blog, creativity, productivity, self improvement

How To Persevere When You Feel Like You’re Failing Creatively

Simple tips for maximising success as a creative

astronomy dark dawn dusk
Photo by Matheus Bertelli on Pexels.com

I want to be a cat in my next life. Cats are great role models. A well-loved pet would be ideal, but since I’m a cat that’s not essential.

I can rely on sharp claws and keen senses to feed and defend myself. I carry myself with supple grace, accept affection on my own terms, and find the warmest spot in the house to sleep. Sounds pretty good.

But in this life I set goals and strive to exceed them. Sometimes that works. Today I’m tired and a little disheartened, because the reward for my efforts is unpredictable and I can’t figure out what’s worth repeating.

You’ve probably had days like that too. Days when endless hustle and failing forward feel like hitting your head against a brick wall, over and over. Days when it’s hard to believe in yourself and stay motivated.

Can you rediscover your appetite for the hunt? Can you be more like a cat?

A Numbers Game

Not everything that counts can be counted. Not everything that can be counted counts. — William Bruce Cameron

Comparison might be the thief of joy, but we still have to track our stats. How else will we know where we stand?

Looking at numbers drives you to a kind of madness. Whether you count views, followers, pounds lost or lifted, or revenue, numbers draw you in. The world shrinks to a set of digits that you then equate to your own value.

If they’re going the wrong way, heaven help you and the people around you.

Peak madness is achieved by then comparing those numbers to other people’s numbers. You inevitably come up short because you only look at the most successful — those who you hope to emulate someday.

But you want someday to be today. You want the bragging rights, the book deal, and the interview on a popular TV show — now. Hasn’t it been long enough? Probably not. It takes much longer than you think or want to build success.

Remember when you longed for just one fan or even ten reads? Other writers are still there, hardly out of the starting gate. You’ve moved past that, and as long as you keep creating you’ll move past your next milestone too. Perhaps there are other measures of your impact.

Views and reads matter to writers, but they don’t map exactly to engagement. Look at comments, however brief. Out of your whole audience, those who comment are the most engaged fans. They take time to read, vote, and then reach out to you.

Treasure your commenters. Reply and thank them for their time and interest. Make a connection. I won’t pretend claps don’t matter, especially if money is involved. But when you’re still some way from your next milestone, the smallest dopamine hit of approval is welcome.

Like No-one Is Watching

A flower blossoms for its own joy. — Oscar Wilde

There’s deep satisfaction in doing something well. Craftsmen of old spent time making sure the back of an object, though not usually seen, was still beautiful. You can turn a finely tailored jacket inside out and find no loose stitches or raw seams. Every part of a created object reflects the skill and attention of its creator.

Writing can be art, but it must always be craft. Your writing should be the best you can produce. Live by the Beyoncé principle: over-promise, over-deliver, and keep on growing. Standards vary from day to day, but should never be less than good. Make it good, then make it better.

How do you know it’s better? On your down days, take your latest finished piece and compare it to your work of six or twelve months ago. Look at those older pieces and see how they could be tightened and polished further.

The same applies to losing weight, getting fitter, or learning a skill. Look back at where you started, review your SMART goals, and progress becomes clearer.

There’s a long way to go yet, but you’re on your way so give yourself credit for the journey so far. Take a reward for effort, and keep going.

You want to be known for consistent high quality. Henry Ford said quality means doing it right when no-one is watching. One day, those eyes will be turned on you. Be ready.

No Shortcut to Greatness

A few years ago I bought a car from a doctor at the start of his career. He was selling the car to help fund his planned attempt on Everest.

Wait a minute. Mount Everest? He wanted to be an Army surgeon. He also wanted to climb Everest before he was thirty. Both goals required a ton of hard work, so he made a plan that matched his impressive ambitions.

Now imagine someone builds an elevator that goes to Everest’s peak. Almost anyone can book a ride and stand at the top. How impressive is that? Not very.

The fact is, we value what we pay for. And the reverse is also true; we don’t value what we get for free.

How does that connect with writing or whatever business you’re in? It means the hard work you do is integral to the payoff you get. The harder you work, the sweeter the reward.

Now you can reframe the work as building a bigger payoff. Giving your work both intrinsic and future worth carries you through the inevitable gloomy days when the wind dies in your sails.

Don’t drift in the doldrums when that happens. What you do when you’re losing is the measure of your character. Get out the oars and start rowing.

Riding Out The Storm

But this time you can’t row. You’re caught in a perfect storm; work, health, relationship or financial issues make it impossible to do more. You’re barely surviving as it is. What to do now?

Maybe you can’t lean in, but you can limit backsliding. Three things will help you.

  1. Harness the power of a tiny goal. Write for five minutes, exercise for ten minutes, meditate for three minutes every day. Set the bar so low you’re bound to win. The little wins accumulate to stop your sense of mastery from fading completely. Choose your goal. Mark a cross on your calendar each day you achieve it. Winning streaks have power.
  2. Work on strategic aims. Get into the not urgent but important box of tasks you mean to do sometime but haven’t yet. Watch a tutorial on that software you bought but can’t use. Do some digital admin; clear out old files that clutter your desktop, file your receipts, check your antivirus is up to date. Use the Pomodoro technique and work in fifteen-minute bursts. Finish one job before starting another.
  3. Focus on the goal. Picture yourself at the finish line. What will you need to get there? Do you need extra training or equipment? A goal is a dream with a deadline, so don’t spend too much time thinking. Planning is a prelude to action and not a substitute for it.

Dreaming With Eyes Open

Sometimes you can fake it till you make it; other times you can’t. When the fears of not good enough and you’re going to fail take hold, you’ll struggle. Struggle is an inescapable part of life, of daring to hope for better. Hold fast to dreams, but know that they aren’t enough to get you where you want to be.

‘The principle of moving forward, as though you have the confidence to move forward, eventually gives you confidence when you look back and see what you’ve done.’ — Robert Downey Jr

A cat doesn’t make a jump by staring at its feet all day. It focuses on the landing. If it falls short, it digs in its claws and scrambles up. Then it sits and licks a paw as if it exerted no effort at all to reach the target.

Keep moving, whatever you have to do, however tiny the progress. Look back only to remind yourself how far you’ve come already, then turn your eyes forward to the peak. It’s always uphill to the top.


(first published 30.7.19 in Mind Café on Medium )

Have a comment? Drop it below.

blog, creativity, productivity

6 Signs Your Creative Project Is On Track – Even Though You Doubt Yourself

You’re doing better than you think

Graffiti of "trust your struggle" in green paint on grey brick
Photo by DJ Johnson on Unsplash

Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

How are your creative projects going right now?

When you start your book or your business, it’s both scary and exciting. Your motivation is high and you can see your progress.

Then you hit a wall, where you discover how hard it’s really going to be. But you pushed on, and now you’re in the middle somewhere. Maybe you’re questioning yourself, or maybe other people are feeding your uncertainty by pointing out problems or deficiencies – or by getting much better results than yours.

Whether it’s a day job or your side hustle, you’re working and planning and getting stuff done. But are you doing enough, are you seeing results, are you getting there – in short, are you winning? 

More to the point, do you feel like you’re winning?

It can be difficult to know where you are when there are no maps and few signposts along the way. Some behaviours are markers of future success, as long as you keep going. You can use them to gauge your progress.

You look forward to doing your work

Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.
Aristotle

As a newly qualified doctor, I regularly worked 70-100 hours a week, with very little sleep when on-call. The long hours were difficult at times, but I loved my work. Learning new skills and doing something I believed in outweighed the fatigue – at least in the early years.

When you love what you do and can’t imagine not doing it, you know you’re on the right track. Stress and resentment come from slogging away at something you hate. 

When the game’s worth it, you’ll put in whatever it takes.

You do the grunt work without complaint

Perhaps this is how you know you’re doing the thing you’re intended to: No matter how slow or how slight your progress, you never feel that it’s a waste of time.
Curtis Sittenfeld, The Man of My Dreams

Every job and activity has boring grunt work. Singers practise scales, gardeners pull weeds, artists clean brushes, and everyone does paperwork. Grunt work is repetitive and unglamorous. It also makes better skills and tools so that you can get on with the beautiful act of creation.

When you perform the menial tasks of your work mindfully, you elevate them. You see that there is really no difference between pouring concrete in a foundation that’s never visible, and carving a fine oak fireplace that will be admired. Both are integral to the finished house. Both deserve your care and attention.

How you do the small things is how you do the big things.

You’re focused on process rather than results

If you trust in yourself. . .and believe in your dreams. . .and follow your star. . . you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.
Terry Pratchett, The Wee Free Men

Making stuff happen is hard work. You’re on the right track when you focus on what is within your control. You can produce, but you can’t directly influence how your product is received or how well it performs. 

Steve Jobs said that real artists ship; and he implied that they make another and continue to ship. Nobody remembers Apple’s Newton PDA now. It failed, but looking back we see it clearly as the ancestor of tablets, touch screens, and more. Jobs stayed focused on realising ideas that were ahead of their time; eventually, the world caught up.

You have one job – execute your ideas using functional processes. Pay attention to your results and use them to guide the next iteration, but don’t get hung up on apparent failure. You might simply need to refine, repackage, and repeat – until you create an iPad.

Your win is out there.

person holding red strawberry
Photo by Aphiwat chuangchoem on Pexels.com

You grow your skills

Anything is better than stagnation.
Arthur Conan Doyle

You know that experience isn’t measured in years but in growth. It’s not enough to write a thousand words every day. Those words must be better and more effective over time. To do that, you seek out feedback and opportunities to learn. 

Successful people are not threatened by the skill of others, they’re inspired by it. You’re humble enough to realise that mastery is always out of reach, but striving for it gives your creative life meaning. And since teaching something is the proof of learning, you’re comfortable sharing your knowledge with others. 

You are only in competition with yourself.

You reach flow states often

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.
Mary Oliver

Remember the last time you got so caught up in your stuff that suddenly it was dark outside, you’d missed dinner and three hours had vanished? That magical state of flow happens when you’re fully absorbed in something that is challenging and enjoyable.

While it can be hard to summon a flow state at will, take notice of how you get there. Then aim to replicate it as often as you can because 

Flow proves you’re definitely doing the thing you were made for.

You own your identity

Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it. Your art is the act of taking personal responsibility, challenging the status quo, and changing people.
Seth Godin

Yes, impostor syndrome is real and you’re as prone to it as anyone. But at some point on your journey, you’ve become comfortable with your title and status.  

You stop qualifying it or hiding behind your day job, and one day you describe yourself as a writer, or entrepreneur, or artist first and wage slave second. Or if your paid job is your passion, you express that without shame.

Feeling secure in your own skin is a sure sign that you’re further on in your growth than you think. Don’t allow others to project their own fear of failure onto you. 

It’s not arrogant or boastful to own and celebrate your successes, large or small. 

On Your Way

Make your work to be in keeping with your purpose.
Leonardo da Vinci

Six behaviours show that you’re doing the right thing in the right way.

  • You look forward to your work
  • You do the grunt work without complaint
  • You focus on process, not results
  • You grow your skills
  • You reach flow state often
  • You own your identity

Success is never guaranteed; all you can do is shift the odds in your favour. Fortunately, that is within your power.

When you find the right path, keep going.

blog, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, productivity

The World’s On Fire And The Sky Is Falling – Create Anyway

colourful photo of graffiti artist by Maxime Bhm via Unsplash
graffiti artist using spray paints by Maxime Bhm via Unsplash

In a time of destruction, create something.
Maxine Hong Kingston

The world is on f*cking fire — Bill Nye said it so it must be true.

When your house is on fire you grab your prized possessions and run. But when the world is on fire, there’s nowhere to run. Faced with the constant stream of bad news, you could be forgiven for simply giving up.

What’s the point of your life’s mission when everything’s going to hell? Your tiny contribution can’t hold back an endless ocean of misery.

It’s so hard to keep going when you’re not succeeding like you hoped, so you might as well binge on ice cream or gin or Netflix.

What’s the point of creating?

A Day In A Life

We’re given only a limited time to make a life. Life has the meaning you give it, no more or less. Meaning comes from finding and using them to do your thing despite all the negativity.

There’s someone out there who needs your thing, right now. That could be entertainment, the tools to do a job, or a map to navigate heartbreak. They see themselves in your thing and it gives them hope.

I once wrote a scene in which two gay men argued about being their authentic selves. A woman sent me a long comment saying she wept, thinking back to the compromises she made in earlier life. She felt it was her story, and for a moment she was less alone.

Emotional connection transcends time, gender, or place. Without connection and authentic feeling we wither and die. That might sound a bit dramatic when you look at a blog post or poem you just wrote, but you can’t know the state of the person who receives your message.

Who knows what your creation could achieve?

The Small Stuff Is The Big Stuff

Think back to a time when you read something that spoke to you. There was probably nothing Pulitzer-worthy about the content in itself. Yet on that day and for you particularly, those words sparked a feeling or a memory. You felt as though someone reached into your chest and peeled away the layers protecting a soft spot.

You felt seen and heard.

Those words were written for you, even though the writer didn’t know that. Like a singer who shatters a glass with a high note, words resonate with a frequency that the heart answers.

Now consider all the myriad ways we struggle each day. We carry our pain and that of others. We try to live a good life. We try to be happy. But often we fail. That’s when we need help.

Create something that can help, even if you don’t see how. Offer perspective, advice, or encouragement. Share your tools, your story and your gifts.

Remind people that there’s always beauty and hope to be found, even if you have to dig through dirt to find it. Remind people that the sun is hidden behind dark clouds, not gone completely.

Once you put your creation out there it no longer belongs to you. It’s a child of your imagination, and it will make its own way in the world. Your job is to make it strong, and let it go.

Lives can be saved and hearts repaired by the smallest of acts. You might never know who you reach, but they’re waiting right now. Defy the darkness.

Go create.

(first published 26 June 2019 by Publishous on Medium)


I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave them below.

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)


Comment or suggestion? Drop it below.

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, creativity, Pat Aitcheson writes, self improvement

Why Being Realistic Will Never Make Your Dreams Come True

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Adulthood isn’t all that.

From the moment of birth, you’re taught how to behave and be accepted in the world.

Adulthood means submitting when life knocks off the corners and edges that don’t fit in your assigned box.

Adulthood means growing up, and growing up means forgetting all those ridiculous daydreams.

Your parents and teachers told you not to waste your time dreaming, because it doesn’t lead anywhere. They taught you that success comes from hard work here in the real world, doing serious jobs. You took that lesson to heart, put your head down and became realistic about what you could achieve.

You forgot to look up at stars and sky, and wonder.

You were caught in a trap and told it was the right place to be. Society rewards conformity with peer and elder approval and punishes the maverick with exclusion and ridicule. Who wants to be that guy?

But your dreams didn’t go away completely. Occasionally you glimpse them out of the corner of your eye, when your brain drifts during a boring meeting or long commute. Sometimes the sight of someone else living your dream makes you envious or sad, and you can’t fully explain why.

Deep down, you know something’s missing from your life.

No Dreams, No Wings

If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they would have asked for faster horses.
Henry Ford

None of the technological and artistic advances we now enjoy were created by realists. Sure, when it comes to implementation, refinement, and exploitation, a concrete approach is essential. But concrete builds solid foundations. It does not let us fly.

Everything that exists in the world begins as an idea. An idea has no mass. It can be as expansive as your imagination. Ideas are limitless. Work must be done to manifest ideas in the real world, but dreaming is free.

Realism doesn’t produce innovation, it produces incremental improvement.To produce something new, you must first dream a new dream. That’s how the world got cars, airplanes, telephones, and computers.

That’s how you’ll get to where you want to be.

Voices In Your Head

You can’t believe everything people tell you — not even if those people are your own brain.
Jefferson Smith

When you decide how to behave in a given situation, the voices of caregivers and authority figures loop endlessly, and often unrecognised, in your inner conversation.

Your father no longer scares you so much that you never look him in the eye, but when faced by an aggressive manager that’s exactly what you do without thinking. And you wonder why you can’t assert yourself.

When you find yourself browsing painting sets online, an old art teacher whispers that you don’t have an artist’s eye. And you click away because that’s not for you.

Here’s the thing. You’re an adult — no-one is the boss of you. You get to decide how you act at all times, and you take responsibility for your actions.

At some point you need to stop blaming parents, caregivers, teachers or others in your past for how you respond to life now.

The past experiences and attached emotions that make up much of your inner self-talk are no more than an outdated script. Once you realise that your reaction today is based on the memory of a conversation that’s decades old, you free yourself from it. That was then and this is now.

You can choose to respond differently and write a new script.

That’s when you truly grow up.

A Lost Child

The creative adult is the child who survived after the world tried killing them, making them grown up. The creative adult is the child who survived the blandness of schooling, the unhelpful words of bad teachers, and the nay-saying ways of the world. The creative adult is in essence simply that, a child.
Julian Fleron

Everyone has their share of bad experiences. You’ve been shaped by them to some extent. Now it’s time to turn the page and write a new chapter with new rules. Acknowledge what feels bad and let it show you where you need to find something better.

This means rediscovering your inner child. Try books such as these to guide your journey. Or you might need to let go of your old programming and try new ways, like Julia Cameron’s artist dates in The Artist’s Way.

We are all innately creative. It is possible to be a functional adult and still retain childlike wonder and creative flow. Both are essential to a sense of wholeness.

From Reality To Fantasy

Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable.
Carl Jung

Now you know that cultivating dreams is not only good but essential and nobody can tell you otherwise, it’s time to examine what that means for you.

Although dreams look very different on the outside, they can be stripped down to a small number of basic desires.

  • Security: safety, stability
  • Love: belonging, bonding, intimacy
  • Esteem: respect, confidence, achievement
  • Self-actualisation: spontaneity, knowledge, purpose, and meaning

Understanding your underlying drives will help you see whether different approaches to similar goals are right for you.

One person might value respect, another stability. The first is happier writing well-reviewed literary fiction, the other writes copy that sells. Their dreams might look like ‘my novel is featured in The Times Literary Supplement’ versus ‘I support myself by writing for others.’

Both are writers but their dreams lie on different paths. Our desires form a hierarchy of needs and we are happiest when the earlier needs are met before seeking out the higher ones. That might mean your dream is on hold while you work on strengthening the foundations of life.

Look Inside

This visualisation exercise is designed to bring your dream into focus so that you can use it in the real world. I’m going to talk about writing, but it can be applied to anything you want to create.

Get comfortable and close your eyes. Breathe slowly. In the future, you’ve achieved your dream. What does it look like?

You’re typing on a new laptop in a cosy study, and your days as a wage slave are behind you. You’re holding a copy of your book in Barnes and Noble. A bus drives past advertising the film of your book. At a party, you say confidently, “This is my latest project.”

Now zoom in on specifics. What are you wearing? Is the bubbly in your glass Prosecco or beer or mineral water? Use all your senses. Turn up the brightness and create a vivid picture.

There Are No Limits

If you want to be a number one bestselling author, touch the cover of your book. If you want to finish first in a triathlon, hear the spectators’ cheers. It can only come true if you first create it mentally.

When you have the picture and the feeling that comes with it, fix it in your mind with an anchor. The anchor is a physical sensation. Linking the sensation with the vision makes it easier to recall. Pinch your thumb and middle finger together firmly while picturing your dream in all its multicoloured glory.

Practice frequently until you can recall the dream with ease, simply by pressing your thumb and middle finger together.

Great athletes use visualisation to increase their chance of winning. They have a clearly defined image of success, and that allows them to work towards it knowing that they are heading in the right direction. And the image can be a comfort when things are not going so well. The prize is still out there, waiting for you to reach it.

Where Are You Going?

It doesn’t matter where you’re going, as long as the destination matters to you.

Once you have a dream fixed in your mind, you can check activity against whether it moves you closer to your goal or away from it. That might mean giving up chocolate because you’re training hard, or putting your great novel aside to make enough money to live on by writing copy.

Either way, you’re in charge. You own your decisions and their consequences. You stop making excuses. Your destiny is in your hands.

Go get it.

blog, creativity, productivity

There Are Two Ways To Find Creative Inspiration – Only One is Right

the moment of ignition as a match is lit
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.
Jack London

Can you create your best work without inspiration?

Some prolific and successful writers such as Stephen King and Nora Roberts have no time for inspiration, dismissing the search for it as an excuse for failure to produce.

Others swear by the eureka moment that hits while showering, compelling them to run to their keyboard still dripping so as to capture their brilliant insight before it fades.

Do you have to choose between 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, or can you have both?

Stealing Fire

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.
Pablo Picasso

Creativity and inspiration are not the same. They can exist separately or together. We’re all creative, but we’re not always inspired. You can make a cake or write a story by gathering your materials and starting. The result will be serviceable if you know what you’re doing.

Inspiration turns good into great, and great into sublime.

Think about the last time you were truly struck by an idea. It seemed to come from nowhere. Perhaps you were waiting in line or thinking about something else entirely. Perhaps you were half-way through your piece and suddenly you went off in a different direction like you were possessed to change the story.

It’s hard to explain. You might say your characters told you what they wanted, the essay unfolded or that you had a hunch, or you shrug your shoulders and say it just felt right.

The Ancient Greeks would say your muse had whispered in your ear. Science says your brain used near-miraculous processing to bring forth genius.

Neuroscience has shown that the creative act involves higher level brain activity. Ordinary pattern recognition steps up to a level where the brain can make new connections. That’s creativity – connecting things.

You can make a fire with two sticks rubbed together and oxygen. Both are essential and together they are sufficient, with enough effort.

Add a spark, and you shorten the process. The spark is neither necessary nor sufficient on its own. But allied to enough kindling and skill, your efforts can go into making a bigger, brighter flame.

Fire = kindling + oxygen + skill

Creation = spark of inspiration + kindling of ideas + skill

Now you need to make sure that inspiration can find you ready and waiting.

The Unsexy Path to Unlimited Inspiration

Whether it’s a painter finding his way each morning to the easel, or a medical researcher returning daily to the laboratory, the routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration, maybe more.
Twyla Tharp

Every act of creation has process at its heart. Every marvellous work you admire is rooted in skills which are hard won and honed by repetition. So before you think about being inspired, you have to do the work of being able to do the work. Always.

In the beginning, forget about inspiration and work on your craft daily. You need to level up before you can take advantage of it. Check your progress with whatever measure you like, just be sure that you’re doing better work, not just more of the same.

The rules of writing (painting, photography, or anything you like) are boring to learn. Learn the rules anyway, so that when inspiration strikes you know which to break and which to follow. Put in the practice time so that when spark meets kindling, you’re ready.

Breathing Space

Inspiration is there all the time. For everyone whose mind is not clouded over with thoughts whether they realize it or not.
Agnes Martin

Just as a flame needs oxygen, inspiration thrives in open space. An open mind is unusually receptive to new patterns. Meditation may be useful but it’s not absolutely necessary.

Daydreaming, naming clouds, or watching a raindrop crawl down a window can all quiet the mind and allow new ideas to surface.

Some people get their breakthroughs while doing dishes or laundry. It’s a time to let our brains idle. For others, free-writing nudges thinking into a less directed state, like doing morning pages for The Artist’s Way.

Others find mental stillness on the move. Walking, running, swimming or even sweeping a floor might work for you.

Everything Is Material

How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.

Henry David Thoreau

If creativity is connecting things, make sure you have plenty of material to work from. You’ll have to sift through a lot of rocks to find that nugget of gold.

Get out from your routine and search out something new. Read something outside your comfort zone, outside your genre. Read non-fiction, look at architecture or a photography magazine. Read a novel you think is trashy and one you think is classic. Re-read the books you loved when you were twelve, or twenty-one.

Visit a museum and spend thirty minutes with a single exhibit. Examine it from all angles. Think about the materials and techniques that made it. Imagine it in your sitting room. Take a picture for later. Print the picture and sleep with it under your pillow.

Talk to people properly, by which I mean ask them about themselves and listen to the answers. We all have a tale to tell and some of them are fascinating.

Visit an unfamiliar place. This could be a new town or part of your hometown where you never go. If you live in a city, take the tourist bus tour and learn something new. Examine buildings, notice carvings and old facades. Sometimes all you need to do is raise your eyes to see much more.

A Marriage of Opposites

It’s a dull, grey world without inspiration. And without perspiration and effort, nothing would be finished. We need both.

When you feel like you’re just plodding along and you’re missing something, make room for inspiration. Build your skillset so that you can realise new, bigger ideas.

Be curious, give your brain space to spark new connections, and always be seeking out new materials to feed it. If anyone can make this marriage of opposites work, it’s a creative person like you.

Go to it.

blog, creativity, self improvement

Reboot Your Dreams To Get More Out Of Life

Photo by Paulin on Unsplash

Kids these days, huh?

They have it so much easier than you and I do, caught up in the humdrum world of adulthood. It makes you angry, how carefree and downright dreamy they are.

Under the anger lies envy. You long for something you lost long before you could even really appreciate it, and now you can’t see how to get it back.

Parents and teachers told you not to waste your time dreaming, because it doesn’t lead anywhere. They told you success comes from hard work here in the real world, doing serious jobs. You took that lesson to heart, put your head down and became realistic about what you could achieve.

You were caught in a trap and told it was the right place to be.

But your dreams didn’t go away completely. Occasionally you glimpse them out of the corner of your eye, when your brain drifts in a boring meeting or long commute. Sometimes the sight of someone else living your dream makes you envious or sad, and you can’t fully explain why.

You know, deep down, something’s missing from your life.

An Imaginary World

Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.
George Bernard Shaw

None of the technological and artistic advances we now enjoy were created purely by realists.

Sure, when it comes to implementation, refinement, and exploitation, a concrete approach is essential. But concrete builds solid foundations. It does not let us fly.

Everything that exists in the world begins as an idea. An idea can be as expansive as your imagination. In other words, ideas are limitless. Work must be done to manifest ideas in the real world, but dreaming is free.

Realism doesn’t produce innovation, it produces incremental improvement. To make something new, you must first dream a new dream. That’s how the world got cars, airplanes, telephones, computers, and video games.

That’s how you’ll get where you want to be.

Put Away Childish Things

It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.
Berkeley Breathed

When you decide how to behave in a given situation, the voices of caregivers and authority figures loop endlessly, and often unrecognised, in your inner conversation.

Your father no longer scares you so badly you can’t look him in the eye, but when faced by an aggressive manager that’s exactly what you do — without thinking. And you wonder why you can’t assert yourself.

School days are far behind you, but when you browse painting sets online your old art teacher whispers that you have no talent. And instead of wondering why you’re looking at paints, you click away. That’s not for me, you say.

Here’s the thing. You’re an adult now. No-one is the boss of you.

You get to decide how you act at all times, and you take responsibility for your actions. At some point, you need to stop blaming parents, caregivers, teachers or others in your past for how you respond to life now.

The past experiences and attached emotions that make up so much of your inner self-talk are no more than an outdated script. When you realise that your reaction today is based on the memory of a conversation that’s decades old, you can escape your past.

That was then and this is now. You can choose to respond differently and write a new script.

That’s when you grow up.

Start Your Second Childhood

The creative adult is the child who survived after the world tried killing them, making them grown up. The creative adult is the child who survived the blandness of schooling, the unhelpful words of bad teachers, and the nay-saying ways of the world. The creative adult is in essence simply that, a child.
Julian Fleron

You’ve had your share of bad experiences that have shaped your life. Now it’s time to turn the page and write a new chapter with new rules. Acknowledge what feels bad and let it show you where you need to seek something better.

This means rediscovering your inner child. Try books from this list to guide your journey. Or let go of your old programming and try something new, like the artist dates described in Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way.

We are all innately creative. You can be a functional adult and still retain childlike wonder and creative flow. Both are essential to a sense of wholeness.

Photo by JR Korpa on Unsplash

From Reality To Fantasy

Creativity is putting your imagination to work, and it’s produced the most extraordinary results in human culture.
Ken Robinson

Now you know that cultivating dreams is not only good but essential and nobody can tell you otherwise, it’s time to examine what that means for you.

Although dreams look very different on the outside, they can be stripped down to a small number of basic desires.

  • Security: safety, stability
  • Love: belonging, bonding, intimacy
  • Esteem: respect, confidence, achievement
  • Self-actualisation: spontaneity, knowledge, purpose, and meaning

Understanding your underlying drives will help you see whether different approaches to similar goals are right for you.

One person might value respect, another stability. The first is happier writing well-reviewed literary fiction, the other writes copy that sells. Their dreams might look like ‘my novel is featured in The Times Literary Supplement’ versus ‘I support myself by writing for others.’

Both are writers but their dreams lie on different paths. Our desires form a hierarchy of needs and we are happiest when the earlier needs are met before seeking out the higher ones. That might mean putting your dream on hold while you work on strengthening the foundations of life.

Look Inside

This simple visualisation exercise is designed to bring your dream into focus so that you can use it as fuel in the real world. I’m going to talk about writing, but it can be applied to anything you want to create.

Get comfortable and close your eyes. Breathe slowly. Future you has achieved your wildest dream. What do you see?

You’re typing on a new laptop in a cosy study, and your days as a wage slave are behind you. You’re holding a copy of your book in Barnes and Noble. A bus drives past advertising the film of your book.

Now zoom in on specifics. What are you wearing? Is the bubbly in your glass Prosecco or beer or mineral water? Use all your senses. Turn up the brightness and create a vivid picture.

In dreams there are no limits to what you can do.

If you want to be a number one bestselling author, touch the cover of your book. If you want to finish a triathlon, hear the spectators’ cheers. If you want to build a million dollar business, see your signature on the annual accounts below a seven-figure number.

In this place there are no limits to what you can do. And it can only come true if you first create it mentally.

When you have the picture and the feeling that comes with it, associate it with a physical sensation. Pinch your thumb and middle finger together firmly while picturing your dream in all its multicoloured glory.

Practice frequently until you can recall the dream with ease, simply by pressing your thumb and middle finger together.

Great athletes use visualisation to increase their chance of winning. They work towards a clearly defined image of success. They’ve lived it so many times in their minds that it already feels real.

Where Are You Going?

It doesn’t matter where you’re going, as long as the destination matters to you.

Once you have a dream fixed in your mind, check whether your actions move you closer to your goal or away from it. That might mean giving up socialising because you’re training hard, or putting your great novel aside for six months while you concentrate on financial stability.

Sometimes the way forwards is sideways or even backwards. As long as you stay pointed at that wonderful dream destination, you can still make it.

Either way, you’re in charge. You own your decisions and their consequences. You stop making excuses. Your destiny is in your hands.

Go get it.

blog, creativity, productivity, writing

How to Find Writing Success By Leaving Your Niche

time to move on

adult architecture binoculars building
Photo by Burst on Pexels.com

 

You know success is out there but you’re not finding it no matter how hard you dig. You see others strike it big and assume they’re luckier or got a bigger shovel.

You could have the perfect tools and focus on your goals, but it won’t matter if you’re digging in the wrong place.

People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.
Thomas Merton

The Double-Edged Sword of Focus

You work hard, eliminate distractions, and focus on one area. This can be good and bad at the same time.

Take gold prospecting. Digging a one hundred foot mine shaft will keep you busy, whether the gold lies there or not. If there isn’t any gold, all your work will be in vain.

The same can be said for your writing.

How do you know where to invest your effort?

You need to go wide and then deep.

Trying new areas is the only way to know if a better prospect is out there for you.

The gold miners need to survey the whole landscape first. They go wide. The surveyors dig exploratory mines in promising spots. They only go deep when there’s a good chance of reward for their efforts, because they have to process a lot of ore to find nuggets of gold.

Then they study the landscape to learn the signs that tell them there’s gold further down, which makes it easier to spot next time.

For example, I wrote an article about being let down by a former friend. It was more popular than anything I’d written up to that point.

Friends shared it and reached out to me on Twitter. It wasn’t viral, but it was a little gold strike. Once I got over being amazed, I studied it to see how it differed from previous pieces and came up with the following points.

  • Personal tale
  • Readers like emotional stories
  • Universal theme of betrayal
  • Conversational style — written as a letter
  • Shared to social media on a ‘quiet’ day
  • Friend shared it on her Facebook feed
  • Cross posted in several places — blog, Medium, Twitter
  • Performed best on Medium

So now I have some pointers to what might do well, and where. I can choose to add the personal, and decide on the best writing style to use next time.

The other lesson is that it’s impossible to predict what will do well and where. Spread your net wide.

Want more? You’ll have to do more

Quality comes from quantity. You can’t hit the target if you don’t shoot, and the more shots you take the more hits are likely. Yes, a debut author might be nominated for the Man Booker Prize or get their first novel filmed by Steven Spielberg.

But these are unicorns, rarer than a lottery win and even less predictable. Working consistently is the best route to success.

There are two ways to approach diversifying your writing. You can explore your niche more widely, or move outside it altogether. Let’s look at that in more detail.

Challenge grows your writing muscles

Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.
Neale Donald Walsch

You want to do more. You want to achieve your potential, though you’re unsure what that might look like.

That means leaving the comfort zone and doing something new. Then assess your results and adjust your course. Let’s see what that looks like for a writer.

Try a new fishing ground

Writing divides into three very broad categories.

  • Fiction
  • Poetry
  • Non-fiction

Writing fiction teaches imagination, how to move a story along, and how to tell the truth by hiding it inside a story.

Writing poetry teaches focus on emotions, how to condense expression, how to convey concepts in word pictures that show the world in a new light.

Writing non-fiction teaches structure, clarity of expression, how to make an argument, how to persuade and inform.

The best pieces include elements from more than one discipline and appeals to more of our senses and emotions. We write to change how people feel, so having more tools leads to better engagement with our audience.

Crossing the boundaries could look like this.

  • Poetry plus non-fiction elements:
    Structured poetry forms like sonnet, villanelle, tanka
    Polemic — a poem with a strongly stated point of view
  • Fiction plus non-fiction elements:
    Tightly plotted fiction
    Historical fiction with strong research base
  • Fiction plus poetry elements:
    Lyrical writing style
    Highly descriptive but concise style
  • Non-fiction plus poetry elements
    Descriptive travel writing
    Immersive memoir

Learn new ways to tell your story. Blur the boundaries. Take what you learn back to your chosen area and play with it.

Try a different corner of your own field

If you always write free poetry, use a recognised form like a sonnet. If you write technical pieces, write a think piece on your industry or an interview with a leader in the field. Horror and romance writers, switch genres.

Your next piece will benefit from a new approach.

Wave a flag and get noticed

This is a great time to be a writer. Gatekeepers might still guard the doors to traditional publishing, but it’s never been easier to choose yourself and get your words out there. That inevitably leads to a crowded marketplace, but there are ways to stand out.

Enter a competition

In a world of almost limitless choices, recommendations count for a lot. That’s why star ratings are so powerful. Winning a competition or even getting shortlisted in one can lead to new opportunities. A win says you can be trusted to tell a story.

In 2017 I won first place after entering the HE Bates Short Story Competition. The boost this gave my writing career and confidence continues even now.

The win raised my profile among friends and family, some of whom took my writing seriously for the first time. The story was published in a local lifestyle magazine.

I now write a monthly story for them and continue to build my portfolio.

It’s a virtuous circle in which success opens doors and changes attitudes, not least my own. And I bought some very fancy noise cancelling headphones with the prize money.

Competitions cover every kind of writing and writer and are held year-round. Writing magazines are good sources of information, and you can google by type. Many are free to enter so there’s no reason to pass on a chance for recognition.

Start a blog

Starting a blog is easier than ever, and can be low or even no cost. While it’s not easy to drive traffic to a blog, you can experiment with your style and start gathering fans.

If you’re querying agents for traditional publishing, they expect to see samples of your work if they Google you.

Your blog or website is the place to assemble your portfolio. Aim for consistent, high quality work rather than lots of rushed pieces.

Medium is one of the best places to expand your writing career. You can write for yourself, or for publications boasting thousands of followers.

Do both and spread your net wider. Look around and see where you could fit in. Try Smedian, a site that gathers useful information on publications plus links to joining them as a writer.

Submit to magazines

Study the websites for guidelines on what the editor is looking for and how to submit. Editors need good fiction and non-fiction every month.

This article looks at non-fiction submission.

Submitting to literary magazines is covered here. This is a good way to build writing credits and a reputation.

With a Little Help From My Friends

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
African proverb

Writing is a solitary occupation but sometimes it’s helpful to share the journey. Other writers understand the challenges and can be supportive, sharing ideas and information. Writing magazines host online forums where feedback and advice is given.

Many online groups exist, often run through Facebook. Real life groups get you out of the chair and offer social interaction.

Be prepared to stick with a group for a while to see if it’s a good fit with you and your aspirations.

 

Groups reflect life and can be breeding grounds for negative interactions, so if you’re experiencing overbearing or overcritical personalities leave gracefully and look for another.

Try It Now

Prompt: a person finds a key in the street.

Now write about it in 500 words or less.

Non-fiction writers, write a poem of any form.

Fiction writers, write a factual piece.

Poets, write a short story.

Take the Next Step

You want to improve and get to the next level?

Challenge yourself to do something new and stretch your muscles. Then employ that new strength in a new area. You never know, your real calling might lie in a totally different place from where you are now.

It’s time to get moving.