Tag Archives: learning

88 Days, one month down

Speyside 1
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 Haunting

Haunting

Week two is about atmosphere, about mood.

I want to complete first drafts of two short stories this week. The first is meant to be a dark, melancholy story, but it is set on a beautiful if remote New Zealand beach. The second is a buoyant stale of hope and charity, but it is set in a dark, dank English pub. So how do I haunt the golden, sandy seaside, and let the light shine amongst horse brasses and shuttered windows?

I woke early and went for a walk in the earth’s shadow yesterday. As I moved through desolate streets, between darkened homes, I let Nick Cave set the mood. He sang to me about summoning the unfortunates of the world, and I imagined spirits trailing me in the dark woods, old men of dark deed watching me from the low fields. My pace quickened.

Mr Cave’s a master of evocation, this week he’s going to be my muse. I’m going to start with his song lyrics, and see what they reveal. I think he’s also worked on screenplays, maybe written a book or two? I’m sure amongst all the slow piano and gravelly murder ballads I’ll find a few moments of levity…

So by the end of this week, I will have two roughly written tales, each around 2500-3000 words. I’ll also be looking for people to read some of these shorter pieces, and offer feedback, so message me if you’re interested.

Ok, time to research whaling stations, Nordic ghost stories and companies who create pub quizzes.

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Beneath the fold: What’s in a name?

One of the first issues I encountered while writing a first draft of my manuscript, was naming my characters. I searched baby name lists for hours, and I began to realise what a huge descriptor a name can be. Who’s more likely to cover up a murder, Tom or Ash? Is Celeste going to be the wicked step-mother, or Griselda?

By the end of last week, I had a list of 17 short story ideas. That’s a lot of names. So I went for a walk in the local cemetery for inspiration. I roved between stones seeking ideas, and trying to avoid an old woman adding new flowers to old memories.

Amongst the Corona and Jim Beam bottles filled with flower stems (hello small town New Zealand…) I found elaborate names, solid names, even vampire names. Lorna and Charles Pompey. Thomas Hossack. Victor Hamilton-Hyde. But in general I found that the fields of the dead in a very young country, are very, very localised. Fine if I want to set my story in rural New Zealand in the 1960s. Not so much for labelling Viking chieftains.

So the hunt continues. Someone on Reddit mentioned looking at the Immigration and Emigration lists from the countries you’re interested in. Another suggested war memorial sites, lists of the dead. Morbid, yet interesting…

 

 

Sounding the drums

Colour writing

It was half day through day one that I felt a ripple of relaxation shift through me. When the same thing happened the next day, I understood its source. I had given myself permission to write.

This three months of creative productivity  wasn’t an easy thing to commit to. It has meant dropping out of full-time work, and a consequential drop in my income. I’m not money-focused, so the numbers aren’t important. But I place a huge value on harvesting experiences, some of which consume cash. Particularly the ones where I board a plane with a belly full of anticipation, and a thousand dollar ticket.

And of course I have bills to pay, a share in both a forest and a house truck to pay off. So I’m working in an office two days a week to cover all of this. And coffee. But parts of me have had to be put on hold.

I live in a country which is not given to celebrating the arts. Our statues are rarely of philosophers, or novelists, or painters. The result of this is that patrons are few, novelists are rare, and “suffering” for your desire to create isn’t generally understood. And so the decision to simply write takes a combination of self belief, considerate friends, and a supremely understanding partner.

So as much of a thrill it has been to let my imagination draw me forward, I have also had to plan to make my writing a business. It’s a confronting realisation. As much as this 88 days is going to be about generating stories, it is going to have to equally be about self-promotion. I don’t have an agent, nor a publisher. I don’t yet have a track record of works printed in The New Yorker, or Granta. I need to earn my own reputation.

Writing is a quiet pursuit. Me, a keyboard or notepad. Maybe birdsong, or Lorde’s new album on a lower volume than it deserves. The world has no audible or visual clue idea that I’m unfurling scenery, painting characters, summoning mythology. For all they can see, my brow might simply be furrowing in lieu of Tinder responses.

When you practice with your heavy-grunge band, the world is alerted. A couple of beers, a wall of amps, and the wail of feedback, there’s no denying your output. When I painted murals around walls, an audience was assured, commentary was inevitable. But my words threaten to lie cold within the cage of my laptop. Colourless without a mind to project them, silent without a consciousness to voice them.

I heard a wonderful quote this week, though I failed to make note of the origin. Or the exact words. But it was something like “what a joy it is to remain hidden from the world, but what a crime it is, never to be discovered”. For five years I’ve remained largely silent about my stories. It’s time to start beating a drum. And over the past seven days, I’ve started to understand that I shouldn’t be beating it just for myself.

One of my tasks in week one, was a hunt for community. And what I’m finding, is that I need to be that community, as much as to find it. Once I find inspiration in someone’s talent, or tenacity, or imagination, then I need to make some noise for them as well. I can’t write as part of a band or troupe, but I know I can be an enthusiastic member of other people’s audiences.

So I sit in the shade of the seventh morning, listening to the thudding of my heart. I’m preparing to work not just on the foundations for my own success, but also to begin  contributing to the elevation of others.

Tools for being human, part eight: Owning my age

pigs head

My age was a defining characteristic right from the start. Actually, probably before the start, measured really from the moment of conception. Once I was freed of the womb, it was a scale against  which my progress was judged. “Oh, so he isn’t crawling yet? Never mind, maybe he can be a conservative.”

It soon became part of the way I defined myself. “My name is Regan, I can draw an airplane and tie my shoe laces and I am four-and-three-quarters”. It became a ranking system in social situations. The five-year-olds got the toy rifles, those under five made do with sticks or finger-pointing. Though I did learn to draw that Remington two-finger pretty damn quick.

It was age-division that was my first experience of segregation. Specifically the great adult-child divide. At celebrations us children got a lower table, fewer items of cutlery, and higher sugar-content foods. The adults had the taller tables, more complicated social rules, and decisions to make on who would have to drive. I also learnt that certain behaviour, activities and ideologies were restricted to each side. Alcohol, untruths and high-impact cursing were strictly for “the adults”. Imagination, playtime and brutal honesty were the domain of children.

And yet my memories of childhood are largely of sunlight and adventure. I didn’t undergo any of the maturity summoning transformations that some of my peers had to face. My parents never divorced, I didn’t have to raise my siblings, I was neither abused nor abandoned. I got to be a very thorough eight year old, building fortresses from cushions, mown-grass, and imagination. I was a competent ten-year old, earning my scars by playing games of “policemen versus protestors”, riding my BMX off cliffs, and hurling adult-branded curses at bullies. And I became well-versed in the dark arts of teenageism. Blushing around girls, arguing with Dad about the length of my hair, and replacing judicious portions of my parent’s darker spirits with tea.

When I look at a photo of myself on my 21st birthday, I realise that I largely matched society’s age-expectations. I had a peer-inherited (and media enhanced) disregard for authority. I had long hair, and a tattoo with an ungracious story. I left university classes early to play bass guitar in a metal band named Shocker. And I had a Rainman-like ability to calculate the best alcohol-by-volume-by-price in a bottle store. Yip, 94% age-appropriate.

Social pressure remained relentless, if not always overt. I understood that by the age of thirty I should have been married, with a house, and maybe a child on the way. I rebelled. It wasn’t until thirty-one I had a wife and a house. And horses. I had a good, steady job that paid well, but I’d demoted fantasy and imagination, replaced some of my dreams with wants. As a result there was a tension within me, a pull between society’s expectations, and my buried needs. At thirty-three, I imploded. House, home, relationship, job. I didn’t have the emotional maturity to deal with the aftermath. So I boarded a plane.

For the next few years I put myself in situations where I lived, worked and danced with people ten years younger than me. People who labelled their hopes as certainties rather than impracticalities. People who looked for their options on a wide horizon rather than down a narrow tunnel. Ok, some of them pissed in the laundry, shat in the shower or offered loud advice from places of ignorance. But by now I knew that age was no antidote to foolishness. I started to realise that elucidation had to be earned, not granted. So I paid attention to my surroundings.

One of the greatest things about immersing yourself in an unfamiliar community, is that you have a chance of developing empathy, appreciation, understanding. Ageing is an opportunity through which we can build comprehension through experience. What it is like to sit in your first maths lesson. What it means to be afraid of the dark. What it means to be struggling with teenage ideas around gender. Imagine what we might gain if had to live through a range of ethnicities? Or if over our lifetime we gradually shifted gender? What insights and understanding might we draw?

And yet such opportunities might well be squandered. At thirty I believed that the people I could best relate to, were those of my own age. I thought that we’d been born at the best possible time, and that we shared things no other age could understand. Hair metal, misogyny, The Goonies. Besides, society frowns at the idea of inter-age mingling. It represents it as insidious, or inappropriate, or sad. At thirty-three I began to undo my prejudice. As a consequence I spent the next ten years learning my most consequential lessons in humility, creativity, and the development of wisdom, from yoofs.

One of those world-shakers was my girlfriend for much of that time. She taught me the importance of honesty, and honour. Of forgiveness.The difference in our ages wasn’t a problem until a biological alarm shifted her world. Fortunately she’d also taught me enough about self-reflection to avoid immolation, and so I began hosting couch surfers in order to fill a number of voids. And I was surprised to find that one of the most spontaneous, creative and inspirational was a woman just a little older than me. She had endless stories, she’d made beer for years, and she lived in Boulder, Colorado. Like Mork and Mindy (kids my age will get it…). I booked another flight.

She introduced me to a range of wonderful people, people who at forty, or fifty, or sixty, who still had an eye on the horizon. People who didn’t let their age dictate who they should be. People who rather than giving up on their dreams, had chased them down, and then found new ones. And since then I keep finding older-aged heroes.

Ageism is a powerful prejudice, one which build barriers and promotes ignorance. Our societies should promote kinship, not division. And as with anything societal, it is up to me to be part of any change.

So I choose to see age as a choice, not a curse. I can choose to age poorly. Choose a diet designed to challenge my heart and bowels rather than befriend them. Choose to define functional alcoholism my pointing to the one gunt in the pub that’s more pished than I am. Choose to tell myself that a sore back, a beer belly, and a mutually damaging relationship with a girlfriend I’ve taught myself to hate, are all symptoms of too many years, rather than my own poor choices.

Or I can choose to learn every day, to rewrite my prejudices through experience. Choose to summon the vigour and hope of my teens and wrap this around the compassion and care I’ve taken on in my forties. Choose to measure people by the depth of their hugs, the warmth of their smile, and their capacity for enjoyment, rather than the country of their birth, the number of candles on their cake, or their possession (or lack of) a Y-chromosome.

I choose to make (as much as possible) my own choices.

On the stories we create about ourselves

As we live life, we subconsciously construct a fairy tale about who we are. We take a few of the things we tell ourselves, a whole lot of things others tell us, and craft an incompetent portrayal  of ourselves. This then becomes an instruction manual for our future behaviour. It can affect almost every decision we make, from what flavour of Tim Tams we buy, to whether we have an affair with the butcher. We will seek out people who reinforce that belief, and most likely will be distrustful of those whose opinions don’t mirror our self assessment. These templates can be set at a young age, and may last, unaltered, until we are drooling down our flannelette nightshirts, propped against a radiator in a hospital corridor.

Ok, let’s personalise this. From a young age, maybe seven or eight, my story began to incorporate something like “Regan was born to be an artist…” Positive responses to my early drawings, enrolment in a specialist art course, and winning that skateboarding book, all contributed to my internal fable. This might seem innocuous, or even useful. But as I presumed this artistic competence was a natural ability, I didn’t push myself to extend my skills. Worse, I also began to excuse a range of my less positive behaviours, I just presumed they were part of my “artistic temperament”. My story shifted to something like “Regan is a great artist, a born talent, so he’s expected to rage against the slightest criticism, be spiteful of any form of conformity, and party today, for his great talent will no doubt be recognised tomorrow.” I’m awfully pleased I escaped my story with neither an addiction to opiates, nor a missing ear.

So how did I escape the bounds of my ridiculous tale? I believe it was the psychological equivalent of a solid hit to the head. Three years ago I was turned down for a position as a concept artist in the UK. My rejection note explained that they didn’t find my sketching advanced enough. Cue: huge sledgehammer hitting forehead. At first I argued with myself that they didn’t understand my style, that I hadn’t had enough time, that they hadn’t fully explained the brief. Cold hard facts were studiously ignored. How dare “they” confront me with something that conflicted with my self belief? But I was jarred, and forced to examine contradictory and heart breaking evidence. And in the end the only thing positive I could find in the broken fragments of my career as a painter, was an opportunity to edit my story. Haha, and somewhat ironically, that’s when I decided it was time to try and make a living through writing.

What would they know...
What would they know…

Some stories though, are much more harmful, and difficult to transcend, than mine. We can end up supporting a story of ourselves as worthless, or incapable of love, or undeserving of positive relationships. Abused women and children can convince themselves that they somehow deserve punishment, and long after they escape one brand of torment, they find themselves gravitating towards further victimisation. It’s those of us that end up trapped in stories like these, that need to understand what drives them to sabotage their choices. Recognition of our stories is the first step towards being able to affect them. And if we recognise this in others, we owe them assistance.

It’s not all gloom with a side-salad of doom though. Some of us are capable of subconsciously manipulating and changing our stories in order to improve our lives. A very good friend of mine had an extremely difficult time getting through her first degree. She attended lectures and tutorials, she studied, she understood what she was taught, but somehow when she wrote essays and dissertations, they didn’t reveal her depth of understanding. On preparing to face another bout of academia several years later, she was tested for learning disorders, and told that she was dyslexic. Now many people might see this as a grim setback, but such was her force of will, she managed to do the opposite. She researched the range of conditions clustered under this title, and determined that some of the greatest thinkers of the last couple of centuries had been posthumously diagnosed identically. And then she turned it into a super power. Rather than mask or hide her “difference”, she boasted of it. She told me she felt sorry for those mere mortals who functioned normally. This was astounding to watch happen. It took a few weeks to solidify, but once it did, none of my arguments (her statement that I was intellectually disadvantaged didn’t match my story, so argue I did…) affected her newly formed tale.

Not all of us are this resilient, but I think that if we can find ways to understand our stories, and how they affect our choices and behaviours, then we can gain power over them.

On learning from others. And yourself.

Note where the sun's shining from...
Note where the sun’s shining from…

Last winter my long term relationship came to an end. I met Alison whilst working in my sister’s backpacker hostel in Northern Ireland. When I first met her, I thought “Naaa[maybe]”. Over the next few weeks this progressed to “Maybe [naaa?]”, finally I ended up at “Hells Yeah!” It came down to me waiting at an airline counter in Dublin. I asked the Ryanair check in woman to toss a coin for me, as I couldn’t tell whether I should stay in Ireland and pursue the Northern English crumpet, or head on to new things. Even now I can’t remember if she actually showed me the coin, I just remember her Irish accented “teeyils!” and the accompanying grin.

Alison meant a lot to me. She was my moral compass, a pretty solid white yin to my somewhat dark yang. We had a chaotic time chasing opportunities around the globe. We also went through a lot of difficult struggles in our attempts to stay together, but we’re both prepared to fight for the lives we want to live. But in the end it was the children that undid us. She wanted them. By the end she wanted them soon. And I couldn’t solidify an answer on the topic. Or an answer that wasn’t “No”. So she left.

Yip, it hurt, and my first instinct was to numb the pain that accompanies my particular brand of self doubt. I clambered aboard the crazy train, bound for Shitfaced, Nebraska. But I soon began to recognise a guttural ugliness in my barfly conversations. So I gave myself a metaphorical slap about the face, and decided it was time to use loss as a catalyst for something positive. I dropped the alcohol (most of it…), bought an old Olympia typewriter and exorcised the bad thoughts through frantic keystrokes. I entered the summer with a slowly expanding manuscript, and the fizzy enthusiasm that the warming sun and smell of freshly mown lawns brings out in us kiwi’s.

I began sharing the season with a range of travellers, through Couch Surfer. My lounge and deck became a mini backpackers, and in exchange for a place to sleep, and my delightful company, I harvested their stories. From mental health nurses to snake breeders, I had a whole new range of ideas for character traits (and flaws…) along with enthusiastic punters with which to re-explore my city. The last of these near-random friendships was an American film maker, Francoise. Her and I spent the end of summer squeezing a hundred adventures into the shortening days. And in between chaotic film making, we spent the evenings attempting to unlock such mysteries around how we all determine our self worth, and how to best represent the mating of a shark and an octopus, in the form of a pie. A perfect blend of introspection and the surreal.

As the weather shifted from beers on the deck to hot chocolate in front of the fire, an astounding friendship was formed. From time to time we all need someone else to help us to get some perspective. Over ten weeks Francoise and I realised we’d found someone who helped us better understand who we were. I’ve spent many years learning to talk about what I feel. Kiwi blokes born in the 70’s don’t function that way, but a failed marriage stood testament to where being staunch gets you. One of the benefits of knowing how to explain yourself to others, is that there is a chance that they will then be able to share with you. And I now get to understand the heart of someone, whereas for years all I tried to do was to get someone to laugh, or cringe, or use a mini-tramp and a matress to do dive rolls over a bonfire.

Alison and my separation took my overly cynical outlook to ugly new places. But fortunately I realised that dwelling in dark places only prepares you for a life in the shadows. My writing had been depressive, anxious, and occasionally cruel. It needed to progress, to be more balanced. Several years ago I decided to take up snowboarding. Just before I first thundered my way down the beginners slope on a rental board, a helpful friend told me that I’d go whichever way I pointed my head. Then he pushed me into the snow. His technique though, was a significant step forward in my attempts to protect my arse and my dignity. I’ve found that my life can be like that, if I point my face towards the warmth, that’s where I tend to drift. I might take a few good falls on the way, but at least when I rise I’m looking ahead. And hopefully this is reflected in my words.

Francoise, I’m looking forward to continuing to head on into the warmth with you. Thank you for helping make this kiwi summer the best one I can remember.