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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At 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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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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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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Writers are people who walk around with their senses open, determined to stay awake in a world where so many people seem to be half asleep.
Writers are those with imagination and insight.
They are people who reflect an extraordinary world within that can transform the world without.
Writers are not those who go with the flow.
People may claim to often that a book is ‘life-changing’ but nonetheless every time we read, there is the possibility of a new perspective and growth.
And if the written word is so transformative then the chances are that writers have power and responsibility.
2. Writers are witnesses
When Geoff Dyer asked John Berger what he saw as the ‘job of his life’, replied:
Perhaps I am like all people who tell stories — storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people. Maybe when you look at their entire output you can see something that really belongs to that one person. But at any one moment it is difficult to see what the job of your life is because you are so aware of what you are lending yourself to. This is perhaps why I use the term “being a witness.” One is witness of others but not of oneself.
For Berger, this sense of being a witness involved total immersion and openness to other people and other places.
The notion of the writer as witness is a lot to live up to, yet it is compelling. In The Artist’s WayJulia Cameron challenges writers to become witnesses. There are countless novels that are a testimony not only inward states, human emotion and condition, but also to events.
Books like Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man witness to the legacy of the Holocaust, so that it becomes part of common consciousness.
The film Hiroshima mon amor, from the book by Marguerite Dumas, witnesses to the existential crisis of lovers who need to cling to one another after horror.
The South African poet, Mongane Wally Serote witnesses to the events of apartheid:
I want to look at what happened,
As silent as the roots of plants pierce the soil
I look at what happened…
When knives creep in and out of people
As day and night into time.
And the list could go on.
Extraordinary writing witnesses not only to historical or political events, but also to emotional states and human relationships.
3. Writers reconstitute the world
As people who bear witness to the human condition; witness to stories that would otherwise go unheard and to the possibilities that lie ahead, writers deal with how much we can achieve.
As Adrienne Rich puts it:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save: so much has been destroyed I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.
This requires belief in freedom. By opening up new horizons through writing, writers take on enormous responsibility. Our writing shifts the perspective of readers and widens their choices as a result. Thought is a powerful thing.
4. Writers shape reality
What do we believe about reality? How do we conceive the nature of our existence and freedom?
None of us can transcend the facts of existence: we exist in a universe of physical laws and principles. Environment, language and culture shape us in complex ways. And to some extent we never become aware of all these influences or shake free of them.
But we are not reducible to those influences. Neither are we the roles we adopt; none of us is only a writer, a mother, a daughter, a musician. Only objects or deities (if they figure in your world view) are wholly one thing. God is God. A table is a table.
Human beings are complex and changeable. We are conscious, or should be if we are brave enough to stay awake in the world.
Humans can transcend certain ‘givens’ –
the class we’re born into
the racial stereotypes projected onto us
the social expectations around us are not who we are.
As Sartre claims, we have the ability to negate these expectations and to become anything.
And it’s not only philosophers who think like this. Increasingly, research suggests not only that we have plastic brains that can adapt and change, but also that our biology is more fluid than we conceived previously. (Studies in epigenetics are rapidly expanding our understanding of this, for example. Nessa Carey’s The Epigenetics Revolution)
This amount of freedom is terrifying and wonderful. It means that authentic living requires that we take our autonomy seriously.
It means that I am never identical with my current ‘self’, yet always responsible for sustaining, challenging and growing it.
It means I can’t hide behind phrases like ‘ this is the way I am’ or ‘it’s in my genes/my past experiences…’
If I choose to remain a certain way, it is a choice, and there is no lying to myself about that. Quoting Sartre:
You can always make something out of what you’ve been made into.
The inner world is a powerful place that changes how we experience the outer world.
Stories, poems and articles make their way into our subconscious and transform how we interact with the world and impact on it.
By being writers who take this seriously we open up a world of new thinking and new ways of being, for ourselves and for those who engage with our writing.
Writing is an awesome thing to do and we do it best when we become people who take our freedom and imagination seriously.
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