Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Reading: A Mindful Activity

Yes, you read that right.

It's something I've been thing about for some time now. In a world full of distractions, choices and endless options for occupying oneself from one second to the next.
I often find myself unable to focus on one form of entertainment at once. Tell me I'm not the only one who can be caught watching hater Netflix boxset I'm bingeing on currently, whilst at the same time, flicking through Facebook posts and responding to Whatsapp messages. All. At. once. I often feel that I'm quite capable of taking all those in well. But then I'm often to be found rewinding said TV series when something profound happens and I admit I hadn't quite caught it or the lead up to it, or why it is profound in the first place.

There is often so much out there that we feel we are missing out on a lot if we don't have our fingers, quite literally on the button, for each new update.

In recent times, we have also experienced an epidemic of anxiety and depression that more and more research is linking to our excessive use of social media and the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO). With every new update, every new notification, every new like or comment on our photograph, Facebook post or Whatsapp photo, we get a spike of Dopamine, a hit of that happy hormone. And following that, we then spend an inordinate amount of time seeking a further hit. And another. And another.

For those of us you can, I'd like us to take a look back to a time when we did not have Facebook or other miscellaneous forms of social media. *sharp intake of breath* I know. It's distressing, but just for a few moments, think back. Life still happened, right? You were still entertained, right? You still had friends. Ones you probably saw more regularly or spoke to more frequently than you do now. And there wasn't always this persistent feeling in the middle of your back somewhere that you should be doing something...else.

It's possible that it is just me that experiences all the above. It's possible. But somehow I doubt it.

You will all have heard about Mindfulness. In the last few years, it has become ubiquitous: a saviour of frazzled minds inundated with worry, anxiety and stress. Courses, workshops, retreats, podcasts, articles etc, have laid out different techniques and processes for implementing mindfulness in one's daily life. Indeed, it has even been taken up by employers, eager to improve productivity and wellbeing of their staff.

The premise behind Mindfulness, as I understand it (and please correct me if I'm wrong), is to ground a person's thoughts for a space of time. To reign one's mind in to focus solely on the present. Not what appointment you have next; not what you've forgotten to add to your Christmas shopping list; or the witty, barbed response you should have made to a veiled insult you received earlier that day. None of that. Only to focus on your breathing; the comfortable position in which you've situated your body for the session; the sensation of every extremity in relation to its surroundings and the surfaces they are in contact with. To experience your body's sensations and to savour them. For that allocated time, to ignore the pings, the notifications, the unanswered posts and the unliked photos. To just be an unharrassed person, breathing in an out. And in and out.

I must admit, the relatively few times I've tried Mindfulness sessions, I've enjoyed them. But nothing really calls me back to it from one session to the next. The moment my eyes open, I'm once again inundated and my mind is racing back to all the things it held off for that time.

What has all this got to do with reading, you ask?

Well, as the title of the blog post indicates, there is one activity that for me brings the essence of mindfulness to its fullest potential in my life. And that is reading.

I find that a twenty minute read of whatever work of fiction I have on the go- whether a physical book or one on an e-reader- when I come to the end of that time, I proceed about my day with a spring in my step, lighter and happier than I've ever felt after a typical Mindfulness session that the gurus offer.

I think it is because, reading a work of fiction, does not just cause you to forget about the noise and annoyances around you. It does more than that. It whisks you fully away from it and places you in a time and place of your choosing, with companions you are getting to know and becoming friendly with and adventures you are eager to see to fruition. It gives you a life experience totally removed from the one outside of the book. When you do come back, maybe because your pet needs feeding or an alarm has gone off and the real world beckons, yes, it's with a heavy heart because you have to leave the story for that time. But excitement lingers because you know, as soon as you can get another block of time, you'll be back in there, gamboling about fully engaged with the story, your real-life stresses happily forgotten.

If given a choice on the best way to de-stress, I'll choose a good book and a nice long read, anytime.
How about you? Do you agree? Or do would you choose something totally different from a book for a few minutes of abandon in the middle of a busy day?

Please let me know in the comments.

Enjoy the rest of your week!

Monday, 13 November 2017

The Gift of Time

It’s been a while…

I can’t believe my last post on here was in April 2013.

I think about how my life was at the time and I know why I couldn’t keep it up. I was in training at the time, I was in on-the-job training. It was tough- both the day to day job, the assessments and the examination preparations. There was constant guilt whenever I took time out to do something not relate to it. But that guilt was also laced with fear, because if I took that time and did not give as much as I could to my studies and ended up with poor outcomes in my assessments and exams, then I could only blame myself.

So, I made the decision to focus on that. I did. I am now qualified and working for myself.

Now, however, I know it’s not just that. I know I could have kept the blog up. How could I have done that? By making it a priority and giving it its own space in my head and in my schedule.

You see, I have only recently discovered the genius of the weekly timetable. I know, it’s late, right? But as they say, It’s better late than never!

When I was gifted the idea of a coming up with a weekly timetable, I only thought that it would help me remember from one day to the next what I had to do. And I must admit that it does this beautifully.

What I did not consider at all, was the space it would free up in my head and the amount of appreciation I would develop for how much time there actually is in the day.

Prior to the timetable, as someone that works in the evenings, I would get up leisurely in the mornings- without an alarm. Then immediately, my mind would start ruminations on what I need to be getting on with. I would decide which to tackle based on either how long I have procrastinated on it; or how likely I was to forget it if I didn’t do it then and there; or how immediate its resolution was (i.e. I had an appointment to attend or a deadline which took the decision out of my hands).

As I did the chosen, task, I would remember another and another. My mind would be endlessly distracted, simple tasks would take hours to complete because I knew I didn’t have to do it just then. There was not structure. Procrastination was easy.

I would often go to work later in the day feeling like I had wasted my time, frittered it away on nothing. I had no way of knowing what I’d accomplished. Even when I’d been running around all day, if I finally sit down for a bit of relaxation I couldn’t enjoy it because there was always the feeling that I hadn’t done what I was supposed to do. I remained plagued with guilt because I felt I hadn’t earned that time, I hadn’t accomplished anything. Basically, in my mind, there was still lots to do so why was I lounging about?

Then came the timetable. And suddenly, my mind is clear and uninterrupted.

I give myself an hour at the end of the weekend to think about what I need to get done during the week, and I write it down giving myself blocks of time in which to do each thing.

The first week, I got so much accomplished that I became unwell at the end of the week. Apart from the fact that I am fragile in that way, what I realised was that I did not schedule time for active R&R. I was run down. My lesson for that week was the importance of rest.

But I felt so accomplished. I could not believe how much I got done. I also learnt that I am very amenable to it. When I am doing thing, and thoughts of “Oh, didn’t you say you needed to do x, y, z…?” I immediately thought, “Yes, but that’s in the timetable for tomorrow afternoon, so no need to think about it now.” And just like that, the thought was gone and I continued the task I currently had at hand. In my previous life, my response would have been, “Oh yes, let me leave this and go and do that before I forget!” Hence, a trail of perpetually unfinished tasks and a harried mind.

Also, by breaking my day into blocks of time, I found that I could focus quite easily on the time I was currently in and if my mind drifted, it would be to the upcoming task block. I hardly thought about the spectre of going to work later, until the time to prepare for work, came around. That improved my time at work, because I came to it fresh instead of having frowned about it all day, instead of ruminating about things that may go wrong or things I’d done wrong (unless an active reflection period had been scheduled into the timetable!). The feeling that I had used my day well also gave me a satisfied attitude and helped my demeanour through my shifts.

I wonder what I could have accomplished if I adopted this practice ten years ago. Not even that, say five years ago. But there’s no good dwelling of “What ifs”.

I am a timetable convert now. And from now on, even if I drift and forget for a week or two to do a timetable, I know I will be soon brought back to it because the benefits are tremendous for me.
What about you? What habits have you implemented in your life that have transformed it? Do you also keep a schedule or timetable? Do you think it’s helped or hindered you? A friend of mine is against it because she feels it kills or constricts creativity. Have you found that? I can’t speak to that as yet. I will let you know as time goes on.

You see, I timetabled this post in to my day and I have got it done, without knowing before opening the word document, what I was going to write about. Would I have been so focused and productive if I hadn’t? Based on previous experience, I would say no.

Have a brilliant week! 

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

My first (COMPLETED) short story!

I was off sick from work yesterday. Despite the fact that I was physically unwell, my mind would not stop niggling at me to use my 'free' time to get some writing done.

Finally capitulating, I contemplated what sort of writing exercise to partake in. The pile of critique I had gotten from my writing group still nestled comfortably between the pages of my copy of 'Beginnings, Middles and Ends' by Nancy Kress and I had not recovered enough or put enough emotional distance between the critiques and my ability to implement the needed changes. So I did not reach to open them. Instead, I thought about what they had said and tried to figure out something I could do that would feel like I'm doing something active to move my story forward.

I hit a bit of a block doing that because I was still in the 'novel mode' and it seemed too vast to try to change just one thing as know even a small change will have a significant impact on  the whole of the story. That kept me frozen for a while until I decided to think laterally: Why don't I do something else separate from the WIP? But again, this thought led me back to the novel arena and I felt too weak to start up another 'potential' novel.

And then I had an Eureka moment: Why not write a short story?

Now, to everyone reading this, this  might be a no-brainer, 'Duh, that's a much easier undertaking, isn't it?' However, for me, it is not. Here is my confession: I do not read short stories.

Argh! Blasphemy!

Yes, it's true. It's not that I have not read some short stories in the past, of course I have. The problem for me was that these stories I read made me realise just how much I love longer prose. I tend to have too many questions when I come to the end of a short; questions I need the authour themselves to answer for me. I do not like to think about what could have happened because, it is not my story. If it is not mine, then I do not want to have to speculate on the backstory or afterstory. S when I have questions hanging around in my mind when I come to the end of somebody's piece of work, for me, that is highly unsatisfactory. Couple that with the fact that most of the ones I read had been literary pieces that I think, pride themselves on leaving you as confused as possible, you can understand my overall hesitation with the whole thing.

Nevertheless, since I have started to make writing a bigger and more significant part of my life, I am forcing myself to open up to things that I have previously been more rigid about. In order to make this easier on myself, I decided to read short stories in the genres (fantasy (epic and not), YA, romance) that I am interested in writing in, to get an idea of how it is done.

To my delight, what I found out was that unlike my reaction to reading literary short stories, I was inspired by the questions left unanswered in fantasy short pieces. I was driven to try and come up with the different ways the stories could go after they dropped off the end of the page. And I loved it!

Inspired by the few stories that I read yesterday, I decided to write one and several hours later, I had my very first completed short story. I couldn't be more proud of it. I know it is amateur and could possibly be found wanting is numerous different ways, but the fact remains that I completed a piece of work. Something I have never done before in a non-exam situation. My heart is smiling and my brain is fizzing away with more ideas. As a direct result of the buzz of this success, I went back to my WIP. What I decided to do was add in a prologue to provide a bit of back story that would minimise the need for info dumping  in the main story. I wrote and completed that prologue and it came up to just under a thousand words in total.

All in all, during my sick day yesterday, I wrote over two thousand five hundred words. Never before, have I had such a productive day and I got the feeling, however briefly, of what it would be like to be a professional writer.

I am thrilled.

I have not put the story up here because I don't think anyone is interested at the moment nd that was not the really point of this post. I might put it up in the future if I want to or if I get requests to do so.

Until then,


Tuesday, 9 April 2013

One of these days the other shoe will drop.

I had a thought while I was driving to work a couple of days ago. It suddenly occurred to me how comfortable I had gotten with driving. You see, only a few years ago, I was one of those city people who did not see the point of driving. Living in London guaranteed that having a car was mostly more trouble than it was worth. You can get anywhere by train, tube, bus; or if you are feeling particularly flush/loaded/extravagant/manic, by taxi. So it wasn't until I was posted to a much smaller and far less well-connected town, that I realised the error of my oversight. I was routinely stranded; soaked by rain; frozen by unexpected winter chills and rended ill by the ever-changing weather.

I was soon getting driving lessons and impatiently pushing myself to get the hang of it. Unfortunately, I was not one of those that took to the new skill naturally. It was a struggle. Even after I passed my practical test, it took over a year me for me to get to the point where I do not wake up hours earlier in the morning, if I have to drive a new route that day or if I have to traverse the motorway-however briefly.

Now, however, I live thirty minutes for my place of work and happily skip to my car each morning, looking forward to the drive on the motorway, calm as can be. If anyone had told me I would feel like this when I was struggling with it over a year ago, I would have vowed never to trust their lying tongue ever again.

anyway, while driving to work today, listening to Mur Lafferty's IShouldBeWriting (#ISBW) podcast on my phone, I was reminded of a previous episode I had listened to. In that podcast, she described what it means when the phrase that forms part of the topic of this post is mentioned: Waiting for the other shoe to drop. A listener had informed her that it had to do with the situation where, sharing a room with a someone, you are woken up during the night by them stumbling in and crashing into the bunk bed directly above where yours. As you listen, one of their shoes falls to the floor. Then, you lie there, waiting, knowing that until the other one joins it, you will not be able to settle back into sleep.

What has this got to do with writing? This: we all have our favourite author(s). Usually, these men and women have several publications under their belts. We, as aspiring writers, wonder how they do it. How do they get from the initial idea, to words on the page? And more importantly, how do they do it over and over again.

I think that for them, the other shoe has dropped. They started somewhere, just like we have. They worked putting in the 10,000 hours needed to learn their craft and along the way, they got the hang of it. They suddenly understood what it took to transform the raw idea to the finished product and how to use that formula to take each idea, each project from conception to completion.

I long for that moment - the moment when it all clicks together. It will probably not be a sudden flash of revelation. More likely, I will notice somewhere along the way, through the never-ending hours of writing, researching, blogging and despairing, that I am finally comfortable in the process. The time when I do not worry about it all going wrong; about never finishing it; or that everyone will hate it. I do not expect it to be smooth sailing as each project will have it's difficulties; just like I do not get complacent behind the wheel (well, I try not to!), because of the numerous unknown quantities behind the wheels of all the other cars on the road with me.

What I ask is that I  one day, have a method of tackling the obstacles presented by my story; a method based on the confidence of previous success; knowing that having done it before, I could do it again.

After 'the other shoe drops', the thankful roommate can return to sleep confident that there are no more nasty surprises lurking. That's the confidence of the experienced writer.

The time between one shoe dropping and the other following, should not be spent idly waiting. In the case of the aspiring writer, it is the act of writing itself, that is the gravity that pulls the shoe to the ground.

Happy scribbling!

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Idea wall

Hello all,

Hope you had a lovely Easter break. I did. After giving up chocolate for Lent, I congratulated myself for getting throught the forty-day stint by eating every single chocolate-related item I could lay my hands on <sigh>  But I've calmed down now.

As always, I continue down my path of self harm by writing. I am editing the first draft of my novel which I have had to admit to myself, is far from the complete story. I stopped where I thought the first book should end. I therefore have to ask: Can I call it a first draft if the story itself (the trilogy such as I thought it was going to be) is not complete?

I am reading and listening to every writing advice blog/podcast that I can get my impatient mitts on. Mur Lafferty's advice to 'let yourself write a crappy book', often keeps me from chucking the whole work (laptop included), out of my first floor window. It is okay that I don't think it's very good. I need to remember that and focus on the fact that I can edit, add, remove and embellish in my own time. There's no rush; no agent standing on my neck while waving deadlines in front of my rapidly diminishing vision.

The main problem with the work at the moment is that I can't 'see' it. It seems to me that because I
haven't held it in my hands it doesn't really exist. The whole world - characters, setting and plot seems very two dimensional. Also, because I have hit a block in my reading wherein, I can't focus on another book without thinking 'I should be writing' (thanks, Mur -_-); I am unable to go back to the books I have loved, the ones that drew me into their worlds and make me live the experience, and study what made them so enthralling.

I want to finish the book first; complete the story, no matter how mangled, then learn how the greats managed to leave their own everlasting marks on me.

I need to finish it. In order to help me feel my story in  three dimensions, I am going to print out all the current pages and stick them on my wall. Maybe when I finally touch the pages in paper, it will become more real for me than it is now, stuck behind a screen. Maybe. I have to try. And I have to keep writing because if I do, one day I might become a very successful write. But if I stop, that will never be a possibility.

Happy writing and blissful to all.