Listening to the Universe / Catching Ideas

A good friend of mine, a writer, is big on listening to the universe. When she has a problem she just throws it out there, figuratively speaking, and keeps her senses hyper tuned in to the universal radio frequency to see what it throws back. I love this, as a concept, but in practice find it harder to adopt.

At the moment I’m reading this wonderful book by the equally wonderful Liz Gilbert (she of Eat, Pray, Love fame, also the author of The Signature of All Things which I adored). I won’t regurgitate its contents (nobody likes regurgitated contents), but what I will share is the gorgeous notion that ideas are all around us, like spirits, tapping potential collaborators on the shoulder and waiting for a response. If they get one, great, tapper and tappee sign a virtual contract, and off they trot into the sunset. If not, the idea simply moves onto the next person. Isn’t that FANTASTIC?

So anyway, both my friend and Liz Gilbert have got me thinking about listening to the universe. I have always had a desire to be creative; an inner fire, if you will. But I haven’t nurtured this desire as much as it deserved, instead allowing external stimuli to distract me from it with alarming regularity. As a result, the fire has often dwindled into embers, which I have managed to stoke sufficiently to keep them alight, but only just. And so, with the exception of a handful of sparks that have broken free from the fire, my creativity has lain mostly dormant for three decades. Like a bear in hibernation, it has poked its head out once every so often to sniff the air, before deciding that nope, it’s better to remain inside its cave, safe from criticism, safe from harm.

Now, as I hurtle through my fourth decade on this planet (shudder), it’s high time for the bear to wake up. It’s clear that for whatever reason the fire inside is stubbornly refusing to die out, so the choice is either live the rest of my life with a sense of failed achievement hanging around my neck like a noose, or coax the bear out of its hole once and for all. I think I’ll do the latter, and also grab a butterfly net. Because who knows how many ideas might tap me on the shoulder while I’m at it?

download (1) catch ideas sml png

On Being Overwhelmed – and Finding Perspective

For the past couple of weeks I’ve been doing my typical headless chicken act, heaping unnecessary pressure onto myself with an extra -large spoon and wondering why I’ve been feeling totally overwhelmed and unable to write a damn thing in what little free time I’ve managed to carve out for myself. The culmination of this stress was evident when I got around to submitting the one piece of recent writing I was really proud of to a competition on Monday – only to realise that the deadline was midnight the night before. Fortunately my super-pragmatic boyfriend was on hand to prevent me falling too far into a slough of despond over the incident, but nevertheless it made a further dent in my already damaged armour.

The truth is, whilst I established long ago I want to be ‘a writer,’ I grapple every day with what sort of writer I want to be. One day I’ll write a magazine feature pitch, the next I’ll plan a novel or start editing a previous story. Then I’ll turn my attention to short story competitions and try to churn something out for them.  On top of that I’ve recently completed an eight week sitcom writing course at the City Academy, and have this week embarked on a seven week crime writing course at the City Lit and signed up for a conference next weekend on how to get published – all this as well as holding down a job four days a week. Oh, and did I mention I’m also working on a screenplay idea with my writing mentor?

Just reading that last paragraph back makes me feel anxious, it’s no wonder I’ve been feeling overwhelmed. But what I’ve realised today, after having given myself a couple of days’ downtime (by which I mean no pressure to write anything, having impromptu catch ups with friends, sitting in the sun at lunch time instead of being hunched over my computer fretting about what to write and yet still not writing), is that when it starts to feel too much that’s generally because it is too much. It won’t help to try and force yourself to do more, the only thing that will work is to allow yourself to do less. Only then can you regain perspective and control over your situation. And, in my case, only then can I remove the creative block that undue amounts of pressure create. This realisation has made me feel instantly calmer, and you know what? I can feel the ideas start trickling back into my brain just like a tap that was turned off has been turned on again. Perspective isn’t always easy to find when you’re mired in the mud, but when you do find it again it’s both a joy and a relief. Phew.

Doldrums and Reality Checks

Oh hello, Doldrums, I wasn’t expecting to meet you again quite so soon after our last underwhelming encounter. But here you are at every junction and fork in the road, my little friends the inner critic and the procrastination monkey sitting stoically by your side.

So, what’s it to be this time, Doldrums? Because you really have done the not-good-enough theme to death now. What’s that? Oh, you’re playing the even-if-you-were-good-enough-so-are-loads-of-others card. I see. At least you’re showing some originality for once. Top marks for that.

Yes, I suppose you’re right, Doldrums, there are a great many talented writers out there who are already taking a slice of the pie, and the laws of physics (or maths? I never was good at those subjects) would decree the pie is getting smaller. And yes, it’s probably also true to say that – talent or no talent – my chances of getting anywhere near the pie in the first place are slim.

But you know what, Doldrums? I just read a news headline about a girl who is dying of cancer at 29. So whilst there is breath in my thirty three year old body I will NOT give up on this dream of mine-despite what you, my critic and my monkey might do to try and change my mind. Until next time…


Don’t Forget to Look Up / Thinking Big

In a previous blog post many moons (and blogging sites and Internet galaxies) ago I wrote about an occasion when I was walking down Clapham High Street and it dawned on me that, prior to that moment, I had never along that road raised my eyes upwards – to look above the shops and restaurants I was walking past, to notice the tops of the buildings, the art deco flats, the various architectural accomplishments (and, indeed, failures), to simply get a peep inside the windows through which so many simultaneous lives were being lived out above the level of the ground floor.

The point of my sharing that anecdote is that so many of us go through life with blinkers on, failing to see so many of the things that are staring us right in the face. We follow the pattern of getting up, taking the tube to work, trawling through our to do lists with barely a break for breath, let alone lunch. Then, at the end of the day, we drag our weary work-beaten selves to our homes or – if we can muster the energy – to the gym or to the pub where we can re-energise or socialise and temporarily forget that the inescapable cycle will resume again in just a few hours’ time. We are, in short, slaves to our routines, and so rarely take the time or trouble to break from them each day for just a moment to re-engage with the world around us.

On that note, I’m currently reading (or, to be more precise, dipping in and out of) The Artist’s Way, a self-help book by American Julia Cameron written way back in 1992 that promises to help the reader creatively unblock themselves. Whilst some of the book is a bit too spiritually far out for me, one thing I love is the concept of taking time out of the routine each week for an ‘artist date’ – some quality time with yourself and your imagination doing something out of the ordinary. This, Cameron says, is how we artists can fill up the creative wells within us, that are depleted by the daily monotony of our lives.

In light of all of the above today, therefore, I took myself off for a wander down to Borough Market during my lunch break (I’m ashamed to admit it was the first time I’ve done this in a year of working in London Bridge). The moment I arrived my senses were assaulted with a vast array of sights, sounds and smells. I happily snapped away with my camera before settling on a wall in the garden beside Southwark Cathedral to eat a vegetable thali and watch the world go by. I hadn’t been there long when I spotted a woman in a long trench coat wearing a fake pair of glasses with a plastic nose attached. She was standing at the gate pretending to read a newspaper, whilst casting furtive glances all around. No sooner had I approached to take a picture than she was off, disappearing through the gate into the market. But not before I caught this shot of her.

Whether that display was art or madness I’ll never know, but what I do know is this: I’m so glad I went on my artist date today, and so grateful for all that I saw and did there. As a good friend recently said to me: “You’re only as big as the picture you’re in.”  So why not make it bigger?


Inspiration underload

There are days when words flow like wine, ideas are like buses and the air is pregnant with inspiration. In contrast, there are days when the very process of sentence construction feels like the literary equivalent of wading through quicksand, and brain activity is so non-existent a doctor might well switch off the monitor were it not for the fact of the walking and talking aspects of the person still being intact. On those latter days of which I speak, the air is no so much pregnant with inspiration as thick with the cloying unease of guilt, one of the less conducive emotions to successful writing endeavours.

Today, you may already have guessed, is one of those days, in part because I’ve once again lacked the discipline to work to office hours – having spent the morning running and procrastinating before a friend popped over for lunch and we both spent a considerable portion of the afternoon nattering and sunbathing. Though, in my defence, she is a very old friend whom I have not seen in a very long time – and in part because I’ve just not been feeling the inspiration in the way I did last week. You could argue that I’ve hardly given myself the chance to find inspiration in the first place, having spent less than two hours actually sitting at my desk today, and your argument would indeed be valid. But I would nonetheless pig-headedly argue that sometimes days like this are required in order to find inspiration again. And also that spending time with friends and in the sunshine is beneficial to one’s health, if not one’s bank account or future as a celebrated author.

I’m going to blame the heat, though as I type these words I am mentally flagellating myself for making so many excuses for something that, as my inner critic is telling me at this very moment, is really very simple: If you want to be a writer, the voice says, pull up a chair, switch on your laptop, switch off your phone, switch off the internet, sit down, and write. Write until your fingers go numb, until it has got dark outside and you hadn’t even noticed. Write until every last seed of an idea has tumbled from your brain onto the page and taken root. Write as if your life depended on it. Just write. Because isn’t that what you profess to want to do? I have to admit the voice has got a point. Perhaps I’ll be more productive once the heat wave has abated…

Thinking about it, maybe best that I don't live in a hot country after all...

Writer’s block

The blank page sits and waits. It does not judge as the writer hesitates, procrastinates and makes another cup of coffee. It is bemused, however, by the writer’s seeming inability to do the one thing they proclaim to love. What, it wonders, is so hard about putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard? The ideas are there, after all. The font of inspiration never runs dry, not really. The very notion is a construct of the human mind, so small in its thinking, so closed. In reality inspiration is a boundless well, but writers in particular are so shackled in their own self-doubt they fail to see the truth: That it is quite within the realms of possibility for them to lower the bucket whenever they choose.

Perhaps, the blank page muses, the writer is like a fountain pen, the ink being inspiration and the nib the point at which the creativity unfolds. When the fountain pen is first used it must be shaken to activate the ink. Only then can the ink trickle down to the nib where the two can connect and create words. Yes, thinks the blank page with a degree of smugness. That must be it. The writer is like a fountain pen that needs shaking. If only I could be the one to shake them. But alas, I am but a blank page, a canvas for the elusive words the writer struggles so much to produce.

The writer paces, sipping coffee and muttering indecipherable words. From time to time they stop and stand, quite still, in the middle of the room, like a cat that has been startled by an aggressor. They stare intently at a spot far in the distance, their eyes backlit by a fire of recognition that is stirring deep within the chasm of their mind. Then quite as suddenly their gaze softens, they lose focus, and they continue pacing, back and forth, this way and that.

The blank page sighs to itself. Watching the writer tie themselves up in knots is frustrating. It listens to the clock ticking and the twittering of birds outside the window. Still it waits, and still the writer does not write. More coffee, a telephone call, a conversation with the next door neighbour about shrubs; the blank page starts to think it will always be like this, an empty canvas, a possibility of greatness but no more. It feels sad.

But just as the blank page is about to give up hope, the writer strides purposefully back into the room and sits down at the desk. They roll up their sleeves, pick up their fountain pen, and begin to write. Or at least they attempt to write, but find that in this latest absence from writing the fountain pen has dried up. They shake the fountain pen and eventually the ink begins to flow. And as the words begin to wrap themselves around the blank page it thinks to itself, you see? The well of inspiration has been here all along. Now lower your bucket and drink.

A new chapter

Something’s happening; thus far just the gentle flickering of thoughts and ideas, licking my prefrontal cortex like kindling flames that are yet to take and start a proper fire.

But I can feel it, even though it’s been so long since I last did I’d never mistake the signs: My creativity’s returning. Like a little mouse that scurried into a hole beneath the floorboard some time ago, who’s remained hidden but only just out of reach, and who is now ready to emerge, blinking in the light, and play.

A novel is brewing, the myriad components swirling around in my mind like a witch’s brew in a mystical cauldron. I can’t control them – not yet – I have to wait while they take shape, every now and then pausing to make a note when the cauldron spits something out, decreeing it ready to be consumed. But they are unmistakably, perceptibly, joyously there.

I don’t know what will come of this long-awaited phase of imagination, nor do I know what can be attributed to its generation. Has my daily blogging finally paid off and kick-started the process of creation as I hoped it would? Or was it New York with its wonderful sights and sounds, and the even more wonderful friend I visited there who is herself writing a novel (I think this option most likely, as seeing her eyes light up talking about her plot and characters reminded me of the joy of creation, which I think somehow along the way I had forgotten)?

Whatever the reason, I’m delighted this is happening, whatever ‘this’ is. I’m happy to be patient, to jot down notes – the odd key word or character trait as it comes to me – and I’m confident soon all will be revealed. The planets are aligning, the jigsaw pieces falling into place.

Soon I shall begin.