Tag Archives: learning

How to fly with imagination and inspire new life

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In a fantastic essay in The Wave in the Mind, ‘The Operating Instructions’, Ursula K Le Guin notes that imagination is humanity’s single most important tool.

She considers that while the concept of the ‘creative’ has become watered down, ‘imagination’ retains its power. It is a fundamental way of thinking, she argues, something that is innate but which we can learn how to use well, in a similar way to training the body.

During a period of travel around Spain, as I take time out of my normal life and immerse in imagining and writing, it’s encouraging to consider how vital imagination is.

So, how do we train the imagination?

Le Guin is adamant that we learn it best from literature, whether oral or written.

Words are the wings both intellect and imagination fly on … to train the mind to take off from immediate reality and return to it with new understanding and new strength, there is nothing like a poem or a story.

Through story every culture defines itself and teaches its children how to be people and members of their people.

This is powerful encouragement to writer. As I work on a complex story that has at it’s heart questions of identity and how we transform ourselves, it’s timely to remind myself that flying with the imagination promotes

  • a sense of identity and renewed self-image
  • autonomy within community
  • deeper understanding
  • listening
  • alternative possibilities
  • a sense of purpose and quest

That is a powerful tool with vast potential.

Imagination gives you a sense of identity and renewed self-image

Imagination is fundamental to how we see ourselves. If you think about how you saw yourself as a child, it’s likely that imagination played a huge role in what you decided to do as an adult. We play with dolls to imagine parenting. We have pretend cookers, pretend surgical kits, write plays that we make our families perform … Imagining leads to decisions, to seeing ourselves as a doctor, teacher, priest, writer, mother …

As a writer, I’m fascinated by the intersection of imagination and identity. My protagonists in the Casilda trilogy have searching questions about where identity begins and ends, about how we make connections across time and culture.

Imagination and identity are both internal processes. We have to imagine who we are before there are any external processes. Being comes before doing. Spontaneity then becomes a vision that we hand over to the unconscious and let it do its work. Moreover, imagination is a safe place in which to take risks; we can imagine outcomes before trying them out.

The philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, sees imagination as productive and creative. Ricoeur argues that imagination transforms reality through creative acts. Moreover he considers that the imagination that helps us form identity is most clearly manifested through fiction, which creates meaning. Similarly, Sartre saw imagination and narrativity as necessary for the formation of a coherent and meaningful sense of self.

In short, the story of who we are is an act of imagination. As Kurt Vonnegut puts it:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

Imagination fosters autonomy

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12 things I’ve learnt while travelling and writing

 

1-lwEieJZBj3vVaAOsqT-MLw.jpegI’m currently in Burgos, Spain, in the second week of a month-long writing retreat while travelling to research the third novel in a trilogy. Travel is an extraordinary thing. It makes us change gear, it takes us out of our comfort zones and normal routines, it makes us experience life as the outsider in some small sense.

In short, it teaches us a great deal that should make the writing stronger and deeper. I got a sense of this last year when I had the opportunity to research my latest novel, A Remedy for All Things, the follow-up to This is the End of the Story, in Budapest. But what I’m learning has been massively added to by this trip.

1. Exhilaration changes us

Abraham Maslow describes peak experiences as:

rare, exciting, oceanic, deeply moving, exhilarating, elevating experiences that generate an advanced form of perceiving reality, and are even mystic and magical in their effect upon the experimenter.

Experiences that interrupt our routine rhythms, that give us the chance to experience awe and gratitude, result in adjustments to how we perceive the world.

2. Time is precious, yet it’s possible to be time rich…

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How to stop valuing relationships and make them gifts

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Economics is everywhere — we talk about the ‘value’ of relationships. If a friend gives us a gift, for the sheer joy of it, not because it’s a birthday, we begin to wonder if we ‘owe’ them something or feel uneasy about being ‘indebted’.

Transactions have run riot to such an extent that even children in nurseries find that ‘value added’ is the criterion measuring their education.

We hear people who are in love saying they don’t feel ‘worthy’ of the other person. When you are asking ‘Do I deserve this person’s love?’ there is no answer that makes sense because the whole question arises in an economic mindset. But that’s the wrong paradigm for relationships.

An overwhelming amount of relationships are transactional. Not only those that are set up as bald economic deals, but from work to marriages. Transactional relationships are all about self-interest and what you get. If conflicts arise, the goal is to win, not to resolve. In transactional relationships what matters are outcomes, not emotions; systems, not people.

Transactional relationships have been important throughout history in encouraging cooperation, whether between bartering individuals or nations. There is a place for transactional relationships, but ultimately they only work if the receiver will return the favours. They are quid pro quo.

And not only are they economic-based, but they are also scarcity-based. Transactions and fear are frequent partners.

  • Let’s make a treaty with that tribe so they don’t come in and destroy us.
  • Let’s do favours for these people because then they’ll be in our debt when we need something.

In a transactional relationship unconditional generosity is a scarce resource. We may not use money (unless it’s about buying a product or paying for someone’s time) but there will be trade and bartering taking place and a jostling to ensure that we get ‘good value’ for what we give. Transactional relationships involve:

  • competition
  • manipulation
  • negotiation
  • keeping a tally
  • winners and losers

Deep, meaningful relationships need another basis. They need a mindset of trust and abundance. These kinds of relationship are not transactional, but transformational. They don’t fizzle out when there is nothing to be ‘gained’. They go on energising because the power of collaboration changes people; together they can address intrinsic needs.

In transformational relationships there is a shared purpose. The relationship itself becomes the focus rather than competing egos. So why do we experience so few transformational relationships? And how can we shift from the economic model of transaction to the ecology of relationships as gifts?

Shift to an abundance mindset

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If we want have amazing relationships we have to be givers. What stops most people from being generous is not intrinsic meanness, but fear. People are afraid that if they give, others will exploit this and ‘take advantage’ (more economic thinking).

And it’s true, this can happen and it’s rife in many workplace settings. The people at the bottom often make the most value for a company and only to gain least.

And in personal relationships there are people who will see giving as a weakness that they are more than happy to use and abuse.

But despite this, generosity isn’t something that runs out. Generosity is something that multiplies with use, not diminishes.

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10 reasons why you don’t need to succeed to be a success

blog.jpegSuccess and failure are slippery and complex concepts. Some types of failure, the simple antonym to success, can be devastating. A car fails and people die. A pregnancy fails with the loss of a precious life. Mental health fails leading to breakdown and suffering. No one sane wants to court this type of failure. As James Altrucher comments:

There’s this “cult of failure” that has popped up recently. That you need to fail to succeed.

This is not true. Failure really sucks. You don’t want to fail.

There’s also failure that arises from negligence. When we fail to live in the moment, when we don’t attend to something crucial, terrible things can happen. Anything from an oil spill wiping out ecosystems to emotional damage to a loved one who knows we’re not there for her.

There’s nothing attractive about this type of faiure. However much we manage to learn from it on reflection, it would always have been better to get the learning in another way.

Moreover, when we’re dealing with the type of failure that comes from our own negligence, it’s not appropriate to relabel it as ‘success’ or ‘learning’ to duck the responsibility. There are times when the things that go wrong are shouting out for us to pay attention and do some deep reflecting.

And yet, when Samuel Beckett advises:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

I’m completely in agreement, which leads me to thin that what we mean by failure isn’t a monolithic thing. And it’s this other sort of failure, the type that involves taking risks, that we can redefine as success. In this sense, you don’t need to succeed, that is you don’t need to realise every goal in exactly the way you’d envisaged it, be a success.

Why? Because:

1. Inversion isn’t always failure

The common question, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’ is a useful shorthand for the Stoic notion of inversion. Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, practiced premeditatio malorum, or ‘premeditation of evils.’

The idea was to consider the worst outcomes of an action. What if this results in bankruptcy or losing my home? What it this leads to everyone disliking me?

The point of the exercise was to anticipate possibilities in order to plan better and think about how to manage worse case scenarios. And it was also a way to overcome fears. As Paulo Coelho says:

There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.

But inversion isn’t always about failing. Not only does this exercise help us to think about what might happen and prepare as far as possible, but it also provides an alternative way of thinking in general.

As James Clear points out:

Inversion is often at the core of great art. At any given time there is a status quo in society and the artists and innovators who stand out are often the ones who overturn the standard in a compelling way.

Great art breaks the previous rules. It is an inversion of what came before. In a way, the secret to unconventional thinking is just inverting the status quo.

And it’s not only art. A mathematician might invert a difficult problem in order to reach a solution.

Too often the definition of ‘success’ is being popular, going with the status quo, pursuing goals that everyone else values and expects you to aim for.

Inversion challenges this. What you end up with might not be ‘success’ in the eyes of the crowd, but it might very well be innovative, ground-breaking and exactly where you want to be.

2. Taking a chance is an antidote to perfectionism

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Perfectionism is a kind of paralysis. On the one hand perfectionism demands of you that you can do everything: achieve ten goals before breakfast, produce a manuscript with not one comma out of place … On the other hand, it’s demands are so preposterous that you will stop in your tracks and procrastinate rather than risk failure.

Of course aiming high is good. Of course you should improve your craft. As an editor I’m a fan of putting in the work, making things excellent, stretching our boundaries as writers. But there is also a time to let go. And there are times when you need to take a chance. As Brené Brown puts it:

Healthy striving is self-focused: “How can I improve?” Perfectionism is other-focused: “What will they think?

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For a young writer

This isn’t a usual post about writing and the writing life, but a plea to help a particular group of families and young people.

I’m currently in York for work and had two amazing conversations today – random and with strangers.

The first was with a young writer working in a clothes shop while doing her literature degree. We talked about place and about the need to take time out of mainstream education and just be at certain points in life.

The second was with a brave mum who is trying to get changes to the law for adopters and special guardians – people caring for some of the most vulnerable children in society.  We got into the conversation because she mentioned that her son ‘Jake’ wants to be a writer.

Jake’s story is powerful and poignant, but sadly not rare, for all he’s been through. His mum and the organisation she set up need a lot of help to get voices like ‘Jake’s’ heard:

This is his story

And this more about the petition and a link to sign the petition

Thank you for reading.

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How to kill perfectionism, find joy and write

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In writing, as in any area of life, perfectionism is a killer. Writing is a wonderful metaphor for life. Writing matters. It illuminates, witnesses, takes us deeper into the experience of others, connects us with nature, humanity, ourselves. As in writing, so in life.

Writing is powerful and we want it to be brilliant. No writer should be content with dull prose clogged with adjectives and exposition. No writer should be happy with didactic, sentimental poetry. No blogger should want to bore people. But it doesn’t have to be perfect. In fact, it can’t be perfect.

Perfectionism relies on a plethora of false premises:

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Failure is not an option

Of course it is. And failure is a great teacher. In the inimitable words of Samuel Beckett:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.

If we fear failure we will never take the risks that lead to real progress.

You are not worthy

Feeling inherently not ‘good enough’ can lead people to making supreme efforts to fit in, find acceptance and love. The underlying thinking is that ‘if I’m perfect I won’t experience rejection’ but it’s false thinking. We’re all flawed and the writing we do will have flaws. It doesn’t make you an unworthy person.

You can never rest

On the one hand perfectionism leads to procrastination. We can’t fail at what we never begin. On the other hand it leads to a permanent state of anxiety in which we drive ourselves on, never able to rest.

Creativity, writing, any activity in life is unsustainable without periods of rejuvenation. You can and must rest.

Life is a puzzle with a solution

Writing in Psychology Today, Jennifer Kromberg says:

…being a perfectionist isn’t about things being perfect; it’s about thinking things need to be perfect and vigilantly pursuing it. Emotionally, this means that instead of living your life in a place of self-acceptance, perfectionists are on a continual treadmill chasing the elusive feeling of having everything in their lives be ‘right’.

You can do it all

As David Allen says in Getting Things Done:

You can do anything, but not everything.

We all have to make choices. If writing is essential to you, then you need to prioritise it, but that might mean you have to lower your standards in other areas. In Writing Wild Tina Welling talks a lot about lowering standards in order to do what she loves: write.

She suggests areas for lowering standards might include the car you drive, how much money you want, the clothes you wear, the amount of housework you can do… You might have to cut down on social media or phone apps or answering every email. You might have to miss some social opportunities…

It’s okay. You don’t have to do it all. To quote Annie Dillard:

It’s endearing how people think writers have time to dust.

Welling suggests we make a sign of this and hang it where visitors will see it.

Instead of falling for these false notions, we can replace the urge to perfectionism (in writing and in life) with progress, joy and kindness:

Craft not perfection: …

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How to keep a vision alive

vision

Change is hard. When we are striving towards big goals, whether personal or creative, it can feel like an uphill struggle. In the short term, it can be difficult to see change taking place. And even when we do see the difference, the results can be fragile. There are several reasons why making big shifts in life can come to a halt or even slip backwards.

Despite the adage that habits take only 60–70 days to establish, we all know that that they can disappear in a much shorter time. We can wipe out the habit of good nutrition in one holiday or the ritual of daily yoga during a minor illness. Moreover, the fact of having been successful can make us complacent. After the initial euphoria we find ourselves on a plateau, feeling stuck.

How do we keep the vision alive? What is it that allows passion to thrive and grow rather than wither?

Part of the answer lies in knowing how the vision has become dimmed in the first place and there are plenty of possible reasons.

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In an insane world, write fantastic fiction

windmillsAt any given moment, life is a mess of contradiction. It seems to be true that it’s always the best of times and the worst times. A new baby is born and a good friend is facing appalling illness. A loved one is celebrating, yet the political landscape looks grim.

In the midst of joy and loss, I’m also in the midst of a trilogy of novels. finished a novel. The first book in the sequence has been simmering in me for over 30 years. The actual writing was more recent, but some of the events that informed it and later became reshaped and fictionalised have very deep roots.

In a world crying out for global solutions, what business have we writing stories and poems? There are so many reasons why writing, or any art, is vital, no matter how uncertain the times. It has many functions, including:

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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:

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