Every writer I’ve ever spoken with or read about has something that hinders, to various degrees, their writing process. Time restrictions, privacy, lack of ideas, writer’s block, or, as in my case, lack of confidence. Another obstacle was pointed out to me today – limitation. But unlike the other problems writers have, this is one I could not relate to.

One of the things I love about writing is that there are no limitations. I can write what I want, when I want, where I want, in whatever style I want, for whatever audience I choose. I’m limited only by what I think I can’t do. Anyone who finds themselves limited in any way, in whatever career or skill they are working on, will quickly lose interest and enthusiasm. For writing this is particularly true.

As well as writing without limitation, I love reading authors who have done the same thing. They have not confined themselves to one particular genre, sometimes even melding many genres in the same book.

Clive James, whose writing I have enjoyed over the years, is probably recognised mostly for his journalism or memoirs. But he has also recently published his own translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which I loved, as well as numerous poems and novels. He is one writer who has definitely not been limited in his writing, something that could easily happen to a political journalist like him.

Bruce LeeLiving without limitations extends well beyond the written word, and the pioneers of sport, science and manufacturing repeatedly remind me of the value of dreaming big. In the sporting world we see physical expectations met and surpassed so regularly that most athletes wouldn’t dare even think about limiting themselves when training. Bruce Lee, a man whose body was the perfect example of what a life without limits can do, said there are no limits, there are only plateaus. He should know. In 1970, he injured his back during his morning workout routine. The damage was so bad doctors told him he would never be able to practice martial arts again. After several months laid up in bed, Bruce Lee got himself walking again and eventually went on to become one of the greatest martial artists of all time.

I love stories like this, stories that reinforce the message that we are only limited by our own beliefs.

I keep these examples close to me at all times because, while I fully support a life lived without limitations, I know others around me aren’t always in agreement. The problem with these people is that they are always eager, and quick, to put limitations out there for you.

“You can’t do that. You don’t have the right education.”

“No-one wants to read about that. Stick to the things you know best.”

“You can’t eat more than one block of chocolate a day!”

Blah, blah, blah.

I say, “Bah-humbug!” to all of that.

With the tools, knowledge and experience I have at my fingertips today there are few restrictions to meeting even the boldest goal.

And I intend to take full advantage of that.

I resolved years ago to never make another new year’s resolution. While I stand by this, in theory, I still like to have a plan for the new year that outlines what I want to achieve and where I want to be after 12 months. But I was a bit discouraged to find this year’s plan looked the same, almost to the word, as last year’s plan.

So, instead of going down that same path I took a good look at what went wrong. I couldn’t see it at first. I’d planned, I’d prepared, I’d done everything possible to make sure there was no obstacle that could show up and knock me off my path. So what had happened?

That’s when it hit me. There was absolutely no problem with anything I had done, which meant the problem was me.

I was the obstacle.

I had prepared for everything except the setbacks I put in place just by being me. Working towards something without acknowledging what might be holding me back was leading me to failure. I had to look at my weaknesses and learn how I could overcome them.

Weakness 1: It’s said that we keep on doing only what rewards us. My problem is that my rewards need to be immediate. I find it hard to wait for a reward. I need to see some sign of progress right away. But not all paths to glory have immediate rewards. Losing weight, for example, is not something that can be seen immediately. The days of hard work do add up and the reward is clearly visible, but only after a few weeks or months.

So how do I keep going when I can’t see the immediate benefits of what I’m doing? I need to find a measurement, something I can record daily if possible, to spur me on. Daily journals, charts, hard copies of my writing rather than digital copies, measurements, scales – I need to utilise any and every measuring aid I can to remind myself continually that progress is being made. I also need to reference these regularly and keep them updated so I can find encouragement when I am losing motivation.

Weakness 2: I’m a pathological procrastinator. If it can be done tomorrow, it will be done tomorrow. If it can be done later, it will done later. I’ve heard all the tips for procrastinators – make a list, do three things from that list every day; do the thing you’re looking forward to least, first; break down each task into smaller tasks so that it doesn’t seem so daunting; just do it; etc. – but none of these have been a solution for me.

What works for me is to set myself up in the position I need to be in to do whatever dreaded task I’m facing, even if I still have no intention of doing it. If I haven’t met my writing quota for the day I sit myself at the computer. If I haven’t done my daily walk all week I get dressed in my walking gear. While I’m getting ready I still tell myself I’m not going to write/walk, etc, and I’m ok with that. But the funny thing is, once I’m seated at the computer or dressed for a bit of exercise, half my reluctance is gone. Most of the time, when I realise I’ve already halved my battle, it’s so much easier to get started on the actual work. I don’t know why getting dressed or turning on my computer are considered “battles” to my procrastinating brain, and I try not to analyse it too much. I just know that this works for me.

Weakness 3: I lack confidence in almost everything I do. I don’t know why I have so little faith in how well I do things, whether it’s writing, managing, designing, cooking or even socialising. I know that I do some things better than others and some things poorer than others, but a part of me thinks I should be the best all the time. Thinking like this has eroded my confidence because when I fall short of this unrealistic expectation it inevitably leads to a decline in productivity while I beat myself up for “failing”. Confidence, or lack of it, is something I have to work through. Reminding myself that everyone has good and bad days helps me to put my struggle into perspective and move on to just doing something instead of worrying about how perfect or imperfect I might be doing it. Stephen King threw his first draft of Carrie in the bin because he didn’t think it was good enough. Primo Levi, a man whose strength and courage helped him survive Auschwitz, still lacked the confidence to speak in public. These men remind me that even the greatest men can doubt their greatness. Lack of confidence is really about overcoming fear – the fear of not being perfect,  or good enough. Reminding myself that no-one is perfect, and that my best will always be enough, will help me overcome that fear.

So, these are my problems. Nothing especially unique about them. Everyone in a creative field struggles to overcome something that could hold them back if they let it. If their fight is successful mine can be too.

I just have to work with, not struggle against, my weaknesses.

A surefire way to kill creativity

Posted: 18 December, 2014 in Uncategorized
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I’ve been slack with my blog this year. Well, that’s not entirely true. I have been writing quite a few blog entries but I haven’t published them.

When I started out I was hoping to write about writing and inspiring others to write. While this has been my main focus I’ve since realised this is not my only focus. If a non-writing related topic came up I would write about it but not publish it, fearing it wouldn’t fit with the overall theme of my blog.

But holding back like this is stifling for a writer. And stifling any part of a creative process is the first step to killing it completely.

My writing is diverse and I can lose focus but, regardless of the topics I cover, as long as I keep writing and publishing I will continue to  improve and gain confidence as a writer. That is my overall goal here.
I don’t want to be limited by something as trivial as my blog name or outline.

I’m determined to publish more regularly but I will be covering a broader range of topics. Nothing will be off limit. The point will be to publish, not limit myself to a single-topic blog.

Here’s to a productive new year and a fresh outlook on my writing life.

So many people seem to have an answer to the question, “How can I be happy?”

One of the most common suggestions I hear is the importance of living in the present. Constant thoughts of the past keep us from moving on, while thinking of the future gives us an insight into what could be, without actually making plans to get there or taking action now that would see that fantastic future become a reality.

I am guilty of living like this.

Therapists recommend spending five percent of every day in the past and from eight to 12 percent of the day thinking about the future. The rest of the time is to be focussed on the here and now. My statistics are very different to this ideal. I spend too much time in the past, trying to find the lesson in various bad experiences and mistakes. The future takes up just as much time in my head, fantasising a future where those mistakes are not repeated and imagining what I would do if put in the same situations.

One thing I know is that writing is the best way for me to achieve a centred life. When I’m writing I am in the here and now. Right now, all I’m thinking about is this word I am writing (or typing) on the page. When I have finished one sentence, I move on to the next. My thoughts don’t go beyond that. It is so calming. Maybe because when I’m writing I’m doing the one thing that defines me. I don’t have to think about what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow because right now I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing, and what I should be doing. I don’t need to be anywhere else when I’m writing, and I don’t want to be.

So I guess that’s my formula for happiness – do what you love. Don’t hold back, don’t put it off, do it as much as possible and enjoy every minute of it while you’re doing it.

Do it now!

If the past two weeks of death, disease and chaos has taught me anything it’s that life is precious, but highly unpredictable.

It’s also way too short. It doesn’t matter if live another 90 days or another 90 years, it will not be enough time to do everything I want to do. I’m amazed by people who claim to be bored. How, I think, can you possibly get bored? There is so much to do! Books to read, books to write, books to review, sewing and craft projects to start (and complete), letters to write, blogs to upkeep, people to catch up with, recipes to try, repairs to be done, paperwork to file/scan/discard, courses of study to pursue, languages to learn, movies to watch, gardening to be done, road trips to take, relatives to visit – the list is never ending!

Ok, so not everything on my list is fun or challenging but my point is there is always something to do and the only time to do it is now. I will no longer accept a second-rate life or pass up the chance to do any of these things.

I lived the dream recently when I told my boss to get f***ed and walked out of my job. It felt great! But I did dwell on this decision for about a week, wondering if I’d been too rash and whether I should have stuck it out a bit longer.

But then the afore-mentioned death, disease and chaos intruded and woke me up to the fact that leaving was the only choice I had. My life was passing me by one miserable day at a time and I was not happy.

There are many things I have no control over, but I can take charge of a few key areas of my life that will make a huge difference. My career, health and my leisure time have a huge impact on my life when I don’t manage them right, like when I stay in a job that I hate. I now have the opportunity to take control over these areas and make some big changes.

My life may not be everyone’s ideal but that’s the beauty of it – it’s my life. And I’m going to start living it.

One precious day at a time.

I’ve often written about lessons I’ve learned from great thinkers, writers, and artists. This week I learned that the lesson doesn’t even have to come from a real person.

The wonderful Hank Moody, protagonist of the American TV series Californication, had some great advice on a recent episode. He said that a real writer, someone who was born to write, can’t be talked out of being a writer. This came after some pretty harsh feedback he’d given his daughter, which was so discouraging to her that she started thinking about becoming a lawyer instead of a writer.

While the people I’m talking about here are not real, the lesson most definitely is.

There are so many writers I know of who took rejection after rejection only to pick up the pen the next day and continue on as though nothing could stop them – J.D. Salinger, Jane Austen, J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, John Grisham, Jack Kerouac, Richard Adams. Anyone reading the work of these authors can have no doubt that they were born writers. They may not have been born great writers but they became great because no amount of criticism or rejection could stop them writing.

How many writers do I know of who took those rejections as testimony of their failure as a writer and changed their path? None! Not one! These “writers” will never be known.

Rejection is not easy, for anyone. No matter what profession you’re in no-one likes having their work criticised. Even constructive criticism can be destructive for some, but picking up the pen again is what determines our calling, what makes us writers.

During my early high school years a teacher dished out some particularly harsh criticism of a poem I’d written. This did discourage me for a while, but only a short while. And because I kept at it, even though discouraged, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a fantastic editor whose critique of my writing was balanced with an equal amount of encouragement. To work with such an editor would never have been possible if I’d given up after taking criticism from one inconsequential teacher.

How sad if I’d let that one critic decide my future for me.

I love writing. I guess that was my first clue that I was a writer. My second was that, even though the sting of that first rejection stayed with me for years, it didn’t stop me writing. The rejection slips I’ve received since haven’t stopped me writing, and the ones I receive in future will not stop me writing. Being a writer isn’t just what I do it’s who I am. And nothing can change that.

thinking wordle

Why is it said that someone thinks too much? Or that someone “over-thinks” things? How is that possible? I love thinking. I am inspired when a new thought comes about after meditating on a book, article or conversation. When a new way of doing some task comes about because I’ve thought about it for a couple of days, I’m excited.

I have been told on occasion that I “think too much” and I’m instantly 10 years old again, being reprimanded for something I shouldn’t be doing. I know it’s meant as an insult or a put-down, but why?

The most common source of this statement is during theological debates with friends or family. As the saying goes, the only two subjects to avoid at a dinner party are politics and religion. But as this is a major theme of my book I like to ask questions – lots of questions – and I don’t mind if the person I’m speaking with doesn’t have the answers. What does worry me is that many people feel if they don’t have the answer it’s my fault for asking the question in the first place. This brings out the “you think too much” slur every time. Not finding the answer just gives me something else to think about, and I love it!

Regardless of the topic being discussed you know the conversation is over when someone says, “You think too much!” It’s their cue to walk away and it’s your cue to start thinking about why they said that.

I’m more annoyed with people who don’t think at all. I’m forever being asked at work how to do something on the computer or where to find an address or some other trivial piece of information. Many young people I’ve worked with don’t know how to think for themselves these days. They’re so used to being able to type a question into a search engine and being given an instant response, that putting in any kind of effort to think the problem through themselves doesn’t even occur to them.

The wonderful writer Martin Gardner said Einstein, sitting alone and thinking, changed the world more than any politician (Undiluted Hocus-Pocus). Where would we be today without the great thinkers of the world – philosophers, scientists, engineers – who all started with a thought, followed by another thought, then another?

It reminds me of a story that was shared on A Word a Day this week (AWADmail Issue 601):

… in Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, … he describes an adult working with a group of kids on tree identification. They were trying to figure out if the trees they were looking at met the criterion for diameter, so the adult gave them a tape and told them to go measure. They quickly realized they couldn’t get a diameter without cutting down the trees. This led to the fundamental question: “How many diameters in a circumference?” — and then a series of experiments, first estimating by eye, then laying out circles on the ground and measuring, then trying to determine exactly how many diameters fit into a circle. “At that point, these five kids, ranging in age from nine to twelve, were within two one hundredths of discovering pi, and I was having a hard time containing myself.”

It’s amazing what we can achieve when we think about it.

We need to put some thought into everything we do to do it successfully. Some of us need to think a lot, others can get the answer relatively quickly. It doesn’t matter as long how long it takes – thinking is not a bad thing.

The only time I can think of when thinking too much can be a problem, is if the act of thinking replaces the act of doing. Procrastinators are great thinkers. And I should know, I’m one of the best procrastinators alive today. But, having thought about it some more, I don’t think there is anything wrong with thinking, and I really don’t see thinking “too much” as possible, let alone something to be criticised for.