The presence present

Trying to be more in the moment with life and writing

I’m trying to cultivate a new habit. My usual tendency is to spend way too much time thinking about the past and the future. Thoughts about the past keep me circling round regrets and pre-occupation with the future makes me feel like I’m still ‘waiting’ for life to happen. Both of these, of course, neglect what’s going on right now in the present and I didn’t realise how exhausting all this mental time travel was until I started to suspend it.

There are plenty of traditions and modalities that talk about the benefits of being present, so I’ve decided to give it a go. The results thus far are interesting. When you intentionally stick with what you’re doing, it gets done a lot faster and with more ease. I know, nothing surprising there. Just like so many of life’s learnings, it’s as simple and as difficult as that.

In the morning, I set some intentions around presence by writing down a few sentences of how I’ll be doing it and why I want to do it. Then I check in at regular intervals during the day to see where my mind’s at – rarely in the present, it turns out. It’d be great to find that I was in the moment more but being reminded that I’m not is enough to cut the loop of whatever mental re-run I’m on.

I’ve mainly been doing it with work and general life admin but I’m wondering how it would affect my writing. I’m sorry to say that I’m not often writing in the present. You get those golden streaks of pure flow but especially before I start writing, I think a lot about the end product and whether it will be published and read, where and who by. Then I think about past pieces and what did and didn’t work.

I’m constantly scrolling backwards and forwards and deciding the future of a piece based on past experiences. It must weigh words down when they arrive with such hopes and expectation, when you want them to achieve something big before they’re even born. I wonder what it would be like to write without that? Does it read as something different when it’s freed from all that chatter and of course, is it easier to write when it’s just you and it in the moment?

I also wonder would it add more depth to my writing. The idea of tuning in to the senses is a common suggestion for finding more of a connection with the present moment, so if I’m more open to the tactile or visual or aural, would that have a flow on effect with my writing?

I’m interested in how it works for others. Maybe this is how everyone else is already writing, firmly in their now. If so, is this just how it works for you or did you cultivate a process to get you there? Or does all that past and future rumination freeze you and stop you from starting anything?

I’m going to keep trying to offer the present of presence to my words. I want to see if it’s as good for them as it is for my to-do list.

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Comparison the joy thief

Comparing yourself to others isn’t helpful but it is human.

Last week I found out that I was unsuccessful in four story submissions that I’d made for publications and competitions. I didn’t find out through the usual ‘unfortunately, this time your piece wasn’t chosen’ email, instead it was by reading declarations on Twitter from the writers who were successful.

Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. There they went, one by one, the little bubbles of hope and possibility I have when I’m still waiting to hear back on a few submissions. Next came a slow deflating sigh and then disappointment.

For me, the disappointment usually starts me questioning and the questioning usually leads to comparing. How many stories have they had published? How many competitions have they won? Do they have an agent? Have they had published a book? How many followers do they have?

There will always be room for comparison, even when books are published, an agent is secured and followers are plentiful you can compare prize nominations, festival invitations, sales into foreign territories, options for films or bodies of work. It doesn’t matter what you have, someone else will always seem to have more.

Comparison is indeed a joy thief. Comparing yourself or your work to someone else isn’t helpful but it is human. With that in mind, I’ve gathered together some quotes and I’m hoping that reading them will help to still the spiral for when I next slip into the comparison vortex.

“How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbour says or does or thinks, but only at what he does himself, to make it just and holy.”
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“Comparison is the death of joy.” Mark Twain

“Don’t compare your life to others. There’s no comparison between the sun and the moon. They shine when it’s their time.” Unknown

“A flower does not think of competing to the flower next to it, it just blooms.” Zen Shin  

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

“You cannot envy the branch
That grows bigger
From the same seed,
And you cannot
Blame it on the sun’s direction.
But you still compare us….”
Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun (2010)

“Comparison is the most poisonous element in the human heart because it destroys ingenuity and it robs peace and joy.”
Euginia Herlihy

“Don’t always be appraising yourself, wondering if you are better or worse than other writers. “I will not Reason and Compare,” said Blake; “my business is to Create.” Besides, since you are like no other being ever created since the beginning of Time, you are incomparable. ” Brenda Ueland

“There is really no use in comparing yourself to others. There will always be someone ahead and someone behind, and there will be dozens (if not hundreds) of different scales and gradients to be behind and ahead on.
To be number one is never final. It is and always will be a momentary, fleeting instant. But to be a growing version of yourself? That, you can be. You can be that every single day.” Vironika Tugaleva

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Exposure and security

The paradox of the writing process

I woke up last Wednesday night to go to the toilet and found our front door wide open. Panic and confusion froze me for a minute but the real shock was the immediate feeling of exposure.

We have a front gate that is usually shut, a screen door that is closed and a front door that is locked after them. Each one of these things isn’t much; vertical pickets, metal and some mozzie mesh, wood with a glass inlay. They are thin and breakable but their presence has always felt like protection enough. Standing in the middle of the night with the cold air coming in, I certainly felt vulnerable without them closed.

We have a street light directly out the front and it lit up the hall like a runway. Whoever it was followed the light to my handbag and car keys. They took both, left the doors open and drove away in our car.

So, I’ve been reflecting on exposure and security and what the things are in our life that make us feel safe and whether they really are the refuge that we think they are. It was quite the digression but this leads me, of course, to writing.

For a lot of us, writing is a refuge. It’s a safe place and a haven. Does it feel like this because of our familiarity with it? Is it because we control it or because we’re expelling words onto a page and putting them there for their own safe-keeping?

Secure things are usually known and familiar. They offer us comfort and reassurance. There is also the idea that security allows self-assurance which is a cosy concept to be tucked up with. And so, we come to the tangled paradox of writing because often it doesn’t feel like that at all.

Writing can be uncomfortable and unnerving and sending our words out into the world is surely a kind of exposure. You give a glimpse of what is within and open yourself up to other people’s reactions. Then there’s the self-doubt and the cyclical swing between pride and embarrassment.

But we still write.

Writing offers us exposure and security at the same time and perhaps that’s where the challenge and the thrill of it lies, in trying to find a balance between the push and pull of it.

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Reading the classics

Why it’s good to mix it up with a classic every now and again

My literary diet is mostly contemporary fiction. Last week, I finished George Eliot’s Silas Marner. It kept getting pushed to the bottom of my bedside bookstack. I would look at it, think it seemed like too much ‘work’ and pick up something else from the pile.

Classics aren’t usually an easy read. They come from another age and bring the language of that time with them. That’s part of the reason they don’t feel easy but also why it’s good to give them a go now and again (that and the quiet hope that when I read Chekhov my own writing will improve through osmosis).

The way that they navigate around a sentence is different to how we do it now. The meaning is in there somewhere, it’s just not immediately clear. There’s a formality and inversion that can make it feel like you’re reading another language. After a few chapters though, it starts to feel normal and you’ve just given your brain some excellent training.

It’s also a great exercise in extending your attention span. They move slower than modern narratives do. There’s a lot of detail, exposition and they tell rather than show (gasp!). And really, what’s the rush? I confess, I skim more in a classic than I do in a modern book but once I’m into it, I don’t mind the digressions and departures that eventually get you to the action.

And I’m a voyeur, so I love being transported not just into someone else’s life but into another age. I love the historical placing and social insight you get when you’re reading from the past. Some of it makes you furious, and very happy that you live where and when you do, but what surprises me even more, is how a lot of it could be written now.

We’re thinking about the same things now that they did back then. The biggies are all there; love, loss, power, loyalty, betrayal, pride, jealousy, families, wealth.

In Silas Marner the loss of a child is no less for the infant mortality rates and there’s always someone looking for a way to get money for nothing. In Balzac’s Cousin Bette, they’re all talking about how expensive real estate is in Paris, worrying about their reputations and spending money that they don’t have.

And the Russians with their ability to paint the politics of an empire and an era against the internal struggles within families are surely the origin template for the ‘great American’ novels that have followed.

Life hasn’t changed so much. We as humans haven’t changed so much and I find that equal parts crazy and comforting.

When I say classics, I don’t think I’ve read anything earlier than Shakespeare. So now I want to know, the Greeks, the Romans, did they look for acknowledgement from parents? Did they take heartbreak as badly as we do? Feel inadequate against their peers?

Where do you suggest I start if I want to read an ancient classic?

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When in doubt…nature.

Nearly two months into the season, it’s undeniably Autumn. I’ve taken my cue from the tiles being too cold to walk on without socks and I think I may have had my last ocean swim for a while.

The turn of the season still feels fresh. It’s cosy to make soup, wind a scarf around my neck and snuggle between flannelette sheets at night. The tell-tale signs of the season in nature are also gorgeous to witness and a good reset for me personally.

I’ve been distracted lately which leads to a chaotic scatter-gun approach to whatever I’m working on. I’m hurried and impatient with a lot of picking-up and putting-down and not much getting-finished.

But these crisp Autumn days offer some friendly reminders. Nature is good like that. Cyclical. Eternal. Unhurried. Beautiful and so much bigger than us and our immediate quotidian concerns.

Of course, being in nature helps. Everything. Always. It makes me slow down and be subject to wonder again. But if you can’t get a hit of the real natural world then reading about it is a good enough second.

Here are some of my go-to writers for a nature intervention.

Jonathon Driori – his book, Around the World in 80 Trees, would be my desert island pick, the one and only book I would have in the world if I could have no other. He shares his vast arboreal knowledge with intellect and wit and the illustrations by Lucille Clerc are stunning! This book is my antidote to planet woe because nature doing her incredible thing is never going to be a downer. I can’t recommend this book highly enough and am so excited that it now has a companion in the recently released Around the world in 80 plants.

Mary Oliver – feels like she spent most of her life wandering in wonder and capturing nature with eloquence and reverence. Reading her poetry always slows time for me, as I mentioned in a previous Mary Oliver blog, and puts our place in the world back into perspective.

Helen Macdonald – as a poet, historian and falconer she created something completely unique in her book H is for Hawk. It’s another read that restores my faith in everything. It’s about grief and goshawks, about nature and being human and where any and all of those overlap. She has a new book Vesper Flights, which I’m told is just as good but haven’t got to yet.

Reading these writers, I soar to great heights, sink beneath the surface and see what’s around me anew. Clifftops, coastlines and deep roots make me feel the restorative power of nature that people have been writing about for centuries.

I’m sorry to say that I don’ have any local Australian titles or writers to offer, not because they don’t exist but because I just haven’t read much Australian nature writing yet….and I’m looking forward to some suggestions so I can right this wrong.

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Games you shouldn’t play

A few tips for your next game of ‘How old were they when they published their first book?

Before we start, a disclaimer. There is a small chance that playing How old were they when they published their first book? will make you feel better but a much bigger chance that it’ll make you feel worse. The older you get, the worse the odds are. Young players have a much higher likelihood of coming out satisfied.

Tip – Even young players might want to avoid the Romantic poets who have both early publication and death.

Here are a few authors you may want to try for a more reassuring outcome of how old they were when their first books were published:

Elizabeth Strout –42 years old

Marcel Proust – 43 years old

Julia Donaldson – 45 years old

J. R. R. Tolkien – 45 years old

Raymond Chandler – 51 years old

Daniel Defoe – 59 years old

Laura Ingalls Wilder – 65 years old

I usually only play this when I shouldn’t, when I’m already at a low ebb about where I’m at with my writing and publication possibilities. And of course, it usually makes me feel worse, which means I start avoiding the type of books I normally like to read because otherwise I’ll just do the maths and feel shitty again.

This week, I played a few rounds and got so disheartened that most of my reading pile became off-limits. When that happens, I usually head to the classics. They seem too out of my world for a direct comparison. I picked up Silas Marner and yet somehow, I found some things to envy in George Eliot’s literary trajectory.

My solution was to get out of fiction altogether. I headed over to Jonathon Driori’s Around the World in 80 trees where there is always solace and beauty to be found no matter how low my spirits.

Here are the rules but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Step 1

Read a book that you like written by an author who is a similar match to your own demographic (age, gender, genre….).

Step 2

Read the bio/blurb to find out exactly when the author was born.

Step 3

Read the bio/blurb to find out what their first book was.

Step 4

Read the bio/blurb to find out exactly when their first book was published.

Step 5

Head to Wikipedia for the above information if you can’t find it in the book.

Step 6

Do a detailed Google search to find any information that is not in the book or Wikipedia.

Step 7

Do some simple maths.

year of first book publication – year born = age that first book was published

Step 8

Compare their age to your age and react accordingly.

Final note – This game isn’t exclusive to writers. You can play by changing the author for any person in your chosen field and by changing a book to any achievement that you’re aiming for.

Have you got any more later-life debut authors that I can add to my list of reassurance?

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This is meant to be fun too, you know?

In life and writing, don’t forget to have fun.

I went to the Newcastle Show on the weekend. All was as it should be; the smell of battered savs, the scream of kids on rides and fairground organ music cranking in the background.

When we were in the rides section, I realised it was too long since I’d been on the chain carousel. I have memories of repeated rides on it at Australia’s Wonderland, legs out and arms out, soaring above the whole amusement park and feeling like I was flying.

I got a ticket. Not because one of the kids wanted a ride but because I suddenly couldn’t wait another day to feel like that again.

It was exactly as much fun as I remembered. I blew kisses to my husband and kids, who waved from below. I took in the bird’s eye view and kicked my legs out. They were the only steady thing as the rest of the world spun around me.

Just as the ride slowed down for us to get off, the attendant asked if we wanted another spin. Hell yeah! Double fun. Fun begetting fun.

Fun feels good. Silly feels good. Light feels good. There are plenty of fridge magnets that warn about life being too serious to take seriously.

But in life and in writing, I think fun gets overlooked. We seem to think that our work benefits from struggle and toil and that fun is frivolous and something extra rather than integral.

The tortured artist has a lot to answer for there.

My suggestion is that when you feel like you’re struggling with your writing, not in a challenge-to-be-figured-out way but in a misery-and-despair way, then it’s time to step away and find the fun again. Where do you find lightness, in life and in writing?

Follow the fun in both and I think it’ll bring you back to a better place.

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The Promise of the Premise

What are you promising readers at the start of a story?

Opening pages are like a contract that you make with your readers – here are the people you’ll follow, here is the pace we’re likely to take and this is the tone I’ll be taking. If the reader is up for it, they keep reading and reading. That’s their part of the contract.

Your part is an agreement to give them a story that matches what you offered at the start of the story. You don’t need to mirror the opening or give them the ending they anticipated but I now think that you do at least owe them a sense of balance.

I say ‘now’ because to be honest it’s something I haven’t been in the habit of doing. I haven’t thus far been much of a plotter when it comes to writing fiction, so when I start writing something new, I don’t think about what I’m offering the reader. I can’t because I don’t even know where I’m going yet.

Recent feedback on some of my short stories has made me think about this private pact between the reader and writer. I was writing endings because I liked the image that they left but my readers wondered why after following a certain character for most of the story I would end on another one instead. For someone who believed in promises, I didn’t realise how casually I’d been breaking them.

I think in novel length manuscripts I’m more aware of who is owed the air-play. In short stories if there is a roving POV, I’m not always sure that I divvy up the limelight quite right. It doesn’t have to be about character though. The question is whether you’ve honoured your set up.

I find beginnings and endings tough to write. They can be awkward and clunky and feel like they have a lot riding on them. However, editing and rewriting them becomes less unwieldy when you think about the promise of your premise. There’s a nice circular feeling to it.

If your initial offering doesn’t match anymore then it gives you the chance to think about what and where your real story is and how you could change your opening so that it honours what the story has become.

A promise is a promise after all.

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Are you a goal getter?

With a fresh new year, it’s time to put pen to paper…..and do a little planning.

I’ve always liked the fresh start of a new year. First, I write a letter to the year that was. I reflect and say goodbye. Then, I write a letter to the new year to say hi and have a little chat about my hopes and ideas for the next 12 months.

My 2020 diary (A5, week to a double-page, hard cover, Kikki-k) now has me hooked on setting some goals too. I liked the questions it asked at the beginning of the year. They were an extension of the reflections in my letters and not all of them were about goals. It had regular check-ins and prompts. Then it got granular and asked what I needed to do in the next thirty days to get things moving. It asked about actions and priorities and kept asking about them all year. Actually, it asked every month and week and all that asking kept me on track.

There were no trick questions. It was always the same thing again and again re-checking what my goals were, what the priorities within them were and what actions I needed to do to get there.

So, I nibbled away rather than taking bite-sized chunks and found out that it’s much easier to keep an appetite that way. I also don’t give as much procrastination push-back to small tasks. Once I got some momentum going, I found that actually doing the things you’ve been meaning to do is very satisfying and kinda addictive.

There’s oodles of stuff out there about goals and goal setting. There’s a whole industry devoted to it but the simplicity of a regular written reflection was enough for me.

In a pandemic year, I managed to move cities with my young family and finish writing an anthology of short stories. One needed logistics and planning, the other, discipline. Both needed the stamina of ‘the long game’ and I may not have been as match-fit for that if I hadn’t been constantly checking in on them as ‘goals’.

The lesson I could’ve done with learning a decade ago is that it’s possible to think about something you want, consistently do small actions towards making it so and then have it actually happen.

I know. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.

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Ideas in the dark

If life’s too noisy to hear your subconscious, try some insomnia or an acupuncture appointment.

I went to the acupuncturist recently. I hadn’t been for ages and as I lay there with the lights dimmed, I had ideas. New ideas for new projects as well as useful ideas to try with sticky plot points in current projects.

I remembered that when I had regular acupuncture appointments, I also used to sit in the car afterwards frantically scribbling in my notebook, so that I didn’t lose all the ideas that I’d had. This also happens sometimes in the middle of the night when I can’t get back to sleep. I hate those early broken hours but it’s a consolation that at least I get a few good ideas out of it.

I feel like my subconscious is telling me something along the lines of, ‘Have you noticed it takes a lot of sensory deprivation for me to deliver my most interesting morsels? Do you wonder if there could be an easier way to get new ideas?’

And I do wonder if there could be a better way but I’m never really doing nothing. If I’m sitting down and having a cup of tea, I’m probably also noting the state of the floor or idly adding to the shopping list. If I’m swimming laps or having a walk then there’s still everything around you to process and if I’ve insisted to myself that I need to just sit and do nothing, then I’m probably worrying about how I might be wasting this moment of nothingness by still thinking about something. There isn’t the same release in those moments as there is on the acupuncture table. I can’t move. It’s dark and warm. I have nowhere else to be and there’s no expectation for me to do anything.

This process is described in psychologist Melissa Burkley’s article Where do writers get their ideas? She talks about how our mind is controlled by two systems; controlled and automatic. The controlled system is basically our conscious awareness while the automatic system works outside this. She describes it as “the part of our mind that handles all our dirty work in order to make our lives easier.” Ideas are more likely to come when our conscious mind is settled enough to let us actually “hear the quiet voice of the unconscious mind”.

It would seem that my conscious mind is like one of those babies who needs more than a quiet room to sleep. They need their parents to black out the windows as well.

A lot of people talk about how they have ideas when they’re walking or doing exercise. That’s often how I find solutions when something in a piece of writing isn’t working. But for me, new ideas that come from nowhere usually start in the dark.

Where and when do you get your best ideas?

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