Writing Advice

Writing Cycles

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I tend to be inspired by topics swirling around mental health: I’m interested in mental illness and its effects on people and relationships; I’m fascinated by psychology and states of mind that make people see and believe things that don’t align with reality. And because the maladies of the mind are so often my muse, I thought it was about time I wrote about my relationship with the my own mind as it relates to writing.

Recently I was loosely diagnosed with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). I say loosely because it wasn’t official, just a trend I noticed and spoke to my doctor about, who agreed that SAD could be the cause. The trend? Getting exhausted and depressed in the winter months. For example in the past two months my motivation has been drained and I’ve had real trouble getting out of bed (or wanting to do anything but sleep forever). It’s an awful feeling and in the depths of it quite terrifying because there’s a fear in there that things will never get better.

But inevitably they do.

I’ve started light therapy and that paired with the recent bloom of good February weather seems to have pulled me out of my funk. I’m full of energy now and back to writing (before I was only thinking about writing).

Luckily in the depths of my listlessness I’ve still managed to keep up on some reading I’ve been doing as research for my next book. I’m reading a book called ‘Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament’ by: Kay Redfield Jamison. This book is completely fascinating and I mention it because it doesn’t only touch on manic-depressive illness, but also on SAD and the ‘artistic temperament’-the general trend of writers and other artists to follow seasonal patterns of productivity.

According to the book many artists have seasonal periods of creation that align with the seasons in nature. Artists are cyclical creatures prone to productivity in certain months and less in others. It’s different for everyone when these peaks are, but they are present and have been studied. This idea relaxes me. Curious about the effects of the seasons on my own work I recently looked up each one of my novels to find the date in which I created the document to start writing them. The verdict: Spring and Summer (mostly summer). All of them. Not one of my novels was started in a winter month. Fascinating!

For me, my cycles seem to be even more extreme, as during the times when I am truly active I write like there’s no tomorrow. I have been known to write most of my books in no more than three weeks, sometimes even two and any short stories come out fully finished in an hour or two tops. Pages and chapters fly by when I am in a ‘flow’ period and honestly I love it. I like to get things done quickly and to leave the rest of my time for thinking and planning my next piece.

So what’s the point of me writing all of this?

I want to say I’m relieved. These cycles and seasonal ups and downs can seem strange and confusing when you think you’re alone. But reading about other artists and writers who share this cyclical spirit makes me understand myself a bit better and want to give myself more leeway when I’m not writing or inspired every hour of every day.

As issues of mental health are my muse, they can also be my comfort as I ride the waves of my creative productivity and try to make sure I’m being kind to myself.

I also want this to be a reminder to be kind to yourself too. Give yourself space if you need it and don’t push too hard.

Have you noticed any cycles to your writing life? I would love to hear about them!

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Writing Advice

I think it might be magic…

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If I believed in magic that’s what I would tell you writing is.



The firing of specific synapses, the chemical cascade that transmutes the scent of a particular perfume into a fifteen hundred word short story, the fall leaves into rhyming poetry, your brutal breakup into a seventy thousand word novel.

It’s an ancient magic, recalled from distant cold nights huddled around fires, trading tales of news from far off lands, keeping the shadows subdued and enchanted. It’s ritualistic: reliant on special pens, specific desks, a certain walking route, a routine we know by heart, that sweet annihilation of reason, a sip of wine at midnight, or the writing sweater we refuse to wash.

We seek out other’s magic rhythms too, the successful among us, we gather at their feet and beg for their secrets. Do you rise early, before the sun? Do work in the morning, or the afternoon? Have a light lunch? Take a stroll at 3pm exactly? Stay up late? Because we’ve heard that’s a sign of greater intelligence. And they kindly share their magic recipes with us; their steps to plot and puzzle, to know your characters deeply, meaningfully, to personify your settings, objects, animals, plants. They tell us of their habits, their secrets, and we absorb them, make them our own.

That moment of inspiration is magic as well; a conversation overheard out of context, a furtive look on the face of a passerby, a thing out of place in an ordinary setting. It would strike like lightning if that wasn’t so cliche. Instead it’s a burned finger on the stove, numb with shock but unforgettable.

And finally there’s a flurry of magic words, scrawled on paper or composed on the blank screen, a flashing cursor moving endlessly ahead of letters forming perfect incantations, designed to cast a spell, a trance. And when it’s over we awaken, unsure of what we’ve done, feeling a satisfying loss, an emptying out. A bruise on our knee we never noticed before. How did that get there?


Maybe it’s unhelpful to say it’s magic though.

Maybe it’s too easy.

It’s a craft, you say, a practice, a discipline.

But I think there’s something worthwhile in believing in magic, just for a second, even for an unbeliever like me. Because magic is the world of make-believe and that’s where we, as writers, want to be. Magic reminds us of the unknown, the yet to be invented, the mystical, the sacred, the beautiful. Magic reminds us we are all connected to our imaginations, to our memories of things that never were.


Also, maybe magic can allow us to believe in ourselves.

 To believe that moment of inspiration will come again, even if it’s been gone for years. To believe that we have a whole universe inside of us that’s waiting to be written, that we are connected to those ancient ancestors of ours who told stories because that’s what humans do. Maybe believing it’s magic could help us when we’ve hit the wall, because with magic we can walk through walls, or move them, or fly over them on our broomsticks, or turn them into cotton candy and eat our way through. Maybe if we believe it’s magic when things get hard we can remember why we opened that document to begin with, why we put our pen to paper.

Maybe magic can be our placebo, the pill we take to tell ourselves our the headache is all in our heads.

I think it might be magic, so go on, write me a spell.

Writing Advice

Writers, it’s okay to strive for success

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I’ve been hearing the phrase ‘just write for yourself’ a lot lately in workshop ads, blogs and writing forums, and I take umbrage with it.

First and most simply because the idea is too obvious to bother repeating.  No one in their right mind would ever sit there and say: ‘hmm…I wonder what the quickest path to fame and fortune is?  I know, writing!’.  And even if they did they would quickly be discouraged by the rejections, the criticisms and the overall effort needed to even become a published writer never mind a rich and famous one.  So because of that I can honestly say that anyone who decides to become a writer does it for themselves already; because they love it, because they burn for it, because they yearn to put their words onto the page for personal and artistic reasons.  No writer writes completely for others (or for fame and fortune) because it just doesn’t make sense; the struggle is too great, the game too long for someone who hates it to keep pushing forward.

So then we come to the greater meaning of the phrase.

‘Just write for yourself’ is often (in my experience) paired with this idea that if you want to be published and you want to really make it in the writing world you’re doing something wrong.  There’s an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) reluctance to talk about dreams, hopes and goals as a business person/artist.  Artists of any kind are often seen as sellouts when they use their work commercially or they make loads of cash.  People are often frowned upon and their art taken less seriously when they make it big.  I’m sure it’s the same in any art industry as it is in writing and I can’t stand it.  It puts artists in a box of almost-divinity where they are expected to do their art solely and completely because it is their sacred duty to do so and therefore it encourages artists to accept less than they’re worth for their work.

Sure writing is a personal journey, but it’s also a journey most writers want to share.  Why write a thing down if you don’t want anyone to read it?  Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally on board with writing as release, therapy and catharsis, but I’m also on board with writers who write for the world, who want to be heard and who want to be awarded and rewarded for their efforts.

Who doesn’t want their work read, appreciated, understood?  Who doesn’t want to win an award?  Who doesn’t want to see their book on their local bookstore shelf or get interviewed and asked about their process?  It feels almost taboo just to talk about it, but I want all of those things and I’m pretty sure most writers who are actually trying to be published do too.

There’s a bookstore in my neighbourhood that I walk by almost every day and I talk to it.  I say ‘you and me Coles, we got this’ because one day I want a book of mine to be in the window (I just hope it stays open long enough to see that dream realized!).  I don’t believe in The Secret or anything stupid like that, but I do believe in having goals, wanting success and striving to be heard.

I write for myself, sure I always have, but I also write for the world.  I tell stories because I have things to say and if I have no readers then half the point of saying things in the first place would be missing.  If a Star tells a story in the forest and there’s no one around to hear, is there even a point?

So obviously write for yourself, but don’t just write for yourself.

It’s okay to strive for success, it’s okay to want to be heard, to be read, to be admired.  It’s okay to be a business person and an artist at the same time.  It’s okay to want to be paid for your work.  Shit, you put your life and time and heart into your work, the very least you can get back is some cash.

Don’t be afraid to dream big, plan ahead, think about marketing and selling yourself and getting your words out there.  You can have both a deeply fulfilling personal artistic practice and a rewarding external writing life.  It’s possible and practical.

So don’t just write for yourself; your words are beautiful, inspiring, thought-provoking, exciting, sexy, scary, gritty, real, fantastical and most importantly uniquely yours—don’t hoard them, share them with the world!

Writing Advice

Theory of Mind (and why your perspective is a unique snowflake)

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We went out to dinner the other day with Ben’s parents and as we were standing outside of the restaurant some guy passed us and told me he loved my bag (because my bag is pretty awesome—see above photo for proof).  My mother-in-law looked surprised and stared at the guy as he walked away, then looked at me like I should be shocked and impressed.  I smiled (because it’s always nice to both get a compliment and make someone smile), then shrugged because frankly that happens to me all the time; it’s a part of my personal landscape.  People constantly approach me on the street about my clothes, they ask to take pictures, chase me down to ask where I got my shoes, hell I’ve even had people jump out of a car to snap a pic with me.  I’m like a Toronto landmark, sometimes the only hint of colour for miles.  But the point here isn’t my attention grabbing style…it’s the fact that my mother-in-law was surprised by my experiences out in the world.  I experience the world in a completely different way than she does—and that’s fascinating. 



When we’re young, it takes some time but we eventually develop something called theory of mind.  Here’s the Wikipedia definition (which is way better than mine would be):

“Theory of mind (often abbreviated “ToM”) is the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from one’s own.”

Now you may think that theory of mind is something you’ve always had (because who could imagine their lives without it?) but it’s actually something we have to develop and learn.  It’s not innate.  Which would explain why we sometimes struggle with it.  I know I do.  Sometimes I expect that someone will just get what I’m saying or how I’m acting without having to explain myself.  Sometimes I expect the world to just fall in line with my mentality and I wonder why it doesn’t.  It’s a problem of intellectual laziness to be sure, but it’s also (in those moments) not using my theory of mind.  Forgetting that other people are well…different from me; that they see the world from a completely different perspective, that they can’t always understand my perspective just as I can’t always understand theirs.

So that leads me to writing.  


For a long time I struggled with my most recent book (What it means to be a man) because it is partially auto-biographical.  It’s based on my (sex) life and my relationship with Ben and when I finished writing it (then re-writing it) I hated it because I was positive everyone would be bored with hearing my own, personal, internal voice.  I have to live with it, I hear my own voice in my head every day.  I struggled and generally reviled the book…then I remembered theory of mind.  Just because I have to listen to my own voice yammer on and tell the same stories of my life over and over, doesn’t mean everyone else has.  To people who don’t know me (or at least to people who aren’t close enough to me to have heard all of my sex stories and know every detail of my relationship with Ben) this story is completely unique.  It’s a perspective they’ve never heard before.  It’s my mother-in-law standing on the street in shock as a man talks to me about my backpack.  

So what’s the point?


All of our personal stories are unique fucking snowflakes.  

All of our perspectives are our own, completely and totally.  No one else lives in our minds, so to the world our stories are fresh and new.  

I used to worry that people would be bored of my stories and that I absolutely had to make up brand new ones about characters I never knew in order to be interesting.  But now every time that fear kicks me in the gut, I kick it right back with theory of mind.


POW!

BAM!

THAWK!

You’re a unique snowflake dammit so go forth and tell your stories with confidence!