working/not working

The hump

The hump is always there.

It doesn’t matter how much I want to write. It doesn’t matter how much I love the process of writing. It doesn’t matter how hungry I’ve been to get to my desk and get pen to paper, finger tips to keys. Every time I want to write, I have to heave the baggage of my intentions over the hump first.

The hump is a hybrid creature. It’s a living, breathing thing that changes shape, size and consistency depending on my particular mood. Sometimes it’s a laziness, a desire to stay in bed that little bit longer rather than pull myself out of sleep and onto the page. Sometimes it’s a stack of More Important Things demanding my attention and insisting that I Must Complete These Tasks First before I can spare the twenty minutes of head-space I allow myself six days a week for writing.

But sometimes it’s something less solid, less obvious than these ploys to stay away from the page. When the hump is about choosing a ten-minute lie-in over an extra ten minutes with a pen in hand, I can judge the height, width and texture of what I’m doing battle with. When it’s a Papier-Mache mound of bills, emails and to-do lists, I can get my gait right and hurdle over its hollow shell. It’s when the hump is transparent that I have real problems, when it in fact denies its very existence.

Like when I watch yet another episode of The X-Files rather than picking up that novel I’ve been dying to read for months. Or when it’s composed of Big Questions about Who I Am and Why Am I Doing This. At its most insidious, the hump is made up of the crazy springs and snares of justification, reasonable explanations as to Why I Shouldn’t Write Today. It’s particularly nasty then. Brush up against the rust and jagged edges and justification is infectious, will run riot across you.

This time, the hump was perfectionism. I don’t like this post. Something in the imagery is not working for me. So I’ve sat on it for weeks. And let its draft-y presence stop me writing anything else.

Recognising that there is a hump, always a hump, has been the thing that’s starting to make a real difference. Now I know getting myself to the waiting page is a similar process to cycling up hill. I know when I crest that summit, the view from the top and the free-wheeling down the other side will not only make it all worthwhile, the rush will make me feel so alive I won’t even remember the slog to get to the top.

But that doesn’t stop the lactic acid making my muscles moan and the little demon on my shoulder insist that I really don’t need to put myself through this, so why don’t I just stop? Certain days, that demon barely gets a whisper in before I’m at the top, over the hump and letting gravity take the reins. Other days, he’s in full voice before I’ve even gotten to the base. Either way, when I’m really out on my bike, I’ve never once gotten off and pushed the bike back home. Nah, that promise, that distant memory of what’s over the other side is enough to keep my teeth gritted and my legs peddling.

I don’t even have to peddle to get over the writing hump. Just got to grit those teeth, keep breathing and pick up that pen. That’s it. Hump surmounted. Time to let the words free-wheel across the page.

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Peace and writing

I haven’t been writing. Or to be precise, I’ve been producing scraps, disconnected fragments that work on their own but that won’t lead anywhere. There’s a quality of concentration that’s left me recently, about the same time that the irrepressible urge to get things out of me once and for all faded into something fainter and more manageable. At the same time, the spits and flecks of ink I get on to the page are lingering on moments that rapidly become too unbearable to tarry with: I can only consider these aching instances for so long before I feel like I am sadistically unpicking my own peace of mind. I keep coming back to the question ‘What is the good of poking this memory with a pointed stick?’

It’s frustrating, because writing brings with it a calmness that has been getting me through and it’s a form of calm that I haven’t found anywhere else. I get a clarity of concentration, a focus that can’t be replicated even if you’re trying – meditation, yoga, prayer, they can’t offer me the immersive solace that a good writing session can for me. I can turn over terrible, horrific events, images, ideas and feel their impact deeply, fully, to the point that I cannot bear it (an idea which I am increasingly fascinated by – bearing the unbearable) and at the same time, let these thoughts and emotions flow through me to create something. Creating out of pain, producing something from the void, sculpting the darkness.

It’s a method of acceptance, I suppose, but it’s not like any other form I’ve tried. Partly because it’s not about making a peace or a pact with the darkness. It’s more like I’m mobilising it in a different way, deliberately stirring it so that I can mould it to fit a purpose that’s half way between its agenda and my own. Because it does have an agenda; to eat away at my wellbeing, to creep around the edges of my life and then gently squeeze until I wake up one day to realise my world has once again become a tiny sliver of what it once was. Acceptance, or recognising that shadows are part of my day to day are key for starting to push back and open up my world again – but I struggle with the notion of acceptance as making peace.

Peace is an incredibly appealing idea. Being entirely at rest with yourself. Being completely alive to this moment now and not letting the moments before or to come press in on the pleasure of this instant. Being able to sleep and eat and be spontaneous without guilt or fear. And I know this, because I’ve had and have moments of peace, perhaps more recently that I’ve ever had before. But this is where I hit a paradox.

I get these moments dotted across my week, usually unexpected, vivid and often illuminating. But the greatest peace I experience comes when I am writing, and in the immediate aftermath of writing. It’s almost like fantastic sex, except the quality of the adrenalin is different. It’s not peace like any other; it’s absorption rather than acceptance, it’s giving yourself over entirely to what is passing through you rather than embracing and pulling things towards you. And I need that pointed stick to crack the crust of acceptance and stir things into motion in order to let things pass through me and beyond me onto the page. Which means my favourite form of peace comes from my pain.

Which can make things pretty unbearable, and the unbearable can leave you voiceless, silent, spitting fragments as your larynx splinters under the pressure.

I’ve got to figure out a way to live with this, because I’m not going to give up my pointed stick.

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.