Writing as a lifetime relationship – it’s no McDonald’s burger

I’ve always read a lot. I started at school reading mostly romantic novels and later on progressed to self-help books in between a steady stream of Terry Pratchett fantasies and crime novels. I scaled down a bit when I noticed my eyes didn’t appreciate the constant pressure and I realised that I used reading as an avoidance mechanism.

Anyhow, depending on your choice of reading material you might find yourself thinking that you could have written the story better or you might think that you could never write as good. And as a result stop writing all together.

But instead of this type of black or white thinking about writing, I’ve since realised that writing means different things to different people. For some, it may be to tell stories and play around with language. For others, writing may be the instrument used to expose the truth and mobilise people to action. For some, it is the tool to express their innermost thoughts in skilfully crafted poems. For others, it is a way of manipulating others to buy things they don’t need. Most of us think of writing in terms of books, plays, newspapers, dramas and volumes of poetry.

These things are good and well. But they are fleeting. Natalie Goldberg argues in Writing down the Bones that we should have a larger vision for writing. Writing is a lifetime relationship, she says and writing is a path to meet ourselves and become intimate. Writing then becomes a way in which to know yourself better. Explore yourself and your life.

Goldberg suggests that one practises writing. Write every day. Give yourself five minutes a day. Or more. And just write whatever comes up. No punctuation necessary. Spelling mistakes allowed. No editing and rethinking and reworking. Just get it down. It need not be perfect. You need not know what you are going to write beforehand. Just write.

Writing is not a McDonald’s hamburger. The cooking is slow, and in the beginning you are not sure whether a roast or a banquet or a lamb chop will be the result. – Natalie Goldberg

Creative entitlement: You are allowed to be here

Most things have already been done – but they have not yet been done by you.

Most things have already been done – but they have not yet been done by you.

If you’re interested in creativity, it is relatively safe to assume that Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way has been recommended to you at some stage. Let me now also recommend Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. She believes that the essential ingredients for creativity are courage, enchantment, permission, persistence and trust:

To live a creative life means having courage. It means living a life that is driven more by curiosity than by fear. But keep in mind that creativity always triggers fear because creativity implies uncertain outcome, which is exactly what fear hates.

The creative process is both magical and magic. Ideas “walk” among us and are available to everybody that are willing and able to help those ideas come to “life”, as it were.

“You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life.”

Persistence: Learning how to endure disappointments and frustration is part of the creative person’s process. Holding yourself together when things aren’t going as well as you would have liked, that is where the real work lies.

Trust that the work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you.

Something else that resonated with me was the admonition that “eventually you will have to do the work by yourself” and that “it is ultimately entirely up to you.” You could have the best training, the best supplies or not. Still, you have to do the work.

And for those battling with nasty negative self-talk, Gilbert believes that creative entitlement is the cure. Creative entitlement, or what the poet David Whyte calls “the arrogance of belonging”, is the simple belief that you are allowed to be here (because you were born, after all). And because you’re allowed to be here, you’re therefore allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.

I found Big Magic to be inspirational in a straight-forward practical way without sugar-coating.

Your standards are too high, you don’t offend enough and you need to make friends with rejection

If you want to grow, you must move toward opportunities, not just away from pain points.

Move towards, not just away

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I bought Todd Henry’s Louder than words: Harness the power of your authentic voice.  Maybe I was looking for advice on how to find my voice? Any way, the introduction and table of contents somehow convinced me that this was the book that I must read next.

Although I found the book full of valid ideas it wasn’t a page-turner. It was a bit academic and almost as if Henry wrote about stuff that he knew are buzz words, but he hasn’t really chewed and swallowed it yet. But maybe I’m just not his typical intended audience, or as he calls it, IA. I’m not his IA, okay? But in his own words, “not everything you make will be for everybody, nor should it be.”

Even though I’m not moved to tell you that you absolutely must read this book, there are some things that I found interesting:

  • “Voice” and “vocation” comes from the same Latin root meaning to call. “It’s the sort of work that you feel compelled to do even when no one is paying attention.”
  • Every creative project has a U shape. It starts out all hunky dory but then goes through a dark valley before ending up on top again. A lot of work are given up on in the bottom bend of the U.
  • “If you want to do unique, contributive work, and develop your voice, you must have the courage to offend.”
  • Most of us fear rejection. Henry refers to a story about Jia Jiang that makes one look differently at rejection. Here’s a link to Jiang’s TED talk.
  • Another reason why we are sometimes tempted to give up too soon is because we are incapable of meeting our own high standards:

“… all of us that do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.  But there is this gap.  For the first couple of years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.” – Ira Glass

We must be willing to endure a period of incompetence, which may last far longer than we would like it to before there’s progress in closing this gap.


Seemingly contradictory advice: Show up and go with the flow

Michal Stawicki lives in Poland and he is passionate about personal growth and development.  He wrote The art of persistence: Stop quitting, ignore shiny objects and climb your way to success.

Show up

80% of life is showing up

And even though a lot of what he wrote in his book make sense, I must admit that I have a sense of tiredness because of all the striving that is inevitably part of the process. You’re always striving to be better and to improve and to climb climb climb all the way to success.

Maybe it’s because I let external circumstances unhinge the good habits that I’ve been implementing before the school holidays, which he says is not a good thing. He reminds the reader that neglect causes two negative effects at the same time: you don’t get closer to your goal and you’ve learned to add excuses for inactivity.

In the end I suppose the important skill that you acquire when you stick with it, is perseverance. And of course the added value that once you start with something new, it inevitably also influences the rest of your life to the better. Your intention, attitude and commitment determine your consistency.

Transformation isn’t brought about by a single grand action; it materializes by daily consistent effort. – Michal Stawicki

But some days I feel too much of a good thing is bad. I read once in Martha Beck’s Finding your own North Star that sometimes when you push far enough toward any extreme, you eventually reach its opposite! She adds these lines from the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu:

In the pursuit of knowledge,
every day something is added.
In the practice of the Way,
every day something is dropped.
Less and less do you need to force things,
Until finally you arrive at non-action.
When nothing is done,
nothing is left undone.
– Lao-tzu

Some days I think, it is necessary to just go with the flow.

Constant daily attention: stop taking things for granted.

I attended a conference by the South African Translators’ Institute this week. The main attraction was Chris Durban, a freelance translator from Paris. She is an inspiring, straight-shooting speaker confronting the general idea and acceptance by translators themselves that they can’t earn good money and/or that “the market” wouldn’t pay them more even if they asked for more.

It’s not who we are that holds us back, it’s who we think we’re not. – Unknown

It reminded me of how influential our thoughts are in how our lives play out. Which brought me to Jim Rohn’s argument that our thoughts require discipline. In his book, Leading an inspired life, he claims that we start taking things for granted when we don’t pay constant, daily attention. Discipline, he says, is the bridge between thought and accomplishment, between inspiration and achievement, and between necessity and productivity.

How do you turn an idea into something? Through disciplined action every day.

Jim Rohn also claims that if you want to feel good about yourself, then you must be disciplined. “Because everything affects everything else.”

What is the opposite of discipline? Procrastination.

Stop postponing your life and your dreams.

About stealing like an artist

I have read somewhere that when you steal an idea you should rework that idea that you stole so that the person that you stole it from can’t say for certain that it was in fact their idea. And then I got curious about what Austin Kleon say about stealing like an artist…

He gives a lot of food for thought in bite-sized chunks in his book, Steal like an artist: 10 things nobody told you about being creative.

I liked his idea of starting with one thinker/writer/artist/whatever that you love and getting to know all about that person’s work and then getting to know about the people who influenced that person’s work until you have a type of family tree of influences on your own work. Because, as Kleon puts it, You are, in fact, a mashup of what you choose to let into your life.

“We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.” – Goethe

It could be an interesting exercise to look at the various people that played a role in your own development as a person/writer/artist. For me, novelists that form part of my history is Terry Pratchett and two Afrikaans writers, Dalene Matthee and Deon Meyer. I think the only thing these three writers have in common is the fact that I am a reader of their work!

Another of Kleon’s ideas that made sense to me, was to not throw any of yourself away.

“Don’t throw any of yourself away.” – Austin Kleon

Maybe you’re a writer but also love playing guitar and drawing cartoons. People tend to think that if they want to get more serious about their writing, they should stop playing guitar and stop drawing cartoons and only focus on the writing. But these other aspects that form part of you are important for you to be able to do your best work. It gives you a different perspective and could be a valuable source of ideas.

Actually, stealing like an artist is but one of the chapters in the book. The whole thing is filled with good and inspiring advice on how to incorporate creativity into your life.

Make stuff you love…

Just finished reading Austin Kleon’s book Show your work. He’s also the author of Steal like an artist, a book I haven’t read. I thought I needed more encouragement in the showing my work side of things than in the stealing side of things. Kleon says this book is for people who hate the very idea of self-promotion!

I have found with my “experimentations” with creativity, that it’s hard to show my work to others. [Especially when you make something for someone as a gift and you’re not sure they’ll like it. Or worse, someone asks you to make something for them based on something else you made… To be the cause of unmet expectations…]

But our job is not to worry about what others think about our work. Our job is to do the work. (I’m pretty sure Julie Cameron said it in one of her books on creativity.)

Kleon says it’s better to contribute something than to contribute nothing.

“Just do the work that’s in front of you.” Austin Kleon

When it’s finished, evaluate without too much introspection what you could have done differently or better and go on to your next project. Keep it going. He argues that you should share some of your work every day. Of course, the idea is that you are in fact creating something every day. In this way you are building up your body of work. Become good at what you do.

“Being good at things is the only thing that earns you clout or connections.” Austin Kleon

“Make stuff you love and talk about stuff you love and you’ll attract people who love that kind of stuff. It’s that simple.” Austin Kleon

Insanity, digging holes and creativity

Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?
Been there, done that. Still doing it.
Therefore I am in fact quite insane?

I rather struggle with this whole routine thing. On the one hand I would very much like to believe that it is possible to use routine to assist in building positive habits.
But routine and a rut is so often the same thing. [I read somewhere that the difference between a rut and the grave is the depth…]

I have managed to – for once, at least – change my routine of feeling down and then as a matter of course sitting in front of the T.V. eating and swallowing without even noticing what is going into my mouth. I climbed into my car and went for a drive instead. I couldn’t wallow in negative feelings because I had to concentrate on the road. I came back energised and refreshed.

Went for a drive.

Went for a drive.

But I have since fallen back in a negative spiral of my own doing.
What is the first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole?
Stop digging!

If only I would listen to my own advice!

I’ve rediscovered Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. In this course book she suggests the writing of three pages in the morning in which you get rid of what ever is running through your mind at that specific junction. Get all the stuff that’s bothering you on to a page and get some distance from it. In effect you’re making space for better/creative thoughts.

As part of the process Cameron also proposes that you make an artist’s date with yourself every week. The purpose of the date is to open yourself up to insight, inspiration and guidance. It’s supposed to be an excursion to accommodate your inner child/the artist in you. Spending time in solitude, she says, is essential to self-nurturing. And you get to listen to that inner voice telling you “I hate this serious stuff, I wish I could…”

I’ve had success with the morning pages, it seems to free up the worrying part of my personality. But for some reason I have trouble turning up for my dates. I’ve missed a date at the fabric shop and the wool shop. I did have a date at the crafting shop though and brought home colourful paper of various textures that made my heart sing. Of course, judging myself for not having done anything with it yet, is not helping…

Isn't it lovely?

Isn’t it lovely?

I love these textures and colours

I love these textures and colours


Turning Pro: embrace the calling of your soul

It doesn’t happen that often. But sometimes you meet someone or read a book that cuts through all your bullshit. And sometimes what they suggest is not that big a deal. Except that it is. To act in spite of what I’m thinking or feeling in the moment may seem straight-forward and easy. Until I’m thinking: no, the wind is blowing… it will not be nice outside when I go for my walk…. Just one more chapter before I go to sleep… I want to know what happens next even though I have to get up early tomorrow… Wow, I’m really craving something sweet now… let’s make something with lots of sugar in it… so what my clothes are tighter every time I put it on…

According to Steven Pressfield in Turning Pro there are two frameworks that we traditionally use to transform ourselves: We hate ourselves because we believe there’s something wrong with us that needs fixing or we hate ourselves because we believe we’ve done something wrong and need to be punished and forgiven to be fixed. Pressfield discusses a third option: we hate ourselves because we’re living life as amateurs. To change our minds, we need to turn pro. Similar to athletes turning professional (probably without receiving a big financial compensation, though).

As amateurs we have a few things “going” for us:

We’re terrified. We’re afraid of failure, of success, of looking foolish, of being excluded from the tribe, afraid, afraid, afraid. We permit that fear to stop us from acting. We take ourselves so seriously that we paralyse ourselves. We fear being different from others. And therefore end up being inauthentic. Because we remain someone other than who we really are. We continuously rate ourselves in relation to others. We lack compassion for ourselves. We live in denial and act by addiction.

Addiction doesn’t necessarily refer only to the usual culprits drugs and alcohol. Addiction is anything that you keep on doing without it moving you forward. What you get from your addiction, is an inability to do what needs to be done.

To feel ambition and to act on it is to embrace the unique calling of our souls. Not to act means you turn your back on yourself and the reason for your existence.
Steven Pressfield Turning Pro

How do you turn pro? Here are some of his ideas:

Show up and do the work every day. Do the work for the work’s sake, not expecting financial reward or future fame. Be committed over the long haul. Forget about instant gratification… Act despite fear. Accept no excuses. Be dedicated to master the techniques. Don’t take failure (or success!) personally. Don’t wait for inspiration. Do it.

It seems clear that having a habit of doing and acting is the best way of transforming oneself into the best version of oneself. I find it ironic that even though I get an enormous burst of energy when I follow that unique calling of the soul – be it going for that walk in the gushing wind or sitting down for a session in front of the computer despite a yearning for vegging in front of the television – I still some days turn my back on myself and give in to the resistance.

This is a battle that needs fighting every day. There is no finish line. When you turn pro you get to recommit to your decision every day.

Elizabeth Gilbert calls the trusty kitchen timer an important tool in a creative person’s life. Set the timer for 30 minutes and do some focused work for that period. Do it every day. That’s how you learn discipline.

Right, so I’ve done my 30 minutes writing. Off to do some quilting for 30 minutes! 🙂


Second fiddle-itis vs offering my contribution whether I think it makes a difference or not

Unbelievable the number of stuff I can find to do to prevent me from actually sitting on my butt and finishing this blog. Oh! To face that empty space where I don’t know what I’m going to write/paint/create … The battle of the blank page/canvass.

I’ve just made myself two ponytails, after French plaiting from the top and then from the bottom and making a variety of hair styles …

I also battle with “second fiddle-itis”, I think. It’s Ben and Ros Zander’s term (The art of possibility) for “the habit of thinking you make no difference”. So why bother? In one of the chapters they argue that if we think of the world in a competitive frame of mind, there is automatically a winning and a losing side. However, when you use a contributing framework, there is no other side. You are giving/contributing what you can and as such are making a difference even though you may not understand how or why.

So here is what I contribute today. Take it or leave it. 🙂

The more I read about writing, the more I get the impression that the creative process behind writing is similar to painting and making collages. And the crucial aspect is to show up. The stories/collages/art pretty much make themselves once you get past the plaiting of the hair, the cleaning of the toilet, the reorganising of the desk, another cup of coffee…

I don’t often show up for any type of creative process these days. I don’t find the time. But to rephrase Stephen King (On Writing): “How many JAG and CSI reruns does it take to make one South African life complete?” [*hanging my head in embarrassment*] Watching television seems to gobble up time as fast as the wink of an eye. Talk about wasted time.

Steven Pressfield (The War of Art) calls the watching of television and finding other stuff to do symptoms of Resistance. Resistance shows its head for anything that you want to do where you work against immediate gratification in favour of long-term plans such as writing, losing weight, working on improving your fitness…

Pressfield says with regard to writing: It is not the writing part that’s hard. What is hard is sitting down to write. So plait your hair, make your pony tails [men with short hair: substitute your own postponement devices here], but stay on your bum and do what needs to be done.

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