Not because it was risqué or difficult. I felt it was a great piece; honest and true. And that was the problem. It was too honest, too raw, and reading it over felt like dissecting a part of my heart and leaving it open for anyone to see.
This piece was not meant to be confessional. I wrote it for a competition, and I missed the deadline. As we all do, I drew on experience as well as imagination to create my world. Somehow what was normally hidden sneaked past my filters and on to the (virtual) page .
It sat on my hard drive for a while.
I considered, and rejected, the idea of a pseudonym.
How could I send this off to be judged, but hesitate to post it on my own media?
The difference was anonymity.
It was too close to uncomfortable truths. I usually bury those truths within the lie of fiction, but here they were all too visible. I hesitated to expose so much tender flesh.
Many writers know this feeling. What if someone who knows me reads it?
I wanted my stories to be strong. But I didn’t want to have to write them with my own blood.
One day, heart pounding and mouth dry, I attached the story to a competition entry and pressed send. I felt sick.
Months later, heart pounding and mouth dry, I read that prize-winning story to an audience of writers. Many told me how they had been drawn in by the emotions portrayed.
The dilemma we face as artists is the need to be authentic, to bleed onto the page, while retaining our emotional integrity. Deep connection with a story is visceral recognition, a punch in the gut that says yes more eloquently than any words could. And it is the drop of our blood, the moment of vulnerability, that makes the moment true.
So now, months and many thousands of words later, I am braver with weaving my true experiences and emotions into my stories. And when readers message me to say yes, I felt that too, there is no better reward.
I don’t suggest you should spill every secret on the page. But some experiences have lessons worth sharing. Show us a glimpse of your soul, show us what it is to be human.
When you hesitate because it feels too personal, write it.
When you pause because it’s still a little raw, write it.
When your heart pounds at the sight of those true words, write it.
Someone needs to read your words and feel understood.
We’re meant to be up and at it, all the time. Get on the grind, be always hustling.
Some days are not for progress. Especially for creators, some days it just won’t come. You run aground, the wind drops, the tide falls away. It’s not artists’ block, but something deeper. The well has run dry.
What does it mean, this empty feeling when the words won’t come and the eyes don’t see and there are no more songs in your head? Your Muse can’t be heard. Maybe they have fallen silent, maybe they are struggling against louder voices in your head.
At this point, you need to give up, without giving up completely.
Diagnosing the cause comes first, then action. Step away from your project and check in with yourself. Spend some time considering the possible origins. Write it down if that helps. I find pen and paper works better.
Body– are you hungry, tired, tense from inactivity, thirsty?
try this Go for a walk.
Drink some water rather than yet more coffee.
Go to bed an hour earlier for a few nights.
Stretch your hands and back regularly.
Mind – are you overcommitted, frazzled by too many demands, exhausted by conflicts in relationships?
try this List all your current commitments, personal and professional, consider delegating when possible.
Let go of perfectionism and embrace the idea of good enough. Prioritise and finish the most urgent thing on your list.
Start saying no. Between FOMO and the need to be liked, you risk spreading yourself too thin. Be choosy about where your energy goes.
Identify the people who are energy vampires, sucking the life out of you. Spend less time with them. Yes, even if they are your mother or close friend.
Spirit – are you deeply unhappy, profoundly lost, lacking in motivation for life itself?
You might need help from another if your depression and/or anxiety stands between you and what you want and need to do. I wrote here about what to do when you feel you can’t go on.
try this You can make a start on refilling your well by creating something different; a cake, a tidy room or garden area, a picture if you write, a poem if you draw.
Seek out peace in whatever way makes sense to you. You probably gave it up at some point, whether it be running, prayer, music, looking at the ocean, reading, or yoga. Schedule a half or even a whole hour. Devote the entire time to your own tranquility.
Go to a museum or gallery or store and enjoy looking at beautiful things. Then come home and make something small that is not connected to your main project.
Of course a week off in the Caribbean sounds like the perfect answer to the blahs. What it actually represents is time and space to do the things above. Since we mostly can’t take off whenever we need to reset our compass, what’s needed is a pause.
Just don’t stop completely.
You pause, catch your breath, and then you can go on.
It’s never easy to accept criticism gracefully. After you’ve poured sweat and tears into a creation, getting negative comments can be at best bruising and at worst devastating. But, like taking knocks from a sparring partner, good constructive criticism can spur you on to be better.
Constructive vs. destructive
Constructive critique is aimed at the work.
Destructive critique is aimed at the creator.
If the comments are based solely on what the commenter liked or didn’t like about the piece, without any objective elements, beware. You’ll find nothing useful there. Family and friends often say they love your work (if they say anything at all). Or they might say they hate it. Neither is helpful, though they can still elicit an emotional response.
Unrelieved negativity, especially if spiced with personal vitriol, says more about the commenter than their target.
Put up your guard
Whether or not you sought it out, critique can help. But assess it first as above. Critique does not consist of insults and slurs. Don’t stoop to that level. Walk away from trolls and don’t engage in a flame war that will hurt your brand and your soul.
Defence not attack
Don’t hit back immediately. You’re here to learn something, so first listen to the comments. Take extra time to process the message if you need it.
Probing for weaknesses
A sparring partner exposes your weaker areas without attacking them. The idea is to improve and strengthen those areas. Nobody’s perfect and if you think you are above criticism, here’s one: that idea needs to change if you want to improve. Critique of your work does not lessen your worth as a person. You are not your creation, though part of you may be in it. Breathe and listen.
Engage in rational discussion
You wouldn’t spar when angry; it could turn into an ugly fight. It might take time for the emotional hit to lessen. Take that time and come back to it cold.
Look for the kernel of truth, no matter how small or hard to accept.
Consider the alternatives presented.
If you maintain your present position, be prepared to justify it.
You don’t have to accept all parts of the critique. You, the creator, are in charge.
Be open to trying another way, even if you reject it in the end.
Thank your critique partner for their time and attention.
Having considered the critique and decided what lessons you have drawn from it, put them into action. Good critique is focussed and objective, with examples, and offers specific remedies.
Poor critique says “I didn’t like that piece but I can’t explain why. You’re useless.” Good critique says “I found that piece hard to read because the sentences and paragraphs were very long. You could try having just one idea in each sentence and two or three sentences per paragraph. That will give more white space on the page, which is easier to read on a screen.”
Now you have something to work with. You might cut down your sentences and play with them until you see that it does look better. Or you might find that short sentences don’t suit your writing style. Either way, you know more than before. You can make informed choices in future.
The student becomes the teacher
Everyone’s a critic and dishing out negative reviews is easy. Giving out useful critique though: that’s hard. I invite you to try it, and learn the other side of the challenge. A writers’ group IRL or online will give opportunities to try it out. Being respectful is the first and golden rule. Producing insightful analysis and actionable suggestions, like all good teaching, is harder than it looks.
Sharpening your own critical faculties makes it easier to read and watch like a writer. Deconstructing the magic trick helps you understand how to do it yourself.
Your writing relationships and your own work can only benefit when you learn how to give and take criticism like a pro.
It’s Friday, finally.
The end of the week for me, and what a week it was. A week of turbulent news, both in the world at large and my little corner of it. Unwelcome developments, painful separations, and unexpected changes came thick and fast.
It’s been a hell of a week, actually.
So now I can relax, yes? Not really. My brain feels stuffed full and yet strangely empty at the same time. I cannot be mindful with a full mind. Little fragments of song play over and over. Weariness tugs at my limbs, and the to-do list dances in front of exhausted eyes.
It’s time to slow down.
So, I go out into the garden and sit. Just sit, nothing more. The sun is pleasantly warm on my skin, and the distant roar of traffic fades as I listen to birds chirping, and wind sighing in the trees. There are so many shades of green, if you only look. More birdsong, and if I am really still a brave robin approaches, his proud orange chest bright.
If I sit still enough, long enough, maybe I could become invisible. I pull my feet from sandals and curl my toes around cool grass, and watch cheerful daisies turn their faces to the sun. A blackbird hops by. The breeze brings a memory of roses.
Breathe, slow down, unwind. I drop my knapsack of cares so I can stretch shoulders bent under heavy burdens too long. I am Atlas released, Sisyphus freed, and for this and every moment that follows I will drink in the green refreshment of earth.
Sit still enough, long enough. Here tall trees give shade, blue sky exists, and thrushes sing in the warm sun because they must. I can be grounded and yet soaring, separate and yet whole.
Green will nourish and revive, and the earth will heal my torn and quivering heart. After a time, I will go on. But for now I let everything go.
These entries were made by Bard Loren, and discovered after her disappearance. In addition to the journal, she uploaded over 15 dozettabytes of data, which will greatly offset her tragic loss on this unsuccessful mission. This is her legacy. May she walk with two shadows.
Journal entry: 147.15.1
This is a place more wondrous than I ever thought to see with my own eyes. Everywhere is green.
Bright colours flash and call above me, I think they are called ‘birds’. All around are things I cannot name. But I must try to name them, for that is why I was chosen. I am the foremost Bard of Novaterra, and I swear on the twin suns this is no idle boast. I store the images in my digicodex for later analysis back on board. All those nights in the archives, imprinting lost languages and reading the history of the Founders have come to this.
I have my epicsongs composed and ready, to share with the good people here. This is the greatest honour, to see our origin planet, and save any who wish to leave it.
I confess I hardly recognised this place from the files. The Founders recorded how their home stagnated, torn apart by war that followed desperation when the skies turned grey, the waters rose and land became scarce. That is why they turned to space. We have made the journey of these few light years much quicker than they.
But I did not say it was easy. It is cold in the space between stars, and no place for humankind. We were relieved when the planetary beacon guided us safely to the docking station. Although it was entirely unmanned, this did not surprise us. It is hardly necessary to waste human toil on such a routine task.
I must rest. Solar days are shorter here, and there is only 0.2095 oxygen in the air. No doubt a good 18 hours of true sleep will help wash away the lingering effects of hypersleep.
Journal entry: 147.15.2
This place is magical. Despite the warnings of the cyberdoc, I removed my helmet today. The air is quite breathable although I am gasping and sweating as I press on through green vegetation, towards the last recorded location of a sizeable humankind settlement. I am both excited and apprehensive. Will they understand me, and I them? Do they have their own, ancient culture to share with me? Will they understand the concept of a Bard?
I carry our history, our thoughts and ideas coded in organic memory storage. Perhaps they do not have the necessary interface and holo-display, but we carry these on the ship. The rest of the crew have stayed on board, broadcasting on all frequencies, but I wanted to experience this world first hand. Darkness caught me unawares and I had to return to the ship. More tomorrow.
Journal entry: 147.15.3
I asked the cyberdoc to enhance my performance, and grudgingly it performed a small gene splice. Now my oxycytes are more suited to the stronger, bluer sunlight here. Sol is much closer to Earth than our twins Novasol 1+2, and we have adapted over the generations. Oxygen is abundant at 0.2547 on Novaterra, and I really feel the difference. It was predicted of course, but to actually feel it- that is another thing altogether.
Captain Marish does not like my wandering. She only tolerates it because I am a Bard, and therefore expendable. But I am bringing back valuable data, and I upload my digicodex each night before sleep.
Journal entry: 147.15.9
I discovered today that my blood is dark red now. Maybe this is unwise, but I have discarded my Exosuit. I found liquid water running on the surface! This I know is a key characteristic of Earth, but to see it, feel it, taste it. I walked into the water to understand it better, but slipped and fell. I cut my hand on a mineral formation beside the water, and watched in wonder as dark drops welled from the cut and dispersed into the liquid water. I keep saying this, but you have to see it to believe it. No mining, people can actually live on the surface here! Amazing.
Journal entry: 147.16.3
I have not encountered any humans, but have recorded many types of lower animals. Marish tells me that all is in the archives, but what does she know? The Academy does not encourage questioning, and after all I am the one who has spent more than fifteen twin-sols studying Earth.
I find myself out of step with the crew. They refuse to come out of the ship, and my sleep cycle seems to be related to Sol’s movements.
But the things that are not in the archives are marvellous. Where the trees thin out, Sol’s yellow rays are warm on my skin. My breathing is easier now, and I carry skinbond for minor injuries. At night, I see unfamiliar stars that do not appear on my maps, and there is a single moon.
How could the Founders have considered this place so terrible that they journeyed across the stars to find Novaterra? It seems utterly beautiful to me. Oh, the epicsongs I will compose when I return! They will be the stuff of legend.
Journal entry: Sol 16
I have decided to use solar dates from now on. It makes more sense, and when I stay out overnight in a pod I get a little disoriented keeping to Standard Time. I came across the strangest thing today. (Image attached). I will research these metallic structures in the database.
Journal entry: Sol 21
There has been no response to broadcast and the Captain wants to move on. The metallic structures are manmade, and they were some kind of primitive transportation. They all point away from the settlement co-ordinates in a long, unbroken procession. There are no humans, anywhere. Are they hiding? Did they flee, and if so from what?
Journal entry: Sol 35
I have uploaded all my data. I cannot find the settlement; it is as though the earth has swallowed it in green. But I have Sol warm on my skin, rich scents as yet unnamed and the taste of liquid water on my lips. My skin grows pinker each day, and the only grey is beneath my unisuit. I feel strong and I am happy. I cannot convey to you the joy I feel when I hear the birds sing, and I leave that to another, better Bard than I.
Meantime, I have taken the interface and holodisplay, and some supplies. When I succeed I will activate my beacon. I am sure that no one would willingly leave a place like this, that the Founders would surely have called “Eden”. My search for humans goes on, for I must find them.
She tried to forget about the box. Really she kept herself so very busy, that she almost truly forgot about it. But it was always there, catching her step when she walked past, whispering into her ears when she wasn’t listening.
A box could contain everything and nothing. But she didn’t look because she didn’t care to find out.
She found it one warm summer afternoon, long after the funeral. She had been stiff and dignified, accepting the mourners’ murmured words of condolence. But she felt nothing. Those words rang hollow after all the sniping and criticism. Her mother had ground her down for years until there was nothing left. Or so she thought.
It was so unfair that there was nobody else to help. Her beloved father had gone years before. She imagined him apologising to the paramedic.
“Sorry to cause all this fuss,” he would have said as they bundled him off to the hospital. There, he had held her hand as she wept real tears.
“Really, Theresa, you’re making an exhibition of yourself.” Her mother’s scold bit deep.
She tried not to cry at his funeral. At her mother’s funeral, she didn’t. They all said how well she was doing.
Clearing out the house alone, she found the little dusty blue box, tied with navy ribbon. Eventually she gave in. It rattled.
Inside it she found the baby shoe she had once worn. Finally she cried, that her mother had remembered a softer, better time.
*written longhand in ten minutes, from a random word prompt: box
It’s the season of Easter. Eggs and bunnies are everywhere. Whatever you might think about the origins of Easter, whether pagan or religious, it’s hard to escape. The motif of eggs is woven into the English language. Life is itself a curate’s egg, both good and bad in parts.
We avoid putting all our eggs in one basket, and so diversify risk. We argue in circles about the chicken and the egg. We walk on eggshells through tricky situations, and break eggs to make omelettes. This last saying is the most interesting, because it tells us that sometimes, breaking comes before making.
Easter eggs look so beautifully perfect that it’s tempting to keep them intact. But we know that treasures are hidden inside the colourful exterior, so we’re happy to smash them. (Of course, getting to eat the whole thing doesn’t hurt either.) People, lives, and relationships can have a shiny surface gloss, and yet when they’re broken, something even better may emerge.
It need not be one huge blow, it could be a tiny chipping away that eventually changes everything. Like the chick emerging from its shell one peck at a time, small actions add up over time to something larger.
This is also the month of Camp NaNoWriMo, where you set your own daily writing goal. After I failed NaNo two years in a row, I decided I absolutely could not write every day. It all felt too much for me. But I want to become more of a writer, so I decided on a smaller challenge, inspired by Shaunta Grimes and her concept of teeny, tiny goals.
My goal? Write 150 words every day.
Stupidly small and hardly worth the effort, right? Well, so far I have kept to it, even after a gruelling 13 hour day at work. It’s so very small, that I often exceed it. Then I get to award myself a pat on the back for over-performing! On the worst days, it’s still doable and there is small but measurable progress.
I track my journey, nothing too involved because I don’t have the energy. Just a Very Easy Tracking Plan™ (as discussed here ). All that’s required is minimal motivation and the idea that I could break out of my shell. I hope to build on a series of daily successes that will help me advance as a writer.
It’s the season of new beginnings.
What tiny, daily goal will you set, so you can escape a self-imposed jail of fixed expectations?