Category Archives: Psychology

Some very bad advice for authors!

When I was starting out on my writing career, an agent who interviewed me gave me a piece of very bad advice – he said, ‘Treat writing like a job. Start at nine, work through till five and don’t get distracted.’

Well, maybe that wouldn’t be bad advice for all authors, but it turned out to be very bad advice for me, because it linked time in my mind with productivity, and that made me feel anxious. A whole day with nothing to show for it felt like a waste – and I seemed to have rather a lot of them.

What I had to discover for myself was…

 The amazing power of distraction!

Like many other authors, I find that going for a walk is a top distraction which almost invariably leads to little breakthroughs. I can leave the house with my brain striving to conquer a plot problem and stride along for a while, head down, unable to let it go, when suddenly something attracts my attention – a blackbird flying into the hedge, a fox in a field, a child at play. Then my mind lifts away from its plot-worrying completely, and stays that way for the rest of my walk. By the time I get home, a solution has magically appeared.

Switching between writing projects is another fruitful distraction for me. I’ve usually got at least three books at the planning stage, as well as writing new workshops and articles and personal scribblings. Setting my main work-in-progress aside and working on something different means I forget about it completely and then come back to it with new clarity and energy.

Reading articles, having a nap, doing a spot of weeding in the garden… All the things you generally can’t do in a nine to five job can make you more efficient in creative work. Some workplaces recognise this and have chill-out spaces and games rooms for workers to take unscheduled naps and play.

The key is to keep firmly in your mind that these are distractions – that is to say, short breaks from the main endeavour – or you could find yourself snoozing all afternoon or binge watching whole box sets, rather than taking forty winks or watching an episode of your favourite sitcom.

Keep looking away, but keep coming back.

Of course, everybody’s different, and so is every writer. Does nine to five work well for you on writing days, or do you like to harness the power of distraction too?

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10 GREAT CHRISTMAS GIFTS FOR WRITERS

It’s that time of year again, and the great thing about buying presents for writers is that you can give them something that will provide weeks or months of writing pleasure and inspiration without breaking the bank.

Here are some suggestions for things your writing friends might like – or if you’re a writer, why not treat yourself?

Gorgeous Notebooks

The name says it all, and they really are gorgeous. I’ve been using them for my writing journals for several years now. Great quality unruled paper, beautiful binding, a useful ribbon to mark your place and a handy pocket at the back for bits and pieces.

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Coloured gel pens

When I was a student I used to have three biros with me in lectures – one red, one blue and one black. I found that breaking the information down into different blocks of colour helped me to organise my thoughts at the time and remember them later, when I came to revise for exams.

Now, we have gel pens – my very favourite stationery item of all time. They write like a dream and come in every kind of vibrant colour. I use them for all my writing tasks including, of course, my gorgeous notebooks – this year’s is colour coded blue for dreams, red for dream commentaries, black for waking life and purple for books I’m reading.51fq4HKljZL

I’ve tried all sorts of gels over the years, but the brands I keep coming back to are Pentel and Pilot.

Coach Yourself to Writing Success

Whatever kind of writing you do, it helps to understand what’s most important to you and create writing goals that fit with your core values. That way, you’re both more likely to succeed and also more likely to enjoy your success when you do. My friend Penny Dolan recommended this book to me some years ago, and I’ve recommended it to other writer friends ever since.

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Go Stationery pocket notebooks

Even in these days of mobile phones, most writers like to carry a notebook somewhere about their person when they’re away from home, and these are perfect – not too big, bulky, or heavy to put in your pocket; soft but not flimsy covers; good quality unlined paper and attractive cover designs.

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These definitely fit the bill!

5 A poetry collection

Not just writers, but everybody in the world can find solace, joy, companionship and inspiration in poems. Poetry is very much a question of personal taste, so it might be a good idea to go for a collection such as Being Human , Being Alive or Staying Alive.

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6 A writing workshop – any writing workshop!

A place on a writing workshop will please your writer friends or writer self, and it’ll be something to look forward to at the end of the Christmas festivities.

I love going on other people’s workshops, and I’ve yet to meet another writer who doesn’t. (I’ve added the link to mine, but you can just google writing workshops in your area to find ones local to you)

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Probably my favourite book on writing ever

Being a writer isn’t just a way you pass your time – it’s a part of the way you are. Developing a practice of writing is a profound kind of self development, and Natalie Goldberg brings a Buddhist sensibility to it which I love.

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And speaking of self development…

Shamanic and Jungian tools for writers who want to rewrite their own story

This is a fascinating workbook with loads of writing exercises. Not for everyone, obviously, but I really enjoyed it.

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A day out to somewhere interesting

Most writers are more excited by experiences than things, so how about a ticket to somewhere that might spark their imagination, such as a guided city walk or visit to a museum?

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10 And finally…

Three companionable books for writers from me, which all include plenty of short creative tasks for you or your writer friends to take refuge in if you need to pace yourselves over the festive period.

For getting started, Writing in the House of Dreams; for keeping going, Happy Writing and for having fun with it, Free-range Writing.

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There’s a little stocking filler too… 3 for £10

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Happy Christmas shopping!

Have you got any recommendations for Christmas presents for writers?

Anti-Bullying Week: It’s not just about school

The theme for this year’s Anti Bullying Week is ‘Choose respect.’ I don’t think there’s ever been a time when we’ve needed this message more than we do right now.

Respect is the bedrock of a civilised society. We don’t have to like everybody – we may not be able to help disliking some people – but respect is a choice. We can always choose to behave respectfully.

Most people have always made that choice because incivility was not seen as socially acceptable, but the social norm is slipping because those at the forefront of public life – politicians and the news media – are no longer modelling respectful behaviour.

Leading politicians on both side of the pond are deliberately stirring up and sanctioning the abuse of minorities and the weak for their own ends. Leading news reporters aren’t interested in hearing reasoned argument, but instead choose to bombard interviewees with interruptions and aggressive questioning.

This is the culture our children are growing up in, but if we want them to turn away from bullying they need role models – rules are not enough.

Bullying isn’t just a problem among children in schools. It’s increasingly a social problem for us all, and the key to tackling it is not just focusing on bullying incidents but nurturing a non-bullying environment by making a positive decision at all times to behave with thoughtfulness, kindness and civility towards other people, irrespective of our differences.

I hope the theme for this year’s Anti Bullying Week will be a timely reminder to us all.

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My latest book is included in the new Books for Topics bullying list
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Respecting other people is an important aspect of self-esteem

 

Dreams, daydreams and the writer’s trance

Jung believed the dream goes on all the time, day and night, a constant flow of images and narratives that runs like an underground stream beneath our conscious awareness. He said the only reason we think of dreaming as a night-time phenomenon is because most of us only become aware of it when the conscious mind is completely turned off in sleep.

If you conceptualise dreaming in this way, as a continuous layer of consciousness, you begin to notice how you naturally slip in and out of it all the time, in fantasies and daydreams. What if I go to the beach today? That person I met in the cafe last time might be there, and she might say… and then we might…

What if I hadn’t said what I said? We might have gone ahead with our plan… We might be making lots of money, and then we could…

Lots of us are unaware of our daydreaming mind. It’s like background noise we’re so used to we hardly notice it. But others enjoy their dreams and daydreams so much, they notice and deliberately nurture them.

Many writers report that they daydreamed their way through school – they may have got into trouble for it. But I’d say it was time well spent – they were developing a vital creative ability.

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The ‘writer’s trance’ is a kind of daydreaming. In his book on writing, Stephen King describes his writing sessions as like slipping into sleep, because when he’s writing he’s completely unaware of what’s going on in the household around him. When he stops for lunch, he says,it’s like waking up from a dream and gradually becoming aware of his surroundings again.

Most people assume that the craft of writing – how to construct a strong plot, write convincing dialogue, conjure vivid settings so on – can be taught, but that the inspiration side is just luck. It has to come on its own, if it comes at all.

To some extent, that’s true but in writing as in creative dreaming, we can learn techniques for tapping into the unconscious mind at will, directing it and harnessing its power.

Developing dreaming and daydreaming skills doesn’t only make your dreams and writing more exciting – it makes your whole life more exciting too, because the unconscious mind is made of stories. Its nature is movement – a continuous growing and then dying back of possibilities – in which our conscious mind sits with all its certainties and definitions, limited and fixed.

Do you enjoy your dreams and daydreams? Does writing feel like daydreaming to you?

The key to living creatively

My last post was about the royal garden party, which I mentioned was right outside my comfort zone. When I got my invitation, I didn’t even possess a dress, let alone a hat or fascinator, so the dress code felt quite challenging!

But I like going outside my comfort zone – its expansive. Going outside your comfort zone makes your comfort zone bigger.

Trying new things is also the key to living creatively because creativity is, by definition, making something that didn’t exist before and, when we try new things, we create brand new experiences.

Quite often, we may be reluctant to try new things – a different kind of food, book, activity or TV show – and there is indeed a good chance we won’t like the new one as much as our old favourite. But if that’s the worst that could happen, I reckon it’s worth the risk.

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My current notebook – a gift from my ex husband, who knows me well!

It doesn’t have to be a giant leap into the unknown – shaking up the little things can start a creative wave. When was the last time you parked in a different spot at the supermarket, took a different route to work, sat in a different chair in the evening, went out for a walk at a time of day when you usually stay home?

Living creatively by seeking out new experiences puts energy into all your creative work because you carry those attitudes of openness and adventurousness, and also that buzz of pleasure and excitement, into your writing or painting or gardening, or whatever creative activity floats your boat.

Anyone for a seaweed sandwich?

 

The dreaming writer at the royal garden party

Lots of creative teachers talk about the importance of taking time out from your normal routines and doing new things, to refresh your creative energy. It’s commonly called ‘going down to the well.’

I was way outside my normal routine last week at the Buckingham Palace garden party – frocks and fascinators are not really my thing! In case you’re wondering, my invitation came through the Society of Authors – I’ve been a member for most of my writing career and taught several creative blockbusting workshops for them.

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The afternoon progressed like a well-oiled machine. The queues moved very quickly through the gates, despite the huge number of guests.

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The National Anthem announced the Queen’s arrival and, while the band played and everyone was upstanding, she came out onto the steps, flanked by Beefeaters.

The Beefeaters accompanied her as she walked among the crowds so, although we couldn’t see her, we knew where she was by the tips of their pikes.

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The cakes were divine! After tea my friend and I had a stroll round the gardens, coming back to find staff moving among the guests with trays of lemon barley water and little tubs of ice cream.

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It was a brilliant opportunity to enjoy that most favourite of writerly pastimes, people-watching. A clutch of Bishops, a pair of robed academics, a scattering of groups in African dress, a gaggle of jovial mayors.

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Even the Ladies’ Lavatories were an experience, set as they were beside the big lake, and attended by a woman who checked each cubicle as it became vacant, presumably to make sure the bowl was clean and there was plenty of toilet paper, before personally ushering the next person in.

Very few people actually got to speak to the Queen yet the surprising thing, for me, was that it felt quite personal. Buckingham Palace didn’t feel like a massive public building, but somebody’s home, and the party was just in their garden.

I realise I may be sounding like a royalist, but I’m not. I’m not a republican either.  I think there are good arguments both for and against having a monarchy.

But as a dreamer, it seems to me that kings and queens, princes and princesses do something quite extraordinary. They are like living archetypes, symbolising for us universal qualities, even though they may not, in their own personal lives, be any less complicated, flawed and human than the ordinary person in the street.

I was first struck by this in the outpouring of grief when Princess Diana died. It was so surprising and disproportionate, I felt we were not grieving the person she was but what she symbolised – a quality of caring kindness that seemed to be slipping away in the post-Thatcher era.

It’s the same with the royal wedding last week. We don’t know what Prince Harry and Meghan are like as individuals, whether they row and bicker behind closed doors – but thousands of people enjoyed their wedding because there they stood before a nation as the representing the romantic Hero in all of us, the perfect Princess and the possibility of lifelong romantic love.

Seeing the Queen standing there on the steps of her home, I was really aware of the strangeness of her existence. Through the doors behind her lay her domestic life, where she is just a person like the rest of us, but as soon as she steps outside she is no longer a woman; she becomes absolutely her role, as Queen.

The dreamer in me, like the writer, found the whole experience intriguing.

 

Does your mother dream?

I recently read a really touching article called Mother daughter dreaming on Tzivia Gover’s blog, Waking up to your dreams.

Tzivia describes how she discovered her mother had been a prolific dreamer, but it was too late to explore their shared interest because, by then, her mother had slipped into ‘her dream of dementia’ and lost the ability to communicate in speech.

It made me wonder whether my mother dreamed – or rather, remembered her dreams. I would think not. But what about my father? My sisters and brother? My grandparents?

It struck me how rarely most of us talk about our dream lives, even with those closest to us. I’m glad I’ve always had that conversation with my children, and these days, also, with my friends.

It’s fun, intriguing and sometimes reassuring to talk about the places we go and the experiences we have in our dreams. For me, it’s like talking about great movies we’ve seen, or wonderful novels, or little pieces of poetry we’ve chanced upon and felt inspired.

I think one of the reasons why it isn’t part of our culture to talk about our dreams is because psychology has hijacked dreaming and shaped our view of it into some kind of secret code that makes us vulnerable to being exposed.

For me, my dreaming is a rainbow of emotions, themes, images, characters and stories that show, not my deep unconscious analysable life, but the moving colours of my psyche.

Next time you remember a dream, try sharing it. If you still have your mother in your life, perhaps you could share it with her or, if she has already left, you might invite her to visit you in dreams, as Tzivia has done. 

Do you talk to friends and family about your dreams? If not, what would hold you back? If so, how does it make you feel?

Christmas and the blessed baby

I’m not a member of any organised religion but because of where and when I was born, the Christian symbols and stories are the ones I’m most familiar with.

Of all the Christian symbols, the blessed baby speaks to me most strongly. I very frequently dream about babies, and these dreams always carry a wave of positive emotion, along with a sense of magic and mystery.

A baby is a bright bridge to the future, something fresh and new. During politically and socially turbulent times such as these, we might look to the future with fear and apprehension, but the baby is innocence of the open, trusting heart.

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Every Christmas, even though I’m not a Christian, I feel inspired by the archetypal energy of the blessed baby. I take time to contemplate and focus on celebrating every thing and every person that I love.

Family and friends, of course; people I’ve met and people I’ve yet to meet. Writing and teaching. Books, art exhibitions, theatre. The moors and coasts of Cornwall, where I live; the amazing cities I still have to visit.

This robin I can see right now, in the hedge outside my window. This coffee.

Every big and tiny thing we love reflects love back to us, warming and lighting our hearts.

My blog is both a big and tiny thing; it’s big for me, but tiny in the blogosphere. I love that some people come back again and again, until I feel I’ve got to know them, and some drop in from Africa or Hong Kong or Norway, giving me a sense of connection across the globe.

I haven’t had time to blog these last few weeks because I’ve been busy promoting my new book, Free-Range Writing, but I didn’t want to let Christmas go by without saying a warm seasonal thank-you.

Happy Christmas, and may you be touched by the archetypal power of the blessed baby, whether you follow any particular faith or none.

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Using creativity to make life better

We were discussing the Senoi method for tackling nightmares in last week’s session of Writing in the House of Dreams, when someone said, ‘We ought to be teaching this to children in schools!’

The Senoi technique is described by Patricia Garfield in her fascinating book, Creative Dreaming – that’s where I first came across it. When you go to sleep, you intend that if you have a bad dream you will confront the difficulty, face down the enemy, and claim a reward.

If you wake before your dream has reached a positive outcome, you either go back to sleep and continue the dream or else complete it in imagination.

You don’t need to be lucid within the dream, so it’s a very easy practice that anyone can begin, and if you always bring your dreams to a positive outcome you set a track in your mind that your dreams will soon automatically follow, resolving themselves before you awake.

It’s obvious that not having unresolved nightmares is a way of making your dream experience better, but the goal of Senoi dreaming isn’t just to make your dream life better – it’s to make your waking life better as well. So how does that work?

When you deliberately face up to challenges and create positive outcomes in your dreams or imagination, you experience yourself as an effective and courageous person. Then when you’re faced with challenges in waking life, that’s the person you know you can be – someone whose first response to difficulties is ‘I can sort this!’

I shouldn’t think we’ll ever see creative dream skills in the national curriculum but I believe children could get the same benefits from learning to write stories.

The Senoi approach is basically the Hero’s Journey. The hero crosses the threshold into the unfamiliar world, meets enemies and falters, before finally facing up to them and claiming her reward to bring back to the ordinary world.

This story is the mythic template for all our stories. Every new experience starts with crossing the threshold into the unfamiliar and making the hero journey, from starting a new relationship or job to small things such as making a phone call or trying a new restaurant.

In the past, creative writing was part of the school curriculum – I don’t mean analysing styles and all that kind of thing, but properly diving into imagination, every child different, every story unique.

Writing stories is joyful, exciting and empowering. I wish we could have more truly creative writing on the curriculum because, in my view, it wouldn’t only make children’s experience of school better – it would, like creative dreaming, make the rest of their life better too.

 

 

‘Poetry is an act of peace’

I came across this quote from Pablo Neruda when I was preparing my workshop for Bridging Arts at the Truro Museum in June, and it was very much in my mind as I watched the writers who came to the workshop engaging on a deep emotional level with the stories in the ‘Heart of Conflict’ exhibition, about the Cornish experience in wartime.

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Poetry is an act of peace. Peace goes into the making of a poet as flour goes into the making of bread. Pablo Neruda

Writing is always about connection, whether we’re writing poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction. In stories, we connect with the characters we create; they come alive for us because of the way they make us feel. In non-fiction, we connect with the ideas and experiences that spark our interest and passion; in poetry, we connect with the symbolic layer of the psyche, where meaning is not objective and exact, but something the heart understands.

Every kind of writing connects us with our shared humanity and helps us feel and appreciate the rich complicatedness of our shared human condition.

I’m thinking about this quotation again today because we seem to be bombarded in the news with reports of appalling acts of ignorance and cruelty, from the vicious suppression of citizens in Catalonia to the treatment of the poor and disabled by our government here. The maverick gunman in Las Vegas. Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump… well I really have no words for them.

What we have, on the side of civilisation, is books. Reading, like writing, strengthens empathy, creates connection. It’s frightening to me that communities are losing public libraries, and schools are losing libraries too. Children are not encouraged and taught to read for pleasure, but rather to analyse and imitate, in order to gain good marks.

In my familiar world of children’s writing, the World Book Day list has just been announced. It’s full of books by celebrities, as if books by wonderful authors are somehow of less value than those that carry a famous name on the cover. We are not teaching children to value writing, but only to value fame.

Sometimes in the madness that seems to have the world in its grip, it can feel as if our civilisation is going to Hell in a handcart. Writing and reading are small acts of rebellion against a dominant ideology of greed and division.

I was really keen to teach the poetry workshop in the ‘Heart of Conflict’ exhibition – it felt like a privilege to have that opportunity. It felt like something really good to do, and I loved the ethos of Bridging Arts, which is all about creating connections.

I’m delighted to say that I’ve just heard from Bridging Arts that they would like me to run some more writing workshops next year in the run-up to the centenary of the end of WW1.

Write, read, remember. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s important.

What do you think? Does reading and writing feel, to you, like ‘an act of peace’?

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