blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Done is Better Than Perfect: How to Move Past the Perfectionist Trap

cosmic-flower-fractal-blue_dp792
dp792 via pixabay

The worst enemy to creativity is self doubt.

Sylvia Plath

They say that everyone has a novel inside them. Maybe you know someone who is hard at work on theirs. You read their comments online or chat with them at an event. They tell you they’ve been working on it for a while. “How long?” you ask. They tell you it’s been several years so far. These perfectionists have laboured over this one piece for five, seven, ten years. And they don’t know when it will be finished.

Or maybe it’s your work that has limped on forever. You’re stuck because you can’t figure out the right style of the gowns in your Imperial court, or your research on spring weather patterns in Kansas has led down increasingly arcane corridors.

You’ll publish or submit, someday. But it’s not perfect yet. And so your great work sits on your hard drive and the world never sees it.

What Are You Afraid Of?

Perfectionists are often procrastinators. You believe if a thing’s worth doing, it must be done properly and nothing less will do. So you either rework and edit endlessly, or you don’t even start because you can never get it absolutely right. And you can’t edit an empty page.

You conceal these feelings behind strong psychological defences and sublimate them into pointless activity. But research isn’t writing. At some level, you know that and you’re disappointed with yourself.

At the heart of perfectionism is fear.

Fear of failure.

Fear of success, because then you have to do it again, leading back to fear of failure.

To overcome perfectionism, you need to understand your fear and master it. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is action despite feeling fear. Courage is taking a deep breath and doing it anyway because your desire for something is greater than the fear of what might happen.

If you never challenge yourself to move past fear, you cannot improve or grow. Everything you really want is outside of your comfort zone.

In order to step out there and thrive, you’ll need to let some ideas go and embrace new thinking. We’ll look at how to do this next.

via BrainyQuote

Everybody sucks and nobody cares

Fear is a basic emotion that we all understand. You fear humiliation and ridicule for getting something wrong. Perhaps you replay some old memory of being laughed at for a minor error, and that underlies your current avoidant behaviour.

Here are two reasons why you should leave that in the past where it belongs.

  1. Everybody sucks in the beginning. Every author, actor, artist, or sports person you admire now was once terrible at their chosen discipline. They wrote awful prose, missed more shots than they scored, and forgot their lines on stage. But they carried on and used those early failures to improve over time. Nobody has a perfect score overall.
  2. People aren’t actually watching that closely. They are as consumed by their inner lives as you are by yours. Even if they look your way, they forget you the next moment as their own drama takes over. Though you might feel as though everyone is looking at you, they’re really not. In psychology, this is known as the spotlight effect. Knowing about the spotlight effect is liberating. It frees you to do whatever you need to do without the pressure of a supposed audience.

Act like a baby

Babies are the world’s fastest learners. From zero, they learn to feed, walk, talk, and live in a social unit, all within two years. They achieve this not by being perfect, but the opposite. They stumble, fall, stand up again.

They babble nonsense and parrot speech without understanding at first. Eventually, they achieve a level of competence that allows them to run, jump, and sing a nursery rhyme.

They do not beat themselves up because they can’t yet recite Shakespeare. They simply chatter and listen to adults when corrected. Each time they repeat, they’re closer to the goal of intelligible speech.

You learned to speak, walk, and countless other complex skills in the same way. If you had waited to speak until you were perfect, you would not have uttered a word for years.

Cultivate a beginner’s mind. Understand that supposed errors are signposts back to the right path, and you’re much less fearful of your results. Judge not against some unattainable level of perfection, but against where you were last time you tried.

You already know how to learn and improve. Adjust your aim, and try again.

Less is not more

While you’re slaving over one meticulously crafted blog post, searching tirelessly for exactly the right image and quote, I’m ramping up my output. One post every Friday was my first goal. Having reached that goal and with over 200 posts under my belt, now I’m aiming to post two or three articles every week. I don’t have time to agonise endlessly over a picture.

Oh, you say, but you prefer quality over quantity. People repeat this justification for low output as if it were gospel truth. It’s completely wrong.

Quantity leads to quality

In an experiment, students in a ceramics class were split into two groups. One group was told that they could get an A by turning in one perfect piece. The other group was told that they would be graded solely on the total weight of pieces produced, of any quality.

The results were surprising. The second group produced a large number of extremely good pieces. They were freed from the constraints of perfection and given free rein to experiment without being penalised. I’d bet money they were happier with their work too.

Repeated practice increased their skills and confidence. They weren’t paralysed by over-analysis or worried about criticism. They did not fear the impossibility of lightning striking twice, because they knew how to create a storm. They were able to replicate good work because they understood what went into making it.

The more you make, the better you get.

David-head_paclomartinezclavel
paclomartinezclavel via pixabay

Let it go

Real artists ship.
Steve Jobs

Imagine if Dali had refused to let anyone see his paintings, or if Michelangelo had obsessively chipped away at and repolished his David. How much poorer we would be! Remember also that an artist’s most famous works comprise only a fraction of their total output.

Writers learn more from finishing one story than from starting and abandoning ten. You’ll learn where you wrote yourself into a corner, and how to figure your way out. You’ll learn how many plots you can juggle. You’ll learn what makes a good ending. And eventually, you’ll join up all those skills and move from conscious competence to unconscious competence.

In other words, you will master your craft and spend more effort on deciding where to put the ball than how to kick it.

At some point, you have to declare a thing finished and let it go. The more refined your skill, the harder it is. You always feel there is just one more thing you could improve upon.

Let it go. Ship it. Publish, submit, and move on to the next thing. That’s the secret; always have a next thing. Each piece becomes a little less precious when it forms a smaller part of your portfolio. You may still have your favourites and the ones you shrug over, but the totality is what matters.

Confidence comes from improvement. You know that you can make another piece, and it might be even better than the last. And if it’s not, that’s okay too.

That is true creative freedom.

via BrainyQuote

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Get your free short e-book Unleash Your Creativity here.

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

5 simple ways to jump start creativity for writers and artists

powering through the block

crayons-scribble-baby_marimari
marimari via pixabay

Sometimes the ideas won’t come. You want to paint or write but you don’t know what. You started something and now you hate it. Or maybe you’re trying to get started again after a drought or forced hiatus. Like a stalled car, you need a little push to get going.

The Two Types of Thinking That Affect Creativity

The way we think has a great impact on creativity.

Divergent thinking creates possibilities. It gathers ideas and combines them in new ways. There is more than one answer to a question. And all ideas have potential value. Divergent thinking creates options using right-brained methods; imagination, visualisation, and intuition.

Convergent thinking solves problems. It considers, weighs and discards options, narrowing them down until the right answer emerges. Convergent thinking achieves results using left-brain methods; sequencing, logic, and facts.

We need both types of thinking to achieve a result. First, come up with ideas using divergent thinking, then execute an idea using convergent thinking. A brilliant concept is nothing without the techniques to make it a reality.

Judgement can wait

But choosing which idea to work on too soon can choke off possibilities. We tend to judge ideas and discard them without fully exploring them. So it’s vital to gather all your ideas without judgement first. It’s like mining a fine diamond; they’re not lying about on the surface. After digging through a lot of worthless stuff, you spot something with potential. Then you get to work cutting and polishing.

Creativity exercises are best done quickly to outwit the inner critic. Keep moving and let yourself be imperfect.

We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.
Bob Ross

1 . Get random

Having too many choices can lead to being overwhelmed. Because you could do anything, you end up doing nothing. Research has shown that we are more satisfied with our choices when options are limited.

Try letting chance dictate your next move rather than fretting over what to do.Then you can put your energy into doing, rather than frustration that you don’t know where to start.

Turn to a page in the nearest book to hand. Count the tenth verb or noun. Set a timer for ten minutes. Write a story or poem inspired by this word.

Do the same with a magazine, instead using the tenth picture as inspiration.

Go to Pixabay or Unsplash for photos. Use the first image containing a yellow object as inspiration.

2 .Brainstorming

This is a classic way to access divergent thinking. The idea is to generate quantity rather than quality. Concentrating on quantity leads your brain to think widely, past the obvious. Creativity sees new links between ideas or objects that were not connected before.

Keep asking “what else?” but do not ask “would this work?” For example, a Lego brick could be a doorstop. It doesn’t matter at this stage how effective that might be.

Most people can think of 10–15 ideas for a paperclip. See how much better you can do.

Write down as many uses as you can think of for a paper clip; a Lego brick; a small silver coin; or a teaspoon.

Pick an unusual use for an object and write a short story about it. Or draw it instead.

3 . Do the same job with fewer tools

Creativity blossoms within restriction. When we challenge our skills by limiting the available options, we have to find another way to get the job done. In other words, divergent thinking comes into play. That is the essence of creativity.

Try thinking inside the box.

Artists, paint or draw using shades of only one colour. If you usually draw in pencil, try using ink. Set a time limit.

Writers, use a random first line generator like this one to write a one-page story. Sometimes this works better writing by hand; somehow it’s less daunting than the blinking cursor.

4 . Play in a different sandbox

To create we need to see the world in a different way. When we’re comfortable in one way of seeing, it’s good to mix it up. Maximise your creative muscle by trying something new, just as you’d train different muscle groups in the gym. You will benefit by finding new solutions and skills that you can bring back to your chosen field. That could be improved memory, attention to detail, or improvisation. And it’s fun to try something new.

Make something small, in a different medium.

Doodle your favourite animal, if you write.

Write a song or poem, if you paint.

Cook a meal using a new recipe or only three ingredients from your fridge.

Look at an object in the room for one minute, then try to draw it from memory.

5 . Move

The brain requires up to 20% of the body’s energy. That energy comes from circulating blood, and getting active improves circulation. Sitting or standing in one position for extended periods also leads to stiffness and even pain. Artists and typists are prone to repetitive strain injuries from small repeated movements.

Spending long periods inside in solitary activity can have a number of negative effects, from vitamin D deficiency to low mood. We need to take care of our bodies if we want to stay healthy longer.

Go for a walk and notice the animals. One of them will become a character in your next story or painting.

Wander around a gallery, craft supplies store or even a toy shop. Surround yourself with interesting visuals to spark ideas.

Running, swimming, walking or gardening are good ways to clear the mind and occupy the body with soothing repetition. This allows ideas from your subconscious to bubble up to the surface.

Just do it

The most important thing you can do to access creativity is to make more things, no matter how small or mundane. A new recipe, story, garden, doodle, or haiku all come from looking at the world, seeing new possibility and then expressing what you see in your own way. And that’s what creating is all about.

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which to keep.
Scott Adams

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

How young do you want to be today?

play is serious business

swing-child-blue_elton800
elton800 via pixabay

They say age is just a number.

You’re only as old as you feel. I don’t know about you, but on any given day that number ranges from 25 to 100. There’s an unfortunate skew towards the top end of that range.

My daughter went to a festival recently with her friend. She returned home tired, dusty, and hoarse from singing along. As she said, when your favourite singer tells you to scream, you scream.

Festivals were never my thing. But last month I went to a concert, stood in 42*C heat at the barricade alongside fans less than half my age, and sang along till I was hoarse. Yes, I could have been seated rather than in the pit, but where’s the fun in that?

In an experiment, viral video brand CUT drew a hopscotch board on the street in downtown Seattle and set up hidden cameras nearby. In ten hours, 129 people hopped, skipped and jumped down the sidewalk, while 1058 walked on. That’s just under 11% of adults who (a) took a moment to connect with their inner child and (b) took another moment to silence their inner critic and have some fun. In public.

Watch the video here. It can’t fail to make you smile.

We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.
George Bernard Shaw

Play is a serious business

We take ourselves so seriously as the years roll on. Childlike curiosity and creativity is squashed in favour of sitting still, paying attention and not messing about. We watch depressing news programmes and listen to earnest classical music and jazz that you can’t sing along with. We read prize-winning novels and worthy self-improvement. All this is good and important and adult. But it can’t be the entirety of experience.

If you wait outside a school, especially on a day where it rained at break time and children could not go outdoors, you will witness something amazing. After a day of being not-children, kids explode out of the school gates like a fizzy drink that’s been shaken and uncorked. They run, skip, call to each other, smile and laugh for no reason other than the joy of being set free.

We lose that purity of being on the way to growing up.

Grown-ups need play too

Someone (but probably not Einstein) said creativity is intelligence having fun.
In his 1983 book Frames of Mind: the theory of multiple intelligences psychologist Howard Gardner suggested that intelligence is more than a simple IQ score. He proposed nine types of intelligence.

image by Adioma

 

It follows then, that we all find our creativity and fun in different things. I’m good with numbers but sudoku bores me rigid. It feels too much like work. Crosswords and music are much more appealing to me. Your mileage may vary, but the theory helps us understand what we enjoy and are good at – not always the same thing.

Find your fun

The thing is to find your fun, and engage in it without censoring yourself. Allow yourself to play, to be an amateur, to fail. Without these, none of us would learn to walk, to talk, to do anything well. The reward is in the doing, not the result.

Don’t worry that the person next to you is only twenty, or whether you ought to be doing it at your age. That kind of ossified thinking is a sure route to being old, whatever your number.

The serious adult world will always be there. After a good play session you can return to it energised, with a skip in your step and a smile on your face.

Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game.
Michael Jordan

 

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Finding themes in your writing

and using them to drive creativity

shells-sand_pasja1000
pasja1000 via pixabay

I’m back on the beach again, metaphorically rather than literally. Beaches and the sea feature prominently in my writing, and I didn’t even know.

It all started with a chance remark from a writer friend. She read a short story of mine and commented, “Be careful what you wish for seems to be a theme in your stories.”
“Huh,” I replied.

That got me thinking. I’ve contributed two stories to anthologies based on a deal with the devil, another about a wish come horribly true, and just completed a ghost story with an implied wish embedded in the protagonist’s motivation.

Then in my IRL poetry group, another poet asked if I deliberately included the sea in my poems, because beaches often came up in them.
“Huh,” I replied again.

Beaches inspired my prize winning story All the sands that touch the sea. Beaches and the sea inspired poems like All love in a day and blog posts like Forever summer and Flying free and many more. I realised that the ocean figured in about a third of my works that year.

Hiding in plain sight are ideas or beliefs that underpin some if not all of my work. The question is, what does the sea or beaches mean to me? And how can I use it to my advantage?

Theme in writing

The theme of a story is what the author is trying to convey — in other words, the central idea of the story. Short stories often have just one theme, whereas novels usually have multiple themes. The theme of a story is woven all the way through the story, and the characters’ actions, interactions, and motivations all reflect the story’s theme.
Cliff’s notes

In well written stories, theme gives a satisfying sense of ‘I know what that was all about’ in terms of universal ideas like love conquers all or family comes first. Theme is separate to plot or what happens and where. Love can conquer all in any number of different settings.

Conversely, a story without a theme, even if well written with engaging characters, leaves the reader wondering ‘so what?’ And a story written to a specific theme can come over as preachy, especially when political or religious. The reader feels they’ve been beaten over the head with a blunt instrument.

Discovering your values

Most of us don’t examine our core beliefs on a regular basis, if ever. As writers hoping to illuminate the human condition through stories, it might be useful to our selves and to our readers to dig a little deeper into the beliefs that drive our behaviour. We might ask ourselves questions like

  • what makes me happy
  • is my life the result of luck or choice
  • what is the strongest emotion
  • is ‘blood thicker than water’
  • are people essentially good or essentially sinful
  • are rules made to be broken

Looking a little deeper at the answers will help you understand yourself and what guides your choices. And of course in fiction, you can use values to build a compelling character who behaves like a real person in the story. A list of useful questions to ask and a summary of values can be found here at mindtools.com.

Using theme to your advantage

Sometimes the theme is only seen when looking back at a work. During the first draft our job is to tell ourselves the story, as Terry Pratchett said. After a break, re-reading the story should reveal its point, if you didn’t write with one in mind. It might be something unexpected. Your job then is to strengthen the theme using subtle hints in characterisation and dialogue, so that the narrative hangs together. On the other hand, if theme is too obvious, it may need toning down so that it fades into the background.

If genre is an ocean and plot is the wind steering the boat of characters, they can change course by their actions. But the theme is like a deep ocean current that will bring them to a particular destination, even though they can’t see it.

There’s the sea again

Why does the sea reappear in my work? The beach is a boundary combining air, earth and water aspects of nature. It represents transformation, endings and beginnings, awe and fear at the power of the sea, creation/birth vs. destruction/death. For me it also represents time, childhood, escape. All this and more, before even considering the symbology of water itself.

I use my sea theme to help me with new works. A new story takes shape more easily once I have a setting. I might set the story on the beach or at sea; or use the idea of a liminal space to come up with a supernatural tale. I have woven memories into beach stories.

Whether it is romance, SFF, magic realism or anything else, be careful what you wish for is another goal to work towards. This is especially good for short stories or poems with a single theme. There are many different ways in which this might play out. Not all involve a deal with a devil, but that does make for a good tale.

New directions

I don’t want to keep writing the same story though. So periodically I have a look at my values again. They change in importance and evolve as my life does, and my art should reflect that. And that is one of my personal values.

If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.
Gail Sheehy

Look at your works, or better yet ask someone else to read them, and see if a recurring idea or value reveals itself. You may be surprised. Then have a go at a new piece, keeping your theme in mind.

Let theme inspire you.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

What can you blog about every day?

You’ll need a plan

May18 blog challenge notes
my scrappy plan for blogging in May

In May 2018 I published every day on Medium (and my personal blog 2squarewriting.) I blogged about the results here.

Then Courtney Corboy reached out to ask, how did I choose what to write about? That sparked this post.

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
D. Eisenhower

You must have a plan

As the picture shows, the plan did not survive intact, but I won the battle. That’s the only thing that matters. What to write depends on what kind of writer you are, and what you hope to achieve. When I did the same challenge last year, I had less time and energy. Simply finishing was the aim. This year I wanted to test out different content, and see how publishing in publications changed the results. I was confident I could finish, because I’d done it before.

Bullet journals and spreadsheets are great, but they don’t work for me. And that’s okay. Messy can work too.

You may have a theme that informs your posts, for example self development or parenting or living with an illness. You can find a niche within these umbrellas; single parenting, self development for retirees, or life with anxiety. Even so, you might run out of steam. The trick here is to write what interests you, seen through the lens of your theme. How does a single parent navigate dating? What does the latest political event mean for a person with anxiety?

Seen through your eyes

Everything has been said, over and over. There is no such thing as originality. But it hasn’t been said by you, with your unique experience and perspective.Especially when first blogging, there’s a lot to be said for using other writing as your springboard.

You can only find your voice by using it, and imitation is a great start. Even Picasso began by copying the great masters such as Rafael. The more you write, the better your skills. Let your personality come through. By sharing we create connection. What we are comfortable to share will vary by subject and individual. Readers want and appreciate honesty.

Catch your ideas before they escape

Whenever you have a question or an idea, capture it. You won’t remember it in five minutes or a day’s time. Notebooks are great, and lots of writers love their physical notebook and pen. The notes function on your phone is practical, and more importantly, usually at hand. Even if it’s just a title, grab it. One day when you’re out of ideas, you can look at notes and a few words can spark a whole piece.

But — what do you actually write about?

Ah yes, the original question. Anything at all. I please myself. I don’t have a huge following to service, and I want to gather people who like what I write. I write fiction and poetry, and I write about writing, and about life in general, sometimes as it pertains to writing.

But what I write is not just about me once I hit publish. So it must fill a need for someone else; inform, entertain, or problem solve. (Fiction can do all three, but that’s a post for another time.)

See what’s trending on Medium or Quora, and write your own take on it.

Look at the blogs of writers you admire, and see how they address their niche. Notice how their personalities come through, how much personal stuff they share. Think about where you’d like to be on the open — closed spectrum.

Keep your eyes open when you’re away from the screen. Turn the irritation of sitting in traffic into your thoughts on public transport, or electric cars, or how hard it is to meditate in real life.

Challenge yourself to come up with ideas every day. It gets easier with practice, like every skill.

It does not have to be big. Haikus are just seventeen syllables long, and usually fewer words. In this case the image I choose is very important, and must convey more than the words while complementing them.

My non fiction pieces are often short, from three hundred to a thousand words. I edit ruthlessly. That’s another skill I’ve improved upon.

You can re-use old content. Rewrite if needed, update facts, and you’re good to go. And edit!

picjumbo_com via pixabay

The nitty-gritty

  • Gather your ideas together, at least 5–10 to prime the pump.
  • Decide if you will have themes for days or weeks. I found this helpful, in my case poetry on weekends and short stories etc. on weekdays.
  • Write out the days and dates in a list or chart, digital or analogue, whatever suits. If a month is too much, try two weeks.
  • Pencil in the pieces you already have, scattered through the time period.
  • Consider what you need to write to fill the gaps.
  • Write something every day. Start drafts even if you can’t immediately finish. As little as 150 words daily adds up, and that has worked for me.
  • Spend a few minutes thinking up new ideas. Write everything down without censoring.
  • Try to be at least a couple of days ahead. This might mean writing more when you have more time. A buffer is a wondrous thing.
  • But if you miss a day, don’t sweat it. It’s not life or death. Begin again the next day, catch up if you can.
  • Write it, edit, let it go. Done is better than perfect.
  • Concentrate on your goal and don’t worry (too much) about claps. You can only control what you do, not how it is received.
  • When someone takes the time to comment, respond. This is what we all want; for our words to reach someone. Start a conversation and reciprocateGive what you hope to get.
  • Creativity is a remix. Ideas come from living, reading, and often from connecting with others, just like this piece. You just have to notice them.
  • Write as though no-one will read it. In the beginning, that’s true for all of us. By the time they’re listening, you’ll have honed your craft and your voice. You’ll have something to say.

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.
Maya Angelou

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Where do you write?

anywhere, or one specific somewhere?

boy writing on a rock_StockSnap
StockSnap via pixabay

Where do you like to do your writing?

Images of beautifully curated writing spaces fill Pinterest and mock less organised writers at the top of equally beautiful articles. White walls enhance carefully chosen artefacts on the table, and there is always coffee with artistic foam.

JK Rowling started Harry Potter’s journey at The Elephant House Cafe in Edinburgh. Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac met at Vesuvio Cafe in San Francisco. Maya Angelou rented a room in a local hotel by the month. Marcel Proust wrote in bed. Roald Dahl and George Bernard Shaw had sheds in their gardens.

A piece by Holly Isard in AnOther magazine delved into the many idiosyncratic places chosen by writers old and new.

The necessary environment is that which secures the artist in the way that lets him be in the world in the most fruitful manner.
Robert Creeley

Creating a ritual

A space to write can form an essential part of the ritual of writing. The mind and body is primed for the coming activity, and overcomes the inertia of getting started. This is particularly important to evade writer’s block. Like a sports or crafts person, we need to show up and do the work. By having designated space and a list of things to follow, you can avoid the empty brain syndrome of not knowing what to do next.

However, one size does not fit all. Some like music, others, white noise, others natural sounds. Some must have silence, and others like activity around them while their peers shudder at the thought and close the door.

Routine is a prison

Most of us have busy lives. In order to write every day, or capture inspiration when it strikes, we must be able to write in different places. Life is rarely ideal for more than a moment, especially if writing is something you squeeze into a packed schedule rather than your sole activity.

Knowing your ideal writing space is one thing. Learning to block out the non-ideal will free you to write elsewhere. Before my last holiday I would have said it was too hot, too distracting and uncomfortable to write at the beach. In fact, writing by hand in a small notebook and observing people was a revelation. Dialogue fragments, poem ideas, and simple journaling poured on to the pages. The background sounds of the sea are very soothing for me, which helped.

Play on

Music can be the best companion, or the worst. I find lyrics distracting, as they compete against the words I’m trying to find. Instrumental music is good, especially familiar pieces that fade into the background. You can find lots of playlists on 8tracks designed for study or writing. There is a free option with ads, or you can pay a monthly fee to avoid ads and make your own playlists.

I tried a nature noise generator and found that rain is soothing but thunder distracts me. There are over one hundred and fifty noise generators available at myNoise.net. They are grouped by activity or need, such as focus, to mask tinnitus or external noise, or for relaxation and sleep. Each soundscape has several elements that can be customised to create your perfect mix.

Not only helping you to work better, the soundscapes can also keep you company while working alone.

woman sitting on concrete pillar
Photo by Sachin A on Pexels.com

Making anywhere your best place to write

Creating a ritual and finding a dedicated space is helpful to a solid writing habit. Being able to change things up, whether that means learning to write with noise or creating your own soundscape to block it out, will broaden your options. Routine should be your servant and not your master.

In the end, it is about creating different options for the situations you find yourself in. Then you will not be reliant on your lucky mug or favourite pen. When the idea strikes, you will be ready.

blog, writing process

Creative slump? Think inside the box

fractal-box-733918_960_720
pixel1 via pixabay

Sometimes more is not better.

In the developed world choice is king. The more choices, the better the world is working, and the received wisdom is that more is always better. Whole industries are built on finding and then expanding niches.

It’s no wonder that the protagonist of The Hurt Locker stood in the store when he returned from Iran, paralysed by too much choice. We’ve all done this. We rush into the store to find something for dinner, and we find ourselves overwhelmed, unable to choose.

FMI statistics show the average US supermarket carries over 42,000 items. In 2015 Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket chain, carried 90,000 items, including 28 kinds of tomato ketchup. They planned to cut this to 60,000 to make shopping more efficient.

Mind. Blown.

How often do we grab the first thing we see, or give up and get a takeaway meal instead, in a mild state of panic? Those tempting offers and discounts take advantage of our frazzled brains, already worn out by too many choices from the moment we woke up.

In his TED talk Phil Hansen talks candidly about his quest to “Embrace the shake”. Well worth ten minutes of your time. He talks about losing the ability and will to create as he wished, and how he overcame a creative slump that lasted for years. He vividly describes becoming overwhelmed by possibility.

For writers, this equates not only to the empty page, but also to absent parameters. “Write a short story/novel/poem about anything” sounds great, till we sit down to start.

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image: geralt via pixabay

If all paths are open, which one should we take? Perhaps your stomach is already clenching at the very thought. But there is a way forward.

Creativity blossoms where there are restrictions.

The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.

attributed to Orson Welles

Put some walls in place, and ideas can bounce off them, finding surprising ways to fulfil the brief. It’s not only true for artists, because we all have constraints. Problem solving is a key skill for life.

If there are no constraints, there is no problem to solve.

We happen on a brilliant solution not by waving a hand or throwing money at problems, but by understanding that we must transcend apparently fixed parameters. We use only what we have been given to find another way.

This is a great way to recover creativity. Or to overcome the dread of the empty page. Or to continue when we we doubt our ability to get going.

Here are some suggestions. The first and most important step is to suspend judgement, the endless chatter of this is stupid/no good/worthless. It’s just practice.

The idea is to move forward and get ideas flowing, so that the energy feeds into your current project. First you need to loosen your creative muscles, like an athlete warning up.

  • Look around you, and write 100 words on the first red or blue object you see.
  • Construct a main dish using only the items in your fridge right now.
  • Pick up a book, turn to a random page. Look for the first word that is a noun, verb, or adjective. Write a one page story using that word, in ten minutes or less.
  • Paint using only shades of one colour.
  • Use random word generators, or a random first line generator, to get started. No more than ten minutes to create something using your preferred medium; words, images, music.
  • I highly recommend Phil Hansen‘s talk, where he gives great illustrated examples. He tried some surprising things. One might just be the spark you need to get started again.

Limiting our fictional characters can also be a good thing. Give her a seemingly impossible situation, and then she must fight her way out. Put him in a literal or metaphorical cage, and see how he responds. It’s a great way of showing character.

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.

Big enough that imagination can stretch its wings and fly.

 

audio, blog, Pat Aitcheson writes

Conversations with an artist

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lightstargod via pixabay

Listen here: 

I envy you.

Ill-concealed jealousy, or perhaps a fleeting moment of self- knowledge, a slip of the tongue, a confession unprompted. Still, I understand. You think you know the price.

You make it look so easy.

I assure you it is not. After years and centuries of practice, practice, try again, I have earned grudging acquaintance with the standards I keep. Improvement is my goal.

I don’t understand it.

I hear the scathing tone of your dismissal. Should art be understandable? Only for those to whom it speaks; and to the rest, it is noise. Listen harder.

How do you do it?

I just do it. I persist. I hear the self-doubt and corrosive whispers of fear that burn my heart, and I do it anyway, because the art demands to be heard. The pain of silence, I have learned, is worse than carrying my art stillborn in my chest.

Anyone could do that.

No, anyone could not. Every one’s a critic, but very few a creator. Anyone could do it. Hardly anyone does. I invite you to try.

I’ve always wanted to do that.

Creation does not wait for permission. But if you need permission, go ahead. It’s never too late to begin. The world is waiting to hear your story. It’s as simple, and as terrifying, as that.

You’re hardly the next JK Rowling/Beyoncé/Picasso/whoever.

You’re right, nobody is. But what I am, what I will be, if I can keep going, is the first, glorious me. I don’t seek comparison. You are no-one special, either. But I allow you the possibility that you could be.

It’s just your life story.

It’s just my heart and soul, bled out on the page, the canvas, the stage. What else is there? Where else will I find the raw and honest stuff to build my creation? I fuse drops of my history and things not yet imagined and echoes of other people’s random musings. Something new emerges. It is enough.

I envy you.

You see the glittering jewel. I see exhausting hours mining, selecting, cutting and polishing, rejecting and starting over. I see blood and tears. I remember pain carved in my bones, doubt piercing my heart, fear and loathing waiting to trap me. It looks so easy. But it’s not.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Artist, fireman, traveller; 2017 in books

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congerdesign via pixabay

In 2017 I kept a simple writing diary to track my progress, as described in my earlier post Footprints in the snow . In it I recorded stories written, blogs posted, submissions made, and pieces published. Each entry got a colour coded spot. Published pieces got a gold star, because it’s important to celebrate success.

It was the first year using my Very Easy Tracking System™ and I’d call it a success. I kept it up for the whole year and it was motivating to look back and see what I’d achieved. Together with teeny tiny goals, I managed to write every week as well as posting here. For two months I wrote every day, but a weekly goal fitted better with life.

I recorded the books I read

I am a reader and writer of fiction above all, but not exclusively. So I read some books about creativity, because I like to be meta. The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp spoke to consistent practice and careful preparation as the foundations of creativity. Tharp’s life is one of success through dedicated hard work.

Steal like an Artist by Austin Kleon illuminated a new way of thinking about creating, exhorting us to do the work we want to see done and to be boring in order to get it done. His ten rules make sense. My favourite? Creativity is subtraction. So make it, then take some away. The work will always be better for thoughtful editing.

Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth was a totally different kind of book. For a lover of language, it is a fascinating meander through the history of words, and the way in which the English language enlarges, stretches, twists and bends to bring us the words and phrases we use today. And it’s funny too.

In fiction I first watched the film and then read The Martian by Andy Weir. Both were enjoyable, and I appreciated the firm grounding in real science, leavened by an engaging protagonist. The stakes are high from the very first page, literally life or death. Humour contrasted with the serious work of survival against the odds by methodical problem solving.

Somehow despite being a confirmed Ray Bradbury fan, I’d never read Fahrenheit 451. The writing style is a little dated, but the ideas remain scarily prescient. Video walls, TV characters that feel more real than actual relatives, the coarsening of societal attitudes and loss of true emotion all ring sadly true, sixty-five years after it was published.

But the book that made me think, that stayed with me long after I finished, was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. A Pulitzer Prize winner made into a film would not be a natural first choice for me, as I find most prize winning novels are dull duty reads that few people actually finish. This story is very simple. A nameless man and his young son walk through American landscapes burned by an unknown disaster to reach the coast.

Their world is carefully evoked; the despair, danger and deadness of a nuclear winter where no sun shines and nothing grows. The question is, when we have lost everything, what keeps us moving? Why should we live, how should we live? Despite the bleakness of the setting, this book has at its centre a message of hope. The writer achieves a lyricism not usually associated with post-apocalyptic settings, avoiding sentimentality with his spare prose.

I read more books of course, and the TBR pile grows daily. But The Road was the number one for me last year.

Give it a try

Track your reading this year, and think about what you take from each book. Jot a few notes about it in your diary or journal. It may be only one idea, but it might be just what you need to move forward on your own creative journey.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

Press pause

stop to go forward

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HypnoArt via pixabay

We’re meant to be up and at it, all the time. Get on the grind, be always hustling.

It’s exhausting.

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.