I’m currently writing in journal number 124 in a 24-year-long run of journalling. There were journals before this ‘set’, some lost in a house move, others disappeared in my teens.
I write everything in these journals:
random thoughts and observations
notes on books I’m reading
how the day/the week /the month/the year went
to do lists
ideas for books, stories, poems, blogs…
The journals are beautiful. Many of them were handmade by daughter or have been gifts. Each one is an artefact. They’re also a problem in that they’re not written for anyone else to read, so what will become of them?
Nonetheless, I persist. I often feel I don’t know what I’m thinking until I write it down. It’s my act of processing. It’s also the fount of my creativity.
1. To practice
Great musicians practice. They go over scales and arpeggios, études and exercises. When tackling concert pieces, they go over and over particular phrases, gradually building speed and confidence.
Writing about the diaries Virginia Woolf kept over 26 years, she says:
The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments.
And, after her death, Leonard Woolf described the 26 volumes as:
a method of practicing or trying out the art of writing.
Writing is a muscle. The more we use it, the more flexible and strong it becomes. Whether you are writing morning pages in which you do 2 or three pages of a writing prompt or outlining ideas or setting down emotions, the more you write, the more confident your writing voice will become.
When I teach writing courses and set exercises for the group I’m working with, I do the exercises myself into my journal. It’s an interesting way to see how I respond the same pressure to write in the moment and one I can look back on.
Do you keep morning pages or use a journal for writing exercises?
I’m currently working on a book on writing and the creative life. I’m interested in connecting with others who want to explore the power of story. If you’d like my 9-chapter eBook on writing and the writing life, sign up to my email list — or feel free to continue the conversation here and on Medium.
‘Virtue’ is a word we don’t hear a great deal. There’s an anachronistic ring to it. It can also sound smug. A problem with over-focussing on self-improvement is that it can make us seem remote, self-satisfied and self-centred. An irony if we’re setting out to be kinder or more patient. We become rather like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby:
Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.
In Cultivating Virtue, philosopher Christine Swanton suggests that instead of cultivating ourselves, we concentrate on doing virtuous actions. The first step toward virtue is to act as if you have that quality. We then hope that through feedback and reflection, growth follows without self-obsessing. Or as Aristotle puts it:
(Wo)men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting a particular way… you become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions.
Who we are is fluid. We don’t come written in stone. Humans are adaptable. The environment we live in makes a huge difference, as do the choices we make. There are things we have little or no influence over in life, but we have the capacity to change, to become the person we want to be.
One of the joys of being a storyteller is that it’s not only about fiction. I can also write myself. But it has to go further than narrativising — my journal is a good place to plan and reflect, but it also has to translate into action. …
With this in mind, at New Year I invested in a tiny book. And I set about a long journalling exercise around what 13 virtues or qualities I should action this year. Why thirteen?
Because I’d read an article about Benjamin Franklin who chose 13 virtues and focussed on one each week. Choosing 13 meant that each quality would get four weeks of attention over the year. That seemed feasible. And I like the idea of revisiting each quality whilst not obsessing about one or two things constantly.
A ‘year’ of course can start at any point, so if it appeals, you can begin at any time.
Thirteen qualities for the year
These are the 13 virtues or qualities that emerged for me over several journalling sessions:
I hope you’ll read on on Medium and clap the article there if you enjoy it …
Being someone who makes sacrifices is often held up as a virtue. But whether we’re trying to form creative, autonomy-respecting relationships with your children or relating to adults in different areas of life, ‘giving in’ is not a solution. Giving and ‘giving in’ are not the same thing.
This year in my journalling, each week I’ve been focussing on a different quality that I’d like to encourage in myself. I’ve got thirteen to think about over the year, so each quality will get four weeks of attention.
But the quality I return to most often and which seems to me to be the most fundamental is generosity. I’m not talking about having pots of money to give away, though that might be a factor for some, but something deeper. We can be generous whether we are wealthy or in financial poverty. The point is that giving, whether it’s of time, skills or resources is a key virtue.
But if we’re always giving, doesn’t this lead to always self-sacrificing? …
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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:
…I hope you’ll read on here and if you enjoy, clapping on Medium is much appreciated
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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‘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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
While I’m in the in-between state of ‘writer-hiatus’ (with thanks to Alex Josephy for the term) I’m letting my mind mull on the next book in the trilogy. I wrote recently about how new material often comes from dreams or from the trance-like state that walking can induce, but yesterday it came from looking the other way – simply not trying to think about the characters, how they would fit together, what parts of their stories need to be captured or how the overall narrative should be structured.
Instead, I was preparing for a Cinnamon Press reading at our local bookshop, the wonderful Hen Bost. Afterwards there was to be a ‘tapas and drinks’ get together for 12 people round our kitchen table so the whole day was spent cooking, accompanied by Lana del Rey and Leonard Cohen.
Somewhere in the midst of making Spanish tortilla, chilli prawns, garlic mushrooms, humus, crab cakes, ratatouille and bean stew, tomato and feta salad and spiced roast nuts, the structure of the next book, For Hope is Always Born, crept up on me and quietly revealed itself. It’s still fragile, but it reminded me that we must stop and do something completely different sometimes in order to let creativity breath.
One of the writing prompt tools I often use for journalling (and which I also used to inspire the poems in the pamphlet Turn/Return) is Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies card. They were developed as quirky ways out of an impasse, particularly creative impasses or team projects. On my way to catch a train today I picked out a card that said, ‘Do we need holes?’ Yes! We need holes in our schedule, spaces to look the other way, to walk or dream or cook for a whole day. We need space to change environment for ten minutes or half an hour or a day or more in order to make ourselves look the other way and find that, when we turn our gaze back again, the perspective has already changed.