2016-01-01 23.24.32

You’ll have noticed that I failed utterly at Holidailies this year. It was the worst timing ever this year, what with the NaNoWriMo hangover and the lurgy and FunkyPlaid being away and trying to cram so much into my last-ever Edinburgh holiday season.

But I have missed a regular prompt to be creative here, and one experiment helped me do that like nothing else did: Project 365.

So let’s begin.

We’re starting with my ever-present sidekick, my Midori Traveler’s Notebook. I’ve fussed over digital productivity tools in the past here, and while I still use a few of them, I’ve been back to analog for a while now. I use the Bullet Journal system in one of my three notebook refills. That one keeps my daily task-list and other lists organised. The second is my writing notebook, in which I record ideas and write first-drafts longhand. The third is the one pictured, my morning pages journal. Per Julia Cameron’s advice, I write three pages every day in this journal to clear the cobwebs. These are stream-of-consciousness words, nothing so structured as to comprise a journal entry.

This year I did make one resolution: other than Project 365, I will not be participating in any something-a-day, something-a-month, something-a-year challenges in 2016. These challenges can be very motivating and inspiring for others but they fill me with anxiety. As soon as I made this promise to myself, I felt relieved. I’ve been using these external benchmarks as indicators that I am … doing what, exactly? I’m not even sure.

On the eve of a major relocation and its surrounding upheaval, it’s time for me to focus on what inspires me creatively, and do more of that. I hope you’ll join me as I figure it out.

On making messes.

Today I thought I might talk to you about making messes. And just before sitting down to write, I peeked at Twitter, and saw this tweet:

I have never been terribly good at making messes. I cringe at my own floundering, especially when it comes to writing, because my taste is better than my current skill level. NaNoWriMo was a special kind of hell for me, which made it all the more important that I finish: I love surprises, but hate being surprised by myself. This is why I spend time every morning writing the mess out of my brain, what Julia Cameron termed “morning pages”. I grab my notebook and a fountain pen and I make a mess. I am okay with this mess.

But then NaNoWriMo happened, one 50,000-word mess. I’m glad I did it, and glad I finished, but it shook my confidence in my ability to tell a coherent story. My meticulous planning was abandoned within the first week because every time I sat down to write I had no interest in telling the story found in my outline. Knowing that it was more important to get words onto the page than to be strict about an outline, I opted for messy writing. New characters were invented, stuck around for a scene or two, and then disappeared. The protagonists went off on tangents that did not further the plot in any way. I barely adhered to basic rules of grammar.

I would love to tell you that it felt great to make this mess, but most days were slogs punctuated by brief moments of mediocrity. And I realise that all first drafts are crap, but a short story draft has the one shining benefit of being short. By the end of November I had the distinct feeling of being trapped at a party with people who kept cornering me in the kitchen with random anecdotes. “And another thing,” one would tell me as I looked longingly toward the door, stirring the ice in my empty drink. “Have I mentioned my long-lost cousin? Because I really think she would show up right about now and explain about the time I almost drowned as a kid.” What? Okay, no. Stop.

But now that I have a week of distance from NaNoWriMo, I see two bright spots to all this mess-making. One, by wildly bashing away at a keyboard for a month I refined an okay idea to a good one. Only a fraction of that good idea is in the first draft, so it will require a significant rewrite, but now I know the story I really want to tell. And the second bright spot was the camaraderie I felt by sharing this huge, ridiculous undertaking with other people. My mom and I texted our word-counts and encouragement to each other every day, which helped me stay focused despite being demoralised. And my friend sharks and I conducted several terrific writing-sprint sessions together, including our very last so we crossed the finish line at the same time.

I know my writing, and my life, would be better if I could learn to be okay with making a mess. How many things do I prevent myself from trying because I’m afraid to mess them up?

Perpetual twilight in the Beast’s castle.

NaNoWriMo took much more out of me, creatively, than I expected. Every day this week I have attempted to compose a complete Holidailies entry and failed. But it isn’t all NaNoWriMo’s fault. I’ve been battling the dreaded lurgy since the last week of November, and now this part of the world has been plunged into perpetual twilight.

All right, so it’s nothing so dramatic. But on the greyer days, the sky never lightens completely, and “daytime” is around nine in the morning to three in the afternoon. It can feel rather bleak. Add to that the blustery weather, which has been providing my subconscious with a fun soundscape, especially what sounds like a cut-rate radio drama generic ghost sound wandering the halls with a “whoooooOOOOOOOoooooo!” in the middle of the night.

So what’s a sick, sleep-deprived, creatively-stagnant, FunkyPlaid-missing swan to do?

Mystic Bastion.

You’re right. Touring spooky castles in virtual reality is a spectacular idea.

DRD’s Mystic Bastion is more than an astounding homage to the Beast’s castle from “Beauty and the Beast”. This castle and all of its furnishings are gacha prizes. If you aren’t familiar with gacha, picture those vending machines containing little plastic toys that can be won for a coin. In Second Life, this method of winning random prizes has become a bit of a phenomenon. The end result is elaborate sets like this one.

Upon entering.

For a brief moment, I played gacha machines in Second Life. I stopped because it hits me square in that crazy “collector” place in my brain I try to avoid, the one that says I have to have complete sets of anything I aim to collect. So although I don’t partake anymore, I do enjoy seeing the result of healthy creative competition, especially when the end result is a gigantic castle.

Which one of us is the Beast?

So in the half-darkness, I creep around the creations of others and try to kickstart my own inspiration.

In the Beast's library.

I’m not a fan of fairytales, but I sure do appreciate a gorgeous library.

Photo credits: my own raw snaps from Second Life. Click through each pic for creator credits.

Turning Pro – Day 7

This is the seventh day in a series of posts for Desk’s digital book-club pick, “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work” by Steven Pressfield (Open Library). The series begins here.

Today I read from “My Own Moment of Turning Pro” to “The Professional Lives in the Present”. I don’t have much to say about this part of the book, because what I found most valuable was the reiteration of the qualities the professional possesses that Pressfield listed in “The War of Art”. (I won’t list them all, because I think that book is definitely worth a read, but my favourites include “The professional shows up every day” and “The professional does not take failure or success personally”.)

However, I think we can all have a feeling or two about this quote:

The amateur tweets. The pro works.” 

But I love Twitter! 

… I know.

I have been guilty of tweeting about cool things, or retweeting others’ cool things. And it’s not like I’m going to stop altogether, but it is easy to convince myself that I have made movement toward becoming a writer by retweeting other writers or tweeting about the act of writing. Even this meta-talk about writing is a bit amateurish on my part. (I’m choosing to forgive myself because all this reflection is in the name of turning pro.)

Pressfield adds a nice juxtaposition at the end of this section: the professional is ruthless with himself and the professional has compassion for herself. Yes, we should not hesitate to murder our darlings, as the famous phrase goes, but we should also guard the joy that comes from creating. It is a difficult balance.

Turning Pro – Day 6

This is the sixth day in a series of posts for Desk’s digital book-club pick, “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work” by Steven Pressfield (Open Library). The series begins here.

Today I read from “The Amateur will be Ready Tomorrow” to “Rosanne Cash’s Dream” on my lunch break at work. And then I uncapped my fountain pen, cracked open a brand-new Rhodia dot-grid A5 notebook, and wrote a full page of fiction.

It’s not good writing, but it felt great.

I read the section called “The Tribe Doesn’t Give a Shit” with amusement. This is a part of the process, maybe the only part, that hasn’t bothered me much personally. I know fantastic people in this world and yet I have never once felt as if I am part of a group of people I need to impress. Pretty early on I internalised the knowledge that I should just do what I enjoy doing and not worry if I fit in anywhere. In Pressfield’s words:

“When we truly understand that the tribe doesn’t give a damn, we’re free. There is no tribe, and there never was. Our lives are entirely up to us.” 

So Pressfield keeps talking about going pro and I want to know what he means already. I want steps. I want something to act on. He senses this like magic and tells me, finally:

When we turn pro, we stop running from our fears. We turn around and face them.

Fair enough. I’m pretty sure I know what this means. It means that when I sit down to write, I write. I don’t let the fear of never being good enough stop me. When I have an idea, I write it to completion, even if it goes off the rails and can never be rescued. I write. I finish. I do the work.

I got this.

Turning Pro – Day 5

This is the fifth day in a series of posts for Desk’s digital book-club pick, “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work” by Steven Pressfield (Open Library). The series begins here.

Today I read from “Accidental Incapacitation” to “The Amateur Lives in the Past” and a few quotes stuck out to me. The first was:

“Fear is the primary color of the amateur’s interior world. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of looking foolish, fear of under-achieving and fear of over-achieving, fear of poverty, fear of loneliness, fear of death.” 

Sure. It’s impossible not to relate to this quote. Pressfield goes on to state that the pro is just as afraid, so that’s good, because I don’t see losing my fear anytime soon. I read once that bravery isn’t the absence of fear, anyway. Or maybe that was just Peter Quinn in “Homeland”. #quinning

I bet Quinn doesn’t even have a Facebook account, so the next quote doesn’t apply to him at all:

“The amateur fears solitude and silence because she needs to avoid, at all costs, the voice inside her head that would point her toward her calling and her destiny. So she seeks distraction. The amateur prizes shallowness and shuns depth. The culture of Twitter and Facebook is paradise for the amateur.” 

Well, yeah. The Internet is the ideal environment for the amateur. There is always a website or fifty, vying for one’s attention, constructed in such a way that the experience feels engaging even if it is comprised of a set of completely passive interactions.

I also think that Twitter and Facebook can be powerful tools. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves: time spent on social media isn’t creative time. It can be constructive, but there’s a difference. I think that’s what Pressfield is getting at here.

One more quote that struck me:

The amateur and the addict focus exclusively on the product and the payoff.” 

I agree with this, because I tend to get very caught up in what the result will be of what I am creating. “Where will I perform this? Where will I sell this?” This is not to say that I shouldn’t be savvy about markets or gigs, but rather that I have lost the excitement of creation for its own sake, focusing instead on its packaging and the eventual (I hope) reward.

Turning Pro – Days 3 & 4

This is the third and fourth day in a series of posts for Desk’s digital book-club pick, “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work” by Steven Pressfield (Open Library). The series begins here.

I’m playing a bit of catch-up today and reviewing the sections “The Addict As Dramatic Hero” through the end of Book One. Unfortunately, I had a tough time relating to Pressfield in this section of the book. Although I enjoyed reading about his time picking apples in Washington state, and living all alone in a cabin with just a cat and a typewriter, I haven’t had a life like that at all. Moreover, I don’t think that creative professions require itinerant lifestyles to succeed. I see how it could be helpful not to be bogged down with the routine of a 9-to-5 job, but I don’t think it’s necessary. However, an idea I do agree with is that it is easier to break the cycle of addiction when one is freed from a routine that supports it.

Later on in the book, I came across a quote that resonated deeply with me:

“All addictions share, among others, two primary qualities.

  1. They embody repetition without progress.
  2. They produce incapacity as a payoff.” 

Pressfield goes on to mention some specific addictions, none of them surprising, especially one we’re all familiar with these days: distraction. We talk about how we just can’t stop checking Facebook or ponder why we know who the Kardashians are, but even these superficial protestations belie our priorities. For me, checking Facebook is the embodiment of the phrase “repetition without progress”.

This section ends with some musing over the pain of being human, and again Pressfield’s wording gives me some trouble because I don’t think of the struggle of life in terms of an “upper realm” that I cannot reach, not exactly. Or maybe I am thinking about it this way without this particular Platonic phrasing, because when I write, I do glimpse something else, something Other, that exists outside my paltry experience of reality. His words left me wanting a more practical metaphor, but perhaps I should try seeing it his way for a little while. I did like this quote: 

The addict seeks to escape the pain of being human in one of two ways — by transcending it or by anesthetizing it…. The artist takes a different tack. She tries to reach the upper realm not by chemicals but by labor and love.” 

Labour and love. Now these words I like.

Turning Pro – Day 2

This is the second day in a series of posts for Desk’s digital book-club pick, “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work” by Steven Pressfield (Open Library). The series begins here.

I’m playing a bit of catch-up here because the rest of the book-club will be embarking on their Day 3 posts today. For Day 2 I read from “Three Cheers for the Amateur Life” to “Addiction and Shadow Careers” and the following quotes stood out to me:

“The addict is the amateur; the artist is the professional.” 

OK, this is the first point at which Pressfield’s language makes me uncomfortable. That might not be a bad thing, if it is indicating an idea that resonates negatively. But the idea of being an “addict” is one that is hard to take for me personally. It’s not that I’ve been addicted to things before, because I certainly have, but thinking of myself as an addict triggers a whole bunch of negative stereotypes I have about what an addict is. Let’s go with Pressfield a moment here as he elaborates:

“Both addict and artist are dealing with the same material, which is the pain of being human and the struggle against self-sabotage. But the addict/amateur and the artist/professional deal with these elements in fundamentally different ways.”

This idea of self-sabotage dovetails nicely with a Zen Habits blog post I recently read about Savor Discipline. Leo Babauta addresses how the present self wants what it wants regardless of how it impacts the future self. He writes about the idea of merging the two interests, just as you would if you and your friend were making a decision on where to go for lunch. It wouldn’t always be one person’s choice; the two of you would take turns. Or you might merge your interests to come up with a third option that both would like. The present self and future self merge interests to find something they both can savour in the present moment. (I’m not doing this justice, so please read the post for yourself. Read the whole blog, while you’re at it! It’s wonderful.)

So how does this tie in with what I think Pressfield is saying? Well, here’s my practical example: I have lots of data-entry ahead of me today. I also have errands to run, chores to do, words to write, you know the rest. Future-Halsted would really like it if I just did all that work right now so she could kick back and do nothing later, but that would leave me irritated and frustrated. Present-Halsted just wants to curl up with a book and a cat or two, but that would result in nothing getting done. So I’ve found a third option: writing this post. I’m knocking something off my to-do list while taking a moment to reflect on a book I’m reading, and exercising my nonfiction skills a bit too. I’ve found something to savour in the moment instead of indulging my self-sabotaging ways.

Now I can make peace with Pressfield’s “addict” nomenclature because I get it: I have been an addict. I have been addicted to the concept of productivity, with all of its bells and whistles and to-do list apps. When I’m ticking off boxes, I get something like a buzz — look at all I’ve done today! — but those boxes can be for utterly inconsequential things, and at the end of it, when I’ve spent all of my energy ticking boxes and left nothing for myself, I can only see the hollow spaces of what I haven’t yet accomplished.

Turning Pro – Day 1

So there’s this app called Desk that I am using for writing and posting these very words and when I went to its support site to ask a question I discovered a community — not a metaphorical one, but an actual community of people talking about things that weren’t all support-related. I am sure this happens in other support communities but this was the first time I had run across one so … open? I felt right at home and I started reading some threads.

One thread was about starting a digital book-club to read and discuss Steven Pressfield’s book “Turning Pro: Tap Your Inner Power and Create Your Life’s Work” (Open Library), which I had been curious about but never read. My writing partner Matt gave me a copy of Pressfield’s “The War of Art” years ago and I absolutely loved it. I decided to give the digital book-club a shot.

Day 1 we read the introduction through the “My Shadow Career” chapter (if you can call it that, as the sections are very brief in this book). My favourite quotes from this section:

“The thesis of this book is that what ails you and me has nothing to do with being sick or being wrong. What ails us is that we are living our lives as amateurs.” 

This reminded me of a conversation that I keep having with the people I know who are professional writers. I’m quick to draw a line between us and say that they’re better writers, and often their rejoinder is that it isn’t about better. There is a fundamental commitment that these people have made to themselves, and I haven’t done it. Yet.

Another quote:

“Are you pursuing a shadow career? Are you getting your Ph.D. in Elizabethan studies because you’re afraid to write the tragedies and comedies that you know you have inside you?” 

It’s hard to even formulate a response to this because the metaphor is so unbelievably cutting: I mean, I became a librarian. I do love library work, and I deeply believe in libraries, but there it is. I spend my days in rooms filled with books that other people have written, never believing that I, too, could write a book.

This book-club is going to be a doozy for me.

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