Time Alone

Taking time to be creative is even more of a prize right now

I have written before that “I want to be alone” but what if time alone is harder than ever before? We are on top of each other even more than before, living through the pandemic, mostly inside. My son’s neediness has increased unsurprisingly at this anxious time. And my need to be alone has led to even more barricading myself in to my room not entirely successfully.

Though we are getting back to some normality in the UK now, the advice is still to work from home where you can. This eases pressures on office space that has been marked out for social distance. Even with the move towards keeping 1m+ distance, my old office certainly can’t hold everyone. It also means people only use transport when they really have to and this has meant that in reality we are staying at home. And though I am grateful to have work, it is increasingly obvious that the house is small to serve as two offices and a part-time home school.

Our world has shifted slightly in the last few weeks. My son has been able to go first for a play session at a local centre and now he is back to school a few days. The effect was I suddenly found myself in the house on my own. I texted my friends immediately. “What shall I do?” I asked. Sleep came one reply. Watch trashy TV, another. Treat yourself, they all said.

I hardly knew what to do and had that desperate, urgent feeling not to waste the time that I often used to get in the last hour before school pick-up. In the end, I carried on working and ordered coffee and cake from Pret. This was an over-priced indulgence to mark a moment of treating myself. And having my meeting without interruption felt like a real luxury. The coffee incidentally spilled during it’s motorcycle ride so I definitely won’t waste money on that again. But still, it felt good to take a moment to appreciate I was finally alone.

For a first attempt, not bad but I needed to work out how to use time alone more productively. There are a few ways to tap into creativity when you need to, rather than wait for the muse. One way is to use Julia Cameron’s idea of an Artist Date so when I now know I have some time at home alone, I can plan to do something that nurtures my inner artist. You can also use the time to get outside. This can of course be an Artist Date as well but for me, just walking around the neighbourhood for twenty minutes everyday helps me remember, I have some freedom now whilst not wasting too much of that precious time on exercise.

The other thing that I have tried when I have been alone is just to start. With writing a long-form project it feels like you can’t work on it if you don’t have long. This novel, the ever-changing project of too many years, is lengthy but not finished. So instead of seeing the need to rewrite the whole thing. Right now, I can tinker at scenes. And that’s it really, I find when I can pick up where I left off, making use of small pockets of time alone.

On Photography

This week as part of my Bored and Brilliant project I tried to take few photos to mixed results

Last week I attempted with some success to reduce my phone addiction and become Brilliant and Bored using the advice from Manoush Zomodori’s book Bored and Brilliant:How Time Spent Doing Nothing Changes Everything. The challenges I faced this week were to not only put my phone to one side but also stop trying to capture every moment with photos.

You would have thought that having studied Susan Sontag’s On Photography, I would have found it easy to understand why taking fewer photos forms part of the Bored and Brilliant project. Photography is about trying to hold on to a particular moment, but Sontag argues at the same time not really live it. This ultimately chimes with the idea of our distracted lives which Zomodori is showing impacts on our creativity and concentration.

“Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality…One can’t possess reality, one can possess images–one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.”

― Susan Sontag, On Photography

The fact that the image is captured on camera seems to play into Sontag’s claim that a photograph is “imprisoning reality.” Her book was a series of essays from the 1970s but her ideas have become more prescient in the way we live our lives now. Instagram (which I do use) and Snapchat and TikTok, (which I don’t) rely on us communicating via image more than anything.

I do have a MumWriteNow insta but I am not very good at keeping it up and I didn’t think I was too bad at taking photos, only sharing on there and my personal account from time-to-time. That was until the first day I tried to live, not just capture reality. My son had been grumpy all morning, it was hot, so I decided to set up some tubs and toys for water-play in the garden. Without thinking, I took out my phone to take a photo of him playing. Part of me knows I wanted to show off that I had engaged him outside (not on a screen!) but worse still, he has grown to expect photos and often wants my to take short videos.

This was a wake-up call that even I am not immune to needing to capture everything, whether or not I needed to share my Mum humble-brag with friends online, or just because I felt I needed to have a record of our lockdown life, it was still quite mindless. I started instead to try and watch him, asking him questions and he ended up making up a story. This may well have happened even if I took photos, but it was interesting to see the change. I wonder also if the play lasted longer as I was definitely more present.

clouds hang on a blue background
Be. Here. Now

I know of course I idly scroll through my feeds which includes photos of friends, but also people I don’t know like celebrities, housewives and book-lovers of course. Quite often I think of Instagram as a replacement for magazines, a way to keep up with style, gossip, for example. But in watching my stats and admitting my addiction was greater than I assumed, I put my phone away again and stayed away from social media too. It was only then that I felt I was being more mindful.

By the end of the day, perhaps in a stroke of brilliance, I was watching out of the window, knowing sunset must be soon. I had a book in my hand, not quite able to give up all my crutches as yet, and my son who was supposed to be in bed disturbed me. Irritably, I hurried him back to bed worried I would miss it like it was a TV show back in the old days. Then as I came back into my room, my heart-lifted in triumph, the curved cumulus clouds were surrounded by the deep orange-red of sunset. I had just made it back in time. I watched it until the sun went down, and felt lifted by it. I had actually experienced that moment, on that one day.

If only I could show you what simple beauty there was in the evening sky, but I didn’t get a photo, sorry.

Perfectionism and productivity

Sometimes you have to acknowledge you are what holds you back

If you looked at my messy hair and sometimes messy house, you wouldn’t think at all that I suffered with perfectionism. Increasingly we see a world where we are surrounded by perfect. Whether it’s facetune or show- home-style houses, I have probably seen a hundred images to show me perfect in the last day.

Even though we are savvy to the filter of social media influence, it still does effect our perspective on what we believe is achievable. These are really just a few ways that we say to ourselves, perfect is possible. Some weeks there are just small things I do to keep my head above water (and that was before this global crisis.)

I was writing recently about goals and how for some people it is freeing to say “Dare to be average”. What I understand David Burns means by this is not actually do a poor job, instead do the job as it needs to be done. So rather than procrastinating because we cannot do it perfectly, we get the job done well enough. Compared to a job not done, average is suddenly above average!

I think this relates well to one of my creative blocks. Realising that perfectionism is hampering my productivity. To the point, at many times in my life I haven’t written at all. Though it was a passion as a young child, two short stories were rejected at 20 and I didn’t write again until I was 30. That’s a pretty devastating consequence of perfectionism.

Brené Brown writes that perfectionism is a way of avoiding anyone else’s judgement. This has been a real revelation for me. We actually try and protect ourselves using perfectionism as a tool to mitigate shame. The shame for me is I will never achieve my ambition, or I will achieve publishing something and it will be terrible or even one person will read my work and think it is terrible. The worst piece of writing ever written. Or, they will laugh when it’s scary, recoil when it’s funny. And if all these thoughts preoccupy my imperfect morning pages, it’s a wonder I start at all!

The whole point of Mum, Write NOW in shouty capitals is to remind me, today is as good a day as ever. It doesn’t always work to motivate me. But it reminds me to plod on, to tackle my perfectionism with the work.

Do you think perfectionism holds you back?

Don’t ask me if I am writing

The pressure to feel productive gets too much at the best of times!

I snapped at a friend this week who asked if I was writing. They were making kind enquiries and didn’t expect my reaction I am sure. It’s smoothed over, but I think my sharp response is probably a sign that I haven’t come to terms with the fact that I am not writing. Or only just a little.

The usual problems of time and interruptions are in addition to the unusual issues of living through a global pandemic, managing my anxiety and getting through each challenge day-by-day. The sense that I have is that the current normal, which is likely to continue at least until the end of the next month ( where we are all at home, all working, all doing school) is perhaps not just a tough situation but a relief too. I can forgive myself for writing so little.

Maybe it’s just an excuse, but I have had for a while thought that there is a cult of productivity or demonstrating that you are productive in the Writing Community. Bear with me if you think I am trying to offend you, please. It’s just that I have seen a lot of you “you should be writing” memes and such which impacted me negatively if I am not in the right headspace to work. More productive than I are producing work and I am not, and it is discouraging to me. Well I suppose that’s my problem!

I have been reading a few articles about identifying your core values, such at this. It’s a new way of thinking about what drives and motivates me. In completing the exercise Ivan Martin recommends, I noticed as well as diligence and concientiousness, I came up with words such as peace, calm and comfort and ease. These competing values or ideas about how I want my life to look, probably explain why I have such a strong reaction to seeing others productivity. I won’t always put myself into discomfort to work through in the same ways others would, because that is not in my make-up.

I have been rereading the excellent “What I Talk about when I Talk about Running.” Having read this at the beginning of my writing journey, no wonder I think that writing is all about being able to write everyday and having hours to give to it. Murakami’s book is a marvel and so inspirational but on this reread it was so clear to me that I cannot work with the same method. Though with even a tiny bit of Murakami’s commitment and dedication would be a great improvement.

I am not a marathon runner, but completing a novel or long-form work is a marathon. But pushing myself to the extremes of my body or mind’s capabilities, that was never how I could run it. I haven’t the stamina. Nor have I the luxury of time and energy that it takes to get into running a marathon – to extend the metaphor to breaking. Murakami first wrote after his bar closed into the early hours. His commitment to anti-social hours is so admirable but also completely unrealistic in my life. While he inspires me with his discipline, he also teaches me about my own energy levels.

So, I have to consider what sort of runner am I? I conclude it’s what I knew already, I’m a jogger. A slow, plodding jogger who makes frequent stops to catch my breath. It’s not the most flattering depiction but, nonetheless, it reflects a realistic picture. And so no, I haven’t been writing of blogging much at the moment. It turns out, when you’re living through unprecendented times, you have to forgive yourself if it leaves you out of breath.

Have you found inspiring books about writing help your practice?

Where I write

A year ago I wrote I had nowhere to write but my productivity has improved this year so where do I write?

In my bedroom mainly, in my messy house. This is not where I want to be working. I have many dreams of aesthetically pleasing book nooks, or a book-lined library and an antique writing desk. Or maybe also an attic. I mean I got actual palpatations watching Jo March spread out her work page-by-by in the old Alcott attic in Greta Gerwig’s brilliant Little Women. My soul soared to see such a loving reproduction, or an attic, for space and for all night to write.

How amazing are these portraits on Modern Met

But I do not have this. I have forty minutes of childcare and a comfy mattress and a laptop that is getting warmer on my lap as I type. I have silence in the house for now but in my eye line is the busy-ness of a cluttered surface and I won’t be able to stay like this for long without making some adjustments.

I do not share this to garner even a shred sympathy, (even if that were available) because I am so lucky. My home is warm, I have many things and I have many benefits of modern life. But I also have a problem with this comfort. I mean I am glad I don’t have to write for candle light, but I also wonder whether the discomfort helped. Fuelling creativity through pain? A romantic cliché. Although I wouldn’t mind my own writing room, even if it was chilly.

I have been secretly eyeing up the shed since we have all been inside. Never mind that it’s got a drawer of zoflora, some spare soup my husband thought we might need and several spiders. Certainly on a softer day, I’ve sat in our grey backyard and tried to write though the shady spot is not quite warm enough.

I suppose I am thinking about all this to say to myself, you can write anywhere. Yes, even here: busy, cluttered house. Yes, even now: busy, distracted mind.

Where would your dream writing spot be?