Tag Archives: inspiration

The places stories come from (and take me to)

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Writing fiction, wow. After several months of writing from my own experience, you know, facts, I’m now free to write anything.

Of course “anything” could also be a little intimidating. Like “infinity”, or “Welcome to Subway, what are you after today?” So one of my tasks, lately, has been figuring out how to locate ideas, and then turn them into stories.

Over the past five weeks I have used a few lunch-hours (I’m still working two days a week to cover coffees and bills) to come up with a list of thirty-seven short story ideas. Of these single paragraph descriptions, I chose eight to start fleshing out into stories. And of these eight, I’ve so-far completed three. As in I’ve started soliciting feedback on them brought them from others.

So why these three stories? Where did they come from? And where did they take me?

 

Story one: The pub quiz

I posted the first couple of pages of this first story a couple of weeks ago. It starts with a man whose ambition and joy for living has slipped away so gradually hadn’t noticed. The story picks up momentum (and hope) when he meets a woman who might offer him a chance to rewrite his future. Is he still capable of taking it?

I love those magical moments in life when I meet someone new, and there’s this powerful frisson, this trembling, vibrating understanding that they could represent a significant, positive transformation. Occasionally though, I’ve found this feeling being almost immediately tempered by a wave of self-reproach. “Why would they want to be friends/tag-team-wrestling-partners/lovers with me?”

I’m intimidated by the degree of feeling they generate, and I start thinking about how much more terrible rejection feels, when it comes from those people I choose to raise above me. And then that lump forms between throat and heart, and self-doubt begins to eclipse hope.

Sometimes I want to make a part of myself transparent, so that this person might see the parts of me of which I’m most proud. But translucency means they get to see the shadows as well.

Writing this story allowed me to characterise that part of me, to give it a name, Gavin. Then I got to create the person who evokes that astounding feeling in Gavin. I named her Alice. Then I put them at a table at the Red Lion, on a busy quiz night, and I let them decide where the story went.

 

Story two: The list maker

The second story I completed is about a treasure hunt, and it is about Alzheimer’s, and it is mostly about the degree to which we let a select number of our memories define who we are. It puts the reader inside an older man’s head for an afternoon, as he attempts to solve a gentle mystery.

It was an opportunity to tell what is essentially a very sad story, but tell it from the largely positive viewpoint of an endearing old gent. It was a chance to remind myself of the importance of living life as engaged as possible. It gave me a reason to ask myself some important questions. What are the moments that I believe define me? Who will be there for me if I begin to lose aspects of myself? Who do I want to be there for, if they find themselves struggling for definition?

 

Story three: The first and last hours of Hector Fuego-Salamanca

I was listening to an interview with an author a couple of weeks ago, and she pointed out that there was no reason for short fiction to stick with a single character, or be restricted to a short time period. Just because you only have a few thousand words, there’s no reason you can’t tell a story from multiple viewpoints, or utilise something other than real-time. That got me thinking:

“What if I offered the first few hours of someone’s life, and then the last? And this became an opportunity for the reader to fill the gaps between?”

And so my third completed story describes the first and last few hours of Hector Fuego-Salamanca. Hector is born under difficult circumstances, birthed in the back of a stolen four-wheel drive, which is parked on the edge of an ancient New Zealand forest. Hector’s last few hours are hardly less arduous, most of them are spent blindfolded and tied, in the back of a stolen army vehicle.

The fun thing with this, is that I am a strong believer in self-determination. And so I wanted to start with an evocative (if you were raised in New Zealand) name. Then I wanted to add a sprinkling of facts, a description of a person for whom the odds have been stacked against. I wanted the reader to start telling their own story. And then I wanted Hector to transcend expectations. What would he need in order to do this? What is it that we use to fight fate, to reverse expectations, to counteract a dearth of privilege?

The short story offers an opportunity to experiment with new characters every day. Maybe I’ll spend the morning with a man peering through windows as he falls from the top of a thirty storey building. Measuring his reasons for jumping, against what he sees in the faces of those he glimpses during his descent.

Perhaps I’ll then choose to spend the evening in the moonlit company of two teenage girls as they quietly construct a series of crop circles on farmland in Cornwall. I get to listen in on their stories, their observations, and then I get to see what happens when their creative efforts attract an unexpected visitor.

Yes, endless possibilities can be intimidating. But my imagination is my most treasured of all my gifts. If shit gets dark, if I find myself at a fork in the road and I feel that either direction will lead me to a place I don’t want to go, then my imagination helps me forge a new path.

Writing fiction is yoga for my imagination. Hmm, maybe there’s a story in the naming of downward facing dog…

88 Days, one month down

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Speyside, a great place for contemplation, whisky drinking, and admiring the rain.

I’ve been walking the perimeter every couple of hours today, clearing the gutters of leaves and coffee cups, watching the waters flow. Inside I listen to Biblical levels of rain hammering the roof above. I think of Noah, of epic stories told to convey an understanding. 

What were the Bible makers striving for? To write a bestseller? To influence a society? To replace still older stories?

What did Margaret Atwood hope for from A Handmaid’s Tale, back in 1985? Did she imagine the poignancy it would hold as it was retold in the wake of Trump’s ascendance? Did George R. R. Martin grimace as he signed off on publishing rights to A Game of Thrones, thinking of the string of newborns that would have to beat the weight of names like Daenerys and Tormund and Cersei?

Can great writing still make a difference? Do I dare hope that the pen is still mightier than the sword? 

Again I’m reminded that one of the greatest enemies of writing (like any work-from-home occupation) is distraction. But conversely, the right kinds of distractions can be a blessing. If I scan through my list of story ideas, I see an ecological ghost story, a gentle tale about a treasure hunt inspired by an old man’s Alzheimer’s, a fable about a mother and daughter in the desert, standing before a great wall. The seeds for each lay in a diversion of some sort. 

But my purpose for writing this afternoon, is as an opportunity to reflect on the first four weeks of my 88 Days of Creativity. And after a little meditation, it seems the first third of my sabbatical has been about three things:

1. How capable am I of finding inspiration?

I can answer this one with an emphatic “yes”. An empty page holds no fear for me. I can find a question begging to be answered on a tombstone, or in a shared glance, or under torrential rains. Of course understanding at first glance, or paragraph, or maybe page, whether the idea deserves a whole story is another talent…

2. Is writing something that I really want, or is it just a story I want to tell about myself?

I have to approach question two with a little trepidation, I’ve lied to myself before.

I mean today I feel like a story-teller. I love the places writing has already taken me. I feel better about a day if I write. I’ve learnt more about myself through writing than through anything else I’ve ever stuck with. But it took me years to fail as a painter, as an artist, largely because I was afraid of soliciting feedback on my work. And so there’s a little anxiety in my answer, because for me, the real answer to this question, is tied to the answer of question three.

3. Can I write things that other people want to read?

This is the big one. Last week, a waiter in a cafe said he’d overheard one of my conversations on writing. He explained that a friend of his is trying to become established as a writer. He asked if I’d mind calling or emailing him, to offer advice, or to simply talk.

At first I wasn’t sure what I would have to offer. But today I understand that my advice for this man is the same I am giving to myself. It is time to engage an audience. To have the courage to put your work in front of someone who will critique it, and then to learn from their feedback. 

If I was passing through customs and immigration today, and filling in paperwork, in the space next to “Occupation” I don’t think I’d be lying to myself if I filled in Writer. But my goal is to be able to fill in that space with the word “Author”. And so month two begins.

 

The first 24 hours…

Week one

88 days began around 20 hours ago. I started by thinking about inspirations. People, ideas, countries. And so…

A theme for week one: Inspiration

So who inspires me? I asked a couple of friends, and all of them needed a little time. Actually, Linda gave me a couple to start, then retracted. I did the same. Should it be someone who’s directly affected my life choices? What’s the difference between aspiration and inspiration? Do heroes count?

Is it more likely to be people closer to home, people I can share a beer with? I’m slowly getting to know a guy, a guy who Hunter S Thompson once described as ‘sinister’. He lives in New Plymouth, plays guitar, and once ran a vegetarian cafe in Guatemala with his wife and kids. When this gent nods his head sagely at something I’ve said, or laughs at one of my jokes, I feel better about myself. Maybe he’s a truer choice than say…Hemingway?

And it isn’t just who, is it? Everything I write starts with an idea. A seed, a catalyst. Inspiration. I’m writing this paragraph in a rural cafe, perched at the edge of a busy (for New Zealand…) motorway. Unusually, there aren’t any coffee sacks on the walls. What’s the story with those sacks? Who makes them? What do the markings mean? What of the sack maker’s family? Community? The needle she sews with, the light he sews by, their dreams for their children.

So maybe inspiration can be found in an absence. Or in nuance, minutiae, seeming trivialities. If the devil’s in the details, then maybe him (should that be gender neutral?) and I are about to become firm friends.

 

A muse for week one

Last week I listened to two interviews with an American author who’s now in her mid 80s. She was forthright, opinionated, and yet gracious. I could imagine her putting Hemingway in his place, if they’d ever sipped bourbon in the same bar, and he’d gotten a little salacious with a waitress.

Ursula K Le Guin lives in Portland, Oregon. She believes in the power of the imagination. She can be commandingly forthright, but apparently balances her targeted tirades with gentle humour. Any of which draws me to her already.

So I’ll be hunting out this Californian octogenarian’s story, and looking into how she might inspire me. What she might teach me. Whether she hosts writers in residence, I hear Portland’s got quite the craft beer scene…

 

Finally, my tasks for week one:

 

1. Write a letter to someone who inspires me

Someone once told me how important it was to thank the people who inspire you. All of them. She explained that it seemed to be a relatively rare thing, even for people you expect would be almost burdened with kudos. And I imagine it is a wonderful compliment, a warm affirmation.

So I thought about the people who inspired me at the time, and then I went and worked another bake shift. But the idea got caught somewhere inside, like bubblegum in the carpet of my mind. And now it is time to follow through. After all, the same person convinced me to start writing again.

 

I need to do this one in the first week, to have any chance of receiving a reply by week thirteen. Am I even right to be hoping for a response? Ego check.

 

2. Find community

In my experience to date, writing is a solo pursuit. Lonely isn’t the right term, because I don’t miss company when I write. And yet somehow I find the presence of other people useful, comforting. I like to sit in a cafe, and focus on the page or screen. There, away from the lawns, the house bus, the Internet, my distractions are different. Someone’s pose, or tone, or half-heard conversation. Maybe the way they wear their sunglasses, or nibble at their bagel, or berate their child, that gets stored, or absorbed.

But there’s also that people-need of mine which isn’t writing specific. That desire to share and exchange notes about purpose, about vocation. One of the best parts about working in a busy kitchen, was the banter, the competition to craft the best shepherds pie, the nicknames for customers, the high-fives in recognition to a particularly well curated morning playlist. I need to find a writers kitchen.

I live in a tiny town, so people are a limited resource. Maybe I need to look online. Or do a few more trips around the country to do interviews with novelists, journalists. Or perhaps it’s as simple as finding out who the other person is who buys the German rye bread from the supermarket down the road.

 

3. Set long-term writing goals for the thirteen weeks

I need to have some longer term goals, and I need to set them early. I also need a range of interesting tasks lined up, so that there’s always a new challenge.

At the moment I’m hoping to achieve the following over the next 88…87 days, but I need to understand whether it is aspirational, underwhelming, or madness:

  • Write twice a week about the process, my experiences etc.
  • Write and submit a short story, and start another one
  • Write a feature story and submit it for publication
  • Re-read the manuscript of my first novel, then decide whether I move forward with it, or start a new one
  • Determine what part writing will play in my life, from day 89

 

Ok, I’ve got a craving for rye bread. Peace out.

 

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Below the fold

This section is for trivia, photos, links, ideas. Non-essentials. Because often what we cast aside can be as useful as the things I cling to.

Muses I considered and then discarded for this week: John Pilger (old skool investigative journalist), Ira Glass (public radio story sponsor), Ernest Hemingway (American author), Colleen Patrick-Goudreau (compassionate vegan).

I discovered the website of the “Poets & Writers” magazine last week, as they host a stupendous list of publishers. It gives me hope of finding a partnership, if not a fortune:

https://www.pw.org/literary_magazines

One of the photos I considered for this posting, then rejected, because I couldn’t find any way in which it was relevant:

uni cxamo

 

 

 

 

 

88 Days

Manuscript

One of the world’s greatest forces is a sense of direction. My best days are often the ones that start with me being dragged from the sleepy tendrils of my dreams by a sense of purpose. And so one of the most satisfying things I can do for myself, is to ensure I set goals.

Around five years ago, I woke to a cold morning in Cambridgeshire. I crept downstairs and slipped outside, drawing boots onto my feet, and a hat over my head. I walked to a set of allotment gardens at the end of the street. There I watched the sun crawl into the sky, lighting frosted leaves, coaxing steam from shed roofs. I made a promise before the small, neat rows of vegetables, to write.

I have produced several hundred thousand words since that sunrise over Huntingdon. Articles, stories, a manuscript. A religious text. But most of them are still hidden away. Unseen. Untested. Unjudged. I’ve probably published 5%.

Today I am setting myself a challenge. I am allotting myself 88 days in which to confront my fears around sharing my work. I’m creating a list of tasks: interviewing a hero, getting a short story published, showing the world passages from my first book.

I’ll investigate the opportunities avaibale for writers in a digital world. I’ll look into ways  I can market myself, and the places I can go for help. I’ll introduce the people and services that assist me along the way.

And each week I’ll nominate a new inspiration, someone who I hope will help me learn something new. Maybe it’ll be Gordon Ramsey, or Tim Burton, or Katey Perry. Whoever or whatever it is, they’ll be my Muse of the Week, an excuse to look at things from a new perspective.

I’ll write all about it here. The good bits, the sketchy bits, the triumphs and challenges. Soon I’ll introduce my first muse.

So. 88 days. Starting…now.

 

 

Tools for being human, part two: People watching

temple-woman-modifiedThe old man is initially defined by the curve of his spine. He’s bent almost double by some malady, and I feel the warm prickling of guilt as I watch him roll one sleeve up, and look over his shoulder. But I’m over the other shoulder, at a window seat in a busy cafe with another dozen pairs of averted eyes. He tilts his body like a crane and drapes his hairy arm over the bin. Then he draws something upward, a brown, moist-edged paper bag. He shakes his head as he parts the paper packaging, drops the disappointment back in the bin and draws a slow, visible breath as he wipes his fingers on his chest. I warm my fingers on my coffee cup as I wonder when he last saw the horizon, what his mother’s name was, on which shore he left the love of his life, in order to chase a dream he thought she’d never understand.

I lean back a little in my stool, and steal a glance at the young man seated next to me. He folds a page of his sketchbook over gently, rests it on the counter. He leans back on his seat to lift pens or pencils from his day pack, and the end of a tattoo on his neck is revealed. Just a spiral really, a couple of twisting grey lines, but enough to allow me to continue drawing them down, over his chest. A tentacle maybe, from a squid, wrapped about a tall ship. Perhaps his father was a fisherman, but this thin young man didn’t enjoy the drawing of fish to the deck, the stomp to the head, the curl of the sea against the roll of his stomach. But cancer took his old man three years ago, and the myth of their connection now wraps about his heart.

When I was young I couldn’t imagine a world occupied by uncountable billions of people. By the last year of high school I knew the faces if not the names, sometimes a story, what type of bike they rode, their sister’s horse’s name. Two months later I found myself at university, trying to understand how I could be amongst so many people and yet feel so, so lonely. On the third or fourth day of lectures I sat in the Mt Street Cemetery, wondering what my options were. As I watched the shadows thrown by the lowering sun, I noticed a woman in a long, dark dress, walking slowly down the hill, picking her way between tombstones. She wore her thick auburn hair in a loose bun, her feet were tied into tall leather boots, and her eyes were on the sky rather than the path. And I began to tell myself a story. She knew a mermaid once, or at least a trans-gender Greek man who professed to have been half salmon in a previous life. And before she moved here to study Philosophy she had dated a musician, and hopes that she was responsible for a line in one of his songs. And for her Wellington was a temporary home on the way to somewhere she dreams of, writes poems about, draws sketches of. Probably somewhere with windmills and moats and scarecrows. She eventually passed out of view, but I remembered her as I walked to class the next morning, and I kept an eye on the crowd, my eye focused on possibilities rather than disappointment.

Some years ago I sat with Linda in a crowded outdoor market in Singapore. At first we are the only two white people in a spiral of Asian humanity. But the longer we sit, sipping at cool fruit juices, the closer the spiral twists about us. A young boy is concentrating on unwrapping a balloon string from his hand, and suddenly his eye catches mine. I smile gently, his head tilts a little and he reflects the curl of my happiness. He turns to his mother and lifts his arms, looking up at the red bubble above. Was the balloon a bribe, a gift, a location-detector? And as I pick out the faces and forms in the crowd, I feel the place seep into me. The strong brown arms of a vendor tying a rope under his marquee, his glance across at a women in the stall opposite, his motion pausing for just a second. And that brief pause is another story. When I take time to consider others in a crowd as people, as lifetimes, as part of a bigger family, then loneliness doesn’t make as much sense. Nor do anxiety and mistrust.

So I have learnt to enjoy sitting still and watching others. And sometimes I wonder if my observations are two-sided. Am I in turn being watched? Does the old woman in dark glasses at the other end of the cafe counter see something in the way I pause between writing paragraphs? Does she wonder why my eyes are drawn to this person or that? Does she notice my glances are often to younger women, but that I quickly shift to other targets? Does she wonder if I am embarrassed to let my stare linger on those more obvious attractions? Or is she hoping I leave that half croissant on my plate, that she might gently gnaw its buttery sweetness once she draws it from her pocket in another hour?

And at other times I find myself considering the other counterpoint to my scrutiny, what do my observations say about me? Why do I presume that the beautiful, artfully dressed girl carries the awkward longboard merely as a prop, an unwieldy attempt to be a part of an alternative crowd? Is it my own pretences that are the seed of this judgement? Or simply jealousy of the gentle perfection of her features, the grace of her stride? What right do I have to be so silently outraged at the three couples staring into their phones, rather than into each other’s eyes? Am I really so fortunate to have experienced uncomfortable first-date silences in the Facebook-free millennium?

I feel there is something useful in imagining myself in someone else’s shoes, or burka, or domestic dispute. If I remind myself that others have their own choices to make, their own mothers to please, their own dreams to chase (or abandon), then acceptance of difference is not so difficult. If I try sitting inside their thoughts, imagining their troubles, then tolerance is not such a stretch. And I’ve found that over time I have built the self-confidence to bridge that gap between myself and the stranger. I find that empathy gives me the power to overwhelm by traditional shyness.

I finish my coffee, lower the cup and press a finger to the counter in front of the young man’s slow-forming sketch of a big-eyed woman. His first girlfriend? Or a character from a dark Japanese horror? ‘She’s beautiful’ I say, looking to his hesitant eyes, imagining his anxiety, but also the warmth of pride. I leave the half-eaten croissant on my plate, and slide it gently in the direction of the old woman as I sling my bag to my shoulders and shift toward the door. I can’t see the bent man, but if I walk to the bottom of Cuba Street, perhaps I’ll be able to offer a kind presence, or a tray of sushi.

I met the woman from the cemetery again in my second semester, and she invited me to a party, a celebration of the release of The Cure’s ‘Disintegration’ album. She went on to study in Germany, and to write prize-winning novels. She inspired me to try out black lipstick, read Edgar Allan Poe, and to use a thing called electronic mail to send fantastic stories to my fellow students when I should have been studying. And her success in story-telling inspires my writing today.

So I dedicate this piece to ‘Cath the Goth’, to my fellow people-watchers, and to all those I’ve watched and never quite had the nerve to smile at, or wave to, or buy a coffee for.

On choosing heroes

Heroes 2

When my ancestors were young I like to think that their heroes were knowable, that they were members of their families, their tribe. I imagine they would sit gape-eyed at the feet of the elders and listen to tales of hunts for better lands, confrontations with long-toothed predators and the chaotic mood swings of the mushroom-powered shaman. They would then hug the cast of the stories before they went to sleep, or sneak a peek at them over the camp fire as they keep watch out over the plains. I think that it has always been important for us to draw inspiration from positive sources, and I don’t think we should lose sight of that as we grow older.

As I was a nipper my world view was influenced by my Grandmother’s eel hunting exploits, my Uncle’s exotic travels and my Grandfather’s explanations of how storms build. Soon I discovered I could share other’s lives through reading, and I found a new additional cast of heroes, exciting people and creatures I’d never met. I learnt moral lessons through the exploits of wolves, swordsmen, and most importantly boys who ended up on accidental adventures. I could then engage my imagination and draw some aspects of my day-to-day world into these fables. I’d imagine Hiawatha being as feisty as Renita in my maths class (until she started calling me square-head), and whenever I encountered a sea-faring adventurer they had my Dad’s knowledge of the sea along with their Captain Haddock beards and inventive line in curses. The converse is that I could also take the lessons I learnt from my stories and apply them to the world around me.

The stories that we directly or indirectly place within our children’s grasp help them determine what we deem as important. And if was tales of honour, honesty and strength that I could access at eight, they subconsciously affect me at fifteen, and still echo through my ideas as I make decisions in my forties. It’s so important then to offer up positive role models for those we’re trusted to influence. If we replace Asterix, the Famous Five and Tom Sawyer with a couple of Kardashians and a Rihanna then perhaps we deserve to reap what we sow. And to focus this even further, I think there is huge value in helping people find heroes in the people that surround them.

As I’ve gently (cough) aged I’ve abandoned the untouchables as an influence on my behaviour. I’ve replaced H.R. Giger, Timothy Leary and the guy who got to play Boba Fett with people I’ve shared travel, conversations and tears with. I’ve realised that the people most capable of inspiring me these days are the ones I can share real life adventures with. Rather than hoping and wishing to have a life like a Rock God or Somali pirate I aim to be as patient, tolerant and thought-provoking as the people I meet in trailer parks, Hallowe’en costumes and woodland cabins. I think it’s important to be continue to be mindful of who we look up to our whole lives, as like snow-boarding or motorbike riding, wherever you aim your gaze that’s where you end up heading for.

Why though do I think it’s important to replace those who have reached fame and mass market appeal with local heroes though? It starts with being human. I remember watching a Miss World competition when I was young, and as I watched the parade of pretty ladies I thought how strange it was that I knew girls at my school who were more beautiful than any of them. The girls I shared classes with so much more than an image, they ran races against me, beat me in spelling competitions, and shared stories of unicorns with me. It was the fullness of these girl’s character in which I found much of their delight, and so now I get dismayed and sometimes a little offended when people choose to promote the media creations they read of in magazines over the people around them.

There is a danger in choosing to worship images without flaws as none of us exist without learning from our failures. We’re all imperfect. If my heroes are knowable their glories can be offset against their flaws, they become human, and then I can hope to strive to be their equal. When we meet and get to know other people we get to understand the motivations behind their loves, the frustrations behind their anger and the sources of their sadness. In growing to understand the way they handle these things we can learn powerful lessons.

The other incredible benefit of local heroes is the chance of mutual inspiration. When I was a child I used to dream of earning Tom Sawyer’s respect in a battle of wits, and now I actually have a chance of offering my heroes something to think about. There’s a chance that I’ll inspire them with my own tales, what greater reward is there than having someone you respect and admire cock their head at something you say, and think it through? Sometimes we fail to realise that our own experiences can offer important lessons to others, even our perceived losses or failures.

As I grow as a writer I become more understanding of what it can take to succeed in a creative field. My writing heroes growing up were great and popular novelists like Orson Scott Card, Stephen King and Ernest Hemingway. Since then I’ve read of their techniques, beliefs and habits, burrowing through their writings for inspiration. Just a few months ago though my first girlfriend contacted me after reading my blog on ‘being shy’. When I left her all those years ago she was working on her first article for a national newspaper. While we were together she had always written fantasy stories and I used to be fascinated at the back-stories she had for her characters, though I don’t remember letting her know just how much depth I found in her ideas. Sigh. To date she has published several books and attends conventions across the USA, inspiring new authors. Her vision, her determination, her path-building is now a very personal inspiration. I’ll continue to re-read King’s rants about adverbs, admire Scott-Card’s endless inventiveness, and hope to live my stories half as dramatically as Hemingway, but it’s her that I think of when I hit walls of frustration.

Pip is just one of the many people who have helped me find the energy and drive to strive towards my dreams of sharing my stories and ideas. Reading books as a child armed me with the heroes I needed for my battles through childhood. Writing books as an adult is introducing me to the heroes I need to lead me through my emancipation as a freer thinker. To all those people I’ve met that lead their lives rather than being led by them, I thank you. To each of you that makes the difficult decisions in the face of disapproval and disbelief I salute you. None of us should ever settle for less than what we think we are worth, and if we forget from time to time how valuable we are, we only need to look around us for inspiration.

The people we choose to spend time with

Friends 2

We spend a large portion of our lives with a number of people due to circumstances, rather than choice. Life starts this way. We don’t get to choose those assigned to nurture us, those kin who will contribute significantly to our initial ideas on how the world works. Whether we’re raised within a family, a tribe, or an orphanage, those around us during our formative can either inhibit or develop our sense of self-worth. Their actions act as a template for our moral framework. They can help us to understand that we are valuable and valued, or they can damage us beyond repair.

Once we leave home, many of us will spend eight around hours a day with a new mix of people in order to earn a living. Our workmates are likely to affect our day-to-day mood, the degree of satisfaction we derive from our jobs, and our desire to seek new opportunities and advance ourselves. They may also influence our diets, our political views and our prejudices. And we don’t usually get a say in the selection process for these people either.

So we spend a lot of our lives being influenced by an arbitrary assortment of people. How important is it then that we take care in selecting the rest of the people that we hang out with? I was at a wedding in the United Kingdom a few years ago, and I was asked to make an impromptu speech. I thought about the friends of the groom that I knew, some witty, most currently drunk, and all affectionate. I spoke of how a person might be judged by the qualities of their friends. Looking at those we choose to share our time with can help us understand a lot about ourselves. Do I like Karl because he’s the only person who will stay out drinking with me until 5:00am? Do I like spending time with Kelly and Janine because they are gorgeous, and when we’re seen together around town feel like I’m living in a music video? Or do I spend as much time as possible with Di, because she reminds me to be myself, and at times inspires me to be my best self?

A good friend’s father once told her that the worst place to meet a lad was in the pub, that she should instead hope to find a boyfriend in more positive environment. I can understand the logic behind this, though the population of the UK and Ireland might dwindle if it were to become a popular idea.

Meeting people through an activity which improves us, seems more likely to lead to positive relationships. Marathon clinics, Spanish classes, football teams, all these activities bring us into contact with people who want to improve, and who are happy to share the experience. Over the past year I’ve found my closest new companions through hosting travellers on my couch. We shared a joy for exploring new country’s and trying new activities, and we aren’t afraid to stay in a stranger’s home. They’ve accompanied me on sand castle building competitions, glacier climbs and surf lessons. They’ve been people who have actively encouraged me to live more enthusiastically, and I’m hopeful that at least a couple of them will become friends for life. And now I get to catch up with some of them in their homelands. I haven’t connected with every single one, but i know from experience that if I had met ten strangers in a pub, I wouldn’t end up rafting the Grand Canyon with any of them.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power that others have to transform us. I owe it to myself to find friendships with people who I admire, respect and am occasionally envious of. They’re more likely to motivate me through their actions and inspire me through their ideas. And if I am brave enough to be open and honest with them and they still want to spend time with me, then that’s an amazing and rewarding thing.