Can’t afford a holiday? Try awe instead.

Midway through the school summer holidays, and feeling disgruntled about not being able to get away ourselves this year, New Scientist came to the rescue with an article about the psychological, emotional and creative value of experiencing awe.

Apparently, feeling a sense of awe breaks down our habitual patterns of thinking, reducing the expectations and assumptions which otherwise colour our view of the world, and thus enables us to see better what’s actually going on.

“Feeling awestruck can dissolve our very sense of self, bringing a host of benefits from lowering stress and boosting creativity to making us nicer people,” says Jo Marchant in Awesome Awe (New Scientist issue No 3136, July 29th, 2017).

Awe combines amazement, a hint of fear, and a sense of transcendence: that humbling knowledge of things beyond us.

Experiencing awe quietens regions of the brain normally occupied with self-interest and self-consciousness, increasing a sense of connection to others, and leading to more charitable thoughts and altruistic actions.

Astronauts are subject to awe so often when they look down on Earth from space that they’ve given it a specific name: the overview effect.

“Researchers have also reported increases in curiosity and creativity. In one study, after viewing images of Earth, volunteers came up with more original examples in tests, found greater interest in abstract painting and persisted longer on difficult puzzles, compared with controls,” Marchant says.

All of which reminds me of a conversation that creative writers often have with each other: what on earth should we do when inspiration dies?

Eating chocolate or cake are popular remedies. Taking hot baths or showers help a lot of us, too, along with walking the dog, meditation etc. etc.

The New Scientist article suggests that we’d be better off taking a daily dose of awe instead.

(Controlled doses of psychedelic drugs seem to work as well, but I’ll leave it up to you to check out what the article has to say about that.)

To benefit from awe, all we have to do is find out what triggers it in us, and do that as often as possible.

Maybe it’s taking time to absorb a sublime city skyline, or to lose ourselves in some great monument: a ruined temple of the Ancient World, a medieval cathedral or the Sky Tree in Tokyo.

Staring into the branches of an ancient oak tree does it for me, or encountering a wild animal unexpectedly, or sitting by the untamed sea or under a starry sky.

One thing I miss most about not going on holiday is watching the churning wake of our ferry as we pull away from land, and the crying of gulls, which always leaves me with a liberating sense of surrender to the journey and the wider world.

This loss of self, with its accompanying connection to others, may sound like mystical mumbo-jumbo or pseudo-religion, but if awe is hard-wired by evolution into our brains – if it’s a natural, creative, mind-altering buzz – why not harness its power year-round?

Alternatively, push the credit card to the max and go find some sunshine anyway.

This post first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site of the Scattered Authors’ Society, on July 15th, 2017.


On not feeling guilty about not writing

Confession: when my forehead is bleeding over a particularly stubborn scene, I find some of the motivational quotes which punctuate my Twitter feed deeply irritating. One that bugs me more than most is attributed to Ray Bradbury: ‘You only fail if you stop writing.’

Now I’ll bet £20 and a curry that, in context, this quote makes a good point. [A few years ago I watched a great hour-long speech by Ray Bradbury to US creative writing students – via a link in one of Candy Gourlay’s ever-informative blogs – in which he had a great many sensible things to say, including a recommendation to write one short story a week on the grounds that no one can write 52 rotten stories per year.]

But the mantra ‘You only fail if you stop writing’ is often taken to mean that we must keep plugging away regardless; we shouldn’t get up from our computers until we’ve reached a minimum daily word count; the muse must strike between nine-to-five or whatever time of day we’re chained to our desks, etc. etc.

All of which advice may well help many people keep going.

So why do I instinctively rebel?

In that time-honoured tradition of seeking evidence to support one’s intuitions, rather than challenging them with uncomfortable data, I’ve been on the hunt for reasons to justify my gut reaction.

The search bore fruit.

Ironically, the first clue came from an article entitled Inspiration for Slackers in the latest edition of Bath Spa University’s magazine. In it, Lucy Jolin quotes Nick Sorensen, Associate Dean at the Institute for Education, talking about the ‘reflective practitioner’ in education.

I recognised this theory of education from my days at Bath Spa on their fab MA in writing for young people. Reflective commentaries on different elements of our writing processes were an important part of that course, and this reminder made me realise that part of my hostility to “plugging away regardless” probably stemmed from this training.

As far as I understand it, reflective practice presupposes that being good at something requires practice. [Back to that famous 10K hours of practice to become an expert in your chosen field.] But it also says that even when we do something well, we won’t necessarily be able to repeat that success unless we know what’s so great about it, and how we achieved it. Ditto for things that don’t work.

Thus, unless we give ourselves the time and space to analyse our writing, we will remain at the mercy of inspiration, which (imo) is actually the route to becoming a slave to perspiration.

This small epiphany led to more general thoughts about the evolution of a book I’ve been working on (off and on) for more than four years, into which I’ve poured much that I love as well as things that I fear, moments that have shocked me, things that have bought great joy and others deep sadness.

In other words, it’s about life with all its ups and downs.

So I reckon another reason for my instinctive feeling that it’s a mistake to obsess endlessly over words in the lonely garrets of our minds is a belief that we need to live life whole-heartedly in order to write well.

Other people have, of course, made this point many times before, including Stephen King, who put it succinctly: ‘Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way round.’

This blog first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site for the Scattered Authors’ Society, on March 15th, 2017.

The gift of endurance. Yeah, right.

Re-reading Story by screenwriting guru Robert McKee the other day, I came across this quote in a section headed The Gift of Endurance: ‘Long before you finish [writing], the love of self will rot and die, the love of ideas sicken and perish … Of all the reasons for wanting to write, the only one that nurtures us through time is love of the work itself.’

Cheerful, huh? Especially on a short winter’s day, with weeks of getting up in the dark still to go.

I mean, let’s face it, who does love the work all the time? All too often the actual process of writing is frustrating, demoralising and painful. Who hasn’t ever asked: is my story any good? Will anyone buy it? Can I really do all this over again?

It sometimes feels as if self-doubt is an interminable negative feedback loop, constantly undermining our confidence in our ability to do the very thing we love.

And there it is again. That word. Love.

Personally, I suspect that it’s part of the problem. Saying ‘I love writing’ implies it is necessarily a deeply rewarding emotional experience. When it’s not, a lot of us seem to blame ourselves: maybe we don’t love our characters enough or our plots; maybe the people who believe in us are just plain crazy.

But what is left if we don’t buy into the notion that we have to love what we do in order to keep doing it? Well, here are a couple of things that cheer me up no end.

According to research by psychologist Anders Ericsson, elite musicians, athletes and chess players weren’t born with unique gifts. They are instead highly motivated individuals who have to complete at least 10,000 hours of deliberate practice over a period of more than ten years in order to achieve their exceptional abilities.

To quote Christian Jarret’s handy 30-Second Psychology, for this type of practice to work, ‘You don’t just repeat what you know but instead constantly seek to stretch yourself. This inevitably involves forensic self-criticism, repeated failure and a dogged ability to keep dusting yourself down and trying again.’

Sound familiar?

Then how about this, also from Jarret: ‘Anxious individuals are more prone to attribute negative events to flaws in their nature, rather than circumstances.’ That’s from the section about Fundamental Attribution Error.

So, with all due respect to Mr McKee (who I admire a lot), forget about endurance being a gift. It’s bloody hard graft. And that’s the point. Lucky you if you do love the work, but that’s not the only way. For me, for example, ‘the work’ is too abstract a concept to keep me going year after year. I have to care passionately about this story, these characters, their troubled dreams.

Keeping this passion alive is like tending a fire: I have to sit down beside my story and look into its depths. If it’s dying, I feed it more research, more imagination, more hard work. Sometimes it consumes reams of notes about the main character’s motivation, or a single sheet with a clearer articulation of the theme. At other times it needs more knowledge gaps. Tighter scenes with more dramatic turning points.

More cake for the writer. Chocolate. Wine. Another long walk with my darling dog…

But yes, sometimes I have to close down the flue and walk away, trusting that the embers won’t die completely.

I have boundless admiration for people who keep writing regardless. Did you see that tweet about this year’s winner of the children’s & YA category of the Costa Book Prize? Apparently Brian Conaghan received 217 rejections. Two hundred and seventeen! Unbelievable. I’d have walked away long ago, no question about it.

So all power to him – and everyone else who keeps on keeping on.

May your fire never go out.

This blog was first published on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site of the Scattered Authors’ Society, on January 15th, 2017.

Facts, fiction & the New Scientist

Among the many joys of meeting fellow writers is the discovery of yet another fan of the New Scientist magazine who, like me, finds inspiration for fiction from its tantalizing summaries of the latest discoveries at the very edges of human knowledge.

Week-by-week we lap up articulate rejoinders to the myriad sceptics of scientific method, and wonder at remarkable revelations about our scarily breakable natural world. It is a lifeline of rationality in this supposedly post-truth era.

According to my first editor, being a fan of the New Scientist isn’t uncommon among writers for young people. She didn’t just mean Science Fiction writers. Apparently, NS fans include authors working across the whole spectrum of genres.

Which rather begs the question, if we’re so keen on scientific truth, why are we wedded to lying, AKA creating fictional worlds?

At some other time – when I’ve organised my work-life balance rather better than it is now – I’d love to ask fellow New Scientist reader/writers for their take on this apparent contradiction. I’d also be fascinated to read your views on the subject if you felt inclined to share them.

In the meantime, this from New Scientist caught my eye.

A special issue about knowledge (issue no. 3119) addressed ‘the biggest questions about facts, truth, lies and belief’. Among its many revelations was this: ‘Brain-imaging studies show that when we answer trivia questions or look at blurry images designed to pique curiosity, areas associated with our response to food and sex light up. That suggests we treat knowledge as a similar primary reward.’

Knowledge, it seems, can be addictive.

For me, this surprising fact prompted an immediate question: are writers who love the New Scientist likely to be happier when writing stories that require plenty of factual research, rather than the sort of stories which rely more on inner explorations of the imagination and memory? And if that’s true, is that why I’m still hankering after the kind of in-depth historical research I did for my debut novel, rather than knuckling down to finish Book 2?

In the serendipitous way of these things, this topic promptly popped up again when author Kathryn Evans of MORE OF ME fame posted a fascinating blog about Second Book Syndrome over on Notes from the Slushpile, which in turn encouraged lots of interesting comments.

The discussion of this phenomenon reminded me of something I’d heard David Almond talking about several times: he called it, ‘the freedom of knowing your limitations.’ That is – to paraphrase – finding the setting or subject which will define you as a writer, and weaving the threads of each story around this central creative core.

But how can we find that core without spending years exploring dead-ends?

In this regard, the New Scientist had some helpful words too.

As Anil Ananthaswamy put it, the question ‘Who am I?’ has resonated since antiquity. Science and philosophy distinguish between a ‘phenomenal self’ – through which we experience ourselves as distinct bodily entities living in time and space – and the ‘epistemic self’ which is capable of observing, understanding and modulating our motivations and behaviour.

Such a duality in perception is, of course, familiar territory to the fiction writer. Our characters are endlessly going on inner and outer journeys towards greater self-knowledge. Logically, then, this process ought to be able to help us find our own creative cores, too.

For some writers, no doubt, it is easy: guided by instinct, you just get on with it. But if, like me, you’re still wondering what it is that is truly worthwhile writing about, a good hard look at ourselves (rather than the fickle marketplace or how well an earlier work sold) is probably the best starting place.

If we’re enthralled by family dynamics, that’s what we’ve got to write about. Ditto if it’s the emotional turmoil of first love – even if we might have to wait a while for the YA market to pick up again. But if it is factual research that floats our boat, I guess we have to be true to that too.

A Christmas wish for a writer friend

My gift would need a little magic and perhaps a small miracle or two.

On the eve of Christmas Eve, the last-minute wrapping & complex calculations for the cooking time of turkeys would suddenly disappear. Unwanted guests and unwelcome invitations would evaporate too, and grumpy partners and recalcitrant teenagers become, miraculously, cooperative. And the stage would be set.

In a light snowfall, a limousine would appear at their front door. A stretched limousine. Something outrageous like a Humvee. Pink. Or pure black, with tinted windows. Inside, champagne – and the passports of my friend and the people she (or he) truly loves…

Find out what the gift was via the original post in Author Allsorts:  Magic & far-away miracles: a gift for a best writing buddy (were money no problem!) By Rowena House