Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Right Time To Write

A few weeks ago, a friend who has read my time management book 'Half a Million Words in Nine Months' asked me: 'Do you feel like you need to be in a zone or space for writing?'

It's a good question, because I hear a lot of writers talking about 'the zone' or 'the muse'. However almost universally, the long time, prolific authors don't believe in it, or say you have to teach yourself to make 'the zone' when you need it.

I told my friend (who is a new mother) that it was like being a mother. You just do it. You don't get to not do it. You don't get to decide for a few days that you don't feel like being a mother and go back to being a single party girl. You just have to be a mother. She said her manuscript wasn't screaming or kicking or hungry and latched on to her whether she liked it or not, and that's fair enough. It was, perhaps, a bit of an intense analogy.

If you want to write seriously, you should treat it like a job though. You probably don't wake up 'feeling' like you want to go to work. Even if you love your job. However you need the money so you do it. Sometimes it takes some coffee and grumbling, but you do it, because there isn't much choice. If you approach writing with the same attitude, that you just have to do it, you will, well, do it.

As I have said before, however, I rarely have to 'drag' myself to write. I enjoy it. Yes, it is work, yes it is a job, but I like doing it. Even the difficult bits are difficult in a way I enjoy, and I really only struggle when my health makes focusing difficult.

So what about 'the zone'? I think we've all felt it at some point. When the words are flying and you're having a fantastic time and you're so absorbed in the project you don't want to do anything else. It exists, you've felt it. So why do some authors say it's not real?

Brace yourself, I am about to blow your mind.

When you're not in the zone, what you're feeling, that reluctance, that unwillingness to write, is anxiety. There's no 'zone' you need to get into, you're just feeling insecure. The 'zone' you're looking for is ego. Or, at least, the temporarily ability to turn off that voice that says you aren't good enough.

'The zone' is your natural state, without criticism or doubt. It's an unwillingness to write, an apprehension, that is the unbalanced, abnormal state.

The trick is, those big prolific authors? They still feel anxious. They still feel pressure. They still feel like a huge fraud and worry their next book is going to tank. Only it's going to be super public. Everyone is going to know about it and talk about it. That anxiety doesn't go away when you're published. For a lot of people, it gets worse.

The trick is learning to turn that off while you are writing. Be anxious about that shit in the shower or driving or trying to sleep at night, but NOT when you are sitting down to write.

This is why I slow down when I have deadlines. The pressure, the anxiety, makes it difficult for me to write. It's also hard for me to write one book if I am getting edits for another book at the same time, because the criticism overflows and I can hear my editor's voice while I am trying to write. It feels like someone is looking over my shoulder, judging things as I type them.  

You probably know the feeling. The point is, it's just that. It's a feeling. It's not a real thing that is actually happening, it is a thing you are imagining. It's like being deeply traumatised over your parents' death when they are both still alive.

'The zone' is just the times you can turn off that inner criticism for long enough to actually get shit done. There are several ways to achieve this, but what works for you is going to be pretty personal. So I am going to let you figure that out and say this instead:

I'm not going to say you don't deserve criticism. Maybe you're a shit person, I don't know. I am going to say that you and I both know that abusing and berating people doesn't motivate them. So if you keep abusing an berating yourself about your writing, it's not about motivating yourself. It's about making an excuse so you don't have to do it.

But you actually don't have to do it. Creating art is an optional extra in life. Something we are privileged to have the opportunity to do. Don't piss away your chances because your ego isn't playing ball today.

And remember, support other writers. Tell them you're excited to read their stuff, tell them what you love about it. They feel just as insecure about their writing as you do about yours. We're all in this together, start acting like a fucking team.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tag's Mobile Migraine Attack Machine!

Do you get migraines? I do. In fact, for a number of years, I had migraines 90% of the time. I am a migraine expert. A migraine queen. Perhaps even some kind of migraine demi-god. Odd thing about migraines, having them 90% of the time is more tolerable than having them 40% of the time. The comparison of good and bad makes them worse. When it's all shit all the time you just get used to it.

Anyway, over the many years of chronic migraines, this is what I have learned. This is my plan of action when I feel a migraine coming on (visual halos, dizziness, hearing sensitivity, etc):

1. Take medication.

I take two panadol and two nurofen. You can swap panadol for panadine or nurofen for aspirin. It's safe to have them together. Just don't take two types of pills with panadol together, or two types of anti inflammatories together. Panadol + nurofen = okay. Panadol + panadine = overdose and liver damage.

2. Drink a full glass of water.

This can be hard if the nausea has already settled in, but trust me, it reduces the length and severity of the migraine. If it's really hot or you haven't been drinking much, drink two glasses of water.

3. Have a shower.

A hot shower will help release your neck muscles and clear your sinuses. A cool shower will stop you sweating. Have whichever is appropriate.

4. Get dressed in clean, comfortable clothes.

You're going to be lying down a while, so get comfortable. I find clean clothes though. Nothing is worse than feeling shitty AND grungy.

5. Clear the space you're going to be recovering in.

I know it's hard when you feel like shit, but tidying and organising the space I'm in makes a huge difference to me. I get quite distressed by 'visual noise' when I have a migraine, so a mess makes me very tense.

6. Get a glass and a large bottle of water.

I like to keep my water in a bottle and pour it into a glass as I need it. I get terrible shakes when I have a migraine and this saves me spilling half empty glasses of water everywhere when I fail around trying to reach something.

7. Have snacks in tupperware within reach.

I prefer one savoury (nuts) and one sweet (dried fruit). Nuts are really good for omega three and the fruit is good because the sugar gives you high calories without you having to eat much. Which is preferable for nausea.

8. Hot packs and ice packs.

Hot packs on your neck, back or feet can make a huge difference. If the pain is really sharp, I put ice packs on top of my head too. Both are great. Even if you are exhausted and miserable, make the effort, it's worth it.

9. Put on shows and movies you love and have seen dozens of times.

Why stuff you have seen before? Because if the volume is really low and you zone in and out, you can still follow what is happening. You can tune in for your favourite parts, tune out when you want to and still have a form of entertainment. Most of my migraines don't allow me to read (books or subtitles) or focus enough to follow new shows or movies. So older favourites are great.

If you prefer silence, that's okay too. However I get bored too quickly for that. I'll also sometimes play video games that are easy and don't require too much input. Something like Banished or Sim City 4. Even Civ 5 on easy mode or Sims 3-4 can be a pleasant occasional distraction.

10. Put phones, alarms, etc on silent.

Put a sign on the front door saying 'shift worker: don't knock' or 'sleeping baby: don't knock'. Mute your phone. Take your house phone off the hook. Whatever it is, you can't deal with it when you have a migraine anyway.

11. Lie down and relax.

Turn off the lights, close the curtains, close the windows and minimize sound pollution. You should have everything you need for the next four hours, then you can take your next round of pills, go to the bathroom, check your phone and pray to God it is over soon.

This is all pretty simple stuff. You've heard it before. But doing all of it (actually doing it, not just thinking about doing it) makes a huge difference. These steps are also set out in the order they should be followed for maximum benefit. Things like taking the pills FIRST, before the shower and set up, so they are starting to work while you are doing the active parts. That way, organising yourself won't make the migraine much worse.

Give this a go next time you feel a migraine coming on and tell me how it turns out.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Divergent Thinking and Writing Books

What is divergent thinking?

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divergent_thinking) says: "Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions." For example, if I asked you how to bake a cake, you can probably recognise there are thousands of cake recipes. However your instructions will probably include spoons, bowls and an oven. What if we use clay? What if we use lava to cook? What if we make an 'oven' using a super hot car in the sun in summer?

Sir Ken Robinson did an excellent talk on the subject which can be found here, on youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzBa-frc2JA) which I highly recommend. The most important part, in relation to this blog post, is the section about the test they did on schoolchildren, examining their divergent thinking abilities. It found that children are best at divergent thinking in kindergarten and progressively lose the ability as they age. Ken hypothesises it is conditioned out of us by the school system and I agree.

You will always be punished for divergent thinking by peers.

For a short period, when I was 12, I went to a very fancy private school. I did not thrive there.

For mother's day, we were instructed to paint pots. An art teacher came in and gave us very direct lessons on how to paint the pots. The body of the pot was to be white, the rim coloured, then we were to paint a specific flower pattern on the white part. All of the pots would be virtually identical. Pretty, but mass produced.

I had a much more interesting idea for my pot. A sort of Inca mosaic. However when I tried to bring it to life, I realised we had not been given the right colours to realise my goals. We only had the white, the purple and small dabs of the 'flower' colours.

My pot did not turn out well. However out of the 28 pots painted that day, it was the only original. All the pots were on display at the front of the class and after a week of listening to my classmates ruthlessly mock both me and the pot, I quietly asked for paint in a lunch break and painted it white. With a purple rim. There was no time to add the flowers before I gave it to my mother.

I was glad about ten years later when she threw it away.

And so I learned, as we all do, that divergent thinking is a punishable offence when dealing with peers.

However I refused to stop. Every activity we were given, I found an alternative way to do it. Steadfast, through all the bullying. To this day I regret caving in. I regret painting over my ugly pot.

However you will be applauded when it works.

Around the same time, I went to an art workshop run by a very famous aboriginal painter. There was about 100 students there. This man's art sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars and, as an example, he painted a killer whale on cardboard, right in front of us.

We were then all given paints and told to paint something. The artist would then judge our entries and the winner would get to take home the painting he had just created.

I watched everyone around me try and copy his whale. Poorly. I knew I couldn't copy his whale and I didn't want to. I think I painted a crocodile, in the style of the cave paintings I grew up around at Laura and Aurukun.

I could hear the kids around me mocking me as I painted. "Look at what she's doing! It's not even a whale!" You'd have thought I was eating the goddamn paint. I didn't care. I never wanted to copy, only to create.

I won.

And that was when I learned a second valuable lesson. The people at the top don't want clones. Divergent thinking will be rewarded when it works.

Divergent thinking rarely works.

You might be thinking: 'I bet your pot was better than the other pots and kids were just jealous'. No one was jealous of that pot. It was the ugliest pot ever painted. Mostly because I didn't have the resources I needed. Had I been more experienced, I could have worked with what was there. But I wasn't, and I didn't, and it was a hideous pot.

When I tried to make up my own swimming stroke at the school swimming carnival and my team lost, it was great divergent thinking, but a terrible time and place to test my theories. I was bullied for that too. So much, I remember the teacher having to pull another student off me who was trying to rip out my hair.

This all applies in a general sense to writing too. New genres, odd stories, things that 'break the mold', most of them suck. Then, sometimes they don't. Harry Potter springs to mind, and Blair Witch Project. Along with any other book or movie that 'spawned its own genre.'

Divergent thinking and you.

When you were five, you were really good at divergent thinking. I'm still pretty good at divergent thinking, but I don't expect you to be. I was spared the conditioning largely due to staying out of traditional schooling models as a child and partly because I lack a certain capacity for empathy that means I am largely unaffected by others. It has pros and cons.

You probably don't want to be good at divergent thinking for the same reasons I am. However it is important you realise once you were good at it, and that you are now bad at it because you were punished for it. Brutally. For years and years.

Now, when you feel a divergent idea coming on, you probably suppress it. Quickly. You quickly tell yourself it's too different, too odd, unmarketable. Whatever. You're really just trying to spare yourself the pain of what you have experienced in the past. Don't touch fire, fire is hot. Don't be too original, originality will be punished.

The problem is, if you see 'failure' as punishment, you're probably going to keep being punished. Because while divergent thinking leads to a lot of ideas, odd, original and new ideas, that doesn't mean they're good. In fact, they're probably not. But that is okay.

The key to winning with divergent thinking isn't to hope it's going to be successful, it's to say: 'Okay, this is likely to flop, but what if we tried it this way?' and be okay with the outcome, whatever it is.

For me, divergent thinking is about creation, curiosity and enjoyment. I enjoy the act of finding out if something works. The outcome is less important. Which is probably why I love writing, but am a bit blasé about actually selling books. They tend to go to whichever editor asks me for something.

And you know what those editors say when they read whatever handed them? 'Different' and 'not what I was expecting'. Which most of us are conditioned to think of as insults. They also say 'exciting' and 'loved it' and 'original'.

Which is nice. I love positive feedback. However I'm usually off painting another ugly pot by then.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Physician, Heal Thyself

In 2008, a doctor prescribed me a medication that triggered Steven Johnson Syndrome and almost killed me. It came after years of trying to find a solution to my TMJ, and by that stage I had tried literally hundreds of other options: specialists, oral splints, acupuncture, injections, medications, etc.

Near death and a whole laundry list of new, debilitating symptoms from the SJS would be reason enough for most people to lose faith and stop trying to find an answer. To just accept how things were, because there was plenty of proof that trying new things made the situation worse.

After all, next time, it could finish me off.

However I never stopped trying to find a solution to my symptoms. If I heard about something new, I tried it. If I read about an obscure medical research experiment that had positive results, I tried it. If someone suggested prayer or meditation or crystals or yoga, I tried it. (Just FYI, most of that stuff is complete shite and you're probably an asshole if you suggest it to chronically ill people.)

I wasn't willing to knock anything until I had tested it. So I have tested a lot of whacked out crap. Some of it was surprisingly effective. Some of it was predictably stupid.

Sometimes I would get one problem under control only to find it was masking eight more. Sometimes I would do a complete re-assessment of treatment by stopping all my meds and going off my carefully controlled diet to check it was really helping. (Also, stopping all your meds is really dangerous. Do as I say, not as I do.) Sometimes a change would require everything (meds, food, exercise) to be completely re-balanced and it would take painstaking weeks of experimentation to get things moving forward again.

The important thing is, I never stopped looking for solutions. I never stopped trying new things. I never stopped researching.

At the end of last year,  a friend who had similar symptoms to me, but a different condition, said he was 'feeling better'. Jealous and curious, I asked how. He told me about a old medication with a new, off label use. Within a week, I was badgering my doctors about it. Took me a month or so to get a script and another month to actually get my hands on the medication itself, which had to be made specially at a pharmacy that did special orders.

The results were profound. They only targeted one of many symptoms, but it was a big symptom. My brain fog and fatigue were almost cured within two weeks. If I miss a dose of the medication, I am helpless again. However most of the time, this medication leaves me at almost normal brain function.

I still have pain, I still can't eat anything, I still get migraines. There are plenty of other symptoms to contend with. However being able to think clearly makes working on those a lot easier. What would have taken me three days to puzzle over with brain fog now takes me about half an hour. My productivity and social life have exploded in joyous ways.

It would have been a lot easier to give up. To accept, at its worst, that my life wasn't going to get better. And there were plenty of days I did. When I couldn't bring myself to keep searching for an answer that just wasn't likely to be there. That doctors kept telling me didn't exist and probably never would in my lifetime.

However it was right there. They just didn't know and didn't give enough of a shit to look for it. You have to do that for yourself. No one is coming to save you. I know that's not fair. It is so unfair it hurts. However fair or not, its true.

If you are chronically ill (I use the term to be inclusive of all chronic conditions, be they mental, physical, addictive, etc) don't stop. Live by the following:

1. Do the things you know you should do.

Take your f-ing meds on time. Drink water. Eat healthy food. Stop smoking and drinking. Stop doing all the shit you know is bad for you. Prioritise your health over other shit. Cooking a healthy meal is more important than answering your emails.

2. Never stop looking for a solution.

It's probably out there. Even if your doctor says there is nothing left to try, they're full of shit. Research and don't be afraid to bring it with you to appointments. Some quack says he cured your condition by having his patient drink and eat nothing but camel milk for two months? You better start gooling camels (true story, did this, yes A2 milk makes a huge fucking difference, no I didn't believe it either until I tried it, no it didn't cure me, but it did expand my diet slightly).

3. Fall off the horse and get back on.


You get to yell that once a day, or save it up for a few weeks and have a 'this is too hard' weekend. Sometimes it's too fucking hard for a minute or two. After my father died, it was too fucking hard for a few weeks. The point is, 'it's too fucking hard' has to be a temporary thing. And that is best achieved by letting it happen, wallowing in it as deep as you can for a short period, then letting it go.

No one is keeping score. Giving up is a temporary state. Its best just to let it all out in a spectacular toddler tantrum and then pick yourself up and move on. Whatever you do don't say: 'oh well, I failed a little, so I may as well just accept defeat and eat three kilograms of these nuts I am allergic to'. Your full body hives will not love you in the morning.

Just remember, there could be a solution out there. A real, honest to god solution, that allows you to have your life back. But you have to keep fighting for it. I did and now I can go to the shops and meet friends for coffee and shit. And that is a goddamn miracle.