Autumnal Ambitions

Planning to be a bit more productive in my favourite season

As soon as I get a sense of the sharper cold of autumn in the air, I get excited. I have written before there is really no better season to get inspired. A time of finding inspiration in nature and curling up in warm socks to write. But this year, Autumn feels even more important. My life is shifting to our new patterns, my husband back to full time in the office and for me managing my condition knowing I have little help for childcare. I am seeking now to establish the baseline level of energy I have, in the hopes that soon I will not crash every weekend and feel able to socialise a bit again.

I am getting asked a lot how is my “long covid” but like many invisible conditions, it’s just there, in the background and for now part of my life. Usually when people ask you about illness they want you to say you are better but instead of saying “I’m getting there” with the usual passive politeness. I am respecting the condition and fatigue “I am learning to manage it.” I am more comfortable with this honest answer even if most people what want you to say is you are fine. Coming in the next few months I have some medical appointments which may help but in the meantime, Autumn will be the time for me to work out what works for me. I need to continue to listen to my body, but also listen to my mind which is calling out to be more creative.

For now it may be more quiet craft sessions though there are added issues I didn’t have to think about before: my markers now trigger asthma, planning out a card to make can be surprisingly fatiguing, I don’t want to add to my tidying up duties by making a mess. Being more aware of what is tiring is interesting. I know my Mum has said to me a number of times that it is very similar to ageing. Simple day-to-day tasks like taking a shower are just more noticably tiring than before. Equally you have to make plans to build in rests more often even if you do manage a busy day.

As I sit to my journal and make some Autumn goals I try and identify what exactly has held me back from writing. I then have tried to add in the element that might make the task easier in my current condition.

Plan a few research trips. It will need to be a Friday so have the weekend to recover. I love exploring the Newspaper Archives for the historical elements of my work in progress. At the British Library, there is free access and I just find being closeted amongst the books so inspiring. I know already that I probably have to build in a rest if not a sleep to travel into London so I may choose to make my next trip on a day my husband could help out.

Continue mindful walks These have helped so much whilst I recover. Getting out in nature continues to be good research particularly as I have gradually been teaching myself about the wildflowers and plants. Finding bright spots of nature nourish part of me that rejects my urban lifestyle and gives me much needed alone time.

Carry a notebook around I noticed that I have written less in notebooks in the recent years. I find that writing by hand really helps. In addition it means I can do just a little work, sketch out ideas and not feel like I have to sit and edit work in the same way because as I type up whatever I have written, I polish the words.

Re-read my work-in-progress It’s been so long since I have been working on my longest, unwieldiest project that I can use this as a chance to look at it all with fresh eyes.

It probably doesn’t sound like I am pushing myself much in the next few months. I haven’t set word counts or minutes per week. Instead I have defined the things that can help me gradually build up to doing more. Knowing that I adding a few things into my life in a realistic way is far more helpful as I recover. It feels like the right next step to get back to what I love.

How do you make progress when life gets in your way?

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!

Rain or Shine?

Do you go out whatever the weather?

A little soggy from this morning’s walk around our local streets, I can see the sunshine has now come out too late for me. Mere minutes ago, rain was dripping off the fur on my warm but not completely effective hood on that blessed of all things, my big coat. I walk in and deposit various layers on the floor, including my sweater which is a bit damp too. My husband looks bemused at my wet hair which has clung to my face. My gear is definitely not quite up to the task.

I wish this was my view when I went for a walk

I got a lovely photo of my nephews on the wet and windy beach a few weeks before lockdown 2 started with the caption from my sister, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing.” It occurs to me that she is much more game than me, probably generally more adventurous, but she’s not wrong. And whether it’s the wrong clothing, or just general wimpiness, I don’t tend to go out in all weathers. I might write off a rainy door as one when we can’t get out.

And isn’t that the perfect metaphor for life at the moment? Learning to dance in the rain. Or at least trying to push ourselves to go out in it, even if we don’t feel much like dancing at the moment. I do love an extended metaphor (see my thoughts on swimming) but I will stop now and explain what I mean.

The last few weeks, months really, I have felt so stuck in the quagmire of anxieties about the pandemic, and changes that are happening in my life that I have hardly been creative at all. It is all-consuming to be caught in anxiety and even though I know there are things I can do to make it better, sometimes I am not doing them. So then I have to dig deep and go for a walk, meditate, try and get enough sleep. And even more, I need to direct my creativity somewhere.

Guilty confession time, though I have been carrying around my own personal rain cloud, I have found some time to be creative. Why guilt? I am shamelessly working on a new project, a few thousand words a week. I know the allure of newness is a problem. I know that I will probably end up with two large unfinished projects rather than one. But for now this my way of dealing with the weather.

Writing to music

Is there a best way to concentrate, I find I need a soundtrack but choosing one is hard.

It seems like a simple thing, to set up a soundtrack and be whisked away somewhere else. Particularly while I am working with distractions in the background. But when I am more mindful, it is amazing to see how much of a distraction my music can be. Within beats of a song, my mood shifts and I have been transported elsewhere. Listening to music I find my mind has wandered to so many places

Paying attention more, I notice that the boy band song sweeps over me with an irritation. It’s only as I explore the emotion, I realise that I have been harbouring resentment from 20 years ago. I was invited, then uninvited to a concert by some mean girls at school. This has left me finding this particularly saccharine pop extra unpalatable. I had forgotten this slight and I suspect that the truth was there was no room in the car. Or I had no-one to take me or we didn’t have money in time for the tickets. All of which are perfectly reasonable reasons that invite was rescinded, but still a bittersweet taste. I didn’t like them then, still don’t, their pop a little too dull for even my abysmal tastes, but a hurt unrested.

I will be trying to complete the housework with a playlist and wonder why I suddenly feel despondent, only to realise the song I am listening to is morose. There was a particular time of day when I was working at the shop where I would slow in my tidying jobs, down-hearted at the continuous tasks of straightening, round and round the store. It took me nearly a year to recognise that my blood sugar was dipping and my mood was brought down by the repetitive strains of “Are we out of the woods yet, are we out of the woods?” Something about Taylor Swift’s pleas tugged at my emotions that I would be effected at roughly the same time each day.

(Not me!)

So what instead can I do to listen to music and write. Well, one strategy is to listen to music in another language, Jennifer Lopez’ Spanish albums or I listen to “Coffee and Chill” playlists on Spotofy. Weirdly I still find the hypnotic pull of a Morcheeba album. This was the album that I studied with through A’Levels with and I wonder if my brain has remember what it was like to work really hard with that on in the background.

Do you find music too much of a distraction to work? I wish my busy brain would work in silence but for me I find that is the most distracting thing of all. Will someone please fix that tap…

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?