31 Days: Questions of Flow in Writing

Flow is a state of complete and energised immersion. It happens when we are wholeheartedly engaging in a task for it’s own sake. We can’t make it happen, although we can proceed with the activities that often promote this feeling, whether it’s playing music, hillwalking, doing a jigsaw.

According to psychologists, the conditions of flow require clear goals as to the necessary outcome, immediate feedback, ways of modifying our actions to ensure progress. Individuals with the characteristics of persistence, curiosity, confidence and lower self-consciousness can achieve these flow states. Zen meditation is also considered to be a state of flow, promoting a sense of Oneness, overcoming the duality of self and object.

It is, perhaps this sense of total flow and immersion that characterises the very best creative state, one we sometimes but rarely achieve. At these times the ideas or words flow, the chatter of the more rational and critical mind is silenced. We feel a joy, confidence and impetus. I think it’s fair to say that this kind of feeling in our writing work is not often orchestrated. I’ve experienced it in those early morning, half-wake states when ideas seem perfect and crystal, I’ve experienced it somewhat when writing to one of those mad self-imposed deadlines such as NaNoWriMo when you have to just let go and ‘write your heart out’. Sometimes I’ve hit upon a seam of memory or interest and I’m astonished at what I can write, what material I find, but while writing ‘out of the corner of my eye.’ If I look too closely I lose the flow, my critical brain kicks in asking ‘where will this fit?’ ‘Is this any good?’ ‘What will people think if I say that?’

At the moment I’m moving beyond the first draft of a novel. I wrote chunks of it quickly during NaNoWriMo. I’m happy with what I find. There is energy and novelty in the writing. It doesn’t stick. But there are scenes fired down that need to find their place. The story is a first person narration of a man looking over a certain period in his life. It’s true to say that for any of us looking right back into the past, particular scenes will rise up, give rise to others, spark other connections and remembrances. This might not be chronological. So I guess what I’m trying to do in this book is order the scenes psychologically more so than chronologically. I am trying to work towards the feeling of what is right at this early stage rather than tie myself up logistically. I want to work by instinct, somehow. I want to sneak up on myself. I want to turn my brain off for now. Is that possible?

Over the Christmas holidays I did a jigsaw with my daughter for the first time in ages. It was a modest enough jigsaw, 750 pieces but with lots of sea and sky, colours that were very similar but differing in shade and (lovely hue) just a little bit across the piece. What we did was put the pieces that were likely to go into that area close to the area, sometimes we tried out different pieces physically or checked the shape first then tried, sometimes we just suddenly picked up a piece and knew it would fit, and it did!

I’m trying the same thing with my book, putting the pieces that feel right close to where I think they will finally go. I’m hovering above the book with a broad eye, getting a sense of what is right. Of course there will always be a piece that gets put on the wrong side of the jigsaw, some pieces will have to be turned round before they fit and the sky – the sky is always the hardest to do. I’m hoping this approach will work because I don’t want to tie myself up in knots. I don’t want it to be a wretched task. When I worked on the jigsaw I could feel fatigue set in, there came a point when no progress was being made. But every time I went away and came back fresh I could see where another piece fit. I don’t know what the psychological explanation of that is – perhaps it was just fatigue dulling the brain, putting it on loops, making it see only certain things in certain ways. Perhaps that’s what I need to do with the book. Work on it, put in down, sneak back up on it again until it all fits.

We’ve talked about running and walking and creativity. Indeed these are ways to access that mindless flow, to clear the mind of it’s tunnel vision, it’s preconceived structures. Early morning writing or writing without censor to a time limit can be ways of freeing us up to create all sorts of new things. Finding flow in general to promote incubation and give us a sense of joy and energy as we create, paying ‘mindless’ attention to the world around us will calm the spirit, help us see more, help us find ways through our work with confidence and clarity.

Do you have ways of ‘floating above’ your work or when do you find immersion and flow? Do you think it’s possible for me to piece my novel together instinctively, at least as a first pass?

31 Days: Guest Post Derek Flynn – When is a poem not a poem

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

We’re looking here in the 31 Days posts at different aspects of creativity. I wanted to hear from musician and writer Derek Flynn on how music, songwriting and writing in general interact for him. He asks when is a poem not a poem, is a song not a poem and tells us what’s the difference between being a songwriter and a novel writer. There’s a link to his blog at the end but also be sure to check out his album Do you Dream at All?

Over to Derek.

As a writer, I’m used to being asked the question: where do you get your ideas from? (I sometimes like to answer: “The Devil”, just to see the look on people’s faces.) But as a writer AND a singer/songwriter, you tend to get asked different types of questions. “How can you get up there and sing in front of all those people?” is usually top of the list. This is common even from other writers. “I could never do that,” they tell me, “I’d freeze.” This from people who would happily get up in front of a room full of people and read their – sometimes painfully personal – stories. I find it very interesting that creative people, i.e. writers, who confound other people’s expectations with their ability to create something are themselves in turn often confounded by a musician’s ability to create something. So, what is the difference between being a novel writer and a songwriter? Or is there one?

To be sure, there are differences. But there are also similarities. For me, I actually began writing stories. I grew up on the British comics of the 1970s, such as, 2000AD and Battle, and I started out as a kid writing and drawing my own comics, eventually graduating onto short stories. Then in my teens I discovered the guitar and began writing songs.

And, to start off with, there are the obvious differences between the two. For me, one of the main differences is that writing music and writing prose require a different headspace. I can’t write a chapter of a book and then turn around and pick up a guitar and start writing a song. When I’m writing a story, I need to concentrate on that and vice versa. Another difference is, you don’t usually sit down and plan out a whole song in advance, using flow-charts and character biographies. But, then again, a lot of novel writers don’t do that either. Many simply sit down with an idea or a character and start writing, letting the story take them where it will. This is very similar to a songwriter.

So, while there are differences, there are similarities as well, which I don’t think my writer friends realise. How many writers have started a story with an image or a phrase or an idea generated by something they saw on the TV or the news? That’s the same way I write a lot of my songs. I will often have an image or a thought or a phrase which will start me off and I will go from there. Writers also often think that song lyrics have to be rhyming couplets. As a songwriter, my lyrics tend to steer clear of the kind of rhyming schemes of someone like Coldplay (sorry Coldplay fans); that is, rhyming of the moon-June-swoon variety. Sometimes my lyrics don’t even rhyme. They are more what could be described as blank verse.

So, is songwriting more like writing poetry then? Well, yes and no. There are those – mostly poets – who take great umbrage with the idea that a mere pop song could be considered poetry. And while this may be the case with a song like Jedward’s ‘Lipstick’, what about the staggering oeuvre of someone like Bob Dylan? And what about someone like Leonard Cohen, who is both a songwriter and a poet? This begs the question: when does a poem stop being a poem and become a song? The answer: when you start to sing it.

Derek Flynn

Derek Flynn is an Irish writer and musician. He’s been published in a number of publications, including The Irish Times, and was First Runner-Up in the 2011 J. G. Farrell Award for Best Novel-In-Progress. His writing/music blog – ‘Rant, with Occasional Music’ – can be found here: http://derekflynn.wordpress.com and on Twitter, he can be found here: http://twitter.com/#!/derekf03

Note re Write Prompt Comp: I’ll announce winners tonight.Update. The day got away from me, apologies, announcement will be Friday.

31 Days: Say what you want to be

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

My dears, sometimes we feel fretful. For those whose drive to create is at the heart of them it’s something we have to do, somehow, it keeps us mentally sane, we are jittery and pacing if we don’t unlease these thoughts and connections that are zooming round our brains, if we don’t release the tender and exhilarated feelings pressing on our chests.

But we have normal jobs and duties and responsibilities. We have things that other people think we should be doing, indeed things we think we should probably do, housework is one shining example in my case.

I’ve written before about how taking part in the 50,000 word November nanowrimo writing challenge ensured that I was writing everyday but also that my family got on board to help me complete the challenge. For one month I could explain that I needed extra time, space and help to complete the full quota of words. It’s easier to ask people to rally round when it’s not an ongoing thing. If you have a family or a full time job it’s not possible to use every other spare minute to pour into writing or whatever creative endeavour you are pursuing. You usually have to work around things.

However, if you ask for time, a full day every so often to dedicate to it, a quiet hour when the kids aren’t to bother you, a weekend retreat that can be organised well in advance, friends and family are often happy to step up and help out to do something to support you. You can be flexible and ask them to be flexible. People like to be helpful when asked straight out for something specific, most of the time anyway!

But the first step is saying that you want to be a writer, or a photographer or an artist or whatever it is. It might be a hobby but now you want to take it more seriously. One of my most popular posts ever was: I’m not an aspiring writer. If you write, you are not aspiring, okay, you might not be a published author, you might aspire to be one of those but if you write and love it and make stories you are not just aspiring to write, you are. If you say what you are and what you want to be then over time people will come to see you and refer to you in those terms. Yes, you might feel more confident if you win a competition, or join a writing group or do a course. These are all ways that you will feel legitimized. But if you have a desire to create, let it be known and find ways of pursuing it. Don’t scuttle around in the background trying to fit it in without imposing on anyone else.

Some people play golf for the weekend, you create. And it doesn’t even matter if you are good right now, people learn to play golf, you can learn to write or paint or whatever it is because that’s who you are, now just let everyone else know about it.

31 Days: Sad Thinking and how to turn it round

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

I’ve talked already about how we shouldn’t beat ourselves up when we don’t achieve what we set out to do, how action can change our mood and perception and how thankfullness can help us stop focussing on what is wrong.

In an old post Haven for the Headwrecked I talk about how we can feel so overwhelmed, feel that no-one cares and how it’s hard to just get through. But I also link to a book that I’ve found tremendously helpful over time, especially in darker moments: Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns. This book is practical and from the reviews has helped countless people. Dr Burns starts by asking us to become aware of the following distorted thinking patterns. We are to write down our negative thoughts and identify which of the following kind of thought it is. It is tremendously helpful to become aware of the ways our particular thoughts are distorted. Have a look through the list.

Distorted Thinking Patterns (Cognitive Distortions) 

  • All-Or-Nothing Thinking – You look at things as black or white, perfection or failure, there is no middle ground.
  • Overgeneralization – You extrapolate from one negative situation or event and assume that every situation will be the same.
  • Mental Filter – You pick out the negative aspect of a situation, or the one thing you got wrong, you focus in on the small criticisms rather than the overwhelmingly positive reaction to your work, for example.
  • Disqualifying the positive – The good things don’t count. Maybe you think they were a fluke, won’t happen again, were not down to you or don’t make enough of a difference.
  • Jumping to conclusions – You assume the worst of situations and people, you think you know what the (negative) outcome will be.
    A. Mind reading. You assume that someone thinks badly of you without finding out if your assumption is true.
    B. The fortune teller error. You predict that negative outcomes will occur and that there is nothing you can do to change what is already set in stone.
  • Magnification (Catastrophizing) or Minimization–  You exaggerate the importance of slip ups or things that go against you making mountains out of molehills. You ignore evidence of your own positive and capable qualities and the flaws or setbacks of others.
  • Emotional Reasoning – We’ve talked before about whether emotions or actions come first and the importance of checking whether your mood is really related to something like hunger or anger. Emotional reasoning assumes that because you are sad or mad there must be a good reason for it. You feel it, so it must be true.
  • Should Statements – By motivating yourself with shoulds you are beating yourself up with feelings of guilt and you are setting yourself up with expectations of others that will lead to anger and resentment. Should is like a stick to beat yourself with rather than a positive intention to move towards another behaviour.
  • Labeling and Mislabeling – By labellng and mislabeling yourself or others ‘What a loser, ‘ ‘He’s a nasty, lazy man’ you are emotionally charging your view of yourself or others and reinforcing a caricature of yourself/others that will colour all your future actions and interactions. What was that black and white movie with the famous line ‘There’s no such thing as a bad boy.’ I recently was at a talk where the lady said that some people in a session she was running had labelled themselves as impatient. They noted they were impatient for 30 minutes a day. Even though it was a small percentage of the day and they were patient for the rest, they had labelled themselves negatively. With that label they are expecting themselves to be impatient next time.
  • Personalization – ‘It’s all my fault!’ Have you ever heard or said this? How come you are the centre of the universe now? Sometimes we blame ourselves for things that are not wholly or at all in our control.

Merely by being aware that we are thinking in a distorted way we can readjust our thoughts to take in both sides of the story, or tone down the distortion. There are very many exercises in the book covering identifying these distortions, dealing with perfectionism and procrastination etc but one simple exercise I found fantastic was the simply talk back/write back exercise where you act as your own devil’s advocate.

Mental Exercise

1: You write in one column exactly what you are thinking and how you are saying it to yourself. Eg ‘You are useless, you haven’t finished your novel yet, you should have finished it by now, you’re lazy, you are a failure, Anne is far more successful than you.  You will NEVER succeed etc etc etc. (Sounds horrifying out loud doesn’t it!)

2: Write down a percentage of how bad you feel on the back of that statement. eg 80%.

3: Next write down which cognitive distortions you have in the statement (there are several there – all or nothing, labelling, should statements among others.)  Then write back your answer, readjusting the thoughts to be less distorted. eg. You are not useless, you’ve just hit an awkward bit in the novel and need more information on how to figure it out. You need to reassess your deadline but you have a good chance of completing it with an additional week. You’re a busy person and have accomplished many other things at the same time as writing this book. Anne is finished now but that doesn’t mean you won’t be finished within a short time.You can succeed in finishing the book if you get help with solving your plot problem, write each day for an hour, take 2 days in January to work on it.

You could also list your achievements to date here to boost yourself!

4: Finally, having written back to yourself you write down how negative you now feel eg 70%

If you are in a bad patch you follow this practise everyday, listing four or five of your most pressing negative thoughts and answering them. The same ones may crop up again and again and that tells you something. By practising talking back to your inner life critic you can build up mental resilience. By understanding the negative distortions you can see how your thinking is biased and not based on truth or evidence of your abilities or characteristics.

These are widely used teqniques in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which has found to be very effective in treating depressive thoughts. The book is well worth the purchase or there may be a CBT course on offer in a local clinic. Some places are now offering specially CBT courses for those whose self-esteem and confidence has been knocked by unemployment, just Google for your local area.

Small things can make a huge difference

Life can be very hard and there are many tragedies, losses and setbacks that can send people a little bit off the track with how they think and feel. In turn we can then feel bad for feeling bad, especially if we feel our moods and behaviours are impacting on others. We may also blame others for their apparent indifference but they may be unsure how to help or they may reach out but we’re not ready to accept their help.

Problems and setbacks seem huge. Sometimes they are huge and go on for a long period of time and it’s hard to find resilience. Sometimes a depression might be something that needs medical intervention before there is a chink where we can implement mood bolstering habits. But sometimes a very small thing can make a difference, a kindness to the self, permission to stop, these pep talks against negative thinking, thankfullness or writing down our achievements, smiling, finding ways to interact with others out of fun and acceptance rather than resentment and conflict. A walk with a mixed up child, a spa day for yourself in your own home, a cuddle on the sofa, a movie, life’s tiny pleasures – these in isolation and by accumulation can make a massive difference to our experience.

31 Days: Finding Wordfire

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

A busy day today so I have just time for a flying post. I saw a link this morning  to English actor Benedict Cumberbatch reading John Keats ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky.

The luxuriance of Ode to a Nightingale reminded me of the experience of studying poetry in school, of being immersed in a poem, of committing sections of it to memory, of speaking the words and feeling the rhythm of them, becoming familiar with them. Listening to the reading of Ode to a Nightingale and the nonsense poem Jabberwocky I realised that in my quest to be a writer in the middle of a prosaic family life, I read and enjoy the language of books – for example Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane and Eowyn Ivny’s The Snow Child have been recent favourites – but I haven’t taken the time to dive right into the feeling of language, to enjoy it’s musicality, rhythm and sound spoken out loud, to experience it with many senses.

Here is the link to the poetry reading http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c8NJneIVXJA&feature=youtu.be It has certainly inspired me and reminded me what I love about language and why I want to be a writer. You’re inspiration might be something different but whether it’s a book, a poetry reading recorded or live, or finding the work of an author such as Penny Goring who does things with language that you didn’t know it could do (see her book THE ZOOM ZOOM) it’s great to find something that puts the fire back into your wordspinning.

Have you found something that has made you excited about writing again? Let us know in the comments.

Don’t forget this weeks Photo Writing Prompt Comp, post entries until Sunday night!

31 Days: Guest Post: Photography – taking up a new creative pursuit

Merchant's Arch - Dublin Copyright ©  John Ivory: All rights reserved
Merchant’s Arch – Dublin Copyright © John Ivory: All rights reserved

I promised you a writing exercise. It’s coming tomorrow and will be related to today’s post. I am very happy indeed to welcome to the blog, John Ivory, who I met through social media and have subsequently met in real life. John has recently been posting fabulous photographs on Facebook, they are of a tremendous quality but I knew that photography was something that he’d recently taken up. Thinking here about how our creative pursuits can change how we see the world and looking at the relationship between creativity and mental resilience, I asked John if he would tell us what his experience has been of taking up a new creative pursuit. Over to John…

My name is John Ivory, husband, father, owned by a cat, spent a near-lifetime in the IT industry and, until very recently, never would have used the word ‘creative’ to describe myself.  That changed during the summer of 2011 – a time during which stress and pressure caught up with me, mentally more than physically. I needed to take my mind off things and off myself. I felt the need to do something new and different. With some encouragement from my wife – a lifelong enthusiast of photography – I decided to try my hand with the only camera I possessed – my iPhone!

During the summer, as I travelled around Ireland and, closer to home, around Co. Wicklow, I took photos which I felt represented the beauty and character of the places I visited. At the end of the summer I compiled two photo-books (“Ireland by iPhone” and “iPhone Home”) using the best of the photos I had taken combined with brief words about the shots.

And that was it – hooked – so much so that I decided to acquire my first ‘proper’ camera that autumn. I was still a little scared of the ‘big’ cameras so I settled for a ‘little’ one but one which allowed me to take some control. I haven’t looked back since. I would be considered quite an observant person but until I took up a camera I didn’t realise just how much I was missing. I literally began to see the world with new eyes, looking for angles and opportunities that would be interesting to capture.

My ‘day job’ calls for quite an analytical approach and any ‘creativity’ is very much related to solving business problems. Most of my pastime pursuits, including my other great passion – music – were approached from an analytical rather than creative angle. Photography, however, affords me the opportunity to explore my ‘artistic’ creativity, something that lay dormant in me until now. I’ve also discovered that the process doesn’t begin and end in the camera. The old days of darkroom film processing have given way to computer processing of digital images and that’s something that fascinates me greatly. The creative possibilities are endless.

Photography and the creative process around it has been very good for me, helping me achieve a great balance and perspective in life. To my surprise, it has also enhanced my social life. There are regular meet-ups with local friends who share a love of photography. Additionally, I have found a great affinity between my love of photography and my social networking. I really enjoy connecting with people on Twitter and Facebook and I have found the latter to be an excellent way to connect with people who share a love of photography. Here I must also include Flickr – a kind of social networking site for sharing photos where, during 2012, I undertook a ‘Project 52’ – taking and posting one theme-based photo each week for a year. Through that project I was able to engage with and enjoy the work of many photographers from around the world. Many of them have now become personal contacts on Flickr and some even on Facebook. I’ve since moved on to more projects for 2013 but I’m making time to put the finishing touches to a photo-book of my first ‘52’ journey.

There is a long way to go and many more aspects of photography to be explored. I also feel ready now to move on to a ‘bigger’ camera. I sense it will be a lifelong learning experience but that’s a good thing. It will help me to keep looking outward at the world and the people around me in search of inspiration. I know it is going to be a very exciting and fulfilling part of my life and the great thing is the journey is only beginning!

If you would like to see examples of my photography, here are some links to my online presence:

Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/johnivory/   – my main online portfolio

500px: http://500px.com/jwivory   – just starting to build this portfolio

JTI Photography: http://www.jti-photography.com/  – website for John & Teresa Ivory Photography

My blog: http://www.john-ivory.blogspot.com/  – I plan to combine writing and photography on here

Thanks to John for his account of how photography has opened up the world visually, creatively and socially for him. His story really shows how creative pursuits can enhance our lives dramatically, giving satisfaction, purpose and happiness.

How about you? Have you taken up something new? Have you unexpectedly come across an activity/craft that you loved? How has it helped or amused you? I know some of you tried flash fiction for the first time in last weeks challenge, can you describe how it made you feel to try something for the first time and what you got out of it?

Our creative exercise tomorrow will be based on a photo prompt related to John’s photo above that he’s kindly agreed to share on the blog. Have a look at the photo and think of ideas and I’ll set you a small challenge tomorrow. See you then!

31 Days: Stop! or HALT Have a day off and smile!

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

I’d planned today to write about negative thoughts including some of the ways that are recommended (and that I’ve found helpful) to talk yourself out of those energy sapping and undermining thoughts. But the negative thinking post is long and I’m tired today so I’m going to take some of my own advice and kick back a little. I’ll cover negative thoughts early next week.

I recently discovered the books of Richard Wiseman. In his latest book Rip it Up, which I haven’t read thus far, he apparently is taking a new approach to self-help, rather than thought stopping or talking yourself out of bad feelings he suggests (I’m getting this from the blurb and reviews) that we should simply do. Rather than analyse, do the things that will make us feel better. The approach is based on psychologist William James’ ideas on the relationship between behaviour and emotion. The James-Lange (Carl Lange also contributed) theory of emotion suggests that events and behaviours provide a stimulus which the mind subsequently interprets. We are not afraid automatically of a bear but if a bear runs after us we feel something and later interpret it as fear. Our mind’s perception of our rapid heart rate etc is the emotion.

Perhaps our primordial instincts and early experiences begin to condition us to react in particular ways and then it becomes difficult to see whether behaviour or emotion comes first. We might get out of bed ‘on the wrong side’. We feel groggy and angry with no obvious cause – we could attribute it to a number of factors.

Very often we might have trouble interpreting signals and there are huge variations between people on how well they can recognise the signs of their own, stress, tiredness, sleep etc. People with children will know how they often fail to see that they are in need of rest. ‘I’m not tired!’ is a very common refrain from a child who is tearful, unco-ordinated, pale and yawning.

When we are feeling stressed or upset our in the case of artists and writers, feeling blocked or unable to create, the HALT acronym is a useful one to check through to see what might be the cause.

H: Are we hungry? Have we forgotten to eat? Perhaps we need a light snack to tied us over to the next meal.

A: Angry. Are we cross or annoyed about something going on in the background of our lives, small or crucial? We might not realise it but

L: Lonely: Do we need a good banter with someone, have we reduce our social lives too much in the cause of our family and creative lives? Are we feeling back about ‘wasting’ our time on social media or going out. But we need to connect.

T: Tired: I must say, coming out of years of tiny babies and toddlers I find it very hard to determine how tired I am. Parents are used to solidering on, those who work full time and then come home to kids or further work just don’t get a chance to stop. The merge of home, social and work life through technology too makes it hard to know when to just rest and take a complete break. I don’t really know the answer to the last one. I’d love to be someone who can intuitively take breaks or relax but I seem to have to organise myself into taking a break. There’s a lot to be said for taking a day of the week and setting it aside for complete relaxation, mini spa day, walking, music, film whatever. But who does? Do you?

Smile or whatever

This morning I had a challenging morning with the children. I felt tired and disappointed over some holiday plans that seem to be falling apart (so long since we’ve been away.) I was cross! I walked to school with the kids with a face like thunder, feeling upset and angry. Two days ago I greeted everyone with a chat and a happy new year, today I avoided eye contact. Then I saw someone I know very well, looked up and gave her a friendly smile and hello. I immediately felt better. We chatted for a moment and then I met further people who I now greeted with smiles rather than silence. Suddenly an epiphany, life was okay! I know it’s not always as straightforward and if you suffer from a serious mental illness it won’t just go away but if it’s the everyday blues then how you act really can change how you feel. William James was right!

There are days when we feel like doing nothing. If you are tired and what you are doing doesn’t have to be done, just stop! If you must soldier on, look out for the first opportunity to give yourself a decent break and put relaxation and happiness at the front of the queue, before ironing, tax returns (or maybe not) and anything else. Of course sometimes if we take the pressure of ourselves we immediately feel energised. Which is why I’ve written a long post when I felt ‘too tired’ to do it. Both rest and action gives energy so see what’s the right one for you today.

Tomorrow: a little writing exercise for those who fancy finding new ways to get your mind whirring.

31 Days: Celebrating the creativity of David Bowie

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

I’m not sure what this post was going to be about before I heard David Bowie’s new song , released today, from his first album in ten years. David Bowie is 66 years old today and to my mind he is the most creatively inspiring artist in the industry and his influence stands even though he has not been releasing new material.

He first came to fame with ‘Space Oddity’ in July 1969, experimental and eclectic, his androgynous Ziggy Stardust alter ego, was bold, sexy and inspired a cult following and brought elements of visual media to the stage. According to his biographer David Buckley the Ziggy cult was “unique—its influence lasted longer and has been more creative than perhaps almost any other force within pop fandom.” Bowie has continually reinvented himself and experimented and innovated with look and music, from Ziggy to the Thin White Duke, to his ambient music collaboration with Brian Eno, his new Romantic ‘Ashes to Ashes’ to his hard rocking and energetic Tin Machine outfit. He’s also acted in numerous films.

Perhaps it’s not necessary to add to the plethora of articles and the general excitement among fans of Bowie on the day he announces an album many thought might never come. His new song is moving for it’s mood of retrospection and fragility, it’s sense of being a marker for both for something new but also the fading light of a life. Bowie has epitomized life, creativity, exuberance and this song ‘Where are we now?; is a quiet reflection on where he finds himself at now and where we find him amongst his already evident legacy.

Even if you’re not a fan of his music, his stature as a premier influencial and creative figure in the last 40 years or so cannot be denied. I was born months after ‘Space Oddity’ was released but have appreciated so much of his music, many of his songs being among my very favourites. But most of all as I look at this new video and think about what David Bowie means as a performer and creator to me, I realise that he epitomises the creative spirit and that desire of saying things in new ways, that constant reinvention, novel expression and creative restlessness and energy that are at the heart of my endeavours in writing and at the heart of me.

31 days: Writing Goals, how to achieve them & what if you don’t

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

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Aims and intentions – direction but not dictatorship.

There are many blogposts across the internet about setting goals this January but the emphasis I want to put on this post is yes, on achieving goals but not beating yourself up in the process! Speaking from experience I know how we can scupper ourselves by getting frantic, confused and guilty so this is what I’ve done that helps me.

1: Write a desire manifesto
Write what you want to do/achieve most of all. Under that write your lesser aims. You will know what’s most important to you and what you need to put ahead of everything else.

2: Be optimistic

There is tremendous energy in intention itself. I talk about intention in this post and how Orna Ross says that aims are not about ‘should’ but come from a more positive position. So set out what you would love to achieve in the coming months. We want to give ourselves parameters within which we can organise our life, we’re not talking sticks and sadness. We want to get away from a vague sense of dissatisfaction and see what kinds of activities and achievements will give us energy and makes us happier. At this stage jot down your wildest dreams.

3: Be realistic and specific

We’ve all heard about making aims SMART, specific, measurable, achieveable, realistic and timebound. Again, we need to set the parameters. It would be marvellous if we could write 3 novels in a month but it probably won’t happen. Subject your wildest dreams and aims to a reality test. Could you finish your novel draft by next month? Do you hope to start your next project by March. Do you need to fit in smaller projects along the way? Can you assign specific time slots to these?

Note: This is not set in stone! Your projects will take longer or less time than you think, family issues will occur. You DO NOT NEED TO FEEL YOU HAVE FAILED OR SHOULD BE GUILTY. So what if you’re 20 years too late to be considered for the 30 under 30 prize, is that really what you wanted anyway? And what would you be happy with instead?

4: Keep a ‘to do’ journal and track progress and achievement (this is magic!)

Get an A4 book into which you write your monthly, weekly and daily aims. Each day or week tick off what you’ve done (a big enthusiastic tick). If something is left undone add it in to the following week. Periodically (monthly, quarterly) write a list of achievements such as submissions made or pieces accepted, words written, ideas gathered. (There’s more on this below!)

What I find so good about this practice is that it gets everything out of my head, my to do list is not circulating in my mind and causing anxiety, I can clearly see what I want to do, what I have done and what I need to do to finish what I set out to do.

3: Regig your schedule regularly.

Based on the information you discover see where you need to add effort, prioritize or take away goals altogether. Again this is a rational and clever thing to do. There is no shame in not achieving everything. (Even superheroes have to send their costumes to the dry cleaners every so often!)

4: Set both tiny goals and marvellous ones

If you set tiny goals you can build on them. If you aim to write 500 words a day you will energise yourself by your success rather than disheartening yourself by your aim to do 2000. The energy of your achievement and it’s confidence will make it more likely that you can achieve 2000 words. Didn’t you know you had wings and could fly?

But equally big goals like the 50,000 word writing challenge Nanowrimo can work. If you see yourself by steady progression scaling the heights of such a challenge (through effort and camaraderie) you will forever know what you are capable of and that is a certainty that cannot be taken away from you.

5: Write an achievement manifesto

When I arrive at the pages where I write my quarterly summary of successes I am always surprised. It’s so easy to forget what you have achieved, even if it’s something quite significant. We often have a tendency to underplay success and focus on what we haven’t done yet. So writing down what we have achieved from solving family squabbles to winning the local poetry competition to writing your first flash fiction to winning the Booker prize is very important. We can take some time to see how these achievements reflect what we set out to do or whether some of the things we did took us in new directions that turned out to be rather wonderful. You can even go a bit crazy and write compliments to yourself on this page. I’ll be talking about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques to help stop negative thoughts more fully in a future post and the positive feedback we can give ourselves in this achievement manifesto is an important part of that. This is our feelgood CV, imagine listing your achievements for a job, you can make yourself sound very impressive!

And what if you don’t succeed?

Psychology and Weiner’s attribution theory tells us that we attribute our own success to our efforts and other people’s success to luck. Failure works round the other way. I’m not so sure that those of us who feel responsible for everything, don’t attribute our success to chance and our failure to ourselves. There are those of us who set such high standards that we are bound to fail.

In the modern day though we have this impression that everyone can succeed if they just try. There is truth to the idea that if we start off more optimistic we’ll be more alert to opportunities and we’ll try things, whether it’s enter competitions or self-publish, become entrepreneurs or apply for a job that’s a little too far out of our reach (or is it?) It’s also true however that even if we’ve written a brilliant book for example or have been writing solidly for 20 years, there is a chance we’ll be unlucky and just won’t make it or perhaps we’re not as good as we hoped.


If we are not getting where we want to we might need to get some constructive criticism. We might have to decide whether the love of writing is enough beyond financial success. We might take joy from other aspects of our lives that can make a rich cloth in its entirety. We can hope for posthumous fame. We need to figure out what aspects of life make it just good enough, what small pleasures add up into a satisfying whole. There has to be balance between making our goals and dreams strong enough and big enough to make us work hard & commit to our own success and also realising that to make one ambition the be all and end all is to set ourselves up for misery.


We need to become good not beating ourselves up about not meeting targets. We need to be clever and reassess, not take it as failure.

What do you think, is there a way to maintain our optimism and intention while not beating ourselves up for the things we don’t manage to do?