Writing

Social Media, Serendipity and Self-Compassion

cliffwalk142While social media has many drawbacks including its skewed version of reality that can sometimes make us feel inadequate, it can offer up a whole lot of support (which it did, in my last post, and a heartfelt thanks to all of you who commented for that). Despite it’s obsession with cats, it can sometimes offer us a completely different animal to admire and it can also educate, inform and offer wonder and consolation as we serendipitously come across fascinating and helpful articles and links. At times it’s algorithms can be suspect and constricting but at other times it can offer us truly human connection and insights.

From my last post you’ll know that my tank has been on empty and some of the challenges have not gone away. So it was timely that I found a helpful post today on Facebook from Estrella Azul, a lady that I have made the acquaintance of online through our involvement with #FridayFlash. Her exchanges with me and her work on the Friday Flash website have always been very thoughtful, industrious and kind. Today she has posted about an ongoing project that she is involved with – a set of 52 (weekly) assignments that focus on nurturing and uplifting the self. This week’s assignment Estrella explains is on ‘practising pleasure “doing what you do – creating, reading, hiking, writing, dancing, singing, gardening, running, knitting, cooking, making friends, making art, making love – with everything you’ve got, savoring the experience, letting delight rearrange your insides”. The quote comes from the E-book of assignments 52-52-Love-Your-Wild-Self e-guide by Judy Clement Wall. Linking to Judy’s website from Estrella’s I see that she is interested in developing (wild) creativity, making art and the impetus is developing the self also by fearless love and living. The e-guide offers a weekly task to focus on caring for and bolstering ourselves. In her post on her Love Your Wild Self e-guide she says that “we live in a culture that celebrates a certain kind of martyrdom. We appreciate sacrifice and celebrate those who, day after day, put themselves last. I think this is especially true for women, upon whom we have heaped so many nurture-the-world expectations.”

While not so sure that our culture “celebrates martyrdom” and having seen, especially in the boom years the opposite case where greed and selfishness has often been institutionalized and rewarded, it is true to say that for both men and woman and particularly at certain phases of life juggling work and home issues people can lose sight of themselves. They forget the need for self-care and feel disillusioned. Something that is important to me and that I admire in others is open mindedness and compassion with regard to others. There is no celebrity so famous or public figure so powerful that they should be exonerated from treating others with consideration and respect. And the same for the rest of us. But at times it is ourselves we lack compassion for, we are perfectionists or at least believe that if we cannot solve life’s problems or ‘cope’ continuously then we have somehow failed. Yes, I’m talking about myself but we all set ourselves impossible standards especially in these times when we are led to believe that our efforts and our positive thinking alone can make us succeed (not taking into account, luck, circumstance, economy, the state of the publishing industry etc). Judy Clement Wall talks about self-compassion and in turn links us to Jill’s blog which has the tag line life is beautiful and brutal, tender and terrible – keep your heart open. Jill compiled a self-compassion e-book filled with reader’s posts on how they practised self-compassion. The self-compassion pdf is free to download.

Judy’s weekly assignment 52-52-Love-Your-Wild-Self e-guide is available to download from Etsy for roughly 15 dollars/euro. Along with Estrella I’m going to give it a go and use the assignments as a structure for seeing myself again and strengthening my spirit and energy. We know to exercise to get our bodies in shape, why not a similar program for the mind?

In my last post I said that my head was under water. I felt adrift and overwhelmed, sorry that I couldn’t post on this blog under ongoing trying circumstances. So many responded and emphathized and shared their own struggles and that in itself helped refill the well. This morning I was able for the first time in many months to do an hour (ish) of writing at my favourite 5am slot. So down, but not out. And I’ll keep posting other consolations I find along the way of self-compassion, those things that we can learn from and enjoy.

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On writing and raising children

It’s been quite a while since I posted here and for good reason. I’ve been making a concerted effort to bring many of my projects to completion. My novel The Book of Remembered Possibilities about the stories we tell ourselves about our lives and two women who need stories to survive is on submission, The Exhibit of Held Breaths, about an unusual exhibit and its effect on a town and its curator is in final revision and I am about to begin adding words to another exciting project (a novel based on a flash fiction. The flash fiction has just been accepted for publication by the fabulous Stinging Fly.) The latter is a project that allows me to write in a more visceral, lively and poetic way in a book filled with heart and humanity but looking into the psychology of both loneliness and evil.

Good things have happened writing wise, a shortlisting for the Over the Edge prize, inclusion in the Stinging Fly as I’ve said and also the Arena/RTE experimental fiction anthology New Planet Cabaret. I have at least another five books on the boil in the back of my mind, some begun already. Janet E. Cameron is asking whether you can have children and write and she wants your views. My succinct answer is that it is possible but it takes much longer and its particularly difficult to keep whole novels in your head. I’ve been trying to find out how other writers I admire managed to write fine books and have a family, A.S. Byatt is one. She had four children, – one tragically died aged 11 in an accident, a grief she naturally carried wIth her.

In a biography by Pauline Holdsworth for the Pensilvania Centre Byatt’s struggle to write the books she wanted to write, trying to fulfil both literary ambition and personal desire is demonstrated with reference to one of her earlier novels

Holdsworth says “On an essay on her first unsure protagonist in The Shadow of the Sun, Byatt wrote, “I always knew, as my heroine didn’t, that I must contrive to work (to think, to write).” Through two marriages and three children, (one had died in an accident) she continued to work. It wasn’t until age 54 that she experienced what she called her happiest moment. “I found myself alone in this house, and there was total silence, and the sun was absolutely blazing, and I walked up and down the stairs absolutely boiling with the sense that I belonged to myself, and could finish any thought.”

This I do find is my greatest struggle, to keep Head above Water now that my four chlldren are between 5 and 12 means not the physical hands on minding of infants but still the emotional energy, mental agility, persistence, cheerleading and constant regrouping of optimism and organisation in order to tend to the physical, emotional, organisational, psychological, spiritual needs of these children, one with Aspergers, to keep them on the right track. As every parent knows, September is a demanding month, getting everyone readjusted to the school routine. (This year my eldest had the new challenge of secondary school.) The mental and emotional energy required might sometimes have been put into writing. And yes I get energy and affection back and experiences and understanding of the core human things, love, self-sacrifice, human development, nature, nurture. There is always clamour though, it’s difficult to have your own thoughts as a mother, difficult to think new things and let the mind wander far. Writing takes far longer and there is always a sense (shared by writers in all circumstances of course) that you could have done more, reached further.

I will persist. I will create spaces, I will find the canvas of dark and quiet at 5am and use it. I will sit down when the children are at school and drink coffee and scroll through my document, letting both infuse into my system until I can create more. It is a much slower walk but it’s a walk, I’ll keep moving.

I’ll post next on the things I’ve been doing since the summer to create more headspace and finish those books.

In the meantime, here’s a link to a wonderful contemplation by Marc Nash of the relationship of Fiction to Reality (as compared to Art’s relationship.)  One of the themes of The Exhibit of Held Breaths is how an appreciation of Art might change a person’s view of life and reality, I’m also fascinated by our modern world and how our reality is mediated by the media and social networks. Marc Nash,(whose latest book An Eye for an Eye for an Eye is just released) makes some very interesting and important points about where fiction currently fits into that.

How to write when kids just fight and other stuff

School’s out in this house and my eldest son whose twelve and a half has ‘graduated’ from Irish primary school so a nice sense of achievement and moving on.  In terms of keeping my ‘Head above Water’ writing wise I’m doing my best to get up in the early hours before the kids wake to work on my next book The Exhibit of Held Breaths (which I’m really pleased with so far, hurrah! 90,000 words, 2nd draft).

Still I’m thinking of writing a book called How to Write when Kids just fight in honour of the summer holidays and writing parents. My daughter tried to give me the old writing guilt-trip ‘but you were on your computer’ even though she was quite happily playing with her brother at the time. I’ll stick to the early morning mostly though and no-one will even know I’m a writer. I’ll have nice scones baked by the time they get up in the morning and…ah forget it, let’s just see how it goes!

During the week I spotted that Adam Byatt has been doing lots of posts on creativity so do check out his blog.

And Number Eleven is a wonderful new lit mag venture (now on Issue two). They’re eager to get feedback and build up a following so do check out their latest issue and like them on Facebook. They are open to submissions. Their online publication is very stylish and if you look carefully you’ll see they published one of my stories (and the title of my short story collection on submission) Random Acts of Optimism.

See what you think of my new post on writing.ie. It’s all about how we need to write the book that is right for the time in our lives. Sometimes our ambition might be beyond what we can manage or we might change how or what we write depending on what the circumstances of our life are.

I say “Write to take yourself away from the quicksand of your own life, where you cannot see out or through or write through your life, autobiographically to find an angle, a perspective that can help you tell both the story of yourself and the story of people in situations like yours, help you find that chord that resonates.”

Read the full post here and leave a comment if the post makes sense to you. Thank you!

Tomorrow I’ll have an interview with the fabulous flash fiction evangelist and organiser of National Flash Fiction Day Calum Kerr who’s launching a new flash fiction collection called Lost Property. It’s a very interesting interview about how flash fiction has contributed to his writing life so come and see tomorrow.

Now I’m off getting kids to camps and taking the youngest to the park to teach him to ride a bike without stabilizers.

Writing: Motivation in the month of May and first drafts

I’ve decided to join the #15kinMay writing folk on twitter to progress a new project based on a flash fiction I wrote last year. This is a very visceral book and to me the book has always had a May feeling. I felt a great impetus last year to just write and write further but due to circumstances ( I was releasing my self-published comedy book Housewife with a Half-Life and working on another book) I didn’t go ahead with working on it at that point.

Of course impetus can sometimes be deceptive, we love the shiny thing we made and have a vague idea of what we want to do with it but when we get down to writing we might run out of steam or ideas after a few thousand words. Next week I’ll be writing about Sitting with your book and also what I’ve learned over time as I begin another novel (having completed three so far) about the interplay between Structure and Free Expression. In other words how the plotter and pantsers tendencies can beautifully combine to help move your project forward.

I’ve successfully completed three Nanowrimo’s (50,000 words in a month challenges) so what tips am I bringing to the 15k in May?

1: Anyone can write 500 words a day which is all you need to do complete this challenge

2: If you fail to achieve your target one day, it does not mean anything about you, your writing ability or what you will produce the next day.

3: What might be stopping you. Fear, Self-Doubt, Performance Anxiety, ‘Should’ Thinking or you may just need to incubate ideas for a while, take a walk, a shower or forget about it altogether to allow your ideas to dance around each other and combine. For example on the walk home from the school run today I thought about how I might bring two previously unrelated characters together.

4: Don’t make rules for yourself to make it harder. If you are working on a brand new project like I am give yourself permission to include comments, explorations and self-talk in your first draft and let it be part of the wordcount. Who cares? For me these comments are like the pegs or cornerstones of your project, they will give you the shape of the thing, give you a place to set off from. Write freely from these points, non necessarily chronologically, although in next week’s post I’ll issue some caveats and suggestions as to how to ensure your first draft doesn’t become a whole heap of muddle.

All you have to do to participate in the #15kinmay is to use this hashtag on Twitter regarding your project and you’ll be invited by the organisers to take part in further group discussions should you wish to. The camaraderie is always wonderful for kickstarting motivation and showing you that your struggles are not unique.

May is already 10 days in but there’s plenty of time to join in. Let me know if you are intending to rise to the challenge which can be for a new project or to add volume to something you have already begun. Best wishes.

31 Days: When writing is at the heart of us we will not let it go

I’ve been blogging for the 31 days of January on creativity and mental resilience. I hope to explore this area in the future but this phase is at an end. To access the rest of the posts click here.

notebookfrcropThe pencil scratching on the page, diaries for years and years, a notebook thrown further and further under a bed because it’s interfering with my studies, the story that springs from no-where when I’m back in Kerry where I grew up, a story of girls leaping over the gaps in bogs and a ‘rainbow mosaic of sphagnum moss’, a first poem at eight, poems in the teens and early twenties as Faraday cages for intense electric emotion, first love and freedom. The words written between the naps of my first infant, the stories fashioned amidst the chaos of two, three, four tiny children all mouths and hands and jabber and exhortation. And now these novels and stories, layers of accumulated knowledge and observation and experience and joy and sorrow, ways of looking at the world, slant ways, peripherally and then direct, in the gut, tearing at the places only barely healed under the gauze of memory.SuninCillRialaig

In my stories there are girls on the hills and girls under glass there are men fascinated by an exhibit of twin spheres, there is a girl who sends herself to the stars in a cryogenic chamber to save her life, there are two women at looking each other through the mirror of their alternate realities, there is a place where stories are forbidden, there is a man dreaming of his old lover in an octagonal house, there are Emily and Eddie, stuck age eighteen on a shore where they loved each other, before real life began, there is a woman flying with her child in a flugtag towards the sun.

This is the core of it, these stories that come out, these feelings that are preserved for the future, like bog bodies, like beetles in amber.

wallreflection

If we could hold onto the heart of that then the rest wouldn’t matter, late nights, early mornings, the fear that our words are worthless and such feeble approximations, the fear of rejection or ridicule for our endeavours. There are absolutely no guarantees. We want to be heard, we want to be read, not for money, necessarily, not for ego or fame but just because we are human and want to share what this means with others, all the emotion, and intrigue, the elevated and base things that we struggle to understand. We will write because we lose heart without it because we lose ourselves, are disconnected, endlessly adrift.

I watched a program on psychology that showed that when a person was about to be told a story that certain areas in the brain would fire, these areas mirrored exactly the areas that fired in the storyteller but fired BEFORE the storyteller began. We are wired for narrative, we are primed for stories, we are waiting to hear the story of what happens, what has happened, what will happen.

When I began this 31 days of exploring how we keep our Head above Water, what I wanted to do most of all was to find ways that we could ignite the spark in us for expressing, for creativity and to keep the wordfire burning in the face of everyday challenges. I was trying to discover yes, what keeps the joy in writing and what can keep the joy and energy in us, how we can keep reaching in, in order to reach out and connect through the words we spin and the stories we share.

blurryrosebudsWe’ve looked at running, walking, relaxing, comedy, sad thoughts, claiming your identity as a writer. We’ve looked at different forms of creative writing, the energy of flash fiction, using word prompts to create new pieces, at song writing  and how poetry can enhance prose. We’ve looked at creativity, writing goals and how taking up a new pursuit can create new opportunities and verve and ways of looking at the world. We’ve seen examples of people who have taken optimistic and unexpected steps towards making money out of aspects of their writing.

The most popular blogposts have been those that get right to the heart of the things that people worry about, whether they can really call themselves a writer, how to keep joy in what they do, and what to do when trying to live and write all get too much.

The 31 days is over so what next?

I’m working on a second novel called The Exhibit of Held Breaths. I’m just starting the second draft and want to keep myself in the mindset of the book till I have another draft done. I’m often a project butterfly so it’s good for me to set myself a particular aim. It’s been great connecting up and meeting new people as a result of these creative posts so I’ll continue to post a couple of times a week during that time, most probably with a general post and some kind of creativity exercise. I’d also be grateful for any suggestions as to areas you’d like to see explored. I’ll also be blogging on www.writing.ie on my blog Random Acts of Optimism.

Thanks so much to all for your participation and comments in the 31 days. The Becoming Human prizes draw will be on Friday and I’ll draw for the Self-Printed and Writing Gifts  on Sunday evening, so be sure to get your name in the comments to enter. I look forward to more interaction on the blog in future, hearing more of your stories, endeavours and triumphs.

31 Days Guest Post by Fiona Melrose: Poetry performed Alchemy on My Prose

One of the wonderful things about my 31 days of blogging on mental and creative resilience is how I have made the acquaintance of new and interesting people who are finding ways to enhance their own creativity and are trying new things. One of these people is Fiona Melrose. She told me how attending a poetry course had revolutionised how she approached writing longer pieces. I immediately wanted to hear more since poetry and rhythm are important aspects of my own prose. In this guest post Fiona explains to us how her poetry course taught her to write from ‘inside the word’ then move out to the sentence. Here is her most interesting post.

As an elective of my MA I signed up for the 6 week poetry Module with poet Liane Strauss.  I had, like many writers, dabbled with poetry but never with any serious intention.  By the end of the six week course,  my poetry was much improved but as a prose writer everything had changed, and all for the better.

I came to the poetry course at a time when I was struggling with my writing on a fundamental level.  I had over fifty thousand neurotic, empty words sitting in a drawer and none of them, I felt, had anything to do with who I am or what I hoped to achieve as a writer.

The course changed the way I write from the inside out not only in terms of technique but in terms of subject matter.  Both the art and the craft of writing were turned on their heads.  I have thought about this at some length trying to understand how so fundamental a shift could have occurred.

The most important archeology took place around the sentence.  Given that, in my abandoned novel, the larger sweeps of plot and form were failing me, the return to not only the sentence but the weight and play of individual words in them, was the perfect place to start to rebuild my writing.  Writing poetry demands a forensic attention.  Not only to the moment you are trying to capture or express but on a technical level too.  Each point of punctuation can fundamentally alter the heft and meaning of your entire poem. This taught me to write from inside the word and then out to the sentence, then the paragraph and so on.  This is not to say I always achieve this but at least I now know what I am aiming for.

Clarity and economy are synonymous with good poetry and if ever I learned to cut and edit sentences it was here.   Instead, rhythm and texture are all a by product of the sentence and the number of breaths it takes to express its meaning.  The oral nature of poetry made me so much more aware of how my sentences sound and how my breath travels through them.  This has also translated into how I can inhabit a character’s voice.  I have never really understood what it means when we speak about “voice” in fiction and the importance of finding it in oneself.  The poetry course taught me that it is a person’s own natural poetry.  How their age, culture, physicality, their most secret thoughts, all come together in the sound they make when they speak, be it direct speech (dialogue) or narration.

Poetry is rich is symbolism and metaphor, everything matters.  There is no colour, animal , sound, allusion that isn’t there for a reason.  Everything is working on at least two levels, possibly more.  This has made me much more aware of what might previously have been dismissed as “incidentals” in my fiction.  If I write about a tree is is a tree but it is also about a family tree about rootedness in the tribe and about belonging.  If a dog dies it is also about the death of a loyal bond and the dog in the Fool card in the tarot deck which represents the original self, the unencumbered soul.  Foxes feature heavily in my novel and much thought has gone into that choice.   For me, these choices put the poetry into the prose.

The course had its difficulties for me too.  The very personal often confessional nature of poetry demanded that I be more visceral about what I was prepared to put on the page.  I have an analytical, academic training and in retrospect my “first” book had a distance too it.  I found writing poetry in the first person very challenging.  Sharing it made me feel vulnerable and I felt it too confessional, even vulgar or indiscrete.  I am still no fan of this type of writing, but, I know that it has taught me to much braver on the page, seeking out the tooth and claw in a sentence and in a character as opposed avoiding it.

I wrote a short story just after the poetry class and for the first time the voice of the character came to me as naturally as if it where my own.  For the first time in fiction writing, I felt less as if I was trying to make something up than I was trying to get something down.  It was less about manufacturing a plot or character and felt more as if I were simply transcribing the images and scenes unfolding a few inches above my head and the words I was hearing in the character’s voice.  This story just came out in one exhalation and sounded nothing like me or anything I had written before.  It has become the basis for my new novel.

I believe that writing poetry allowed me to continue to write and explore my creative process but forced the expression through non-habitual routes and in so doing produced a more exciting, non-habitual response. I cannot recommend this enough.

Course: The 6-week poetry elective with poet Liane Strauss was part of the MA Creative Writing at Birckbeck, University of London.  As students we produced a short collection of poems and a critical essay on an aspect of the craft.

Fiona Melrose was born in Johannesburg where she studied and taught politics.  She is a writer, reviewer and blogger.  Her short fiction has been published and she is completing her first novel.  Fiona lives in Suffolk with two charming dogs who approve of her habit of writing stories in her head on long muddy walks.

You can follow Fiona on twitter at @papercutprint and visit her site at site www.papercutpublishing.tumblr.com

Sincere thanks to Fiona on this fascinating post. Please post a comment if you have experienced a course or activity that has changed how you write.

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.

To receive all the 31 posts, sign up for email notification on the sidebar. On twitter it’s at @31HAW or @alisonwells. Hashtag  #31haw and #headabovewater.

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.

BE CLEVER!

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.

YOU HAVE NOT FAILED!

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?

Writing and Life: What to do when you just can’t

When my youngest child of four started school in September I thought that I would blog about that. After all this blog is called Head above Water, it’s about the years of juggling life and writing when the kids were very small. After almost twelve years, with all the children now in school I’ve entered a new era and perhaps I will blog about that in the future.

Blocked

But for a number of reasons (lack of a clear holiday downtime during the summer, the effort that goes along with getting the children settled back into their routine and other things) rather than having a new lease of life I’ve felt worn down and came to the point where I was unable to blog, to write very much, tweet, market my self-published books or any of the the things that I’d previously thought important both because I enjoyed them and because I was building a career.

I don’t really believe in writer’s block. Not the kind where you stare out the window and wait for the muse to come and can’t think of anything. I’ve used writing prompts to help me get started, walking always makes new ideas come, focused effort has worked for me: I’ve completed NaNoWriMo (the 50,000 words in a month challenge) three times.

But the air sometimes gets thin when you’re running and running and don’t take the time to figure out why or where. We talk about fitting writing into our busy lives, eking out the hours around our work but we talk less about doing nothing, about enjoying ourselves, having fun, exploring the passions and interests we have for their own sake.

Vapour

There’s a lot of talk now about marketing, building platforms, social networking, raising your profile, unlocking Amazon’s algorithms to gain visibility. But again, these activities can become vapourous when we are doing them just for the sake of keeping up, because it’s the done thing, because everyone else is running faster and faster now and we have to keep up.

Too much in the head

We know too much. We are aware of almost every tragedy and every success. We try to assimilate, to compare, to see where the world fits in relation to us and where we fit in relation to it. As writers we hear of the publishing deals, the advances, the runaway self-published successes, the wonderful word counts and so on. We are happy for others but anxious for ourselves, wondering if we’re doing things right. And publishing is changing so much, from week to week both on the traditional and self-publishing fronts that authors don’t always know if they are doing the right thing, making the right choices.

So what can we do if we have lost our way with writing and with fitting writing into a life that is rich and varied outside of our daily wordcount

What to do if you have lost your way

Don’t

Stop writing, have some time off altogether, rest, don’t even think. Just stop.
Some people say we should write everyday to keep the writing muscle going, to keep in the story. Yes, yes if you are enjoying it. Yes if you love writing your book. But if you have lost your way in general or in the project you are working on, just stop.

Read.

But only if you can stand it. Sometimes being a writer can ruin reading. But if you can find books that carry you away, that make you feel like you did when you had no authorly ambition and you were just reading because you loved it.

Refill the well

Do the things you would do if you weren’t trying to be a writer. Watch the telly, play table tennis, tie conkers with string and smash them against each other with a friend, waste time, go out, chat, dig a hole in the garden, paint a picture, watch football, go to the library for non-research purposes. These are ways of being a writer when you’re not writing but do things to that have absolutely nothing to do with being a writer at all. Why do I even have to say that? Sometimes we develop tunnel vision.

Read Karen Rivers’ blog

Karen Rivers’ blog is about the experience of living. She shines a light on how we are in the world and the odd things we do and how we get through things. She makes us stop in the middle of a tornado and find quiet in the eye of the storm.

Remember it’s okay to take time out for yourself

This post from Barbara Scully is very apt for me as a mother in the home, life is very full on from 1.30 onwards to late at night, there is little time to recuperate. This applies to everyone, male or female, particularly those who spend much of their day tending to or sorting out the needs of others. How can you write and know what you want to write and why when you are still in the headset/mindset of a clamour of voices other than your own.

Listen to all the rubbish you are telling yourself and talk yourself out of it

When there is too much noise, when we know too much, when we compare ourselves, when we are giving to other people without taking time to reestablish our equilibrium we are wearing ourselves out with everything that is in our heads. Chris Brogan gives an example of how we can listen to what we our inner critic is telling us and how it is making us feel. We can learn to talk back and stop confusing ourselves and losing the focus of what we really want to do, not just think we should.

I’ll write a related post about how we need to stay in love with our novels or learn to love them when the spark goes out but if it’s gone further than that and you’re feeling overwhelmed by everything you are trying to achieve then I hope this post shows you are not alone and that there are things you can try to help.

Related posts: 5 New year resolutions for writing parents

To the social media anxious: It’s okay

Childlike thinking makes for creative writing

The transition from childhood to adulthood involves a mental development that allows for more abstract reasoning, logical complexity, a greater awareness of consequence and an understanding of the nuanced dynamics of human relationships. However there are ways that childlike thinking can get us back to the basics of life and enhance our creative endeavours.

Mindfulness

Babies and very young children are absorbed in the moment to moment awareness of their surroundings and the stimuli around them. The parents of young children often bemoan the snails pace at which a walk somewhere has to be undertaken but a key memory for me is when my youngest son was eighteen months and on one of his first walks in the big outside world. He became absolutely fascinated with a pebbledash wall, he looked at it, touched it, ran his fingers along it, went right up close. The other day I helped my daughter make daisy chains. To do so, we sat right down on the grass, feeling it under our fingers, surrounded by a galaxy of daisies, some fully open, some pink tipped. We selected the correct stems, just thick enough, made the delicate slice in the stem, threaded them through. There was a light breeze, bird sounds, occasional traffic, the concentration of the threading action. This slowing down and careful examination of things can bring us into the heart of a story or emotion. When describing a scene we can open it up around the mind of the reader by including the smallest of details, a cigarette butt, a shiny bottle top, a half-open fushia bud, the angle of a business man’s tie. 

Key characteristics

Children take things at face value; they make broad comparisons based on ‘similar’ or ‘different’. Only as they grow do they learn to make more nuanced distinctions. While the nuance is what differentiates a truly great writer from an adequate one, when we first introduce a character in a book, we need to use the broader brushstrokes, to give us a handle on the person, a hook. While it may not be politically correct; as humans we always make an initial judgement based on looks, similarity to ourselves, race, colour or accent. In our books our characters will make assumptions about one another based on initial impressions. These might later turn out to be incorrect. In writing, we can use the transition from the broad strokes to nuance to explore a developing relationship or an increasing or decreasing understanding between characters.

Fearlessness and Free thinking

Small babies have no depth perception and no sense of the danger of falling. Terrifyingly young children will run out onto a busy road with no sense of danger. Even older children, teenagers and even young adults carry with them a sense of invincibility. While many children invent rules for their games, there is a greater sense of freedom, where ‘let’s pretend’ means a car can fly or a giraffe can talk. As writers we need fearlessness to write at all and to take chances with our writing. We need to ‘run into the road’ into topics or subject areas that we find difficult to deal with in order to exercise our skill as writers. We also need to stretch our imaginations while making sure that our stories have their own internal logic.

Curiosity and Interest

Is a crane bigger than a whale?

Being party to my children’s homework, I realise how many facts they become aware of in a short space of time about history, mythology, geography, music, art, science. Browsing through their books I discover quirky interesting facts that are absolutely gripping. One of my favourite short stories ever is A Stone Woman  by AS.Byatt. She writes about a woman who literally turns to stone, but what stone! She is made up of so many different types that characterize the veins, the skins, the face, the limbs. The manifestations of stone also become more intricate over time. Stone happens to be one of my favourite things. In this story it was intrinsically fascinating, due to the level of detail employed but it also worked as a powerful descriptive device and metaphor. One of my sons knows everything there is to know about astronomy and I have used his knowledge in my work to provide an extra layer of interest in my stories. Facts are hooks that if used appropriately can inject life into writing.

Fundamental questions, fundamental themes

Why are we alive? Are you going to die? 

The parents of young children hear these sorts of questions every day, and often at bedtime when the impending darkness and separation may whirl up anxieties in the children. It is poignant to hear these existential questions from the mouths of babes and very often we don’t have the answers. But these questions can remind us of the archetypal themes that underpin all literary endeavours. It is commonly known that so called ‘children’s’ fairytales deal with dark themes. But these are the themes that are eminently and poignantly human. Whatever the style or genre of a book, whether its tone is light and fluffy or serious, the undercurrent of the archetypal concerns and themes will still be there. Often as adults we bury the fundamental fears and concerns under the flurry of everyday life. As writers we have to expose and deal with these raw terrors. These concerns translate into our characters’ complex motivations, make people take

The child I was

unusual decisions and do extraordinary things.

The child that you were and in some ways still are has special access to both wonder and fear. This child makes judgements and takes risks and sees things with fresh eyes. Use those qualities to create writing that has an extra edginess and magic. 

Note: I wrote this article originally in 2010 as a guest post for children’s author Olive O’ Brien.

How to write a novel when you don’t have the time

You may have your hands full but you can still find time to write.

Most people’s lives are busy. For me it’s juggling the demands of four children under the age of twelve, and it’s true to say that there’s little time for quiet contemplation or courting the writing muse. But all would be writers are juggling,  whether it’s college, full time work, caring for children, sick or the elderly there are very few that can dedicate full days to the endeavor of writing, especially when starting out.

So how is it possible to fit in writing around our lives? I started writing again when my youngest child was a newborn, I wrote around his naps. Then followed a period when all the children were tiny so I wrote when friends and family offered a babysitting hour. In the last few years in particular though, I’ve been more methodical in how I create writing time and since 2009 I’ve managed to complete a shot story collection, and 2.5 novels as well as many standalone flash fiction pieces.
These are some of the ways you can create opportunities for writing.
1)      Create a quiet, dedicated writing space/time:. Whether it’s in a spare room or shed, the library or a coffee shop, it helps to move away from your normal space and its distractions. In my case I also need to find a time when it’s quiet and I don’t have interruptions from family. I’m an early bird so I choose to get up at 5am and write for 1 or 2 hours then, others prefer to write into the night.
2)      Take part in writing challenges: The bulk of Housewife with a Half-Life was written during Nanowrimo, the 50,000 words in a month writing challenge. It a) allowed me to state my aim to my friends and family and b) claim writing time for this special challenge. They were happy to rally round to help me achieve the word count. I also discovered that by making myself write 1667 words per day no matter what, some of the material (if not all!) was very useable and even on a very busy day I could squeeze in writing time, either with early starts, while waiting for the kids at an activity for example, or even in ten minute bursts through the day.
3)      Join an online or real world writing group. I joined a weekly peer review flash fiction writing hashtag on Twitter called #fridayflash. This is a group who post regular flash fiction and link to it on Fridays. While there’s no obligation to post every week, being part of a community makes me want to participate and keep involved and I’ve produced many pieces that would never otherwise exist, some of which can be developed further. I even won a short story competition by joining up some of the pieces I wrote for this meme. I’m also a member of a Dublin writing group, the feedback on pieces I write is invaluable.
4)      Integrate musing time into your regular schedule. Walking is wonderful. John Boyne discovered the plot to The Absolutionist during a 1 hour walk. Bestselling author Murakami runs every day. Each time I go for a walk I find phrases and ideas arrive naturally without having to search for them. Spending time on other activities  such as reading (of course), movies, art galleries and so on is feeding the imagination & helping make interesting associations that you can use in your writing. The late Ray Bradbury suggested that reading a short story every night and reading an interesting article was a great way of feeding passion and imagination necessary for writing well about the thing you love.
5)      Get away from it all. After I had built up some short story publications and successes I applied to a writing retreat centre and was successful. I had my first uninterrupted week of writing ever in July. The arts council in Ireland and local authorities provide grants for people to go to retreat centres such as the Tyrone Gutherie Centre and Anam Cara once you can show evidence of your writing development.
Finding the time to write is not about finding great swathes of time (although it’s great when it happens). It’s about creating opportunities for inspiration and building up your wordcount consistently and incrementally. A daily wordcount challenge of even 500 words can help you accomplish that. The kind of writing that will come from these endeavours will be more considered and of higher quality.
Related to this article and talking about whether it’s the quantity of time or how you use it that’s important is this one on writing retreats.
Note: my article here originally appeared on Paul Carroll’s blog