I don’t know if what I wrote yesterday was gold or dross.  Chances are it will be about 50/50.  I don’t really care.  To be frank, it was fun.  It was an enormous relief just to spread my wings and fly without judging myself at all.

And I’m looking forward to doing it again just as soon as I can.

Happy creating,

EF

 

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The Folly of Trying

My counsellor told me a story:

A man was asked at a conference to come up onto the stage, where the speaker had set a single chair in the centre.

‘Try to pick up the chair ,’ the speaker said.

The man picked up the chair.

‘No, you’re not getting it,’ the speaker said.  ‘Try to pick up the chair.’

The man picked up the chair again.

‘No, you’re still not getting it.  TRY to pick up the chair.’

The man put his hands on the chair and then, in a flash of inspiration, he understood.

Because TRYING to pick up the chair is not the same as picking up the chair.

If you TRY, you never actually achieve the action.  You just TRY.

Or, as the venerable Yoda said, in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’:

Try not.  Do.  Do or do not.  There is no try.

(I had that on my door at college.  I don’t think I understood it then.  Now I do, I really, really do.)

This wisdom has really been banging on my door today, as I struggle with a cold, coming on the back of a bad spell of IBS and ME/CFS.  I am busy TRYING.  Trying to get better.  Trying to feel well. Trying to cope with the housework. Trying to write.

Sometimes you have to recognise the wisdom of ‘Do or Do Not.’

Lately, I worry that this blog has become more about illness and less about creativity.  More about my TRYING experience.  But I think it really is an important lesson to learn for creative people.  We push ourselves and push ourselves, driven by expectations and perfectionism and Gods-know what demons we have inside us, deftly planted there, no doubt, by our loving parents. We dance the dance of the OUGHT-hogs.  The SHOULDS.  We are so busy forcing meaning into our lives as creatives, as Eric Maisel ill-advised (IMHO), that we pulverise our souls and our bodies into gibbering wrecks, terrorised by all the goals we fail to achieve and the standards we are incapable to meeting.  Books about how to write invariably advise the student that they have to write every day, no matter what.  I don’t think thats healthy or, frankly, practical.  Of course, it helps if you can.  A lot.  But seriously, who can write when their child has been up all night vomiting, or they have just received a redundancy notice?

Sometimes you have to treat yourself with loving kindness.  Sometimes you have to lower your expectations, and maybe even give in to the avalanche that Life has dumped on your head.  I have been talking to several friends who are all struggling with ill health this week, recovering from cancer treatment or at the end of a difficult pregnancy, or even in bereavement, and I truly believe that this is something all of us needed to hear.

Sometimes you are allowed to stop trying.

Sometimes its good to stop trying.

And then, when you have given yourself a break, a rest, a time of wound-licking, you can get up and go and do what it is you need to do.

MInd you, I have probably just proved myself wrong by writing this blog post, because I’ve spent the last six hours lying in bed groaning, absolutely convinced that I couldn’t write anything today.  So there you go.  Take from that what you will.  Just promise me something?

BE KIND TO YOURSELF

Happy Creating,

EF

 

Which Notebook?

My old writers notebook

My old writers notebook

I’ve been trying to find the best way to keep a writing notebook for the last year. And by ‘right’, I don’t mean correct, I mean the system that works best for me.

I always used to keep all my notes in an A4 ringbound PukkaPad notebook, the hardback kind. I loved it. There was plenty of room on the big pages, and PukkaPad’s paper is beautifully smooth and takes ink perfectly. Their products are especially good for Morning Pages, because you can write quickly and smoothly on them.

This was fine as far as it went, but the book was too big to carry around with me easily, which meant that I tended only used it at my desk. And that meant I wasn’t noting down all the ideas I had, just the few I had when I was thinking about it. Which meant I was always trying to remember what I had thought about. And that meant, of course, that 75% of the ideas I had went AWOL. What a waste.

(I did have a baby moleskine at one point. It just felt like clutter in my handbag and I rarely used it.)

Last September, I decided I was going to get serious about my writing practise, and that meant reflecting on my notebooking habits. This was not a flattering experience.

I restarted with a cheap hardback A5 notebook, because it had to be sturdy to withstand being knocked about in my handbag. I just bought the cheapest I could find because I figured it was an experiment, and it didn’t have to be perfect. Plus, if it was too nice, I wouldn’t use it.

(That’s a trap I’ve fallen into before. Its easy to feel intimidated by a fancy notebook to the point where you can’t bring yourself to write in it, because you feel anything you do write has to be perfect. It’s a creative disaster.)

So decorated the cover so it looked like a more expensive one I was coveting at the time, and away I went.

It was really hard at first, making sure I scribbled down the thoughts I had when I had them, not trying to save them up. I added quotes I came across, stories I heard on the bus or on the radio, and took notes in book talks I went to. And I quickly filled up my scrappy little book.

And once it was full, I forgot about it.

So when I got the bug again, deciding to renew my commitment to my work, I made the mistake of going off to gorge myself on the goodies at Staples. Gods, I love Staples!

 

The ARC discbound notebook system from Staples.  The one on the left is a cover I made myself.

The ARC discbound notebook system from Staples. The one on the left is a cover I made myself.

And there I fell in love with the ARC discbound system. I came home with a beautiful leatherbound A5 notebook. And it is gorgeous. You have no idea. And because its discbound, I decided I would combine my notebooking with a blog planner. I printed out pages and punched then and fitted them in and moved them about. And my lovely ARC planner became so big and heavy that I couldn’t get it in my handbag. Which rather defeated the object. And the thing with the lovely leather binding is that you can’t just throw the book in the back of the drawer to await later pillaging for ideas. You feel duty-bound to keep using it. So you have to take the contents out, and then what do you do with them?

So the ARC notebook, no matter how delectable, was a notebooking disaster.

But I learnt from my failure. I now knew I needed the following:

  • An A5 notebook to fit in my handbag.
  • A pen loop would be useful.
  • Nothing too fancy, or I won’t write in it.
  • Nice paper is an incentive.
  • A sturdy binding to withstand handbag battery

So back to Staples I went.

And this time I came home with the A5 version of the Oxford notebook. It has a stiff plastic cover and is spiral bound, which means I can fold it flat over easily. Its got lovely paper. I can tuck a biro into the spiral binding and it acts as a pen loop. It is satisfyingly thick but the smallish size means I can fill it quickly, which pleases me and makes me feel like I’m making progress.

And I am using it. Every day. Filling it with thoughts and ideas and potential stories and snippets and all kinds of goodies that I know I can rummage through in future. I’m even using it to write bits of stories and dialogue for my fanfics, and bits of diary-like reflection on the writing process for my novel.

People, its working!

It goes with me everywhere, my little friend. And it is still evolving. I could probably write another post along the same lines as this one in six months’ time, and I’ll probably tell you something completely different. I think the notebooking requirements you have change with you as you go on in the craft. But for me, this is where I am now, and I think I have finally found a way to record my brain on paper in a meaningful and useful way.

I encourage you to explore using a writers notebook if you write, but to do it, too if you pursue any other kind of creative art. A sketchbook for an artist fulfils the same function. It allows you to explore your creative interior, push the boundaries of your ideas. Its useful to keep a little notebook in your pocket or bag just to scribble down random ideas and thoughts you have, regardless of what art you do.

Be gentle with yourself as you find out what works best for you. From little cardboard-bound exercise books to luxurious Paperblanks, there will be something that fits your life. Think about your lifestyle and what your requirements are. I recommend that you start cheap so you feel like you can make mistakes. There is no wrong or right. Its just what works best for you. You just have to find it.

If you want a beginners guide to keeping a writers notebook, click here.

I’ll no doubt have lots more to say on the subject in coming posts.

Happy creating, EF

Back to Basics: The Writing Exercise

I’ve pretty much lost two months of creativity this year so far, and I’m keen to get back on the horse, so to speak.  Part of that involves getting back to basics.  And one of the best ways to do that if you are a writer is through the Writing Exercise.

You will need:

A timer

A notebook

A pen

A space where you will not be interrupted.

Fifteen minutes every day.

Yes, I know that the last one can be difficult, but you can manage it.

Look at the list again.  See how cheap those items are?  And yet it’s such a huge payoff for a very tiny investment.  If you don’t have a timer on your phone, you probably have one in the kitchen. The notebook and the pen can be as rudimentary as you like, just so long as you can write quickly and easily without thinking too much about how the tools feel in your hand.  You don’t want writer’s cramp, after all.  Your tools should be transparent.  You don’t want to be thinking about them.  You need to focus all your mind on the story that is finding its way out of your head and onto the page.

There is one more thing you need.

A prompt.

There are loads of them about.  You can make up your own.  You can get a friend to send you a prompt, like a writing dare, every day by email or text message.  You can use a book – I’m using Judy Reeves’ wonderful book, ‘The Writers Book of Days’ at the moment.  Or you can find lots of websites online that will give you prompts.

Don’t think too much about it, whatever your prompt is.  Just take it as a starting point, write it at the top of your page, then set your timer for fifteen minutes and let your brain make hay!

I’ve decided to give myself an extra rule, though.  I was considering the weaknesses in my work and I realised that I have a real problem writing three-dimensional female characters.  All my stories are full of fascinating, psychologically complex men and paper-doll women.  This is a bit worrying as a female writer.

So I have decided for the whole of March that I am going to do a writing exercise every day, and I am only going to write about female characters.

Merciless practise.

Let me tell you, it’s already working, three days in.  I have already created a female character that I absolutely love and want to come back to.  But I am determined to go on.  Like a ballet dancer working at the barre, or a concert pianist doing scales, I am going to practise and practise until I feel I am really making some progress.  And then I’m going to practise some more.

It’s the Habit of Art.  And it feels great.

I am doing writing exercises every day for the whole of March.  Fifteen minutes a day.  No neat handwriting, no fancy notebooks, just a cheap pen, an exercise book and my timer.

Why not join me?

(You can read more about writing exercises here.)

Happy creating,

EF

Inspiration Monday: Commuting

I’ve written already about the wisdom of walking for the creative life.

No reason why I shouldn’t repeat myself, of course.  Especially now we are in a new year, with new Intentions and new opportunities.  I have promised myself I will walk more this year.  Sometimes, this is not an easy promise to fulfil.  There are appointments to be met, after all; there is the filthy English weather (and believe me, filthy is what it is at present), and then there are my physical limitations.

Yet, in spite of the mud and the commitments and my low energy levels, I am trying to get out most days.

And there are so many things to see.  Some of the best walks I’ve ever had have been the repetitive ones to and from work, or school, the continual plodding on the pavements that sets up a meditative rhythm.  This time of year, walking home in twilight is especially evocative.  Not only can you see into other people’s houses as you pass, because many people don’t draw their curtains too early, but the landscape changes when industrial lights are switched on.

As a teenager, my walk home from our nearest bus stop was a route that skirted fields and woods.  Behind those woods, though, lay a huge industrial area, lit by massive floodlights in the dark hours.  The entire night sky glowed with this statement of manmade power over the environment.  To me, it looked uncannily like one of those landing pads on strange planets from the Star Wars films, and it fuelled my imagination continually.

Walking is not the only way to travel home from work, of course.  Sitting on a bus is great for inspiration too.  You can see so much more from the height of a bus seat, and not just into people’s windows, and thus into little vignettes of their lives.  Tableaux of office workers frozen in time as you pass their workplaces will catch your eye: someone handing over a file as the recipient reaches out to take it over a low  desk partition;  a group of besuited workers sitting around a conference table working out details of a deal; a pile of files teetering in an in-tray.  What are they talking about, these people who are so busy?  Whose lives will be changed by the outcome of that meeting, for better or worse?  What details, sinister or otherwise, are contained in those files – the potential for a fraud conviction, or the much-cherished hope of an adopted baby?

On a train, disparate people gather together and ignore one another.  They listen to hissing music on iPods and phones, tap at laptops or iPads, read books and newspapers, stare out of the window or fall asleep.  Each one has a story.  Can you be Sherlock Holmes and deduce their tale?

Viriginia Woolf, my heroine of writers, snatched up just such an opportunity in her short story, ‘An Unwritten Novel’, in which the narrator sits on a train and tries to guess the tale of a woman sitting in her compartment.  If you have never read it, I enthusiastically recommend it, not only as an example of how you can take a moment from your everyday life and make a work of art from it, but also for its fine stream-of-consciousness style and its sheer wit.  People’s occupations on trains may have changed since it was written, but the way we react to them, I should hazard, probably has not.

Creative Exercise:

How do you travel to your daily occupation?  Do you take the bus, train or Tube?  Do you cycle or walk?  Whichever you do, you may view it as a necessary evil, a time to catch up on your email, or some extra sleep.

What about reframing that view?

What if your daily commute to work, college or school became a special time set aside for creativity?

You could take a sketchbook and a biro and draw portraits of your fellow commuters.  This might develop into a whole series of painted portraits that depict your daily travels and those who accompany you on your journey.

You could compose a story about them in your head, and use it as the basis of a short story or novel, as Woolf did.

You could even go all ‘Brief Encounter’ and come up with a passionate love story between two of your fellow travellers!

(Probably best not to do this so much if you drive.  A vehicle is a life-threatening weapon, so you need to be alert and aware when you are in charge of it.  But maybe at traffic lights, you could look into other people’s cars and see what they are up to – applying mascara, fiddling with the radio, texting or picking their noses!)

What do you see as you travel?  What landscapes or buildings do you pass?  What could be going on inside that floodlit brick bunker that looks like a government establishment?  What story is being lived out on each floor of that block of flats you stomp past every morning? (I recommend Alaa Al Aswany’s superb novel, The Yakoubian Building’, for an example of this.)

Take your writers notebook and make notes of the ideas that come to you.  Make this time a time for your imagination to be unleashed.  Make a chore, a daily misery, into the highlight of your working life.

Happy creating,

EF

A Letter to Darla’s Daughter about Fanfiction

Dear Darla’s daughter,

I’m really sorry, but when your mom left a comment on my website, she didn’t tell me what your name was, so I’ll have to hope you don’t mind my being a bit general.

Anyway, she said that you are 12 years old and that you like writing fanfiction, like me.  She also mentioned that she is trying to get you to start creating characters of your own, something you and I also have in common, because I am trying to do that too.  She believes this is important, and so do I, and I wanted to tell you why.

First, though, I want to say Yay for you!  You’re writing, and that is fantastic!

Writing, as I am sure you have found out for yourself, is great fun, some of the best fun, in fact, that it is possible to have.  And fanfiction?  Well, doing that just makes it even better.  You take other peoples characters and send them out into the world of your imagination.  You can make them do whatever you like, get them into all sorts of trouble, and get them out, have endless adventures with them – what’s not to like?  And then there’s the other thing about it.  You get to act out all your crushes on the gorgeous actors and pop stars that you like.  Yes, don’t blush, we all do it!

I was writing fanfiction at your age, although I was writing about actors and shows you have never heard of, and probably never will, and fanfiction didn’t even have a name back then!  It was something you did by the light of a torch under the blankets at night and didn’t tell your friends about.  A fantasy life all your own.  It was something embarrassing you did in private, like picking your nose!

Now it’s a recognised genre, although there is still a lot of snobbery about it, like there still is about all kinds of genre fiction, like crime and romance.  (Usually the people who criticize it are not writers themselves, though, so feel free to completely ignore their opinions because they invariably don’t know what they are talking about!)  Today, people recognise that most of the great writers have written fanfiction at some point, and popular and literary novelists are being paid to write fanfiction novels for the legitimate market.

Fanfiction is a great thing to do, too, because it allows you to practise, to test out your writing skills and grow them.  The more you write, the better you get, and if you are enthusiastic about the characters, you will write more.  You get to experiment in ways you just can’t with other types of writing.  And if you share your work online, there is a whole world of other writers willing to help, advise and support you as you learn.  So don’t ever let anyone tell you it is wrong to write fanfiction, or that its not ‘real’ writing, because it is.

But here is the thing:  using another writer’s characters can only take you so far.  And if you really like writing, if you really want to get good at it, you have to take the next step.  You have to make up your own original characters.

Why?

Well, here is the thing:  At the heart of every truly great story are great characters.  Look at Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, for example.  Both are full of fantastic, original characters, from Severus Snape to Frodo Baggins.  There are outstanding characters in every truly great novel.  Think of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the Wind’, Willy Wonka in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ or even my favourite, the wonderful Sherlock Holmes.  In films, you might choose the shark fisherman Quint in ‘Jaws’ (which you are too young to have seen, I suppose, but that’s a treat for the future!), James Bond or Spock in ‘Star Trek’; on the stage, there is the villainous Salieri in Schaffer’s ‘Amadeus’ or the Phantom in ‘Phantom of the Opera’.  If you haven’t come across any of these yet, I encourage you to seek them out because they are tremendous.

All original.  Each loved by millions.  And each one has ensured their creator’s immortality.

So, to become a great writer, or even a good one, you need to have at the core of your work truly great characters.

But here is the really wonderful part:

There are only seven plots. Okay, yes, you can chop them up and interchange bits of them endlessly, but basically, there are a limited number of things you can do, plot-wise.

But there are as many original characters in your head as there are people on the planet.  And here is why:

No one, anywhere, even if you are a twin, has ever had the same experience of the world as you.

You are unique.

The way your mind works, what has happened to you, the things you think about and imagine, that you think are important, that you love and hate, are all unique.  There may be a few people quite like you, but no one, anywhere, has ever experienced the world exactly the same way as you.

And because you are unique, your imagination is unique.  No one else can create quite the same kinds of characters as you.

And once you start creating your own characters, they start getting up doing things inside your head that are completely exciting and unexpected and utterly amazing.  Believe me – I was writing a novel a few years back, and one of my main characters just upped and died right there in front of me, without any warning, and I didn’t know what to do because half of the rest of the book depended on her being there!  Help!  Okay, I fixed it in the end, but it was a scary moment.  And also utterly wonderful.

Once you start creating your own characters, your writing moves on to the next level.  That element of chaos as they take on a life of their own is only the start.

That is the moment when the wonderful thrill of story-telling hits you, and you open your wings, and take off, and soar through the air.

Fanfiction is great, believe me, but it is like being a sparrow when you could be an eagle,  And wouldn’t you rather be an eagle?

So creating your own characters isn’t just thing your mom goes on about because its what she thinks is important, even though you are having so much more fun making the pin-ups on your bedroom walls have romantic adventures through fanfiction.  She wants you to taste the real freedom of the imagination, as do I.

That is why I am going to write a lot less fanfiction this year, and concentrate more on my original characters.  I’m already having so much fun with it.  So why don’t you join me?

With Best Wishes from your fellow writer,

Evenlode’s Friend.

Creative Intentions for 2014: DARE and DEPTH

Getting over our emergency Christmas is proving a longer, harder effort than I had thought.  My brain is a puddle, so don’t ask me if I have written anything or created anything yet this year, because ain’t nothin’ goin’ on up there but clouds.

However.

Just occasionally, I have flashes of conscious thought.

I got into a conversation with Writerfriend on New Year’s Eve about plans for the coming year, as I mentioned previously, and it occurred to me today, while mulling that conversation over, that having a word for the year for my creative endeavours as well might be a good way forward.

Having two might be argued as cheating.  One word should fit all of my life, after all.  And yes, it fits the overview of where I want to go this year, of who I want to be.  My word represents the attitude I want to cultivate throughout the coming year.  It represents my willingness to ‘have a bash’, to move away from a fear and scarcity mindset, away from perfectionism and Nigel.

So maybe a Creative Word isn’t so much a word for the year as a Creative Intention.  A theme.  A direction in which to move.

The word I have chosen is:

DEPTH

I want to deepen my writing, explore a more multi-layered story-world, deeper characters.  I want to write an original work that displays this quality.  In short, I want to get serious.

I suppose this is an extension of the intentions I was nourishing in the Autumn of 2013.  The desire to read more quality fiction, the need to take my writing to the next level.  I am currently making a plan to help me step into this new phase.  It will involve:

  • Reading lots of new, literary fiction (luckily, Santa was kind to me on this front, with a supply of yummy new novels!)
  • Refreshing my basic writing skills
  • Reading works on writing by published authors – A L Kennedy and Paul Auster are first on my list.
  • Writing every day
  • Making better use of my writers notebook.

At present it is quite a sketchy plan, but no doubt it will firm up into clear tasks.  I don’t want it to get too firm.  I want it to evolve and morph with my needs and creative interests.  Nothing too concrete.  It is an intention, a theme, after all.

And no doubt writing blog posts here will be part of that plan, as well as a commentary on progress.

So that’s my Creative Theme/Intention/Word for the year 2014.

What about you?  What do you want to achieve?  Is there a quality you want to invoke into your creative life, or are there specific works you want to make in the coming months?  I’d love to hear about your plans in the comments section.

Happy creating,

EF