Lovecraft: The Never and Forever King Part 1

For something different … alright … very different, this week’s blog is a guest post from the founder of Fifth Wall Renaissance, Alexander Greco. Fifth Wall Renaissance is an online magazine for and by creative minds and free thinkers, and a collection of my essays was recently published by them. Fortunate, no?

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 one of The Never and Forever King, Lovecraft.


 

The Never and Forever King, Lovecraft:

Part I

Born seven years after Nietzsche’s initial publication of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and twelve years before Einstein developed his Special Theory of Relativity, Howard Phillip Lovecraft is an Existentialist polymath, who has somewhat misnomerously been labeled a legend of weird fiction, though his work far outmatched his “weird” contemporaries. HP Lovecraft died nearly penniless, but has now become one of the most influential writers in Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction. However, Lovecraft’s work is still widely unappreciated when compared to his Modern counterparts. Upon deeper analysis, Lovecraft’s work is on par with contemporary writers like Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, Henry James, Tolkien, Samuel Coleridge, and James Joyce.

Childhood and Early Years

HP Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890, in Providence Rhode Island. His parents were Winfield Scott Lovecraft, a salesman, and Sarah Susan Lovecraft, the daughter of a wealthy businessman.[i] [ii] By the age of 3, Lovecraft was proficient in reading and writing. By the age of 5, after being told Santa Claus wasn’t real, Lovecraft proclaimed himself an atheist, asking in return, “[why] God is not equally a myth.”[iii] At the age of 7, Lovecraft was rewriting the Odyssey into his own poetry, and by[iv] 8, Lovecraft was studying astronomy, chemistry, anatomy, ancient mythology, and classical literature.[v]

Throughout his life, Lovecraft was afflicted with crippling neuroticisms, which began to manifest in adolescence. In 1908, shortly before graduating high school, Lovecraft suffered what he described as a “nervous collapse”, and afterwards dropped out of high school prior to graduation. Lovecraft was supposed to go to Brown University after graduation to study astronomy, but there is speculation that Lovecraft could not attend because of his math scores, and this led to his breakdown.

In late 1918 and early 1919, Lovecraft’s mother began showing signs of her own mental breakdown. Anecdotal evidence from those who knew the Phillip-Lovecraft family at the time states that Lovecraft’s mother had been experiencing hallucinations, mood disorders, and memory loss. In March 1919, Lovecraft’s mother was committed to Butler Hospital and died in 1921.[vi] [vii] This had a significant impact on Lovecraft, who withdrew into a deep depression. However, this period of Lovecraft’s life would be one of his most prolific periods.

Early Influences and Writings

Lovecraft’s upbringing included a quite conservative Victorian sense of morality, which included Anglophilia, xenophobia, and some levels of misogyny (though typically Lovecraft erred on the gentlemanly side of Victorianism). These influences heavily swayed the content of Lovecraft’s writings, along with his complex relationship with Modernity and Cosmopolitan. He was highly critical of modern liberalism and much of modern literature (especially more commercial literature), but he also grew more liberal in his thinking as he grew older.

Lovecraft was also deeply influenced by his dreams, which can be seen in much of his work. Frequently, Lovecraft alludes to some dream of the protagonist, or the ability of an antagonist to enter one’s dreams, and so forth. In stories like “Dream Quest of Unknown Kaddath”, Lovecraft’s protagonist completely enters the realm of dreams, and explores it.

Lovecraft’s primary literary and philosophic influences come from Classical, Enlightenment, and early Modern literature and philosophy. Lovecraft’s most prominent influence was Edgar Allen Poe. However, Lovecraft has also been influenced by Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany and Jonathan Swift, as well as many other 17th-19th century writers and thinkers, such as Ernst Haeckel, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Bertrand Russell, and ancient thinkers like Democritus and Epicurus.

Lovecraft’s earliest original writing can be traced back to a period of Lovecraft’s youth between 1897 and 1902. During this time, he wrote “The Noble Eavesdropper”, “The Little Glass Bottle”, “The Mystery of the Grave-Yard”, “The Mysterious Ship”, and other short stories. Lovecraft’s first well known works came in 1905 with “The Beast in the Cave”, 1908 with “The Alchemist”, and 1917 with “The Tomb” and “Dagon” (a predecessor to the now-famous/infamous “The Call of Cthulhu”).

In 1919, Lovecraft wrote “The White Ship”, “The Doom that Came to Sarnath”, and “The Statement of Randolph Carter”. In 1920, he wrote “Celephais”, “The Cats of Ulthar”, and his poem, “Nyarlathotep”. These, followed by the short story “The Nameless City” in 1921, formed the foundation of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and Dream Cycle. In these stories—in conjunction with 18 other known works produced between 1919 and 1921—Lovecraft began exploring the subjects and concepts that would later make Lovecraft famous(/infamous).

The beginning of Lovecraft’s “Beyond the Walls of Sleep” (written in early 1919) epitomizes the nature of his Dream Cycle works, while also reflecting the subject matter of his Cthulhu Mythos:

“I have frequently wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong. Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic reflections of our waking experiences—Freud to the contrary with his puerile [childish] symbolism—there are still a certain remainder whose immundane and ethereal character permits of no ordinary interpretation, and whose vaguely exciting and disquieting effect suggests possible minute glimpses into a sphere or mental existence no less important than physical life, yet separated from that life by an all but impassible barrier.” (Lovecraft 2011, pg. 37)

These two Lovecraftianly long-winded sentences, which are laden with Lovecraft’s signature purple prose and excessive yet uniquely expressive adjectification, showcase Lovecraft’s enduring obsession with exploring dreams and unknown vistas of frighteningly bizarre reality. Throughout stories such as “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”, “The White Ship” and “The Doom that Came to Sarnath”, and works like “The Cats of Ulthar” and “Celephais”, Lovecraft’s stories exhibit literary surrealism, elements of existential horror, and an exploration of the supernatural through a filter of Baroque intellectualism.

Dagon

The story “Dagon” (1917/1923)a recounts the narrator’s brush with the inhuman, ocean-dwelling god, Dagon. The entire story is told with a mix of 1st and 2nd-person point of view, which creates the effect of the narrator directly speaking to the reader, while the narrator recounts their experience in 1st person. Lovecraft also makes use of his “incomprehensible trope” (a trope used throughout his work), in which some of the primary descriptions of a setting, subject or concept are that it cannot be described with anthropocentric means.

“The region was putrid with the carcasses of decaying fish, and of other less describable things which I saw protruding from the nasty mud of the unending plain. Perhaps I should not hope to convey in mere words the unutterable hideousness that can dwell in absolute silence and barren immensity.” (Lovecraft 2011, pg. 24)

The narrator’s encounter with the god, Dagon, is brief:

“Then suddenly I saw it. With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then.” (Lovecraft 2011, pg. 26)

However, Dagon itself is only a plot device. On the surface, this is a story about a man lost at sea, who finds a strange landmass, and eventually encounters a horrific entity, then goes insane and eventually comes to his wits in a San Francisco hospital. The story ends with the narrator obsessing over the creature he saw, and either meeting the creature again, or going insane:

“The end is near. I hear a noise at the door, as of some immense slippery body lumbering against it. It shall not find me. God, that hand! The window! The window!” (Lovecraft 2011, pg. 27)

And this is where we find the deeper subject matter of “Dagon”. One of two things happened in this story. Either the protagonist went insane, and hallucinated his encounter with Dagon, or the protagonist actually encountered an ancient god, and this entity defied the limits of conventional science, thus sending the fragile mind of the narrator into psychosis. The beauty of Lovecraft’s writing is that we can never be sure which of the two it is.

In this story, we find the germinal seeds of Lovecraft’s later work, “Call of Cthulhu”, which truly embodies the ideas found in “Dagon”. This is a story that is told to us by the narrator, recounting the narrator’s personal experience. In this story (and many others) Lovecraft provides us with an unreliable narrator, and blurs the line between reality and insanity. For Lovecraft, the human mind was a fragile and vastly misunderstood system. The universe is a place we have little true understanding of, and what we do understand is limited by our anthropomorphic perception of reality (both physiologically/biologically, and culturally/psychologically).

This story is a reflection of the science and philosophy of the time. The classical frameworks humans used to understand our universe (religion and antiquated metaphysics) were flawed and inaccurate, and that the physical laws of our universe (namely Relativity and Quantum Physics) were far more nuanced and complex than we had previously imagined. Lovecraft’s works play on this quite often, and part of what makes Lovecraft so fun is that he often stands on the knife’s edge of reality and surreality.

Fantasy and science fiction rely on the reader’s suspension of disbelief, often to a great degree. Lovecraft’s writing relies only on the reader accepting a single concept; reality is often stranger than fiction, and there is far more that we don’t know about reality than what we do know. Lovecraft compounds this with the fragility and limited scope of the human mind. He brings us to a dark, chaotic state of being, and forces us to question our knowledge and our grasp of reality. As I said before, the god, Dagon—along with many of Lovecraft’s other creatures, entities and gods—are merely plot devices, which have often been fetishized as Lovecraft’s true creative genius. Lovecraft’s actual genius is the perceptual framework in which he presents these plot devices. What knowledge can we be sure of? What of our own psyche can we be sure of?

This Lovecraftian philosophy would later be called “Cosmic Horror”, though this name is something of a misnomer. For Lovecraft, the true horror of the Cosmos is not the terrible things that reside in it, but the shear insignificance of humankind when compared to the Cosmos. The monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos are not evil, they are indifferent. Their motivations are so alien from ours, that they simply cannot be understood by a human. The omniscience and omnipotence of cosmic forces are so vast in comparison to a human’s intelligence and power, that humans are little more than amoebic monkeys to the rest of the universe.

The genre of Cosmic Horror is not at its core about horror. Rather, it is fundamentally existential and nihilistic. It retrieves elements from Cosmology, as well as from philosophers such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. Man is weak, fragile, irrational, and blind. Our perceptual frameworks of reality are ill-informed and grossly incomplete. Our place in the grand schema of reality is insignificant, almost to the point of mathematical irrelevancy. Those who peer at the truth must either accept the absurdity of their lives, or go insane as their perceptual frameworks collapse.

To quote Lovecraft’s over-quoted opening paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu”:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all of its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” (Lovecraft 2011, pg. 355)

Lovecraft has admitted that much of his work during his early years imitated authors like Poe, Algernon Blackwood, and Lord Dunsany. Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” has clear parallels to Poe’s “Berenice” and “The Masque of the Red Death”. On “The Outsider”, Lovecraft has said, “[‘The Outsider’] represents my literal though unconscious imitation of Poe at its very height.”[viii]  However, even in “The Outsider”, Lovecraft begins to find his own voice, and his own philosophy.

Much like Albert Camus’ “The Stranger” (1942), “The Outsider” (1921) is essentially a story about a man who feels ostracized from society. The narrator and protagonist of “The Outsider” emerges from a dark, subterranean world, and into a brighter, above-ground world where he is seen as a hideous monstrosity by other people. Though even more nihilistic than Camus’ story of the absurd hero, “The Outsider” similarly explores the relationship of the self with the society one is embedded in (self vs. super-ego), and the relationship of the self to one’s perception of the self (self vs. ego).

Middle Years

Shortly after his mother’s death in 1921, Lovecraft met Sonia Greene[ix]—a divorcee seven years older than Lovecraft. It has been speculated that Sonia was Lovecraft’s first, and likely last, romantic and sexual partner. The two married in 1924, and Sonia began to support Lovecraft financially as he tried to make a name of himself as a writer. The two moved to New York, where Lovecraft befriended several writers and intellectuals with similar tastes to his (though most of these friends had much different political and cultural views that Lovecraft).

In New York, Lovecraft began submitting his writings to a pulp magazine called Weird Tales. From here until his death, Lovecraft submitted almost exclusively to Weird Tales—whether because of his social awkwardness, his lethargic, sedentary tendencies, or because of his malice towards commercialism. Between 1922 and 1926 (at which time Lovecraft and Sonia ceased living together), Lovecraft wrote dozens of short stories, including several of his most well-known stories, and expanded upon his Dream Cycle and Cthulhu Mythos.

This period of Lovecraft’s writing begins approximately with “The Other Gods” (1921/1933), though one could argue “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922) was the first of his major works during this time. “The Other Gods” was written shortly after the death of Lovecraft’s mother, and around the time he met Sonia. It expanded upon the idea of unknowable and wholly inhuman entities, which reside in greater or more terrible realms than “human gods”. This story makes several allusions to characters and places in previous texts (such as “Polaris” and “The Cats of Ulthar”), and elaborates on his notion of Cosmic Horror.

In this time, Lovecraft also wrote stories like “Azathoth” (1922)—a three-paragraph fragment of a never-written novel—which alludes to the Azathoth of Lovecraft’s later work, “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath”, where Azathoth is described as, “that last amorphous blight of nethermost confusion where bubbles and blasphemes at infinity’s centre the mindless daemon-sultan Azathoth, whose name no lips dare speak aloud.” (Lovecraft 2011, pg. 487)

There are others like “Under the Pyramids” (1924)—which Lovecraft wrote for Harry Houdini[x]—in which the protagonist is lost beneath the pyramids of Egypt, and encounters gods and demons from the ancient world, or “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925/27) and “He” (1925/26), which are often regarded as Lovecraft’s most overtly xenophobic stories.

The Call of Cthulhu

Near the end of this period, Lovecraft started his most celebrated story, “The Call of Cthulhu” (1925-1926/1928), though he didn’t finish it until after he and Sonia separated. Like many of his other stories, it uses a mix of 1st-person and 2nd-person point of view, the unreliable narrator trope, and often alludes to unnamable and indescribable horrors. Likewise, the Cthulhu creature is used only as a plot device, and Cthulhu itself may only be symbolic. The story is also highly fragmented, told in a non-linear fashion at times, and uses the story-within-a-story device. While Lovecraft continues to write in Baroque style with a heavy saturation of purple prose, the story is actually highly Modern in structure.

The story is about the narrator’s recounting of going through his grand-uncle’s belongings after his grand-uncle had died, and discovering a clay tablet depicting a monstrous creature, which is later identified as Cthulhu. The narrator then goes on to tell the story of how his grand-uncle discovered the clay tablet, tracked the artist who created the tablet, and eventually tracked down evidence of cults throughout history that have worshipped Cthulhu. Here, the story begins to fragment into his grand-uncle’s retelling of various other individuals’ experiences.

There is a retelling of the artist’s experience. There is a story about an inspector who discovers a cult in Louisiana that sacrifice humans. Then, one of the cult members recounts their own experiences, as well as their knowledge of Cthulhu and the other gods of the Cthulhu Mythos. The narrator discovers some notes left behind by his grand-uncle about a man named Johansen, who was the single survivor of some unknown tragedy at sea, and then the narrator goes onto to recount Johansen’s experience.

The climax of the story comes during Johansen’s recounting of what he saw at sea:

“Then, driven ahead by curiosity in their captured yacht under Johansen’s command, the men sight a great stone pillar sticking out of the sea, and in S. Latitude 47o 9’, W. Longitude 126o 43’ come upon a coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror—the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh, that was built in measureless aeons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars. There lay great Cthulhu and his hordes, hidden in green slimy vaults and sending out at last, after cycles incalculable, the thoughts that spread fear to the dreams of the sensitive and called imperiously to the faithful to come on a pilgrimage of liberation and restoration.” (Lovecraft 2011, pg. 375)

The thing is, this is only the narrator retelling Johansen’s story, and the narrator never saw Cthulhu. In fact, it’s revealed in the next paragraph that Johansen never saw Cthulhu, and that the narrator was simply inferring Cthulhu’s existence. Lovecraft’s most famous creation, Cthulhu, never actually appears in Lovecraft’s most famous story, “The Call of Cthulhu”. This is because the story is not about Cthulhu—Cthulhu is only an alluded-to plot device.

The brilliance of the story is that Cthulhu might not exist. The very name “Cthulhu” isn’t even the actual name of the alluded-to entity. Cthulhu is essentially a linguistic symbol of a “name” that cannot be pronounced by man. While many pronounce Cthulhu as three syllables (kah-thoo-loo), Lovecraft actually intended it to be two syllables, and it’s supposed to be pronounced similarly to a dog barking “kloo-loo”.

Not only is Cthulhu possibly a hallucination, and “Cthulhu” isn’t actually Cthulhu’s name, Cthulhu might not be a “thing” in the traditional sense, even if Cthulhu was “real” in the story. Cthulhu is described in vague, surreal and ambiguous ways. Though Cthulhu is depicted on the clay tablet as a vaguely humanoid creature with an octopus-like head and large bat-wings, Cthulhu is also described as a chaotic being, and a priest of the elder gods—the Great Old Ones. These Great Old Ones were described as “not composed altogether of flesh and blood. They had shape… …but that shape was not made of matter.” (Lovecraft 2011, pg. 367)

The Great Old Ones, including Cthulhu, are not tangible—if they can even be said to “exist” in Lovecraft’s stories. The name “Cthulhu” is only a symbolic representation of something we cannot comprehend. Cthulhu itself may only be an idea, an entity that exists in our reality only as a concept or psychological force, or Cthulhu might not exist at all.

In addition, the very subject of the story—Cthulhu—is not something we can understand. If Cthulhu can even be said to exist in this story, then Cthulhu is a cosmically ancient (“deep history” ancient), alien god, who lives only partially in the physical world. Cthulhu is not a thing that could be “understood”, as even “understanding” might be an anthropomorphic illusion. Cthulhu might not even have an actual name, and the unpronounceable symbol may only be a vague interpretation of what “Cthulhu” “is”, but whatever Cthulhu “is”, it might be so perceptually incompatible with human cognition that it would be technically impossible to speculate about Cthulhu’s existence.

In “The Call of Cthulhu” and many other stories, Lovecraft forces us to question our understanding of reality, or if the “true” reality we live in is even something that could be understood. Lovecraft challenges our core presuppositions about life, and our very perception of reality. There are forces and “things” in our reality which we haven’t even discovered yet, let alone begun to fathom. Lovecraft simply asks us to accept that we as a species don’t know everything yet, which isn’t difficult to ask in a universe comprised primarily with “dark matter” and “dark energy”.

In Part II, I’ll continue discussing Lovecraft’s ideas, and tie them in with other modern movements in literature.

References:

a (year written / year published)

[i] Joshi, 2013, pg. 16

[ii] Joshi, 2013, pg. 8

[iii] Joshi, 2013, pg. 42

[iv] Joshi, 2013, pg. 38

[v] Joshi, 2013, pg. 60

[vi] Joshi 2013, pg. 301

[vii] Joshi 2013, pg. 390

[viii] Lovecraft 2011, pg. 164

[ix] Joshi 2013, pg. 400

[x] Lovecraft 2011, pg. 270

Creating a Writing Tribe

If you’re a writer, it’s likely that you spend a lot of time by yourself. While you can talk about your writing process, current WIP or latest bout of writers’ block with your friends and family, it is a vastly different experience to have those conversations with other writers because they actually understand what you’re saying!

A writing tribe has many benefits, both creatively and professionally. Depending on the level of experience held by each member of your group, a writing tribe can support you through the editing and revising of your novel, offer encouragement or suggestions when issues arise during the writing or publishing stages, and they can even introduce you to other writers or professionals in the publishing industry.

Typically, writers are a friendly bunch—despite our preference for isolation!

Most writers are happy to help others and to provide advice from their own lived experience. If you don’t have an existing writing club in your community, you can always make one. Most libraries are happy to provide a space for a writing club to host their meetings. You could post an ad on your local community Facebook page, gumtree or you could create a group page on the site ‘Meet Up’ to see if there are any other writers in your area interested in creating a club.

There is also a host of online communities you can join via Facebook, Tumblr, Youtube and Instagram.

However, building real-life relationships with writers in your own town and region is far more powerful and rewarding.

Attending workshops hosted by your state’s Writing Centre is another great way to meet people, same goes for attending writing festivals and conferences. Being on a budget is no excuse as most of these events are desperate for volunteers. Volunteering at a conference and festival is not only a great way to give back to your community and support the organisation running the event, but it is also a great way to meet other volunteers, committee members, staff and guests. The bonus here is that you all have something in common: a deep love for writing and reading.

As a writer and lover of books, you may consider yourself an introvert and therefore incapable of introducing yourself to a stranger.

Dear friend, if you are at a writing festival, workshop or conference, you are already among your people.

You are surrounded by introverts who are just as nervous, anxious, and worried about saying something weird/stupid/foolish as you are. Also, everyone attending such as event expects to be approached by strangers. That is the whole damn point! To make new friends and contacts. So, don’t be shy. If you need a few introductory phrases to break the ice, here are some conversation starters to get the ball rolling:

  • Are you a writer? What are you working on right now?

  • What are you reading at the moment?

  • Are there any speakers you’re looking forward to seeing?

  • Is this the first time you have volunteered? Are you enjoying it?

Part of being a writer is spending a lot of time alone.

The gift of creating a writing tribe is that you can meet other people who also express their inner thoughts, their observations about the world and the bizarreness of our human lives through the act of storytelling.

Writers need time alone, but we also need to be around other writers.

The Permission to Write

You get to write whatever stories you want to write.

I do my best to read widely. That includes everything from Wyoming cowboy and Indian mysteries to urban vampire romps to family dramas set in Melbourne to novels about eighteenth-century American botanists. I read classics, historical fiction, literary fiction, short stories, series, crime, and lately, I’ve returned to Fantasy—something that I haven’t read since I was a teenager. Then there is the occasional science fiction, speculative, or young adult novel.

The only criteria I have is that you (the writer) tell me (the reader) a good story.

I hate genre shaming. No one should make you feel bad about liking chick-lit, general popular fiction, romance or sci-fi. You have the right to like what you like free from judgement. I equally detest the question ‘what are your guilty reads?’ Lord knows there are a few novels on my bookshelf that some readers would be ashamed to place alongside last year’s Booker or their copy of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Incidentally, it’s highly likely that neither novel has been read. Don’t all budding author have unread copies of infinite jest on their bookshelf?

The point is, no one should be embarrassed about the fact that they enjoy Outlander, Harry Potter, Throne of Glass or any other work deemed shameful because it has achieved mainstream success.

Similarly, no one should be made to feel bad about the contemporary rom-com/epic fantasy/space opera that is their current WIP.

You are allowed to write whatever you like.

You are allowed to write highbrow literary fiction that no-one will get.

You are allowed to write erotica even though your mum might read it.

You are allowed to write a story about a vampire detective and his werewolf sidekick with whom he has a crush on.

There are writing rules but there are no rules about writing.

If we start censoring our creative desires and impulses, then what is the point in writing at all? Why put all that time and energy into writing something that you’re not even into?

If you don’t enjoy working on your story, then you may as well get a day job because a) it would be easier and b) it would pay more.

If you’re looking for a permission slip to write that cosy mystery, cosmic horror or outback romance novel that is the work of your heart, considered it give.

Write what you want to write!

Being an Active Member in Your Writing Community

Also Known as Good Writing Karma

Let’s be honest, as creatives, we can sometimes become a little self-involved with our creative process, our routines and art-making. This seclusion and intense inward focus is often a necessary part of the practice, but it’s equally important that we take the time to support other creatives and members of our writing and reading community. That’s just good karma. If you’re running a little thin on ideas don’t worry, the below suggestions will help get you started.

Write Reviews and Leave Comments

As a writer, you know how much time, energy and sacrifice goes into the creation of a book. That’s why it means so much to us when someone takes the time to acknowledge or praise our work. If you’ve enjoyed reading a particular book, take the time to write a review on Amazon and Goodreads. Not only are you telling the author how much you loved their book you’re also supporting the success of that book as the number of reviews – especially positive reviews – greatly effects book sales.

Lots of positive reviews = More book sales.

No reviews = No sales.

We’ve all experienced the warm fuzzy feeling that follows ANY compliment; doubly so when the compliment is about our creative work. Giving the gift of praise to another writer is damn good karma. Cos let’s be honest, so often we slave away on a piece of writing that even our parents and friends can’t be bothered reading. That’s why it’s so important that we support one another and that we give each other praise and feedback. Not only do we value language and story in a way that non-writers do we also know the discipline and sacrifice it took to make that book, article or blog.  Let writers know that you enjoyed their work. Write a review, leave a comment and spread that writerly love!

Shop Locally

It’s vital that we support small local independent business whenever we can. Yeah, you can buy books cheaper online, but such purchases rarely come with a smile, additional recommendations or bookish banter. Plus, you don’t have to wait 1-7 days for said purchase to arrive. Instead, you can crack that spine within thirty seconds of leaving the story. Instant gratification!

If you DON’T support your local bookstore, then one day you may not have one. Ask yourself the following question: do you really want to live in a town that doesn’t have a bookstore?

The books at your local store may be a touch more expensive, but you’re paying for the privilege of leisurely browsing, picking up physical books, flipping them over and reading the blurb. You get to amble past shelves that haven’t been organised by a logarithm. You get to see books that haven’t been curated according to prior purchases. This small freedom may introduce you to a new book or novelist; pleasures yet to be experienced. You are also paying for the bookseller’s expertise. If you give the assistant a few clues, they’ll meet it with a handful of recommendations – books that you may not have instinctively picked up.

You get to amble past shelves that haven’t been organised by a logarithm. You get to see books that haven’t been curated according to prior purchases.

A bookstore is not a shop. It is a community centre where authors, budding writers and readers can meet in real life. It is a place where you can discuss the latest Zadie Smith, Tim Winton or Ann Patchett novel and you won’t be met with blank stares. It is our place. That’s why it is so important that we show up and support it with our time, money and presence.

Critiquing

Writing can be a lonely business and we don’t always do a good job of assessing the strengths and weaknesses in our own work. If there is a member of your writing network (physical or virtual) whose company or storytelling you enjoy, consider offering to critique their work. Remember, the ideal critique partner is someone who is kind and honest. Always start your critiques with positive feedback by highlighting the works strengths and any sentences that you found beautiful, poetic or technically impressive. Whatever weaknesses you do identify, be sure to deliver that criticism kindly followed by a suggestion on how they could potentially resolve it. You shouldn’t offer to critique someone’s writing with the expectation that your generosity be reciprocated. If your partner does make such as offer be sure to take them up on it and say thank you — just don’t expect it!

Sensitivity Reader

If your novel deals with some heavy themes or if you’re representing marginalised groups, then you should consider hiring a sensitivity reader. Of course, writers can write about anything, but readers (and critics) also have the right to tear that author to shreds if they do a bad job. Sensitivity readers are useful if you are writing about an experience you haven’t had, or if you are writing from the perspective of a character whose race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, physical or mental abilities are different from your own. You are responsible for your representation of people from marginalised groups and people who’ve had traumatic experiences, so act responsibly. A simple Google search will provide you with a host of readers you can approach. Once you’ve made contact, they’ll be able to tell you whether they are the most appropriate person to proofread your work.

The last thing the world needs is more poorly research literature. Books and words have power and we need to be careful about the way we use these tools.

It’s important that we make time for the crafting of our stories, but it’s also important that we make the time to support other writers, readers and book lovers. This is our tribe and we need to take care of it.

 

Five Things That Will Derail Your Writing

Five things that will zap my productivity and derail a writing day like nothing else* are a lack of sleep, technology/internet, excessive noise, not knowing what needs to be done next and skipping breaks.

Lack of sleep

This is a tricky one to talk about because we are both in control and not in control of our sleep patterns. A bad night’s sleep doesn’t always derail my productivity, but it does influence what tasks I chose to complete. If I’m sleep deprived, I probably won’t tackle heavy tasks like reading theoretical scholarly texts or writing assignments. If I’m feeling weary, I tend to tackle lighter tasks like writing blogs, editing vlogs or catching up on domestic chores and errands. Of course, there are also times when you just have to take the damn day off.

There are habits you can develop that both assist and hinder your quality of sleep. Avoiding blue-light (laptops, mobiles and even televisions), keeping the room cool, minimising all forms of light and noise from your bedroom and engaging in relaxing activities at least one hour before bed are all good practices to improve your quality of sleep. Doing the exact opposite of this may not affect your sleep, but if you’re struggling to get eight hours of shut-eye, reassessing your sleep-time habits and developing new healthier ones is a must.

The internet, email and social media

This one is fairly obvious, right? The internet/technology is an endless source of interruption with all those bells and dings that alert us whenever we get an email, text or phone call. It is so easy to distract ourselves with social media, email and texting. It is so easy to reach for our phone or web browser whenever a task feels too hard or a problem arises and we don’t know how to fix it. Unless you have an iron will – some days I do and some days I don’t – the best way to combat this problem is by turning off your devices, including your wifi. An even better solution is relocating your workspace to a place where there is no wifi! Hello, dingy café!

Excessive noise

I prefer writing in silence, but that’s not always possible. While I can easily tune out a little background noise, the sound of the television, music playing or people talking can become very distracting. If you can’t relocate your workspace, then I highly recommend that you check out the website ambient-mix.com. This site contains a wide variety of looped white noise soundtracks including Sherlock’s Apartment and Griffindor Common Room. It’s not silence but when combined with a comfy pair of headphones it’s the next best thing.

Not knowing what needs to be done next

This point pertains to just about everything from academic and creative writing to your good old general to-do list. It is so easy to waste time when you don’t know what needs to be done in order to move forward.

If I start a writing session without knowing what needs to happen next, I can waste 10-30 minutes staring at the screen or writing waffle because I’m trying to write my way into the story rather than writing the story. If I refer to my outline or if I spend five minutes writing a mini-outline, then I can dive right into the story because I know what has to happen next.

When it comes to general to-do lists, it’s not always easy to determine which tasks are the priorities. A lengthy to-do list can leave us feeling scatterbrained and overwhelmed, especially when every task seems vital and urgent. Our inner taskmaster will try to convince us that everything is important and everything needs to be done right now, but that is rarely the truth. A simple way to combat this problem is to consider which tasks (if any) have deadlines. If so, start with those – especially if the deadline is soon. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, maybe you need to re-examine your list and ask yourself if any of these tasks can be broken into smaller tasks. For example, you may be torn between writing your next assignment or working on your thesis. Given that your assignment is due first, that task needs to be made the priority. If you are working on a long-term project like writing a thesis, you need to break that HUGE task into small manageable steps like read five journal articles this week and write a 500-word piece that summaries what you’ve learned or find ten sources that will help you write the first chapter.

Skipping breaks

This bad habit has two different forms. First, there is the chugging away day after day after day which can quickly lead to burn out and a week spent on the couch staring at the ceiling or Netflix if that’s your jam. The second is when you work for five hours straight – no stretching, no toilet breaks, no water, no lunch – and then collapse in a heap at 2pm.

Taking a break can seem like a lousy idea when you’re in the flow. And look, if you don’t take a break, the writing police aren’t exactly going to kick down your door, but most of the time we aren’t working in a frenzy because the muse has whacked us with her inspiration stick, we’re simply working. And when you’re simply working, make sure you take regular breaks.

You may enjoy using the Pomodoro technique of working for either 25 or 45 minutes and then having a 5 or 15 minute break. These mini-breaks give you a chance to peel your eyes away from the screen and to stretch your body, get some water or go to the bathroom. Do not check your phone! The idea of these breaks is to get your eyeballs off blue-light screens.

In addition to these physical needs, it also gives your brain a rest! Dani Shapiro said that smoking used to be one of her best writing habits because it allowed her to fully relax for a couple of minutes. This was back in the early nineties i.e. no phones. These days, we fill our “breaks” with social media and texting. Rather than allowing our mind to relax and become empty, we fill them up with images, posts and Insta quotes. Please note, I am not advocating that you take up smoking but what I am saying, and Anne Lammot will back me up here, is that everything works again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you! Giving your brain a mini power down is a great way to ensure that you get the most out of a work day. Instead of going hard and burning out after a couple of hours, you can steadily putt through an entire day.

These five things may be small, but the impact they have on your level of productivity can be huge. Thankfully, all five of these distractions and interruptions can be overcome with a little planning and a splash of will power. Don’t let anything get in the way of finishing your story or reaching your writing goals, not even Instagram!

(*Disclaimer: this list does not include the interrupts and emergencies that life can throw at us. Instead, it focuses on the inconveniences we can control).

Batching Your Tasks

As mentioned in previous blogs, I’ve recently started my doctorate. I’m presently enrolled fulltime, but the completing of this research investigation is hardly the only project on my plate. (Who the heck has ONE project on their plate anyway?)

Over the years, I developed a time blocking schedule where I worked towards the completion of tasks/goals by spending a little bit of time every day working on each task or goal. This meant that I shifted between 3-5 different projects every day and I would spend 1-3 hours on each task. Although I was constantly shifting gears, this system worked because I was strategic in how I organised the completing of these tasks.

For instances, I’m a morning person so my mornings were always spent working on high priority projects or projects that required a greater amount of cognitive or creative clarity such as novel writing, reading and analysing journal articles, or drafting/revising assignments. My energy is much lower in the afternoons, so I usually spent this time working on lighter tasks such as marketing, administration or research.

In between these tasks, I would frequently check my emails, ebook sales (published under a pen name), tend to domestic tasks (laundry/baking/candlestick making) or run personal errands.

For years, this flittering between tasks worked for me. I enjoyed the variety that came with each day and the satisfaction of daily, steady progress. This system suited me and my temperament and I had no problems winding down and switching off at the end of the day.

Then something changed. With no warning at all, the system that I had used to organise my life stopped working. Shifting between 3-5 tasks every day no longer felt invigorating or satisfying. Instead, I felt scatterbrained and overwhelmed. What made matters worse was that I could no longer switch off. I was waking up at 12am to the sound of my inner taskmaster reading out my to-do list. I had worked hard to train my brain to focus intensely on one task for a short period of time before switching to another task and now my brain didn’t know how to switch off.

The system that worked seamlessly for years was defunct. I needed to find a new system!

I first heard of ‘batching’ a couple of years ago, but I never gave it much thought. After all, I already had a system.

If you haven’t heard of this time managing technique, here’s the low down:
Batching is when you organise your day, week or month to the completing of one task or the completing of similar tasks. For example, my blog posts are written in real time. I spend a few hours every Thursday writing and revising a blog that is then posted on Friday. Rather than writing one blog every week, I could batch this task by dedicating one whole day to writing and editing enough blogs for a whole month.

This intense focus allows you to stay in the one headspace for an entire day/week/month rather than flittering between multiple tasks that require different levels of skill or concentration.

When it comes to batching, you choose the time frame and the task. You may want to dedicate a whole month to the completing of a major project, or you may dedicate a whole day to writing. Some tasks don’t require a whole day but you still want to stay in a similar headframe. If that’s the case, you could group similar tasks together such as domestic chores: houseworks/errands/bills or marketing: content creation/social media posts/ads/copywriting.

At the top of this post I mentioned how I used to constantly check my emails. While ‘batching’ a task like emails isn’t feasible for me, I have decided to dedicate one hour every day to this task. I’m not going to lie, it takes a lot of will power to do this. Checking my emailing became something I did whenever I needed a mini-break from whatever task I was working on. Email is disguised procrastination. It seems like you’re being ‘productive’, but usually you’re just wasting time. Don’t get me wrong, mini-breaks are good! Just don’t spend your mini-break in front of a screen checking email or social media. If you’re taking a mini-break, actually have a break. Stand up, move around or stare out the window.

How about you? Do you use the batching method or a different technique to get your tasks done?

 

 

 

The Downside to Being a Precrastinator

We’re all familiar with the term procrastination – and some of us may have even experienced it! – but have you heard of the term precrastination? When I first heard this term, I thought it was a cheeky way to describe ‘doers,’ but the more I read about it, the more I realised how perfectly this term describes the way that I manage my to-do list.

Basically, a precrastinator is someone who prefers to complete a task as soon as possible. They like to get things done well in advance. This approach is particularly relevant to short term tasks such as email, errands and minor requests*.

Many of us have long term goals that may include writing a novel, completing a degree, or increasing our fitness. Intellectually, we understand that these goals take a lot of time and a lot of energy to achieve.

If we are chugging along on one of our long term goals and a short term tasks suddenly pops up on our to-do list, a precrastinator will rush to complete that task in order to get on with their ‘real work’. Many of these tasks are lopped onto our already full plates through the evil channels of email, social media and our mobile phones. Ah, the joys of being constantly contactable…

Maybe you’re in the middle of a writing session when you receive an email from a colleague requesting you to edit a journal article, or a friend texts asking for your lasagne recipe, or you duck into the kitchen for a cup of tea and the kettle croaks it.

Working on your masterpiece has now become impossible because all you can think about is that your colleague needs that article to be edited, your friend needs that recipe and someone has to buy a new kettle. How can you possibly write another chapter with these pesky demands nipping at your heels?

There is a couple of things at play here. Firstly, there is a belief that these short term tasks are urgent. We spin ourselves into a frenzy as we tend to these tasks in an attempt to get them off our to-do list as quickly as possible. Of course, we should also take a moment to acknowledge the dopamine hit that happens when we complete these short term tasks. Ah, instant gratification. Progress has been made! Or has it?

This habit can have two consequences. If you allow yourself to be constantly distracted and interrupted by short term tasks, this will drag out the completion of your long term goals. Alternatively, if you continue to focus solely on short term tasks, then you may never reach your long term goal. In which case, your precrastinating has turned into procrastinating.

If you indulge in this form of procrastinating too much, you may develop a habit of rushing through ALL the tasks on your to-do list. Instead of taking the time to complete a task properly, you may find yourself in a vicious cyclic pattern as you hurry to complete one task then another and another. Who wants to live their life as though it were one big to-do list?

Obviously, some tasks can be completed quickly, but if you rush to complete the edits your colleague request, if you shot off an email to your friend, or if you hurry out the door to buy a new kettle – you may find yourself in a sea of regret!

What if you miss a bunch of typos? What if you email your friend a confidential file instead of a recipe? What if you buy a full-price kettle instead of one on sale because you were too busy to look?

When you rush through a task you may fail to give the time, attention or consideration that it truly needs. The result? Your colleague doesn’t ask you to edit another paper. Your friend reads that confidential material. You regret your quick purchase.

Precrastinating isn’t necessarily a problem. There is something good about clearing the decks so that you can give your full attention to your long term goals, but you need to be honest with yourself, are you simply tending to minor tasks or are you procrastinating under the guise of being efficient? You need to ask yourself questions like:

  • is my procrastinating leading to mediocre work?
  • Is it harming my reputation?
  • Is it causing me to rush through long term goals instead of giving them the time and energy they actually need?

It’s not very often that I EVER defend procrastinating, but there can be benefits to completing tasks at the last minute or at least delaying your starting of them. If you have a month to prepare a paper and you rush to write, revise and submit it in a week, you’ve just lost three weeks of ‘marinating’ time. Procrastinating isn’t (always) a dressed-up form of laziness or resistance, SOMETIMES, it is a way to allow deeper reflections, thoughts, insights and connections to occur. A person who does not write a paper until a few days before the deadline may wind up writing a better paper because they’ve allowed themselves to really think through their argument and to find some stellar sources.

There’s nothing wrong with being either a precrastinator or a procrastinator. The only times these behaviours do becoming troublesome is when they start interfering with your long terms goals.

*Of course, precrastinating also extend to medium sized tasks like re-planting a garden bed, servicing your car or building a website.