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?

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The Baby Monkey Metaphor

This is an honest post about an emotion that clings to my back like an orphaned baby monkey every day of my life. That emotion is guilt.

To give examples, here are some of the myriad things I feel guilty about on a daily basis: Not working hard enough; Not being ambitious enough; Not being a good enough fiancé; Not being a good enough daughter; Not being a good enough friend; Not writing; Not pursuing my life goals; Watching too much crap instead of writing/pursuing life goals; Caring too much what people think about me; Being so privileged when so many are not; Not appreciating being so privileged when so many are not; Never being satisfied/always wanting more; Eating badly; Not going to the gym; Not being mindful; Worrying about everything/sweating the small stuff; Being too apologetic; Wasting too much time on social media. I could go on. In fact, I daresay I could fill ten pages with all the things that I feel guilty about from one moment to the next. But I won’t (because I’d only feel guilty about the time I wasted writing it). It’s a depressing (if somewhat exaggerated, for the purpose of this post) truth that the only time I don’t feel guilty is when I’m sleeping, although if I remembered more of my dreams I wouldn’t be surprised if I felt guilt in most of those as well.

It never fails to amaze me how humans can be so intelligent and yet so utterly stupid at the same time. Unless felt in a justified context, for example when we have genuinely done something to upset another person, guilt – like worry and anxiety (which I could also fill a small tome about, let’s not go down that road here) – is a useless emotion. After thirty four years of living with it I can vouch for the fact it does not increase productivity – far from it, it is productivity’s antithesis. It also doesn’t improve personal relationships, or indeed help other people in the slightest. I wouldn’t go so far as to label it a selfish emotion, because it is usually underpinned by a sense of duty towards others or towards our true (non-egotistical) selves, but it sure is good at making a person introspective to the point of being boring.

So in the spirit of the age old ‘new year, new me’ mentality, it’s time to face the truth: the baby monkey on my back, whilst cute, has never led me anywhere positive; in fact, it has only led me into procrastination, anxiety and paralysing self-doubt. In short, cute or not, it’s time to ditch the monkey. Life is too short to be paralysed by useless emotions. It’s time to start fostering the useful ones.

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Tales from Elsewhere

Today is the launch day of Tales from Elsewhere, a collection of short stories which includes Hanuman, one of mine. Naturally I am excited that one of my stories has finally made it into print, especially as it’s probably the best one I have written to date. Beyond that, though, the anthology has a special place in my heart because it was conceived as the result of a wonderful weekend in the idyllic British countryside with a number of writerly friends. Prior to that weekend most of us had been only online acquaintances, but the stories we shared and the fun we had (trampolining and ghost stories, anyone?) ensured we would forever after share a special bond. Some of us are published, some of us not, but all have been part of a Facebook group for quite some years now, following each other’s progress and offering words of consolation and encouragement. It feels somehow fitting that the existence of our group has now taken a physical form, even if it only represents a handful of the fabulously talented folk who comprise the group as a whole. So anyway, that’s it really. A little yay to coax my writerly ambitions out of hiding and prod them back onto the path to success. If anyone is interested in buying a copy they can do so here. We also have a Facebook page and blog!

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The Inevitable Resolution Post

I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions – primarily because I’m not very good at keeping them – but given that my wedding is now fast approaching (six months? Where did the last nine go?), it is imperative that I start as I mean to go on where health and fitness are concerned, because, funnily enough, I’m not that keen for people to remember my fat arms more than anything else from my wedding day. Having spent most of the festive season stuffing turkey, roast potatoes and mince pies into my face at staggeringly frequent intervals – all washed down with cirrhosis-inducing quantities of alcohol – I am actually feeling ready for the challenge.

What I am less ready for is the inevitable January gym scrum, but I suppose that goes with the territory. Given my current bad back situation, however, it may be a while yet before I’m doing sprints on the treadmill and lifting my own weight on the LAT pull down machine. Hopefully a few chiropractor sessions and some gentle exercise and Pilates will do the trick, because I’m not enjoying feeling more like 94 than 34, and it depresses me no end that last year I was training for a marathon and now it hurts to stand up and walk to the toilet. But hey ho, we all have our crosses to bear.

Where food is concerned I am aiming to keep fresh and healthy as much as possible in 2016 (or at least up to the wedding in June, after which I’ll have nabbed him and can pile the pounds back on – only kidding, my love). Last night I managed this admirably, whipping up a quinoa rice pilau with dill and roasted tomatoes for dinner, as well as a mackerel, quinoa and watercress salad for today’s lunch and overnight oats with red berries, almonds and chia seeds for breakfast. As tasty and virtuous as this is, I can’t deny it was a struggle getting everything prepared. Dinner wasn’t ready until 9.30pm, and once the oats were boxed up and put in the fridge it was 11pm and time for bed. Healthy eating, it would seem, is not conducive to having a life. Hopefully I’ll get better at it with practice…

And then there’s booze. We all know it’s the devil (albeit an alluring one), but I can’t quite bring myself to partake in the misguided (in my opinion) saint-fest that is Dry January, so instead I will be sticking to one tipple for the whole of this month – red wine, whose wide-ranging health benefits have been widely touted in official studies like this one. So there.

And finally, there’s my biggest nemesis: Procrastination. To kick off the year in the right frame of mind I have unsubscribed from all the crap emails I receive daily into my Hotmail account which my FOMO had until now prevented me from doing (it’s all very well being kept abreast of the latest pop up tiki bars and arty plays in your favourite corner of south west London, but when you now reside permanently in another country, it’s kind of pointless continuing to receive a stream of constant updates about them). I’m not quite ready to eschew social media, but I do plan to cut down in my eternal quest to make room for writing. I’m sick to death of making promises on that front, but I really hope that 2016 is the year I get my head back in the writing space once and for all. There is already one exciting project in the pipeline (more on this tomorrow), so I am at least starting as I mean to go on.

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Day 11/Day 12: The Hangover/Recovery

My good intentions to spend the Belgian public holiday novelling furiously from dawn to dusk were put paid by an over-enthusiastic booze-up the night before with two ex-colleagues. In the face of good company and fine wine I am utterly powerless to resist temptation, especially when there is the very real prospect of a lie-in. Needless to say, when I woke up at ten o’clock the next morning with a dehydration headache I was somewhat (read: very) disappointed by my lack of willpower. But nonetheless, and in the true spirit of NaNo, I pulled myself together enough to battle through, still managing a surprisingly impressive 3,000 words before the day was out, taking me just over my target. I can’t say it wasn’t painful, but I did it, and that’s what counts, right?

Today was another matter entirely. After a long day in the office I wasn’t holding out much hope for a decent writing session tonight, but after getting home, banging my knee so hard on the cupboard door I think the neighbours might have thought I was being murdered, and doing a twenty minute pilates workout on YouTube, I sat down and wrote non-stop for over an hour, easily managing my daily workout, and then a few hundred words to boot. It’s funny how that happens on the days you least expect it. It wasn’t my best work, I think that’s fair to say, but it sufficed in nudging the plot along a little, putting my main characters in a touch of strife and bringing them closer together in the process. So I’m taking that as a win. And I’m delighted to say I’ve broken the 20,000 word mark. Hooray! Nearly halfway. Take THAT week two. And they say you’re the worst of the lot. Not for this old soak. Cheers!

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NaNoWriMo Days 7 & 8 – Back on Track

It’s late, so I will be brief. In short, I’m back on track for a November 30th finish! Have pulled victory from the jaws of week one defeat, just in the nick of time, after an uber productive writing group today. Phew.

In other, possibly-NaNo-related news, I’ve had a tremendously productive weekend in other respects too, primarily in terms of getting a new hair colour (not, I suspect, all that easily detectable to the untrained eye, but exciting for me nonetheless), buying some Christmas presents (groan) and organising a baby shower.

I say possibly-NaNo-related with regard to the above because I really am wondering whether NaNo has a positive effect in other areas of my life besides my writing. In the past week I have felt more positive and capable than I have for some weeks, and this weekend has been a really calm and focused time, full of rewarding pursuits and positive reflections about what I want to achieve in my writing and in life in general.

I suppose the learning is to always have a tangible and (relatively) immediate goal, to never stop striving for that goal and to spend time every single day working towards achieving it. A lesson I will endeavour to remember long after my sixth NaNoWriMo has ended.

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NaNoWriMo Day 5 & 6 Update

Fuelled by the complacency of (almost) hitting my word target four days in a row, I happily allowed myself a lighter writing session on day five (what? It was a long day, I was tired – excuses ad infinitum). Despite feeling justified at the time, I am kicking myself today. Because, the fact is, week one of NaNo is about getting AS MANY WORDS DOWN AS POSSIBLE. I KNOW this, because I’ve done it several times before. According to Chris Baty in No Plot, No Problem (the edited version of which I have started re-reading to aid me along this attempt at the challenge) Week One is the fun part, when all the words come tumbling out and your characters are romping away. Week One’s evil twin, Week Two, is the bitch of the family, and by cutting myself some slack now I’ve played right into her cunning little hands.

The truth is, my characters were romping away, getting themselves into all sorts of scrapes without my even having to exert any influence. But all of a sudden, after yesterday’s pithy seven hundred words, the well of inspiration has run dry. Actually, that’s not true. It’s not inspiration that’s run dry, it’s my brain that has decided to down tools and stop. Take now for example. It is telling me, quite clearly, that it is Friday night at 9pm and I should, categorically and without question, be curled up on the sofa with a LARGE glass of Cab Sauv watching some heinously terrible TV programme. It does not, and let’s make no bones about it, wish to be sitting at the same computer it’s been sitting in front of all week, trying to make up stories about fictional people. In short, it’s just not having it.

So you see my dilemma. And even as I’ve been ruminating on this blog I have been switching over to the WIP, limping along with a broken stream of uninspired words, wishing my way to the word count target for today. And, to be fair, I have at least crossed the 8,000 mark, which feels like a bit of a milestone (until you consider I started today at 7,004 words). But it’s not flowing and I want with every fibre of my being just to stop and veg the hell out. ARGH. This is torture. But I SHALL NOT be defeated. I shall pour myself a glass of wine (hell, it IS Friday. I’m not a bloody saint) and plough on for just a little longer….

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