In my writing groups, it’s all about NaNo; daily word counts and writing yourself into a corner and plot holes you could drive a bus through. Maybe that’s the answer to the plot problem. Have the protagonist drive a bus through – never mind…
Things I’m doing instead of NaNoWriMo
Wondering if I should have done NaNo, then reaffirming my decision to pass.
Lunch with friends, bonding with one over the recent loss of her mother.
Sitting at my desk, watching a pheasant walk across the lawn.
Wondering why the pheasant is in my garden.
Chatting with the delivery guy and comparing weekend plans (me: not much.)
Writing a fragment of a poem.
Making a new iTunes playlist, even though I find it hard to write to music with voices.
Pouring away my third half-drunk cup of tea.
Making fresh tea and deciding I do deserve a biscuit. (see point 6)
Gathering the last few chillies from the garden before the frost gets them.
Downloading another book to my Kindle. If not writing, should be reading, right?
Looking at the TBR pile of actual books and sighing.
“Depression is being color blind and constantly told how colorful the world is.”
— Atticus, Love Her Wild
This is a good day.
Hardly a cloud to mar a sweep of sky blue, warm winds sigh against my skin and tug at my sails. Hardly a shadow, with the sun near its zenith. Up here in the wide above, birds call and all is bright. The sea glitters blue and silver, reflecting sunbeams. Anything is possible. Viewed through the positivity telescope, the horizon beckons.
Plenty of steel blue sky, but more grey clouds now, not yet weeping fat raindrops. Time to batten the hatches and haul in my sails against gusting winds and imminent storms. Water shivers in the air, cool against skin goosebumped despite my thin coat of hope. The sun hides. It is still there, I think.
Days go by.
I crouch in my frail boat, tossed on angry swell, shipping cold uncaring wet. The sky touches the sea and all is grey, colour washed away. Torn clouds shed raindrops to mingle with tears on my chilly face. And when the giant wave finally snatches me into pitiless ocean, I am not surprised. It was always coming.
I drift endlessly. No map or compass, no lifebelt. Helpless to fight the long slow slide, sinking deeper into the blue, I lose the last vestiges of light. Down, and down. Eyes blinded, nothing to see. Marble skin, numb to feeling. I could shout at the void, but there will be no reply. The blue darkens still more. It is the black shadow that has chased me every day of my journey.
Swallowed in nothingness, I lie resigned on unyielding ocean floor, a certainty of sorts.
Help isn’t coming.
first published in The Creative Cafe on Medium, 8 November 2017
It seemed so real. Rivers sparkled in the sunlight, meandering between soft green hills. Ali dipped low over a dark blue lake and caught glimpses of fish below the rippled surface. Warm air buoyed her up, towards a solitary eagle wheeling far above, but the wind failed and she fell back to earth.
She woke in bed and realised with a heavy heart that it was morning, already, again. Reluctantly she pulled back her covers and put her feet to the cold boards. Another day in paradise.
Boring days crawled by, nothing to mark one from another. She stared at her face in the mirror, wondering if this was it, all life had to offer. One grey evening Ali cuddled under a blanket on the sofa, watching nature documentaries. The kitchen was dark and cold, and after a long day of work a handful of dry cereal and a cup of tea was just easier. What was the point of cooking for one anyway? She could probably stand to lose a few pounds. She half-listened to David Attenborough talking about birds and habitat and such. His voice was soothing and familiar. She closed her eyes for a moment.
When she opened them again, a vast forest stretched below. From a distance it looked solid, but on closer inspection she could see separate trees in which flocks of scarlet macaws chattered noisily. Once again Ali fell, but as she wished that she could fly further, her descent slowed. She landed gently and put her feet to cool earth.
Around her, jewelled hummingbirds dashed from bloom to bloom and birds called overhead. Luxuriant foliage enclosed her in countless shades of green, and she breathed in faintly spiced air.
Her next thought was that she’d probably be eaten alive by mosquitos, but her arms and legs remained free of bites. She wandered around for a time until she heard buzzing. She looked up at a large beehive, with a few bees circling outside. Ali reached toward it but her arms were so heavy. She felt herself sink to the ground and woke in bed, limbs pleasantly warm and remembered birdsong in her ears.
That lunchtime she chatted to Debs, her desk neighbour for the last nine months. They usually dissected last night’s TV programmes. That was one thing Ali knew something about.
“Sorry, what?” She realised Debs was looking at her expectantly.
“I said, did you see those hummingbirds on TV last night?” Debs shook her head. “You’re a real space cadet today, didn’t you get your beauty sleep or something? Or, perhaps it’s someone who kept you awake…” She trailed off, raising her eyebrows suggestively.
“Maybe Jake the IT guy. He’s been checking you out for ages.”
“Ew, no. He’s creepy.” Ali shuddered for effect. “Actually, I had the most realistic dream, and when it was going to end I wished it wouldn’t, and I kept dreaming. It was amazing.”
“Oh really? You should look up lucid dreaming,” Debs bit into her apple. “It’s when you know it’s a dream and you can control it.”
“Is that really a thing? I thought dreaming was all pictures from your subconscious.” Ali pulled a yogurt out of her lunchbox, and peeled the lid off.
“Ali, you’re not at home now,” Debs hissed. “No wonder Jake has a thing for you when you’re licking the lid in public.”
She hastily dropped the foil, feeling warmth in her cheeks. She was getting sloppy and distracted and it wouldn’t do. “Sorry. So anyway, lucid dreaming is real then.”
“Yeah, I had this boyfriend who was into yoga and all that mystical stuff, but I stopped listening after a while. Too airy-fairy for me. Better get back to work.” Debs gathered her things and left Ali thinking. She ate her yogurt with a spoon and avoided eye contact with anyone.
Ali turned to the internet. She devoured articles on lucid dreaming, yoga nidra, astral projection and yogic flying. With practice, she discovered a knack for slipping from calm wakefulness into a dreamscape of her own choosing. Her nights filled with brilliant images.
The auroras blazed green and red above the poles. She followed a barn owl on its silent nocturnal hunt, and skimmed the seas with dolphins. She walked exotic beaches alongside turquoise seas, and wandered cool pine forests leaving no prints in the snow. It was exhilarating. Real life could not compare with the wondrous worlds of her dreams.
Ali burrowed her feet into warm pale sand and looked out at the distant horizon. In her night world she felt alive. Nothing could hurt her. Daytime was drab by contrast, with Debs nudging her and asking if Jake was the cause of her faraway look. She agreed just to shut Debs up. All she really wanted to spend more time asleep, alone.
Controlling dreams seemed impossible. Until you did it.
A flash of light caught her attention, perhaps a reflection from the sea. It shimmered like heat haze. She walked along the beach to find it. The air in front of her rippled, yet she could see the beach beyond. She circled the ripple and looked back at normal beach. Hesitantly she put out her hand, only to find it vanished into the shimmer. She screamed and woke up in her bed gasping for breath, her mouth dry with fear. Her hand shook, but it was intact. It seemed so real.
That was not meant to happen. She was meant to be in control.
“Just a dream,” she muttered. But she couldn’t explain it.
Ali stopped lucid dreaming after that. The monotonous days dragged on, but it was impossible to resist the pull of her dream world for long. She found herself back on the same beach, standing in front of the hazy air pocket. There was only one way to know. She took a breath, and stepped into the shimmer.
Beyond lay a magical world. Brilliant stars twinkled in a purple sky lit by two moons. The air hummed with strange energy, plants and flowers glowed with unnamed colours. She could feel everything, and it finally made sense.
Then she looked up at the brightest stars and wondered what they looked like up close. She soared into the sky. As the ground receded she heard her name. She was back on the beach, quick as thought. A paramedic was clearly visible through the portal, standing in her bedroom.
“Ali, Ali wake up!” Debs was holding her hand and crying.
She hovered by the ceiling for a while, looking down at her sleeping form. Her body was not dead. But mere existence held no appeal.
In this vibrant universe, she was truly alive. She slipped away unnoticed. The stars were calling her.
We’re meant to be up and at it, all the time. Get on the grind, be always hustling.
Some days are not for progress. Especially for creators, some days it just won’t come. You run aground, the wind drops, the tide falls away. It’s not artists’ block, but something deeper. The well has run dry.
What does it mean, this empty feeling when the words won’t come and the eyes don’t see and there are no more songs in your head? Your Muse can’t be heard. Maybe they have fallen silent, maybe they are struggling against louder voices in your head.
At this point, you need to give up, without giving up completely.
Diagnosing the cause comes first, then action. Step away from your project and check in with yourself. Spend some time considering the possible origins. Write it down if that helps. I find pen and paper works better.
Body– are you hungry, tired, tense from inactivity, thirsty?
try this Go for a walk.
Drink some water rather than yet more coffee.
Go to bed an hour earlier for a few nights.
Stretch your hands and back regularly.
Mind – are you overcommitted, frazzled by too many demands, exhausted by conflicts in relationships?
try this List all your current commitments, personal and professional, consider delegating when possible.
Let go of perfectionism and embrace the idea of good enough. Prioritise and finish the most urgent thing on your list.
Start saying no. Between FOMO and the need to be liked, you risk spreading yourself too thin. Be choosy about where your energy goes.
Identify the people who are energy vampires, sucking the life out of you. Spend less time with them. Yes, even if they are your mother or close friend.
Spirit – are you deeply unhappy, profoundly lost, lacking in motivation for life itself?
You might need help from another if your depression and/or anxiety stands between you and what you want and need to do. I wrote here about what to do when you feel you can’t go on.
try this You can make a start on refilling your well by creating something different; a cake, a tidy room or garden area, a picture if you write, a poem if you draw.
Seek out peace in whatever way makes sense to you. You probably gave it up at some point, whether it be running, prayer, music, looking at the ocean, reading, or yoga. Schedule a half or even a whole hour. Devote the entire time to your own tranquility.
Go to a museum or gallery or store and enjoy looking at beautiful things. Then come home and make something small that is not connected to your main project.
Of course a week off in the Caribbean sounds like the perfect answer to the blahs. What it actually represents is time and space to do the things above. Since we mostly can’t take off whenever we need to reset our compass, what’s needed is a pause.
Just don’t stop completely.
You pause, catch your breath, and then you can go on.
We all have chances to teach, but sometimes the opportunity is unwelcome.
Has anyone ever asked you an apparently simple question, and you found yourself unable to answer? Parents of small children are very familiar with this. It’s very tempting to fall back on platitudes or distraction to cover up the lack of an adequate response.
Examinations are formidable, even to the best prepared; for the greatest fool can ask more than the wisest man can answer. Charles Caleb Colton
This week, I received a question about my writing process related to a story I posted on another website. It made me stop and examine my writing in a way I haven’t done before. Which lead me to remember this.
Before you can teach something, you have to understand it yourself.
Although watching an expert helps you to improve your own game, asking them to explain how they do it might not yield useful results. Because their skill is unconscious, they don’t have to think about how they hit the ball. They’re thinking about where the ball is going and where they need to be for the next shot.
Four stages to reaching the expert level
You are unaware of the skill and the need for it – unconscious incompetence
You are aware of the skill and have none – conscious incompetence
You are aware of the skill and have some – conscious competence
Your have high levels of skill and no longer think about how to achieve it – unconscious competence.
Think of playing a guitar. First, you don’t know that a guitar exists or what it’s used for. Then you see a guitar but don’t know anything about it. You start learning, slowly, and making many mistakes. You practice.
You know what you want to do, but you can’t do it. Yet.
Eventually, after enough practice, your fingers know what to do to make notes. You can play new songs that only exist in your head, or sight read a song you never heard before. You are focused on outcome, not process.
A good teacher is one who can help you move from one stage to the next. Not necessarily the most gifted in their field, they still have a priceless skill. They can analyse skills and transmit that knowledge to others. And the skill of effective critique is one we could all benefit from.
As writers especially, we crave the feedback that comes from objective analysis with specific advice on moving forward. I wrote here about giving and receiving critique gracefully.
We all have opportunities to teach, and thereby to learn more about ourselves. I’m not sure if my answer helped my enquirer, but it made me think critically about my own practice. That’s the most important lesson of all.
Therefore the old trope of “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” needs to be reframed. Who you speak to depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Inspiration and improvement are different activities.
And what about those who can’t do or teach? Lacking skill and insight but with plenty of envy, they become energetic armchair critics.
I bet even Michelangelo had someone saying, “Look, you missed a bit.”
Love. It’s the greatest good we have as humans. Most of us chase it all our lives, and sometimes even find it. But in the nature of these things, finding and keeping is not the same thing. I wrote elsewhere about different kinds of love, but romantic love is the one the songs, films and books mostly hold up as the ultimate.
We say love is forever and yet we know it is not. We enter into contracts and exchange rings that symbolise an unending circle. And we quietly build exits and escape clauses.
We hope and pray that love will last, but objectively everything that has a beginning has an end, as The Matrix Revolutions had it. It was a remark by Jake Lira of @thecreative.cafe that got me wondering about the wrong turns and detours we make in search of The One. He asked: is love ever a mistake?
Perhaps there are no mistakes, only progress we can’t see at the time.
Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. Søren Kierkegaard
If we look at life this way, it gives us some hope. When things seem to be going wrong, we are simply taking an unexpected turn on the road of life. Those footprints cannot be erased anyway. We can’t deny our past; we can only make peace with it.
With this in mind, we are able to look back at past experiences and take what can be learned from them. Some loves are like flowers; beautiful and doomed, and all the more precious because they are ephemeral. What we should treasure is not this idea of romantic love, in whichever way we live it, but the capacity to feel love not once, but many times.
As long as we are able to try again, the possibility of grasping love remains. And the emotion that keeps us going in its absence is hope.
Hope. It is the quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength, and your greatest weakness. The Architect, The Matrix Reloaded (2003) The Wachowskis
As Pandora found, when all is lost, hope is the tiny flame that lights the darkness. And the deeper the dark, the brighter it shines.
Blood running hot, and never cold
it presses forward, always bold
calling us on to run and fight
propelling legs as they take flight
and for one moment stop and think.
Then the next instant to the brink
The red eyes are blind
to all that’s gentle, good or kind.
A teasing swish, matador’s cape
will goad the bull. There’s no escape
from spears embedded in his back
that prod him to futile attack.
And down his skin run rivers red,
his life poured out and painted dead.
We feel the ruby pulsing heat
within our chests with every beat
of every crazed deluded heart,
so sure that this is just the start
of something lasting, fine and true,
of you and me.
I always knew
that red would overwhelm this love.
Though lovers gaze at stars above
and whisper declarations soft,
these ideals that they hold aloft
soon fall to earth.
Nothing to say.
Unbridled passions win the day
over mere intellectual words
when feelings fly like scattered birds
and reason flees.
All that remains
is quivering flesh and dripping veins
left hollow by an anguished flood
of passion, anger, rage, and blood.
Follow the heart, obey the head.
Go fast, full stop; now quick, now dead.