The Object of my Dejection

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “The Object of My Dejection.”

So I wrote about giving up on a project briefly in this post, but that triggered some memories for me and I felt like I wanted to expand upon it more. Because I’m struggling with that project again, and this ghost needs to be laid to rest once and for all.

About this time last year, I gave up on a writing project. It was something I’d been writing since March 2012, but in reality had been thinking about since the summer of 2011. I’d written a first draft, had tried editing, hit a roadblock, tried editing again, hit another roadblock, changed the opening, and again, and again, and again. I’d followed all of the advice – letting it marinate, working on other things, working on it intensively, hand-writing drafts, back-writing summaries, color-coding my notes, examining the storylines intensively, NaNoWriMo. I turned it into a trilogy and started writing anew. You name it, I’d probably done it. Towards the end, I was dreading sitting at the laptop – I was literally writing a sentence and deleting it because I hated how it sounded. My inner critic was on maximum volume, and all I could hear was: This is rubbish.

Then I read Sarah Dessen’s “Abandoning. And Listening.” which was about giving up on projects that were making you miserable and focusing on other things. Her words resonated with me so intensely, I took the plunge and I gave up.

I should clarify, this was not by far my first writing project. Nor was it the first one I’d been strongly invested in (oh, the strongly worded ANs I’d written in my days. I still blush thinking about them.) And it was NOT the first one I’d given up on. But with every writing project before it, I hadn’t really used the G-word before. I had “set them aside” and I had “needed time to think.” Many of them had exhausted me during the revision process, but at the back of my mind, I’d always thought I’d come back. Eventually.

This, however, was the first time I was shelving a story indefinitely. I was taking something I’d put considerable time and energy into, and which was very dear to my heart, and saying: “It’s not going to happen. I can’t write you.”

I don’t need to spell out how it felt. You probably have your own stories to contribute.

If you read “Lessons from the Kitchen,” you probably know that I did come back to the story. Sort of. I set it aside, but it still remained, at the back of my head, alongside all those other stories that I had set aside and wasn’t picking up. I expected it – I wasn’t willing to let it go either. In fact, you know how sometimes characters take up residence in your head and you imagine them going about their lives all the time? Well, it gave me an idea about a follow-up to the story I’d set aside. A follow-up that could be read on its own.

I want to write that story now. I’m weary about the process, but after finishing a draft of another story in summer (first time in a while, as it happens) I feel a lot more encouraged. I still think Sarah Dessen makes a good point – abandoning is sometimes necessary, but now I’m doing the “and listening” part, and I’m hearing a lot more than my Inner Critic.

For example: How, at the time I did those revisions, I was working a 9-to-6 that was actually an 8-to-7 because of commute.

For example: How all my time outside of work went to things like housekeeping, exercise, and generally trying to keep myself sane.

For example: How the blinds at my place only went up on weekends because it was when I would see the sun.

For example: How I was struggling with the difficulties of being in the final year of a degree that didn’t seem to guarantee me gainful employment, and how that gainful employment would just be more of the same (i.e. long hours, stress, almost no time for outside interests, minimal socialization.)

For example: My own inexperience and impatience that affected my writing.

There is always something to be learnt from listening.

Living in the Moment

It’s 8:46 on a Saturday morning and I’ve been up for over two hours. I’ve showered, done my morning pages and two writing exercises, painted my nails and on my second cup of coffee. I’m reading blogs on the Internet and the old Inner Critic is being grumpy about my being unproductive.

And I have to stop myself and sit back.

8:46 on a Saturday. The sun has barely risen – the light coming through the windows has just gone from slate gray to beautiful golden. If I weren’t sitting with my back to it, I’d probably be blinded by its brilliance. There’s lovely music playing on the radio and I have a full day ahead of me to do whatever I please, and yet some crotchety old guy in my head is being a pain in the arse because I’m not living up to his notion of productivity.

Pray, sir, this productive state you’re describing: what does it lead to? Because the fruits of my labor are slow to grow and not always such that can be savored. Surely one must sit down and enjoy the good things that life offers on the way.

When people say “Live in the moment,” they don’t mean do whatever you want without any regards to the future. They mean take your eyes off the finish line to make sure you don’t trip over a bush.

Happy Weekend, y’all.

Review: Will It Make The Boat Go Faster by Ben Hunt-Davis and Harriet Beveridge

Image via BookLikes

Carrying on from my last post’s theme on cross-training, this is one of my favorite strategies-and-motivation books of 2014.

This is not a writing book. Instead, an Olympic rowing champion turned business coach and his partner take some established strategies for winning in sports and translate them into advice and exercies to take to your business practice. It can be anything – multi-million transnational corporation, an SME, or even, yes, writing. From motivating yourself, through realistic goal setting, through dealing with set-backs, all the way to actually winning, this was a treasure I was lucky to come upon while working this summer, and not just because it was well-written.

Each chapter starts with Ben talking about a certain episode from his journey to becoming an Olympic rowing champion, and is then followed up with the lesson he learned and how it can be applied outside of the world of sport. And those segments (as Harriet herself remarks) are intense – you literally feel like you’re there, which I think is a great plus for the book. A lot of writing advice (or life advice in general) that you get sometimes can be too dry and alienating to truly take on; but the way this book takes you straight into the middle of the action really makes you sit up and take notice. We may not all aspire to be Champion Rowers, but we can sympathize with someone being chewed out by their coach, being afraid of following up after an amazing performance, or having difficulties when you feel that all the sacrifices you made might have been for naught, (or, even better, when things spiral out of control because someone else was a tw*t.)

And the advice you get here is solid, as well. Some of it is “tried and tested” (like setting SMART goals,) but the book goes a step further by actually getting through the “how” as well as the “what” of the problem, and showing a concrete example. (After all, some of us like to put things into perspective.) As with everything, you can decide for yourself what parts you’re willing to take on board and which ones you’d rather leave by the wayside. Personally, I found most of it quite useful.

A personal favorite of mine was “Don’t Talk Bollocks to Basil” from the chapter on motivation (I think.) An old Oxbridge saying (I believe) it stands for: “Don’t let negative people in your life, or at least near your work; limit negative influences as much as you can.” What I especially liked about this is the way the authors acknowledged that sometimes good people can be Basils and it can be hard to keep them out (like your well-meaning parents or best friends who love you to bits but really don’t understand why you would give up your day job, daaaaahrling.) Sometimes our writing (or business, or sports career) is a tender thing that needs a lot of love, patience, and nurturing, so we shouldn’t be afraid to tell someone off (gently) for bringing bad energy to the mix.

At least that’s the way I see it.

Lessons from the Kitchen

I am a Jack of all trades, Master to none, and that’s perfectly okay in my book. I know that’s not the only way to be – all you Masters out there, I take my hat off to you. I wish I had your focus! (Especially around exam time.) But my brain doesn’t seem to like just doing one thing – even as I’m writing this, I have several tabs open on my browser and listening to a Boots haul video. That’s not to say I always do several things at once – multitasking has bitten me in the arse before and I know when to stop – but I’m the sort of person who wants to do all of the things, all of the time.

Sometimes, that helps.

I love writing, obviously, but I also love drawing, scrapbooking, taking pictures. I even dabbled into Twitter haiku once. And there is a lot to be said about the way cross-specialization can help you expand on your other talents as well – I once heard someone ask Moira Young if her background as an opera singer influenced her writing in any way, and sure enough, she said she hadn’t thought about it, but it probably did make her really pay attention to how words flowed and tied together. (Side note, if you haven’t read the Dustlands trilogy, put it on your TBR list. NOW.)

But we’re not singing today – as you may have gleaned from the title, I’d like to go into the Kitchen and see what writing tips I can draw from it.

Note please: I’m not a pro. During term-time, I wouldn’t even call myself an am, I just throw stuff on a baking sheet/pot and hope for the best. But when I come home for the holidays, I like to really go all out in the kitchen and prepare elaborate meals for my family. (And do baking. Lots and lots of baking.) So if you’re expecting some Master Chef insights… sorry. I’m sure Gordon Ramsey has something to say on the matter. In fact:

#1 As difficult as it is to receive criticism on your MS, at least it’s not Baked Alaska. And if cooking shows have taught us one thing, Top Chefs don’t take shit from anyone. Mary Berry even told some guy in the Great British Bake-Off to not make excuses and present his dessert like a man. Which might be harsh, but drives through a clear point – if you’re hoping to make money from something, you can’t be wishy-washy about it. Be professional. Show up on time, do the work, present what you think is your best, own and learn from your mistakes. Just because everyone in your immediate friend circle sees writing as frivolous doesn’t mean you should too.

#2 Listen to your gut. And your nose. You know when you follow a recipe to a T and you still burn the buns? They say cooking is more artsy while baking is an exact science, but even the best recipes don’t take into account the make of your oven, the width of your pan, whether the temperature is exactly 180 degrees or you have one of those old, temperamental things that need to be tweaked just right to work… and that doesn’t even take into account the freshness of your ingredients, or if a brand of flour has more self-rising agent. That’s because life is choke-full of variables and at some point, you need to stop looking up to other people for guidance and get those damn buns out on the wire rack. Apply metaphor accordingly.

#3 Experiment. Really. As much as I make fun of my term-time self, I do actually get some good results from experimenting. Why, just a few weeks ago, I discovered a new favourite sauce when making eggplant parmesan (I had some frozen spinach and some leftover pumpkin-and-carrot puree in the fridge, and added it to some rather uninspiring tinned tomatoes. The result, I found, was a great improvement.) Now, I wouldn’t say the combination was entirely random, I did have some idea about things that usually work well together, but I hadn’t really thought to put them together before. Same with writing – I really do need to experiment more, see what works and what doesn’t.

#4 Patience is golden. As I write this, I have a baked chocolate cheesecake sitting in the fridge, “aging” (as Marian Keyes put it.) It’s my first time making one, but let me tell you, it was no small undertaking. My kitchen smelled divine and I really, really want to try it out, but it has to “sit” before it’s cut, so sit it shall. Similarly, a writing project may need to sit for a while before it’s released into the wild, or even edited. I did say 6 months waiting didn’t work for me in my “On Writing” review, but a year after giving up on a project indefinitely I got a strong itch to write it again. It’s not the same story. Not even close. But I think it’s something there, and it might just be better than the original. Sometimes these things really need to wait, (and you only need to look so far for examples where rushing the cheesecake didn’t pay off.)

#5 You can always, always, always learn something new from other people. Even if it means not using warm butter in shortcrust pastry.

Review: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

*image via BookLikes

Here’s something you need to know if you plan on following this blog for a long time: you are getting a lot of Julia Cameron recommendations. Just…. get used to that idea. I’m lucky because her books take a lot of time to get through because if they hadn’t, I’d probably have enough material to get me through 2015. And yes, I know, there’s a lot of workbooks and spin-offs and things that you probably don’t need in your life. There are about 7 different “Artist’s Ways” available on Amazon right now, and I can’t tell you whether to get the starter pack or the teacher’s cards because I haven’t used them. But I will say this. “The Artist’s Way” (the Original, single book, not the workbook, and not the one “at Work”) is absolutely fabulous and everyone should read it.

Yes, even if you are not a writer.

Self-awareness is something everyone should have, in my humble opinion. Writers may be the lot that is known for (and stereotyped as) having a ridiculously high opinion of themselves (which, if we believe Freud, is a sign of criminally low self-esteem) but being in tune with yourself, owing your fears and insecurities, and acknowledging your strengths is quite a universal skill set. And this is what this book is about.

Forget the morning pages. Forget the artist dates. Those are all props. The point of this book is to get the person reading it comfortable with every aspect of themselves in order for creation to happen.

That said, morning pages and artist dates are awesome. The latter I’ve been really inconsistent with, but the former I have been doing over a year, so much so I have now a favourite type of notebooks to write in, and I sincerely hope Paperchase doesn’t go out of business anytime soon because… I just need that.

(P.S. if anyone wants a stationary favorites post, let me know, because CAPITALISM!)

Back to “The Artist’s Way,” if there is one thing you need to get comfortable with, it’s hearing the word “God” repeated over and over and over again. Cameron uses it as shorthand for “creative energy,” aka that thing the Ancient Greeks thought causes creativity to happen, and it’s a nice tool because it takes some of the pressure off the individuals (i.e. if you don’t feel like writing, you’re not being lazy, the creative energy isn’t with you today.) Personally, I didn’t have too much of a problem with hearing “God” and “Great Creator” all the time reading this, but I realize that for some people that might be a deal-breaker, so – fair warning.

That said, what this book does is, through 12 weeks of exercises and reflections, daily morning pages and weekly artist’s dates, is getting us to confront every possible source of creative block we have, and celebrate all the good things we have in our lives (people who inspire us, hobbies we love, etc. etc. etc.) Getting through topics like fear of failure, fear of not making enough money, and working through any misconceptions we might have about art and artists, this is very much a journey of self-acceptance and getting comfortable with taking risks. Again – this isn’t just for writers. (It isn’t just for painters or sculptors or musicians either.) Being able to say “Actually, this isn’t working for me, for this reason, and I want to change” should be something everyone feels comfortable doing.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the point.

One concept, two ways

*images via BookLikes

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there is nothing worse than an overused quote. But writer’s block comes a close second.

Whether you are a “new” writer or a veteran one, a running theme of blogs and author’s notes on is the difficulty of getting through a rut in the story. Sometimes that rut is terrible/horrible/unbearable, other times you need a little less time to get over it, and in the extreme cases, it can leave you feeling like absolute shit.

I “speak” flippantly, but as someone who has suffered from a mother-of-all-blocks for 2 years now, with only a few breaks in the horizon, I can tell you – it sucks, and I sympathize. I’ve been there: detailed edits that are left to gather dust, notes that get “accidentally” lost, staring at the screen, rewriting sentences again and again because you hate the word order so much – yes, I’ve done it all. Sometimes starting is the biggest hurdle and that’s fine. Sometimes, there’s a bigger problem to be dealt with.

I’m saying this because the two books I’m looking at today are two very different beasts, and target two different types of block.

“642 Things to Write About” by the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto was written, by its own admission, in 24 hours via mass emails. It is the book equivalent of an Internet prompts post, but bound in nice paper that won’t make your pen’s ink run all over the place (very important, if you are me.) I like my laptop, but sometimes pen-and-paper brainstorming/freewriting is what I need to get unstuck, and this book is very good for that. Even if it’s expensive for what it is.

“The Sound of Paper” by Julia Cameron, however, addresses a different kind of block, the one you have on the soul. Written over the course of 1 year, in New York and Taos, New Mexico, it’s a collection of short essays which end with exercises to help the inner artist regain confidence and manage the ebbs and flows of creativity. It’s very much an extension, though not a replacement, of “The Artist’s Way” (which I will review at a later date.) It’s what I turn to when I need some deep thinking to happen, and I need to address another aspect of ailing which a quick un-sticking exercise isn’t enough to fix.

I’m somewhere-in both these books (neither halfway nor even a 1/3, in some cases) but if a writer’s manual you’re looking for, you need to think very hard as to what block you’re trying to address. “The Sound of Paper” will definitely give you more bang for your buck in terms of content, and in the long run, I will argue that all writers need something from Julia Cameron in their library because she speaks the truth, and “deep” blocks is something everyone encounters at one point or another. It’s the more humble offering, the plain-Jane older sister, (or the DUFF, depending on how you take your fairy tales,) and the one I’m very fond of myself.

However, there is something that “642 Things to Write About” caters to, namely the artist’s yearning for pretty stationary and interesting topics to discuss. If you’re looking for a present this holiday season, either for you or for a writer friend, and you want to give them something other than a Paperchase journal (although, really, very few things beat Paperchase in my opinion,) this is the “pimped up” version. The Journal 2.1, if you will. A note of caution, however: some of these prompts are what you might call “mature” in nature, so if you don’t want to piss someone’s parents off, there is a “young writers” version of this available. Also, there is a “642 Places to Draw” and “642 Things to Draw” versions in circulation (mine is from Urban Outfitters, but I’ve seen them in Waterstones and on Amazon, so make your picks accordingly.)

I will continue to report on these as I finish them, but in terms of gifts for writers or writer’s aids, these two are excellent.