It’s depressing as both an editor and a writer when I hear writers (or more usually aspiring writers) saying they don’t read. Getting books out into the world is difficult. It’s a huge amount of work for both publishers and writers and the only way it’s possible is if there are people out there who read. If you are a writer who doesn’t read the work of others, what would make you imagine that others would want to read your book?
Writers have to read:
1. Because reading is your world
Imagine a chef who hates to eat, an artist who’s never been to a gallery. It’s not credible — neither is a writer who doesn’t read.
2. Influence is good
Sometimes writers tell me they don’t read because they don’t want to influence their work. This is the height of arrogance and flawed thinking. No one creates ex nihilo. No one is that original. Of course you shouldn’t be copying others or never finding your own voice, but what has gone before you is a treasure trove. Tradition and inspiration are all around you in books. You can learn structure, technique and so much more by reading. We become innovative by building on the past, not by writing it off.
3. For the love of language
Great writers are those who have found wonderful ways to use language Their language might be supple or taut and honed. It might be rich or lyrical. It might be rhythmic or urgent. You will discover an infinite kaleidoscope of vocabulary and style in the pages of books written by others.
4. To encourage imagination
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I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…
Henry David Thoreau says it so well. But what are the essential facts?
The theological concept of the apophatic way, also known as the via negativa, is a good place to start. In simple terms the theological idea was that it’s hard to sum up what God is, but easier to define what is not divine. We develop a picture that is like negative space, arrived at by considering what we cannot say.
The essential facts are more graspable than notions of divinity, but thinking about what they don’t include is a good starting point. What is essential to life that is dear, will not accept resignation and aims to suck the marrow out, is not likely to include:
obsessive phone checking
answering emails as they arrive all through the day
being reactive so that you let others’ demands always control you time
being ‘too busy’ to eat well, sleep enough, take a walk or read a book
settling for mediocrity
colluding with the mindless consumerism sleep-walking our world into disaster
accepting the pessimistic political rhetoric of ‘there is no alternative’
In book, Essentialism, Greg McKeown talks about:
the disciplined pursuit of less
you cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.
He points out that life is finite and we may be able to do anything, but we cannot do everything. McKeown’s approach begins with defining the essence. Like Thoreau he wants to front the essential facts and to this you need to:
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Creativity is deep, attentive work. Whether you are solving a maths problem or painting a picture, writing elegant code or a novel, you have to be attentive, focussed and in flow. You need to be in an optimal peak state to create and that means setting aside the distractions for key periods.
This isn’t easy. There are so many things clamouring for our attention, but if we don’t find a way to step back, creativity will be one of the many casualties. Among the attention-grabbers that we need to take breaks from are:
Long bouts of social media or aimless internet surfing can leave us feeling ragged. We end up with our thoughts fractured and innovative thinking out of reach.
There’s no doubt that technology has changed our lives and, in many ways, for the better. The access to like minds across the planet, the ability to communicate across distances, the tools for writing, research and so much more, can be mind-expanding. But there is also the anxiety that the smarter out phones get, the dumber we become. There are many people who check their phones 85 times an hour, that’s more than once a minute. How do they get anything done?
Why this knee-jerk checking? It might signal a population unable to cope with ‘doing nothing’ for short (or longer periods) or uneasy with being alone with their own thoughts. It might also be that sometimes our devices deliver a reward. We find a great article, get news of a book deal. So we check in case we’re missing something. As Sharon Begley puts it:
Such low-cost, occasionally high-reward activities are catnip to the brain.
People who are compulsive about checking phones can feel enormous unease if prevented from doing so. Psychologist Alejandro Lleras such phone use as a ‘security-blanket’ staving off anxiety. An Illinois study noted that 70% of the group studied used texting as a way to disengage from stressful situations.
The internet also encourages a fear of missing out (FOMO). Cut off, people in various studies describe their state as anxious, ansty, miserable, jittery… For some, not being online is tantamount to not existing. The existential rage against obliteration is a strong human compulsion. No wonder people are distraught at the thought of being ‘cut off’. The online life taps into the human psyche.
But the cost is that we do miss something. We miss the ability to be alone with our thoughts. We miss focussing on someone who is with us in person. We miss building up a deliberate practice that builds our skills with deep work.
The practice of always checking together with myth of multitasking takes away our focus. It’s may not be that attention spans are falling per se, but that trying to multitask destroys this focus. Our brains receive thousand of stimuli and the ability to sift for what’s important and ignore the distractions is vital.
When we try to attend to a stimuli the brain has to move that piece of information to the frontal cortex. If we are doing three things at once, the constant switching (it isn’t multitasking) takes time and leaves us feeling fragmented and fuzzy-minded.
Our attention is quite capable of holding up. Think of losing yourself in a great novel or film. Think of the total absorption of a parent of a new baby. But we can’t sustain focus in the face of a thousand distractions or when our attention is being divided.
Sometimes we have to switch off social media, messages, calls, apps … to switch on the creative flow.
If your work and your art are of a piece there’s less conflict, but many of us do one thing to hold body and soul together and pursue our art in addition. You might love your work, as I do, but that doesn’t mean you want to be available to it at all hours seven days a week. …
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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.
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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.
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?
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. …
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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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