Why perfectionism is more of a threat to creativity than almost anything else.

Why perfectionism is more of a threat to creativity than almost anything else.

I’m often saddened by the carping, the petty and the pedantic more than I am by other things because they seem to single out a tiny blemish and declare an entire face ugly. I’m not among those who believe a few typos in a book render the whole thing worthless, and it’s taken me a long while to get past that fear that says unless my appearance is perfect I don’t deserve any sort of a life. I grew up with a belief that I’d never be pretty if I didn’t lose weight and get rid of my acne. It’s taken till my mid forties to leave the acne behind and the weight seems to be a part of me now. But I’ve started to shed the belief that everything needs to be perfect for the whole to be worthwhile.
There’s a continuous battle currently raging, between those who think that less-than-perfect books by independent self-published authors are ruining the market for those who strive to turn out polished manuscripts edited to the nth degree, encased in professional and eye catching covers, and with those who think that it really doesn’t matter if there are crap books on sale. Some have declared that sub-par books are the greatest of threats to any author serious about their work.
This last week, I came up against my own neurosis about needing things to be perfect. I bought myself two rather wonderful colouring books, as a part of a kind of therapy for myself, a de-stressing hobby that has become a huge thing among French women. I even joined the Facebook group. But the books were simply too lovely, too exquisite and too good for me and I had a sudden dip into misery because I couldn’t bear to set pen to paper and potentially ruin them.
A lot of writers obsess and rewrite paragraph after paragraph, chapter after chapter, seldom if ever completing a draft. Those who do complete a draft then spend years rewriting and rewriting and never quite come to the point that you HAVE to come to: this is done, this is enough. There’s something to be said for rewriting; it can be when you find your way past the chaos in your own head to what the story needs to say, but the endless polishing, the shifting of sentences here and there, becomes a form of procrastination. It puts off the horrible moment when you need to say, “It is finished.” No book is ever truly finished with and completed; there is always more you could do. Yet to become a book rather than a work continuously in progress, it’s vital that you stop and step away and let it alone to fly into the hearts of readers.
If you’ve ever painted, there’s a pivotal moment when you know that if you add any more paint to a canvas, you will destroy the picture. The same is true about books; there’s a point at which any more fiddling (whether adding or removing words) is going to annihilate what you have created. Seeking to write “the perfect novel” is never going to happen because most of the skills needed to create something that powerful are employed unconsciously and in spite of the author’s own agendas.
That’s what’s been so pleasant about the colouring books. Once I got past the “oh they’re too nice for me to spoil,” fear, it became a matter of relaxation. There is no great personal weight of expectation of creation involved. I am applying colour in a personal way to a work of art someone else created for me to PLAY with and enjoy. It doesn’t need to be perfect when it’s finished because the only person who sees if completed is me (and anyone I show it to) and as much as anything, it’s been the process of creating that has been important, not the finished product. It takes a great burden off the person colouring; if you make a mess of it, you can start again with another picture, or if you ruin the whole book, you can buy another and try again. There’s no great inherent creativity involved yet the process surely inspires creativity.

Stationery P*rn ~ or the lure of perpetual possibilities

Stationery p*rn ~ or the lure of perpetual possibilities.

(Do note the careful expurgating of a certain word in the title. If I have a post go viral I’d rather it did it for the right reasons.)

In the last few days I have seen a good deal about my fellow creatives love of stationery. Pens, paper, art materials, pencils and notebooks. Mmmm notebooks…

Time to come out of the (stationery)closet and admit my adoration for notebooks, pens and the like. I buy notebooks compulsively. I own many. Most of them are empty. I buy more when I still have shelves full of them. From the simply ring bound hard back notebooks to novelty ones made with banana paper or even rhino poo, I just love ’em. I specially love those which have beautiful mysterious meaningful covers. A year or two back my husband gave me one at Christmas that has a delightful Renoir painting on the cover. I have them in every colour, and size. And yes, most of them remain empty. I use Moleskine notebooks as my travelling notebook of choice and for good reason. The sheer quality of the paper, the design, the functionality (ink does not bleed through so you can use both sides of each sheet) and the pocket at the back for extra documents, plus the fact that the pages open out properly so you can write rapidly with ease, and not have to hold the notebook down forcibly. I carry one in my handbag at all times, with a smaller one that is not ruled so I can draw if I want to. Moleskine carry a much bigger range than you usually see in the few shops that stock them but I usually buy packs of three in the cahier range (plain cardboard covers, ruled paper) in whatever sizes are available. Yes, they are expensive if you are not a stationery afficionado, but they are a pleasure to use and they are worth it to me because I actually do USE them. That’s where my ideas get jotted down when out and about; where short stories can get roughed out when I’m travelling, or poems or musings.

But the ones that don’t get used, they are a powerful symbol for something that cuts to the soul.

Does anyone here remember Syd Barrett, one of the original members of Pink Floyd (when they were THE Pink Floyd)? Syd had a breakdown and left the band but continued to write music up until his untimely death a few years ago. I heard a story about him that resonated. It wasn’t unusual for Syd not to get up at all, for days on end; apparently he had a belief that each day contained endless, shining possibilities and that once you left bed to start the day, those possibilities became whittled down to very few or just one. He worried that he’d be making the wrong choices if he got up, that the day would go on but it would become fixed and all those myriad other days would cease to be possible.

That’s why many of my notebooks don’t get used. While they are blank empty vessels waiting to be filled with literally ANYTHING, they are portals to other dimensions, other lives. The moment I set pen to them, they become fixed for one purpose only. I have the most lovely red leather covered notebook with an embossed pattern of Mayan hands. I bought it deciding I would only write in it the good things in life than happened to me. I do write in it but not often because being a novelist I feel the need to provide narrative cohesion even for my own scribblings so I need to recap, explain and contextualise events I chose to write in it. I have a suede notebook that is just my complainings, day to day mundane, get-it-out-of-my-head journalling that I hope no one ever reads. I can’t now take that suede book and write anything different in it. I can’t use my red leather one to write down stories in.

Remember that one with the Renoir on it? I have plans for that. One day, I will learn calligraphy and I will write up all my own poems in that as a gift for my husband. He reads this blog but perhaps he’ll not read this post…

I was given a delightful Gratitude notebook that remains blank because it’s simply too nice for me to use (self esteem issues here) in case I spoil it. There’s another that has a picture of powders that may be spices or paint or dyes, that seems to be waiting to become perhaps a recipe book… There’s one with hand-made paper that looks like it needs to be filled with magical recipes for incenses and potions…There’s one covered with Indian rough silk I think may make a dream journal…

I could go on. Every blank notebook carries with it the possible books that might be written within it. Once you start writing, that book is fixed, and there’s no going back. So I will buy notebooks and some will be used, some will remain empty, and some will be only half filled.

Because one of the nicest things about being a grown-up is being able to start a new exercise book without having to show teacher you have finished the last one. We can be lavish, expansive and creative and we can hold a world of possible books in a row of empty notebooks, and have the choice of where to go.

And don’t get me started about pens…

Why the poet’s garden may be a jungle, the artist’s house a mess and why writers often live on noodles

Why the poet’s garden may be a jungle, the artist’s house a mess and why writers often live on noodles

A couple of years ago, a friend expressed puzzlement at why we had stopped making our own wine and beer. It had been so much a part of our lives that at one time I considered starting a small business. A quick look at the complexities of licensing law put me off but for many years I spent countless hours picking fruit, fermenting petals and enjoying the alchemy of turning a pile of elderberries into a deep red beverage that tasted just like vintage port. Our scullery in our Norfolk rectory was stocked with barrels of beer and cider, and we experimented with recipes using raspberries and even heather.

And then it stopped. Not overnight, but over a period of years and I know it baffled those of our friends who had seen it as a part of us. Neither of us were big drinkers, except when we had company at Christmas and other times; we enjoyed the process of creating the products possibly more than we enjoyed drinking them.

I used to be a great gardener. Not one of those neat particular sorts, but one who sought out unusual and dramatic plants and every garden I planted had a deeply sensual aspect, filled with scent and taste and texture and eye-catching form and colour. Not any more. You could lose a tribe of fairly tall pygmies in our vegetable patch this year.

Once upon a time, I was also an imaginative cook, taking ingredients and experimenting and creating new taste sensations. I used to love exploring ethnic foods and trying to recreate the flavours at home. I used to bake our own bread from scratch and made my own jams and pickles. Nowadays, when left to myself, I eat noodles and whatever is in the fruit bowl.

So what changed?

It’s hard to pinpoint precisely what changed. They were all things I enjoyed doing. I was good at them; they gave me and others pleasure. It certainly wasn’t boredom.

When I was brewing wine and gardening and experimenting with food, it was during a time when my writing was of less importance to me. Indeed, for many of those years, I had turned my back totally on the idea of being a writer. I defined myself in different ways.

But in 2003, after a move to the Midlands, I’d found myself caught up in a narrative in my head that wouldn’t go away and became so insistent that finally, at the latter end of October that year, I began writing. I wrote obsessively for seventeen days and produced a novel of such complexity and brilliance I still to this day wonder where it came from. From that time onwards, writing became my North Star.

Around that time too, I bought a book by Julia Cameron, called Walking in this World, a sequel to her best-selling The Artists’ Way. I worked through the twelve week course and found it revealed some powerful secrets of my own soul. I convinced a close friend to do the same and while she found it interesting, at the end she said something that has haunted me to this day. “I don’t think I’m a creative person,” she said.

The problem is she had confused creativity with the most obvious examples of creativity in action: art, poetry, writing etc.

Every human being alive is brimming over with creative energy. It’s a part of being human. But that does not mean every single person is an artist, a poet, a chef or whatever. Far from it. Those are areas where the creative energy has been focused and honed and worked with.

There are two things I have discovered about creative energy. The first is that creative energy is completely neutral. It doesn’t care whether it is used to create the Mona Lisa or whether it is used to colour co-ordinate pegs to clothes when hanging them on the washing line. It doesn’t care whether you use it for writing the next Booker prize winner or writing rude words on a toilet door. Like electricity, it can be used to power wonderful things or it can be used, like the electric chair, to murder.

The second thing is that creative energy is finite in the sense that every day can only contain 24 hours, each day can hold only so much creative energy. Many of us who have day jobs have discovered that when we get to the weekend when we have the time to explore our creative expression, there is nothing left after a busy week. When my daughter was a baby, I spent a lot of time and some money researching the perfect sippy cup for toddlers and trying to design one that fulfilled every need. I also spent time trying to find the perfect fold for nappies for every different stage of babyhood. So when I had time to write, I simple didn’t have the creative energy to do much. And when I did begin writing properly when she was small, other things had to give way. Keeping a tidy, attractive house, entertaining guests, producing imaginative food all went the way of the dodo. They still do, when I have a writing project on the go.

I can bet that you are now thinking of some fabulous god/goddess of creativity now who seems to be able to do everything and still write/paint/garden to perfection. They have either learned to prioritise their creative projects and maybe delegate some tasks to others, or else their interpersonal relationships are in dire straits. Maintaining close relationships is also something that uses our creative energy, and some people take more than they give in this area.

In essence I believe that we need a greater awareness of where our creative energy is going and a much greater sense of its value. I don’t believe that it is a totally finite resource in the sense of being able to use it all up in one great enterprise or by simply squandering it. It’s something that is renewed every day, in some measure. That said, I do think it is worthwhile to review at intervals where it is going and assess whether we might use it better. If you find that it is vanishing without trace, swallowed up by life and by the day job, then you are faced with a dilemma. It may well be that the leftover energy is actually being consumed by other acts we don’t always consider creative: choosing clothing, shopping for Christmas presents, planning holidays.

For myself, when my teaching job is in full swing and I have a class I engage with, there is a strange thing that happens. The energy I put into creating lessons that meet the students need is somehow paid back by the students’ reactions. They spark my imagination. But other times, I feel I am wading through treacle and a class is non-responsive to the creative energy I had put into it. This is when it’s wise to withdraw and use tried and tested methods created by someone else and save my energy for where it is better received.

Learning to identify and understand where our creative energy goes is a valuable lesson because if it is finite on a daily or weekly basis, then if we have work we feel is valuable, then allowing ourselves to pour out energy on things that don’t matter is robbing ourselves of our own resources.

Don’t give up the day job ~ but not for the reasons you’d think

Why the day job might just save your creative expression.

I sometimes read about writers( and other artists) bewailing the fact that they have to do a day job to support themselves and wishing that they could just jack in said day job and just write all day. The internal conflict between what they wish to do and what they have to do seems to cause much distress and discontent and I thought it might be a good idea to examine this concept in some detail and perhaps place the day job in a different light.
I have two jobs. Neither pays enormously well and they certainly don’t pay all the bills. One has caused me a massive amount of grief over the three and a half years I have been doing it but I won’t whinge about that now. The fact of the matter is that the events of the last few years of that job are such that if I wrote them as a key part of a novel, they would never be believed. My other job takes me all over Europe, I get to meet interesting people, eat occasionally rather challenging food and see places that I’d never have seen. I’m a borderline agoraphobic so ending up with a job that involves traveling seems a pretty huge cosmic joke at times. But it’s pushed me out of my comfort zone, a space which was threatening at one time to become smaller and smaller every year, and testing and enlarging the comfort zone is a vital part of growth.
Each of my job brings me insights and refreshment for my mental landscape that staying home all the time might never do. There comes a time when you need to feed the animal that is your imagination and both of my jobs do just that. It’s not a question of spotting a curious looking chap in a coffee shop and playing at inventing a life story for him: that’s just an exercise. It’s about the feeding of the deep and often unconscious processes going on inside the mind. I get to chat to the strange people in coffee shops and actually ask them their life stories and believe me, wild though my imagination is, there are plenty of times when the stories people tell me are far wilder and more unpredictable than the ones I can invent. I have a knack, a gift if you like, of being approachable and people tell me things. I mean total strangers tell me things they probably wouldn’t tell their families or friends. It would be an easy matter to hijack these tales and use them unadulterated but that’s cheating. Those wild tales, the sights and sounds and sensations all sink deep and are left to ferment. I am fermenting the work stories of the last couple of years and I am not sure yet if the resulting brew is a rough West Country scrumpy or something more refined. Give it time and it becomes something smooth and intoxicating.
I can hear you thinking, well that’s all very well for her but I do a desk job and that never happens to me. Really? I wonder. I’ve done my share of tedious jobs and the teaching job is one that I find tedious at the moment because it’s so full on when there’s work and dead when there’s not. But every day there’s a few gems to be stored away and worked upon. The travel job has its down side: long hours, unpredictable food, being away from home.( I wrote this in a Premier Inn just outside of Leicester because I was to start my working day that night at 11.30pm. I didn’t get to bed before 11pm the next day. I was basically hanging around reading and conning up on my notes for the next day. That side of my job is far from glamorous.)
So, imagine I have the chance to write full time….what would I do? Well, in all probability, I’d probably carry on with both jobs too and there’s good reason for this. In both jobs I often have great gaps between assignments; last winter I had about 7 weeks without any work at all. This year I had no work all March. Even when I am working, I have time at evenings and weekends to write. I have found that my output when I have all the time to write is actually about the same as when I have a limited time. A thousand words a day makes a decent size novel in around three months. A thousand words takes me about an hour. The long hours on coaches and sitting waiting for students also give me a lot of mental space where I can dream and plan and even sit and write if I want to. I seldom write while on a coach because I end up feeling sick and writing by hand is often unreadable when the road is not perfectly smooth(which is all roads!)
The logistics of finding time to write while doing a full or part time job is tricky, especially if you have a family or an active social life, or if your job spills over into your private time in some way. But it’s worth remembering that a whole load of famous writers did just that; few ever earned enoughfrom their writing to live on. Trollope was a postmaster and wrote his daily thousand words before he opened his post office for the day; his output was steady and his work of high quality. Being able to write all day every day guarantees neither high output nor quality. Sometimes the sheer guilty pleasure of getting to write means that like any stolen time, it’s both sweeter in terms of personal satisfaction and in terms of the beauty of what you do with it. If you get up every morning and write, there will come a morning where you wake and think, “Do I have to?” Those mornings start to cluster and before you know where you are the dreaded writer’s block has its claws in you. Waking on a day you have carved out for yourself to do with as you will is a different feeling.
If writing becomes your job, then all the other negative aspects of a job come along too, sooner or later. If writing is your vocation, your calling, your passion, then it will retain its joy, even when you are tearing your hair out over it.
That’s where a real job can save your creative life. You get to do something outside your own inner world, you get to connect with ordinary people as well as the extraordinary ones in your head. It means that those extraordinary ones gain some grounding in reality which in turn leads to greater realism and the ability to capture your readers’ attention and keep it. Imagination is a great tool when blended with experience and when it is blended with experience that is share and understood by your readers then you have a hold on their minds that pure imagination can never give. We need a handhold of the familiar to be able to climb mental mountains. And that’s one of the things an ordinary job can give you.

(A version of this article appeared at www.creativebarbwire.wordpress.com last year. )

Where do heroes come from? Exploring the bond between writer and characters.


Where do heroes come from? Exploring the bond between writer and characters.


It’s pretty rare that I write about writing on this blog; in that sense this is far from a Writer’s Blog of the classical kind. But the last few days have brought up a variety of issues and while boiling the kettle a short while ago, I had a bit of an aha moment.

Let me backtrack a little. Stay with me; I’ll get to the point as soon as I can.

Yesterday I got walloped with the worst attack of severe, paralysing anxiety I have had in many years. I teetered on the brink of all-out panic attack for about fourteen hours, before finally taking some sleeping tablets and going to bed. I woke feeling a bit better, more able to function but deeply disappointed in myself for not coping better with something I really thought I had overcome years ago. I’ve learned dozens of ways of dealing with it but none of them really worked yesterday. One of the keys to making it through to bedtime without slipping into panic was a comment by one of my Twitter friends; Christophe said “It’s just an excess of adrenaline.” Oddly enough being able to reduce it to a named hormone made it much easier for me to deal with, because it was finite. It was such a masculine approach to the problem and it really struck home more than anything else might have done.

But today, I started thinking about the novel I am close to completing and remembered that the hero of that novel has been suffering with some severe anxiety and panic issues(for good reasons, I must add) and in exploring his journey through this, I do wonder if I have stirred up something unresolved in my own. This set me to thinking even more about the deep link I have with my characters.

In Strangers and Pilgrims, each of the six protagonists reflect aspects of my own character, translated into a life and a person. Each of them has endured some pretty heavy duty suffering but writing it in a way that compartmentalised this suffering, spreading it among six people, meant that I never got the full force of it while I was writing it. When one became too much, I could just shift to another and spread the pain more thinly.

I know there are plenty of writers who see their characters as just characters and no more than that; essentially puppets or pawns to move around to serve the purposes of the plot. But that’s not the way I work. My writing is a symbiosis between the characters and a thread of story that has wormed its way between the worlds and often come to me in dreams; these stories are living, evolving beings who shift and change and demand things of me I would give to no human. And the characters come from somewhere deep, often very deep, within my own soul, emerging like old friends fully formed but with surprises in store for me. I don’t ever really know who and what they are; I listen to the tale they tell me in the darkest hours of the night and weave the words and the images I see until I am ready to write.

The novel I am working on is the third in a series and it came to me today that the connection I feel to the hero is deeper than almost any because the hero is in effect my soul’s attempts to translate my animus into a real being that has existence beyond the psyche. Is it any wonder that the last day or two have been a struggle, as I seek to bring a conclusion to this story where no ending is really possible without my own death?

I am bound up as much in my own stories as I am in my own external life, and the bond between them is such that for the years where I didn’t (couldn’t) write I knew myself to be living a half-life, barely alive and out of touch with my soul. I think that this may also be why I feel so powerfully the need to have others read my stories. John Donne wrote that No man is an island, and I believe this to be true. Who I am and what I create are so closely bound as to be inextricably linked, Siamese twins joined at the heart and mind. Without one, the other will die.

Black Holes and the (Meta)physics of Popularity


Black Holes and The (Meta)physics of Popularity

Have you ever stopped to question how something becomes and remains popular? Has it ever baffled you beyond words why a singer or a film or a book gain a massive following, and yet has left you cold, and unable to see its appeal? Have you ever finally succumbed to peer pressure and bought the latest must-read book, that must-have music and found yourself wondering why the blazes this has somehow hit the big time when you can see few redeeming features in it?

I bought the novel Twilight about two years, to read while away on a trip, and was seriously disappointed. I got to the end and was unable to see why it has become a global phenomenon. It is poorly written, and unoriginal; someone has described it at Jane Eyre with vampires and werewolves. The characters are flat and unrealistic, the plot thin and predictable and it doesn’t even scare. While I am fully aware I am not a part of the demographic for which it is intended, I am also aware that a hefty section of the fan base comes from women of my age and background. I remain baffled.

The same applies to certain of the big blogs, which will remain nameless and linkless for reasons I hope will become apparent as I go on. These are the blogs that have hundreds of thousands of hits a day, who have subscribers in their tens of thousands, and every post draws hundreds if not thousands of comments. I’ve had a look at such places and come away baffled by why the numbers are so high. They don’t usually offer anything that strikes as wise or clever or helpful or really anything out of the ordinary; the self help ones seem to repeat the same type of information you can find anywhere. There’s nothing there to keep me coming back. And yet people do. They come back and read obsessively and comment and recommend and re-tweet.

These are the blogs I call the Black Hole Blogs. They inhabit the same universe as I do, they occupy a tiny space(virtual places are virtually without geography) and yet they have such immense mass that they draw in everything. Other blogs speak of them with awe and reverence and even a little fear. There’s always a danger they will swallow up all the readers who have an interest in that subject, and once those readers go past that event horizon from which exit is impossible, they are lost to lesser blogs.

It’s the same with best-seller books and authors, and blockbuster movies and chart topping music. Once something reaches a certain size, the size alone is what draws people in. How many of us went to see Avatar, because everyone we knew had been to see it? It’s a very average movie, with recycled themes. I was disappointed (I saw it in 2D so perhaps that is another factor) and couldn’t see what the fuss was about.

In the end, I do question whether popularity is more about herd mentality than it is about the quality of the product itself. Nobody wants to be the odd one out who doesn’t watch a certain reality TV show (insert whichever is current) or hasn’t seen the in-film or read the in-book. Every time a Harry Potter book was launched, commuter trains were packed with adults reading the latest offering from JK Rowling. Before that The Da Vinci Code was the in-book. It doesn’t matter in the end about the quality of the product, if the marketing gets a certain number of people to buy into the adventure(music, book, film TV whatever) then a strange cascade effect takes place.

There are plenty of times where the popularity is deserved. A great book, a superb film, a fabulous album can just as often reach the heights. And yet, so too does total and utter rubbish. It baffles me. It’s beyond  simple issues of taste and choice.

In blogging terms, there is a possible collateral benefit of being associated with a Black Hole blog, at least in the minds of the smaller bloggers. Commenting on such a blog may bring readers to your blog, may even attract the attention of the Black Hole blogger, though in practice, I suspect that the majority of this kind of blogger may at best skim through their comments and only reply to those who are already a part of their network, if at all. If a post is getting hundreds of comments, or thousands, it would be a full time job reading the comments alone.

If you only equate success with numbers, then allying yourself to the Black Hole blogs and aiming for their level of ‘success’ is a futile and probably deadening exercise.At best you’re going to be a pale shadow, accused of copying them or be swallowed up by them and get no readers of your own. But if you leave aside concepts of numerical success and examine things based on their own intrinsic worth then a very exciting universe emerges, one where you can make discoveries for yourself.

Be a pioneer. Find books that make you go, “Hmmmm!” when you read the cover and turn over the first pages with the excitement of a Dr Livingstone of the literary world. Don’t wait for recommendations from the media for what films to see or music to buy; go out and see what you can find. Don’t mindlessly obey those little prompts you get at Amazon, “If you liked X then you will like Y”. Avoid automatically buying another book by a famous author simply because the words NY Times best-seller is printed in bigger letters than the book title.

Look for blogs that intrigue and excite you because of what the author says or does, not because it is endorsed by a celebrity or because you think you may get traffic as a result, or because you are convinced that something that has gotten 10 million hits somehow MUST have something. It might, but it no longer needs YOU. Go and find the blogs that are out there that are languishing for lack of hits, but whose author has talent and insights, and encourage them with your comments.

Open your mind to the small, the independent, the quirky and unpredictable things of the world, those mindblowingly undiscovered places and things and people and writers and musicians and artists. Open your eyes to see beauty and talent, open your ears to new experiences in music and find out for yourself what you like without being brainwashed that it is whatever product the sellers happen to be selling at the moment.

In other words, don’t be a sheep. Be a wildly alive explorer and see what new worlds within this one you can find and share.

There is no map but the one you create for yourself. So go and explore and steer clear of Black Holes. I’m looking forward to reading your Captain’s log.

When the wells run dry- artists’ and writers’ block


 This was first posted as a guest post at J’s blog

When the wells run dry



One of the more familiar and dreaded problems of the creative life is that of being blocked. Writers write of being cursed with writers’ block, artists speak of similar blocks and musicians talk of dark times when the internal music seems to go silent.


It’s probably worth looking closely at what is happening when this sort of experience prevents you from expressing your creativity freely, because there are a number of different kinds of problem at the root of this issue.


The first kind of block is one where getting started seems to be the problem. A writer will agonize over first lines, artists over the first brush stroke, and musicians over those crucial few bars at the start of a piece of music. Often a change of scene will do the trick; many writers who work normally at home find they can start more readily if they work somewhere else. A deliberate change in routine can also be beneficial; swapping morning for evening, weekday for weekend. You get my drift.


The second kind of block comes in the middle of a work, when suddenly the impetus you felt at the start evaporates, ideas seem stagnant and dull and sometimes you even lose sight of where you were going. At time like these you have to say to yourself, “Courage, mon brave!” and keep trudging onwards. Good discipline helps here. You’ve come so far and it would be a waste of all the early effort to give up now. In a novel, this usually comes somewhere after fifty thousand words, roughly halfway. The only real cure is persistence and determination. Sadly, these are not things you can easily acquire; though to be honest, getting even half way through a major work is a substantial achievement, so by this point there is every hope that you have already learned enough discipline to have a good chance of finishing.


The final form of block is probably the most difficult to deal with and also the most devastating for the unlucky creative soul to be burdened with it.


Years ago when we lived in darkest Norfolk we were lucky enough to have access to both woods and fields but also an artificial river. This was a cut-off channel between the river Wissey and the Great Ouse, dug in the late fifties to avoid the perennial problem of flooding in the fens. It was there to take the overflow from the rivers at peak time; sluice gates were fitted at either end so that whichever river was threatening to burst its banks could be relieved of its burden of flood waters safely.


I was quite friendly with many of the old farmers who were often a mine of information about country matters and these good ole boys were also a source of stories about local history and lore. One of the stories they told me was about when the cut-off channel was dug.


Basically, the channel cuts a great gash through the countryside for many miles in a long straight line. Initially, the whole thing was like a lunar landscape, without tree or shrubs or wildlife, a vast wound in the land. But by the time we moved there in the late 90s, it was a real wildlife haven, with even otters being seen on a regular basis. Over time seeds of trees and plants had drifted in and colonized the bare earth; we had colonies of rare orchids as well as more common plants.


In the months following the opening of the channel, a strange phenomenon took place in the area around; wells ran dry. In farms and households within a three mile radius wells rapidly became dried up. Not only did the channel take water from the two rivers but from all the water-sources in the area. Springs and streams, ponds and lakes, all diminished to the point of vanishing. The new river drained them all. Fifty years later, some of the wells had never refilled and new wells had been sunk to reach the ground water the farms needed.


The creative life draws from deep within the soul of the artist, and for some it seems like a never ending supply of inspiration will always come bubbling up, like a spring, or there to draw from like a well. But wells and springs rely on a mysterious process of osmosis. Rainfall on the land seeps down into the earth, often deep within porous bed-rock and over many years, even thousands, the water is drawn into a well or forces its way up through a spring.


It’s not like a tap. You can’t force the water to come through. If the rainfall has been scanty over many years, the ground water will be insufficient to supply the wells and even reliable springs begin to fail. Water is a finite commodity, and contrary to what many writers start out believing, so too is inspiration.


So where does inspiration come from? Unlike rain, it doesn’t fall from the sky. Holistic therapists believe that water needs to mature before it is ready for humans to drink, and undergoes a process of both purification by the filtration through layers of rock and soil before it reaches a spring or a well and to draw it from surface water, like a reservoir or a river is to take it before it has completed a complex process of maturation and development. They see water as a kind of a living entity that has stages and ages in its life and to draw water before it is ready it to deny ourselves the full benefit of that water. The same can be said for inspiration. Inspiration is an equally long and complex process; experiences and our meditations and discoveries about those experiences, our emotional reactions good and bad all contribute to the maturation of our “stories”. Sometimes an idea seems to appear fully formed as if form nowhere, conjured from imagination like a genii from a lamp. But in all honesty, these apparently unrelated ideas have often spent the equivalent of centuries being filtered through layers of our unconscious until they bubble up, clear and sparkling like the finest of spring waters.


So what about those times when nothing, but nothing, emerges from our inner selves to offer on the altar of our art? We thrash around and the ghosts of ideas emerge, stale and tired and begging to be allowed to sleep again. Is it all gone? Have we poured it all out and there is nothing left?


Maybe. Perhaps it is all gone, perhaps we have indeed spilled all our water on a dry land and it is gone forever. It’s also worth asking whether there is another event taking place in your life that may itself be draining that creative energy; a new baby, a new job, a house move, a divorce and so on may be things that are taking the majority of your internal focus and diverting that energy away from whatever your art may be.


But the remedy is the same whatever.


Go and live. Go and find and explore life’s richness. Allow the rain to fall on your inner land. Don’t rush the process; it can take years or a lifetime to fill up ground has been drained of all moisture. Slowly, very slowly, the earth becomes soft and moist again, and the fluid seeps deeper and becomes purified by the rocks and the soil and slowly pockets of it begin to accumulate deep inside.


Don’t sink endless wells of exploration; like the cut-off channel they may drain the land still further, leaving it drier than ever and you as thirsty as before.


Let be. Let things alone. Step away from your art. Don’t say you’re finished with it because it may not be finished with you. Walk away and let the natural process of recovery take place.


And one day, if all is as it should be, you will be surprised one day by the sound of water bubbling up and spilling over to irrigate the dry land and make it fertile and healthy again.

The Hero-an analysis

This is an article I posted a good eighteen months ago but bears reposting. I’m too tired and unwell still to write anything new just yet. Hopefully normal service will be resumed next week.

The hero

Once upon a time- that’s how fairytales begin. Or it might begin, in a kingdom far, far away. In days of old when knights were bold… but how old is old in a time when last season’s clothes are absurd antiques and doubts are cast not just on the courage of those bold knights but on everything else as well? The jury is out but the evidence is that they were anything but gentle, and the average modern football hooligan probably has more courtesy and honour. After all, even in today’s allegedly lawless times, it’s not considered honourable or even legal to strike the head from another man’s shoulders. There are some, I admit who practically beg for such treatment but I doubt politicians have ever been popular; the high king’s advisors have ever been known as lickspittles and toadies, and are so today whatever names they bear.

The age of chivalry was in fact a brutal one but pictures are painted and poems penned that portray it in the glowing pink light of artificial nostalgia. But that romantic world has grown brighter than the shadowy one that was real. We don’t want to know about the sweat and the dung, the short brutish nasty lives; we want mysterious ladies in gowns of floating silks. We want a hero whose armour shines and whose sword is never red with the blood of the innocent or of the incidental casualty. We want those rules that can never be kept, to have been kept: a code of impossible honour, a world of justices and joys. And we seek it not in our world now for we know deep down it can never be. So we seek it in the past: an ancient shining past where our dreams might once have been true. Atlantis and Camelot are both children of the same yearning dreams.

There is a Jewish proverb, better a live dog than a dead lion, and it sums up the kind of practicality we have deep down and yet are somehow ashamed of. Running from a defeat is never seen as sensible, practical or even right; we prefer death-or-glory stands to the canny retreat. In cinema, literature and in our view of history, our preference is always for the glorious defeat, the captain going down with the sinking ship, the king dying on a bloody battlefield surrounded by the slaughtered heaps of his faithful bodyguard. We don’t laud those who saw which way the wind was blowing and left before disaster struck; it’s not memorable, it’s not honourable and it certainly isn’t romantic! History and literature are littered with the bodies of lovers who said, “If I can’t have you, then I shall have nothing.” A myriad Miss Havishams wander the corridors of our consciousness, clad in wedding rags and one silk slipper like an elderly Cinderella who never got to go to the ball in the first place. We don’t applaud those who survived, moved on, thrived and found new love. The star-crossed lovers are not Darby and Joan, celebrating sixty years of happy marriage. No, they are the teenage Romeo and Juliet who died at their own hands rather than lose that one bright moment of perfection.

Let’s face it, when it isn’t us, we adore tragedy. I hesitate to say it but that’s why piles of flowers and teddies materialise at the site of an untimely death. That’s why Diana will always hold a place that Camilla never can. Live fast, die young- one way to achieve a kind of cheap immortality. Surviving, moving on, rebuilding simply don’t hold the same glamour. Rags to riches stories only really appeal because secretly we all hope for an equally meteoric fall back to rags. We say. “Oh how nice,” but I’m not sure how often we mean it. There’s almost always a secret shiver of spite and jealousy that quibbles, “Why them? Why not me? I’m as good as they are.” It feels better when we can say from a safe distance from a tragedy, “What a shame! Oh how sad!”

Arthur lies sleeping, our once-and-future king, but we should take great care we never wake him. There’s too much blood-and-guts reality in the true Arthur for us to stomach these days. We’ve grown beyond true monarchy. I’d rather we had our rough approximation of democracy than have the tyranny of the old kings back and tarnish and fray our romantic visions of the past.

But we need heroes- no I shall go further and say we are desperate for heroes. And so we try and create them out of what material we think best: film stars, models, TV celebrities, pop and rock stars, and God forgive us all, footballers. And they fail us and we vilify them for merely being ordinary fallible venial human beings. They disappoint us and yet we create more.

Are there any real heroes left? Any lantern-jawed Lancelots left to charm and enthral us, fallible enough to be likeable but heroic enough to still command our respect and even our love? There are worthy men and women, heroic ones even but they lack that certain something, that magic ingredient that makes them special like Arthur, Gawain, Percival and dear old Lancelot. So I shall have to create my own heroes, spinning them out of my own yearnings and dreams like gold from spun straw. Arthur can live again, a modern Arthur born of this our real world but with some of the glitter and glamour of the Round Table, and his knights and ladies can dance their graceful steps around him. We all need heroes, but these days I prefer to make my own. I’m sorry, but there isn’t a pattern. It isn’t like painting by numbers or knitting. It’s more like freestyle climbing- massive risk taking, surges of adrenaline that might rocket fuel an elephant and the sense when you’ve completed it that you have done something hardly anyone else can do. I admit that failure doesn’t result in a plummet to the death but emotionally it can feel a little like that. And at the end of that creation process, there stands blinking in the sunshine a shiny newborn hero, fresh for a new world but with ancient genes that stretch back into the oldest memory, the oldest stories. We’ve all changed since our first ancestors told tales round the fire at night-so why not the hero too? Because there is something eternal and unchanging about an archetype- the hero simply adapts and grows with the generations but remains in all essentials the dream we all dream: the Hero.

Writer’s Block- a short story


Writer’s Block

The blank page was as empty as a bank account the day before pay-day, and as depressingly familiar. Like a signpost pointing an accusing finger, the page indicated another day of failure, of emptiness and despair. Oh, words had been briefly typed upon this mocking sheet, and then erased before they had time to settle there. If this had been an old-fashioned typewriter, then a forest of paper would have been in the bin by now, and with crumpled islands of discarded starts surrounding the target. That was one small mercy of the computer revolution, no waste paper any more. Instead, the untitled page opened day after day, with all words wiped from it. Surely there was a Greek myth somewhere of someone who toiled all day writing words that faded from the page as night fell. If there was, he couldn’t remember how it ended

Well, the words didn’t fade: he deleted them, despising himself and those ill-chosen words that just sat on the page like awkward teenagers, jostling each other and looking out of place and untidy and defiant. It was the defiance that got him angry and made him hit delete over and over again.

I used to be so good at this, he thought, miserably, closing the file and shutting the computer down. A glass of wine to chase down the blues, and he’d call it a night, again, sleeping fitfully and being pursued by words that fled when he turned and tried to see their shapes. Tomorrow, just to be that little bit more hopeful, was another day and it held all sorts of joys, not least of which was an appointment with a hypnotist. He sighed, drank the wine too fast to enjoy it and went to bed.

I want you to visualise your block,” said the hypnotist.

Trying to oblige, he did so.

What form does it take?”

It’s like the Berlin Wall, but a hundred or so feet high,” he said.

Visualise a door.”

He did so. It was a very handsome door too, with brass fittings and a massive bolt and lock.

It’s locked,” he said.

There was a tiny sigh from the hypnotist, and through the filters of his downcast eyelashes, he saw her glance at her watch. She’s bored with me already, he thought, and sighed himself.

Look in your pockets, you’ll find the key,” she said and he could hear the boredom and irritation.

In his mind’s eye, he pulled out a massive bunch of keys, and after rifling through them, he said,

Nope, it’s not there.”

You must try harder,” she said and he snapped open his eyes, and glared at her.

Do you not think I’m already trying as hard as I can,” he snapped.

I think you’re deliberately sabotaging yourself because you don’t really want to get through this block,” she said. “Don’t bother to make another appointment until you make your mind up to really embrace this.”

Well, that was a waste of time and money, he thought as he drove home to the empty screen awaiting him. Now I know my block is a hundred feet high and crosses a whole country, and I don’t appear to have the key. Really helpful. Not.

Before he opened that taunting file again, he checked through his emails and found one from an old friend.

I’ve sent something for your little problem; should be with you tomorrow,” she’d written.

The block had become so much a part of his life that he often felt he ought to introduce his friends to it at parties. The block had lasted longer now than many relationships and like a failing marriage that has ceased to even invite interest, let alone the kind of slightly voyeuristic attention it did at the start of the downward slope, it had become a subject to avoid among his friends. They were bored with it and with him; a writer who can’t write any more ceases to have a place in the world unless he reinvents himself, perhaps as an editor or a critic. For him that would be when mercy killing might be in order.

His friends scarcely ever mentioned his block, as though it were an embarrassing disorder the discussion of which might somehow infect them, so it intrigued him what she might be sending. At the start of it, people had been full of helpful suggestions and ideas, all of which he’d tried, with a steadily decreasing amount of enthusiasm. He wasn’t sure what else might be possible; hypnosis had been his last idea.

The following afternoon, the parcel carrier van pulled up outside his house and offloaded a large and heavy box. Signing for it, he barely managed to get it inside and dumped it on the kitchen table with a resounding thud. Taped up and mysterious, it sat there, inviting him to open it. He stared at it, wine glass in hand unable to make a start on it. Somehow the prospect of another disappointment was almost too much to bear. By the second glass of wine, curiosity was getting the better of him and he began ripping away the tape and slashing at the cardboard with the vegetable knife in a frantic effort to get it open.

Peeling the flaps back, now ragged from his frenzy, he peered inside. He blinked. Amid the polystyrene chips, there sat a large rough hewn block of wood, which was tied up with a bright red satin ribbon.

What the f-?” he said, biting back the obscenity.

He emptied the box, tipping the chips out on the floor and feeling through every corner of the box. Nothing. Not even a note, nothing.

The bitch…” he breathed, awed that someone he thought he knew so well could surprise him like this with such a vicious piece of mockery. He’d really not have thought her capable of such extraordinary nastiness.

Anger boiled over, and he hefted the block in his arms and marched outside into the fading light of the garden. The wood shed was mostly full, with the arrival of a new load for the coming winter and he at first intended to just chuck the block in there but as he flung open the door, something caught the light and glinted. The big axe he used to split logs was embedded in his chopping block and the polished head gleamed with oil.

I’ll show you what I think of your block,” he said, and seized the axe, tugging it from the block and as his long-repressed fury took control of his hands and his heart and he placed his gift on the block and began to attack it with the axe.

Halfway, he stopped and sharpened the axe very carefully. It was only the coming of darkness that halted his focussed efforts. By then the block had been reduced to splinters suitable for kindling only.

Sweating and breathless he threw all the pieces he could find into the log basket and carried them back into the house. Well, tonight seemed to be getting colder; time to light the fire for the first time this autumn, then. The hearth needed sweeping before he could lay the fire, and by the time the flames had begun to warm the room, he felt only a sense of emptiness again. He’d lost a friend today, truly, because he’d obviously never really known her at all.

Sat cross-legged on the hearth rug, he gazed at the fire and felt tears streaming down his face, distorting his vision and making the flames seem softer somehow, reminding him of his grandmother’s house when he was small. She’d make him crumpets by toasting them on the fire and slathering them with butter from their own cows. He remembered her with some surprise; she’d been gone more than twenty years and he’d scarcely given her a thought in all that time. Strange, really, when she’d been the one who’d enthralled him with tales of her own childhood and of things her grandmother told her. He probably owed his whole love of stories to her.

Watching the dancing flames, he saw images in them, pictures of things long ago and far away and rather marvellous and magical, and he found himself reaching for his laptop and beginning to type, filling that blank sheet with words that danced like the flames and made patterns of surpassing wonder.

And he didn’t delete a single word.

What’s your story?



What’s your story?


I’m a bit of a compulsive people watcher and what amuses me the most is the random snippets of conversation you overhear in the street or in cafés and so on. On Saturday, walking through Oxford, I caught this gem: “…..And my legs were full of lactic acid….” Once I’d finished giggling enough to explain to my companions what I was laughing at, I started speculating about what was behind that remark. We went off at all sorts of tangents and by the time we got home, the story in my head had taken on epic proportions of utter silliness. It happens in pubs and railway stations and bus stops: I hear a little snatch of a tale and I make the rest up.

But real stories are a different matter.

Real stories are the ones we tell about ourselves and our lives and I am of the opinion that these are the stories that create and sustain the world. The wonderful film The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus (by Terry Gilliam )and featuring some of the world’s finest actors) has this as it’s basic premise, that stories are what keep the world going.

I’m not talking about anything mystical (well not very) but rather about the fact that memory is created more strongly by repetition and by the creation of a narrative about events, so that the memory is strengthened by the telling and relationships are formed and reinforced by the sharing of personal stories. There’s a growing awareness that good relationships(whether with a romantic partner or friends or family) are enhanced by the bringing of new experiences into that forum. The inevitable question, “How was your day, honey?” is so often a formality. We brush it off, as unimportant and move on to anaesthetising our brains with TV or whatever anodyne does it for you and then wonder why we never seem to talk any more.

Not only is personal story telling important to relationships, it’s also vital for our mental health. It’s not just the telling either. Over the years I have seen a fair number of mental health practitioners, from counsellors to consultant psychiatrists and the ones I felt were most on the button were the ones who encouraged me to tell them my story. But it’s not just about having told it, it’s about the reaction. The questions, the analysis of events and of motives and results are just as important. It’s just as much about the listener as the teller of the story. Because the story changes ever so subtly when the listener asks the right question. “Do you think that’s what he meant to do?” makes you review your memory and search it for more clues to the puzzle. “How did that make you feel? How do you feel now?” bring you to look again at the strength of a painful memory.

It’s also probably why bloggers release their work for others to read; the insights of others can shed vital light on our stories. It’s not about egotism, as such, but about seeking the whys of our lives. Knowing someone else has read our thoughts, our stories, can take some of the sting away from past hurts; sharing our stories brings out our common humanity and forges bonds of understanding between people.

So it’s a natural progression when someone has hurt us, and we cannot understand why, to start to ask, “What’s their story?” and if it’s not possible to actually find out from them, then to improvise possible reasons why. To some degree this is what psychology is about, the need to understand someone’s back story, their whys. I’m usually very surprised to discover that my improvised version of someone’s back story is often very close to their real story, but by then, it’s not usually a problem. If I can find a way to explain and understand hurtful behaviour, then I can forgive and move on more readily.

German philosopher Goethe once wrote, “That which we understand, we do not blame,” and I don’t think I can improve on his words at all.

So, each day, with the people you meet, the ones you pass in the street, the ones you work with and the people (especially these ones) who rub you up the wrong way, just look at them and ask silently, “What’s your story?”

You never know, one day they might actually tell you it.