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.

Every story takes time (and a cheer squad)

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The beautiful Ned and Musk Farm House where the magic of writing and writing friendship happens.

Two weeks ago I said to my husband that I should stop calling myself a writer. I felt utter despair with my two large writing projects. They felt too big, too overwhelming. It was the end of the school holidays and I had not done the big thinking and planning work on either of them that I thought I could have. I had been working at them five days a week for a minimum of 30 minutes a day on my work days, but it was not enough. Those tiny moments each day I spent with my writing before I started my day job were not enough to see the story as a whole and I began to doubt everything about my merit as a writer. I began to feel that working full time meant that I should give up my writing.

My two manuscripts have been redrafted a number of times and both of them need another draft (at least). One of them needed a new beat and a theme threaded through in addition to some sharpening to clear away the superfluous words. The other manuscript needs uninterrupted time to read through a manuscript assessment before I can even work out what needs to be done. Both of these things needed a big chunks of uninterrupted time (every parent and full-time worker) knows what I’m talking about here). I knew I had a week booked to write away with my writing gang, but two weeks ago I was overwhelmed and wondering if the sacrifices I make to write were worth it.

Luckily I have supportive partner and a writing accountability partner who both told me to stick at it, that I was a writer.  They both believed in me, even if I wasn’t sure I could do it. They cheered for me.

I am home now from my seven days away and I am exhausted and energised. Spending time with my writing gang has always helped me to refocus and to feel more confident in what I’m doing. It helps that doubtful voice to quieten. It reminds me that everything I am feeling is normal. This year we have not caught up as much as we used to and I am sure that this has also added to the spiral down of writing confidence.

I spent the first three days researching, reading, reacquainting myself with the manuscript. These days felt full and wonderful, but time was ticking by and I was losing myself down many rabbit holes (like the one that led me to the images below).  I worried that I would go home with nothing to show for my time away.

 

(Little sparks of joy from my rabbit hole researching. Images from https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2017/6-october/features/features/sewing-stories-unpicking-the-faith-of-girls-past)

I scribbled notes on cards, paper and in new documents. I decided that if I could go home with nailing what the story was really about (in the words of a wonderful teacher: What is your story really about?), how the beat would hit the pages and that I would be able to hit my early morning writing date with confidence, then that would be a win.

The first great moment was deleting the first 11,000 words. What had been running through my mind were the words: start as late as you can. Suddenly I had the energy to run with it. It felt right (don’t worry, I did put those words into another document aptly named ‘Cut’).

The next great thing was when I applied something that I always told my creative writing students. I changed the point of view from third to first (i.e. ‘She’ to ‘I’).  Just to see.

And, oh. WOW. It worked!

I am now on the roll with again. It will be a better manuscript when I finish it. I am confident of that. Will it be the last draft that goes out to a publisher? I can’t answer that. What I can say is that it takes work—lots of work—to shape a story into something that is not only publishable, but is also interesting and stands on its own. While that work is being done (which is years) every writer needs to have people in their camp who cheer for them, encourage them and remind them that they are writers whether or not their book is in the world.

 

On exhaustion, writing and other things

I have been absent from here a great deal this year, which was to be expected with starting work full time for the first time since 1997 (yes, you read that right!), but I haven’t slipped away completely. It has certainly been a juggle working, writing and managing the family, and I’m hoping that the next term is a little easier to manage.

I started the school year with a marked-up draft of my convict woman story after spending 10 hours reading it aloud (something I have never done before and was certainly a great experience — even if I was left with no voice and an ulcer on my tongue). Each morning before I started work at 8 am, I spent at least 30 minutes editing. It took me a couple of weeks to settle into the practice (i.e. where to do it), but in the end, I found a room at work where no one would disturb me. I set the goal of Easter to have it ready to send to an agent, and on the first Tuesday of the school holidays (nine days before Easter), I sent it off (hooray!). I may never hear from her, but it felt great to have hit that goal. I was also very excited to see that I received an Honourable Mention for my story, Murder by Biscuit, in the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge earlier this year. This was a short story that had to be completed with eight days. Everyone involved was given three things: a genre, an action and a character. Mine was: a mystery, a medical diagnosis and a prisoner. It was a lot of fun to write even as an unfamiliar genre.

My workplace

Workwise, I embraced my new role as Resource Centre (library) Manager and Communications and Marketing Manager for a secondary school. I set goals to put the library into order, order new books and connect with the school librarian community. It felt great at the end of Term 1 to see the shelves ordered, have new books arrive and to attend my first conference with other school librarians. I made it a priority to get books in that are on the Inky Awards lists from the last couple of years, and to make sure there are plenty of diverse voices, and Australian voices. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing the excitement on the student’s faces as they borrow the books.

I attended a few book launches (The Rip by Mark Brandi, The Result Result by Graeme Simsion and Small Blessings by Emily Brewin). It was wonderful to celebrate my friends who are all wonderful writers. It was even better to read these books. If you haven’t read them yet, go grab a copy and read them.

Book launches!

I also attended a wonderful masterclass in climate change writing, run by Jane Rawson and James Bradley. There were loads of great conversations that day, despite only having had a few hours sleep after my middle boy’s eighteen birthday party.

I finished the first term of school in a state of sheer exhaustion hoping that I could spend the two weeks break resting and recovering before heading back into another ten weeks work. Life, however, doesn’t always work that way. Instead, I spent the first week taking my husband from here to there to find out why he had been experiencing excruciating pain and swelling in his foot for two weeks. I didn’t in those two weeks after the negative result on the first x-ray and the first blood test that showed up with high white blood cell counts, or in the week while we waited to hear the results from the blood tests, bone scans and ultrasounds. My mind wandered to the terrible as all I have ever known of strange and unknown things like this was fatal.

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Waiting to hear why his foot hurt so much

The doctors scratched their heads and talked of gout (then crossed it off), rheumatism, and then nothing as time ticked by. Nothing was the worst. When the doctor greeted us to tell us the results of all the tests, he said he had bad news. I braced myself. I had been mentally preparing myself for this. For a life without my love by my side. For single parenting. For caring. Two stress fractures, the doctor said. I laughed. That! That’s not bad news, I said. And it truly isn’t. It will heal. He will be okay. So far from where my mind had gone. But I am still exhausted. He is still in loads of pain two weeks into wearing his moon boot, and I am now back at work without any rest. It’s going to be a long eight weeks.

Now onto my goals for the next term. I’m in that strange in-between-project writing period. I’m writing submissions for unpublished manuscript programs, writing ugly first words of short stories and trying to reconnect with my writing mates. Trying not to lose confidence in the words. In a few weeks, I’ll be off to my twice-yearly writing retreat with my incredible writing pals (Kate Mildenhall, Emily Brewin, Katherine Collette, Kim Sigley, Nicky Heaney and Venita Munir) so be prepared for some writing retreat spam.  I’m trying to get a better work-life balance so that I am not working an extra hour or more every day by setting alarms to get me out of there, and paring back my goals for the library so that they are more realistic. I’m also hoping to work out how to juggle the multiple roles that I carry there. With my home life, I need to get better at being a little more shiny rather than absorbent so that I don’t take on everything that my family need, instead, allow them to see that they need to do these things themselves. The eternal quest.

Strategies for keeping deadlines

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve talked about dealing with those pesky internal critical voices, and making deadlines for yourself when you don’t have any external deadlines. Today, I’m going to talk about some strategies on how to meet those deadlines.

We all know how it goes. You’ve got a looming deadline yet there are so many other things that you find yourself doing. The toilet suddenly needs a scrub with a toothbrush, the kettle could do with a polish, that nap that you’ve promised yourself for the last year needs to be taken right now. The problem is not that you are scrubbing your toilet with a toothbrush (although, I must confess that I have not yet stooped to that), it is that you are avoiding doing what you have promised yourself you will do.

The difficulty lies in the fact that it seems easier to meet other people’s deadlines or commitments you have made to other people than it is to meet your own deadlines.

So how can you meet your own deadlines, when no one is going to yell at you because you haven’t done it?

It all comes down to thinking about what works best for you; that is, what kind of person you are, and what you best respond to. Are you a list person? Are you a person who needs to stand by something once it has been said out loud? Are you a person who loves to crunch the numbers on things? Are you a person who loves to get rewards once they have completed something? You may well be a mix of all this, and then a number of strategies will work for you.

Give me a list, and I’ll get it done

list-147904_1280If this is you, then the hardest thing for you is trying not to put everything on your list (i.e. 1. Finish manuscript. 2. Send manuscript. 3. Get published) as it can seem unachievable. The best help you can give yourself is to break down what you need to get done, and look at a) what is realistic, and b) when you want to get the overall thing done.

Grab yourself a notebook or your diary and start with a list of things you need to get done in the next month to complete your manuscript. Do you need to do some more reading? How many words can you write over the next month? If you are on the redrafting stage, how far through would you like to be by the end of the month?

Now think about the next week with these things in mind. What is realistic while helping you to get to your month’s goal? Write these down for the week.

Start each day either creating your list for the day on what you are going to do to help you reach your deadline and then at the end of the day, tick them off.

At the end of the week, and then the end of the month, tick off what you have done to work towards your deadline.

Check. Done.

Once I’ve said it out loud, I have to do it or I’ll be too embarrassed

whisper-voice-clipart-1This is easy if you are good at verbalising what you need to get done, and then feel compelled to complete it lest someone asks you. The problem can be that you know this is your modus operandi, so you keep your plans quiet.

Find a buddy. Find someone that is happy to hear from you at least once a week, and will hold you accountable for what you have committed to. This often works best when it is a two-way street. Offer to be their person too. It may be best for it to be someone who understands the creative process, but isn’t essential.

Agree to what you will share each week, and when. A good base is: what I’m planning to do this week, how I did with my goals last week, what was getting in my way last week, and what I’ll put in place to try to meet my goals this week.

It should be an encouraging interaction rather than one where you feel guilty. If you are anything like me, you start the week with great intentions, only to fall too often on the speed bumps that life throws your way. That should be okay with your buddy. If not, find another.

If you can’t find a buddy, or don’t want to, and are feeling brave, you could also throw it out to the world. Say it aloud on social media and then check in at the end of the week. Tell your partner or work colleague. It doesn’t really matter who.

Numbers are my thing; I love to watch them change

pay-1036469_1920.jpgIf numbers are your thing, and you loved my last post, then I recommend that you do a few things as you will feel well chuffed as you see the numbers change. There are so many numbers that you can focus on to complete the work: minutes spent working, words written, words deleted, days worked, days to deadline, etc.

Choose the numbers that will help you to get to thermometer-151236_1280your deadline. Now think about how you want to watch these numbers change. Will a wall chart help? If so, create one that enables you to cross numbers off, or add them in. Maybe you could draw up a target thermometer and colour it in each day. This works well for visual people.

Perhaps you could use Excel to add your numbers after each writing session to see how those numbers are adding up. Microsoft Word also has some great statistics built in for those who love this (look under the File Properties and you will see Statistics).

Toggl is a great tool for measuring time spent. You can use it for free.

Put the carrot on the end of the stick, and I will follow

desktop-1985856_1920Rewards. Who doesn’t love them? The problem can be that left on your own, you might ‘accidentally’ reward yourself before you’re done. Set your milestones, and plan out some ace rewards that you will be thrilled with.

Your rewards could be anything: a massage, a magazine, a lie in the sun, a book, a read of a book, a block of chocolate, a sesh at the gym. Anything that you know will drive you to get your work done. I know folks who aren’t allowed to do anything else until they have done their three hours/500 words/scene/etc. When that it is done, whammo, off to enjoy their days.

Then make sure you give them to yourself when you are done.


And me? I use a mix of the lot. On the days I work at an office, I pop into a cafe and write without interruption for a half hour. I tick it off my list, which I do daily. I crunch numbers. I love them. I fill out my visual goals in my diary. I reward myself when I am done with a milestone. The best thing for me, however, has been finding an accountability buddy. I feel the pressure to work through what I have committed to, even if she is not that tough on me.

How do you tackle your deadlines?

This post is the last in a series about deadlines and shutting out the inner critic. If you enjoyed the posts and found them useful, please consider passing them on to others. I’d also love to hear your thoughts about these posts, or other blockers you have with your writing.