Creativity, Play and Rest

Hello!! I have stumbled back to my blog like a stranger. It was doing a round of submissions that sent me back here as I needed to remind myself of my publishing background. Writing that out seems ridiculous. I know what I’ve had published—and what isn’t—but I’ve been so long into my current manuscript that I have neglected doing any updates here.

Where have I been? What have I been doing?

Since my last post, I have written eight Tinyletter newsletters that have included all sorts of things like poetry, having a knee operation, coping with the lockdown blues and some other things. While it’s been good to have a bit more interaction with these newsletters, it does make it look like nothing is happening here. (Side note: please sign up for my newsletters here where I might write more stuff)

Trust me, stuff is still happening in my writing and creative life.

I am still writing. At the end of May, I finished the seventh draft of my manuscript that has had many names during its various iterations but is now going under the name of Before, After, Now. It’s historical fiction based on my ancestor who was sent to Australia in 1787 for stealing a pot, a kettle and an iron. Her husband of the time pointed his finger at her in the court and said, it was her. Doesn’t take much imagination to guess at what kind of person would do that to his wife and, in turn, his one-year-old son who died on the ship before it even left Portsmouth Harbour. She had a wretched life and the work I have had to do to get the story to its current state other than all the research I have done over the last six years is to work out why each of the things I know about her happened. Why was her daughter in the first orphanage in Sydney? Why did she work for a short time as a cook in the orphanage? Why did the father of her daughter leave the colony and never return? Why did she never take his name, did she never give her daughter his name? Why did she die where she did, when she did?

The current iteration of the manuscript feels (for now) like the one that is right. It has three points of view: Ann, her daughter Elizabeth and the narrator. Finding my way into Elizabeth and her view of the world really opened up the story for me, and hopefully for the reader. Soon, it will go on its merry way to have a manuscript assessment when I will find out the truth about the manuscript.

This is The Most Scary Moment for me with it. To this point, no one else has read it in its entirety and while it is easy and less sick-making to keep it like this, it will never get published without someone else’s eyes on it.

When I first finished this draft I felt like I was cast out into a rubber tube in the middle of the ocean. I was so used to my routine of getting up every morning at 5.45 am to work on the manuscript, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Initially, I took the time to sleep in as I was very tired. It took a lot of out of me finishing this manuscript. Then I resumed my early mornings and did yoga.

Now it’s school holidays, I’m back at my computer doing writing admin, cleaning up my files, writing a synopsis and chapter summaries and looking at what else is going on in the writing submission world. This week I wrote a new short story and edited another and it felt great to play with new words.


Play

‘If you don’t know how to play, then you will not be creative.”

John Cleese

John Cleese outlines what he sees as the five factors of creativity (the below is from the Brainpickings post about this):

  1. Space (“You can’t become playful, and therefore creative, if you’re under your usual pressures.”)
  2. Time (“It’s not enough to create space; you have to create your space for a specific period of time.”)
  3. Time (“Giving your mind as long as possible to come up with something original,” and learning to tolerate the discomfort of pondering time and indecision.)
  4. Confidence (“Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”)
  5. Humour (“The main evolutionary significance of humour is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.”)

I’ve learnt over time that it’s great for my creativity to do things that put me out of my comfort zone. Years ago when I felt like writing was difficult I took up learning jazz piano. While I am still not a piano player, it was the impetus that I needed to get back into writing after I’d learnt that it was okay to be terrible at something but to still have a go. So when my friend Katherine Collette (author of the very funny The Helpline and another book that will be published next year—watch this space…) told me a few months ago she’d enrolled in an improv course, I was interested. I knew it would be difficult coming off the deep editorial stage of manuscript I’ve lived with for the last six years to try to write anything else. I’m now six weeks into the course (if we ignore the three weeks intermission when we couldn’t do much due to yet another COVID-19 moment) and it has been a brilliant thing to add to my life. I spend three hours laughing a week while I get to make stuff up on the spot and learn that it’s okay to fail! What a brilliant thing for all of us to learn! It’s given me the energy I need for the new story I’m working on that is all fresh words and needs no editor’s eye on it. It’s the moment in writing when anything and everything is possible. It’s a wonderful playful stage of writing when I learn who’s who and what’s what and where’s where. Write it all out and delete it later (after I’ve saved it as Draft Zero). It’s also given me more confidence standing up in front of strangers and talking. Last night I put my name in the Jam Jar and bravely stepped onto the stage when my name was called and Made Stuff Up! On the spot. While I was nervous to start, my nerves fell away as I immersed myself in the experience. And I laughed. A lot. Laughter is so great for the soul.

My rough drawing of Little Red Riding Hood’s map

A couple of weeks ago I did a Queensland Writers Centre online workshop on map making with Kathleen Jennings. It was such a wonderful, playful and fun session that reminded me how much I love drawing and illustration. I have been playing with this since and again, it reminds me that playing helps awaken creativity. I’m amazed (but probably shouldn’t be) at how much energy playing gives me. It’s been so much fun drawing badly and allowing that to be okay.

Rest

On the last day of last term when we were all desiccated shells of ourselves, our principal sent all the staff something about rest that resonated with me. She talked about the research and work of Dr Saundra Dalton-Smith where she establishes the seven types of rest: physical, sensory, mental, emotional, creative, social and spiritual.

“We have a very limited view of what rest is. We think of rest as the cessation of activity—just stopping. But it’s actually practising restorative activites.”

Dr Saundra Dalton-Smith
Image from https://advice.theshineapp.com/articles/the-7-types-of-rest-you-need-to-actually-feel-recharged/

I hope you can find time to rest, play, read or write. I’d love to hear from you to hear how this lands with you. Please leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you ASAP.

Locking down, again.

My suburb is going into lockdown tonight for the second time. I had just begun to enjoy being out in the world again (cautiously), albeit without hugs and kisses with friends. While I don’t feel the same level of anxiety mixed with relief this time, I am feeling like this thing may keep happening and that we will never really get on top of it.

Last year I helped the English team at school select a novel to replace another for the Year 12 students this year. The one that jumped out at me was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I devoured the book and loved how different it was to many other dystopian/apocalyptic books. I loved the jump of 20 years to see how humans behave beyond a global disaster (spoiler: the same way humans always have behaved). When the students returned this year with their dog-eared copies, we laughed about how reality was mirroring the book. We chatted about how reality could help with their understanding of the book.

Then the fear and anxiety rose around us as COVID landed on our shores.

In the midst of lockdown when folks were posting pics of the sourdough starters, indoor plants, Zoom setups, people began to imagine a world where we all changed because of COVID. How we’d all be nicer, better people. How we’d spend more time cherishing the moments.

Cases of wine clinked from vendors to trucks to homes. Parents vented frustration and anger at having to home school. Teachers complained of headaches and worsening eyesight. Star Track and Aussie Post put on new drivers as homes filled with all the things that people hadn’t realised they didn’t have before. Dogs wondered why the gods had looked down on them with such delight and cats wondered the opposite.

We all said that the new normal will be different. Nicer. Kinder. Cleaner.

But, if we consider Station Eleven, will it? Or are we more likely to revert to old behaviours?

Certainly in the short time I had out in the world again, behaviours slipped. Things were changed, but rude people are still rude. Selfish people are still selfish. People still move about the world without thinking about how their actions may affect others. The minute people heard that cases were rising, the supermarkets noted a rise in purchases (damn that toilet paper!) and reinstated the restrictions on purchases.

Last week was my son’s seventeenth, and as I had no brain capacity to remember in time to order anything, I had to visit The Mall. I went early on a Monday morning in the hope that I would not be swallowed up by people. Initially it was okay. I moved freely as there were not that many people there. By the time I left, however, it was brimming with people who seemed to be there for a window shop. I couldn’t get out fast enough.

Now, as Melbourne digests the reality of rising infection rates people are trying to find ways around the lockdowns. The truth of the highly infectious virus seems to not stick with us, possibly because we haven’t seen the catastrophe here that is in other countries; we are the lucky country after all. It is only when we stop to think past ourselves in a pandemic that we realise that we all have to do the right thing and hang out at home for a little longer.

Me? I’m going to continue to Stay At Home. I’ve still got my list of things I never did with the first lockdown! Life will go on, for most of us. It is tough. I speak from a position of privilege of a house with space, of not having young children to care for. My son who is visiting for the semester break is going to get tested, and if negative will (sadly) take his safe bubble back to his country town for the rest of his break. I’ll continue to support my local businesses who I do not want to go out of business. The flats that are in hard lockdown are in a very different situation. I worry about the families in there. Many of my students live in them. I don’t know how they are going to cope.

I did finish one thing that I set out to do last time on my list, so who knows, I may even finish this manuscript this time. Time to sink into reading, writing and crafting again, and time to think about how to support the other locals who will struggle so much more.

The blanket that I have spent about eight years on, and then finally finished during the pandemic. Anything is possible now!

The months that were a year or more

I don’t need to tell anyone that this year has been too much. When this year began, I thought that the biggest things that I would be having to deal with were coping without two of my three sons moving out of home (and yes, they have been coping fine and it seems that I did teach them enough – Have I taught them enough?) and the climate anxiety in the young people I work with that would come from the bushfires (How to go on while Australia burns). Oh, how wrong was I. Instead it has been a year that’s has already felt like a decade.

My first day back at work in the school this year was the day after the weekend when we began to hear the news of this pandemic coming our way. The rest of that term was filled with rising anxiety from the students and staff as we grappled with the invisible and unknown. It felt like waiting for a tsunami. The early closures of schools that term came with an overwhelming feeling of relief for me to be out of the firing line of 500 odd kids and their potential germs.

The first holidays after that term I was overwhelmed. I wrote lists of things I could do to combat these feelings, but in reality, I was still working, still writing. Who did I think I was to be able to do all these extra new things! I slumped. I pleaded with my boys to come home, be safe, but they assured me they were fine. I sent them food packages as the country town grocery shelves emptied. I stopped looking at social media, at the news. I worked to help the teaching staff to be ready for teaching from home. I sought answers on why I felt so down and this article from the Harvard Business Review helped me to understand more about what I was feeling: That discomfort you are feeling is grief

As my husband, youngest son and I prepared for working and learning from home, I was thankful that we now had two spare rooms. I saw the privileged that we had with space to work on our own. My other two sons stayed in their respective houses in the country and continue their studies. They lost their new jobs and were fortunate that we could support them (which we will probably have to for a while). I wondered how others who could not lean on their parents for help were surviving. I filled my work room with boxes of books from the school library to work on and wrote lists of work that could be done from home.

The three of us in our home found our own routines. I rose at 6 am or earlier every day and settled into my writing life for at least an hour before I jumped on my bike for a ride that gave me a breath of nature. At 8 am I settled into work for the day which included the luxury of a coffee and lunch break with my husband and son. Usually I eat my lunch alone as I have it before the other staff so I am available for the students; I basked in this time I had with my husband and son to commune with each other over lunch. We were kind to each other as we all grappled at various times with the frustrations and grief of these times. Mostly, we loved each other.

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Morning ride: river, lake, birds.

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I met with my writers group every Saturday at 5.30, espresso martini in hand as we talked about our weeks. I was the privileged one in this group as I was the only one who did not have primary aged kids that needed a high level of supervision with their school. I encouraged them to lower expectations and reminded them of the year that I took the kids out of school, and how the kids survived. But I wasn’t living their hard times and could only imagine how hard it was as they told their stories of tears and frustrations.

As an introvert, I found the time to be a balm. It was quiet. I got lots of work done. I knitted. I learnt to crochet. I mended things. I bought books that launched in iso. I read. I spent time with my youngest. I chatted on the phone to my other two. I did online yoga. I rode. I patted the dog. I took an online course in Writing Picture Books and revelled in the joy of children’s stories.

I rewarded myself with the hard work by ending the work from home time with a four solid day virtual writing retreat interrogating every scene in my manuscript for its purpose as I prepared for the next draft.

This year was also the year of big numbers. My husband and I both were turning 50 and had big plans of a party to celebrate us. Our thirtieths disappeared in baby poo and vomit, our fortieths were spent in the outback so this one we wanted to share with our friends. Instead, we had quiet birthdays, and as the restrictions began to lift, small wonderful surprise birthday dinners arrived. I loved the intimacy of these dinners, loved the time spent with these people who I adore. They weren’t the big party we had envisioned, but they were extra special.

As an introvert, it is the returning to the world that has felt a little more disarming.

The first days back at school were a mixture of excitement at seeing each other and virus anxiety. A staff member hugged me before I had a chance to back away. My desk had been surrounded by tables for distancing in the very open library. Hand sanitiser bottles stood to attention in every room. The students returned, some masked, others oblivious. Conversations were held with the dance of social distance. Hand washing, and more hand washing. Processes implemented to Keep Us All Safe. I filled the tables surrounding my desk with a display of Aboriginal writing as worldwide anger rose at the terrible treatment of black people and First Nations People. Read to learn.

Yesterday I went to the mall for the first time in what feels like a decade but is more like five months. When I came home I had to nap. It took everything from me to have to interact and avoid so many people. We are once again in strange times where the breakouts are happening all around us and we can’t see where it is. I received an email this morning from Vic Roads reminding us to all stay home and I look out the window as cars laden with holiday pass by. Will it spread like the fires did over summer, or will people heed the warnings?

It’s holidays again and these ones feel better. I am happy to be home, albeit with a little jealousy of other’s photos of beautiful places they are going to. I have had one son home for his five-week uni break, and when he left, the other returned for his four-week break. My husband has moved his office into the room that I use as my office, and it mostly works. I have lists of things to get done. Lists are how I seek order in the unknown.

My morning writing schedule stays; it is the one thing that keeps me sane.