Do you have time to read?

A frequent preoccupation, I think about how my Summer of reading might pan out

I have mulled over how Mum’s get time to read before because it is a constant battle. Ultimately, though I love to write and journal, my deepest, longest love has been reading. Often it is escapism. I have been having a real Edwardian fad recently, listening to The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton and The Little Ottley’s books by Ada Levenson on Librivox. Along with my current vogue for the PG Wodehouse collections Stephen Fry is narrating on Audible, I have been experiencing a world of manners and often comic sensibilities. Even with House of Mirth which is frankly tragic I have found a soothing place to escape to. Though these books are not unproblematic, depicting views reflective of their time that are uncomfortable, most of the times we can be swept away by this historic and yet somehow modern era of feisty women, feckless men and ridiculous social mores that people break with mostly little consequence.

This has been a new part of my resolve to read more. To acknowledge that audiobooks count as reading. How strange that I have held myself to such a strict standard for so long. But then if you had told me at University when I stacked my beloved library desk with piles of books and photocopied chunks of essays, that I would have an electronic reader now, I would have been shocked and saddened. Declaring then that there was nothing like “real” books. I still find grand libraries heavenly, particularly where the stacks are filled with beautifully bound books, and you can browse for hours. It will never stop my heart from soaring, but this is not my everyday life. I graduated fifteen years ago and though I love a research trip, they are not often.

An ereader has been essential to reading more. I can flick between the Kindle app on my phone and my device. I always have a book with me and can pick up whenever I do get a chance. Generally this does involve my son playing on the iPad and I suppose I may never win the war of screen time if I am always on my phone – reading or not. In addition to having access to all my library, I can chop and change as I like. I have always been someone to read different books at one time. Now I acknowledge this about myself without guilt. It’s often about mood. Just as I have been seeking something soothing in recent tired times, there has been other times where I have wanted something deeper or heavier to read (looking at you Hilary Mantel). Switching is so easy now I carry my library around, I wish I hadn’t taken so long to read this way.

And speaking of switching between books, the biggest freedom I given myself over the last few years is simple: I don’t always finish books. As a practice, it feels like giving up or failing. But what precious time I have I need to give to what grabs me. As I wrote in my post about books I didn’t finish, it is frequently about timing. Wintery books are for Winter, some time you’re too bone-tired to concentrate, other times you getting obsessed with a certain era. By not forcing myself to read something that hasn’t wrested my attention away from the world, I do read more. Maybe not of whole books but of a greater breadth, exploring more and letting my whims take me.

I still think that having a goal helps, as I reflected before, the Goodreads reward system helps keep me motivated. Odd to think I need to be motivated to do something I enjoy the most but such is my fickle, distractable brain. By thinking ahead to Summer reading and tracking my progress, I am giving myself the chance of prioritising some energy for escaping into a good book this Summer. Shortly, I will be picking my son up from school as the term ends so here are my Summer picks I aim to make time for this year.

How do you make time to read what you want?

Life Post Covid

Six months on from getting infected, I pause to reflect on what life looks like now

As I wrote back in January, I was lucky to contract a mild case of covid. I still consider that I was lucky to have had a relatively easy time. I was at home and managed my symptoms with help of tablets and extra asthma inhalers. I even managed to work at first though I was mildly weary. It lasted about ten days and, for a few days after, I thought that was that.

But like many people who have had covid-19, I have ended up with a much longer, more complicated picture and at six months I can’t help but consider how it has completely changed my life. I have what is colloquially called Long Covid or Post-Covid Viral Fatigue. It has meant learning and managing fatigue far beyond the tiredness I have been experiencing before now. It has stopped me and forced me to do things differently in a number of ways.

Not everyday, but on a bad day I block out the world. I have had to strip back what I do, prioritising my activities and often managing to work for a few hours or maybe play for short bursts with my son. If I socialise I can be thrown off for days because I am getting post exertional malaise that knocks me off my feet, leaves me achy and able to do little. Never has the feeling of being hit by a bus felt so accurate.

I often spend hours on my bed although I now try and meditate not just nap. I have had to reduce exercise to the point of tracking that I don’t do too many steps, rather than counting them up, on my Fitbit. All of these changes are hard-won lessons I am still learning. Trying to find what I can and cannot handle has become my preoccupation. I am reading and watching a lot about the condition (and related advice for people with chronic fatigue syndrome) trying to get the game of pacing right.

I have had to tune into my body much more. Listening to a podcast or watching the tennis I may discover suddenly it’s far too intense. My tolerance for stress, even the pleasurable kind of tension we choose to put ourselves through for entertainment like a thriller, overwhelms me. Instead I look for things that are light, funny or soothing. And use the meditation practices that help me listen to my body more clearly.

Really doing these things has been a lesson in what I wasn’t doing for myself before. Like a lot people, my stress increased in pandemic times. I became more anxious and felt some of the losses of not seeing family, feeling isolated, very keenly. Now I am seeking help both medically and for my mental health. Actually I don’t really have a choice.

The whole world stopped for a while in 2020 and that was a lesson about how we cope with modern life. Everything too fast, too consumerist, not to mention too close, stopped and stripped back to what was essential. Well, it seems I still have to learn this lesson. My body has chosen to stop me in my tracks. I can’t be grateful for every difficult moment in the last six months, nor for all the sadness and loss in this pandemic, but I am starting to get very grateful for the chance to assess what is really important to me. To spend my energy where I can, doing what I most value. To reassess and prioritise.

And top of my list, for the first time in a long time, I am having to look after me.

Write from start to finish

I’ll never been a plotter, but I have been experimenting with writing from the start

“And what about your writing”, a kind friend asks as I recount my months of coming to term with chronic illness alongside my usual life stresses. What about it? Well, it’s clear that I always bristle against this question. But the truth I have been making small slow steps in the direction of finishing a draft. One of biggest, and hardest revelations has been that I may have been doing it if not wrong, then definitely the hard way.

While I confess I enjoy the spark of an idea leading me to write a scene, as inspiration really is everywhere, it might not be the best way of getting to the end of the draft. I have scores of words written on the same book. But will the end ever be in sight?

To disentangle my plot I resorted to an excel spreadsheet of scenes and started to see where there was too much jumping around. I stripped away these scenes so that I could follow the main character. It is a story told from more than one perspective, but I was unbalanced by the main character who kept insisting on her chapters. Once I had more of a handle on the chronology of the scenes, I was able to start again from the beginning and write, you know, what happens.

Photo by Teona Swift on Pexels.com – Time for more tea?

It has been a laborious process and I suppose it could be called rewriting really. I have been training myself to go through from start to finish – what a revelation! On the way I notice the gaps and write them. I also notice the
repetitions which are numerous and seem to be mainly based around having cups of tea. Set in a quaint English cottage, I suppose we have to expect that she would drink a lot of tea but I really did notice how much she used the kettle. I repeated the Word Cloud exercise I have recommended before as a technology that can help writers. Definitely a lot of tea and kettle!

And even in this systematic process, I am not at the end. Well, maybe I am. I have a scene written, but I am really not satisfied with how we ramble our way there. As I have worked through from the beginning, diligently start to finish, I come to another even more disturbing revelation; I am not happy with my start. My start is probably a middle, a twist midway.

So, since the beginning of the year, I am filling in the characters that been on the peripheral of the story and shaping much more to the journey where my original start comes in. And in the thickets and weeds of the story, I have started to pull out other elements and be merciless with others. What is it they always say about writing: leave early, enter late. Seems like this is the issue I have been wrangling with – where is the start, how do we get to the finish and hoping others will care enough about where this person is in her life. About the disruptions and problems she faces.

I have been writing, even in small fits and starts but “It’s difficult” I tell my friend. I have to keep my energy packets for my son, for work, leaving the house occasionally. But it’s also difficult because I have made it so. With other projects that have snuck in to take my attention, I am being much stricter now to give myself a chance. My writing process, though always likely to be slow for a variety of reasons, well now it goes from the start and plods on to the finish. Unless inspiration just happens to strike again, of course!

Ways to Work With Pain

What if, even at our most difficult times, we could still make time to create?

I have been preoccupied with the bone-tired fatigue and various symptoms for months now but even as these lift, I can’t help think of the many times I have created when I am in some sort of less than perfect state. Creative living is less finding the perfect moment and more about working with what you have got. So what can you do if you are experiencing pain, physical or emotional?

Firstly, the Morning Pages method that Julia Cameron teaches us in The Artist’s Way has worked for me. Most days I get all those grievances down on the pages, this has been a massive part of my practice over the last few years. I recently watched a great video on resetting your goals half way through the year and Strussed’s advice was to always brain dump before you start on exercises. Journalling as an artist and particularly a writer can be a powerful place for ideas to pop-up.

Often old memories do surface as they would in any therapeutic practice. In week nine of The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron asks us to do some archeology to uncover old dreams and even old hurts. As an exercise, I would be cautious to follow this without a therapist if there are any childhood traumas that could resurface. But I do find these exercises and other journal prompts can spark ideas or surprise you with memories. I listed some of my favourite journalling ideas last week.

In my pages I was revisiting a memory just recently and realised how strong my emotions were still towards a more adventurous child. I watched as she fearlessly swung on a tyre off a rope swing. She may or may not have leapt over some water, the memory is fuzzy but my envy was clear. How odd to have held onto this after so many years. This innocuous tale had remained in my mind and wound itself in to my adventurous protagonist probably without me realising.

Childhood memories sometimes resurface in your writing

I found this quote from the French Artist Annette Messager who explains how we must uncover our emotions…

“Being an artist means forever healing your own wounds and at the same time endlessly exposing them”            

Annette Messager

She has worked around greatly traumatic themes of assault and violence.  I hope it is clear from my example that I am sharing something lighter to illustrate the point but clearly all pains and emotional experiences can’t help but influence our work.

So what I would say in some ways we have no choice but to uncover some of our experiences in order to be creative. In fact, we may find they come out anyway. In order to express our true selves, maybe we also need to be mindful of doing so safely.

Even using journalling practices, which we might use as therapy, you may wish to seek help from a professional. Or if not, give ourselves space and time to recover. Build in whatever practices work for you so that you can be safe. I have shared how I have learned to meditate over the last decade. But I would also add that working through these emotions, if done safely, can help us heal. I am not trained in psychology and, please do seek support of a licensed professional if practicing exploration of pain causes you difficulties.

The final way I think I work through emotions that surface, perhaps despite of the pain, is to play games with any idea from different angles. If we have a memory that is feeding our work, how can we change perspective. How did that girl feel when I cautioned her from swinging out over the water? Her perspective may have to see me as annoying or she may well just have been living in the moment, oblivious to others. And this is the fun isn’t it of being creative? We can work through any image and explore it with fresh eyes.

Journal Prompts for Creativity

Whenever you feel a creative block, turn to your journal

Although I completed The Artist’s Way programme two years ago, I still dip in for journalling prompts. Some of these ideas are adapted from themes Julia Cameron asks you to explore. Here are 15 tried and tested prompts for your journal
 
Encourage and nurture your Inner Artist:
1.       A letter to your encourager, Write to someone who has helped you but has no idea that their words spurred you on

A notebook with pen resting on it, ready to write

2. A letter to your detractors, are there some inner critic voices that have stuck in your head? Tell them! But don’t send the letter.
3.       What is your perfect day, if you no obligations. You may be surprised how simple your needs are but you should definitely write as if money is no object. Then take even a small piece of that dream day and put it in your week.


Make plans for the life you want
4.       If you have a list of goals, review them and write down even small ways you have worked towards them. This can be so encouraging and also remind you to break down those goals into more manageable chunks
5.       List places you love going, this has been a really helpful one with so much staying at home in pandemic times. It will be no surprise that I quickly identified woodland as places I want to go as well as missing the theatre and cafes for writing.
6.       Ask yourself what your dream job looks like. If it doesn’t align with what you do right now, what are the steps you can take


Take Account
7.       The five senses of gratefulness. You should probably write what you are grateful for eveyday, but it is fun to think about each sense and write five things for each that you love having: warm socks, a favourite album -all those things that bring you joy.
8.       Friends you have forgotten. I have been working on a book a lot about friendship and this lead to me listing lots of people who have been my friends for a season and how they have helped me
9.        Write your alternative reality. Are there other lives you could have led. Are there opportunities you didn’t follow? Jobs you didn’t take up? I was supposed to move in with a friend when I took up a place in another city, what could have been?
10.   Write down what you remember about your Grandma or any important relative or friend who has died. This can be emotional but also a heartening way to live, remembering small things about a person that was uniquely theirs is a beautiful way to hold the still.
11.   Take Fierce Medicine. As Ana Forrest advises we should take fierce medicine or practice a death meditation to open us up to what we truly want, keep your journal close and reflect on what the thoughts of your last moments tell you. Then follow this guidance to change your life.


Find Inspiration
12.   List song lyrics stuck in your head. This is a great way to realise what you are focused on. You can even make an inspirational playlist if the songs inspire you.
13.   What books have you read recently? What are their commonalities, its surprising when you realise how you are going through a phase- I have read or listened to lots of classics, need light humour or adventures to listen or read about.
14.   Plan your dream holiday. I took this one to a Pinterest board in the end. Even if it is not for now, it felt good to think we might go on holidays again. Some of the ideas may be far in the future as they are not practical for our family but I felt lighter just taking the trip in my head
15.   Who do you admire and what do you admire about them? This can be interesting one to reflect on particularly if you follow people online but don’t know them. What are the things that you find so inspiring?

I would love to know if these journal ideas work for you. They always help me through a creative block.