I Love It When a Plan Comes Together

Yesterday was a glorious day for a bit of field research and, purely by chance, I happened to have a commissioned article to write which entailed just that. I needed to take some photos and to pay a visit to a local museum in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales.

I’m finding that short (1000-1200 words) articles are a useful way of adding to the coffers whilst working on my magnificent octopus…oops, opus. My goal is to have two to three of these articles on the go each month. It’s a bit of an ask but I’m sure I can rise off my beloved sofa and meet the challenge full on.

I don’t look to the nationals to stop my financial wheels from falling off; it is mainly regional magazines, small press and trade press that keep the Writeonthebeach literary aspirations on the road. The pay is reasonable and (so far) reliable and it’s fun to write for them too.

The only problem is that I get so immersed in the research that it takes me a lot longer than it should to produce the finished article and that impinges either on writing time for the M.O. or on the day job. But then, when you’re striding out across the moors with only a few tatty-wool sheep for company and a lone curlew calling overhead, who cares?

The article is finished and the photos ain’t too shabby so after a few days “mulling time” (just to be sure I’ve not made any howlers) it’ll be winging its way to the editor and after a decent interval the next pitch will follow.

I love it when a plan comes together or am I tempting fate?

Alternative Reality

A flare-up of wrist and elbow joints over the weekend meant that I had a quiet and somewhat introspective time. I got to thinking about some things I want to change about my life and that led me down memory lane to remembering changes I tried to make in the past. Some of these came off with a bang and some just fizzled out with a whimper. It has sometimes felt like I take several steps forward, make some progress and then end up back where I started. How come?

I think there are a couple of issues that create barriers to change. One I’ve written about before (here) is the infamous inner critic – that nagging nattery serpent in the head that hisses its poison. Listen to it too much and you end up believing the carping and criticism and so end up back where you started.

However the other issue is how our beliefs about the way the world works and how we relate to it – our mental models if you will – wield so much power. A mental model in this context includes for example, all the images, assumptions, stories that we carry around in our heads. It is our take on reality.

If when making a change in life, we do not change our mental models to dovetail with and support the change then we will always do what we have always done and receive the same results. Changing our mental models opens up new opportunities and possibilities.

When I’ve struggled to sustain a change I’ve wanted to make in my life I think its because I’ve not recognised this enough. In other words, I’m trying to do something new and different but I’m doing it same old, same old.

For example, I made a decision to spend more time writing. I even set a target of 3 days for the day job and 3 days for writing. I started off well but it’s slipped. I didn’t really think through in detail how this new reality will look, feel and sound; what the true implications are; what I will gain and what I will need to give up. With hindsight I can’t believe I was so dumb. Now I feel frustrated and trapped to some extent by the day job which is encroaching on my writing time.

On the bright side however, writing is a great way of creating an alternative reality. So, over the weekend I did just that. I’ve written it all down and by describing it in detail somehow I’ve breathed life into it. I plan to record my successes however small and in that way begin to build up a body of evidence that shows me I can live in this new reality and so helps sustain the change.

The beauty of creating an alternative reality is that it is in fact only one of a myriad possibilities. The way things are at the moment is not the only way life could be. As the saying goes – I may not be able to direct the winds but I can adjust my sails…as often as I want.

Big rocks, pebbles and sand

I’m guessing that most of us lead busy, complicated lives, trying hard to keep all the plates spinning in the air. I run my own coaching business whilst trying to renovate a 150 year old cottage where the recurrent theme is dust, dust and mummified mice whilst starting a third career as a writer and taming a quarter acre wilderness if I’m not to get lost or “see something naaarsty” on the way to the woodshed – (big fan of Stella Gibbons). Can I draw breath now? Yet I know I have it easy compared with those who have family and children to take care of as well as their own lives. So with all this stuff going on how does anyone find the time to do not only the things they must do, but also the things they want to do with their lives…like write?

I suppose the answer is to be clear about priorities – what are the important things to achieve – today, tomorrow, next month? These are what the late Stephen Covey called the “big rocks”. He used the imagery of each day being a bucket into which we have to put a number of big rocks, (important tasks) some smaller rocks (less important), pebbles and sand (fairly trivial or even pointless tasks). If we put the big rocks in first the lesser stuff can fit around them. However, if we put the pebbles, sand and small rocks in first, there’ll be no room for the big rocks – the important things in our lives. In effect we become, as Robert Heinlein put it “enslaved by trivia”.

Maybe five or ten years down the road we’ll be regretting the things we haven’t achieved because where we are then depends on what we do or don’t do now.

I think it’s time for me to start getting savage with my To-do list.

Don’t lose the moon while counting the stars

I’m always curious about how other writers set about the writing process. I read Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen over the weekend and was fascinated to learn that she (Jane not Claire!) wrote at a small desk, on small sheets of paper that she could quickly tuck away if interrupted. Apparently, between the front door and the room where she wrote there was a squeaky door that she refused to have oiled because it warned her of visitors. This preference for the diminutive was also shared by Vladimir Nabokov who wrote on index cards and Graham Greene who wrote with fountain pen, in small neat writing in a small black notebook. The notebook habit was adopted by Ralph W. Emerson as well.

Many writers start early in the day – perhaps because they are natural Skylarks (at their best in early morning) and or perhaps because needs must – children have to go to school; we have to go to what my father called “a proper job”. This to some extent dictates output. However some authors, are sticklers for a set word count. For example Greene and Hemingway both kept to 500 words a day and Greene would stop without fail, mid-scene when he got there. Stephen King goes for 10 pages (I’m assuming 250 words roughly to a page) and not surprisingly, is one of our most prolific writers.

Place seems to be important too. JK Rowling is famous for her cafe writing, Maya Angelou books into a hotel room from which all possible distractions (pictures, ornaments) are removed, Alan Titchmarsh not surprisingly has his garden shed.

Coffee, fags, deck of cards, mementoes of all kinds to stimulate the imagination seem to be a recurring theme too.

We all have preferences for how we like to work, but in reading about other authors’ habits and in setting up my own writing space I’m reminded of the saying “don’t lose the moon while counting the stars”. In other words do what it takes to help the writing along, but don’t spend all the time setting out the perfect writing environment, don’t lose sight of the goal, just get on and write.