Just back from a mother and baby conference weekend where the baby speakers had us enthralled and the mummies went ga ga over the plush surroundings. It was a meeting of the hardworking volunteers of the fabulous Cuidiu (caring support) organisation for parents, particularly of babies and small children. If anyone deserves an award it is the volunteers of all kinds the length and breadth of the country who are making life-changing differences to ordinary people through their self-less efforts.
But speaking of awards it would be churlish of me to delay any longer in accepting my first blogging award, presented to me by the lovely Barbara from Serenity Space whose blog is an oasis of peace and all things wholesome. She gave me the award and some very kind words about my blog. It is a condition of the award that I pass it on so I would like to present it to:
Crime writer Sam Blake for the excellent new blog Blood Red Ink. As well as documenting the journey she has made with her crime and romance novels she has some excellent writing tips which are well worth reading and re-reading. The site also looks fabulous.
I would also like to highly recommend the following sites
In accepting the award I need to mention – for reasons set down at the beginning of time and known only to the creator – seven things that I like. These would be:
Finishing a nice hot cup of tea before it starts to cool
The moment I know I’ve nailed a story
Pink blossom against blue sky
Brown eyes and long eyelashes
Oh my Goodness, I nearly forgot. Can I add dancing?
And stones, really should be top of this list, I have a fascination with stones, the colour, the shape, the type, the feel. If you visit my house there are collections of stones all around the house.
Receiving this award is timely evidence of a groundswell of good feeling towards and awareness of my blogging efforts. Thank you Barbara for recognising these efforts. Thanks also again to Debbie (Inky girl) who almost singlehandedly exploded my blog stats last week when she tweeted a link to my Procrastination post. Have a look at this
Yeah. Awesome. The graph begins to rise when I join twitter and the exponential growth occurs when my Procrastination post was retweeted by more than thirteen people following @inkyelbows recommendation.
All in all I am delighted to be reaching out and connecting with people, receiving and giving comments and I will endeavour to continue to deserve the given accolade and try to provide informative, inspirational and compassionate content.
I’m going to write a post on procrastination but first I need to make a cup of tea, check on a few emails, update my twitter feed, clean the bathroom and take my pet giraffe out for a walk. Oh and the keyboard could do with a bit of a polish.
Right. Sorted. So here are five ways to get yourself started:
1: Set yourself small, achievable, immediate and visible goals.
Don’t make your molehills into mountains that you haven’t the resources to climb. Don’t panic about ‘finishing your novel’ or short story. Tell yourself you will write 100 words in the next half an hour. Make sure your aim is achievable for you at your current stage/ability or you will only dishearten yourself if you don’t achieve it. Your aims must be bitesized and easily digestible.
On her excellent writer’s resource site www.Inkygirl.com Debbie Ridpath Ohi invites you to sign up for a 1000 word a day or 500 word a day challenge. You can choose the goal that best suits you and she is open to setting up even smaller challenges to suit your circumstances.
Signing up for a group challenge makes you feel part of a common endeavour and strengthens your motivation, particularly if you share your experiences with others. (Once you’ve finished your target wordcount!)
2. Use the Twitter Carrot Approach
(Instead of Twitter you can insert Facebook/Chocolate Cream Bun/Favourite TV show)
When you are avoiding a task, you often substitute it with one that seems vital/useful or is just plain fun. For me, of late, my displacement activity has been Twitter. It’s a wonderful way of networking and building up relationships with other writers and mothers, a reciprocal mine of valuable information, a venue for support and encouragement. But you can inadvertently fritter away precious writing time on this other ‘vital’ activities such as checking email, texting, checking facebook, looking out of the window and just getting a..(insert whatever it is you fancy).
After years of careful testing and validation (procrastinating again?) I have developed the Twitter Carrot Approach. I set myself a number of words after which I can have a set number of tweets or length of time on twitter. A tweet must not pass my fingertips until the set number of words is completed. In this instance you must again ensure that you goals are achievable or you will end up sad and lonely. (Cue violins). If you have been good and achieved your goal you can reward yourself with an activity of your choice. And if you’ve really been good you can find me on twitter @alisonwells)
3. Free yourself from self censure and fear
Guilt and fear are the antithesis of achievement and creativity. (Unless you want to write about a guilty and fearful person). You may fear that your work is not good enough, that you don’t have the skills, that what you have written is a heap of rubbish, that you will never sell as many books as Dan Brown. All of these may be true. Or not. And even if they are true right now, just by you being there and working through the crud you are improving inch by inch. (As an aside, I found out yesterday that the moon is literally inching away. It moves away from the earth by an inch every year.) I digress. I recently summed up my philosophy in a short, tweetable motto:
Intention, even ultimately unrealised is an optimistic orientation towards success
The fact that you have turned your head or hand towards writing, that you have it in your focus, that you are making an attempt, that you are sitting in the presence of your manuscript means that you are baby steps closer to realising your dream. The only way it will actually happen is if you jettison the guilt that you are not as far as you wanted to be, or that you should be doing more. This will only make you panic and stymie you. You need to accept where you are with it and move forward as best you can. Even if you feel you are going backwards, you have still learned something from the attempt. If you read one of your creations with horror you know you won’t go down that dark alleyway again.
Just keep stepping forward little by little and you will soon have come much further than you think.
Create a ritual that is about getting yourself in the zone
So much of our learned behaviour (and our memory) is cue dependent and is developed by way of association with other behaviours or triggers. Parents will know that routines can settle babies and reassure older children (and prevent murders on the school run). It can be difficult for us to switch from one aspect of our lives to another (especially if one of the aspects of our lives keeps running in and saying ‘Mummy….’ or twirls you around on your office chair). No, even when you get into your writing space, with the kids or whatever packed away (into a lockable holdall, sorry) it may take some time to settle back into your story or novel or to connect with your subconscious, its ideas and associations. (For more on how to get into your writing mind see this.)
Leo Babuata explains how a morning ritual can help you become a more productive writer. I would also suggest that you need to include some form or relaxation activity during the day where ideas have a chance to percolate. Recently my relentless sticking to an arduous early morning and evening writing routine left me drained and bereft of any new inspirations. Often a step out to hang the washing is all it takes to give me a breath of peace and perspective that gets the ideas swirling.
Whether it’s a cup of tea, a walk, a favourite notebook, a warm bottle of milk, putting on your lap blanket and your fingerless gloves, find out what guides you into your writing mode and settle yourself in to your writing session.
5. Remember its nice once you get down
Growing up on the Irish Atlantic seaboard (despite being in the Gulf Stream) a decision to swim in the sea was accompanied by a feeling of trepidation and inertia. It was always so cold as we gingerly edged our way out into the waves. We could feel goosebumps forming on our skin. But once we threw aside our caution and got our shoulders under and took a few strokes it wasn’t so bad. After a while the feeling of being in the water was delicious and I have wonderful memories of diving under the clear water, being completely immersed in otherworldliness and peace.
Once back on the shore, the pleasure of heating up again was wonderful and the satisfaction of having been out for the swim was immense. We felt refreshed and ebullient and always assured the reluctant that ‘its nice once you get down.’
You know you want to write. You know how good it feels when you start to get words on the page, when you create a fabulous phrase or a cracking character. You know how you tingle when you read something you have written and know that ‘This is really good’. And if and when you get published and someone tells you that your writing is wonderful or moved them or changed them in some way it feels great. Remember all those feelings, recreate them in your mind, then you will know why you have to just get down to writing, as fast as you possibly can.
I was going to write ‘Ten ways to procrastinate procrastination’ but I realised that by doing that I would be procrastinating writing my novel. And in reading this, you may be putting off something you may be supposed to be doing. So if it’s writing you’re into, start now. Write 200 words of heartfelt gobbledygook and then another 200. After that you can have a biscuit or one tweet. And once you’ve done your 1000 words, come back to the comments and let me know how good it feels. Don’t take too long.
The overarching theme of this blog, as you know, is head space. In the context of my endeavours as a writer this in particular means the kind of head space that will engender creativity, that feeling of flow that connects you with the wellspring that is your subconscious and your memory, allowing you to draw on it as you develop your characters and their stories. The space in your brain where slumbering synapses flicker alive, stirring up old thoughts or rememberences but connecting them your current context so that they become fresh and novel.
I am lucky that I have a wonderful physical space in which to write, a dormer room that looks out at trees and is the most tranquil room in the house, elevated as it is from the tramp and everyday clatter of the four young children. What is difficult is finding the temporal and the mental space to ‘chill’ and take breath before embarking each day on a current project, novel-in-progress or story. I have begun getting up at 6am to give myself that temporal space but mentally and physically the frantic pace of life, particularly since the schools term began has left me a little flat, unable to breathe life into myself, my characters or stories.
There are many excellent writing exercises out there for helping you overcome writer’s block or generate creative ideas. (I am aware as I write, I don’t mean to imply that writing isn’t about hard slog and writing even when you don’t feel inspired). Last night, overcome with tiredness but feeling cut off from my writing life, I sat in bed with a notebook and ask myself to consider these Five Fives.
FIVE FIVES Writing exercise for clearing the fog/mental fug
1: Write down 5 people who interested you lately
2: Write down 5 unusual dilemmas
3: Describe 5 phenomenon (social, natural, psychological, etc) that fascinate you
4: Detail 5 striking places
5: Document 5 emotional reactions that struck a chord with you or surprised you
Do the exercises quickly and without censor. The aim of this exercise is just to slow down the mind and to orient it to take note. A good example of this process is in my poem Now where the panic of the everyday is contrasted by slow observances. Your aim in using this exercise over several occasions is to achieve greater and greater subtlety in your observances. When describing a place that interested you, you first might say ‘Paris’ or a ‘local train station’ but as time goes by your observances might become more detailed, such as ‘a pebbledashed wall with a lovely texture’, or ‘The rafters of the station roof where pigeons were tightrope walking’. This exercise may help you pay attention when out and about in daily life. When considering the ’emotional reaction’ or ‘people’ exercise you may find yourself taking note of people in conversation and their facial expressions or physical characteristics and mannerisms that make them unique.
The five phenomenon that I listed were ‘The Twitter Community, An unexpected flash of light (the bulb of one of the lights in the room later blew), Transparent Fish (from a national geographic magazine), Geysers and Death Valley.’ I realised I could use the symbolism of the transparent fish in a short story I am writing about a woman who feels that she is leaving no lasting imprint on the world. The other locations and experiences might well end up as landscapes or images in other stories.
The 5 dilemmas of course are fabulous ways to generate plot and motivation for your stories, they give you an immediate hook around which a story sometimes begins to coalesce almost by itself.
So, if you are in a mental fug, are weary or stuck, try out these exercises and please comment on whether or not you found them useful and why. In the meantime I will try to follow my own advice and get back to putting layers in my stories.
I’ve become particularly aware in the last while that many of the people I am in contact with in my everyday life both physically or virtually (through twitter or email) are struggling in some way and putting a brave face on it. They are feeling confused, vulnerable, lonely, disheartened, unsure or scared and they are mad and fed up at themselves for feeling like this, for not being able to just get on with things and ‘be normal’. They can sense a stronger, more able person on the inside, a person who can ‘do so much more than this’, a Yes person who wants to embrace every opportunity instead of feeling overwhelmed and losing impetus. I understand these feelings, because I’ve been there at various times in my life, where stresses sent me spiralling, grief left me paralysed and self-doubt knocked me into a deep hole where I all I wanted was someone to throw me some kind of rope I could hold onto. At this time of the year I worry that the long dark nights and short grey days will take hold of me and drag me into a perpetual lethargy that will only lift in Spring.
People have real problems, difficulties at work, at home, with their children, finding balance in their lives. There are real tragedies, losses and readjustments. There are some days that are just plain bad. In these circumstances sometimes all we can do is wait for the passing of time, perhaps just a moment where we take a deep breath, half an hour where we do the things we burn to do always, a day, a week, a month, a year to move away from the pain that holds us by the lungs and squeezes.
There are some things that help:
Breaking our negative thought patterns:
We reinforce many of the negative feelings we have about ourselves and our circumstances through our negative thinking patterns. Pychological studies have shown that depression can be alieviated hugely by using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy either alone or in conjunction with medication. Thinking habits build up over a lifetime but we can work on them and practice substituting more realistic, helpful and positive thoughts. We can use techniques to control our anger and stop procrastination.
Feeling Good – The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns is a wonderful book with excellent exercises for breaking mood cycles and destructive types of thinking.
Doing something we love or indulging in our happinesses. On her website Winslow Eliot gathers examples of these ‘daily happinesses’ and on her site Barbara Scully helps us find serenity. It is often difficult to see where we can find time to recuperate, dream, kick back or create but very small changes can make huge differences. I found this recently when I decided to get up at 6 each morning to do some writing, despite having four kids and an almost 2 yr old who wakes in the night. I found that I actually gained energy from the satisfaction of having done something I loved.
My involvement in the parent-to-parent support group Cuidiu since my first child (now almost nine) was born got me through the hair-raising and hair pulling out first years of the culture shock of children. Similarly my writing connections through twitter and writing courses have shown me that my writing struggles are shared with many others.
Keeping going, however slowly, you are doing well
A step is a step is a step, it’s still progression, and even if you step back, you still learned something from going forward to begin with. Congratulate yourself for your effort.
Let it out, communicate and express yourself
Tell someone, or talk to others with similar difficulties. You will be surprised at how others feel just the same. Many of the struggles a writer deals with on a personal level may find expression through stories or in journals. In what I called the Book of Joy, I worked through a troubling period in my life, coming to the realisation that life is two sides of a sphere, dark and light. We can see joy more clearly in relation to loss or grief. This is the theme of my poem ‘If we thought that love was gone.’
Who cares? Plenty.
I write my stories because I want to touch people, to connect with them, to make something resonate within them, to give them words for the feelings they experience throughout their lives. I want to establish a well of common humanity which we can all share, so that we can understand what makes us similar, what can give us empathy for each other. Through my relationships with people in daily and virtual life, at the school gate, in Cuidiu, with relative strangers on Twitter, long standing but unseen friends over email and phone I know that I’m not the only mixed up crazy kid on the block. And I want you to be sure that there are a whole lot of lovely people out there, who not only care and feel, but care and feel for You. I’m one of them and there are plenty more. Here is where it begins and ends, I’m throwing a rope into the universe to you all, hoping you will catch it and hold on.
I grew up in the 1970’s: the era of swirly carpets, psychedelic curtains, bed coverings and wallpaper. The wallpaper was flock, groovy, funky, floral, paisley, repeating geometric, colourful, clashing, kitsch. But you have to admit it, compared with the pared down smooth walls in neutral cream paint of the minimalist mode we have now, there was something going on there, there was movement, activity, shape.
When my husband and I moved into our first house, it still had the original orange and brown carpet with giant swirls. In college my sisters and I shared a flat – part of a large old building known as Blair’s Castle. It was decorated in luscious, heavily textured red flock wallpaper. As a kid, I remember lying in bed looking at the walls, picking out a particular pattern within the wallpaper, following it with my eyes until it morphed into another shape or became something, an animal or usually some kind of face. In particular, paisley design was my favourite, the ever repeating fractal like patterns echoing the world’s elegant chaos.
If you want to read a fabulous story about Wallpaper becoming something, or something becoming Wallpaper, read Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s, The Yellow Wallpaper.
First published in 1892 this 6119 word story is included in Peter Boxalls 1001 Books: You must read before you die. He describes it as ‘This little slip of prose, a novella running to a mere twenty-nine pages, it is a literary masterpiece’ and a ‘yearning for sexual and intellectual freedom’. It is written in the first person as a series of journal entries by a woman whose husband has insisted she be confined to a room, (decorated in the yellow wallpaper) to recuperate from what he, a doctor, has diagnosed “temporary nervous depression, a slight hysterical tendency;” The story stays with her as she descends into psychosis with the wallpaper as her companion.
If the Yellow Wallpaper is an extreme example of where identification with wallpaper can bring you, I still believe that the dearth of pattern and activity in our furnishings and wallcoverings is a loss in our creative lives. There’s a state of mind that is crucial to creativity. It’s a kind of free state awareness, where you become utterly immersed in what you are doing, an energized focus. Positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi identifies nine aspects of this feeling of flow:
Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities). Moreover, the challenge level and skill level should both be high.
Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field of attention (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).
A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness the merging of action and awareness.
Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.
Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).
Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).
A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.
The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.
People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging.
As a writer, it’s that feeling you have when you are receptive to ideas, when the writing is flowing, when you are ‘in the groove’. It’s the feeling I used to get, spaced out on groovy wallpaper, a narcotic free method of ‘opening the mind’ and ‘chilling’. Its benefits for creativity and healthy mental relaxation – for us as writers trying to open up a path to our subconscious and our memory, for our children, kicking back in their bedrooms – are huge. It’s a way of freeing the mind, letting go of our residual concerns and moving into a world of possibility. It’s a way of creating creative head space, going places. That’s why I’m Missing 1970’s Wallpaper and glad that its coming back into fashion.