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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The (wo)man who has lived the most is not )s)he who has counted the most years but (s)he who has felt the most life.
Jean Jacques Rouseau
Einstein tells us that time is not as linear as we imagine. The separation of past, present and future is illusory, if compelling in an everyday sense. If, like me, you’re not a physicist, this timeless view of the universe might tie your brain in knots.
What I experience, however illusory, are 24 hours each day and sometimes what appears to be an overwhelming scarcity of time. To make it more complicated, the physicist Julian Barbour tells us:
If you try to get your hands on time, it’s always slipping through your fingers. People are sure time is there, but they can’t get hold of it. My feeling is that they can’t get hold of it because it isn’t there at all.
What Barbour argues is that it’s not time that is a measure of change, but that it is change that creates the illusion we call time. In his view, we live a succession of whole, complete moments called ‘Nows’, all of which exist simultaneously.
As Josh Richardson sums up:
We generate time’s flow by thinking that the same self that ate breakfast this morning also started reading this sentence.
So how does this apply to creative people trying to carve out time for their most passionate quests?
1. Live by kairos, not chronos
The most important feature for everyday life seems to be that time, like so many things, is not an absolute. Time, like other experiences, is as qualitative as it it quantitative, if not more so.
In a former incarnation as a theologian, I’d have explained this as the Greek concepts of kairos and chronos. Chronos is the ticking of seconds on a clock, chronological. But kairos is ‘the right time’, it is ripeness, the moment of truth.
Kairos time FEELS different — those experiences when time seems to slow down or stop. Having a perfect life is unrealistic and perfectionism can be toxic. But having perfect moments is possible and time-expanding.
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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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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. …
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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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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?
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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Alice Walker’s protagonist, Tashi, declares this towards the end of the novel, Possessing the Secret of Joy. There’s something to be said for being able to withstand hard times, keeping going and remaining determinedly consistent, whether in a writing project or in life. I’ve always had a high tolerance for routine and stubbornly putting one foot in front of the other. My childhood led to me becoming a stoic with a work ethic that has told me to ‘get on with it’. And I’ve sometimes had to reinvent myself when circumstances closed doors unexpectedly.
But along the way I’ve also learned that it’s not all about resistance and stoically getting on with things. Five things in particular have made a huge difference to being able to keep going when things got overwhelming. We can always reinvent ourselves for the better and doing this has been key to every transformation I’ve made.
1. Reach out to others
I was raised to do things myself and not to ask for help. But when the press I founded hit a funding crisis a few years ago I learned that reaching out, for ideas and for practical support, is a much better solution. It sounds obvious, but asking for help is one of the most profound things I’ve learned to do as an adult.
In the film About a Boy (from the novel by Nick Hornby) the summing up is that we need people. We are not islands, as John Donne noted, and if we behave like we need no one we’ll soon find we have no one. Both writing and life require collaboration. And the more generous that collaboration is, the more support and inspiration everyone involved will experience.
2. Be generous
When we live as though resources (whether material or emotional) are in short supply, it’s likely to become true. The converse is also the case. Generosity is vital to living abundantly and there are so many ways to be generous, with our time, with our attention, with our skills … the list is endless.
When we give, it changes us. When we act like love, kindness and time are not about to run out forever, we become different people, we are telling a different story about ourselves.
3. Take time out to discover your passion
Earlier in 2017 I was lucky to experience the amazing benefits of travel and deep, focussed writing time for a whole month in Budapest. It was a life-changing month. I returned with a persistent voice in my head that now insists there is always an alternative way to achieve your passions. Listening to that voice has been terrifying at times. It’s telling me I need to take more time for my own writing and that this can be as good for Cinnamon Press as it is for me; making the press tighter, more focussed, more excellent whilst not consuming all of my time.
My passions are writing and travel. I love Cinnamon Press and the work I do with authors, but I know I have to make the two things work together to stay true to myself.
4. Invest in yourself
So many of us have been taught to put ourselves last. Egoism isn’t pretty and I’m not advising it, but investing in our skills; using time for self-development and education instead of Internet surfing and mass entertainment enables us to hone skills and reflect on values. In 2018 I’m giving a big chunk of time to my writing skills and to making goals happen. It’s part of a long journey and you can read more about it in this blog by Benjamin P Hardy on Huffpost.
5. Dig Deeper
As we approach 2018, what’s your inner voice telling you? If it’s telling you to keep quiet and put up with being overwhelmed, overworked or miserable, don’t listen. Dig deeper, find your passion and go for it. Don’t let your life be run for you and don’t listen to anything that whispers that your creative passions are self-indulgent. The more creative you are and the more you do what you love the more you will have to give to the world.
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In a world teeming with the rhetoric of consumption, authors have to play a part in getting their work into the world. But in the eagerness to see our books find readers, it’s tempting to overwhelm the writing with promotion. Does every author have to blog, spend hours on Facebook, run a website, tweet, be active on LinkedIn, Instagram and Pinterest, secure literary festival engagements, organise a reading tour and get promotional flyers printed, preferably before breakfast?
Some of those activities might be useful or apposite for an individual writer. Blogging, building an email list of interested readers and the occasional tweet feel like the right fit for me. But the more worrying concept that underpins our anxiety about needing to be everywhere, doing everything, is that each of us ought to be styling ourselves as a ‘personal brand’. This thinking makes not only what we write just another consumer product, but also makes the writer into a ‘product’.
So what’s wrong with that?
Writers want to find readers. Even given that a lot of what we write never makes it into the public domain (journals, notebooks, aborted stories and poems…) somewhere along the line we want people to engage. Writers work with a reader in mind and communicate things that matter to them. If things go well, the end of a particular writing project will be a beautifully-produced book that you want the world to know about.
The book is a product and if you care about it you will promote it. The hope is that you can do so without getting distracted from your main purpose: being a writer. This might mean getting some expert help. Or it might entail finding ways to support your book that don’t overwhelm you. It shouldn’t mean that you, the writer, become a ‘personal brand’ and this is why:
1. We don’t respond well to anything that has designs on us
Writing to John Hamilton Reynolds in 1818, Keats noted:
We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us — and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle or amaze with itself, but with its subject.
The same is true of any writing. When a piece of writing is didactic and beats us over the head with its convictions, we tend to resist. But when an article or story communicates something of significance, it gets under our skin. It convinces without brow-beating.
What is true of our writing is true of writers. We resist writers who do nothing but try to sell to us. That’s not to say we should never try to sell, but no one likes to be sold to constantly. When writers are more ‘brand’ than ‘person’ then they become both unattractive and counterproductive.
2. Authenticity speaks louder than sales pitch
If you don’t love your book and care about it getting into the world, it’s likely no one else will either. That doesn’t mean you have to be in permanent marketing mode. Passion communicates itself. If you love what you are writing, care about what it stands for, write well and communicate well, the authenticity will shine through.
At its simplest, promoting writing demands a transparency to the work that is infectious. You don’t come across as genuine by being a brand. Rather, people soon tire of someone who hustles them, suspecting that a person who packages herself is little more than:
a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5)
3. You’re a person, not a commodity
Being a personal brand is about creating yourself as a ‘package’ that gives a particular impression. It’s a static image that limits you and needs to be constantly maintained. Of course, we all present ourselves in a myriad of ways; the self is fluid and we have many roles. But the notion of the brand has an ‘acted persona’ at its heart. It creates an image that appears ‘on stage’ but which may not be congruent with our values or our writing. What matters most in establishing a brand identity is self-promotion.
As D. J. Lair has argued in ‘Marketization and the Recasting of the Professional Self: The Rhetoric and Ethics of Personal Branding’:
success is not determined by individuals’ internal sets of skills, motivations, and interests but, rather, by how effectively they are…branded.
The self becomes a commodity and not necessarily and honest one.
4. You’re an individual, not a thing
A brand is an object that is perceived in a certain way; not simply the product in itself, but a whole complex of product, logo, promises, expectations and lifestyle allusions. That’s not my definition of a writer.
A brand can also be a mark left on property — it’s a mark of ownership; a practice associated with cattle or slavery. A branded item is a commodity bought and sold. That’s definitely not my definition of a writer.
Don’t be a brand, be yourself — be honest, be passionate, have values you are zealous about and want to share, tell the world what you do and keep your soul. Don’t become a brand, become a different story.
Want to become a different story?
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For twelve years I’ve been running an independent literary press. I love it. What began as a one-book project became a prize-winning indie with a great poetry and fiction list. After a funding crisis in 2012, well-wishers flocked to make sure we survived. Since then, the press has developed a list of 30 titles a year, a book club, competitions, residential writing courses and a mentoring scheme. In 2015, we packed our tenth anniversary with celebrations, looking forward to the next decade.
Success or burnout?
Yet two years later, we were feeling the strain. Why?
We have volunteer help from authors, including our wonderful office manager. We continued to love the books, the events, the places we visit for launches and the people we meet. But despite this, we were always running to stand still. Fatigue was beginning to set in and then …
The shock of changing gear
We got the opportunity to take time off. While founding and running Cinnamon Press, I’ve continued to write. But, although I’ve published novels and poetry collections, the writing was squeezed into the margins of a packed schedule. When I started work on a trilogy, I knew it would demand much deeper concentration and focus. I was fortunate to get an Arts Council grant to travel to Hungary to research and write. The time in Budapest was extraordinary. Draft after draft of the novel flowed and I learnt a huge amount from writing in the place where the novel is set. I was able to talk to authors, editors and museum curators , who kindly gave me their time. And the writing benefited from being able to walk the streets, taking in the place for an extended period.
Peak experiences change you
I came back changed. Peak experiences do this. Experiences that interrupt our well-worn cycles, that give us chance to wonder and thankful, result in shifts in how we see the world. It also made me question how I want to use my time. I came back knowing that I could no longer marginalise my own creativity and expect to be an enthusiastic editor and writing mentor. And I came back eager I to reclaim the vision of Cinnamon Press as innovative, outward-looking and independent. My ideal has always been to focus on excellent literature and I wanted to take stock of that.
In the first twelve years, two things had conspired to create an overwhelming ‘to do’ list. My determination to keep Cinnamon Press going in difficult times had led to taking on more and more work. And my tendency to find it difficult to say ‘no’ exacerbated this. I was spreading myself thinly while allowing expectations to escalate.
It was time to stand back and review. This process is ongoing — we began by looking at everything we do as a press as well as personal and use of time. It was clear from the outset that we needed to examine the publications list. When you say ‘yes’ too often, you end up taking on projects that don’t quite align with your original values. We’ve now put in a plan to lower the number of publications by 2020. A list of fifteen titles a year will still be a significant number for a two-person (plus volunteers) indie press, but it will be more sustainable. We’ll review it again once we’ve achieved this, especially in the light of our own writing goals.
Next we worked to create a series of resource sheets for authors. The aim was to produce clear guidelines, make the way we work more transparent, and to give authors tools to promote their work. It’s early days, but it’s a big step towards not having to reinvent the wheel to answer recurring questions.
The next step was to look at the balance of tasks. I made a list of every job imaginable, grouped them into sections and drew up a weekly cycle of time blocks. Relegating emails and reactive tasks to one period each weekday was liberating. an meant we could prioritise tasks like editing or mentoring. It was a shock to realise that I’d been spending over 40% of my time on reactive administrative tasks. The goal is to get this down to 10% of my time, releasing energy for creative work.
What I’m learning is that it’s possible to ask for help and that routine tasks don’t have to become distractions that expand into all available time.
Reconnecting with the vision
Making these changes has also meant taking time to re-visit the original vision and values for the Cinnamon Press. It’s important that the list focuses on diverse, distinctive voices and remains independent and outward looking. Above all, we want to present a different story, one that isn’t found in mainstream publishing. Reconnecting with this vision has given new vitality to my own writing: becoming a different story is at the heart of my creative process.
Taking a few weeks out this summer proved to be disruptive to my work and my priorities and that’s a great thing. Now I’m looking forward to more creative disruption.