How To Your Daily Walk Part of Your Creative Practice

In previous posts, I’ve written about how walking in a relaxed state with an open mind can lead to creative insight and new ideas. In fact, many authors consider their daily walking a part of their creative practice, as they use this time to solve plot holes and other creative problems. 

The walking practice I’m going to unpack in this post is different.  

Instead of walking with the intention of observing your surroundings and allowing your mind to wander, this post is about walking with the intention of solving creative problems by concentrating on them intensely. Cal Newport refers to this practice as productive meditation.  

Productive Meditation: walking as a way to solve creative problems

I first heard of productive meditation when listening to a podcast with the aforementioned Newport — an Associate Professor at Georgetown University and author of six productivity books. The phrase productive meditation may sound like an oxymoron and hard-core meditators may find this term slightly blasphemous but don’t discredit this practice just yet. 

The intention of meditation is to become detached from your thoughts; the purpose of productive meditation is to hone your thoughts on a creative problem. In this way, both practices are requiring you to take control of your thoughts. Meditation is about focussing on a mantra or your breath where disruptive thoughts are acknowledged and released before the meditator returns their focus to the mantra or their breath. Productive meditation is about focusing on a creative problem in order to find a solution. The idea is that when your mind wanders, you notice this disruption and shift your focus back to the issue at hand. 

Productive meditation is its most effective when done while going for a long walk, 60-120 minutes. Walking activates parts of our brain that are dormant when we’re sitting. This is why we often coming up with fresh ideas, creative solutions or insights during an afternoon stroll. 

My Experience

I decided to experiment with productive meditation after listening to the interview with Cal Newport. At the time, I was dealing with a particularly sticky creative problem. As you may or may not know, I started a doctorate in creative writing earlier this year. My doctorate comprises of two components, a creative work (in my case, a novel) and an accompanying exegesis. 

My research covers multiple areas of study including, but not limited to, ecofeminism, Anthropogenic fiction, the trickster archetype and human-animal relations. 

The problem? 

I was struggling to pull these seemingly incongruous areas of study into one cohesive narrative. While the novel doesn’t have to explicitly reflect ALL my research, I was unsatisfied with the work as it currently stood.

Basically, I knew I could do better. 

So, I followed Newport’s advice. 

To be clear, productive meditation is not as easy as it sounds. You are not simply thinking while walking. No, in order to get the most out of this practice, you must push your mind to think harder and to actively look for new connections, possibilities and solutions. Little will be gained by lazily cycling through the facts you already know and repeating the familiar thoughts you’ve already had about this particular problem.  

You needn’t power walk, this process isn’t about exercise. A gentle stroll or amble is suffice – preferable in fact – because you want your attention to be focussed on the problem at hand. Your thoughts should be turned inwards, not outwards. That being said, creative idealisation is heightened again when walking outside in nature as opposed to urban settings or office stairwells … after all, you’re not going to find much inspiration in there! 

It’s also a good idea to take a notepad and pen with you to record any ideas or insights that occur during your walk. 

My first productive meditation session went for two hours and to be totally transparent, the first twenty minutes were incredibly difficult.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the thoughts that were cycling through my mind:

  • You don’t have time for this
  • You should be back at your desk reading that journal article/writing that paper/working on the next chapter/revising that other chapter/replying to that email blah blah blah
  • This is stupid
  • Screw you, Newport
  • This isn’t working
  • I can’t find a solution because there is no solution to find
  • I’ve painted myself into a corner
  • I’ve totally screwed up this research project, what the heck was I thinking?

Now, to be even more transparent … I was terrified of finding a solution. 

Let me elaborate.

The reason I was resisting this exercise is because I was afraid that I might come up with a solution that would require me to scrap the manuscript and start again.

This is an unwelcome thought for any writer. The idea that I may have to toss my 60,000 word draft in the bin was .. let’s say … disheartening. 

Despite these thoughts, I was determined to stick with the experiment, mostly because Newport’s anecdotes were so convincing. For the first 20-30 minutes, I really struggled to stretch my mind. My thoughts alternated between all the research I had gathered over the past six months and the novel’s premise; cycling and repeating the same information over and over. 

I could sense the connections that ran between these supposedly unrelated topics, but I couldn’t articulate what those threads were.

If these connections were a school of fish, then I was standing on the pier with neither a line nor bait. 

I kept walking and I kept thinking; hard. Slowly and painfully, the connections between my research and the manuscript started to become clearer. The fish swam closer to the surface of the lake. 

After an hour, something shifting. 

If there is one thing I learned from this exercise it is this: you must stick with this process until you experience that first shift. 

That first shift is the key to unlocking your thinking process. Like a domino effect or a chain-reaction, once that first new idea pops into your head, you’d be surprised how this dislodges creative blocks and new ideas start flooding trickling in. 

As I continued my walk, I pushed harder against the boundaries of my limited thinking. I actively sought out new solutions, stopping every ten minutes to write down whatever ideas came to me. This may all sound a little vague, so let me get super-specific. 

During this stage, my thought process looked a little like this:

  • How can the research be turned into the premise for a novel?
  • How else might the research be reflected in a novel?
    (Hint: this is one of the best ways to come up with better ideas. Don’t ever accept the first answer/solution your mind comes up with. Ask what other possibilities many exist. Dig a little deeper and try to come up with at least five responses to every question or problem). 
  • What do I really want the novel to be about? 
  • How big of a scale do I want this novel to be? 
  • How do I want people to feel when they read this novel?
  • Do I want the voice/style/tone to be warm/literary/moody/eerie?

These were the general question that eventually leads to the first BIG realisation. After that, I was able to drill down on the structure of the manuscript. Another 90 minutes of walking passed. I continued to write down ideas and to ask myself further questions. Eventually, I had clarified my ideas enough to sit down at a picnic table and to write a fresh outline. 

To be clear, this was a broad outline that filled two A4 pages. (I tried to follow Steven Pressfield’s method of a single page outline, but failed!)

The Take-Away?

Productive meditation is a very effective tool that can add great value to your creative practice. My project benefited so much from this process that I’ve decided to do one session every week. 

To date, I have only used these sessions as a way to develop my creative work, but I have no doubt that they would be equally beneficial for academic work such as outlining research papers or thesis chapters. 

If you choose to experiment with this method, then I urge you to fully commit to the process. Push yourself to break out of your cycling thinking, challenge yourself to find new solutions and stick with the walk for the allotted time period (60-120 minutes). 

If you do decide to give this method a whirl, please reply in the comments or send me an email. I’d love to hear about how this method works for other creatives.


 

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How to Include More Diversity in Your Fiction

The publishing industry is constantly improving in response to reader’s feedback and the natural progression of society and culture in general. For this reason, it is essential that writers challenge themselves to include more diversity in their fiction.

Think about it.

Every day we interact with people whose backgrounds, lifestyles and beliefs differ from our own. People with different ethnicities, sexual orientation, life experiences, physical and mental abilities, classes, education levels … you get the idea. People are different. However, this reality is not always been depicted in fiction or entertainment in general (tv shows, films and music).

When we start talking about the importance of diversity or representation in literature, the conversation quickly turns into a heated debate about appropriation: Who has the right to tell this person’s story?

Ann Patchett firmly believes that she can write about who and whatever she wants, but readers also have the right to tear her to shreds if she does a bad job. Other writers feel a little bit queasier at the prospect of including characters whose backgrounds differ too much from their own.

The way I see it, writers have three options:

  1. Don’t include a diverse cast
  2. Include a diverse cast, do a lot of research, and do it well (and deal with whatever fall out happens as a result)
  3. Include a diverse cast, but don’t make the story about diversity

# 1 / Don’t include a diverse cast

Does this option really need to be unpacked? I think the title speaks for itself. You are certainly welcome to continue the outdated legacy of writing novels about straight, white, western people.

# 2 / Include a diverse cast, do a lot of research, and do it well

 If you agree with Ann Patchett, then this may be the best option for you. If you are a white, straight female living in Hobart, Tasmania, no one is going to arrest you for writing lesbian erotica about two Nigerian refugees. Even if you do a good job, the reality is that some people will be VERY upset with you. If you have thick skin and a rock-solid justification for why you want to write this story, then go ahead.

People may not be happy with you, but if there is a story in your heart that is begging to be written, then you have to write it.

However, if you are writing about people whose background differ from your own, please do your research and do a lot of it. Read memoirs, interviews, blogs. Conduct your own interviews with actual people whose lives and experiences mirror those of your characters. And when the manuscript is done, hire sensitivity reader/s. Sensitivity readers are people who review your book and who assess the work for issues regarding representation, cultural accuracy, biases or insensitive language/depictions.

You can write about people from different background, but do it well and know why you want/need to write this novel.

#3 / Include a diverse cast but don’t make the story about diversity

If the above tactic is for brave writers, then this tactic is for ethical writers who are also cautious people pleasers. It is a lot easier—though that’s not to say easy—to include a diverse set of characters when the novel isn’t about their diversity. For example, some may argue that it is inappropriate for a white, straight female to write a coming-out story about an African teenage boy, but it is appropriate for that same writer to publish a novel about a female heroine whose best friend happens to be queer. See the difference?

You will still need to do a lot of research, but the pressure around articulating the internal experience/perspective of this character is eliminated because the story isn’t about sexual orientation, it’s about something else.    

This option has been used to great effect in contemporary YA dystopian novel and children’s book (though of course it also appears in adult fiction). The need to include more diversity within these two categories become very apparent in 2011 when YA authors Cindy Pon and Malinda Lo realised (during an online conversation) that their (respective) fiction become popular due to the setting: a fantastical version of Asian. This conversation quickly sparked the twitter movement #WeNeedDiverseInBooks and #DiversityinYa.

Adult writers feel that it is especially important to include more diversity in YA and children’s literature so that children and teenagers can see themselves in the fiction they are reading.

As author Walter Dean Meyers, said “[As] a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.”

Regardless of which option you chose – okay, hopefully, you are choosing option two or three – the literary landscape is changing alongside our broader social and cultural awareness of those who have been marginalised. Progress is a natural part of human nature. We need to grow, develop and do better. Including a diverse cast won’t solve all the world’s problems, but it is a step in the right direction. And I encourage you to take it.


 

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How Do You Know When A Project Is Finished?

One could argue that creative projects are never really done. Like any skill, our creative processes and practices improve over time. You are a better writer today than you were yesterday, and you’re definitely a better writer now than you were three years ago. Because our skills are constantly improving, it can be difficult to recognise when a creative project is finished.

You may finish revising chapter twenty-six and decided on a whim to look back at chapter three. Then your heart sinks. The chapter is crap. Well, maybe not crap, but you know that you can do better. You know that you can lift chapter three to the level of chapter twenty-six. One of the trickiest things about writing a novel is learning how to maintain a consistent voice across three-hundred-plus pages while your technical abilities as a writer constantly improve.

The desire to constantly tweak, lift and better your work never goes away.

If you love words, if you believe in the power of storytelling, and if you respect the craft of writing, then chances are you will have very high expectations when drafting your own novel.

Dani Shapiro once said that it would be an insightful experiment to have an author re-write the same book every ten years because it wouldn’t be the same book. An additional decade of life experience and craft development would ultimately result in a book that may have a similar premise to the earlier edition, but the quality and content of the updated copy would be entirely different.

So, how do you know when a novel or project is finished? Below are a few signposts that may indicate when a creative work has resolved itself.

You’re Kind of Over It

Resentment and boredom are good indicators that the cake is baked. If your eyes glaze over while revising chapter three—again—or if you feel irritated, frustrated or angry every time you sit down for another writing session … perhaps it’s time to hit the pause button and do some evaluating.

Ask yourself:

  • Am I having a bad week or am I truly done with this project?
  • What would it feel like to ‘hit publish’?
    (This could mean publishing a blog, sending a manuscript to an agent or publishing house or submitting a pitch or article to a magazine)
  • Am I done or am I quitting?
    (Remember: quitting feels great in the short terms, but lousy in the long term)
  • Can someone (other than Mum) read my work and provide some feedback?
  • Have I given this project all that I have?
  • Am I still in love with this project?
  • Does working on this project make me feel excited or drained?
  • If I were still working on this project in a month’s time, would I be okay with that?

The answer to these questions may help you decide whether this project requires more time or if it’s actually “complete.”

Pushing vs Perfectionism

Pushing yourself and perfectionism are similar, yet there is a subtle difference.

When we challenge ourselves, we are extending ourselves beyond our comfort zone. We are awake and alert. We feel focussed and excited. The obstacle course we find ourselves on may be tough, but we know that we are capable of finishing it. Even if we’ve never done anything like this before, we know that it’s possible to leap over hurdles, weave between obstructions and cross the finish line!

Here’s the difference: pushing has an endpoint; perfectionism doesn’t.

An obstacle course of this vain doesn’t have a finish line. Instead, the course is a loop that you climb, jump and run through, over and over again until your feet give out and you vomit from dizziness.

Are you challenging yourself to make your novel (or any work of art) the best that it can be or are you reaching for an ideal? Because, dear friend, there is no there, there.

There is no such thing as a perfect novel.

Don’t believe me, let’s consult some experts.

“Near enough is good enough.” Elizabeth Gilbert.

“The novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” Randall Jarrell.

Deviation from Original Concept

Another indicated that it may be time to wrap things up is if the project is starting to deviate from the original concept. If you continue to work on, develop and revise your novel for too long, there is a very good chance that it will move away from your initial intentions. It’s good to push yourself and to allow projects to develop and change over time, but you also need to recognise when your constant need to tinker with the work has morphed into unproductive meddling.

There is a difference between tweaking a story in order to strengthen/improve it and changing a story so much that it is unrecognisable. Embedding new ideas, cutting out and adding characters, deleting scenes and writing new ones are part of the creative process but are you doing these things in order to excavate the story buried deep inside your soul, or are you simply fucking around?

Do not ignore the voice of your subconscious in favour of what you think the story should be about.

Finish the story you set out to write and reserve any sparkly new ideas for future projects.

Books are never really done. A writer could spend their entire life trying to making a manuscript match the ideal version they envisage in their mind. At the end of the day, you have two options. You can spend years/decades/a lifetime tweaking and ‘perfecting’ a single manuscript or you can do the work, make it presentable, hit publish and move on to the next project.

The choice is yours, so choose wisely.


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Interview with YA author Stacy Nottle

Like many authors, Stacy Nottle’s has a rich and varied work history having worked as a shearer’s cook, a waitress, a scientific research assistant, a high school science teacher; and as a careers counsellor in an all boys’ boarding school.

Stacy’s career has evolved over time, yet her love of stories—other people’s and those she makes up for herself—has remained a personal passion.

Growing up on a sheep station at the far reaches of Australia, Stacy spent her early years adrift inside her make-believe world of mystery and imagination.

At age six, she went away to boarding school ‘in town’, and later ‘in the city’, where she discovered another world. She studied science at university and has worked as a shearers’ cook, waitress, scientific research assistant, high school science teacher; and careers counsellor in an all boys’ boarding school.

She has a liking for adventure and her body bears the scars of a big life well-lived.

Stacy is an active member in the Queensland writing community attending workshops, writers’ groups and festivals which have connected her with mentors and allies that have helped her along the way.

Stacy’s debut novel, After the Flood, will be released on June 30 by Black Phoenix Publishing Collective. After the Flood is a meditation on loyalty, human relationship and the lengths we would go to for those we love. Combining Stacy’s love of the bush and her personal interest in human dynamics and storytelling, After the Flood, is a gripping portrayal of how we cope in the face of trauma.

To celebrate the release of After the Flood, I decided to interview Stacy about the release of her debut novel and the writing life. Enjoy.


 

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Q1 / Can you share with us the story behind the story? What was the initial inspiration for writing After the Flood? 

Many years ago, I participated in a Season’s Grief Program for Young People where I was deeply moved and fascinated to hear the stories the young people told of their loss and grief and how they dealt with it. More than a decade later, at a boarding school where I was then teaching, I found my attention constantly being drawn to this one, sandy-haired young boy of about twelve. He was from outback QLD and seemed in many ways to be a regular kid who was busy with the task of making new friends and settling into boarding school…but something about him was different. Then I found out that he had lost his sister to leukaemia and I realised that what I was observing was grief. The kind of grief that leaves a hole in your life that is too big to ever fill. I began to think about the boy’s grief, and then about his family who must have also been devastated by their loss. Farmer’s have enough challenges without having to deal with something as unspeakable as the loss of a child, I thought. It made me very, very sad. So I wrote about it. I created a little boy called Jamie McKenzie and tried to articulate how this brave, stoic little fellow coped when all around, his life was crumbling. It was only meant to be a short story, but then I met Wilhelmina Johnson, an eighteen-year-old girl from Sydney whose life had also been marred by loss. Then I brought Jamie and Wilhelmina together to see what would happen.

Q2 / How has the work changed from your initial idea to now, the finished publication? 

It evolved slowly from that first impression of a young boy’s grief. The idea of a dual timeline (when Jamie was a boy and when Jamie is a man) came to me quite early. I remember talking to a counsellor once who told me that a child who suffers loss and trauma can take more than twenty years to recover and I wanted to see how Jamie was doing as an adult. So I created Jamie’s daughter, Cass, a young girl with a striking resemblance to his long-dead sister and thought – that’s interesting! Characters came and went, but those that matter are still there in the story, pulling their weight.

Q3 / Can you tell us a little about your writing routine? 

When I first wrote about Jamie McKenzie, I was working full-time and was busy most weekends with sport, and I was desperate for my own quiet little space in which to write. So I set up a tiny desk in a tiny junk room in a corner of my drafty old house. But the floor was crooked and my office chair kept rolling away from the desk, and I had to hold my body in this rigid, lop-sided pose if I wanted to remain seated at the desk. Such constant contortion gave me a sore back. Also, it was cold in that little junk room. So I got a giant-sized desk and placed it in the corner of the lounge room, then found myself constantly grumpy when my husband, Richard, wanted to watch Landline or have a chat. Then I got cancer and took a year off work. During this time, I was too ill to write and my creativity seemed to have gone on holiday; but I did reread Julia Cameron’s ‘The Artist’s Way’ and began writing morning pages. Now I work three days a week and write in the lounge room on my days off and on weekends when the sun is shining and Richard is outside doing ‘what Richard does’ in the garden. I don’t write at night because then my brain won’t want to go to sleep and I like to get up early to walk my dogs. I love to pants. It is so much fun letting my characters do whatever they like. But I’ve discovered that if I don’t plot, I end up writing millions of words that will never see the light of day.

Q4 / What tools, books, workshops or resources did you find most supportive during the writing of After the Flood? 

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron got me back to writing. Cancer helped me rearrange my priorities.

At the urging of a friend, I took a weekend workshop on self-publishing with Dallas Baker. Dallas told me about using Beta Readers (shock! horror! let someone read my scribbling?), gave me some very excellent advice and got me on the path to publishing. I sent After the Flood to seven beta readers including a few people who had some expertise in issues raised in the story such as a police officer. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive, but also really useful. Jessica Stewart did a structural edit and it was fabulous to have her brilliant advice and also her warm enthusiasm for Jamie McKenzie and Wilhelmina Johnson. The list of people who have helped is a long one.

Q5 / What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were first drafting your novel? 

While pantsing is fun, I really do need a plot.

Q6 / What are you most excited about right now? 

That’s an easy one! I’m sitting at Brisbane International about to board a flight to the states to visit my daughter. I’m also very excited about the release of After the Flood. And I’m looking forward to getting back to the writing process and doing another story. I have two I’m working on. One is speculative fiction, set in a futuristic Brisbane, with a working title of Salience. The other is a memoir with the working title Breastless…or maybe Giantess with Angel Wings.


 

After the Flood FRONT FINAL
What would you do to save someone you loved? When the storm breaks and the creek at Moonbroch Station floods, more than one life is in danger.

After the Flood explores loyalty and the tensions and complexities of abiding relationships. A gripping portrayal of how we cope with trauma, After the Flood is as uplifting as it is thought-provoking.

‘Friends forever?’ she said. He cleared his own scratchy throat and nodded. ‘Yes.’  Then he reached down and gently tangled his little finger with hers. ‘Pinkie promise,’ he said.

 

Available from:

Amazon

 

The One Writing Hack That Can Change Everything

We’ve all heard the writing advice to read as much and as widely as possible.

The reason for this advice is fairly simple. If you are a fantasy writer and you only read fantasy novels, you run the risk of producing a novel that lacks originality.

You may be very well informed about what stories, premises and concepts have already been done, but how will you be able to offer anything different if your reading preferences are so narrow?

Writers should aim to read as widely as possible. You may love fantasy novels, but it’s important that you also read outside of this genre.

Read crime, romance, science fiction, speculative and horror books. Read literary books, classics, short stories, flash fiction, micro fiction and non-fiction.

Read cookbooks, memoirs, essay collections and poetry. Read books about travel, history, theory, politics, productivity, money and health.

Read books about how to declutter and organise your house.

Read medical books.

Read coffee table books like Bibliophile by Jane Mount (one of my current favs and a fantastic starting point for reading widely!).

Not only will reading widely make you a better person in general (hello, healthy eating habits, responsible saving and organised wardrobes!), it will make you a more interesting person to talk to and it will definitely make you a better writer.

When you know more, it’s possible to write more because you’re no longer drawing from your limited experiences or ideas. Challenge yourself to read works that open your eyes to bigger concepts and problems.

Read books about feminist theory, climate change, philosophy, human/animal relations, economics and conspiracy theories (this one is especially great for dystopian writers!).

Reading widely enable you to take snippets of information from a variety of sources and embed that knowledge within your current WIP.

The work will benefit from your careful inclusion of this information as the story itself will become more interesting. Obviously.

Also, if you read more widely and challenge yourself to read texts you wouldn’t ordinarily read (especially non-fiction and scholarly works including literary analysis, theory, philosophy), you will innately produce work that has more substance. Your work will have something to say.

Remember: the message behind the story needn’t be prescriptive or a slap in the face; there is such a thing as sub-text.

Remember: Your readers aren’t stupid. If you do a good job, they’ll find the message beneath the mayhem. 

Even if a reader picks up your work and enjoys it solely for the story, they will still feel that the book is about something bigger.

You don’t have to read widely. You don’t have to write stories that are more than just the story. But the writing process itself and your growth as a human being will be better if you do. Just saying.

If you’re not sure where to start, I’ve included a list of random books you may enjoy perusing.


Screen Shot 2019-04-26 at 3.51.18 pm
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Books that Will Make You a Better Writer

Romance

Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Walters
Atonement – Ian McEwan
Cold Mountain – Charles Frazier

Fantasy

Nevernight – Jay Kristoff
The Savior’s Champion – Jenna Morecci
Rupetta – Nike Sulway (?)

Crime

Call my Evie – J.P. Pomare
Mystic River – Dennis Lehane
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

Dysfunctional Families

Flowers in the Attic – V.C. Andrews
Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng
The Liar’s Club – Mary Karr

Cli-fi

Clade – James Bradley
Stations Eleven – Emily St John Mandel
Gold Fame Citrus – Clair Vaye Watkins

Speculative

A Superior Spectre – Angela Myer
The Book of Dream – Nina George
Lincoln in the Bardo – George Sauders

Dystopia

A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
The Stand – Stephen King

Literary

The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
Commonwealth – Ann Patchett
We are all Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

Historical Fiction

From the Wreck – Jane Rawson
The Signature of Everything – Elizabeth Gilbert
Bitter Greens – Kate Forsyth

Classics

Villette – Charlotte Brontë
Emma – Jane Austen
Orlando – Virginia Woolf

Essay Collections

What are People For? – Wendell Berry
A Field Guide to Getting Lost – Rebecca Solnit
I was Told There’d be Cake – Sloane Crosley

Short Stories

Her Body and Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado
The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter
This is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz

Non-fiction Environmental Writing

The Reinvention of Eden – Carolyn Merchant
The Soul of an Octopus – Sy Montgomery
The Invention of Nature – Andrea Wulf
The End of Nature – Bill McKibben

Get your life together

You are a Badass at Making Money – Jen Sincero
Do the Work – Steven Pressfield
The Happiness Project – Gretchen Rubin
Deep Work – Cal Newport

Poetry

Ariel – Sylvia Plath
Life on Mars – Tracy K. Smith
Howl – Allen Ginsburg


 

 

Is Social Media Killing Us?

When people talk about social media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that they were describing a dysfunctional romantic relationship. We’ve all read countless articles and watched news segments about how harmful social media can be.

For some, these online platforms can cause the user to experience anxiety and depression as they compare their (supposedly) not-so-perfect lives to the (apparently) glitter-soaked-farting-rainbows-totally-perfect lives of others.

People talk about how they hate:

  • the shallowness of social media
  • the ease with which people can post uninformed/misinformed content
  • people’s ability to post nasty, hurtful and anonymous comments
  • that it’s a total time suck

And yet, we all use it.

Walk down the street, sit in an airport terminal, hang out in a waiting room, stand in line at your favourite coffee shop and what will you see? People scrolling on their phones.

We kind of hate social media—and let’s be honest, it’s ‘cool’ to hate on social—but we kind of love it too.

If you are a writer (or a creative of any kind) that having a social media presence is pretty much essential. (Though, some people argue against this point). While there are some authors who’ve achieved success without having a ‘platform’, these people are outliers. They are the exception, not the rule.

Social media is a part of our lives, but it doesn’t have to be. When and how we use social is the key to whether it supports or hinders our endeavours. The following blog discusses:

  • why having a social media presence is important
  • how these platforms are distractive and addictive
  • how to create boundaries around your social media use and why you should.

Author Platform

It doesn’t matter if you are a freelance writer, a traditionally published author or an indie. If you are a writer, you need an author platform. (More or less). An author platform is how you create trust with your audience and cultivate opportunities with other professionals and publishers in the industry. You could look at it as digital networking (socialising while staying at home in your jammies) or you could see it as another way to build relationships.

An author platform typically includes a stagnant(ish) website, an active blog and a presence on social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and even YouTube.

To build an audience, you must create valuable (and free) content on your blog and social media pages. If you produce quality content on a consistent basis, then you will attract an audience over time because a) you are reliable and b) you are adding value to their lives.

If you have an active blog, frequently publish guest posts and chase freelance writing opportunities, you’ll quickly develop a solid body of work. This will add to your credibility as a writer. Plus, industry professionals will see you as reliable, proactive and prolific. In case you didn’t realise, these are good things to be seen as.

A healthy author platform can open doors to publishing opportunity, speaking gigs, invitations to networking events and collaborations with other creatives.

If you work your author platform, you can make it work for you.

Distraction & Addiction

Now that you understand the value of having an author platform, let’s address the elephant in the room.

Social Media (can) = Distraction & Addiction.

Writing an article, working on a novel or developing a short story takes time. These creative endeavours could be likened to a turtle race or a game of lawn bowls because they are so damn slow. Making something out of nothing requires hours of dedicated focus, research and considered revision. That being said, the completion of these tasks can lead to a deep sense of satisfaction.

You can’t bang out a novel in an afternoon.

Writing an article or publishing a short story or novel is delayed gratification. There may be a yearlong gap (likely longer) between your initial idea and the date of publication.

Social media is the complete opposite. You think of something, publish it and then experience immediate gratification in the form of heart symbols, thumbs up, and comments.

Hello, Love/Admiration/Acceptance/Acknowledgment-of-my-existence!

There is no delay with social media. That is why it’s so addictive. No doubt you’ve heard about the dopamine hit that occurs every time there is an increase in our number of followers, likes or comments.

Social media is easy and fun.

Writing a novel can be a lot of fun, but few would describe it as easy. Ever noticed how you may reach for your phone or open your web browser whenever you hit a difficult point in your story or are unsure what to say next?

Social media is a source of distract because it is easy and it offers immediate rewards.

This need to constant ‘check in’ causes our mind to become scattered making it that much more difficult to focus on our high priority tasks. Like you know, writing shit.

(If this part of the blog piques your interest, check out Cal Newport’s work).

Creating Boundaries

This is why we need to create rules and boundaries around how we use social media.

The one rule that ALL creatives should live by is to create before you consume. Let me say that again in a way that looks more official and Twitter-worthy …

Social Media Rule #1: Create Before You Consume.

That means you post your original content whether it be a piece of flash fiction, a photograph, a video, blog, article, short storysomethingbefore you start scrolling other people’s feeds, channels or websites.

In regards to boundaries, there is a slew of ways to reduce social media’s ability to distract you. Here’s just a few:

  • Keep your phone in your desk drawer during writing sessions
  • Use apps like Freedom.to to block specific sites/apps for set time periods
  • Schedule your social media time, for example, fifteen minutes in the morning and fifteen minutes in the afternoon
  • Spend one hour a week automating your social media posts using sites such as Hootsuite (that way you don’t HAVE to go on every day or at certain times of the day)
  • Make it a personal rule that you do not use social media before 8am or after 6pm and that you have one screen-free day a week.

Social media isn’t evil …. Okay, given the fact that it is literally DESIGNED to be addictive … it’s a little evil ….

The truth is, technology has created work opportunities that creative people couldn’t have had twenty years ago. It’s possible to go out there and to sell directly to your audience and to have full creative control over your product. And that is something worth celebrating!

But we also need to acknowledge that social media, if left unchecked, can become a hindrance to our creative process.

Milk this tool for all the golden latte deliciousness it can deliver, but also know that your Tweets, Instagram posts and YouTube videos will not exist forever.

The book that beats in your heart and that itches to escape through your fingers will outlive you, but only if you write and publish it.  

The difference between an author and an emerging writer is your resolve and dedication to the projects that really matter—the ones that are going to move the needle.

A solid author platform will help build an audience, but an audience is no good if you have nothing to sell them.

Your book has to be your top priority.

The work must always come first.

Create before you consume and you may wind up with a career beyond your wildest dreams. Write. Write a lot. And share those stories with the people who are hungry to read them.

Can We Separate the Artist from the Art

Two weeks ago I posted Part 1 of Alexander Greco’s essay, Lovecraft: The Never and Forever King Part 1.

You can see where I’m going with this, right?

Yup, you guessed it! This week’s post is PART 2!

But first, a quick recap.

Alexander Greco is the founder of Fifth Wall Renaissance, an online magazine for and by creative minds and free thinkers. I was recently lucky enough to have a collection of my essays and a scholarly article, A Brief History of Fear, published by them.

I first met Xander through Instagram when he commented on one of my blog posts. This interaction quickly turned into a discussion about the creative process and before long, we decided to collaborate on a project. This post is part of that collaboration.

Time for some hand to bible honesty. Prior to reading Xander’s essay, I didn’t know all that much about Lovecraft. What I did know was that one of my writing buddies loves him and another cannot stand him.

Lovecraft was a self-professed atheist and many scholars describe his work as xenophobic and misogynist (via the exclusion of women in his fiction). And yet, concepts of Lovecraft’s work can be found everywhere from music (Metallica’s Call of Cthulhu) to games (World of Warcraft) and even religion (ironic)! Lovecraft’s ongoing influence and his questionable ethics raise the age-old question:

Can you separate the art from the artist?

I’ll let you decide.

For now, I’m handing the reins over to Xander. Here is PART TWO of The Never and Forever King, Lovecraft.


Lovecraft: The Never and Forever King Part 2

Lovecraft’s Late Writing

Throughout the rest of Lovecraft’s life, he continued writing, though saw only scraps of fame, and even less fortune.

Most notably during Lovecraft’s later life, he wrote:

  • “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” (1927)
  • “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” (1927)
  • “The Colour out of Space” (1927)
  • “The Dunwich Horror” (1928/1929)
  • “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1927-1930/1931)
  • “At the Mountains of Madness” (1928-1930/1936)
  • “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931/1936)
  • “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (1933/1934)

With these stories, Lovecraft continued to develop his Cthulhu Mythos and his Dream Cycle, while also introducing new elements of his own philosophy and thought.

“The Colour out of Space” is literally about a color that came from space—a color which was previously non-existent on Earth. It is a color that does not exist in the known spectrum of light, it appears as some amorphous glob of this “color”, and it appears to be sentient on some level, though its motivations, the substance it is made out of and its purpose are entirely unknown. Lovecraft never really describes what the color looks like, only that it is a color that has never been seen before. It is a story about something we cannot technically understand, or even technically describe, because there isn’t a technical framework to understand/describe this thing.

The story also details the effects that this color has on the surrounding countryside and the nearby inhabitants of that area. Namely, this “color” seems to suck the life out of everything around it, and cause organisms to mutate and deteriorate. Considering that radiation is on the same electromagnetic spectrum as the color spectrum of light, it’s possible that this “color” is actually referring to radiation that came from outer space.

“The Whisperer in Darkness” coincided with the actual discovery of Pluto, and describes alien creatures who come to Earth from planets on the edge of our solar system. The story makes allusions to Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep, but also introduces a concept similar to the “brain-in-a-jar” thought experiment. In the story, the brains of various people are put into metal cannisters, which are then taken to the aliens’ home-world. The reader is left to speculate whether the aliens bring the jars to their home-world for good or bad intentions.

This story is about aliens, dubious cosmic forces, and the conflict between earth and these forces, but it is also about our perception of reality. Philosophically, the brain-in-the-jar thought experiment asks us, “If we only know what reality is because our brains tell us what reality is, then how can we be sure the reality we perceive is real?” If physical reality is nothing but chemicals and electric impulses in our brains, then what if a brain in a jar was electro-chemically stimulated to perceive a false reality? Lovecraft asks a similar question with his “brain-in-a-metal-cannister” trope.

“The Shadow over Innsmouth” is all at once a Kafka-esque work of existentialism, a social criticism of conservative New England communities, and possibly Lovecraft’s most exciting story. One of Lovecraft’s dozen or so faults (several pages could be written on these faults) is the dryness of much of his work. However, in “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, Lovecraft provides a surprisingly thrilling climax, while also presenting a disturbing story about an isolated community of religious zealots.

The story is about a man investigating the town of Innsmouth—based on the actual city of Newburyport, a small coastal city in Massachusetts—and discovers that the town is filled with subtly fish-like people. Later, he discovers this town has made a pact with an underwater, reptilian civilization, and that the people of this town worship Dagon (the same Dagon from the story “Dagon”). As the protagonist explores the town of Innsmouth, he is eventually beset upon by the inhabitants of the town, because he is an outsider who will not convert to Dagon.

The Shadow over Innsmouth is about mutant fish-people hunting a man down, but it’s also about a religious witch hunt, and the witch is the well-educated protagonist. Though Lovecraft held several deeply conservative beliefs, Lovecraft, in practice, was actually quite the Cosmopolitan for his time. He was well read on texts from across the world. He travelled quite often, and quite often travelled with friends who were homosexual, were from other countries, or held friends who held remarkably Liberal beliefs. He also has written letters to hundreds of correspondents, from all walks of life, and it would be difficult to call him a close-minded person. On top of this, Lovecraft was an atheist, and likely considered himself to be a man of science, despite his wildly fictitious work.

Whether he was right or not about it, Lovecraft looked down upon individuals with strict religious beliefs, individuals who upheld what he believed to be ignorant practices, and conservative communities of cultural traditionalists. In “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, Lovecraft compares a community of isolated Puritan-fundamentalists to a city of deformed frog-like humanoids, who worship a reptilian god. Though elements of this story are wildly fictitious, at their core they are based on Lovecraft’s real-life experiences, and express his own beliefs of society and religion.

Lovecraft Compared to other Modern and Early Modern Writers

Many of Lovecraft’s stories, including “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, are comparable in depth and quality to the works of contemporary modern writers. Sadly, though many of Lovecraft’s works ought to be spoken of in the same breath as other great modern writers, HP Lovecraft’s books have remained primarily in the Weird Fiction section of the Library (though his Penguin Classics Collection now sits near Jack London titles).

If “The Shadow over Innsmouth” was written by Franz Kafka, we would be discussing how society contorts and morphs the individual into a grotesque abomination. We would be discussing what it even means to be an individual within a society, and where the border between “us” and “everyone else” resides.

I’ve previously made the case that “The Outsider” could be compared with Camus’ “The Stranger”. Both stories are about a man’s relationship with society—the people they interact with, the protagonist’s perception of reality vs. society’s perception of reality, and the protagonist’s perception of their self vs. society’s perception of the protagonist.

“The Outsider” is about a man emerging from the depths of a large, medieval building, and witnessing people fleeing in horror. The person tries to understand what is happening, why the people are fleeing in horror, and tries to communicate with these people. In the end, the protagonist looks at a mirror and realizes that he is the monster that all the people are fleeing in horror from. “The Stranger” is about a man going to his mother’s funeral, then returning to society and indifferently forming relationships with others. In the end of the story, the protagonist becomes the primary villain of everyone else in the story, and faces the absurdity of life with an indifferent conviction.

A similar case could be made with “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” (1915). Both deal with the transformation of a human into something disgusting and monstrous, both have elements of existentialism, and both are about one’s relationship with society.

However, the key difference between the two is that “Metamorphosis” is about the transformation of the individual within society, whereas “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is about the individual within a transforming society. Kafka focuses on the effects society has on an individual, and how society transforms someone into a monstrosity. It is the internalization of external forces, and the death of individuality within collectivism.

While Lovecraft’s story has many direct parallels, he focuses on society as the monstrosity, rather than the individual becoming the monstrosity. In fact, “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is about a collective striving to become a single, homogenous individual. It is about a society that worships a singular identity/ideology/way of life (Dagon), and how that morphs them into something inhuman. It is the externalization of internal forces, such as religious belief and collective identities.

The entire society transforms itself to conform with the identity of “Dagon”. So, where “Metamorphosis” is about the identity of an individual being destroyed by the collective, “The Shadow of Innsmouth” is about the identity of a society being destroyed by an individual. This added layer of the story’s meaning compounds on Kafka’s idea, since this transformed society seeks to destroy the individuality of the protagonist in order to maintain its homogeny.

Not only does a society seek to crush and contort the individual, but, in doing so, they weaken and morph themselves. In the act of destroying individuality in order to find homogeny, the society begins destroying itself, by transforming itself into a lesser creature.

Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” could easily be compared to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” (1865) and Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” (1816). While “Alice in Wonderland” does employ a number of inventive devices, and acts, in an odd sense, as a platform for mathematical logic, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” is an impressively unique and strange surrealist horror that dwarfs both “Kubla Khan” and “Alice in Wonderland” just in sheer scope of creativity. It could even be compared, in some ways, to the near-surreal and highly symbolic journey in Voltaire’s “Candide” (1759).

It involves a man journeying through his dreams, searching for a city he’d once dreamt of, and in the process is beset upon by dozens of surreal nightmares, many of which attempt to harm or enslave the protagonist. In the end, the protagonist realizes the city he had been looking for was his childhood home. The protagonist wakes up, and realizes he does in fact live in his childhood home once again. Psychoanalytically, one must then ask, “What were the monsters in his dream?”

More and more comparisons like these could be made. Lovecraft’s literary study of the psyche and the objective/subjective reality of a human could be compared to the works of Henry James and James Joyce. Throughout many stories, Lovecraft’s intent seems to be describing an objective reality through an entirely subjective lens. Lovecraft’s stories are scattered and schizophrenic (such as in “The Call of Cthulhu”), but they are aimed at uncovering secrets and truths about an objective reality. Similarly, James and Joyce write highly subjective and abstract stories, though their intent is to uncover truths about reality.

The fragmented yet relatively cohesive scope of the Lovecraft Mythos could easily be compared to the near-biblical mythos of Tolkien’s fantasy world. If one took the time to piece together the stories, characters, entities, settings and events of Lovecraft’s stories (which many have done), you would find an even deeper, substructure to Lovecraft’s stories. We find societies of different alien races at war with each other, or societies of extra-planar/extra-dimensional beings, and the machinations and relationships of gods and other entities.

Though I would say Tolkien’s mythos is far more developed and detailed than Lovecraft’s, Lovecraft’s mythos—in my opinion—is far more expansive in scope, and much more imaginative.

Although the content of “Colour out of Space” is quite different in subject matter than Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Library of Babel” (1941), they share many of the same characteristics. Both are, at their core, hypothetical stories answering hypothetical questions. Lovecraft asks, “What would a color that existed outside of the known color spectrum look like?” and then Lovecraft uses his story as a device to answer that hypothetical question. Jorge Luis Borges asks, “What would the universe be like if it were an infinite library of every possible 410-page book?” and then Borges uses his story to answer that hypothetical question.

They do this because they ask questions that are far better answered with an imaginary experience, rather than formally answer the question.

Additionally, you can find Lovecraft using Postmodern tropes long before Postmodern writers (not to dis on Burroughs, Pynchon or Danielewski). In particular, Lovecraft has used shifts in POV, fragmented story structure, non-linear story-telling, unreliable narration, subjectivism, and occasional uses of stream of consciousness writing. Though Lovecraft did not employ (at least not consciously) the philosophic notions of the Postmodernists, Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” was written 4 years before Derrida was born, and around the same time Michel Foucault was born.

This is purely speculation, but it is not impossible that Lovecraft’s notions of intellectual anthropomorphizing, Cosmic Existentialism (fundamentally synonymous with Cosmic Horror), and the human inability to comprehend reality may have influenced Derrida’s ideas of Deconstruction and Phal-Logos-Centrism. It is also not impossible that Lovecraft’s use of historical and mythological allusions, along with Lovecraft’s almost-blatant satirizing of religion and society might have influenced Foucault’s concepts of historical uses of power (though I will admit these are stretches).

It is not impossible that Lovecraft’s considerations of epistemology, phenomenology and idealism—which Lovecraft, the Gothic bibliophile, likely discovered from Hegel, Heidegger, and Schopenhauer—influenced later ideas of Moral Relativity and Hyperreality. Lovecraft’s characters are

Like I said, this is all speculation, and it would be an incredibly daunting task to credibly link Lovecraft to the birth of Postmodernism. Nonetheless, Lovecraft’s influence in the literary world did eventually grow, though it was not until after Lovecraft’s death in 1937 that his works would become commercially successful. Throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century, Lovecraft has grown a literary cult-following of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fans, and is now a major counter-cultural figure in the literary world.

Lovecraft’s Influence and Legacy

Lovecraft has been cited as an influence for Neil Gaiman (writer of the Sandman comics and the American Gods novel), Alan Moor (Watchmen and V for Vendetta), Mike Mignola (the Hellboy comics), Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Shape of Water”), and Stephen King. In fact, Stephen King cites HP Lovecraft as one of his primary literary influences (“The Mist” is all but a blatant rip-off of Lovecraft (a good rip-off)).

The list goes on, even into popular media. Critically acclaimed “Rick and Morty” is essentially an absurdist take on Lovecraftian Cosmicism. Legendary Japanese comic books and anime series, “Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood” and “Neon Genesis Evangelion” are clear derivations of Lovecraftian subjects. And, I’ll say it again, Stephen King is a massive fan of HP Lovecraft, and has even said Lovecraft is “the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale”

The King has spoken.

It’s a shame Lovecraft’s work has not seen the same levels of notoriety and literary appreciation as other authors. All too often, great writers like Lovecraft, Tolkien, Alan Moore, and Neil Gaiman get thrown into the “genre fiction” category, without much thought to their literary quality. Much like Cthulhu is not actually “Cthulhu”, Lovecraft is not “Weird Fiction”. Lovecraft’s work is a misunderstood body of science, surrealism, Gothic horror, various philosophies conjoined under Cosmic Horror, and criticisms of Modernity.

Still, Lovecraft has seen increasing levels of fame and admiration from a growing, global fanbase. Although the majority of Lovecraft fans are fixated upon Lovecraft’s eldritch gods, and his daemonic sultans of the cosmos, rather than the underlying meanings of his work, it is still good that his work has become a household name in the world of counter-cultural literature. Lovecraft was simultaneously a Baroque gentleman pulled from the past, and a thinker beyond his time, but ultimately he was an unfortunate social pariah of the early 20th century. Hopefully his work will one day be widely appreciated for its full merit.