Small successes in the discipline of Discipline

Earlier this year I took up running. When I say running I mean jogging fairly slowly on a treadmill, since I have knees that make very odd noises when I do things like walk down stairs or bend down to pick things up. Creaky knees. They’ve been bad for years and I’ve always used them as an excuse to avoid any physical exertion. One day I decided to ignore them, bought proper shoes, and got myself on a treadmill, figuring that the shock absorbers in the machine would give me a hand.

And so it turned out. And of all things, it also turned out that I liked running. I went from being knackered after a minute, to running for 25 minutes without trouble. You’d think I’d conquered it, wouldn’t you?

So I stopped going. My husband began to make noises about the ‘stupidity tax’ I was paying to the gym. My trainers reproached me whenever I moved them around the shoe house and I shoved them to the far end where I wouldn’t have to touch them. I felt my successes draining away from me, my stamina receding back into the sofa.

And then, after a two month break, I started running again. I felt like a beginner again, true, but the improvement was faster this time, and I felt I could push myself to do more. I knew I could do more. I had my past success to draw on, knew what it felt like to push my body forwards for just another “thirty seconds”. I’m covering 5K again, and I think I might want to do a race.

Lately I’ve been sitting down to do a writing exercise every night. I feel much better once I’ve done it, though my fingers are still creaky. But it’s getting easier to make the words come, and I know I can do more. All I have to do is keep showing up.

Routine Schmootine

There’s a lovely curated post over on Brainpickings, about the daily routines of famous writers. It’s fascinating to see how other (successful) writers make their marks on paper, and what superstitions and rhythms they create to shortcut themselves to the work. Some, like Kerouac’s, seem affected and contrived. Others, like E.B. White’s, barely exist at all. All of them are effective, because each is particular to the writer in question. There is no magic formula to producing work – you have to find your own way. Nothing is universal.

Except perhaps this, from Don De Lillo: “A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.”

Ain’t that the truth.

Finding Time: using a Day Planner

Danuta wrote a great post this week about finding time to write, which is something every writer I know struggles with. Who knows why it plagues us, but it does. We can waste time wondering, or we can try to fix it, which is one of my continual quests.

I am a convert to the list, and to the planner, and to a planner for all reasons. The simple act of thinking what you want to do in a week and writing it down seems to bring rewards disproportionate to the effort expended.

We have a weekly planner for the home, which I invented because we found we weren’t getting those stupid DIY tasks done, or communicating what the hell was going to happen this week: when is the grocery shop coming, when are you out, which days have playdates, what are we going to try to fix. We have a quick meeting at the beginning of the week, fill it in and then stick it up. Miraculously, stuff gets done, and everyone is in the right place at the right time.

So I thought, why not have one that can help me get the bigger things done? Things like ‘run a 5k’ and ‘write a novel’. And in one of those internet moments of serendipity it came to me: the Day Grid balancer. There’s a list version and a more organic version, but the basic principle is blocking off time to do the stuff that will make you happy, and not frittering it away because you haven’t got a clue where to start.

If it’s still not working, you could also try the emergent task timer, to see where your energy is really going. That can be a real eye opener. And if, like me, you find the blummin’ internet is eating your life and you are still powerless to stop it, then you might just have to invest in Freedom as well.

Make Good Art

It’s been floating around the ether for a couple of days, but just in case you’ve missed it, I want to make sure you can get to Neil Gaiman’s speech to the graduates of the University of the Arts. It’s twenty minutes, but if you’ve ever wondered whether you ought to be doing what you’re doing, (especially if it has anything to do with making something, whether that be sculpture, clothes, fiction…) then you could do worse than spend your time with Neil.

Two things stood out for me. One: the exhortation to make mistakes, because if you’re making mistakes then you’re obviously doing something. And doing something is the only way you’ll get anything good, even if you have to write a hundred crappy stories to get it.

And two, you should only do work that you’re proud of, and excited about, even if it brings you no money. You will still have the work, and your pride.

This might be hard to swallow, especially with regard to money. But the life of an artist is so precarious anyway that it’s not worth compromising what you want to do just for money. Believe in it. Believe in your own version of success. Write it down. Put it somewhere you can look at it. Keep walking towards it.

Even if you never make it you’ll always know you were heading in the write* direction.

(Ah hell. I swear this was one of those Freudian things.)

The Unfamiliar Window – a prompt for practice

Since I’m feeling bouncy and full of energy today, despite a spring cold, I decided I’d post another exercise you can use to create your own practice. It’s the sudden sunshine after two weeks of constant rain, I think. The upsurge in vitamin D is obviously making me think anything is possible, including some energetic writing practice.

This one is another observation exercise, to jog us out of our ordinary ways of seeing. I realised how much we automatically filter out when I started taking walks with my son – he sees everything. His brain hasn’t yet started to ignore things he has seen before, things that are commonplace, and therefore he is overloaded with information and excitement just walking down the road. Sometimes it’s not so interesting (how many motorbikes I can find interesting in no way correlates to the number my son finds interesting), but sometimes he points out a flower I wouldn’t have noticed, or a heron stock still on the island in the park, or the dragon nests in the clouds. Invigorating.

Ado? No more:

Exercise: The Unfamiliar Window

  •  Describe the view in detail.

You can do this with a truly unfamiliar window, or one that is familiar, that you think you know inside out. The trick is to look with fresh eyes, and note every significant detail you can: the toys in a back garden, a window left open, people at the bus stop, the leaves (or otherwise) on the trees. Paint a true picture of what you see. Try and keep judgements out of the prose. 300 words.

As for the windows themselves, you can sit in front of them, take a photo, do a quick sketch, or  take some quick notes (this will end up being more of a remembered/imagined version but still useful).

Extension exercise: focus on one detail and expand its story. Now is the time to bring judgements into the prose. 300 words.

Workshops and Word Cricket

I went to a different kind of workshop today, not the ‘bring your work and expose yourself’ kind, but the ‘let’s just think about what makes a good story great’ kind. It was billed as a workshop on navigating the world of short story competitions, and how to give your story the best shot.

In the end, all this meant was reminding ourselves to write the best story possible.

It was useful. It was gentle. Vanessa Gebbie reminded me of Anna Burns – compassionate and passionate, and well able to deal gently but firmly with the crazy writer in the room. (I don’t know why, but there’s always one in every workshop I’ve ever been on. Someone who is only half willing to learn, talks loudly and for too long on the wrong end of the stick. The blessing, as one tutor confided to me, is that if you can spot that person in the room it means it isn’t you.) We didn’t have to share work, but we did a couple of exercises, one of which she called word cricket, which had an Oulipian edge to it. I set it down here for you to enjoy too:

  1. Start writing from a short phrase eg ‘The door opened…’
  2. carry on writing until the facilitator throws another word at you
  3. catch the word, and incorporate it into your writing
  4. repeat steps 2&3 for around five minutes.

Obviously it helps if there is someone else throwing the words at you so you don’t know what’s coming next. It was playful, I made myself smile, and it didn’t feel difficult at all.

I wasn’t sure it could still feel like that.

I did have to navigate some internal complications – feeling rusty, out of the game, yadda yadda – but I’m glad I went. It was a step out of my comfort zone, required effort on a Saturday, the quelling of guilt at passing over the childcare, talking to people I’d never met. It was another rung on the ladder, another hop on the way back to writing as a living, breathing part of my existence. All good.

Recommended – Short Circuit, a guide to the art of the short story, edited by Vanessa Gebbie.