blog, creativity, productivity

Why You Shouldn’t Show Your Work – Yet

red flower
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The caterpillar does all the work, but the butterfly gets all the publicity.
George Carlin

Art is ugly.

Recently I watched the TV series Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year. Each week, artists are challenged to make a portrait of a live sitter, in public, in four hours.

The most surprising lesson is how often the interim stage looks like a failure. There’s nowhere to hide for the artists, who are interviewed as they work. Not infrequently they despair of pulling it together in time.

Viewers see the awkward proportions and clashing colours, and agree. It doesn’t look good.

And yet, in the end, beauty emerges. Sometimes it seems that the painting only comes to life with the final few brush strokes.

You might be agonising over the scattered, ragged appearance of your current project. You study the polished, glossy work of those you look up to, and despair.

But you’re missing a vital truth.

Not Great Yet

There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.
R Buckminster Fuller

A few years ago I took up watercolour painting as a complete novice. I love watercolour, but I had a lot to learn about the process of producing something pleasing to the eye.

The interim stages of a watercolour are often confusing and unattractive. The colours are wrong, things are missing, it looks flat. For a long time, it seems to be all wrong.

But as long as the drawing is right and you keep going, it will turn out okay. If you work on it more, it might even turn out great. The essence of watercolour is layers. You have to be patient, letting each one dry before adding the next.

Each layer reveals a little more of the picture you’re aiming for. Each stage hints at the finished article, but is only a step in the right direction.

To make a finished article you need two things: a map and a defined endpoint.

Look at this example.

image from Huffington Post

JK Rowling plotted one of the longest books in her Harry Potter series by hand, on paper torn from a notepad. No Scrivener, no Evernote, nothing fancy. She saved fancy for the ideas that powered her words.

Rowling had the end in mind, so she was able to endure the development phase where things didn’t look so pretty. Don’t be seduced and discouraged by picture-perfect workspaces and elegant bullet journals. Real work often involves getting messy.

A story, a painting, a child, or a life all have their ugly duckling stage. Have the end in mind. You need to keep faith with your project and keep moving forward.

Above all, do the work — but don’t show it until you’re ready.

It will be beautiful, but you’ll only see it when you get to the end.

(first published by Publishous on 12 June 2019)


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blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, self improvement

How To Talk To People -10 Tips For Better Conversations

How to make small talk less of a big deal

happy people talking daytime
Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

The trouble with her is that she lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech.
George Bernard Shaw

Imagine you’re going to a party. You know the host and a couple of other guests. There will be drinks. There will be small talk.

Are you excited to meet all those new people? Or are you shrinking away in horror and already thinking about faking peritonitis to get out of it?

You’re not alone.

There are two kinds of people in this world. The first go by the Irish principle of strangers being friends they haven’t met yet. And the second live by Sartre’s principle that hell is other people. Unfortunately for the latter, they also have to socialise at least occasionally.

Good conversation is like a well-paced game of tennis, neither too fast to return serve, nor failing to return and letting the ball drop. Here are ten tips to help you raise your game, whichever camp you’re in.

1. Assume rapport

Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.
Doug Larson

If you struggle with talking to strangers, approach them as though they’re someone you know. Assume you already have a friendly connection. Drop your shoulders, breathe out, offer a smile or a brief but firm handshake as appropriate. Odds are they feel the same about you, and you’re not intimidating, are you?

2. Listen more

We have two ears and one tongue that we might listen more and talk less.
Diogenes

Most people wait until the other stops speaking and then weigh in with their own observations. Active listening is a technique that aims to ensure the speaker feels heard. And since most people want to talk about themselves, they will think you’re great if you let them. Listen, acknowledge by gestures such as nodding, and then summarise what they said before responding. Try, “So what you’re saying is…”

3. Avoid interrogation

The primary use of conversation is to satisfy the impulse to talk.
George Santayana

A rapid-fire series of questions isn’t just hard to respond to, but can come across as aggressive. Relax and let them answer one question at a time. Remember you’re meant to be listening, and if your questions come in a constant stream you aren’t really listening or responding.

4. Don’t choke

That’s all small talk is – a quick way to connect on a human level – which is why it is by no means as irrelevant as the people who are bad at it insist. In short, it’s worth making the effort.
Lynn Coady

It’s easy to mock small talk about the weather, the game, or property prices, but they’re safe and universal subjects to get things started. You might fear you have nothing to say, but there’s always something. Look at the local newspaper or trade magazine before you arrive to see what the hot topics are. If you don’t watch the current big thing on TV, have something else to talk about in books or movies.

5. There’s an art to delivery

It’s the way I tell ’em.
Frank Carson

We draw a great deal of meaning from the way speech is delivered. Practice a stance you’re comfortable with and avoid closed body language. The words are often less important than tone, speed, and clarity of speech.

Breathe evenly. Adjust your volume to match the room. Speaking too fast will lose your listener, and too slow will bore them. Keep your point in mind so that you don’t meander and lose the thread of your statement.

Some people are effortlessly funny, some are unintentionally funny, and then there’s the rest of us. Comedians are masters of timing, but even they practise their material in low stakes situations  before headlining their national tour. Avoid telling jokes unless you’re confident, but laugh at them whenever possible.

6. No monologues

A conversation is a dialogue, not a monologue. That’s why there are so few good conversations: due to scarcity, two intelligent talkers seldom meet.
Truman Capote

Even if you’re the most knowledgeable person on the topic being discussed, avoid monopolising the conversation. You don’t know what other people know and you risk coming over as arrogant. Remember that conversation is a game in which both parties speak and listen. If you hold forth, you’re lecturing and people’s eyes will glaze over. We’ve all been trapped by the single subject bore. Don’t be that person.

7. No open combat

Conversation isn’t about proving a point; true conversation is about going on a journey with the people you are speaking with.
Ricky Maye

Conversation is not a full-contact sport. Rein in the need to be right all the time and keep away from arguments. If someone tries to pick a fight with you, decline. Move away, feign ignorance, or change the subject. Social gatherings are rarely a good setting in which to confront people. If you think you’re superior to other people, keep it to yourself and consider you’re probably wrong.

8. Steer away from controversy

The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting moment.
Dorothy Nevill

In a mixed gathering, there will be a range of opinions on any subject. Deeply held convictions are not going to change over the canapes, and that includes yours. One of the great joys of life is discussing deeper issues, but reserve that for the right audience. Avoid politics, religion, and any charged subject from the news.

If you’re faced with someone espousing views you’re absolutely opposed to, you have the right to move on. Don’t put up with unnecessary discomfort. Socialising is hard enough.

9. Practise emotional intelligence

Silence is one of the great arts of conversation.
Cicero

Be aware of the person you’re talking with. Do they show signs of interest with open body language? Are they oriented towards you, the exit, or someone else? One of the worst sins is constantly scanning the room for the next mark. This makes the other person feel ignored and insignificant. If you see someone else you want to speak with, finish your conversation and excuse yourself politely.

Know when a conversation has ended and try to move on with grace. Pay attention to cues.

On the other hand, if you do connect with someone, ask open questions and listen. If you want them to say a bit more, try waiting combined with encouraging actions such as smiling or nodding. Often people will respond again to fill the silence. If not, offer something of your own. The best conversations happen when both people are relaxed and willing to reveal something true about themselves.

10. Know your limits

Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas…many have a horror of small talk but enjoy deep discussions.
Susan Cain

Extroverts are energised by social contact, whereas introverts are drained by it. Both need other people to varying extents. If you’re introverted, plan accordingly. Watch your energy levels and leave before you’re exhausted. Accept that you’ll need a period of withdrawal to recharge and work it into your schedule as a priority.

Don’t Sweat The Small Talk

Brave the introductions and small talk, and introverts have a chance to find a kindred spirit who’s happy to chat in a quiet corner while the extroverts work the room. If you’re lucky enough to go with a more outgoing partner or friend, that might offer the perfect cover. You’ll still have to drag them away at the end though.

Treat small talk as a starter for ten rather than a trial. Life is all about making connections and that means being comfortable with social situations, whether you prefer talking or listening.

You can’t get to the deep without first going through the shallows.

(first published by Publishous on Medium 8 June 2019)


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blog, productivity, writing, writing process

5 Things Fiction Writers Can Learn From Non-Fiction Writing

write well in any genre

two smiling women in red sitting in snow with books
Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Writing is writing, and stories are stories. Perhaps the only true genres are fiction and non-fiction. And even there, who can be sure?
Tanith Lee

There are two kinds of people in the world; those who like fiction, and those who have no time for anything but facts. Although creative non-fiction has blurred the boundaries between the two types of narrative, classic non-fiction is rooted in verifiable truth as seen by the writer.

Even if you write fiction exclusively, good non-fiction has much to teach you whether it is memoir or exposé. Every writer wants their message to be heard in the way that they intended, so let’s see what non-fiction has to offer.

Just The Facts

When you write non-fiction, you sit down at your desk with a pile of notebooks, newspaper clippings, and books and you research and put a book together the way you would a jigsaw puzzle.
Janine di Giovanni

Research underpins non-fiction, providing both material and evidence for that material. When you write highly imaginative fiction you might feel you can skimp on research, but this is a mistake. The action might take place in a distant galaxy or your home town, but get the details right and convince your reader that the events you describe could really have happened.

Andy Weir’s book The Martian took an improbable situation – astronaut stranded alone on Mars – and resolved it using actual science. That solid grounding in truth ignited its early popularity with readers who preferred authenticity rather than hand-waving the explanations.

Historical fiction such as Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See clearly requires in depth knowledge of the period setting. However, only the salient facts need appear on the page. Like an iceberg the majority remains hidden, but familiarity with all your source material will allow you to write your characters and settings with conviction. 

Avoid dumping facts on the reader unless they serve the story. Nothing halts narrative flow as much as indigestible lumps of information. Find a way to feed it into dialogue or action instead.

The Shape of Things

One of the underestimated tasks in nonfiction writing is to impose narrative shape on an unwieldy mass of material.
William Zinsser

Any piece of non-fiction sets out to tell a story or make a case for something. Achieving that aim depends on a solid structure that takes the reader through the facts and arguments in a logical way. A traditionally published non-fiction book starts life as a proposal in which the author sets out chapter headings and content before it’s even written.

Sometimes it’s difficult to get started on a piece because the main theme or endpoint is not clear in the writer’s head. If you can’t define your own ideas it will be impossible to take others with you.

You need a plan that you can work with before starting to write. If like me you’re a pantser who writes to discover what happens, you’ll find this more difficult to accept. But it will save you wasted hours and unfinished pieces if you have some concept of the ending and a few of the high points along the way. 

Study story structure using the hero’s journey or screenwriting beats or whatever you prefer. Then apply what you’ve learned. Be open-minded enough to try a different way of doing things. Having a defined structure is not death to creativity. In fact you’ll find your creativity can truly blossom inside constraints.

If your stories tend to fizzle out, go back to basics. Are you telling a story with a beginning, middle, and end, or is it an anecdote? Knowing where the story ends and what changes the characters undergo on the way is vital to crafting a satisfying tale.

Nothing But The Truth

Creative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting and often more accessible.
Lee Gutkind

 We consume much of our reading online, and time is of the essence. Since your reader is subjected to a fire-hose of content every day, your duty is to make time spent with your words worthwhile. 

The best non-fiction is written with clarity and economy of expression. Fiction also benefits from both. Perhaps the tone of Strunk and White doesn’t suit your historical family saga, but consider the time you’re asking your reader to invest in it. Edit and edit again to remove padding and tighten your prose. Run your work through the Hemingway app to make sure it’s easily understood by your target audience.

Most first drafts can be cut by at least 10% without losing meaning or voice. Write freely, let it rest for a while, then edit with a ruthless hand. 

A Clear Focus

I don’t read for amusement, I read for enlightenment.
Joyce Carol Oates

The non-fiction author follows an outline which focuses on the central argument of their book. Their book must inform and might also entertain, but it has to be relevant to be successful. Some readers believe that fact is more exciting than fiction, so they expect a factual read without flights of fancy. Non-fiction writing styles and subjects reflect that preference.

Fiction readers vary in how they want their entertainment served up. Some want real facts woven into their historical fiction, some want real science woven into their science fiction, and some want entire flights of fancy that never were. 

Know who your reader is and what they want. Make sure you supply a happy ending for romance, a solution for the mystery, or whatever your genre requires.

If you’re not clear on genre conventions, read more books until you’re sure. Study blurbs and reviews until you have a good grasp of the current landscape. Always keep your reader in mind and leave them better off, whether cheering for your characters or more informed about a current issue.

A Certain Freedom

In fiction, when you paint yourself into a corner, you can write a pair of suction cups onto the bottoms of your shoes and walk up the wall and out the skylight and see the sun breaking through the clouds. In nonfiction, you don’t have that luxury.
Tom Robbins

The image above might be fanciful, but the basic idea is true. Even creative non-fiction doesn’t normally include making things up. The writer must stick by their research. That being said, some writers argue that since memory is reconstructed there can be no absolute truth and the lines are blurred. 

Although there’s no one way to approach non-fiction, it always starts with facts.

But as a fiction writer you are free. Free to reimagine, embroider, and invent what you need as long as it’s consistent with the world you write in. You can populate your real world with imaginary characters, or your imaginary world with real characters. As long as your story has something true to say about being human, you can start and finish where you like. 

That freedom is both exciting and scary. Use it to elevate your fiction. Use all the tools at your disposal, wherever they come from, and show us what you can do.

If the memoirist is borrowing narrative techniques from fiction, shouldn’t the novelist borrow a few tricks from successful non-fiction?
Darin Strauss

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, productivity, self improvement

The Best Time To Start Anything Is Right Now

Photo by Varun Gaba on Unsplash

Have you given up on a dream?

You tell yourself that you’ll get back to it later. When the kids are grown, when you retire, when you have more money…then you’ll learn the guitar, get back to painting, write your novel.

Or you tell yourself it’s too late. Too much time has gone by and you can’t change your body, your relationship, your job. So you settle for the inevitability of further decline.

There’s no escaping the march of time. But it holds opportunity too.

An Acorn Is Not A Tree — Yet

Somebody is sitting in the shade today because somebody planted a tree a long time ago.
Warren Buffett

The idea that we overestimate what can be achieved in the short term and underestimate what can be achieved in the long term has been attributed to Bill Gates, among others.

It’s like failing to harvest mature wood from an oak sapling, then abandoning it because you think it will never grow big enough to be worthwhile.

Often we start something in a flush of enthusiasm. But when it doesn’t yield significant results immediately, we get discouraged and give up. The gym routine, language class, or novel is dropped because you thought for sure that a month or two of effort would be enough to make progress.

But take a different view. How would future you feel if you persevered with small efforts now? In five years, what can you achieve by daily practice?

Graphic designer Ethan Tennier-Stuart showed stunning improvement over five years. Every skill responds to deliberate practice. Talent has to be matched with effort to achieve its potential.

 

Small Numbers Still Count

All difficult things have their origin in that which is easy, and great things in that which is small.
Lao Tzu

Everything starts off small — a word, a note, a brick — but put enough of them together and you can build something astonishing.

Write two hundred words daily and you’ll have enough material for four novels. Writing over a third of a million words is guaranteed to hone your skills.

Years ago I wanted to write seriously. But I was juggling home and work and exhaustion, and couldn’t see how to find time or energy for it.

So I committed to one hundred and fifty words daily after dinner, whatever happened, even if I just typed I’m so tired over and over. Sometimes it was gibberish but eventually those words turned into short stories, then a novella.

If I’d waited for the ideal conditions I might never have started. My daily goal was tiny, but that’s exactly what made it achievable. Persistence pays off in the end.

When it comes to ageing, we can’t turn the clock back. But we can slow some processes down. Future you will thank present you for wearing sunscreen daily, cutting out that dessert or bread roll, and getting enough sleep.

Walk thirty minutes daily and you’ll see your health improve. Make time to connect with a child daily, and reap the benefits. You’ll build better connection in fifteen intentional minutes daily than in the most amazing annual vacation.

It’s all about building big improvements in small increments.

One step after another in the right direction will take you as far as you need to go. Don’t discount any small amount of progress — success is built of innumerable tiny actions.

The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.
Confucius

Make time work with you, instead of feeling helpless.

Time will pass anyway, so use it to build something you’ll be proud of. Pick up your first pebble right now and start to move your personal mountain.

(first published In Publishous on Medium 5 June 19)

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blog, relationships, self improvement

How To Make Friends With Your Anger

the counterintuitive power of a supposedly negative emotion

angry emoji man_PDPics
PDPics via pixabay

Never go to bed mad. Stay up and fight.
Phyllis Diller

Are you afraid of your anger?

Perhaps you’re like Bruce Banner, hiding behind a mild mannered facade that conceals constant rage. You live in fear of what anger might do, fear of unleashing it, and fear of the consequences.

In real life, expressing anger leads to loss. You can lose relationships, health, possessions and in some cases your liberty by getting angry with the wrong person at the wrong time.

So that makes anger a bad thing, right?

More Than A Feeling

Feelings are something you have; not something you are.
Shannon L. Alder

We can’t escape anger. But maybe you’re shaking your head now because I’m wrong about you. You don’t get angry because it’s unproductive, destructive and just not nice.

Do you get irritated? Are the people around you consistently disappointing? Irritation and frustration are anger with the volume turned down.

Do particular situations that don’t directly involve you trigger a desire to call out injustice and unacceptable behaviour in others? Moral outrage can be a proxy for real anger with its roots elsewhere.

Are you a perfectionist, hypercritical of yourself, and need to control even small aspects of your environment? This combination of internally directed anger and fear hides under a veneer of achievement and desire for approval.

Last of all, are you always nice to everyone, in any situation? Do you apologise when someone wrongs you? People who bury their feelings under niceness and socially sanctioned compliance are often angriest of all.

Everybody’s angry at least some of the time. Why is this a useful response?

Anger helps you survive because it motivates you to approach a threat and overcome it.

When some guy cuts you off in traffic, you feel a threat to your territory — your vehicle and its surrounding space. You’re enraged and you’re ready to get out and fight.

By contrast, fear motivates you to avoid a threat to survival. If that same guy is driving an eighteen-wheeler, survival instinct tells you that fighting him for the same road space is unwise. But unexpressed anger doesn’t necessarily go away. You hold it in your body and mind.

When your child spills his drink later, you shout because your head hurts and you have heartburn and is it so hard to just use a cup? Now you’re both angry with yourself and guilty, and you reach for your numbing agent of choice.

Emotions are not of themselves good or bad. You have emotions, and your choices in dealing with them have more or less value. There are ways to make anger work for you.

Count To Ten?

When angry, count four. When very angry, swear.
Mark Twain

Anger is processed very fast in the amygdala, part of the brain that deals with identifying and responding to threats. The cortex, seat of rational thinking, takes longer to catch up. This is the reason behind the advice to count to five or ten, giving yourself time to think of an acceptable response.

Anger triggers an alert state, with stress hormones flooding the system. Heart rate and breathing increase, muscles tense, and the body gets ready to fight. You can learn to tune in to these reactions before your anger escalates too far. Long, slow exhales help to limit the effects of adrenaline. This is essential; otherwise you’ll be at the mercy of emotions and unable to make a considered move.

If you live or work in an environment where anger is often expressed, you know that getting angry doesn’t help the situation. But sometimes anger escapes before you can direct it.

I once had a patient whose spouse had left him and their young children. He worked hard to care for them but had to sacrifice much of his previous lifestyle to do so. We spent time unpicking his many symptoms, which required various referrals and treatments so that he could keep going.

One day he came to discuss his progress. He said nobody was listening and he felt uncared for. This wasn’t so uncommon. Normally I’d listen, give him space to vent, and then formulate a plan.

That didn’t happen.

It was like a switch was flipped. Instead of empathising, I challenged him directly. We remained civil — we’re British after all — but ended without resolving either position. He never returned to see me.

I was already tired and running on empty for a variety of reasons, but I thought my emotions were under control in a professional setting. Turns out that if someone hits where it hurts by implying you don’t care so you’re not doing a good job so you’re not a good person then knee-jerk responses can outrun the best training.

When you’re already carrying a stress load, your trigger point is much lower. You might need to walk away from or avoid situations that you know will be difficult to manage. If that’s not possible, at least you can recognise your shorter fuse and be ready to count to twenty if needed.

Take a time-out if needed. Defer the conversation to a later time. Be self -aware and respectful of the other person, so that you can broker an acceptable resolution.

Afterwards find a trusted person to debrief with, or write a journal entry. Go over the events, be honest about what happened and own your choices. Treat it as a learning opportunity and plan a better course of action next time.

Most of all, resist the impulse to turn the anger on yourself without resolving it. That will eat you from the inside.

Anger motivates action, so choose your action. And if your previous actions hurt someone, apologise sincerely, forgive yourself, and move on.

Don’t let anger rule your life; there is a better way forward.

Image by PrettySleepy2 on pixabay
 

A Call To Action

Anybody can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way — that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.
Aristotle

So you recognised your anger for what it is and learned to control your first impulse to attack. What comes next?

Controlling your anger is not the same as denying or repressing it. In fact James Gross has shown that trying to suppress anger makes you feel worse .

Think of it as an energy source; a laser that can be focused with great effect. Hold that energy and take aim.

Start with the physical. Your body has been wound up to deal with a threat. Work through the adrenaline flooding your system by running, lifting weights, or digging the garden. Exercise is a healthy response and the answers to fix the original problem may well come to you on that fast walk around the block.

I use my angry energy to do domestic chores that I hate. Afterwards I have a clean house and my muscles can relax. The negative encounter and all the thoughts following are converted into tangible benefits, which is a win-win situation.

If your anger is prompted by injustice for others do something to help, however small. Give time or money, or speak out. Take your anger and turn it into something real and useful.

If it’s a person or a situation in your life, talk it over with a third party to see what your options are. Trying to organise change in the white heat of anger will lead to questionable decisions. The other person can also dismiss your reasonable grievances as mere emotion — which will enrage you even more. Figure out what exactly makes you angry and only then seek the solutions.

Some people will goad you to snap so that they remain in control. Family members especially can be adept at button-pushing. Do not give them that advantage. Know your trigger points and plan how you will respond in advance. Instead of having the same argument over and over, change the script. Remember that the only actions you can control are your own.

If you’re angered by being put down or treated as insignificant, redirect the energy. Use it to work on your weaknesses and enhance your strengths. Spite and the desire to prove someone wrong has propelled many success stories.

If your anger is internal, driven by poor self-esteem, shame, or lack of belonging, these need careful handling. Facing the truth about your feelings can be the hardest of all. Think back to your last bout of anger. Dissect your feelings using the 5 Whys technique and a journal. Name the pain before you can cure it, with or without external help.

If you’re too nice with undefended boundaries, learn how to say no. The energy you save by not feeling resentful can be used for something better — like your own ambitions.

If you’re angry all the time, for trivial reasons, understand this is a symptom of something deeper. Strain in your relationships is a warning that change is urgently needed. Take responsibility both for your chosen actions and the results. Nobody makes you react in a particular way. It is always your choice to give in to your initial impulse.

Seek ways to manage your anger and work on your stresses. As Marcus Aurelius said, the consequences of anger are much worse than their causes. The ability to keep your cool is an advantage in many situations.

Win Your Cool

Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.
Buddha

Anger carries the energy of a coiled spring. Holding it in requires more energy than letting go, but you need to handle its release with intention so it doesn’t blow up in your face. This is neither simple nor easy, but learning self-control has a tremendous pay-off in mastering your emotions.

Hardwired into every one of us, anger is neither hero nor villain. It’s a call to action which, when properly managed, can be turned from indiscriminate bomb into a targeted weapon for change. Temper your anger with clear thinking so you can focus it with precision.

Know your anger, embrace it — but not too tightly — and use its power for good.

audio, creative writing, Pat Aitcheson writes, poetry

Ballad of the blood moon

photo of full moon surrounded by clouds
Photo by samer daboul on Pexels.com

listen to this poem:

Dark stories are told, but time passes so fast
you’ll find that precautions are not built to last.
Watch out little children, you better take care
when those who know better tell you to beware,
when those with long memories shudder and sigh
be sure something fearsome will come by and by.

You might love your fairy tales, sugar and spice
without realising such tales are made twice.
The first is to make trembling humans afraid
of glowering monsters that creep in the shade.
The second, to gloss over, sweeten and soothe
for those without courage, the unvarnished truth.

Just call me Cassandra, who did try to tell
there are many roads to the portals of hell.
Through study and practice I long ago learned
to master the hunger that endlessly burned
in flesh bone and marrow, secreted within
my heart and my essence, the voice of my kin.

Dark, difficult magic. This had to be done
to shackle the devil. There was only one
small gap in my armour, for try as I might
no lore can delay the day’s turn into night,
or heavenly bodies that spin on their track
and one day align. Then the beast will attack.

I swear that I told them they must stay inside.
I hopelessly begged all the children to hide.
No prayer, incantation or druid’s wise rune
will silence the call of a super blood moon.
My wolf broke its bonds, howling vengeance. And here
came answering cries of my clan far and near,

my brothers and sisters all hungry to feast
on flesh of the great, and the bones of the least.
Unfettered by reason and drunk on our might
the slaughter proceeded beneath the red light.
I woke to regret, utter carnage around.
We cannot leave anything here to be found.

There is no escape, chained to life by this curse.
But I would exchange all the gold in my purse
to be once again a mere mortal — to die
and pay for my sins as blood drips from my eye
in sad imitation of genuine tears.
I mourn for my victims across countless years.

We buried the last of the bodies this morning.
The foolish and brave, who did not heed my warning.

blog, creative writing, creativity, productivity

How To Be More Creative By Thinking INSIDE The Box

how limits can liberate

crayons in a cup by Arya Meher
Arya Meher via Unsplash

The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.
attributed to Orson Welles

Want to strike fear into a writer’s heart?

Tell them to write a story about anything. No guidelines, no limits!

There’s only one thing more scary than a blank page – a blank page and a totally free hand.

That’s because we are easily overwhelmed by too many choices. But isn’t more choice a good thing?

The Tyranny of Choice

The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.
Igor Stravinsky

Suppose you want to buy a jar of honey. On your way home from work you stop to fill your car. The filling station has just two kinds of honey so you pick one, job done.

But if you go to a major grocery store like Tesco they carry thirty-seven kinds of honey. Now you have to weigh many more options. Do you prefer clear or organic or lavender honey? It’s all too much so you end up grabbing the closest jar – or nothing at all.

Researcher Barry Schwartz calls this choice overload. Choice overload leads to picking the default rather than consider options, decision fatigue, and choice avoidance.

Making a choice requires energy, and if you’re already tired or depleted from too many prior choices you’ll either avoid the choice or go for the easiest option. This is death to creativity.

Creativity is about connecting things, but it’s also about solving problems in novel ways.

Constraints help you innovate without having to consider every option.

My writing group has an exercise called Hot Pen. One person opens a novel to a random page, another chooses a random number, and the nearest noun or verb on that page becomes the one word prompt. We then have ten minutes to write a story based on that word.

Scary, yes, but the variety of stories is always amazing. It’s surprising how each writer finds a different angle within a very small space. How can you limit your options to release more creativity?

No Problem

Problems are hidden opportunities, and constraints can actually boost creativity.
Martin Villeneuve

Constraints are good for creativity and can be set up in different ways.

  1. Time – a deadline to force completion or a target to hit
  2. Subject matter – writing to a set theme or prompt
  3. Resource – limited budget, materials, or word count

Try these practical ways to get started.

  • Setting time limits – the Pomodoro technique is essentially a rolling set of mini-deadlines.
  • Using prompts as a starting point – try this random prompt generator.
  • Work with limited forms like one hundred word drabbles or sonnets.

Once you’ve made a choice, stick with it. There will always be other options out there. Your job is to get started and then go on until the end, because only completed work can be edited, and only edited work can be perfected.

These techniques are useful to overcome inertia at the start of a writing session. Once you begin, you’ll find it easier to jump into your main project.  

Sometimes, too many choices make us anxious. Then, we need a box as a starting point. It needs to be small enough that it doesn’t paralyse with too much possibility – yet big enough that imagination can stretch its wings and fly.

Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.
Albert Einstein

(first published by Publishous on Medium 5 June 2019)

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, poetry

sea glass season

sea-glass_treenabelle
treenabelle via pixabay

Every year it comes again, this subtle sense of loss — a missing piano note. I’ve erased and rewritten our story so many times over that the memory now is ragged and blurred. Too much clings to the fabric. There’s no space to start afresh.

Sharp edged criticism and disappointments have mellowed, tumbled over and over in an ocean of days and tears and never minds. What was once harsh and bitter turns soft and hazy. Perhaps one day even these will disappear, all the corners worn away until nothing remains.

I wonder if she ever heard me cry, holding jagged shards to my heart instead of comfort.

I cannot bear to wait for an echo that remains silent, so I do not sing the missing note. It sits inside my chest, bound and shackled.

Each early summer season it tries to escape. My throat is barricaded and I will not.

The past is veiled for my protection, bubble-wrapped in half-truths and semi-plausible explanations. We do our best and it is not enough. One always wants more than the other can give.

A never ending game played out across generations. Rules are unclear and the dice are loaded.

One day, my daughter too will cast the wishes I unknowingly broke into her private sea, hoping fragments will wash ashore smooth enough to hold.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, poetry

The Lesson

woman holding black umbrella in rain
Free-Photos via pixabay

A dull life, before you.

Filled with too much or too little
(a little too much pain, I thought then.)
I thought I knew how life worked.
You were sunlight, floating carelessly
bright summer without end.
I thought I knew how seasons turned.
A flock of black umbrellas for a good man
steady drizzling grey, a leaden weight
that stops my breath, crushes my throat.
Earth rains from cold fingers
pattering on the lid
a fleeting thought of following it down.
I thought I knew how hearts worked
but there’s no fixing this

(too short, too little)

you couldn’t teach me how to smile today.
So I turn my face heavenward, swallow the sky
let its tears drown my despair.
I thought I knew –

but there’s no colour, after you.

blog

Go On, Make Someone’s Day – I Dare You

daisies_Congerdesign
Image by CongerDesign via pixabay

Kindness and a generous spirit go a long way. And a sense of humor. It’s like medicine — very healing.
Max Irons

What does it take to make your day?

It might seem that only the biggest things can turn a rotten day into a better one. You long for a scratchcard win, a £50 note discovered on the ground, a declaration of undying love, or a letter of acceptance for that thing you’ve been hoping for and dreaming about. Those things would certainly make you feel better.

They’re also almost guaranteed not to happen.

What are the odds, right?

But something changed my mind.

Work had been difficult, and then I caught a horrible cold. Think congested, feverish, head stuffed, can’t breathe, can’t sleep misery. Well, still gotta work, so I slogged on. After surviving one long morning in which all I wanted to do was run away home and hide under my blanket, there was a knock at my door. I expected another claim on my time and fading energy, and my heart sank.

Instead, the receptionist brought in flowers. A pink bouquet with a card that read ‘your (sic) in our thoughts’. It had been left by someone I had seen earlier. I was so moved by this, I could have wept.

I work in a so-called caring profession. I have colleagues, family, and friends, some of whom knew how ill I felt. Yet this came from a near-stranger, who went to some trouble to help me feel better.

Even a humble daisy would have shown me she cared. And I let her know I appreciated her gesture, more than she knew. It made me smile on a tough day, and that can be the greatest gift of all.

The excellence of a gift lies in its appropriateness rather than in its value.
Charles Dudley Warner

It takes so little to shine a light, and you never know who needs it most.

It need not be flowers; it can be any small, authentic kindness. Eye contact and a smile, a sincere inquiry followed by active listening are often missing in daily life. If we supply them and are genuine then we connect on a basic human level, and that’s what we all crave.

Make that tea or coffee without being asked. Drop change in the cup. Buy their favourite pastry, just because.

When backed by action, the thought really does count.

How could you brighten someone’s day? Look for ways to pay it forward. Go on — I dare you.

(first published 16 May 19 by Publishous on Medium)


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