I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…
Henry David Thoreau says it so well. But what are the essential facts?
The theological concept of the apophatic way, also known as the via negativa, is a good place to start. In simple terms the theological idea was that it’s hard to sum up what God is, but easier to define what is not divine. We develop a picture that is like negative space, arrived at by considering what we cannot say.
The essential facts are more graspable than notions of divinity, but thinking about what they don’t include is a good starting point. What is essential to life that is dear, will not accept resignation and aims to suck the marrow out, is not likely to include:
obsessive phone checking
answering emails as they arrive all through the day
being reactive so that you let others’ demands always control you time
being ‘too busy’ to eat well, sleep enough, take a walk or read a book
settling for mediocrity
colluding with the mindless consumerism sleep-walking our world into disaster
accepting the pessimistic political rhetoric of ‘there is no alternative’
In book, Essentialism, Greg McKeown talks about:
the disciplined pursuit of less
you cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.
He points out that life is finite and we may be able to do anything, but we cannot do everything. McKeown’s approach begins with defining the essence. Like Thoreau he wants to front the essential facts and to this you need to:
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Creativity is deep, attentive work. Whether you are solving a maths problem or painting a picture, writing elegant code or a novel, you have to be attentive, focussed and in flow. You need to be in an optimal peak state to create and that means setting aside the distractions for key periods.
This isn’t easy. There are so many things clamouring for our attention, but if we don’t find a way to step back, creativity will be one of the many casualties. Among the attention-grabbers that we need to take breaks from are:
Long bouts of social media or aimless internet surfing can leave us feeling ragged. We end up with our thoughts fractured and innovative thinking out of reach.
There’s no doubt that technology has changed our lives and, in many ways, for the better. The access to like minds across the planet, the ability to communicate across distances, the tools for writing, research and so much more, can be mind-expanding. But there is also the anxiety that the smarter out phones get, the dumber we become. There are many people who check their phones 85 times an hour, that’s more than once a minute. How do they get anything done?
Why this knee-jerk checking? It might signal a population unable to cope with ‘doing nothing’ for short (or longer periods) or uneasy with being alone with their own thoughts. It might also be that sometimes our devices deliver a reward. We find a great article, get news of a book deal. So we check in case we’re missing something. As Sharon Begley puts it:
Such low-cost, occasionally high-reward activities are catnip to the brain.
People who are compulsive about checking phones can feel enormous unease if prevented from doing so. Psychologist Alejandro Lleras such phone use as a ‘security-blanket’ staving off anxiety. An Illinois study noted that 70% of the group studied used texting as a way to disengage from stressful situations.
The internet also encourages a fear of missing out (FOMO). Cut off, people in various studies describe their state as anxious, ansty, miserable, jittery… For some, not being online is tantamount to not existing. The existential rage against obliteration is a strong human compulsion. No wonder people are distraught at the thought of being ‘cut off’. The online life taps into the human psyche.
But the cost is that we do miss something. We miss the ability to be alone with our thoughts. We miss focussing on someone who is with us in person. We miss building up a deliberate practice that builds our skills with deep work.
The practice of always checking together with myth of multitasking takes away our focus. It’s may not be that attention spans are falling per se, but that trying to multitask destroys this focus. Our brains receive thousand of stimuli and the ability to sift for what’s important and ignore the distractions is vital.
When we try to attend to a stimuli the brain has to move that piece of information to the frontal cortex. If we are doing three things at once, the constant switching (it isn’t multitasking) takes time and leaves us feeling fragmented and fuzzy-minded.
Our attention is quite capable of holding up. Think of losing yourself in a great novel or film. Think of the total absorption of a parent of a new baby. But we can’t sustain focus in the face of a thousand distractions or when our attention is being divided.
Sometimes we have to switch off social media, messages, calls, apps … to switch on the creative flow.
If your work and your art are of a piece there’s less conflict, but many of us do one thing to hold body and soul together and pursue our art in addition. You might love your work, as I do, but that doesn’t mean you want to be available to it at all hours seven days a week. …
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 🙂
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.
If you can spare a couple of minutes and like what you read, please ‘clap’ on Medium (you can press the little hands symbol 50 times). I’m working on building a platform to deliver new writing courses so all support greatly appreciated.
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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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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‘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!