Monthly Archives: January 2018

21 ways to tell when you’re a writer

You’re a writer when:

1. you write

Don’t dream of being a writer or plan to be one one day. As Jeff Goins says:

Believe you are what you want to be. And then start acting like it.

You don’t need permission. Be it and do it.

2. you start a project and work at it

It’s so easy to get stuck on what you should be writing. We all have abortive projects and failed experiments. That’s fine. It’s how we learn. But if the problem is that you can never commit to any project that’s not so fine. If every time you think of something to write, you decide it’s not good enough to begin or follow through with, that’s paralysing.

Don’t let fear whisper in your ear that you need a better idea, that you have to walk the dog first, that you need to do the laundry before you sit down to write… Nabokov has it right:

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

Don’t let fear whisper in your ear that you need a better idea, that you have to walk the dog first, that you need to do the laundry before you sit down to write…

Dear Reader

 

I hope you’d like to read on – you can find the rest of this post here

 

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Lark or night owl, you need habits to nurture creativity

Lark or night owl, you need habits to nurture creativity

All kinds of things effect our creativity and designing habits for a creative environment can have a huge impact.

As Benjamin P Hardy says:

If you don’t purposefully carve time out every day to progress and improve — without question, your time will get lost in the vacuum of our increasingly crowded lives. Before you know it, you’ll be old and withered — wondering where all that time went.

Getting into peak state for creativity

To be in a peak state for creativity you need to have clarity about your mission, whether it’s losing weight or writing a novel. You need to use time so well that you can make this mission happen. This will require eliminating time wasting activities and distractions.

In short to be in peak creative state you need to optimise your time, which means:

  • Your work should not occupy 80% of your time. You need down time so that you are not fatigued.
  • You need a significant amount of technology-free time. Blue-light screens interfere with sleep patterns so having time without devices before bed is good practice. When you wake up you are in a liminal state between sleep and wake that can be highly creative, so don’t waste that time on emails or social media. And, through the day, a lot of social media is mindless and draining and you can answer emails in one block in the afternoon.
  • You need to do something to move your body every day. Whether it’s walking or yoga or a serious gym workout, sendentariness and creativity don’t go together.
  • You need to be reflecting in some way — journalling and/or meditating.
  • You need sources of inspiration: good company and conversation, reading, art …
  • You need to be awake, which requires enough good quality sleep.

The question is, when do we do all this?

Do we all need to be larks?

I hope you’ll read on –

You can find the rest of this blog here

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Stop following your dreams and do this instead

When I was home educating four children, other parents were often aghast at how ‘brave’ this was. They would tell me that if their children weren’t in school and ‘made to study’, they would learn nothing. To me, the idea of children who were not full of questions and hungry to learn every second of the day seemed extraordinary.

Our different views of children and how learning works came from different experiences. What I observed was that by respecting children’s autonomy, their intrinsic motivation stayed in tact. In a supportive environment, children could choose their learning. Knowledge and skills flowed when the learner was in control. Their confidence and competence levels rose as a result.

This is why I became fascinated by intrinsic motivation when writing books like Winning Parent, Winning Child.

More recently I’ve been thinking about what it takes to create a life of value through work. And once again I’ve returned to thinking about intrinsic motivation. I’ve been reading Cal Newton’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which led me to researching Self Determination Theory:

Conditions supporting the individual’s experience of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are argued to foster the most volitional and high quality forms of motivation and engagement for activities, including enhanced performance, persistence, and creativity.

When we having autonomy over aspects of our lives; when we are skillful and connected, then the motivation doesn’t have to applied from outside. This is as true of our work as it is of children learning.

And whether it’s the life of a scientist or a writer, work that motivates us and in which we find value and meaning is a great goal. We all desire this kind of work. We want creativity, control and the possibility of making a difference through what we do. Such work is something to feel passionate about.

So what’s wrong with finding our passion and following those dreams?

I hope you’ll read on … here

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5 reasons why shaking up your environment will make your writing excel

As I write I’m sitting in a cottage in North Wales looking out on a sunlit winter hillside. The trees are bare, bracken a deep swathe of rust across the vivid green. The silence is deep and the distractions few.

I’ve been working with a group of writers who I or one of our Cinnamon Press authors has mentored over the last year. This is the only slot in the three day intensive timetable that I have some down time. There rest is writing workshops, one-to-one sessions, cooking for the group, evenings reading back work with them.

But the energy here has been extraordinary and I’ve been jotting down ideas for new blog posts or journalling in every gap or early in the morning.

I’ve got another of these writing residentials at the end of next week and I expect it to be as intense and exhausting. I also expect it to be as creative, energising and idea-filled.

Bringing together a group of people who’ve invested in their writing and who are passionate and committed to their craft is part of the magic. The buzz of ideas is thrilling.

And we’ve enhanced this by getting people away from their normal environments. When we shift environments so many creative things happen. …

 

Dear List Members

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If you have a a few minutes to read on with the post above please click here. The posts on Medium t will be out every Tuesday and Friday and this is the latest.

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8 reasons why you should never compromise

1. Compromise is another word for mediocrity

Reaching agreements with other people is a valuable skill. To be able to negotiate and find common ground is demanding and rewarding. To reach solutions in which all parties feel satisfied, listened to and taken seriously is a major achievement.

But that’s not what compromise is. Compromise is about reaching a settlement, whether or not it feels authentic. Compromise is all too often about accepting an outcome that has lower standards than we want to countenance.

As Tim Fargo says:

Compromise is a sign you’ll pass on the road to mediocrity.

When I began Cinnamon Press I wanted to develop writers who demanded a high level of attention and wakefulness from their readers. I wanted to publish books that challenged readers to stay awake and live boldly. I wanted to champion writers who were diverse, distinctive and daring. I wanted to publish those who write differently, who produce small wonders in each book.

Many of the books from our first twelve years have achieved these goals. But not all of them.

Many of our publications are beautifully-designed, high quality, radically distinctive books. But whilst keeping the press going some compromises occurred.

I’m done with that. If a book isn’t consistent with our definition of excellence, then it’s not for us. This involves some hard decisions and some difficult conversations, but either the work we do is mediocre or great. It’s a choice. Compromise is a way of staying in the shallows when you should be heading for the depths.

2. Compromise isn’t about listening and learning from others, it’s about giving in

This is not to say that we should become intransigent. Other people may have visions and perspectives we haven’t considered. Learning from others is vital.

Those with super-inflated egos or closed minds might claim they don’t compromise. But what they are actually doing is refusing to learn and grow.

This isn’t what I’m advocating.

Being open to new ideas and being able to take advice is a mark of humility and flexibility. But doing whatever anyone else wants of you or saying yes to everything that comes along is simply weak and ill-considered.

By all means, listen and weigh the options, but know why you say yes and no and how each decision reflects your ideals, goals and values.

Don’t agree to take on work or go down a route someone else suggests because it seems like the easiest thing to do at that time. That way resentment lies.

C.S. Lewis captures it with ironic precision in The Screwtape Letters:

Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts,…

What might seem like an easy life for the short term is likely to become the albatross around your neck. And it’s much harder to extricate yourself from a situation that doesn’t fit your values than it is to refuse it in the first place.

3. Compromise undermines our values

When you make compromises or say yes to projects against your better judgement your values suffer. Imagining you are doing it to please someone or out of kindness or for a quieter life doesn’t change this.

If you value excellence in writing but publish a book that isn’t up to your standards, then it’s your standards that suffer. If you become involved in a project that has inferior values to the ones you live by, then you are supporting those inferior values. We are what we do. As Gandhi notes:

our beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.

We will often say yes to things we know are not in our value-set rather than offend or disappoint someone. The regret and resentment that follows is often much more difficult than the initial difficult conversation. And telling someone we can’t follow through on a promise is much harder than never making the promise.

How much better to know your values and live by them. As Aesop cautions:

Don’t let your special character and values, the secret that you know and no one else does, the truth — don’t let that get swallowed up by the great chewing complacency.

4. Compromise eats away at your self-respect, your passion and your soul

Compromises, no matter how small we tell ourselves they are, change our souls.

Consistent people with clear values can listen to others and make adjustments as they learn, but they don’t ‘give in’, ‘go with the flow’ or choose ‘anything for an easy life’.

If you are passionate about something and give up because it’s difficult, you lose something of yourself. If you care for something but walk away when supporting it is demanding, your self-respect is likely to plummet.

Listening to others can be instructive.

Giving up on our dreams and passions is soul-destroying. When we go small on our goals and values, we shrivel inside.

In the words of Mahatma Gandhi again:

…there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on mere fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take.

When you live by values your integrity shines through and you stand out as someone who is trust-worthy. Compromise makes you inconsistent

5. Compromise makes you inconsistent

If we don’t live by values; if we compromise to please others, we’re likely to be inconsistent. Trying to be people-pleasers is a difficult and circuitous path. It makes us blow with the wind rather than being people of integrity.

When I’m choosing books for the Cinnamon Press list using criterion about excellence, distinctive voice and a contribution to independent literature, I know that not only will the books excel, but people will understand what we are doing.

Whatever your area if interest, you need a clear set of values to operate from so that people can understand and trust where you are coming from.

As Tony Robbins has said:

It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives. It’s what we do consistently.

6. Compromise is exhausting and depletes your health and energy

The knock-on is that not only do we feel smaller and less worthy, but that our motivation, energy and even physical well-being suffer.

In Julian Barnes’s novel, The Sense of an Ending, protagonist sums up how compromise saps us of moral and emotional strength:

In my terms, I settled for the realities of life, and submitted to its necessities: if this, then that, and so the years passed. In Adrian’s terms, I gave up on life, gave up on examining it, took it as it came. And so, for the first time, I began to feel a more general remorse — a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred — about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the friends of my youth. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded — and how pitiful that was.

7. Compromise involves putting money before abundance

So often the reason for compromise is financial. We all have commitments and bills to pay, but when we chase money first we tend to put our big goals on hold. When bills are calling, it’s hard to see any income as ‘the wrong money’, but short term gain can often add up to long term drudgery.

This year at Cinnamon Press we’ve taken on half the number of mentoring students, halving that income stream. The up-side is having students who are on course for great writing. We’ve cut back on the number of books we publish, which seems counter-intuitive, but actually allows us to put more effort into the books that truly excite us.

As Jim Collins says:

Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, as it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice.

An abundant life is richer and deeper than immediate monetary gratification. Quantity and abundance are not the same thing. An abundant life is one that is full of choice, knowledge, relationships, experiences…

Money can be a great resource, but it’s not an end in itself and living for it will force us into endless compromises.

8. Compromise is not how you want to be remembered

We each leave a legacy. Even if it’s a long way off, there will come a time when it matters who we were and how we acted. Being a people-pleaser can make us feel valued for a short time, but ultimately it’s likely to make us the people who are taken for granted and invisible.

We don’t have to be harsh, intransigent people to avoid being compromisers. Ursula K Le Guin sums this up beautifully in her novel, The Dispossessed:

His gentleness was uncompromising; because he would not compete for dominance, he was indomitable.

We want to be remembered for characteristics that are distinctive, generous and note-worthy, not because we always gave way.

None of this means we have to become inflexible people who imagine we have all the answers. Negotiating and learning are good things to do. Listening is a wonderful skill. But giving in on our values and passion, doing things merely to placate others or for a quiet life will lead to a mediocre life lived in the shallows. Life is too precious for that.

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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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