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14 reasons why writers need to read

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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Why you should front the essential facts

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:

  • social media
  • 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

and adds

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:

…I hope you’ll read on here and if you enjoy, clapping on Medium is much appreciated

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You have to switch off to switch on creativity

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:

1. Technology

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.

2. Productivity

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. …

I hope you’d like to read on (and apologies for the broken link in the last newsletter) – you can continue here 🙂 And and if you enjoy the post, please ‘clap’ on Medium. You can press those little hands 50 times 🙂

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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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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.

Want to become a different story?

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Don’t find your purpose, create it

The notion that we are here for some pre-ordained purpose is a pervasive one. We’re sold the idea that all we have to do is discover this one thing hidden deep in our souls to know why we exist. But the secret of ‘what we are on earth for’ is often elusive or turns out to be so general it becomes meaningless. Too often ‘finding your purpose’ seems to go hand in hand with generic slogans. And slogans don’t translate into motivation or enable us to live intentional lives. How do actually go about living ‘to bring peace to the world’ or ‘to radiate light’? And if we were born to fulfil some god-given, determined goal, how come it’s not obvious and clear? Why do we need to search for something that we are born for?

I remain unconvinced that I or anyone else has been ‘put here’ to fulfil some need in the universe. So is life meaningless? Does it not matter one jot how we live and whether we are purposeful? Quite the contrary. This life is everything we have, it matters completely. But that doesn’t mean we are puppets put here for some hidden purpose. As Hazel Markus and Elisa Wurf point out, we are ‘active, forceful, and capable of change’. (The Dynamic Self Concept: A Social Psychological Perspective). Each of us makes meaning by the stories we tells about ourselves and the world.

As Joan Didion put it, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ But sometimes these stories can limit us. At their worst, we retell stories that make us more fearful. We weren’t clever/ quick/ pretty/ determined/rich enough last time, so we won’t be in the future. I grew up in a household were the saying ‘It’s not for the likes of us’ was more frequent than meals. (‘It’ being anything good in life, from holidays to hope). Even when I moved to university, I carried these limiting stories with me. And later I had someone in my life whose mantra was: ‘It can’t be done’.

And yet we know that neither people nor stories are set in stone. Stories communicate values, share mores and understanding, but they are still only stories. We can create other stories. In the same way, we can imagine ourselves different, make daily changes until we are different. We don’t have to believe we have a mission planted deep in our souls for us to discover meaning. We can create purpose. So how do we go about it?

How to create purpose

This isn’t an elite activity. Everyone can do it, but writers are particularly well placed, especially through journalling.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau says:

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…

I don’t live in woods, but at the foot of a mountain. It’s rural, but not as remote as it seems. It’s only a click away from a world-wide-web and a short drive to larger places. But, in this sanctuary, journalling creates a space where I can make sense of life. It’s the place where I can be both realistic and optimistic or work towards crafting a story. It’s the space where I can experiment, work out my values, discover my goals and create a vision for the future.

A useful exercise to help with this comes from David Hieatt in Do Purpose. He tells us to draw three intersecting circles. They represent

what you love doing
your skills
how you perceive the times you live in (the zeitgeist).

Where the circles overlap, says Hieatt, is where you find yourself most alive.
Purpose with passion

What do I love? New places. I love to immerse myself in somewhere unknown. And I love words. I write novels and poetry, I journal at least daily and I read voraciously. I sometimes believe I don’t know what I’m thinking until I’ve written it down. When I’m writing, I’m in another space, lost in the trance of it.

What are my skills? I’m a creative person who sees both the minutiae and structure in writing so I work well as an editor. I’m an enabler, a teacher and a performer. I’m organised, can hold a lot of disparate information in my head and I’m good at solving logistical problems. So running a small press and being a writer, editor and mentor work for me.

The type of press we run and the novels and poetry I write come out of passion and skills, but also from the zeitgeist. Context always has its effects. How do I perceive the world? We live in a time when there is crushing pressure to conform. Too often the lowest common denominator grabs the most attention. There is too much mindless consumerism and way too much distraction. We sleep-walk into political and environmental disasters and there is fear of difference. We don’t deal well with ‘the other’. And yet there is also extraordinary generosity, resilience and honesty in the world. There is so much that gives hope, a great deal to celebrate and witness to. There are oases of imagination and courage.

So, the books we want to publish at Cinnamon Press are those with passion and purpose. As Adam Craig says when writing about our Liquorice Fish Books imprint:

We live in a time when we’re led to believe our options are limited. …

Our world is shrinking because we are being told there is less here than meets the eye or heart.

Our aim is to encourage and foster new writing that is vibrant, playful, transgressive, radical and beautiful, wherever it might be found.

And the books I aspire to write are those that move and challenge readers. By this, I’m not talking about books that preach and browbeat. Rather, writing that is humane and extraordinary, that is never mediocre or bland. I’m currently reading Anne Michael’s poetry collection, All We Saw, and it’s a perfect example. The writing is exquisite. It’s personal and poignant with stunning flashes of subtle insight. It makes a difference to have read it. I want to publish and write books that, like Michaels’ work, believe in life. 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.

The story you want to live

I’m currently writing the second book of a trilogy. A Remedy for All Things is set in Hungary in the late 50s where political injustice is extreme. Yet much less extreme situations can also trammel individual and community life. The first novel, This is the End of the Story, is set in 70s Teesside. It was a time when industry was failing and hope eroded. The stories have distant echoes of one another. Not only do they share a central character, but also share a veiwpoint based on a quote from Don Quixote:

The unreason of the world is more insane than any fiction.universe-2742113__340

In short, my characters are asserting that ‘reality’ isn’t always reasonable. And when this is the case, we can remake reality. But the novels are not didactic. They are the stories of people exploring how to create meaning in spite of circumstances. When time fractures and identity is uncertain, the characters persist in imagining. In writing these novels I want to write a different story, not to churn out what might be safer or more comfortable. In my fiction writing I’m exploring how we can create purpose. By telling a story in new ways we can make meaning.

In life I use journalling to the same end. Doing Hieatt’s exercise with three circles was one way to reflect on the purpose I want to create. I’m alive when I’m buzzing with words, fizzing with a story that I have to get written. I’m alive when I confront pessimism or conformity. I’m alive when I’m working with the words of other writers I admire or helping emerging writers. And I’m most alive when I can combine these passions with being in new places. Unfamiliar places challenge me not to get too comfortable. I wasn’t put on earth to be a semi-nomadic writer, editor and mentor, but this is the story I’ve created now. It’s the story that I currently want to live with purpose.

What would you put in your three circles? What do you love? What are your skills? How do you see the world? Get out your journal. Take some time to think about the questions and fill your circles. Look at where they overlap and set about creating your purpose.

First published on Medium

 

 

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