Working and life

Less time, more writing?

My latest experiment in writing is now underway, and so far it’s been yielding up some surprising results. Yep, after years of working freelance or taking on limited time contracts in the hopes that these jobs would give me enough money and time to write, I’ve now got a full-time job.

Freelancing and contracts might have given me some control over my time, but in terms of giving me time to write, it was a manifest failure. Worrying about how I was going afford food and shelter if I didn’t get paid on time and having to hunt for new work every three months ate up any mental space that the money – when it did come in – might have given me. It was exhausting. I was exhausted. And then despite all that energy spent worrying and working and not writing, I lost everything anyway. Time for a new plan.

The latest plan started back in August, when I was lucky enough to win a grant to on an Arvon writing retreat. I cannot recommend them highly enough – it was a life-changing week. One of the main things I learnt from spending time with 15 other writers and actually getting to live with myself as a writer for a week was that routine is writing’s best friend. I sort of knew this anyway, as a professional copywriter and researcher, but I’d never really taken it seriously in terms of my creative work. Which told me that I wasn’t treating my creative work with the same respect as I was my other writing. Which is crazy when you consider that I’d been trying to arrange my whole life around the idea that writing was the most important thing for me. Suddenly, it was obvious why it all went tits up before – I wasn’t actually making time for my writing because I wasn’t taking it seriously.

It’s strange how different taking it seriously feels from what I thought it would feel like. It’s as simple as setting aside some time each day to write. When I say some time, that can be anything from 25 minutes through to an afternoon. The key thing is to set the time aside in the first place and then actually use that time for writing and nothing else. Make writing part of the routine.

I had visions of what it would feel like to be a serious writer – very intense, all-consuming, anxiety ridden and sleepless. In other words, I thought it would be difficult.

And yes, it is difficult, but not in the ways I expected. The difficultly is pleasurable, absorbing in a good way, demanding and exhilarating at the same time. But all that comes from something as straightforward as sitting down at my desk once a day and getting the words on the page. Some days they stream out of the pen as if they were already written and were just waiting to emerge. Other days, the page is littered with as a many crossings out as actual words. But the ink is there. The work is happening. And it is such a rush.

The full time job has been the other part of embracing routine for serious writing. No more freelancing, no more contracts, no more working odd hours and all hours. Strictly 9-5, with (a heart-breaking) 24 days of holiday a year.

I’ve got to admit, it’s been a month and it’s chaffing a little. I can’t just saunter off for a long lunch or do my shopping on a weekday when everyone else is at work. I can’t escape to the beach for a rejuvenating wander when work is getting too intense. People expect me to show up and stay put for set times every working day. It’s quite an adjustment.

It seems contradictory that having less time to myself would mean I have more time to write, but after all these years, the writing is happening. In fact, a large chunk of a novel has happened since August. Just in the moments I make before I head into work. So I guess so far, the routine is freeing up the head space and the time for the writing to happen.

I always thought creativity and chaos went together, but maybe the routine is what give us the anchor we need to go and explore the chaos through our creativity. As for strolling on the beach at lunch, I got to write this instead, a mental saunter in my lunch break. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Survival techniques: a little survey so far . . .

I’ve tried a variety of recommended, rumoured and personal strategies for rethinking my life over the past few weeks and I just thought I’d do a little survey about what has and hasn’t worked so far.

Exercise – such a simple one, but done right, it does make a difference. I know recent studies have poo-pooed the idea that exercise can counteract depression, but as far as I can see, those studies focused on the notion that exercise alone can cure a troubled soul. Arguments about serotonin levels aside, exercise is just a great way of changing the pace of your day, breaking up the monotony of working at a desk, getting outside and spending time with people. Those aspects of exercise, as well as spending time really focusing on being in your body, experiencing what it can do and feeling yourself improving a little more each time, can change your day. I think the crucial thing is to keep it guilt-free and flexible, so you exercise in a way that responds to your day rather than try to enforce a regime that leaves you feeling inadequate or guilty. So have it in your head that you’re going to do some form of exercise 3 times a week, but don’t get up tight about when and how – see how you feel. From my experience, deciding to go swimming every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning works for a week, then turns into a chore. Spontaneously deciding to go after work as a way of winding down works much better.

Eating well – I’m starting to think there’s an important distinction between eating food that is good for you and eating well. You can eat the healthiest diet in the world, but if you’re anxious and obsessive about it, having a healthy diet is not contributing to your overall well-being. Eating well involves being healthy as a whole, not just in your intake – so not imbuing diet with a range of complex negative emotions. Learn about what you eat, yes. Know what is good and not so good for, yes. And then use that knowledge to enjoy food rather than obsess.

Reading around – I’ve been delving into the wealth of material out there about living better, brighter lives, looking for inspiration and ideas about what I can try. I’ve been surprised by how quickly looking for inspiration leads you to the self-help section – and been taken aback by how dubious some of the books in that section are. First off, I’m not entirely sure why wanting to change your life qualifies you for self-help, particularly when a lot of these materials are focusing on addressing your sense of inadequacy. Wanting change and feeling inadequate aren’t innately connected. Secondly, and I say this as someone who has used good self-help books in the past, there’s something about the self-help category, something in the promises the titles make or in the prose the authors use that leaves the reader in a passive position. It’s almost as if the books are reinforcing your helplessness so you’ll have to keep coming back. This isn’t by any means true of all the material, but the bigger the promises (and normally the title on the cover) the more passive the position you’re in a as reader – because the book is promising to give you the answers, rather than help you figure things out for yourself, including setting out who you should be and what you should want.

Actually, it’s been much more useful to read fiction, biographies, poetry and philosophical stuff. And to read people’s personal experience on blogs and interviews. There’s a lot out there about well-being and happiness at the moment and some of it is really thought-provoking. When you’re rethinking your life, that is in fact what you need – thoughts being provoked, new avenues being opened up to you, not someone setting out a definite path for you. Maybe we need a new category.

Paying close attention – I picked this up from Susan Cain’s brilliant book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking (2012). In it, she discusses how she came to think about envy as a positive experience. Until recently, envy has been something I’ve really struggled with, as I suffered from serious pangs of ‘grass is greener’ and used my envy of other people as a means of doing myself down. Cain argues that actually paying attention to your envy and listening to what it’s telling you about your life can turn it into a productive rather destructive experience. So if you find yourself consistently envying people who have cats, maybe that’s a sign that you should organise your life in such a way that you too can have a cat. It’s not always going to be possible, and what you find yourself envying might genuinely be beyond your capability, but it can still help you recognise what’s important in your life.

I’ve found this particularly interesting in my current ‘should I pursue this career or try something new’ predicament, especially when it comes to thinking about what I don’t envy and what tells me. And then I’ve expanded this kind of idea to think about some of the other emotions and responses that come so naturally in day to day life that I barely notice them happening. What do I respond well to or what really gets under my skin? How can recognising that particular patterns or instances produce particular responses in me help me manage those responses and think about how to arrange my life so that I can maximise the good and minimise the bad? It all sounds really grand, but it comes down to little things that have a big impact. For instance, I now know not to check my work emails after 3pm on a Friday, because one oddly worded email can disturb my whole weekend when the author didn’t intend it to. Or I know I need to avoid caffeine when I’m going to look at my finances, because the combination of the two leaves me a nervous wreck. Little things, but they add up to leaving you feeling better.

Leaving Facebook – This has been a big one for me, which in itself is scary, because when I signed up to it all those years ago, it was no bigger a committment than getting an email account. And yet, somehow over the years, something in my relationship to it has changed. I’ve developed some form of dependance on it that made it difficult to leave, even though I’ve long been disturbed or angered by some of the things the company has been doing. But I finally reached a point when I realised that rather than staying in touch with people, I was watching their lives, and watching people’s lives, especially the polished, edited versions we like to present on social media, is isolating and depressing. So I left six weeks ago. It is disconcerting, but god, I feel better for it. I’ve been talking to people more, writing letters no less, and generally feeling more present in my own and other people’s lives. This might be a blip, I might go back and have a perfectly healthy relationship with it in the future, but it scared me that something commercial was that hard to walk away from. And it scared me how much the format of FB was effecting my perception of my actual flesh-and-blood friends and friendships. Forcing myself back into active friendship rather than passive contact has been amazing.

Childish or aware?

I’ve recently being experiencing one of those strange confluences life seems to throw up at particularly poignant moments. Rethinking my life, trying to figure out what constitutes a good life, and navigating my way through feeling like a ‘failure’ according to the yardsticks we’re given to measure success, it’s not surprising that you start to wonder whether you’re just struggling to be an adult. Have you simply failed to grow-up? Are you somehow still living in a childish fantasy, refusing to embrace the realities of this world?

At the same time, I’ve been revisiting and rediscovering some of the pleasures and influences of my childhood, both because I’ve been teaching children’s literature to undergraduates at a summer school, and because I’ve moved back to the place where I grew up. So at a time when I’m asking myself whether what I’m trying to do is foolish, insane, some kind of childish refusal to accept the way things are, I’m simultaneously rediscovering what exactly it means to be ‘childish’ – and what it means to be an ‘adult’.

It’s hard to see yourself as an adult sometimes if you don’t embrace some of the rites of passage your culture values. Marriage, owning property, becoming parents yourselves, careers, are all essential for marking the difference between adulthood and childhood, because without these ‘rites’ or means of measuring status, it’s hard to distinguish the point at which we no longer feel like children. Arguably, we reach a certain age when we realise that it’s only our bodies that are going to feel older – emotionally, psychologically, we are never going to magically ‘feel’ like grown-ups. Priorities, interests, desires and tastes change, but we won’t somehow ‘click’ into being an adult. It’s always going to you, making your way through the world the best you can.

Yet we do move away from childhood leanings and desires, even the ones that aren’t simply ‘childish’ urges and demands. Yes, age and experience change and even transform who we are, but does this necessarily equate to the need to give up everything associated with our youngest selves? Are we giving up certain parts of ourselves because we want to or because we feel that we should in our move to become adults? Or does our move to adulthood mean forget to pay attention to some of the smallest things that bring us pleasure?

Reading children’s books as an adult has been a revelation to me. For the past 200 years, we’ve been using stories as a way of educating children and one of the recurring themes in English-language children’s literature is just how foolish and child-like adults are, not least of all because they believe in things that aren’t there or aren’t important. Again and again, the classics of children’s literature in English return to the idea that grown-ups have forgotten how to live, or have forgotten some very important parts of life, that mean children are more alive to the world than adults.

I was in a café, thinking that a happy four year old could prove this idea to you inside of minute, when an elderly man and his carer sat at the table behind me, and started chatting loudly. Initially, I thought he was complaining about his food, but in fact, he was taking great pleasure in it, noticing the flavours, textures, complimenting the good, critiquing the sub-standard. As I listened, it struck me that we often conceptualise the oldest years of life as a form of regression, a return to childhood, not simply in terms of physical dependence, but also in terms of tastes, urges, temperament. At the same time, the people who have lived the longest in our culture continue to tell us we waste our lives worrying about things that don’t matter, working towards things that don’t mean as much as we think they do.

There are distinct parallels between how we treat the youngest and eldest people in our society. And there are distinct parallels between how they see us. Is there a way in which these parallels suggest that there’s something in the intervening stages of life that are the ‘aberration’ or the ‘confused’ stage of life? Can the way the youngest and those who’ve lived the longest see the years between teenaged turmoil and retirement teach us about the way we live and the way we could live?

So what do the middle years look like to people on either side, who have to live with us and under our regime? Children and people who’ve lived here much longer than us can see what a hash we all make of the middle years, as individuals and as a society. They can see that we don’t know what we’re doing, and more importantly, they can see that we constantly try to hide our ignorance, incompetence and lack of direction in convention and seriousness, cloaking our shortcomings by investing meaning into things that hold very little value at either end of life. In other words, they can see that we are human and lost – and so we will always be ridiculous to them in some way or another.

For either end of life, the middle years look like a gradual giving over of freedom and independence in order to pass for a competent adult. But does taking on responsibility automatically necessitate the given over of all that once meant something important to you? Is this what we have to do, or are we letting too much of ourselves be given over to the task of appearing to be a competent adult, of being a successful grown up?
More questions than answers. But I think there may be something to taking seriously the idea that some desires and pleasures are there in childhood and in later life. Maybe they are in fact there all along – we just forget to pay attention to them in the middle years.

Survival Techniques: Creating Sanity

So the big move has happened. Our little household is now officially dispersed across a small portion of the south of England. Half our stuff is in storage, half of it is stacked up in two rooms at my parents’ house and the random detritus we need to get through everyday life is following us around in wheelie suitcases.

Perhaps more significantly, half of ‘us’ is sleeping on an airbed in Haggerston while the other half is adjusting to life at said parents’ house. All the stuff that’s gravitated to us over the years could be a million miles away and we’d still have that sense of having a home in the world just by sharing the same space – home really is something you weave between you and those close to you. So yes, it’s the fact that we’re in different places that means ‘home’ has become a nebulous idea at the moment.

Combine that with a) facing the world without a plan for the first time in over a decade and b) the unavoidable horrors of moving back in with your parents in your mid-thirties and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty gloomy outlook, no matter how short-term your sojourn is set to be. The highs of having no rent, no bills and a chance to start again from scratch are almost always rapidly followed by crushing lows which turn freedom into loss, conscious, careful decisions into stupid mistakes and hope for the future into failures and fairy-dust. The next few weeks are going to be bumpy to say the least.

I saw that coming. These emotional tsunamis are not a surprise – not that this makes them any easier to ride out. But what this expectation has allowed me to do is to come up with a survival strategy to help me get through the next few weeks and months, a sort of emergency raft to stop me sinking into a paralysing despair.

It’s simple really. It’s giving myself space and time to be creative. That’s it. Simply dedicating some proper time to pursue my creative interests seriously, rather always leaving them as the last thing on a never-ending To Do list. I’m not talking about becoming a ‘serious’ artist, or about making money from what I do – I’m not kidding myself about my abilities! I’m talking about staying sane, staying calm, being happy, by creating something you would like to see in the world. I’ve spent years putting work first and squeezing all the other things I do into the life left over – and that hasn’t paid off or made for something that feels like a good life. So now I’m going to try and swing the scales the other way – put what I love to do at the centre of everything and work around the edges to support that centre.

This is easier said than done right now, but it feels like the only sure way to get through the trauma of changing everything all at once and still preserving the parts of who you are that you love. So to get things going even though my world is here, there and everywhere, I’m starting off with some structured creative space.

First, there’s this blog – which is still an embryonic creature to me, no idea what it will grow into. Then, I’m making my way through codecademy.com courses, so I can start getting stuff out there in interesting ways. And I’ve just started an online course at The Poetry School, ten weeks of writing and sharing poems with other people, something I haven’t done in years. A bit of structured space to let my mind run riot – with any luck, these things will keep me sane at an insane moment.