Discipline + Flow =?

And how was my weekend? I hear you cry. It was… disappointing. I’d hoped to do lots of cycling but thanks to the weather and an energy dip I only managed about 3 miles. And yesterday I forced myself (and OH) to get out into the garden and tackle the weeds which are rapidly becoming unfeasible, after which I was too tired to cycle and anyway it rained for the rest of the day. I do find this weather depressing.

The thing that bugs me about gardening is that the longer you leave it the harder it gets. But also, the more you do, the more you see that needs doing. I find this very depressing as well. Nevertheless, the garden is now somewhat tamed and I can forget about it for a week or two before it starts bugging me again.

I think the garden I grew up with probably has an effect on my attitude. The vicarage garden was half an acre divided into wilderness on one side (appropriately biblical) and lawn on the other. The lawn was massive and took most of a day to mow, besides being lumpy and bumpy (I once borrowed the roller from the cricket ground next door and we heaved it up and down; it made not a blind bit of difference). But the wilderness was the worst place. There was a no-go area in the middle with a concrete air-raid shelter and the rest was just weeds from hedge to glass-topped wall. From this area our mother tried despairingly to raise veg, with unremitting effort and some success – so I think my idea of gardening has always been of unremitting effort; not enjoyable in the least. I find the rewards do not match the work. I’m aware there are people in the world who enjoy gardening and I keep hoping it will rub off on me but so far it hasn’t really. So this year we’re limited to OH’s efforts which so far are potatoes in tyres (more or less foolproof) and some dying tomato plants. Well, at least I managed to make some compost successfully; that’s something. But I must say I do feel a failure at gardening.

Anyway, that’s not what I was going to write about today. My topic for today is the perennial tussle for the artist between inspiration and self-discipline. Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could just sit down and be overtaken by a wonderful flow of inspiration whenever you wanted? Wouldn’t it be great if ideas came just at the most convenient moment? If you didn’t have to get to your desk every day and work at it, wouldn’t that be amazing? But it doesn’t happen, so you have to develop discipline, and these two have to be kept in constant balance. Inspiration without discipline can leave you feeling unbalanced and chaotic with loads of unfinished projects: discipline without flow is sterile and joyless. It’s a difficult juggling act; you can show up at your desk by nine am and stay there all day, but if the muse don’t show up you won’t produce anything worthwhile. Then again sometimes, if you start off writing any old nonsense sometimes you can get into the flow that way. But I’ve learned the hard way that discipline is necessary; if you live your life waiting for inspiration to strike – sure, it may strike, but you won’t know what to do with it when it does. For years my output consisted of random phrases and ideas because I didn’t have what Alan Bennett calls ‘the habit of art‘. I like that phrase because as every artist knows, art is first and foremost a habit, one which you have to cultivate.

So I guess that’s my kind of gardening…

Kirk out

On Keeping a Diary and Keeping It

I had a better night last night (thanks for asking) and another vivid dream. This time I was on holiday somewhere with another woman, someone older than me who I didn’t know very well. We were on our way to the beach (at least I was) when I lost my car keys. She was much more anxious about this than I was and gave me a lift back to our holiday home to get the spare keys. I missed out on going to the beach twice but managed to get on with some very satisfying work in the meantime.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is about lockdown. I didn’t get to go to the coast this year, though we had a couple of dates pencilled in; I’ve hardly used the car at all and I’ve done lots of really good work. In many ways lockdown has been like a holiday for me, though I do recognise it’s been awful for many people.

The novel, having been finished in draft form, is now gently simmering on the back burner while I get on with other stuff. Yesterday I sent off a poetry pamphlet to Mslexia and I’m getting another one together for future use. I expect I’ll get back to short stories but in the meantime I’m doing a lot of what I call ‘diary’ writing.

I don’t keep a diary in the usual sense as a record of events. It will not surprise readers of this blog to know that I can’t keep to one topic but go off in dozens of different directions, and that’s how it is with my diary. Though I do record some events in it (it’s my daily practice to write something at the end of each day) it’s more about how I’m feeling and what I’m thinking. But it’s also a place for ideas, snatches of poetry, dialogues (especially recording some of the whackier things OH comes out with) plans and anything else I haven’t yet thought of. I never go away without it and I always know where it is should I need to write something down in the middle of the night.

I’ve kept a diary like this since 1984. Sadly I don’t have the original notebooks as I found I was re-reading them too much and threw them out, but I do have stacks going back at least to the 90’s. I’m trying to keep them in some sort of order now and even though I rarely look back at them, they are a record of my life and thought. I can pull one out and read where I was at, say, ten years ago: what was I thinking? What were my preoccupations? Often they reveal anxieties that are now long-gone, things I’ve grown out of. It’s like looking at old photos. Who was I hanging out with in 1995? What were my hopes and fears? What was my daily routine? It’s good to have these diaries because you forget so much.

So that’s us up to date. How are you doing?

Kirk out

Brain, Brain, Go Away. Come Again Another Day

What is it about the brain? Mine just won’t do as it’s told; it insists on waking me up with vague and waffly ideas somewhere a long way south of Proper Morning and then when I want it to work it’s half-asleep again. It’s very vexing, but you simply cannot make a creative brain work when you want it to. You can encourage it, coax it with tidbits like a wild hedgehog, call it with soft murmurs, sing little songs to it – but nope: my brain, bouncy and happy at five in the morning, simply folds its arms and says nah. Not playing. It’s like a recalcitrant toddler who won’t go to bed at night and then wakes you in the wee small hours wanting to play.

But we need this brain because it knows stuff. It is wise and intuitive and sometimes it wakes you early for a reason. I just wish I knew what it was … *sigh*.

So – what does Tuesday have in store? Well, it’s pretty much like Monday really only without University Challenge. Incidentally, though I love the intellectual rigour of this quiz, I continue to be amazed by the lack of diversity of the contestants. Last night was typical: two all-white teams and only one woman among eight participants. You do sometimes get Asian or East Asian contestants but black team members are as rare as hens’ teeth. Why is this? There are two obvious answers, both of which I reject as too simplistic: the first, that women and black people are not up to the job, is prejudiced, and the second, that universities are reluctant to take on female and/or black students, is not true – or at least much less true than it once was. I suspect it’s down to a number of complex cultural factors, such as women being less likely to put ourselves forward than men and black people being less likely to go to the kind of schools that teach you what you need to know to get on University Challenge. The question therefore arises as to whether it’s an elitist programme. Is the kind of knowledge required more likely to be found in elite institutions? It’s certainly dominated by Oxbridge, though that’s more down to the fact that each Oxbridge college counts as a separate university – but what’s interesting is that in the Christmas series when they have now-successful alumni, the gender and race balance is more equal. So perhaps it’s just about where people are at a certain age. Anyway, much as I enjoy UC I do sometimes watch it with gritted teeth.

And gritted brain. Actually last night I got six or seven answers right, which is not too bad considering.

Kirk out

The Selfish Genius

I’m becoming obsessed by this theme right now.  I wake in the early dawn and try to figure it out: what is the best way to live if you have an all-consuming talent?  I am not content with the traditional models of ‘selfish genius’ which dictate that in order to follow your inner voice you have to ignore everything – and more crucially everyone – else.  This is what male writers have traditionally done; and recently women are going there too: there’s a whole plethora of articles exhorting women writers to be selfish, to put themselves first, to ignore the children and carve out writing time.

Now, this needs a little deconstruction in the context of households where women have traditionally put themselves last.  We were conditioned to ignore our own needs, or at best put them on the back burner.  When everyone else’s needs have been satisfied, then it’s your turn.  Trouble is, that turn never arrives; you catch your breath for a moment  before realising, like poor old Barbara in The Royle Family, that having cooked, served and eaten Christmas dinner you are now faced with a kitchen full of washing-up.  I have to admit when I watched this episode I had an overwhelming urge to kick Jim out of his chair and into some good quality rubber gloves (sorry a bit of Withnail got in there by mistake)  (oh no, another bit!)

Deep breath.  So, in that context yes, it is entirely in order that Barbara should boot Jim into the kitchen to do his bit while she goes upstairs to write something sensational.  However it’s not only in the carving out of time that the selfish genius rears its head.  Write what you know is the advice – and it’s good advice – the trouble is that you also end up writing who you know.  Literary history is littered with friends of the writer who have recognised themselves in print and decided that since the passages can’t be deleted, they’ll delete the friendship instead.  This is not to mention the wives, ex-wives, lovers and partners of authors who can find themselves writ large in two hundred sizzling pages.  Not unnaturally, these people feel betrayed.

And of course the third thing that writers always do is steal.

So here’s the thing: how does one become a great writer without being a total sh*t?

That’s not a rhetorical question.  I actually want to know.

Kirk out

PS: what do you think of the title?  It came to me in the night and I thought it was pure ge…

Evolving a Theory of Genius

Another post on the topic of genius.

And a propos of my last post, who should they be discussing on the radio this morning but  the mathematician Gauss:


He was a child prodigy who had taught himself to read and write by age three and whose gift for mathematics was reportedly discovered by a teacher, who on trying to keep a class busy by asking them to add up all the numbers between one and a hundred (one plus two plus three etc) was astonished by Gauss immediately producing the answer: he had figured out a short-cut and reasoned rather than calculating.  He then got a scholarship courtesy of a local duke.  So far, so encouraging, but as an adult he seems to have become every bit as obsessive and sociopathic as other geniuses and reportedly,  when told that his wife was dying, asked ‘Can’t she wait?’  This idea that genius demands total concentration; one hundred per cent dedication to the exclusion of all else, is deep in our psyche – and I want to question it.  I simply don’t accept that being a genius equals being an arse.  I am performing my own Gaussian calculations here:

genius ≠ arsedom is my first conclusion.

The programme went on to discuss the old infinite monkey argument.  Gauss, when asked if his ability was innate or the result of hard work, replied that it was the latter plus concentration.  Now, I am entirely on board with the idea that hard work is necessary to genius: the latest version of this being the ‘thousand hours’ theory; the idea that practising anything for ten thousand hours will make you an expert.


Well maybe, but have you ever tried to practise something when your heart wasn’t in it?  Did you take piano lessons as a child and hate them?  Surely if Gauss’s life proves anything it’s that the ability was there right from the start, way before he started to work on it.

So I think it all comes down to the inspiration-versus-perspiration question.  It has been suggested that genius is 9% perspiration to 1% inspiration: I’d put it around 75/25 but the principle holds true.  It is entirely possible that were I to practise music for 35 hours a week I would be thoroughly proficient within a year.  I would also be climbing up the wall because, much as I love my guitar, I just don’t wanna.  It is not in me to do this.  Whereas writing for 35 hours a week, busting my gut trying to produce something worthwhile and not getting paid for it – is.

So, to summarise my calculations:

genius ≠ being an arse

10,000 hours ≠ genius

genius = 25% inspiration + 75% perspiration

So there you have it.  Now go forth and multiply.

(In a good way.)

And here’s the programme:


Kirk out

Scattering the Ashes of My Thoughts

It’s hard to know what to watch sometimes – it’s great having lots of choice but sometimes the sheer welter of TV shows can be mind-boggling. First you have to narrow it down by thinking, What am I in the mood for? Then you trawl the appropriate category and are confronted by loads of – in the case of last night – sitcoms you’ve never heard of starring people you only vaguely recognise (or don’t.) It’s much easier when a series has been widely reviewed and trailed, as Mrs America was, because having heard about this I immediately knew a) what it was about and b) who was starring in it which led me to decide that c) this was a must-see. But ours is an age of drama in which sitcom can be very hit-and-miss, so it was lucky that I clicked on The Other One. I’ll come to that in a minute.

My thoughts have been very scattered, the last couple of days. My active brain has been waking me too early and then the days have been buzzing with events. Parcels have been arriving and people have been admitted to hospital including, as we finally found out yesterday, a close relative. Said relative is elderly but likes to be independent. Fine. But independence is one thing, being incommunicado is another and the result is, we have no contact numbers for said relative other than their own (poorly functioning) mobile and a landline which was going persistently to voicemail. I finally found the number of the council department which manages the sheltered housing. I was put through to someone who put me through to a manager who offered to email the warden who might know what was going on. Email! No thank you, we’d like to know today, not next week. She did phone him; he called me back, I just missed the call, my voicemail crossed with his but in the end we did get to speak. He turned out to be very pleasant and caring (phew) but couldn’t tell us much more than confirming that said relative was in fact in hospital. Another phone call to the Royal where staff happily were able to tell me exactly where they were and on which ward. Yet another call to the ward who finally gave us the information we wanted. (Don’t worry, it’s not life-threatening and it’s definitely not the virus.)

None of which was conducive to concentration, and for the rest of the day I got very little work done indeed. Today may be better, but we’ll see…

Anyway, having finished Mrs America last night I needed some comedy (it’s a brilliant series but quite harrowing in its way) and discovered The Other One. The premise is that after their father dies two girls find out that they are sisters. He had two families and called the daughters in both by the same name. The relationship seems doomed to failure but the families are forced together by the need to scatter the father’s ashes.

It’s fun. Give it a watch.

Kirk out

Shout-out to All New Readers and Followers

I’ve had quite a few new readers and followers over the last few months and I haven’t taken time to give you all a shout-out. So here it is:

Don't forget to give a shout out to your fans, followers and ...
image removed on request

Rest assured you are not forgotten. I always reply to comments and if you follow me I will take a look at your blog and may follow you back: if not I will at least read something.

But! my book has arrived! Yes, only four weeks later than predicted, How to Argue with an Atheist has finally dropped through my door. I wonder how long I’ll have to wait for last week’s order? Concerning the battles that all writers have in getting stuff from brain to page, it’s called The War of Art (geddit?) and I’m hoping it’ll be really useful.

I can’t seem to get out of the habit of ordering books – and why should I? As habits go it’s not a bad one, and since discovering Alibris I’ve managed to read loads of stuff on my to-read list including novels, political books and poetry. I’ve discovered stuff that’s hard to get or out of print, and I’ve bought a whole shelf-full of books for the price of a couple of hardbacks.

I know people get things cheap on Amazon, but I won’t use them because of their failure to pay their fair share of tax or to treat their workers properly (as well as their overuse of packaging etc etc.) But I had to break this rule today because an item I wanted was otherwise only available from Germany and would have taken weeks to arrive. And lo! in the course of ordering these items I was automatically signed up for a free trial of Amazon Prime whose benefits spanned several pages and which, as I suspected, I would have to cancel before this day in August or be charged a monthly charge. Even when cancelling they still ask plaintively ‘are you sure you don’t want all these lovely benefits? If you click this button all your delicious and wonderful benefits will vanish,’ and so on. Nope. F*** off Amazon, I’ll none of you.

It takes discipline to resist all these offers though, like two-for-one in the supermarket or cheap flights. I can’t understand why everyone seems to be going on holiday now as though everything’s back to normal. It isn’t – and if we’re not careful we’ll be into the second wave. And we’re not being careful.

I’ve rambled a lot today. What I was going to write about was the habit of art, a phrase borrowed from Alan Bennett which I think he in turn borrowed from W H Auden. I think art is a habit; inspiration can strike but unless you are in the routine of sitting at your desk every day for a certain number of hours, you’re unlikely to know what to do with it. Ideas are the raw material of art; the cotton or linen which must be spun and woven and sewn to make a full garment. As someone said (I think it was C P Snow) if a writer can only work at a certain hour in a certain spot when the sun is at a certain angle, one has not much hope of his art.

So there we are. So thanks to all my readers and followers; you are much appreciated. That’s another good habit – appreciating people.

Kirk out

Re-Reading the Past

When I was young I developed the bad habit of nostalgia. We’re all prone to it but it’s not a good idea because it traps you in a past that, as George Orwell said of India, never was what it was. And when I started to keep a diary I developed the even worse habit of re-reading it over and over, to the point where I had to get rid of several years’ worth of notebooks because I was getting stuck in them.

This was a sad thing because I now wish I had them: it’d be interesting to look back on my early writing and see how much it’s changed and what my preoccupations were then: I wish I’d been able to lock them away in some kind of time capsule and then release them like government papers under the thirty-year rule. But no. Nowadays I’ve developed the desperately stern habit of Never Looking Back, and I think on the whole it’s a good one. I feel no urge to re-read my old diaries; I’m too involved in where I’m going right now.

But how impossible it is to see the past accurately! It’s like a dream that fades as soon as you try to describe it; even to think about a past event is to rewrite it. I am frequently reminded of how bad a witness I would make to a crime. Sherlock Holmes would have no patience with me because I see but do not observe; asked to describe someone who had just passed me in the street I would have great difficulty in giving anything beyond a vague impression. What were they wearing? What colour was their hair? How old were they? Nope, no idea. When I meet someone I can tell you a lot about their demeanour, their attitude, their voice and gestures, but ask me what they were wearing… um… Well, I guess everyone notices different things. But it has been shown that witnessing an event is no guide to describing it accurately, the reason perhaps that many people film events on their phone instead.

I wonder whether nostalgia is the product of an optimistic or a pessimistic mind? It might be either; a positive outlook might cause you to look back and see the best in what happened – then again a pessimist might see the present as dark and the future even darker, so might look back to a past when things were better. As I once did…

Ah, those were the days – when I had proper nostalgia!

Kirk out

It’s About the Two ‘R’s

When I started writing way back in the Middle Ages, there was basically only one way to do it; sit down at a typewriter and start bashing our your manuscript. Most people would handwrite something first as corrections were hard, so typing would be by way of a final draft. It was such a hassle correcting all your mistakes that you were allowed to submit a typescript to a publisher with some pencilled-in corrections, though too many of these were frowned upon. But in those days basically you sat down and just got on with it. Yes, there were one or two books you could read, one in the Teach Yourself series and one which I still have by Louise Doughty on how to write a novel in a year. Other than that the preoccupation was all with getting published rather than with the act of writing itself. True, there were writers’ groups which offered support and criticism in varying proportions, but basically the method was to read as much as possible in your genre and then get to it. Sit at your desk and write. Bum on seat.

Fast forward forty years and what do we find? An entire industry devoted to making you a better writer. Barely a day goes by without me being invited to join a course or a webinar or a tutorial or to buy this or that book or to follow such-and-such a programme – and there’s such a huge lexicon associated with this, it’s like learning a new language. I never knew such things as beta readers existed (I’m still not sure what they are) and until recently I had no idea what Save the Cat beats were. And don’t get me started on the number of academic courses out there. In the end you get the impression that before you can set finger to keyboard you have to amass an entire forest of diplomas. However did Shakespeare manage? you wonder.

Now I’m not saying all this stuff is worthless. Many people have gone on to successful careers after taking an MA in Creative Writing. I have found the Save the Cat books interesting and useful. But in my humble opinion there’s nobody, no matter how successful or qualified, can teach me to listen to my own voice. So whatever anyone else says, for me it’s about the two Rs – reading and writing. First read, then write. I read whatever takes my fancy, I learn from it and I sit down at my desk to listen to what my voice is telling me. Then I write. There’s no course in the world can teach you how to do that.

The aim is always to be a unique voice, one who can be identified by just a few lines or a paragraph. The authorities are always coming up with new ways of identifying people: did you know that a lip print can be used as ID? I was able to use this in a story where the MC (Main Character) comes home to find lipstick on a wine glass which starts her off on some detective work. It’s also the case that a person can be identified from their unique voice print; that even if you try to disguise the voice something about it will come through. So you could say that’s my aim in writing – to be detected as utterly unique by seeing my voice in print.

Happy Tuesday.

Kirk out

What Do We Do? We Jog, Jog, Jog

What? Me? Jogging? No! No no no, no nay never, jamais, nunca jamas, non! Absolument pas! Je ne jog pas. No hago el footing*. Nope.

Except yes. My ever-loving family are conspiring to keep me (and themselves) indoors as I’m at a slightly elevated risk of C19 due to asthma. It’s not bad asthma, not double-up-and-gasp asthma, not wheeze-and-cough asthma, just inconvenient-slightly-tight-chested asthma. But still. I am told I must stay indoors For My Own Good. This I do not like.

Before you start, yes I’m totally aware of the guidelines around personal distancing, contact and unnecessary trips out. Yesterday I went shopping with a scarf over my lower features (by which I mean nose and mouth, not my private parts) and feeling like a terrorist about to produce a bomb, I maintained a distance of three feet from those who served me. Actually it was quite fun; having gone into Sainsbury’s yesterday and quickly out again as it was heaving, I sallied forth a little later and trawled around all the nice little local shops which I often mean to patronise and seldom do. I bought a few necessaries including a nice bottle of Rioja and some lovely free range local eggs.

And so to today. Having been lectured by Son and OH I was feeling mutinous. **** them! I thought, I’m going out. But not to the shops. Instead – and I never in my life thought I’d be doing this – I jogged round the park. Yes, actually jogged. I mean, god – what next? Will I start running marathons?

Unlikely. But the gym did give me a taste for gentle jogging, and very gentle it was too; half-trotting and half-fast walking round the park. Still, it put some spark in the old grey matter and I do feel better for it.

I’m not saying I’ll do this every day but it does seem a good way to start the day, especially as you get out into the fresh air and can maintain distance from others whilst giving them a friendly wave. Not that any of them waved back. They must have thought I was a nutter.

Actually nobody gives you a second glance if you’re jogging; it’s one of the socially sanctioned activities that renders you virtually invisible. Which in my case is all to the good.

Now, I’ve been thinking about using this time to pass on some of my skills. And I’m wondering what people would be interested in. Would you like videos on gentle yoga, perhaps done sitting in a chair? Or perhaps suggestions on how to begin creative writing? Or poetry workshops? There are a number of things I am actually qualified to teach, yoga being one, so let me know. What are you interested in learning while you’re stuck at home?

Just don’t ask me about jogging…

Kirk out

* Fun fact: in Spanish, jogging is called footing. Otherwise it would be pronounced hogging.