Tag Archives: self care

Journal Friday: Core Practices

Diary Pile 2I’ve been experiencing something of a ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ lately, a deep, dark journey into the Underworld.  Being creative has been a distant dream.  The only space or energy available has just been for survival.  That said, I’ve realised that there are three core practices that have helped, and continue to help me keep (relatively) sane.

Core practices are those habits you keep going, no matter what.  Activities that keep your engine running even when there is no energy, space or time for anything else.  You keep up these habits through the times of joy and abundance, and those of despair, desolation and drought.  They help sustain you, and keep you in a state of awakened readiness for when the next shower of inspiration comes.  They are part of the minimum requirements that you need to function as a happy, healthy human being.  They are different for everybody, so yours might vary from mine, but they will give you the same comforting, nurturing continuity in your life.

I started thinking about this idea the other day, when I heard Jamie Ridler talking about them in her recent podcast.  The core practices she sites are Movement, Meditation and Morning Pages.  Morning Pages are a practice popularised by Julia Cameron in her book, The Artist’s Way, and I’ve written a little about them here.  Cameron herself would probably site Morning Pages, Walking and the Artist Date as her core practices.

If I had to name mine, the three things that have kept me going in recent days against the tide of despair, I would say they are yoga, meditation and journalling.

Yoga helps me to keep grounded inside my body.  Even when I am very ill and have little energy, a single pose can help.  Yoga eases the chronic pain I live with, and gives me a sense of achievement.  I like doing it outside in the garden in the summer, but usually my yoga mat gets spread out on my study floor.  I light a candle, ask for a blessing on my practice, and do a few asanas.  I also enjoy doing a few poses before bed at night, as this helps calm me from the day’s stresses, but also helps counteract the tension my body builds up during the night.  If you fancy having a go, you might find this website helpful.

Meditation is something I am trying to do.  I’ve been trying to do it for years.  It occurs to me now that maybe thats the whole point.  Even when you get good at it, you are still battling the butterfly nature of your mind as it dances about between the shopping list and the peerless beauty of Benedict Cumberbatch’s mouth, or something similar!  Lately, I’ve had quite a bit of success with the Insight Timer app on my smartphone, and I also like Susan Piver’s free meditation instruction sessions – ten minutes out of your day for such huge benefits has to be worth a try.  When I get it right, when I manage to concentrate on my breath even for just a tiny bit, I experience a sense of peace, achievement and oneness.  I’ve tried Vipassana body awareness meditations by Jon Kabat-Zinn too, and they are really good.

Journalling.  Do I really need to add much about this?  I’ve been writing continually on this blog about journalling practise since I started a year ago, explaining the benefits and the pleasures of keeping a diary.  I’ve been doing it for 40 years this year (erch!  Is it really that long?), and I can tell you that it has saved my life more than once.  Check out my other Journal Friday posts to find out more.

Journal Exercise:

Get out your journal and take a little time to ground yourself.  Take a few breaths and be present within your body.  Then think about your life.  What are some of the things you do regularly that sustain you emotionally, physically, spiritually.  Spend some time writing about them, about why they help you, why you do them, how they nourish you.

If you have trouble zeroing in on one, two or three things you do in this way, try thinking about your minimum requirements for a happy life.  What do you go nuts without?  When your life gets a bit haywire and you find you feel out of control, what are the things that have slipped?  It might be anything from drinking enough water and eating fruit daily to spending time with friends and family, walking the dog or reading a good book.  Make a list of the things that you know you need in your life to sustain your wellbeing.

As always, don’t get too draconian about either of these exercises.  Remember these are not the things you think you OUGHT to be doing, or what your friends are doing, although they may be things you might like to try, but haven’t yet.  Take time to explore.  Be gentle and compassionate with yourself.  And if you can’t identify anything yet, allow the answers to evolve over time.  Gently ask them to come to you.  Ask yourself what you need in your life right now, and enjoy your discoveries.

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

Developing Superpowers

I was reading a post at Rightbrain Planner this morning, and these words jumped out at me:

“Planning habits are part of personal assessment for me.  Part of knowing what my skills are and being my own hero.”

BEING MY OWN HERO.

Those words blew me away.  How is this even possible?  Can I be my own hero?  Can anybody?  And if I were, how would it feel?  Would it feel as incredibly freeing as it sounds?

Blogger and artist Andrea Sher often asks: what is your superpower?

Or as the ancient nun Jiko puts it in Ruth Ozeki’s transcendent novel, A Tale for the Time Being:

“‘Nattchan, I think it would be best for you to have some true power.  I think it would be best for you to have a superpower.’

She was talking in Japanese, but she used the English word, superpower, only when she said it, it sounded like supah-pawah.  Really fast. Supapawa.  Or more like SUPAPAWA-!”

Page 176.

I’d like to have a SUPAPAWA.  I’d like to be my own hero.

Old Jiko teaches her great-granddaughter Nao how to find her SUPAPAWA through sitting Zazen, a Zen Buddhist meditation.  Obviously thats one way to go.  The other seems to be to follow the words painted above the entrance to the sanctuary of the legendary Oracle of Apollo at Delphi:

Know Thyself

I truly believe that the only way to do that is to ruthlessly explore ourselves through creativity.  Through writing and painting, journalling and making, through dance, music, theatre and the culinary arts, and whatever else we can create out of the raw materials of our souls.  That way, by fearlessly adventuring into our creativity, maybe we really can become our own heroes.

If i had to say what my SUPAPAWAs are, I would probably mention two:  the knack I have of making people smile, and writing.

Oh, and I make a really mean gluten-free chocolate brownie!

What are your SUPAPAWAs?  Could you be your own hero?

Happy Creating,

EF

Postcard from the Underworld

There is some weird and funky stuff going on with my energy levels at the moment.  And some strange synchronicities keep happening.  Too many to ignore.

The Universe is sending me messages.

Let me explain:

Since Christmas I’ve been struggling with low energy, pain and brain fog.  Being creative has been an uphill struggle.  Most of the time it has not been happening at all.  I mean, who has the strength to be creative when every step feels like walking on broken glass, or when it’s all you can do to keep your eyes open for an hour at a time?

Then there are the synchronicities that just keep on popping up.  Seriously, it is like the Universe is jumping about and waiving it’s arms, trying to get me to notice.

The Persephone Myth.

Bears.

Hibernation.

These stories and images keep arriving on my desk, my desktop, in magazines, on Facebook, in books and on the TV.

‘The only way out is through.’

Today, I was working with my therapist on all the OUGHTs I have piling up inside my brain.  Nigel has been shouting pretty loudly lately, so the first thing to do was to kick him firmly out of the door, SHOULDS and all.  No more SHOULDS or OUGHTS for me, at least for an afternoon!

I talked about the pain and exhaustion I’ve been experiencing, and then I mentioned the fact that bears have been on my mind lately.

‘Let’s look them up,’ says my ever-resourceful therapist.

Bears, according to Native American theology, are about intuition.  They are about being true to yourself, and trusting your instincts as you go in search of the honey of inner truth.  They are about Shamanic inner journeys, visiting the Dreamlodge, the Otherworld, about contemplation and hibernation and ultimately, rebirth.

Not far away, then, from the myth of Persephone’s journey into Hades, her sojourn in the darkness comforting the souls of the dead and learning inner wisdom, and her return to the surface world in Spring, older and wiser.

Bears are animals that hibernate.  In the depths of winter many beasts, seeds, roots and bulbs in the ground are sleeping in darkness, recharging, waiting for the surge of renewal that comes with the returning sun.

Well, you may not be into New Age symbolism, but these are ancient archetypes of the kind favoured by Jung, and it is not hard to extrapolate from these metaphors to the period of hibernation that my low energy suggests.  Human beings were once small, furry creatures that may have hibernated, and who is to say that some of us don’t still carry the imprint of that behaviour somewhere in the primitive vestiges of our primate brains. Anyone who has suffered from even the mildest symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) would certainly agree.

So here I am, dug deep in my cave, wrapped up in the comforting furry arms of my bear familiar, letting the energy of hibernation circulate around me.

It is not static energy, oh no.

I may be resting, contemplative, still, but here in my snug little fug, stories are gestating.  Sometimes we need these times of hiatus to feed our creative souls.  It is not just my exhausted body and drained mind that need rest.  My Muse needs to sleep too.  And while she sleeps, babies grow in her belly.

I have realised that pushing myself to climb out into the sun too soon will be a mistake.  All the plans and intentions, those things-I-am-not-calling-goals, will have to wait until I am ready, physically, mentally, and creatively.  I must remind myself not to rush things.  Don’t birth the babies until they are properly ‘cooked’!

Are you in a time of hibernation too?  Were you propelled into 2014 with renewed gusto, or are you like me, groping your way like a blind mole, struggling to hold your head up in the pale wintry light?

If you are the latter, try to forgive yourself.  We cannot make ourselves energetic if the juice just isn’t there, no matter how much Society nags us that it should be.  Tell your Nigel to take a hike.  Snuggle down, like me, in your burrow and nurture your bear energy.  Find out what the stillness of hibernation has to say to you, how it can nourish you for future months.  Don’t force things.  Wait it out.

Spring, with all its creative renewal, will come soon enough.

Happy hibernating,

EF

Welcome to 2014!

Writer Friend asked me yesterday what my creative plans for the coming year were. (He means to finish the last draft of his novel to his agent’s satisfaction.  Good luck to him, I say.)

Me?  Well, I just stared at him with my lower jaw on my chest.

Plans?  Creativity?  Ideas?  Hell, even original thought?  I beg your pardon?

Let me explain:  Mother-in-law (henceforward referred to as Mother) lives with Aunt-in-law (henceforward referred to as Aunt).  Mother has dementia.  Aunt is profoundly disabled by arthritis.  Aunt is Mother’s carer.  Just before Christmas, Aunt fell on the stairs and was rushed to hospital with suspected broken neck. Cue care crisis.  Luckily, neck was not broken. Result, however, was several days in hospital for Aunt, meaning Mother had no carer.  Husband and I, and rest of family, rushed the three and a half hour drive to take over care.  Aunt comes out of hospital, still needing 24-hour care.

Its a mess.

The upshot of all this is that we spent Christmas nursing, so effectively Christmas didn’t happen.  For ten days, my brain was occupied thusly: 90% firefighting care/nursing issues, 10% ‘ohmygodhowarewegoingtogetthroughthis???????’

We made it home in time to spend an exhausted New Year’s Eve with dear friends, and to stare blankly at the telly for the Sherlock Series Three Episode One premier last night. (Don’t ask me for an opinion, I haven’t got one yet.  I’ll tell you when I get my brain back.)

I haven’t had an original thought to spare for myself for nearly a fortnight.

So the plans I had for writing a jolly, upbeat, ‘these are my creative plans for 2014’ post for you today are wrecked.  I don’t have any plans because I haven’t had time to think about them.  Of course, I will write one, eventually, when my brain is less bombed, and when I have recovered from the bone-deep exhaustion that only an ME sufferer faced with such an emergency can experience.

Why am I telling you all this?  (Apart from to apologise for not writing something you didn’t even know I was going to write?)

Because this is a real-life demonstration of the philosophy this blog was established to promote.

In a minute, I will put away my laptop and excavate my desk from under the heaps of clutter that accumulated there in the chaos before Christmas.  And then I will open my journal, and pick up my pen, and press the nib to the paper.

And then I will find my way back to myself.

Somewhere, buried under the rubble of the last two weeks, is my soul.  My mind.  My creativity.  And my pen will make a line, a track that will lead me back to my soul, my mind, my creativity.

This is why writing is important.  Whether we write a journal or a story, a play or a poem, that line of ink leads us home to ourselves, over and over again.  And if we follow that inky trail, we will never be lost, no matter how difficult and hopeless things seem.

Happy New Year,

With Best Wishes,

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

 

We NEED to Look After Ourselves

I was going to write some informative writery stuff this morning, but actually, after the week I have had, I feel like there is a pressing need to say something crucial:

We Need to Look After Ourselves

A dear friend of mine wrote in her blog yesterday about how she forgets to take preventative meds for her migraine when she doesn’t sleep well, and the result is, well, a migraine.  She rants in her post at herself because this miserable agony of a head storm is totally preventable.  And I really sympathise.

Because I am lying in bed right now, typing upside down on my laptop because my back is wrecked and my stomach is a painful disaster.  Both entirely preventable conditions.

1) I haven’t done any really consistent yoga since I had flu last Christmas.  I was so ill, and it took me so long to recover, that exercise didn’t seem possible.  Besides, writing has been my priority, so everything else took a back seat.  As a result, I have lost the muscle mass, flexibility and strength inside my torso that is really needed to hold me up and make my limbs work effectively.

2) My posture is just appalling, and it isn’t helped by hunching over in an inadequate office chair at my desk, or slouching on the sofa for hours on end, typing.

3)  I carry the majority of my stress in my spine, which means neck and shoulder pain unless I take time to release the tension by relaxing or stretching.

4) Its so easy to eat rubbish.  I have a delicate gut that is sensitive to all kinds of crud they put in food these days, and I have to be so careful.  But being careful is pretty much a full-time job, and I would rather be writing.  And I can’t be bothered much, either.  I mean, that chocolate ring donut?  Why not? Just one wouldn’t hurt, would it?  So I’m not careful, and then I develop terrible stomach pains, and then I can’t write. (Are you starting to see the pattern here?)

5)  Stress and anxiety play a big part in my ill health, and I know I am better when I meditate.  But I don’t.  Because it takes time, time when my brain isn’t in its dream world, playing with gorgeous men and exciting stories, and generally having more fun than in real life.  I don’t want to expend the energy on being away from my fantasies.  But when i don’t tackle my tension, I end up with debilitating headaches, back pain, anxiety attacks, insomnia and stomach flair-ups.

None of this is rocket science, as they say.  I know what does me good, but I compulsively and consistently fail to do it.  And judging by my friend’s blog post, and comments from others, I am not the only one.

Lying on my back on the bed this week, working my way through various ‘back care’ books gleaned from the library for research, it became clear to me that this back care thing is a lifelong commitment.  It requires me to be present at every moment in my body, to think about the way I stand, move, sit, lift, twist and bend.  It means getting up from my desk every 20 minutes to move around and release muscles.  It requires learning how to sit and stand correctly.

And my guts?  Well, me and my innards have been fighting a war of attrition for four decades, but I think I can say without doubt that these days, my innards are winning.  They need to get what they ask for, because if they don’t, they stop me doing what I want to do.  So I need to commit to making and eating clean, healthy, nondairy, gluten-free food AT ALL TIMES, not just when its convenient.

I know this.

What I didn’t realise is that these commitments are actually part of my commitment to being a writer.  It is as much my job to look after my body and keep it healthy and functioning as it is to back up my computer or buy ink cartridges for my fountain pen.  All that stuff about writers drinking themselves into cirrhosis and death to write great novels is frankly, and not to put too fine a point on it, bollocks.  I’ve been in pain for the last fortnight, and believe me, it isn’t fun and its not a life plan I want to pursue!

The body is not just transport, as dear Sherlock likes to point out.  It is the foundation stone of our beings, and foundations have to be strong and sure to support the growth,power and creativity of which we are all capable.

So here is my commitment:  I am writer.  That means writing.  And it means creating an environment in which writing can happen, both within my home and within my body.  It means my writing MUST be embodied.

I am making self-care part of my job.

(Because if I don’t, the rest of the job can’t happen.)

Happy Healthy Creating,

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

How to Take Criticism

The idea for this post came to me last week when I got a pretty starchy comment on one of my stories.  It happens sometimes.  Actually, I have to say I can think of only two previous occasions when comments have upset me in three years of online publishing, so I suppose I am doing pretty well.  My pals were very supportive, as was my husband.  No sweat, right?

Hmmm.

It got me thinking about how as artists we approach taking criticism.  Art of whatever form is a subjective thing.  Whether we like it or not is a personal matter.  You can’t please all of the people all of the time, as they say.  It is just a fact of artistic life, and we can learn a great deal from it.

The problem with art in general, and writing in particular, is that it is the product of our soul.  That makes it very close to us, an expression of our feelings, of everything we believe in.  And that, in turn, makes it hard not to take criticism personally.  Which is why a negative review can feel like being emotionally disembowelled.  It can be crippling.  It can block us completely, so that we never creatively express ourselves again.  That is why it is so important to know how to deal with it.

It strikes me that there are two types of criticism.

  1. Constructive Criticism.  This is the kind that comes from readers who support your work, who appreciate what an emotional risk it is to put your work out there, and who want to help you to improve.  They give honest, caring feedback.
  2. Rants.  You know this kind of comment.  It is usually about content, not plot, pace, language or technique.  It is usually angry, often vindictive, and actually has nothing to do with your work, and everything to do with the commenter’s personal ‘stuff’.

Constructive criticism comes from a place of empathy and support.  Its aim is to help you along the road to expressing yourself better.  It may seem niggly (you missed a comma out, for instance, or left a typo in) but it is there with positive intent.

Rants are to do with issues that the critic has in their own life.  The first nasty experience I had with this was with my story, ‘Property Of:’.  A reviewer wrote a vicious snarl about how I had depicted the armed forces as being shagging frantically in trenches at every opportunity, and that it was disgusting that I should suggest this, or that Dr Watson could have been involved with a married person.  My (possibly misguided) response was to email the person in question and ask her to expand on her comments.  What I got back was a three page diatribe on the fact that Watson should be whiter-than-white and how dare I criticise the army.

Clearly she had issues surrounding infidelity and the armed forces.

I don’t write for Disney.  I deal with the real shit. Real life.   Real people.  And real people make mistakes and get scared and do weird, unexpected things under pressure.  She had her own reasons for not liking my story.  Fine.  I triggered them.  Okay.  But I am not going to change the whole tenor of what I write to please one person, however hurt they have been.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I love criticsm.  When it is constructive.

In the course of publishing daily episodes of ‘The Case of the Cuddle’, for example, I realised from comments being made that I had left out a whole area of the story between Lestrade and Mycroft.  Without it, their responses to later events made no sense.  If it had not been for those reviewers who were unafraid to ask awkward questions in a supportive way, I would not have noticed the gaping hole in my narrative.  I hacked together an extra two chapters to insert into the story, and fixed the problem.  Bravo critics.  I learnt something.  Thank you.

That is the point of contructive critisicm.  You learn something.  The way to approach any kind of criticism is to ask this question:

What can I learn from this?

So, how do you deal with criticism, nasty or kind?  Here are a few tips:

  • Take a deep breath.  Walk away.  Give yourself some space.  DO NOT immediately fire back a stroppy reply that will only provoke further attack.
  • Work out which kind of criticism is being offered.  Calmly.
  • If this person has been triggered by some issue in your work, accept their right to their emotions, however wrong they are in venting them on you.  Something horrible has clearly happened to them to provoke such an outburst.
  • You don’t necessarily have to email them, or reply at all.  If you are really upset, do not engage.
  • If you write about difficult stuff, things that are likely to trigger strong reactions in your readers, them you should expect rants a bit more often than if you only write fluff.  Be prepared, but DO NOT back off from writing about the tough stuff.  It is only if we talk about these things that we can address them in society and heal the suffering they cause.  You are doing good work.  Keep doing it.
  • If you find yourself reacting strongly to a challenging, or ranting comment, it is worth thinking about why.  Perhaps this review has triggered something for you?  My commenter from last week challenged me about a prejudice I had been kidding myself I didn’t have.  On reflection, I realised not that she had a point, because I stand by the artistic decision I made, but that there was an element of truth in her accusation.  From now on, I will think more carefully about my responses to certain situations and where they come from.  I have learnt from her, and not just in terms of my writing.
  • You do not have to rewrite your work just because someone negatively criticises it, nor should anyone expect you to do so.
  • Think about the reasons why you made the artistic or aesthetic choice you did.  If your choice is rationally defensible, ie there is a better argument than ‘because thats the way I want to do it!’ (accompanied with a stamping of the foot), then let it stand.  If, on reflection, you decide that it could have been done better had you made a different choice, then you can take the criticism on board, and maybe do it different next time.  Make the decision to learn from it.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff.  I find myself getting very gnarly when someone is kind enough to point out where I left a typo in.  Gggggrrrrrrr!  But actually, they are doing me a favour.  Not only are they acting as a free proof reader, they are also helping tackle my Perfectionism, and giving Nigel a good kick in the teeth at the same time!
  • Allow yourself to absorb the helpful comments at your own pace.  Sometimes it can be very challenging to be told your sentence structure is a bit dense, or that your character’s motivation is shaky.  Are you ready, at this point in your development as a writer, to accept this criticism?  If you are, take it on board.  If not, put it aside, and keep doing your best.
  • Don’t trust your first defensive denial.  If the comment is offered sympathetically, with the earnest desire to help, then examine it.
  • As with all criticism, take what feels truthful to you, and leave the rest.  Just let it go.
  • NO ONE has the right to browbeat you, attack you, abuse you, or verbally savage you to the point where you give up writing.  Constructive comments on the work are helpful, personal attacks are not.  Report vicious repeat flamers where necessary.  Bullying is NOT ACCEPTABLE.
  • The internet gives you the opportunity to get free comments on your work in a way that never would have been possible twenty years ago.  It is a huge resource.  People take a great deal of time and effort to read your work.  Thank them for the time they take to respond to it, and choose to learn from what they say, as far as you can.
  • Relax.  No, really.  This is not personal.  Rejoice in the feedback you get.  Why?  because it means you are OUT THERE, being seen, and that, my friend is a HUGE blessing.

No doubt there is a great deal more that I could add.  Taking criticism constructively is something you learn by doing.  It really helps to join a writers group, where you can trust your fellows to offer you helpful feedback on a regular basis, so that you get used to it, and build up your ‘resistance’. (More on writers groups in a future post) In the meantime, I return to the following, which is the best advice I can offer:

Take what feels truthful to you, and leave the rest.

Next Wednesday, I will be writing another article about how to give constructive criticism, so stay tuned!

Happy writing,

EF