Why writing in place is so powerful

Why do we write?

Take a scrap of paper and answer that question — don’t think about it too much, simply respond — Why do you write?

There are so many reasons: to bear witness; to tell stories; for the trance; because you have to… If you have ‘to get rich’ you might be in the wrong place (not that it can’t happen, but generally money is better as an offshoot than a direct aim). In short, there are many great reasons for writing.

Asked by Geoff Dyer what he saw as the ‘job of his life’ John Berger said”

Perhaps I am like all people who tell stories — storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people. Maybe when you look at their entire output you can see something that really belongs to that one person. But at any one moment it is difficult to see what the job of your life is because you are so aware of what you are lending yourself to. This is perhaps why I use the term “being a witness.” One is witness of others but not of oneself.

For Berger, this sense of witnessing involves total immersion and openness to other people and to other places.

Finding the rapture:

In Our Faces, Our Hearts, Brief as Photos, Berger describes one of those luminous moments when an ordinary place takes on an otherworldly quality:

Everything was shifting. The three pear trees, their hillock, the other side of the valley, the harvested fields, the forests. The mountains were higher, every tree and field nearer. Everything visible approached me. Rather, everything approached the place where I had been, for I was no longer in that place. I was everywhere, as much in the forest across the valley as in the dead pear tree, as much on the face of the mountain as in the field where I was raking hay.

When we write, we’re opening ourselves up in an extraordinary way. Writing takes us into another space. As Virginia Woolf described it:

I walk making up phrases; sit, contriving scenes; am in short in the

thick of the greatest rapture known to me.

The question for many writers is how to get to the ‘rapture’ without having to go by way of resistance. Some lucky people never have a problem but many will recognise this from Vladimir Nabokov:

Just when the author sits down to write, ‘the monster of grim commonsense’ will lumber up the steps to whine that the book is not for the general public, that the book will never — And right then, just before it blurts out the words,– commonsense must be shot dead.

So begin by shooting common sense dead and taking your imaginations off-guard.

The painter Paula Rego pointed out the importance of the ‘play’ element in her work. In writing we can benefit from ‘playing with language’, which permits us to relax our hold on imagination and memory. It lessens the pressure to produce a finished piece and we are more likely to catch that ‘peripheral vision’. This sense of play can also prevent the personal critic in our head from intervening, Too often this voice sits on out shoulder, frowning and muttering .

Chance and ‘the random’ take us to unpredictable places and enable different narratives. Working with chance allows the writer to challenge her unconscious assumptions about what a piece of writing ‘should be’. It also challenges the reader’s unconscious assumptions. Chance leads to surprise, revelation, the challenge of paradox and the springs of the imagination. It facilitates ways of finding subject, atmosphere and voice, and of realising the imaginative into life. Using random prompts helps to break down the chaos of possibility.

Think about these prompts and write — keep going even if you are writing the same sentence over and over or what seems to be nonsense.

  • She watches her sleep …
  • She remembers feet on white sand …
  • How long ago was it that …
  • Today they climb to the top …
  • sweat snakes down her face, she is paler with each second …

Even when we find the right headspace, the next question will be about the kind of writing you want to do. Writing involves making a lot of decisions…

Making it real

Understand that you can have in your writing no qualities which you do not honestly entertain in yourself.

Walt Whitman in his journal.

The adage ‘write what you know’ is often too simplistic. Not all writing is confessional or springs from the life we’ve lived. Cormac McCarthy hasn’t lived in early twentieth century America or a post-apocalyptic society. Nonetheless, he writes about both. He write as convincingly as Hemingway writes about war, which he did live through. Both are writing what they ‘know’, in the sense that the work is authentic. It reflects their passions, their values, the way they perceive and relate to the world.

If we care about what we are writing, then we owe it to the characters and places we are witnessing to, to ensure the writing is as polished as possible. ur writing will become: precise, sensory and take the reader into the moment we are evoking.

This is exactly what happens in the description in chapter 2 of The Great Gatsby of a poverty stricken urban area:

This is a valley of ashes — a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-grey men, who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight. … The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and, when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers on waiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour.

Similarly, in my novel, This is the End of the Story the politics, weather, music are major influences that build the picture of a certain kind of reality.

Writing about Place

Even if you are working from the mind’s eye, you must keep your senses open — observe, be precise.

Chekhov puts it like this:

Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.. ur writing will become: precise, sensory and take the reader into the moment we are evoking.

We write one true sentence and then the next true sentence. Every detail counts.

Be wary of cluttering your writing with adjectives and adverbs. Hone them back — use them with care and precision. And cut out the qualifiers — kind of, sort of, just, very, really — they do no work — somehow, suddenly… follow close behind — nothing happens ‘somehow’.

People come in context — think of a grandmother or favourite aunt — you will think of them in a place, most likely. Places tell us about character — Gatsby’s ridiculous ice-cream coloured mansion. Don’t do the lazy announcement thing — ‘Manchester, 1977, a dark and gloomy night in a terraced house…’

Try this exercise about a place that reflects a person. You might not mention the person at all in the writing and they don’t need to make an appearance. The person can be real or fictional:

First choose your person. Make a few notes about them, think of the type of place that would reflect that character — it might be a whole house or a room, it might be a tent or an open field, a workplace or a boat…

Now describe the place in the present tense — make the description precise and visual, but don’t forget the other senses.

Make every line like a photographic frame — remember, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.’

Keep in mind that in writing about your place, you are writing about something you are not saying directly about your character, but you are pointing to.

Cormac McCarthy’s opening of Suttree is a fantastic example.

Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee of walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth highshouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors no soul shall walk save you.

Get into the habit of making notes about places and make every sense work overtime so that you begin to build place portraits the way a painter might. Every detail counts. You won’t use them all, but you’ll start writing more authentic settings. Put your characters into them to see how they react there, see where they fit and where they don’t fit.

Place as a Reflection of Character

Writing about place is powerful because places reflect character. At its most acute the theory of pathetic fallacy gives emotions to place and weather, as we see in Shakespeare’s King Lear:

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! You cataracts and hurricanes, spout Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks! You sulfurous and thought-executing fires, Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts, Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder, Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world, Crack nature’s molds, all germens spill at once That make ingrateful man!

Similarly, the opening of Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist features a violent rain storm that represents the dysfunction in the lives of Sarah and Macon.

When we write about places, it isn’t mere adornment — it isn’t only about adding description. The places in which we set our stories help to define our characters and events. A good sense of place makes a story real and authentic.

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How you can turn your ‘to do’ list into your quest

‘To do’ lists can be deadening and demotivating. We all have things we have to do and some of those things are routine and don’t set the world on fire. But all too often we allow those things to take far too much time and energy. So what can we do to transform ‘to do’ lists so we don’t get stuck spending most of our time on the small, time-consuming stuff?

1. Think about your use of time

A great journalling exercise I did recently was to make a huge list of all the ways I spend my time. Then I divided the list into three groups:

  • routine things that have to get done, but which are uninspiring and can multiply to take up lots of time (C)
  • essential tasks that use my skills and are enjoyable (B)
  • the core goals that I’m most passionate about (A)

For me, the category C activities are things like emails and routine admin. This includes organising book launches, doing business accounts, buying train tickets etc.

I estimated I was spending around 40% of my time on category C activities. With another 40% on work, that left 20% of my time for family, relaxation, writing … How can core goals and values be so squeezed and thrive? Of course, they can’t. So the questions then became, what could I eliminate? What could I automate or streamline? And what could I delegate?

One of the things I noticed was that I was repeating the same information to lots of people in serial emails. I set about writing a series of information sheets for authors. These covered what to expect during the publishing process, information for launches etc.

They are all online and available for authors to download on a resource page.

We added an invaluable office manager to our team at Cinnamon Press. We employed a virtual assistant to do a routine task uploading competition details. And I started time blocking so that emails are all answered once a day. I batched other admin too, so I’m not wasting time going back and forth between different types of activity.

My category B is either work-related (editing and mentoring, for example). Category B activities are harder to limit in some ways as they are more essential and more enjoyable.

I love my work, but I don’t want to be co-terminus with it. Having supportive authors who help with these tasks makes a huge difference. I gain a lot from editing the work of others, but I’m also grateful to have trusted editors to delegate part of the process to.

I get huge satisfaction from teaching and mentoring, but sharing the load is also rewarding. I have no desire to cut the category B activities from my timetable, but a team can achieve much more than an individual. Once again, time-blocking enables me edit and mentor when I’m most focussed.

And I’m learning to say no. Loving my work does not mean I have to take on more and more until it overwhelms me. Greg McKeown asks:

Have you ever said yes when you meant no, simply to avoid conflict or friction? … the very thought of saying no brings us physical discomfort. We feel guilty. We don’t want to let someone down. … But these emotions muddle our clarity. They distract us from the reality of the fact that either we can say no and regret it for a few minutes or say yes and regret it for days, weeks, months or even years.

We all have the same amount of time each day, but how we use it makes the difference. We can spend a bigger percentage of our time on the important things if:

  • we eliminate non essential activities (no one needs to be available to a phone or messages every minute of the day)
  • streamline and/or delegate some of the routine activities
  • use blocks of time for different types of activity so you focus on the important things first and one task at a time
  • build a team to share the more essential and rewarding work
  • don’t imagine we can do it all and learn to say no

These strategies have helped me shift from spending 40% of my time on the routine ‘to do’ list to around 20% and I aim to get that down further this year.

This frees much more time for editing and mentoring, but also for my category A activities. These include writing, travel, learning, family time and relaxation.

2. Think about why certain activities are important to you

We all have different goals, different category A activities that are more ‘quest’ than ‘to do’. It’s sad that the pace of life often relegates these to the ‘add-ons’ that we hardly have any time for. But the more passionate we are about these things, the less we will find excuses for not doing them.

As I said in recent post:

Your goals should be your passion and, if they are, then it’s no longer a matter of forcing yourself on by dogged willpower.

It helps to know why we we value certain activities over others. This is what Benjamin Hardy advises:

Think about what it is you want, and ask yourself this simple question:

What about ___________ is important to me?

If your goal is to work from home, then ask yourself the question:

What about “working from home” is important to me?

Your answer might be something like, “to have a more flexible schedule.”

You then put THAT into the previous question.

It’s good to go at least 7-questions deep into this exercise.

Don’t overthink it. Let the answers come and move on and you’ll find your thinking is much clearer than you imagined.

For me:

Writing is the most meaningful and transformative activity I undertake. It’s fundamental to how I reflecting on life and connect with others. Becoming a different story is my life’s work.

Travel puts me in unfamiliar places and situations. This in turn stimulates creativity, writing, thought and deeper work.

Family (including an extended family of close friends) makes my world make sense. These are the people who teach me to live from abundance rather than scarcity. These are the people who confirm for my that generosity is the key virtue.

Keeping fit facilitates other goals. I’m less than 5 feet tall and have a slow metabolism so to maintain my energy I need to be fit, of moderate weight, flexible and well-nourished. It’s about valuing my most basic resource: myself, so that I can give.

Personal development is also foundational to my goals. When my daily rituals, habits, learning, attention to values and relaxation are in harmony, the rest follows.

If we are clear about what matters most and why these things matter, we are more likely to live life as an exciting quest rather than a tedious to do list.

3. Think about building your life on values rather than ‘oughts’

When we face a long list of things we have to do, resistance sets in. Life becomes drudgery sustained by a diminishing supply of willpower. Even if we manage to achieve everything on the list, we’re not likely to take much pleasure of pride from it.

When we manage our time by eliminating, streamlining, delegating, sharing, time blocking and saying no, we find we have ‘more time’.

When we know what we are passionate about and why, we release energy that is much more effective than willpower.

And when we act from our deepest values rather than ‘oughts’ imposed on us from outside, then this energy increases beyond our imagining.

Living from values gives us this bigger vision. Living from values comes from intrinsic motivation rather than from something imposed on us.

As with goals, we will each have different value sets. But something I’ve found useful is to use a system attributed to Benjamin Franklin. He decided on thirteen key virtues and each week of the year would focus on one of them so that over the year he’d concentrate on each value four times.

I’ve written my values into a tiny book (less than two inches square) that I can carry with me. The first two for me are generosity and abundance. It was fascinating to spend time journalling to reach my list of thirteen. And starting each day thinking about how I can show that value in my life is much more motivating than starting the day thinking about a to do list. It doesn’t mean that there are no routine jobs to do, but it keep them in perspective.

4. Think about taking time out

When you know how you want to live and why; when you know the values your life rests on, life becomes a quest rather than a mundane list of demands on your time. This is exhilarating and motivating and it demands that we redirect our energy to what matters to us. How do we do that?

i. We need to take space to think

I’m currently rereading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own— it’s an important text and the idea that we need a dedicated space in which to write is essential. Over the last week I’ve set up a dedicated writing room in which to work. It has 23 years of past journals, all the books I’ve bought but still need to read, and important texts that have informed my current thinking. It’s a place I can go to think or write. If you can’t take a whole room, find a desk, a corner, any space that you can call your own and where you can think and write.

ii. We need to create a mindset that helps us to focus

Whatever your daily commitments, journalling morning and evening can make all the difference. Five minutes of writing about how you envisage your future. Five minutes of reflecting on how you have used your time, lived your ‘why’ or values, makes an enormous impact on how you see the world and interact with it. Take time every day to affirm and reflect and watch your world change.

Environment is crucial to our perspective and when we take control of it, things happen.,

iii. We need time in other environments

This is why travel is so important to me. It places me in unfamiliar places and stimulates creativity, writing, thought and deeper work. If you can’t leave the country, go for a long walk; swap houses with a friend for a week. Do something that shifts your perspective and in the unfamiliar situation you will find yourself having new thoughts.

In short

If you want your life to be a quest rather than a mere ‘to do’ list; and want to make a difference, there are a few simple strategies:

  • think about your use of time — you have as much time as anyone else and it’s up to you how you use it.
  • think about why certain activities are important to you — dig deep until you find what matters to you.
  • think about your values and build your life around intrinsic motivation, not what someone says you ‘ought’ to do.
  • think about taking time out, whether in daily journalling or unfamiliar environments that challenge you to adopt new perspectives.

When you begin to make these changes you’ll find life is no longer a mundane to do list, but a quest of your own making. Enjoy!

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4 reasons why writers need to take their freedom seriously

1. Writers hold out a vision of transformation

The writing life demands a degree of reflection.

Writers are people who walk around with their senses open, determined to stay awake in a world where so many people seem to be half asleep.

Writers are those with imagination and insight.

They are people who reflect an extraordinary world within that can transform the world without.

Writers are not those who go with the flow.

People may claim to often that a book is ‘life-changing’ but nonetheless every time we read, there is the possibility of a new perspective and growth.

And if the written word is so transformative then the chances are that writers have power and responsibility.

2. Writers are witnesses

When Geoff Dyer asked John Berger what he saw as the ‘job of his life’, replied:

Perhaps I am like all people who tell stories — storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people. Maybe when you look at their entire output you can see something that really belongs to that one person. But at any one moment it is difficult to see what the job of your life is because you are so aware of what you are lending yourself to. This is perhaps why I use the term “being a witness.” One is witness of others but not of oneself.

For Berger, this sense of being a witness involved total immersion and openness to other people and other places.

The notion of the writer as witness is a lot to live up to, yet it is compelling. In The Artist’s Way Julia Cameron challenges writers to become witnesses. There are countless novels that are a testimony not only inward states, human emotion and condition, but also to events.

Books like Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man witness to the legacy of the Holocaust, so that it becomes part of common consciousness.

The film Hiroshima mon amor, from the book by Marguerite Dumas, witnesses to the existential crisis of lovers who need to cling to one another after horror.

The South African poet, Mongane Wally Serote witnesses to the events of apartheid:

I want to look at what happened,

That done,

As silent as the roots of plants pierce the soil

I look at what happened…

When knives creep in and out of people

As day and night into time.

And the list could go on.

Extraordinary writing witnesses not only to historical or political events, but also to emotional states and human relationships.

3. Writers reconstitute the world

As people who bear witness to the human condition; witness to stories that would otherwise go unheard and to the possibilities that lie ahead, writers deal with how much we can achieve.

As Adrienne Rich puts it:

My heart is moved by all I cannot save: so much has been destroyed I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.

This requires belief in freedom. By opening up new horizons through writing, writers take on enormous responsibility. Our writing shifts the perspective of readers and widens their choices as a result. Thought is a powerful thing.

4. Writers shape reality

What do we believe about reality? How do we conceive the nature of our existence and freedom?

None of us can transcend the facts of existence: we exist in a universe of physical laws and principles. Environment, language and culture shape us in complex ways. And to some extent we never become aware of all these influences or shake free of them.

But we are not reducible to those influences. Neither are we the roles we adopt; none of us is only a writer, a mother, a daughter, a musician. Only objects or deities (if they figure in your world view) are wholly one thing. God is God. A table is a table.

Human beings are complex and changeable. We are conscious, or should be if we are brave enough to stay awake in the world.

Humans can transcend certain ‘givens’ –

  • the class we’re born into
  • the racial stereotypes projected onto us
  • the social expectations around us are not who we are.

As Sartre claims, we have the ability to negate these expectations and to become anything.

And it’s not only philosophers who think like this. Increasingly, research suggests not only that we have plastic brains that can adapt and change, but also that our biology is more fluid than we conceived previously. (Studies in epigenetics are rapidly expanding our understanding of this, for example. Nessa Carey’s The Epigenetics Revolution)

This amount of freedom is terrifying and wonderful. It means that authentic living requires that we take our autonomy seriously.

It means that I am never identical with my current ‘self’, yet always responsible for sustaining, challenging and growing it.

It means I can’t hide behind phrases like ‘ this is the way I am’ or ‘it’s in my genes/my past experiences…’

If I choose to remain a certain way, it is a choice, and there is no lying to myself about that. Quoting Sartre:

You can always make something out of what you’ve been made into.

The inner world is a powerful place that changes how we experience the outer world.

Stories, poems and articles make their way into our subconscious and transform how we interact with the world and impact on it.

By being writers who take this seriously we open up a world of new thinking and new ways of being, for ourselves and for those who engage with our writing.

Writing is an awesome thing to do and we do it best when we become people who take our freedom and imagination seriously.

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7 ways to turn New Year resolutions into lasting action

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It’s the time of the year when we begin making resolutions. By the end of January lots of those resolutions will be waning and by Spring most will have been forgotten. Why? Because lots of resolutions are not things we desire, for a start. So often we focus on things we ought to be doing, whether it’s dieting or writing the magnum opus rather than things we want to be doing. This stacks the odds against us before we begin. Or we set off armed with willpower and good intentions, thinking we can resolve to do a hundred things a day (preferably before breakfast), but find that willpower is an exhaustible trait. We end up overwhelmed, achieving none of the resolutions on the list. At other times, we fail to set up environments that nurture success or don’t leave any time for looking after ourselves. How do we break through this self-defeating pattern? How do we move beyond the kind of resolutions that we admit we have no confidence in from the outset?

1. Keep your list focussed

You don’t have to have twenty resolutions, or even five. How about a couple of big priorities? Or one important project? As David Allen says:

You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.

When we are overwhelmed we give up. If we try to expend energy in lots of areas, then even if we make progress it’s likely to be by increments. To achieve an important goal takes focus and attention so the more you hone your resolutions the more likely you are to stay with them. If you want to write that book this year and you also need to get fitter and lose weight, of course you can do both, but try making one of the goals the key priority for the first 90 days of the year to get the rhythm established. Once you’ve given it the time it needs you are likely to be able to keep the diet going while you prioritise the next big goal for 90 days. And while you are majoring on overhauling your nutrition you can be planning the book. Then, when you are ready to refocus, gather your notes and drafts and work on the creative project.

2. Make your environment work for you

If your environment is full of distractions, it will be much harder to achieve your goals. It doesn’t matter whether you are trying to write a novel or learn to dance, you need to focus. If you are serious about your project, having a routine that gets you into the right head space is vital. It might be meditation, journalling or listening to particular music. It might be eating protein for breakfast or sitting with a bowl of mint tea. It might be starting your day with a walk to find the creative flow, as Virginia Woolf describes in her 1953 diary:

I walk making up phrases; sit, contriving scenes; am in short in the thick of the greatest rapture known to me.

Or as John Berger describes when walking:

Everything was shifting. The three pear trees, their hillock, the other side of the valley, the harvested fields, the forests. The mountains were higher, every tree and field nearer. Everything visible approached me. Rather, everything approached the place where I had been, for I was no longer in that place. I was everywhere, as much in the forest across the valley as in the dead pear tree, as much on the face of the mountain as in the field where I was raking hay.

(From Our Faces, Our Hearts, Brief as Photos)

There are lots of ways to find the luminous moment or the state of flow in which to create. But it’s unlikely to be through from Internet surfing, checking your friends’ Facebook updates or sending tweets. It’s unlikely to be sustainable if your phone is six inches away and pinging to let you know you have a new message, a new text or that five apps need updating. Whether you’ve resolved to do daily yoga, read for an hour every day, improve your photography skills or write and post three blogs a week, you need uninterrupted, undistracted time.

A creative environment will eschew the endless noise in favour of something deeper. In the words of T.S. Eliot:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

3. Eliminate the small stuff

Achieving goals takes time and energy. Focussing on a couple of important aims and creating an environment in which you won’t be distracted make a huge difference, but you also need time. That book won’t write itself. A great way to make time is by saying no to many calls on our attention that land in our inbox. If you’re a people-pleaser this can be hard — some of us feel we should say yes to every request. But that way lie frustration and breaking promises to yourself. Being in reactive mode is draining, not only in time, but emotionally, leaving us scooped out and in no state to be creative.

You need to think about how you use your time. We all have important commitments to family or work or simple life processes, but there will also be things we do that could batched into one time-efficient block to. I now answer emails at one time each afternoon. It’s still a timely response to those who email me, but it prevents me go from and back and forth to the inbox all day, wasting time in the process. Some tasks might not even need doing at all. I used to reply to every email. Now, I no longer respond to emails sending unsolicited manuscripts for publication. Many of these arrive while we’re closed to submissions and contain genres we don’t publish. The senders have no sympathy for the press or they would have taken the time to find out anything about Cinnamon Press so I delete the emails. It was a big step for me to do this. It felt ungracious and harsh, but it makes me less distracted and ragged with more energy for essential Cinnamon work and my own writing. As Greg McKeown says in Essentialism:

To eliminate non-essentials means saying no to someone. Often. It means pushing against social expectations. To do it well takes courage and compassion.

4. Nurture yourself

It seems obvious, but a lot of busy, creative people forget to look after themselves. I’m not talking about being selfish, but we do need nurture to achieve our goals and to make a contribution to the world. Quoting Greg McKeown again:

If we underinvest in ourselves, and by that I mean our minds, our bodies and our spirits, we damage the very tool we need to make our highest contribution.

If you don’t get enough sleep, if you can’t remember the last time you laughed, if you haven’t done some relaxing activity in the last week or month or … (for me it’s long hot bubble baths) then achieving dreams is going to be harder. If your nutrition is poor or your diet is full of sugar, you’re likely to be more sluggish and less focussed. And the same applies to the way we choose relaxing activities. Several hours of low-quality TV every evening only serves to sap time and energy. A challenging film that makes us think, a great book or taking up fencing or yoga … is much more likely to be relaxing. And high quality relaxation feeds the mind and body, making us more energetic, more full of ideas, more creative.

5. Find a partner in resolution

Trying to goad ourselves forward through a major project is demanding and if we have only ourselves to account to we’re more likely to give up. When I was writing the poetry sequence Slate Voices, I had a co-writer who was writing a sequence about the Scottish slate islands while I focussed on a tiny Welsh valley. If I hadn’t kept up the writing, I’d have been letting down another poet. The current trilogy of novels I’m working on, beginning with This is the End of the Story, has a publisher. I have a commitment to an editor and to Liquorice Fish Books. This year I’m working within a mentoring programme that includes small groups of people with similar goals. We aim to hold each other accountable. I also see the value of this when working in my capacity as a writing mentor with Cinnamon Press. Goals that are public and shared are much more likely to be sustainable.

You might find a mentor or agree with a friend or small group that you will keep one another accountable. However you do it, make the promise to yourself bigger than your own willpower.

6. Break the big goals into manageable steps

If you need to lose 40 pounds it’s going to take time. You will have to make a lifestyle shift to a sustainable long-term diet, not starve yourself for a month. If you are going to write three interlocking novels, you need to think about what to do first. Are you the kind of writer who starts with character studies or a seed for the story? Do you plan chapter outlines or dive in and restructure it later? Will the books need a lot of background research?

In the last couple of days I’ve broken my 2018 goals down into tiny steps and hand-written them into a diary with an entry every day. I’ve got a plan for how many words per week I need to write for novel 3 whilst finishing the editing and beginning some promotion for novel 2. I have a morning routine of journalling and yoga, which I’ve entered daily. And I’ve written in deadlinees to plan trips, buy train tickets and book accommodation for travel to research and write. The problem with a lot of New Year resolutions is that we make them as though we are making three wishes or asking Father Christmas for new toys. It’s not surprising that they fail to materialise. As Antoine de Saint Exupéry says:

A goal without a plan is just a wish.

7. Choose goals you care about

Resolving to do things we ought to do or things that others expect of us won’t make for lasting goals. The truth is that if you have no intrinsic motivation you’ll give up. On the other hand, if you choose goals that you are so zealous about that you have to do them, then you are setting yourself up for success. Your goals should be your passions and, if they are, then it will no longer be a matter of forcing yourself on by dogged willpower.

Writing about home education (home schooling) in the book, Doing it Their Way. I argued that intrinsic motivation is the key to real education. Children learn best when they are engaged with the learning, when they are making choices and pursuing their passions. We are no different as adults. The most important way to transform your New Year Resolutions into plans that you will put into action is to ask yourself what you most want to achieve. What is it that’s so important that you have to do it in 2018?

I’m going to prioritise my writing in 2018, completing the third novel of a trilogy for publication in 2019 and publishing at least one blog each week. I’m going to take some time out to travel for research and writing. What is it that you absolutely have to do in 2018?

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You can always reinvent yourself for the better

Resistance is the secret of joy
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Alice Walker’s protagonist, Tashi, declares this towards the end of the novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy. There’s something to be said for being able to withstand hard times, keeping going and remaining determinedly consistent, whether in a writing project or in life. I’ve always had a high tolerance for routine and stubbornly putting one foot in front of the other. My childhood led to me becoming a stoic with a work ethic that has told me to ‘get on with it’. And I’ve sometimes had to reinvent myself when circumstances closed doors unexpectedly.
 
But along the way I’ve also learned that it’s not all about resistance and stoically getting on with things. Five things in particular have made a huge difference to being able to keep going when things got overwhelming. We can always reinvent ourselves for the better and doing this has been key to every transformation I’ve made.
 

1. Reach out to others

 
I was raised to do things myself and not to ask for help. But when the press I founded hit a funding crisis a few years ago I learned that reaching out, for ideas and for practical support, is a much better solution. It sounds obvious, but asking for help is one of the most profound things I’ve learned to do as an adult.
 
In the film About a Boy (from the novel by Nick Hornby) the summing up is that we need people. We are not islands, as John Donne noted, and if we behave like we need no one we’ll soon find we have no one. Both writing and life require collaboration. And the more generous that collaboration is, the more support and inspiration everyone involved will experience.
 

2. Be generous

 
When we live as though resources (whether material or emotional) are in short supply, it’s likely to become true. The converse is also the case. Generosity is vital to living abundantly and there are so many ways to be generous, with our time, with our attention, with our skills … the list is endless.
 
When we give, it changes us. When we act like love, kindness and time are not about to run out forever, we become different people, we are telling a different story about ourselves.
 
 

3. Take time out to discover your passion

 
Earlier in 2017 I was lucky to experience the amazing benefits of travel and deep, focussed writing time for a whole month in Budapest. It was a life-changing month. I returned with a persistent voice in my head that now insists there is always an alternative way to achieve your passions. Listening to that voice has been terrifying at times. It’s telling me I need to take more time for my own writing and that this can be as good for Cinnamon Press as it is for me; making the press tighter, more focussed, more excellent whilst not consuming all of my time.
 
My passions are writing and travel. I love Cinnamon Press and the work I do with authors, but I know I have to make the two things work together to stay true to myself.
 

4. Invest in yourself

 
So many of us have been taught to put ourselves last. Egoism isn’t pretty and I’m not advising it, but investing in our skills; using time for self-development and education instead of Internet surfing and mass entertainment enables us to hone skills and reflect on values. In 2018 I’m giving a big chunk of time to my writing skills and to making goals happen. It’s part of a long journey and you can read more about it in this blog by Benjamin P Hardy on Huffpost.
 

5. Dig Deeper

As we approach 2018, what’s your inner voice telling you? If it’s telling you to keep quiet and put up with being overwhelmed, overworked or miserable, don’t listen. Dig deeper, find your passion and go for it. Don’t let your life be run for you and don’t listen to anything that whispers that your creative passions are self-indulgent. The more creative you are and the more you do what you love the more you will have to give to the world.
Thank you for reading. I’d love you to sign up to follow the blog and receive my newsletter and you can also follow my writing on Medium.

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Don’t Be a Personal Brand, Be a Person

animals-2739386_1920In a world teeming with the rhetoric of consumption, authors have to play a part in getting their work into the world. But in the eagerness to see our books find readers, it’s tempting to overwhelm the writing with promotion. Does every author have to blog, spend hours on Facebook, run a website, tweet, be active on LinkedIn, Instagram and Pinterest, secure literary festival engagements, organise a reading tour and get promotional flyers printed, preferably before breakfast?

Some of those activities might be useful or apposite for an individual writer. Blogging, building an email list of interested readers and the occasional tweet feel like the right fit for me. But the more worrying concept that underpins our anxiety about needing to be everywhere, doing everything, is that each of us ought to be styling ourselves as a ‘personal brand’. This thinking makes not only what we write just another consumer product, but also makes the writer into a ‘product’.

So what’s wrong with that?

Writers want to find readers. Even given that a lot of what we write never makes it into the public domain (journals, notebooks, aborted stories and poems…) somewhere along the line we want people to engage. Writers work with a reader in mind and communicate things that matter to them. If things go well, the end of a particular writing project will be a beautifully-produced book that you want the world to know about.

The book is a product and if you care about it you will promote it. The hope is that you can do so without getting distracted from your main purpose: being a writer. This might mean getting some expert help. Or it might entail finding ways to support your book that don’t overwhelm you. It shouldn’t mean that you, the writer, become a ‘personal brand’ and this is why:

1. We don’t respond well to anything that has designs on us

counselling; pixabay

Writing to John Hamilton Reynolds in 1818, Keats noted:

We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us — and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle or amaze with itself, but with its subject.

The same is true of any writing. When a piece of writing is didactic and beats us over the head with its convictions, we tend to resist. But when an article or story communicates something of significance, it gets under our skin. It convinces without brow-beating.

What is true of our writing is true of writers. We resist writers who do nothing but try to sell to us. That’s not to say we should never try to sell, but no one likes to be sold to constantly. When writers are more ‘brand’ than ‘person’ then they become both unattractive and counterproductive.

2. Authenticity speaks louder than sales pitch

voltamax; pixabay

If you don’t love your book and care about it getting into the world, it’s likely no one else will either. That doesn’t mean you have to be in permanent marketing mode. Passion communicates itself. If you love what you are writing, care about what it stands for, write well and communicate well, the authenticity will shine through.

At its simplest, promoting writing demands a transparency to the work that is infectious. You don’t come across as genuine by being a brand. Rather, people soon tire of someone who hustles them, suspecting that a person who packages herself is little more than:

a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

(Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5)

3. You’re a person, not a commodity

geralt; pixabay

Being a personal brand is about creating yourself as a ‘package’ that gives a particular impression. It’s a static image that limits you and needs to be constantly maintained. Of course, we all present ourselves in a myriad of ways; the self is fluid and we have many roles. But the notion of the brand has an ‘acted persona’ at its heart. It creates an image that appears ‘on stage’ but which may not be congruent with our values or our writing. What matters most in establishing a brand identity is self-promotion.

As D. J. Lair has argued in ‘Marketization and the Recasting of the Professional Self: The Rhetoric and Ethics of Personal Branding’:

success is not determined by individuals’ internal sets of skills, motivations, and interests but, rather, by how effectively they are…branded.

The self becomes a commodity and not necessarily and honest one.

4. You’re an individual, not a thing

Elljay: pixabay

A brand is an object that is perceived in a certain way; not simply the product in itself, but a whole complex of product, logo, promises, expectations and lifestyle allusions. That’s not my definition of a writer.

A brand can also be a mark left on property — it’s a mark of ownership; a practice associated with cattle or slavery. A branded item is a commodity bought and sold. That’s definitely not my definition of a writer.

Don’t be a brand, be yourself — be honest, be passionate, have values you are zealous about and want to share, tell the world what you do and keep your soul. Don’t become a brand, become a different story.

Want to become a different story?

If you’d like to keep thinking differently about writing, creativity and life, please sign up to follow this blog and sign up for the Be a Different Story Newsletter. You can also follow my writing on Medium

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Why disruption makes us more creative

panorama-2580527__340For twelve years I’ve been running an independent literary press. I love it. What began as a one-book project became a prize-winning indie with a great poetry and fiction list. After a funding crisis in 2012, well-wishers flocked to make sure we survived. Since then, the press has developed a list of 30 titles a year, a book club, competitions, residential writing courses and a mentoring scheme. In 2015, we packed our tenth anniversary with celebrations, looking forward to the next decade.

Success or burnout?

Yet two years later, we were feeling the strain. Why?

We have volunteer help from authors, including our wonderful office manager. We continued to love the books, the events, the places we visit for launches and the people we meet. But despite this, we were always running to stand still. Fatigue was beginning to set in and then …

The shock of changing gear

We got the opportunity to take time off. While founding and running Cinnamon Press, I’ve continued to write. But, although I’ve published novels and poetry collections, the writing was squeezed into the margins of a packed schedule. When I started work on a trilogy, I knew it would demand much deeper concentration and focus. I was fortunate to get an Arts Council grant to travel to Hungary to research and write. The time in Budapest was extraordinary. Draft after draft of the novel flowed and I learnt a huge amount from writing in the place where the novel is set. I was able to talk to authors, editors and museum curators , who kindly gave me their time. And the writing benefited from being able to walk the streets, taking in the place for an extended period.

Peak experiences change you

I came back changed. Peak experiences do this. Experiences that interrupt our well-worn cycles, that give us chance to wonder and thankful, result in shifts in how we see the world. It also made me question how I want to use my time. I came back knowing that I could no longer marginalise my own creativity and expect to be an enthusiastic editor and writing mentor. And I came back eager I to reclaim the vision of Cinnamon Press as innovative, outward-looking and independent. My ideal has always been to focus on excellent literature and I wanted to take stock of that.

In the first twelve years, two things had conspired to create an overwhelming ‘to do’ list. My determination to keep Cinnamon Press going in difficult times had led to taking on more and more work. And my tendency to find it difficult to say ‘no’ exacerbated this. I was spreading myself thinly while allowing expectations to escalate.

It was time to stand back and review. This process is ongoing — we began by looking at everything we do as a press as well as personal and use of time. It was clear from the outset that we needed to examine the publications list. When you say ‘yes’ too often, you end up taking on projects that don’t quite align with your original values. We’ve now put in a plan to lower the number of publications by 2020. A list of fifteen titles a year will still be a significant number for a two-person (plus volunteers) indie press, but it will be more sustainable. We’ll review it again once we’ve achieved this, especially in the light of our own writing goals.

Next we worked to create a series of resource sheets for authors. The aim was to produce clear guidelines, make the way we work more transparent, and to give authors tools to promote their work. It’s early days, but it’s a big step towards not having to reinvent the wheel to answer recurring questions.

The next step was to look at the balance of tasks. I made a list of every job imaginable, grouped them into sections and drew up a weekly cycle of time blocks. Relegating emails and reactive tasks to one period each weekday was liberating. an meant we could prioritise tasks like editing or mentoring. It was a shock to realise that I’d been spending over 40% of my time on reactive administrative tasks. The goal is to get this down to 10% of my time, releasing energy for creative work.

What I’m learning is that it’s possible to ask for help and that routine tasks don’t have to become distractions that expand into all available time.

Reconnecting with the vision

Making these changes has also meant taking time to re-visit the original vision and values for the Cinnamon Press. It’s important that the list focuses on diverse, distinctive voices and remains independent and outward looking. Above all, we want to present a different story, one that isn’t found in mainstream publishing. Reconnecting with this vision has given new vitality to my own writing: becoming a different story is at the heart of my creative process.

Taking a few weeks out this summer proved to be disruptive to my work and my priorities and that’s a great thing. Now I’m looking forward to more creative disruption.

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