Blockhead: My Top Tips For Overcoming Writer’s Block

I have previously tried to analyse what writer’s block actually is:

https://lizardyoga.wordpress.com/2017/06/27/lay-your-head-on-the-writers-block/

and now it’s time to share some of my top tips for dealing with it.  No matter whether it lasts for an afternoon or a year (or longer) writer’s block is painful, debilitating, numbing and horribly frustrating.  Where does it come from?  Where does it go?  It seems to arrive like the wind, out of nowhere, and to disappear equally mysteriously.  Whatever your particular brand of writer’s block, some of these may help:

  1.  Set an alarm and write for 10 minutes without thinking, revising or stopping.  Any old junk that comes into your head is fine.  Don’t even worry about sentences.
  2. Sign up to writing prompts such as writerswrite.co.za
  3. Describe what you can see from your window.  I can see a quiet street with several vehicles parked, one of which has ‘Integrated Building Solutions’ on the side.  I might choose to write about what the hell that means and why everything is a ‘solution’ nowadays instead of saying exactly what it is ie ‘builders.’
  4. Go through old notebooks for any ideas you can harvest.  If you haven’t got any notebooks go out and buy one; there’s nothing like a new notebook for stimulating ideas.
  5. Take one item on your desk and write about its history.  At this moment apart from a laptop, I have two digestive biscuits on my desk.  I could, if I chose, write one of those stories they used to give us at school – The Life-Cycle of the Chocolate Digestive (‘I was made in a factory from flour and sugar…)
  6. Do something else.  Dig the garden, go for a walk, do the washing-up.  The unconscious mind will keep working while the conscious mind is occupied with something else
  7. If all these ideas bore you to tears, recognise that sometimes boredom is necessary and, like land lying fallow, can prove fertile ground for new seeds.

Kirk out

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Zen + Zen = Zen

I’ve been reading a book of Japanese Death Poems lent to me by my son.  I was quite ignorant of the Japanese tradition of writing a poem at the point of death: it seems very strange to us that someone can not only know when they are about to die but stop to write a poem before they go; but I found these poems to be a great source of peace: all of us in the West need to learn to confront our own mortality instead of running away from it and trying to prolong our lives as much as possible.

https://bit.ly/2EcHWiG

I’ve also been watching a film about the Tamil mathematician Ramanujan.  Played by Dev Patel, Ramanujan is an untutored genius with a brilliant intuitive mind who regards mathematics as a sort of worship and does his calculations in the sand of the temple floor.  He has a mind as beautiful as Nash’s but without any opportunity to share his insights; however a friend takes his papers to show the local British bigwig and he gets an opportunity to go to Cambridge and study under Hardy:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G._H._Hardy

Jeremy Irons (how I love that man) is perfect as the atheist Hardy, a man fighting on more fronts than the War which forms the backdrop to this narrative.  Prejudice is ingrained and Trinity College refuses to acknowledge that ‘an Indian’ could be brainier than they are.  But Hardy is also fighting Ramanujan himself, who cannot understand his insistence on ‘proving’ the arguments which he intuitively ‘sees’.  Intuition, in the West, is not enough: there must be proof, especially if Ramanujan is to be elected as a Fellow.  An opportunity to explore these cultural differences is missed; in fact missed opportunities are a feature of this film.  Stephen Fry has a cameo as British bigwig Sir Francis Spring who abruptly changes his mind about supporting Ramanujan (another opportunity for drama missed) and other supporting roles are underexploited, such as Toby Jones as Hardy’s friend and co-conspirator and Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell; a man sympathetic to racial equality but realistic about Ramanujan’s chances of Fellow-ship.

A sad sub-plot involves Ramanujan’s young wife, separated from him by his relocation to England.  Their separation is cruelly compounded by his jealous mother who hides their letters, so that each thinks the other has forgotten them.  But once again the opportunity for drama is missed; the wife finds the letters and we fast-forward to a reconciliation, though sadly they have only two more years together before he dies of TB.

I’m very interested in the subject of multicultural maths.  Arabic cultures were fluent in maths and much of their art is based on patterns of numbers: I wonder if we are still as arrogant today as those Trinity scholars who thought the way of the West was the only way?

The film’s on Netflix now if you want to watch it:

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0787524/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_7

And I have a sneaking suspicion that in Zen mathematics 1+1=1…

Kirk out

What a Load of Old Santosh

There’s not a lot of the old Santosh sloshing around these days: the practice of contentment is so far off the radar that most of us don’t even see it, and even those of us who practise are liable to forget it just at the crucial moment.  Though it stands at our elbow and nudges, we push it away.  Only let me have this, we say, then I’ll be content.  I just need this one thing to be happy.  But Santosh is a wily old bird, and she knows better.  ‘You come along-a me,’ she says, ‘and then you’ll have everything you need.’  You know she’s right but you resist, you delay; because you’re afraid that following santosh will mean accepting that you can never have the Thing.  And you really really want The Thing.  The Thing is what your whole life has been pointing at, and you can’t give up The Thing.

Give me the Thing!

Santosh is one of the practices of Hinduism and hence of yoga.  What with Eastern traditions being non-dualistic they don’t have Cardinal Virtues and Deadly Sins: even though the concept is roughly the same (as you’ll see in a minute) the approach is much more gentle.  Rather than choosing between heaven and hell, you arrive at different levels (as it were) and are reincarnated accordingly.  I don’t believe in actual reincarnation but the principle makes a lot more sense to me than an arbitrary ‘on-off’ switch where you’re going down a chute and God flips the switch to send you up to heaven or down to hell.  There are ten of these ‘practices’; five things to do and five to avoid.

Here are the niyamas, or things to practice:

Santosh

Saucha, or cleanliness,

Tapas, or discipline (primarily self-discipline)

Svadhyaya, study of self and of texts

Ishvara-pranidhana, acceptance of a higher power (a bit like the practice in Alcoholics Anonymous, and susceptible of many interpretations).

But before you get to these there are five yamas, or things to avoid:

Ahimsa, non-violence (the corner-stone of Gandhi’s philosophy)

Satya, truth-telling (Gandhi also spoke of satyagraha, or ‘truth-power’)

Asteya, non-stealing

Aparigraha, non-greed

Brahmacharya, either celibacy or the right direction of sexual energy (this does not necessarily imply homophobia but a focussing on sexual energy to foster relationships rather than on personal gratification.)

https://www.ekhartyoga.com/articles/practice/the-yamas-and-niyamas

The thing about these is they all work together; and it occurred to me this morning that santosh and aparigraha, or the avoidance of greed, are very much in tandem.  If you are satisfied with what you have you do not crave more (this does not apply to those whose basic needs are not met) so it could be said that the constant striving after achievement is a kind of greed.  That sounds a little harsh, I know, but in an age where being driven is seen as some sort of virtue, it might help to see it in that way.

Kirk out

 

 

Happy With Your Life?

Today is the first Sunday in Advent and so should be a time for looking forward.  Yet we often find ourselves looking back on the year and asking the inevitable question, ‘What have I achieved?’

Well, the answer to that depends on how you define achievement.  The usual way is to consider worldly success in terms of work, money, possessions, and so on, followed by personal goals (travel, weight loss, exercise, etc).  You draw up a sort of achievement balance-sheet: on the plus side you put goals attained and on the minus, and much more painful, side you put negatives such as goals you didn’t achieve.  There might be even worse things to add such as giving up smoking and then taking it up again, losing your job or putting on weight you’d previously lost.

All of this, I submit, has a very negative effect on us.  Even if the goals have all been achieved and the boxes ticked, the sense of satisfaction is likely to be short-lived; then when similar goals are set in the New Year we may feel we should move the goal posts.  Of course this in itself can be very positive: in the last couple of years I increased my yoga practice from 10 – 15 minutes to 20-30 minutes; I now have a vague aim of doing one or two longer sessions.  But this goal comes from an inner prompting, a desire to do more – rather than an external taskmaster wagging their finger and saying ’30 minutes is not enough!’

There’s a truth here which I believe to be universal; and it’s this:

Contentment with where you are is the key to achieving more.

By ‘contentment’ I don’t mean a sort of self-satisfied sloth:

Image result for a self-satisfied sloth

(image removed on request)

but a genuine ability to be OK with where you are, even at the same time as recognising that’s not where you want to stay.  It’s one of life’s paradoxes that lasting change comes from a standpoint of acceptance rather than discontent.  It’s also self-evident that a lack of contentment means that no goal is actually worth achieving because you won’t be contented there.

The hills may look blue from a distance but once you get there you see more and bluer hills in the distance.  When I get there I’ll be happy, you think – but if you’re not content now, why would you be then?  There are always more and bluer hills to climb.  So you’ve run a marathon?  That warm glow of satisfaction worn off already?  Do a triathlon.  Swim the channel, climb Everest, row around the coast.  Then you’ll be happy.

Consider, if you will, the super-rich.  I don’t know any of these people personally but to judge by their behaviour they, too, are never satisfied with what they have – otherwise why would they always want more?  And they always do want more: one yacht is never enough.  There’s always someone richer than they are.

But as the Baghavad Gita says (I think it’s the Gita) ‘What is found here will be found there.’  Contentment is a quality that comes from within, not from external achievements.  It can be developed but it takes dedication and practice – the willingness to say to yourself, no matter where you are and what’s happening, ‘I am content to be here right now.’  The paradox is that this can spur you on to greater achievements – with which you will be content – until it’s time to move on.

Of course it’s a hell of a lot easier to do this when you’re somewhere nice than if you’re on the streets or in a refugee camp or a hostage in solitary confinement – and far be it from me to lecture people in those situations about how they should behave.  As for me, I first started the practice of santosh (as it’s called in Sanskrit – beautiful word) when I lived in Madrid: walking round the streets and being aware that I wouldn’t be there for ever, I made a conscious decision to appreciate everything I saw and felt and experienced.  But contentment can have a transformative effect on negative experiences too; and be the springboard that gets you out of them.

So I guess that teaches me to be content with only being slightly published.  Hmm – it’s harder than it looks, this santosh…

Kirk out

Face Trumps Book

I have spent the last couple of weeks not being on Facebook.  At first it was hard getting out of the habit of checking my updates every half-hour, but after a couple of days it stopped figuring in my consciousness: my mind was clearer and more importantly my emotions were calmer.  No more anger, no more upset, no more reading posts and not knowing whether to laugh or scream, no more having to ignore insults when I express the mildest disagreement, no more gloomy world-view, no more angry echo-chamber.  I shan’t yet delete my account but I will keep it in a coma until I decide what to do with it.

Along with this disengagement from Facebook I have stopped watching or listening to any news.  I do think it’s important to keep up with what’s happening, but whether hourly bulletins and a constant drip-drip of articles on social media actually help you to do this is debatable.  Instead I look at online news sites and a couple of times a week we get a newspaper: it may be a generational thing but I find I don’t concentrate at all well reading from a screen.  All of this means I can engage with the news when I’m ready rather than having it come at me willy-nilly; it means I can follow up whichever stories I want and leave the rest.  It also frees me from the obligation to check out stories on Facebook to see whether they’re fake or not – or, most irritatingly, whether they are outdated.

I am calmer and happier now; the world seems less threatening, and those things I thought I’d miss out on – like contact with friends and keeping up with events – well, they haven’t materialised.  I keep in touch via messenger, text and email and, the most old-fashioned way of all, by face-to-face communication.  You can’t beat it…

Kirk out

Gigging for Momentum

Momentum in the area of gigs is something I’d really like to have; to swing from one (paid) gig to another, to travel the country bringing emergency poetry to areas of need, to hop on a train down to London one night and up to Nottingham the next, then over to Brum, maybe up to Edinburgh the next week; that’s the life for me.  Swinging from tree to tree…

I’m a poetess and I’m OK;

I gig all night and I write all day

(Before you write in, I dislike the word ‘poetess’ as much as anyone; I just used it for its syllables.)

But until that day comes I must content myself with a gig for Momentum.  This happened on Sunday at the Criterion in Leicester:

https://bit.ly/2Ri5MMO

a venerable pub with plenty of good beer (alas, I was driving so had none) and a separate music room.  It was a good afternoon with a mix of musicians and poets: I met some old friends and encountered a new poet, Will Horspool, whose poetry I enjoyed.  Myself, Bobba, Richard Byrt and Will were the poets and Steve Cartwright, Sheila Mosley and Paul (sorry Paul I forgot your last name) the musicians.  It was a game of two halves with each of us having a ten-minute set in each half.

I have now finished Stephen Fry’s ‘The Ode Less Travelled’ and begun my poetry journal.  This is proving very useful as I can record not only what I’ve done in terms of practising and writing, but the thoughts and ideas which occur while I’m practising and writing.  These are many and varied and writing them down is a good way to begin organising them.  To my intense relief Fry says ‘Please do not send me your poems.’  He is terribly polite about not having the time to read them, and it releases me from any compulsion I might otherwise have felt to send him a sonnet I’d written in response to one of his prompts.  However in case he should stop by this blog for a moment, I’ll reproduce it below.

The poems for Momentum were:

Spike (written for Sound Cafe)

A Hostile Environment (about the effects of austerity on the poor)

Spirit of ’44

More in Common (for Jo Cox)

Poet-Tree, a peace poem

and The Lady in the Van.

These were well-received.

The sonnet prompt in Fry’s book was to write about voting in elections from two opposing points of view.  This is the first sonnet, exhorting people to vote – the second is a work in progress, probably because my heart isn’t in it (if you’re interested, this one is based on Wordsworth’s poem about Milton:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45528/london-1802

On Voter Apathy

Voter!  Thou should’st be living at this last

hour, for all the signs say life’s expired

x does not mark the spot: you can’t be arsed

for apathy is tiredness beyond tired.

Arise!  The ballot box hath need of thee

thy paper crossed and folded but complete

your vote could be the one to change the MP

take part instead of voting with your seat.

La politique s’occupe de vous, said Jean-Paul;

he’s right: not voting now is voting Tory

to sofa-sit effects no change at all

you have the power – now go get the glory.

They fought for this, the people of our nation

sometimes a right implies an obligation.

(c) Liz Gray, 2018

Kirk out

 

 

How to be Awesome

IMG_0779[1]

Now as you guys all know I’m a sucker for a new notebook.  I try not to get one just for the hell of it otherwise it languishes without a real purpose but it’s a joy when purpose and notebook come together, as they did today.  I’ve just about reached the end of Stephen Fry’s ‘The Ode Less Travelled’, a whistle-stop tour through English poetic forms, and one of his suggestions at the end is to keep a poetry journal.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ode_Less_Travelled

I only take up other people’s ideas if there’s a thunk of recognition in the breast; an ‘aha!’ sounding in the brain which tells me this is a Good Thing For Me To Do – and with that there was a sort of thunk and a sort of think which led to a sort of thankyou and off I went to The Works to see just how cheaply I could buy another notebook.

This exercise is not unaccompanied by guilt, as I wonder whether most paper nowadays is recycled and if not why not and whether I should be devastating the tree population in this way for my own amusement.  Of course it isn’t mere amusement, it’s work; and if I could find a way to make it happen digitally I would but there’s something so organic about the conjunction of pen and paper which seems directly to connect the brain with the page as though the pen were joined to the bloodstream.  We shouldn’t take this image too far though, else we’ll end up like Harry Potter in detention:

Aaanyway, as usual in The Works they had a range of exciting notebooks in just the right size for my poetry journal and so the choice came down to what was on the cover.  As you know (and can see from this blog’s motif in the top left) I like a notebook with a motivational message, so I chose the one which told me to be more awesome.  What’s not to like?  I now have a total of nine notebooks:

One is for daily thoughts and ideas (I’ve kept this sort of ‘diary’ for 34 years now)

Two is for short story ideas and writing prompts (https://writerswrite.co.za)

Three is for current poems

Four, five and six contain older poems which I still perform

Seven has ideas for the novel and eight, a squared notebook, contains designs associated with it i.e. spiral patterns and outlines of the tapestries which accompany each chapter.

And finally, nine is a tiny notebook which records things I’ve sent to publishers.

Kirk out