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Month: September 2021

Calming a Chaotic Mind with Mess and Morning Pages

I’m typically a tidy person. Not as extreme as some in my family, who keep all surfaces clear at all times (just stuff everything into a cupboard!). But, I’m tidier than most.

Recently, my usually orderly office has descended into chaos.

When it comes to personal space, chaos is a relative term. To some, the above would look ordinary, but it’s a stark contrast to my usual minimalism.

A person’s desk tells you something about them, as much as their wardrobe or their bookshelf. But a single viewing of these things might not be reflective of their full self, or their steady state. We all know that our wardrobe will reflect the fact that we’re going through a bit of a phase, so why wouldn’t your workspace?

Right now, I’m out of equlibrium. It’s not a crisis, but it is a time of change. I’m looking for jobs, we’re thinking of buying a house, a chapter of our lives is closing.

My desk reflects both the disorder in my mind, and my attempts to process it and take action. I make notes, I write in my diary, I doodle. I write random scenes from stories I’ll probably never finish, and scribble a lot of lists. It all contributes to a resolution.

Update on Morning Pages

Part of that process is Morning Pages, the famed technique from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I spoke about it and the rest of my journaling process in an earlier post.

I plan to use this blog as some kind of meta-journal on how my process of journaling changes over time. So, an update on how my morning pages have changed recently:

Only a few months ago, I was writing several full pages per day, just after I woke up. I was fizzing with ideas and consuming a lot of content. If anything, the morning pages barely let off the excess steam.

Now, I write a few sentences at best, in big hand, sprawled over several leaves of the notebook. It’s a purge of the disjointed things rattling around in my head. I’m consuming far less, chewing on what I’ve taken in this year, and on some big decisions.

Soon, it’ll probably change again. That’s part of the point of keeping the journal: besides the content, the form of the pages are a very clear indication of my shifting states of mind.

In Support of Reading Slowly

The speed-reading bookworm cliché

I read at a snail’s pace for someone who likes books so much. The stereotype of a bookworm is somebody who drops a book from standing height and reads the entire thing before it hits the ground, letting the wind flutter the pages at lightning speed.

A. is like that. She can comfortably read a book a day, even beefy fantasies. She says she just lets it wash over her, and the experience is a lot like watching TV.

That works great for her. She gets exactly what she wants from the experience.

My experience of reading isn’t like that at all.

For me, reading is a visceral experience, more of a jumping-off point for thinking than an act of consuming something. If a dramatic scene is playing out on the page, I can’t just read lines of dialogue faster than they would be spoken in real time… surely the voice inside my head would also speed up, become high pitched?

Anyone who knows how to speed read would likely say that’s nonsense, because you shouldn’t be reading with an internal voice. Speed reading is about technique and practice, and discipline. I had to do it all the time for my academic work. It’s about using peripheral vision, intuitively filling in words to complete a sentence, using a ruler or finger to track your progress and not going back.

I ask: where the hell is the fun in that?

I could read faster, but what would be the benefit? We’re supposed to be reading for pleasure, here.

If you’re ignoring nuance, structure and pacing, you’re missing out on most of the craftsmanship that’s gone into the book. My favourite part of reading is getting to the end of a brilliant paragraph and going: “You bastard! How did you do that?” And I’ll go back and read it again.

I’ve also wondered at points whether I have some form of attention disorder. I struggle to just sit and read, line by line, page by page. I spend as much time pausing, staring off into space, running over the scene in my head, as I do actually reading.

Part of the joy of reading is sitting here and staring off into space.

I also struggle to read less than two or three books at once. I scribble notes, jump off the sofa to write in my journal about something, or I take photos of the page for later reference.

There’s something about this meandering progress that’s essential for me. It’s what makes it fun.

Austin Kleon said this, repeated recently by Jason Gurley:

Writers are unique kinds of readers because, for them, reading is rarely an end in itself, but a means of generating more writing.

There’s definitely something to that. If a particular story element or turn of phrase is particularly elegant or awful, I take notice. But in general, I’m not sure this is explains all of why I’m so slow. I probably just have an overactive imagination and bad habits of busyness.

Being slow does have its drawbacks. I don’t sample as many voices in a given stretch of time, and I can scope out less of what’s current. I recently took a tour around some writers’ website, looked over their logs of what they’ve been reading (see mine here). Most of them read a lot more than I do. The obvious feelings of inadequacy followed.

No matter that the average person (at least, the average American) reads just 12 books a year. Surely I should be matching these other writers.

Then I had a shower and got over myself.

A lot of the people I was comparing myself to were full-time writers, without a traditional day job. About half of them were lecturers in English or creative writing — so their day job was partly to read books.

No wonder I can’t quite keep with them, given I’ve had a couple of things on my plate (cough PhD thesis). I’m content knowing that I fully explore whatever I do read.

Sometimes it takes me fifteen minutes to read a single page. And for me, that’s the ideal.

Books Fund – How It’s Going

The Fund

A few months ago, I set up a Books Fund. Affording the little luxuries is something we’ve been able to do a bit more over the past few years. But, I’m still a student, and a few books do make a dent in our budget. (Well, maybe more than a few…)

My goal is to engage with the material that attracts me most. So, I started setting aside some money every week to buy at least one book on my mounting to-read list.

How It’s Going

I’ve been trialing the approach since, buying one thing off the list each Sunday. It’s been 9 weeks, and I’ve stuck to it so far. Part of the reason I set up the fund is that some books are overpriced, or rare enough that even second-hand copies are expensive. The intimidating price tag means the book just sits there on my wish list forever.

So far, I’ve bought several books that fit this category. The biggest one so far is Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter, a beefy book of wonders. I managed to find it for £15, which would have stopped me before, but with the fund set aside I knew I could afford it.

Other weeks I’ve managed to pick up several books second-hand or on deals, without any guilt because I’ve stayed on budget. This week, I managed to get 4 books for £9, including postage. And I’ve also been picking up the odd book or two on top of the books fund, because I’m weak and bookshops smell nice, so there.

While I’ve been typing this entry, the postman stuffed two more through my letterbox…

Falling Behind (a Bit)

As you might have predicted, the result of this uptick in purchases means I’ve fallen behind in actually reading them. Admittedly, I’m not the fastest reader, but even A. wouldn’t be able to keep up with this pace (and she’s a reading machine).

But the fact remains that my shelf is now populated by things I’ve wanted to read for a while, but had told myself I couldn’t afford.

Committing to Play: Tapping Creativity

The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

– Mary Oliver

If you let it, the chaff of life will crowd out your true purpose. Without conscious curation, life falls onto default rails, and and it is possible to spend years on what is fundamentally unfulfilling.

Over 10 years ago, when I was 19, I finished my fourth novel. I was surprised to find it wasn’t obviously a steaming turd, so I decided to try and get a literary agent. (An adorable story, involving me writing my age on the cover letter, as though to assure them I wasn’t actually three toddlers in a trench coat.)

Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury’s gloriously messy workspace. (Image Credit: this Medium article about Bradbury’s recipe for a good life.)

Some of my friends laughed at me, for writing nerdy fiction for nerds, and for aspiring to anything loftier than a birthday party at All Bar One.

I wasn’t quite old enough to realise that friends who laugh at you for trying to grow are not friends at all. Nonetheless, I didn’t have time for their crap. As Ray Bradbury famously said:

“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”

I read every guide on the publishing business I could find, and started querying.

A year later, I signed with an agent, delirious with excitement.

It didn’t go well. By the time I was 21, we parted ways and I set out to publish the books independently admist the self-publishing revolution. It was 2013, the crest of the ebook gold rush.

Literary agent's letter
I still have the original letter from the literary agent who offered to represent me.

I released five books over three years, and featured in a series of short story anthologies. My degree and subsequent PhD gradually took over, and the writing got pushed onto the back burner. I was satisfied with what I’d accomplished, so I let it slide further and further back, until it became not something I do but something I used to do.

More recently, with my doctoral studies coming to an end, it looked like I would finally have the time and energy to return to writing in a serious way. I couldn’t help wondering why I had stopped in the first place. I’d had a great time, after all.

Except, I have a journal that says otherwise. It tells a totally different story. As a friend of Greg McKeown once said to him:

“The faintest pencil is greater than the strongest memory.”

Looking through that journal, the signs of burnout are obvious. There had been ups and downs, but it’s clear that, at some point, it had simply stopped being fun. I suspect that juggling it all meant that I ended up treating it like a chore, rather than something I enjoyed. And something with a long payoff horizon is unsustainable if you get no enjoyment from it.

The key to avoiding burnout in doing what fulfils you is to have some fun with it.

The key is play.

The ideal work is that which feels like play. We’re socialised to think the opposite from a young age. Ken Robinson has a spectacular TED talk about the school system killing creativity (see below). I remember first watching the talk in 2015 and emphatically agreeing: play and exploring are vital to self-actualisation (see Maslow’s Pyramid).

Then I proceeded to grind away in a playless desert for years.

Being aware of a fault doesn’t automatically change your behaviour. Habits are difficult to form deliberately. As explained in this Freedom article, “According to a 2010 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it took study participants anywhere from 18 to 254 days to carry out an eating, drinking or activity behavior habitually, with an average time period of 66 days.”

Maintaining the space and time for play requires commitment.

Sounds odd. Committing to play.

But in the modern world, that’s exactly what it takes. Greg McKeown talks about this very thing in Chapter 13 of Essentialism: subtraction. Cut away all the non-essential chaff of life, leaving the single thing you want to use your energy on (more about that here).

McKeown quotes what is apocryphally attributed to Michaelangelo, which I’ll paraphrase here:

When asked how he accomplished the feat of carving his masterpiece, the statue of David, Michaelangelo replied: “It’s easy. You just chip away everything that doesn’t look like David.”