The Simplest Things

Despite the creative block, sometimes it is small hacks in life that make me get back to the page. If you have been struggling to sit down to work, what are the small things you do to get your creativity flowing again?

What made a difference this week?

Cold extremities. The office is cold, the house is cold; storm Ciara has left us mercifully unscathed, where I live, but still Winter’s last blast is here.

The Spring flowers I photographed just last week are a distant memory as the sharp wind beats my cheeks in the playground. But despite the chill that permeates the house, it has made me nostalgic for the times I hunkered down to write. If I don’t want to go anywhere else, I may as well absorb myself by creating something. Whether I like it or not, the time I spent as a student was both my least efficient and my most productive . It must be a sense-memory, but as my hand flies furiously across the page, I associate a desperate need to complete work with this peculiar sense that the air is cold around my nostrils. And like the muscle memory of athletes, my inner student is making me work harder, and suddenly I have more new words than I have had in a while.

Cosy socks. I find slobbing out in comfy clothes not just necessary in this weather, but an inspiration to enjoy the hygge sensations of blankets and pillows by dressing in the warmest fabrics. And in this cosiness, I imagine myself other places. Like my characters, inside looking out on bleak surroundings. Or imagine trying to take off the socks and insist on being barefoot in the woods. The sensory appeal of soft clothing, firing up these thoughts about how my characters are feeling.

A Good Book. I have started a thriller and was so absorbed on my way to work, I almost forget to get off at my stop. A page-turner can be inspiring whether or not it is in the genre you are writing. Whether it inspires you to try your own hand at writing, or it just sparks ideas for a work-in-progress, I have been glad of time to read on my commute this week.

Old Photos. I found an old photo of myself as a child. Looking a little extra, trying on my Grandmother’s pearls, I was inspired not just by the girl I once was – much more spirited than I am now. I was also inspired to delve deeper back into the past of my characters. Though the work I have written may not make the final cut, the depth to which I know my characters now is clear as it flows easily.

Also I think a lot about my childhood ambitions, as I have said before, I do believe in dreams. They have changed a little, but one of the exercises I have been using writing letters to my encouragers in my journal, I wrote to my Grandparents this week, inspired by the photo and by the joy my visits there always brought me.

A Blank Page. The final thing that has really helped me this week has been a blank page. Rather than fill in gaps in my work-in-progress, I have allowed myself time with a notebook or a blank Word Doc. This is an indulgence as I know that having been making progress by fleshing out the first part of my novel. But if it get me working again, it will be worth the type-up time.

I’d love to know what you have done to get back to writing this week?

How’s that work/life balance?

Work has been on my mind and writing has taken a back seat

I have been too busy to do anything, including write on my blog. I have not been even keeping to my usual schedule and so still haven’t faced my fears of polishing my draft for a friend to read and help me. Even though I know her door is still open, it’s starting to feel too long since she offered. Life is getting in the way.

I always find January hard. I am effected by the short days and feel sluggish in the post-holiday slump.  The wind dug sharp against my cheek as I walked home from work yesterday and I realised how happy I was to be outside. I suppose I am getting my annual blues because I haven’t been out enough although I forced myself out to see a movie, go to the gym – the dark has left me weary from the early evening onwards.

But I also noticed something else: I was thinking about work. Instead of leaving it at the door, and letting my mind wander to the work-in-progress, I was worrying about changes that were happening. Equally work worries keep showing up in my Morning Pages too (you can read more about why I use this method here). Everyone has to deal with work changes, in fact I once worked in a “Transformation Team” which was really a euphemism for saving money. You don’t have to be at work for long before you realise two things: the only constant is change and it’s always about saving money.

I accept that the changes will happen and I have a choice to be happy with them or move on. I also accept that I can see my place in the team is not being devalued but re-evaluated. All of this does not help with the frustration. Because, although I want to work there, I also really want a day job.

Did you ever just want a day job?

For years, I worked as a temp in offices and often I would find it amusing to see the politics of the place. I thought for a while I might write about my experiences and I am sure that there will be parts that pop up in my writing. I felt like I was a little detached from it all. But, before I knew it I would start to care about the comings and goings and have opinions on staff who sat around doing nothing all day just like everyone else.

You see, I just can’t do it. When I was at my last job I wanted to get involved in the charitable activities, here there are projects that are sort of my role sort of not. I fear I may just be a busy body. When I was at school, I even got a prize for being a “doer”. I think that probably tops most academic prizes I failed to win because it speaks more of my personality. And apparently I haven’t changed much all these years later. I’ll interfere wherever there seems to be something vaguely to do with me.

I think sometimes I would like to switch my brain off a bit. But I do want a job that has challenge or keeps me busy, but that I can walk away from. That uses some brainpower, but not too much. Fussy I know. It’s a constant balance I am trying to find and I need to find a way to get my headspace back for my creative writing.

In the meantime, I am trying to find times of the day when I unplug from the stresses of my job or my son’s education. It’s a work-in-progress too but one I hope I can work more on in February.

Don’t lose your sense of wonder

One benefit of using Artist’s Dates is to spend time each week with your sense of wonder…

Pushing through the crush at the Tutankhamun exhibition was a little overwhelming. There was a chaos of people being carrelled through the exhibit from the first video about the Ancient Egyptian Mythology there was no more structure other than the divide between the treasures and the dig. On the day I visited, everyone was hustled into the next room without much ceremony. There was little to direct you to say what exhibit was first. Perhaps that’s because they wanted you to buy audio guides?

When I said I was going someone asked me if I had taking my son. Well, I can tell you the dark room and crush of people was enough for me to cope with, I would not know where to start making it accessible for someone with sensory needs. But my sensitivity to dark and busy places has been heightened by having a child whose anxiety and overwhelm can lead to painful meltdowns so I went instead as an Artist Date. I enjoyed it greatly even if having a child with these particular needs does make me hypersensitive to crowds.

It is not just an awareness for challenging environments that my son has taught me, it is also something much more marvellous: a sense of wonder at small detail. As a small child he noticed a stonework lizard climbing at the National History Museum. I had looked past it. On a recent transport adventure, he danced for joy to see a tile with the tube map on. They are hidden outside Vauxhall Station and even the bored looking young man sat on the wall at the time was quite impressed with our find. I think that some of his inbuilt visual skills make it easier for my son to spot these details. It’s a blessing that I am happy to share.

Really what all children can teach us though is to LOOK! Whether your child has natural joint attention and points things out to you or not, they are often fascinated by things that are low down and hidden.

I was amazed by the treasures I saw on that day. Startled by the depth of the colour. The blue. The passion behind preserving these wonders for over 3500 years is awe-inspiring in itself. Both the religious practices that lead to the immense artistry thousands of years ago, the preservation since Carter plundered the grave and the new project that is being developed in Egypt to finally house the treasures all in one place.

Other than the “exit through the gift shop” mentality (the shops were listed as a galleries) this is a must-see exhibition!

It particularly worked as an Artist Date for me because I was so inspired by the truth that runs through the story: in Egyptian Mythology you must say the name as an act of memory. Despite large scale erasure one might say of Tutankhamun: there’s not a child in our world who does not know his name. That is a fascinating reflection on the power of art and history.

If you want to know more about Artist’s Dates, I have written up my own cheap and easy ideas and you can learn more about them in Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.

Update your vision

If you are feeling a little out of sorts, is it time to update your vision board?

The first time I tried to do a vision board, I was a little sceptical. As I suggested in my posted envision your life, it was hard for me to complete the task on a practical level because things have moved on since The Artist’s Way programme was written by Julia Cameron and like many people I have fewer magazines hanging about to cut up.

I think the words the images gave me: relax, rest, nurture, nature, beauty were all inspiring. They also speak to how I can improve my life. Cameron asks that you update the vision board three months later. This time I decided to use a Pinterest board. As it happens, I have started MumWriteNow.Com board on there because there are already so many great lists of quotes about writing I have saved. You can find it here if you also use Pinterest.

It was an interesting exercise, I think that I could see a change in what I wanted. I did have to make some initial searches about creativity which I think probably meant I self-selected my vision from the start. But even this is informative.

A sample of the vision board I created on Pinterest

The words that come to mind when reviewing this new board are: opening doors to new worlds, creativity, reading and finding inspiration. Maybe because I was directing the initial searches, it does feel this new board is more about the work rather than rest. That reflects both the changes that I have made by completing The Artist’s Way programme, but also what I need at the moment. In previous months I have had more time to write but craved relaxation, recently I have struggled to do anything but feel more inspired to work.

Somewhere in this visioning thing is a need to find a balance. I had to attend some productivity training at work recently. The tips were not completely new to me but they were a good reminder. The book on How to Be A Productivity Ninja that inspired the training encourages you to find your best time of day to pay full attention. When you have done so, limit distractions at that time. It was an alarming exercise in many ways because I realised there were often only a few hours in a morning when I was at my most productive. This is product of circumstances, – tiredness brought on by often alarmingly early mornings and overbusy days – give me little headspace for much productive time. But it does help me identify where I need to target working times so I can act on my desire to write more, read more and make my life more creative.

I think using vision boards can be illuminating. I think they can uncover your internal desires quite quickly and succinctly. I also think if you are going to do this Pinterest is one of the best tools out there because there is such a huge library of photos and quotes ready for you. I would say though that this activity needs to be joined up with goal-planning. Boring I know, but I use an Excel Spreadsheet to plan my work (though it often feels haphazard!). And then the intention to work also needs to be thought about in terms of when you can pay attention to it.

Now I just need to get on and open the doors to new adventure…

Craving Alone Time

I tried to demand “alone-time” this weekend, but realised life and fiction doesn’t work like that…

If I manage to write at the weekend, I am lucky. Sometimes I barricade
myself in the bedroom to get in maybe thirty minutes to myself. My computer is
a constant temptation to my son, he also is rarely satisfied to ask his Daddy
for something. So, I get left alone for very little time. Sometimes it’s
because the noises from downstairs are too distracting, sometimes it’s because he barges in to ask me for a drink or a snack because obviously he thinks I will say yes. This is my reality right now.

I think there are many benefits of being alone with my work, apart from the
practical specifics of liking to work in the quiet. Although a deadline and a spurt of inspiration can be very productive, I find clear space, and quiet is a great combination for creativity.

Even as I write this blog post, a shout comes for me to help my little one. I feel very needed. I also feel frustration at times. Look, we all get sent those poems by kind folks who remind us that this phase will soon be over. But what if I needed to be absorbed in the life of my main character? Will anyone leave me alone with her long enough to get to know what drives her?

When my writing stalls because I have been distracted, I start to think:

Why does she want to be left alone? Who won’t leave her
alone and why?

I find that by prompting myself to think about these questions, I am
building both the character and the world around her. Because central to her
motivation may be to escape but, you know what, if my life doesn’t happen like that so she can’t have that luxury in fiction!

Plotting has been hard at times because I have played around the chronology of
this story. What has become apparent though is that it is the people who insist
on interrupting her life are drawing me in more and more. It seems so clear now
she has been forced to change her ideas from the start to the beginning of the
novel by the reality she faces and the people she meets. So, the central
question becomes, can you ever really escape?

As I write this, I am amused because I am not sure this is where the story started. The impetus of the story, which was a dream I had as a child as I have shared before, speaks to me more now. As I mature, I find I am inundated with
responsibilities. “You’ve got to serve somebody”, Bob Dylan said. Well that is true
for me and for my poor main character too.

In using the prompt to make notes, I notice things that have developed in my
tediously long drafting process. It is more than a quirk of her character that
has made her want to be alone, and it is more than a plotting device that her
neighbours interfere and adopt her into their fold. Although I didn’t write a
scene this weekend, the time I spent pondering these questions over the was
productive. And it only came with a few interruptions about buses (a current
interest of my son.)

If you are stuck with your writing, you might try and think about what you
crave most and ask why your character craves the same. I found the question
about alone time but maybe yours might be around success, attention, love, sex…and well all the things we need in our life. Our characters probably need them even more.

How was your writing weekend?