There’s loads of soundbite advice out there for how to make yourself really productive in a distracting digital age. I’m as poor as anyone at settling down on task and focusing for a long period of time, so wondered why this is. As someone recently said to me: “you achieve so much, but imagine how much you’d get done if you really focused on one thing”. Truth is, I have lots of strings to my particular bow and can’t really simply knuckle down to any one thing. Many others are doubtless the same, but among all the advice I’ve found six key elements which apply to me. They may not work for everyone but are worth a few minutes to consider.
It is important to work out what matters, what you hope to achieve. What matters to me at the moment is that I make serious strides with my book. However, I also have a hyperlocal website to populate and a life to live. What matters most and how can I divide up the time I have?
Margin and priorities
Having decided priorities, and effectively timetabling them in, we need margins. If your timetable is rigid, there is no scope for something going wrong. Prime example, working this morning I was interrupted by a neighbour with a problem which took half an hour out of my schedule. I also had to walk my dogs. Luckily, I’d woken up early and started moving early, so my day started earlier. Therefore, if I lost 30 minutes along the way, the margin was built in.
There’s a sense of flow with any creative work. If you are constantly being interrupted or flitting between activities, flow is impeded. It’s like the feng shui of creativity. You need spaces to have positive energy flows rather than blocks impeding energy. You can use apps to sort you out, such as SelfControl for if you have a limited amount of your own, or you can just switch off your phone, or switch off the wifi on your desk/laptop if you’re writing. Find a space where you don’t see the mess in the kitchen and become distracted by mundane tasks. It’s also that realisation that your time is important. If I could switch the dogs off from barking, that would surely help my flow!
Do we actually need to check our emails/facebook/twitter/instagram/WhatsApp umpteen times a day? No, but many of us do. The world will not end if we have an hour or two off from being digitally connected. Actually, very little will happen. Facebook is a good case in point. If anyone really wants to contact you, they will message you rather than assuming you are checking their Facebook.
Finding flow and being active
It can help to set yourself targets (whether it is word count, or tackling a specific aspect of your writing) so you actively set out to achieve it. Finding flow is much easier if you have an action plan. If you simply think “I must do some writing today” then you probably won’t.
We all like something shiny to reward ourselves. Our productivity might be an achievement in itself or you may decide to treat yourself to a walk, a nice lunch, or an hour doing something you enjoy, like a painting, reading a chapter of a book, watching the news, pulling up some weeds, whatever floats you. Always finish on a high note, too, where something comes to a natural end point. That’s that chapter finished! Feels good.
Researching an enigma is fascinating, for not only do I have to read about her, I also have to read very much around Pamela Colman-Smith. Yet along the way, I am enjoying a range of experience from discussions with academics to people on Twitter sharing photos like this one. Thanks so much, Darren Jones. Darren said:
I bought a copy of The Russian Ballet from a charity book organisation. They described it as being an ex-library book which was puzzling as it was published in 1913. When I received it I found out that it had been a will bequest by a lady called Claudia Ayton – Lee to a private reference library run by the Old Vic theatre in 1955. And there it has been until sold it to me. On the title page was this picture.
Rose Elliot is my favourite ever cookery writer. Always was, from my first venture into vegetarian food in my teens, and still is. My daughter recently bought me a new copy of her Complete Vegetarian to replace my broken original, over 30 years old and exceedingly well-used. I was thrilled, though there was an element of sadness in disposing of the original.
Rose is also an astrologer. In 2013, she sadly discovered her husband, Robert, had Lewy Body Dementia. They had just celebrated their 50th anniversary. Eventually, he needed nursing home care and passed away at 82, on Boxing Day in 2014. Robert was 12 years older than Rose who met him when she was 18. It was he who was originally interested in Buddhism though Rose herself came from a spiritual family. So, her transition into writing books about both astrology and Buddhism was not too surprising.
I Met a Monk was published in 2015. Rose wrote on her website: I cannot tell you how much the wisdom the monk shared with me has helped me to navigate these dark times. Living with someone with dementia, especially Lewy Body (with its delusions and hallucinations) is very dark indeed.
Basically, it is an account of course provided by a Buddhist monk who attended Rose’s and Robert’s home, and Rose’s of own journey along the path towards further enlightenment. The book is laid out in steps, which is the way to approach it, really. It explains how Buddhist philosophy can be incorporated into our lives at a time when ‘mindfulness’ has become a trendy buzzword. The book is accessibly written, describing the social situation of the group setting, the words of the monk, and the questions people present asked. Each section is then summarised, but all the concepts interrelate.
In the book, we are introduced to mindfulness, which is commonly used but really quite difficult to achieve at any realistic daily level, Metta (loving kindness, to ourselves and others), suffering or happiness, and the depersonalisation of suffering which is the first of the Four Noble Truths. We learn about letting go, and learning peace. The idea of Buddhism seems to be that it gives you the tools you need to live a life of peace, happiness and freedom in relatively simple ways which could be “written on the back of a postcard”.
One of the hardest things for us to do is to stop “judging, comparing, criticising and condemning” both others and ourselves on a pathway to peace. The phrase “it is as it is” is often used in the book, and I’ve since heard others use it, too. Accepting people and situations as they are brings peace; not taking offence helps. It seems that Buddhism is a useful way to try to live life. It accepts there is suffering (we all grow old, we all die, we all experience hurt and frustration but dealing with it makes life a lot happier). It struck me that this is how I have dealt with my many bereavements. I have a moment or two of “life’s unfair” but ultimately it is as it is and me being upset cannot change anything for the better, so while I may not like it, I accept it. A good coping strategy so far.
It considers the causes of suffering, many of which can be applied to consumer society today. We suffer if we expect others to conform to our desires and expectations. It is that sense of constant wanting and craving (which capitalism fuels) that deprives us of comfort and happiness. As a teenager, I decided that life on earth was actually hell because people were never satisfied, they constantly craved more, self improvement or simply material goods. Maybe that thinking was influenced by Buddhism. If we modified our wanting, we would be happier?
How do we live that happier life (which is what we all seek, after all)? Through compassion seems to be key. Compassion towards all living things, including ourselves. There are 5 precepts:
…not to take the life of anything living, not to take anything not freely given, to abstain from sexual misconduct and sensual overindulgence, to refrain from untrue speech, and to avoid intoxication, that is, losing mindfulness…
We need to have an inquiring mind, not blind faith. The website link below says: the Buddha pointed out the danger in fashioning one’s beliefs merely on the following grounds: on hearsay, on tradition, because many others say it is so, on the authority of ancient scriptures, on the word of a supernatural being, or out of trust in one’s teachers, elders, or priests. It adds that tolerance is important, meaning:
Tolerance does not mean that one embraces every idea or view but means one doesn’t get angry at what one can’t accept.
Ultimately, Buddhism teaches that the answers to life’s problems are within us, and most of these can be resolved through kindness, bringing yourself back to the present and letting things take their natural course. Then your life will become still. Which all sounds very easy but isn’t. There is, however, also the law of karma to consider, which is reaping what you sow. In practice, this means treating others as you would be done by, being mindful of the suffering of others. It doesn’t happen naturally. It is hard to forget old hurts and scores, for example, but doing so is liberating.
I’m not a Buddhist and would fall down in adhering to many areas outlined. However, there is much to be said for taking the ideas on board and running with the ones I can use. For example, I have found myself becoming far less agitated by the actions of others when I’ve reminded myself of the elements in this book, and focused on the present moments. That’s good enough for me.
This is one of my autistic spectrum reads, like The Rosie Project, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, and Shtum. They are all books filled brimful with humour but also poignancy. All focus on relationships, largely parents and children but also husbands and wives (or whatever combo) and all involve a sense of strain caused by the demands of the condition, followed by relief and learning when the lead characters (invariably men) finally understand what creates difference and that difference is OK. Tolerance happens. My son once mentioned a boy with Aspergers at school. He reckoned he was incredibly honest and said what everyone else was merely thinking. Imagine, he added, if we didn’t have all this game playing and messing around, imagine if everyone was that honest. Indeed.
So Keith Stuart’s book is about a dad with an eight-year-old autistic son. The story is invariably one of separation, resolution and ultimately, understanding. It’s upliftingly inspired by real life, which is often more interesting than true fiction. If you like Minecraft or even Lego, you’ll probably really get into it. It’s one of those light bulb moment tales, when after wading through life’s
It’s another one of those light bulb moment tales, when after wading through life’s mire, then suddenly the lead character understands, but no less worthwhile for that.
Worth a read. Funny how most of these novels are written by men though.
As a writer, inspiration comes from many sources. This week, I spent a day in Exeter visiting the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) and Exeter Cathedral along with the Sacred Heart Church.The exhibition at the RAMM was a series of watercolours documenting Queen Victoria’s visit to Paris in 1855. The visit occurred from 18-27 August, the first time a British monarch had visited the French capital in over 400 years. She was the guest of Napoleon III, nephew of Bonaparte, along with her husband, Albert and two eldest children. The visit was celebratory, following the Crimean War. The watercolours were made for the Queen as a souvenir of her visit, as she was a keen collector of this form of painting. The paintings were rich images of costume, pomp and circumstances. For any historical novelist, the series would provide rich source material, as you can see here.
The churches tell different stories. In the Sacred Heart is a row of confessional boxes. Within are kneeling stools for the confession of sins. There is surely material for a scene or a short story there. Within the Cathedral, there are various memorial stones which tell their own stories, and which may surely be used in many a tale. Take the story of poor Rachel Charlotte O’Brien, a mere 19, from Montreal, whose death was occasioned by her clothes catching fire. She sacrificed her own life to save her infant. A tragic tale in every sense, but one which could do easily be incorporated into a storyline.
We also learn a great deal about dress, activity, names and ways of writing through historical sources, so a day out viewing art and churches could just fire the imagination and lead to all sorts of ideas/inspiration.
Once I sneaked past ‘O’ level (yes, yes, GCSE then) I liked exams. I also liked researching and writing essays, having written many in my time and, to be honest, achieving pretty decent marks. I am reasonably adept at putting together short reports/factual pieces for my hyperlocal website. When curious about a subject, I can also write a thought-provoking piece. I can spell, I can edit.
What I seriously cannot do is write fiction.
My one attempt at writing fiction was so closely based on real life people and facts as to be potentially libellous.
People tell me I need to write a stonking novel, a blockbuster, the kind that will make me rich. I need to be J.K.Rowling.
I quietly smile and agree that it is indeed a thought. However, I truly know that it will not happen, for while I very much enjoy reading fiction, it does not translate easily to paper. My brain doesn’t seem to work in that way.
I love a good novel. I can also enjoy abstract art and beautifully imaginative paintings. However, when it comes to ‘doing’, I am far better (though certainly not proficient) at life drawing which is based more on measurement, proportion, observation and accuracy. Arguably, since I studied sociology, the attraction of life drawing is merely a different representation of humanity, involving finely tuned observation skills. It does not require imagination, which it something I seem to lack. For, in life drawing, it is easy (and often acceptable) to ignore the details such as hands, feet and even faces.
In writing factually, much of the fine detail is lost. A factual report or writing of biography is not something Hardyesque. Writing about reality does not involve a convoluted plot. Talking to people on trains and recounting their stories does not require a fictional tale because they tell the story for me, and usually, the truth is strange enough.
My current research project (hopefully, for a book; definitely for a book) is about the life of Pamela Colman-Smith. Those who know me are already sick of hearing about it, but those who do not may not even know who she is. Never fear. The important part is what I am enjoying about uncovering the life of this person. The project involves lots of digging, reading, talking to people, gleaning, and surmising, but what it really does not require is too much imagination. Just up my street!
My advice: It’s good to try new things and to get out of your comfort zone, etc. However, it is also good to realise your strengths and play to them. If it isn’t in you, play around with ideas and see what happens, but don’t force it.
He’s been called “punctuation’s answer to Banksy”. A self-styled grammar vigilante who spends his nights surreptitiously correcting apostrophes on shop signs and billboards. The general consensus is that he’s a modern-day hero – a mysterious crusader against the declining standards of English. But his exploits represent an altogether darker reality.
The man himself is not particularly offensive. In a BBC Radio 4 report, he comes across as a reasonable person who simply feels a compulsion to quietly make a difference to what matters to him. He doesn’t ridicule, he doesn’t court publicity, he simply goes out and adds or removes apostrophes as required. And he does it with care, usually.
So what’s the problem? The problem lies in what this kind of behaviour represents and therefore normalises. In championing our vigilante, we are saying that it’s okay to pull people up on their use of language. It gives people the confidence to unleash their own pet peeves onto the world, however linguistically dubious.
The grammar vigilante himself appears to have a specific type of target, and his approach is nothing if not considerate. However, there is another type of pedant who is not so subtle or self aware. Some people think nothing of highlighting inconsistent punctuation wherever they might see it, however innocuous or irrelevant it might be (apostrophes rarely actually disambiguate – after all, we get along fine without them in speech).
Never mind that it’s a handwritten notice in a shop window, written by someone for whom English is a second (or third, or fourth) language. Never mind that it’s a leaflet touting for work from someone who didn’t get the chance to complete their education. They need to be corrected and/or posted online for others to see. Otherwise, how will anybody learn?
After all, apostrophes are easy. If people would just take a bit of time to learn the rules, then there wouldn’t be any mistakes. For example, everybody knows that apostrophes are used to indicate possession. So the car belongs to Lynda, the car is Lynda’s. But what about the car belongs to her, the car is her’s? Of course not, we don’t use apostrophes with pronouns (although this was quite common in Shakespeare’s time) as they each have a possessive form of their own. Except for one that is, which still needs one: one does one’s duty. It doesn’t need one though – it’s is something different.
Then there’s the question of showing possession with nouns already ending in “s”: Chris’s cat or Chris’ cat? Jess’s decision or Jess’ decision? Or plural nouns ending in “s”: The princesses’s schedule or the princesses’ schedule? I don’t remember it being this difficult in the 1980’s/1980s/’80s/80s/80’s.
We definitely don’t use apostrophes to indicate plurals, something that routinely trips up the fabled greengrocer’s with its potato’s (although it was once seen as correct to use apostrophes with some words ending in a vowel). But what about when we need to refer to dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, or someone makes a sign saying CD’S £5.00?
The point is, while some are clear, many of the rules around apostrophes are not as transparent as some people would have us believe. This is largely due to the fact that they are not actually rules after all, but conventions. And conventions change over time (see David Crystal’s excellent book for a detailed history).
When things are open to change, there will inevitably be inconsistencies and contradictions. These inconsistencies surround us every day – just look at the London Underground stations of Earl’s Court and Barons Court, or St James’s Park in London, and St James’ Park in Newcastle. Or business names such as McDonald’s, Lloyds Bank, and Sainsbury’s. Is it any surprise people are confused?
Of course, all of these conventions are learnable or available to be looked up. But if people haven’t had the opportunity to learn them, or do not have the skills or awareness to look them up, what gives other people the right to criticise? Are those who point out mistakes really doing it to educate, or are they doing it to highlight their own superior knowledge? Are they judging the non-standard punctuation or the sub-standard person?
Picking on someone because of their language is always a cowardly attack. Linguist Deborah Cameron makes the point that this is still the case even when highlighting the poor linguistic skills of bigots and racists on social media. Tempting as it is to call out a racist on their inability to spell or punctuate, by doing so we are simply replacing one prejudice with another, and avoiding the actual issue. As Deborah Cameron says: “By all means take issue with bigots – but for their politics, not their punctuation.”
Apostrophes matter, at least in certain contexts. Society deems it important that job applications, essays, notices and the like adhere to the current conventions of apostrophe usage. For this reason, it is right that we teach and learn these conventions.
But fetishising the apostrophe as if its rules are set in stone, and then fostering an environment in which it is acceptable to take pleasure in uncovering other people’s linguistic insecurities is not okay. The grammar (punctuation?) vigilante of Bristol is relatively harmless. But he is the unassuming face of a much less savoury world of pedantry.
Probably not, depending upon how you define love.
Emily Bronte wrote under pseudonym as Ellis Bell to ensure privacy (but probably also because men were taken more seriously).
Despite many poems and stories, it was Wuthering Heights that was her crown jewel. Although I never found it easy reading, given its offbeat style, it resonated with the obsessive love of teenage years. For half a lifetime, I shared the widespread delusion that Wuthering Heights was a love story. Won over by the brooding Laurence Olivier performance in the film, I thought that the darkness permeating the entire novel related to passion/love. I remember having a great debate about it with a late friend.
However, I’m now thinking more along the lines of Paul Miller (2013) who felt depressed by the idea that Wuthering Heights was considered the Guardian readers’ favourite ‘love story’ of 2007, because love barely enters into it.
He claims, and I think he may have a point, that Wuthering Heights is not a love story at all. It is about addiction, revenge, and jealous rage, portraying no redeeming features for Heathcliff, the anti ‘hero’. There is no concern for the other, only the self.
Miller actually described Heathcliff as Gollum (now there’s an image, my precious): “consumed, enslaved and made a tyrant by his obsession“. It is a good description. He calls it “narcissistic eros” for there is a kind of mutually destructive self-love between Heathcliff and Cathy, which renders Heathcliff, especially, incapable of humanity.
Which is what brings me back to what I hated so intensely about it. Before reading it I had a general impression that it was a great story of forbidden love that many people looked to as a stirring tale of how to follow your heart lest we lose our soulmates. That radically misreads the book. Heathcliff does follow his heart, and that is exactly why he destroys himself and everyone around him. Heathcliff and Catherine’s love is not a pattern for us to emulate, but to avoid. This isn’t a story about denied love, but indulged addiction. Holding this book up as a model teaches a ruinously false notion of love, relationships, failure, and our responsibility to rise about our circumstances.
I hate this book’s reputation and the way this book is read and perceived by others. I can’t read this book as moving or inspiring or think that Catherine and Heathcliff were unjustly parted lovers, victims of fate or the world or an uncaring world. They are only victims of their own folly and poor decisions.
Meanwhile, Jacqueline Parkinson (2013) writes, from a psychological perspective, of codependency and narcissism among the two leading characters. They feed off each other, wish to control, fear abandonment and are utterly dysfunctional. Heathcliff is dark and cruel, a misogynist. And here is just a taste of it.
As Cathy stresses, there is no pleasure in her relationship with Heathcliff. That obsession is not love, it is extreme, pathological.
As Cathy says: My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.
There is no joy in it.
The idea of gender guessing intrigued me enough to give it a go, so I tried a sample of yesterday’s blog post on Gender Guesser website.
The website says: “In 2003, a team of researchers from the Illinois Institute of Technology and Bar-Ilan University in Israel (Shlomo Argamon, Moshe Koppel, Jonathan Fine, and Anat Rachel Shimoni) developed a method to estimate gender from word usage. Their paper described a Bayesian network where weighted word frequencies and parts of speech could be used to estimate the gender of an author. Their approach made a distinction between fiction and non-fiction writing styles”.
Here was my result for the first one. The second one was similar (based on my last 2 blog posts).
Female = 677
Male = 825
Difference = 148; 54.92%
Verdict: Weak MALE
It seems women use more pronouns, with men using more identifiers and quantifiers. Women talk more about relationships, and men more about objects. It appears I write more like a ‘weak’ (european) male!