Essentialism and real life

How I am working on my novel the Essentialism way

A few weeks ago I took Greg McKeown’s course on Simple Productivity: How to accomplish more with less on Skillshare all about Essentialism and Productivity. I was already aware of the book from the excellent and always funny “Go Help Yourself” podcast which I would really recommend if you can’t always be bothered to read the book but want the ideas! Your main goal of the course is to identify the thing in your life are you not making an “essential” For me that is working on my novel. Once you have identified this, then you will need to think what makes it so essential for you. I took time to review the book I have written and – though it’s a right mess – I still believe in the story I am trying to tell.

Greg McKeown Essentialism:The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

After this philosphising about your purpose, you have to get down to practicalities. As you know I am always looking for ways to be more productive as I recently shared my reading list. Then you have to create strong boundaries around this essential thing. And finally you have to “routinize” the work so it actually happens. All of this is easier said than done!

I chose writing as my thing I don’t do enough of, you may have guessed that aside from faithfully writing morning pages, there are days the pen doesn’t hit the page. That has to change but in addition to McKeown’s advice I needed to consider my pacing approach. I am lucky enough to have help from a Fatigue Coach, Pamela Rose and she very wisely suggests you build up slowly within your tolerance and live carefully once you have established a baseline of energy. Her approach actually makes sense for lots of us, not just people with a fatigue condition. What I am suggesting is you shouldn’t rush straight into saying I’ll write an hour a day or a 1500 words a day or whatever other rule you have read somewhere. You can build up to this if that works for your life.

Looking at my current capability I have made a plan to build up over the next few months. I am still struggling with screens as they are more tiring for me with my foggy brain so instead I have been writing by hand. For the last few weeks I have been attempting to write two days a week for thirty minutes then having a type up day each Sunday. This practical focus has been achievable and the idea is to keep building on the momentum of the regular writing. I am going to attempt to lengthen one session this week before I add another day in. This way I have stayed building on my progress but not gone too far.

I think with all good self-help books we have to take the best parts. The advice can start to diffuse into our lives so that we establish any changes within our own capabilities. I think it is important to make our creativity an essential, to recognise artistic expression is more than just a hobby. But also to make realistic demands on our self. As ever real life can get in the way.

Take back a little control

When life gets in the way, what steps can you take to have some control?

I recently embarked on a project to complete 50 days of healthy habits, run by Smilin Aislinn. I managed 50 days of consistent meditation, reading as well as eating and exercising the best that I can. I didn’t manage 100% of all my tasks each day, but I hit 75% of the tasks every day and embedded some useful habits into my life. Her method worked really well for me and I would definitely recommend it to others.

In a bid to take this level of discipline forward for another 50 days, I have set myself some new tasks which includes writing 3 times a week. The tasks I set in the first 50 days were achievable because I had already started to try and put them in my life. What I did by taking on the challenge was stay consistent to support my health (hello daily green smoothies) and making sure I did morning pages (hello waking up to write.) The reason it worked so well was I was not strict or judgmental with myself. I enjoyed ticking off the tasks each day in my journal and getting that little hit of achievement. It also gave me a little bit of control over things I can do to help myself.

In the background of these next 50 days we have started another battle (always a battle) to get the right support for my Special Needs son. So, as we prepare documents and attend meetings and generally try not to worry about the future, it’s even more important to feel in control.

For me there are three things that help me manage my life: timers, lists and focusing.

Short bursts of time writing is one way to get work done.

These ideas are not revolutionary but if you knew how hard it was for my busy brain to knuckle down to tasks in this way, you would understand why I have to rely on them to function well. In reality this means I set a timer to write or read – essential tasks which take a lot of energy. I need a list of what I am working on next. And, and this is the hard one, I need time without interruption. Often I use the Binaural playlists in my ear buds but I also turn on “focus mode” on my phone.

Taking back control over our focus is a real skill in the distracted world. I previously took the “Bored but Brilliant” challenge to help me get into a more creative space. I have been reading a number of productivity books and will publish my essential list soon but for now I will say that being less attached to a device and more in control of my time is currently one of my main goals for part two of this challenge.

What are your essential tools to get your work done?

Overcome Dialogue Dilemmas

Some of my characters have been really chatty recently and it can be a problem…

I am back at it with my longest novel to date and really writing dialogue in sections where the prose gets a bit heavy. There are rules to writing dialogue which I find a bit tricky. Like you want to give them colloquium language but you don’t want to keep spelling out “Alright” or “I don’t know what to say” even if they are the tics of these characters. You want dialogue that actually means something to the story which is why I think writing in close third person can be tricky as you often think when a person might say. Add in that your main character is introspective and introverted, your chances of getting them to speak out loud like a character in a novel.

Have ever noticed the characters you like the most start chatting to each other? When you get to that point in the writing where you have done character development and as I suggested before,  worked out their quirks, then the characters themselves start to take the steer. Part of me likes to think that this is because I am deeply acquainted with the people so I know what they would say or do. But really it’s because these people you have created have come alive and are demanding attention. (If you want to understand this perspective, I would recommend the book Bunny by Mona Awad that I reviewed here.) So once they are so alive to you, they do something else weird: they start talking to each other.

Recently I have written two arguments that happen as she befriends the enemy of the piece. One reason was that I had started to realise there wasn’t enough conflict in the novel; got to give these characters problems. Goodness knows life throws me enough lemons, and by rights you should be chucking lemons at their heads throughout the rising action. As she wrestles with the problems with her neighbours and friends, my main character seems quite meek. I could find quite easily how others speak to her bit it was more tricky to get her to speak out loud.

Here were some tricks I tried to get the arguments going:

1. Ignore the actions

To start the scenes with arguments I didn’t getting her to the place but started writing where she already is. The setting isn’t important because if you are picturing it, you known where they are. Once I had started one scene I knew she was on the bottom step, looking up awkwardly but the words have already told us she is been treated as a subordinate.

2. Say it out loud

Saying the words you’ve  written helps the dialogue feel more real. I also get Word to read out my work to me to help spot those double words or odd sounding phrases.

3. Act it out

I am a wannabe actor as well as writer and this is where those years of improv play out. Playing my characters as I sit before the computer is one of the reasons I crave alone time! I think understanding the rules of drama (start late, leave early, for example) helps us write dialogue. I haven’t written a play since A Level but some of those skills still help.

4. Record it while walking

My final tip is to say it out loud when you’re walking. I think walking is a great trick for getting your mind mulling over things. Especially if you dare to go distraction free. If ideas hit me when I walk, I like to record using voice memos. It’s a great to really have that argument. Although my final tip would be to find a quiet spot to say it out loud!

Have you any tips for writing good dialogue? I’d love to hear from others who struggle with this.

What gets in the way?

It’s hard to lead a creative life but here are ways I have found that help

I have been writing this blog for a few years and I thought it was time to reflect on how I help myself achieve my goals. So what is it that gets in the way of your writing? Because I have the answer for that. No more TEARS (Time, Energy, Artistry, Reading, Some Other Things) What do you not have enough of…?

TIME

It’s no joke not having enough time. I have explored on a number of occassions the way I schedule in small amounts of time to write. It is miniscule sometimes but it’s all chipping away towards the final goal: write the darn book!

I believe you can always do a little something towards your project.

And the best way to get some time to work is planning your time however messy life gets. And I use a Sunday reset to ready myself to take advantage of any slot of time that pops up in the week.

ENERGY

This is a big issue for me. I have a fatigue condition as well as lacking sleep from looking after my child. I don’t know why children are such morning people. I suspect the energy levels my child has is the real rate we are all supposed to have but for many reasons it gets stolen away as we grow up. Maybe by the fairies? Anyway if you struggle with energy start here:

Making the most of your higher energy moments by being just a little creative. Short creative activities can help you be more mindful, and also very calming. I also have to create on little sleep quite often and taking time for simple things like music, walks and meditation can have a surprising impact on your energy and your creativity.

ARTISTRY

I will recommend to everyone that you use The Artist’s Way programme if you haven’t come across Julia Cameron’s book, I have a series of posts about using the programme and how it helped. Here are some of the key things that have come part of my life:

You could try the Mum version of morning pages in my Imperfect Guide Each morning you write three pages of rubbish in your journal, get it all out and so when you do start your art, you’re ready!

I also use my journal in a number of ways and here I suggest some ways to use your journal to get more creative.

Finally, Cameron suggests you take two hours every week for an Artist Date. As much I would love to have more time at the theatre or at museums, I have a guide for some cheap and easy dates to take to inspire you. Whether it’s a wander around a market or taking photos of trees, I take weekly time out to explore a bit and feed my creativity.

READING

As a Mum, I have to work hard to get time to read . The biggest revelation in the last few years has been audiobooks. Having come to terms that audiobooks is actually real reading, I have actually managed to read some classics that I may have blanched at before because of their size and the concentration levels needed to track the cast! I loved Anna Karenina and Vanity Fayre and I am so grateful that, despite my fatigue condition, I have listened to these even when I haven’t been able to do much else.

SOME OTHER THINGS

I am a carer, under stress and have a fatigue condition. Life gets in the way. But I am always doing something, working slowly to chip away at my projects. The sites tag line is: if not now, when? So whatever I can do towards my goal helps. I suggest using vision boards and found an easier way to keep the vision updated by doing it online. I use Instagram and Pinterest to be creative and find ways to explore the world even if I don’t often go further afield, I always feel inspired in a new place.

How do you overcome your personal obstacles to be creative?

The Sunday Reset

Transform your week with a reset

I have dreaded Sundays. They were the day I rushed around tidying, did the food shop and panicked about all the things in the week ahead. But having a fatigue condition has changed my attitude. I cannot do all-the-things and I am better for it. Having a Sunday reset routine helps prepare me for the week without rushing around. And I think it can help everyone to pace their life, work, maybe even increase productivity. Here’s how I try to reset:

Sunday Morning

Start as you mean to go on. If there is ever a time to envoke your morning routine, I think Sunday is the day you have a chance of getting it right. Now I always have a vision of my perfect morning : mediation, morning pages, self-care. This is the point to remind you you can do things but do them imperfectly. So as soon as I can, I do a meditation. Often I use short guided meditations like Mindful in Minutes podcast. And I have a few options to help if you are a fidgety meditator like me!

After meditating I use my journalling practice. Often during the week my Morning Pages happen at another time of day or with distractions as my guide explains. Julia Cameron suggests in The Artist’s Way that you write it all out in three pages each morning to help your inner artist. Sunday is a great time to reset the habit. So each Sunday I try and do my pages as it is intended as there is a chance for me to leave my son to tv without the usual challenges of getting him ready for school.

Skincare Sunday

Then is time for self-care. Although it may be too tiring to always shower I can take my time over skincare actually doing all the steps: cleanse, polish, cleanse, serum, serum, face roll, wait, moisturise. I love my jade roller and I have been influenced into a number of wellness products which may or may not work! But Sunday is a great time to use all these products taking time over the whole routine. I still don’t understand how people make it to twelve steps but there is something that feels extra indulgent doing my seven step routine.

Tidy up

To help with fatigue, I now divide all my cleaning tasks on to different days of the week and frankly at times only do the bare minimum. One task that has become an essential on a Sunday is tidying up the table. In our house this means a place to eat a family meal and play games together after dinner. It is also a place to work. I wrote recently about setting myself up to succeed by making space to write. Whether it is working on my novel or on my volunteer role, having a space that I tuck myself into to get on with work is motivating. Not only that, clearing you work area is a quick reminder to yourself what you wish to achieve in the week ahead.

Check the Calendar

We often try and coordinate diaries for the week ahead and this can help with being more productive, planning meals ahead for example. But it is also an opportunity for me to work out what I can and cannot do on my work-in-progress. So this week just gone was Easter holidays with my son. We even managed a few outings which is no mean feat with my current energy levels. So realistically I did not plan to read or write. That is a bit sad for me because these are my two favourite things. However, by planning ahead my pacing, I can feel proud of what I have achieved.

Next week we are away and with family so again I will be busier. I have got the benefit though of fewer jobs to do at home and childcare so my trusty notebook will travel with us. Often a new place can provide inspiration and I hope if nothing else I can note snippets of stories whilst we are out and about.

Do you find a routine helps you be more creative? In some ways it feels counterintuitive not to be spontaneous and free in making art but, at least for now, I need these regular resets.