Tag Archives: art

Things I Wish I’d Known About Writing From the Start, Part 1: In Order to Write Well, You Have to Write a Lot

Hi everyone! This is the first in a series of short blogs in which I’m going to share some of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years as a writer.

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My journey to being a published author wasn’t always an easy one. In retrospect a lot of that was down to the fact I wasn’t approaching things with the right mindset. I’m naturally quite an idealistic and romantic person and looking back I can see how this, coupled with an unrealistic perception of the writing industry, a streak of crippling perfectionism and self-doubt, sabotaged my writing career for at least a decade. If I knew then what I now know, it would all have been so much easier!

The first thing I wish I knew back then was simply this: no one is born a good writer. Sure, some people do exhibit greater natural skill at writing that others. In school I was always praised for my creative stories, essays and writing ability. But when it comes to the craft of writing, it’s highly unrealistic to assume that our earliest efforts are going to be publish-worthy. Writing is a skill like any other and it takes time, effort and practise to develop and refine it. 

One thing I did do right was to take time to study the craft. I realised it wasn’t enough to have a great idea for a book and then just dive headfirst into the writing of it. It’s first necessary to learn how novels are structured, how to tell a cohesive story and how to develop satisfying character arcs.

Yes, writing is an art, but there’s also a science to it as well. Stories are structured a certain way and although we may have an intuitive understanding of how that works from having read a great many books, it’s still essential to understand the dynamics of effective storytelling. Taking some time at the beginning to learn the craft will save an enormous amount of time and wasted effort down the line.

As writers, our first efforts probably won’t be that great. They might even stink to high heaven. This doesn’t mean that we’re hopeless as writers and should immediately give up. It simply means that we are human. Our skill in the craft is developed by spending many, many hours practising it. In order to become competent writers, we have to keep, keep writing.

Writing two novels, short stories and countless blogs, articles and essays has not only helped me develop my voice as a writer, it’s also helped me become a better writer to build confidence in my abilities. It’s clear to me that each book I write is better than the last because my skill as a writer continues to develop. And that, I believe, is really the only way to do it.

While I’m generally a proponent of quality over quantity, here’s the funny thing: as long as we take care of the quantity, the quality tends to develop by itself. In order to be good writers, we simply need to write–and write…and then write some more! The skill and confidence comes with time and practise. Happy writing!

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The Creative Life: How to Overcome Self-doubt

I’m excited to be relaunching my Dreamlight Fugitive blog in addition to my main blog, Beyond the Dream! My first new post is about something that affects everyone in any creative field: the arch-enemy of creative expression…self doubt!

Illustration by Jack Spellman (jackspellmanart.com)

Yesterday, having finally finished my new novel after a year and a half of work (and the rest! But that’s another story!), I was clobbered over the head by an attack of self doubt. I’d just ordered proofing copies yet I found myself going back and picking away at random sentences, trying to find better ways of stringing the words together in order to reach that most elusive of writerly goals: the ‘perfect sentence’!

One thing led to another and I soon started to question the entire book. What if it wasn’t ready to be put out into the world? Feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction quickly turned to feelings of anxiety and dread. What if I was in fact one of the worst writers ever to pick up a pen or hammer away at a keyboard? I’m safe at the moment, but the moment the book is published it’s a target and as the one-stars reviews come flooding in, I’ll be revealed as the terrible hack I am! I even very briefly considered binning the entire book and starting again from scratch.

That’s how self-doubt works! It’s a vicious, pernicious and potentially crippling little monster. It hides away in the darkest recesses of the mind and is prone to jumping out at inopportune moments and letting rip with its penchant for woeful catastrophising. It’s something that every artist and writer must learn to live with and it does get easier with time.

Most of the time I have it under control. But coming to the end of a project, when you are actually taking the steps to releasing that work into the world, makes the self-doubt monster terribly antsy. Stirring from its slumber like a cat that was only really half-asleep the whole time, you know the meltdown is inevitable.

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“You’re thinking of publishing THAT? Are you crazy?! It needs at least another year of work. The critics are gonna tear it to shreds!”

Now, a little self-doubt is healthy. It gives us a certain objectivity about our work, which is useful in the editing stage (and throughout, really). It becomes harmful however when it degenerates into an overwrought, mud-slinging, anxiety-ridden neurotic monster, determined to convince us that nothing we do is good enough and that we’d be better off setting it aside and slumping onto the sofa and firing up Netflix. So pervasive and persuasive is the self-doubt monster, it’s almost certainly destroyed countless artists’ careers before they’ve even had the chance to get in the game. Left unchecked, this inner censor will not only hinder your creativity, it will completely destroy it and leave you a blubbering and, above all, blocked wreck!

The self-doubt monster is actually pretty easy to deal with it however. And here’s how.

First of all, take the ‘self’ out of self-doubt. It has nothing to do with who you are. It’s simply a thought and that thought’s corresponding emotion. It’s actually completely impersonal. We all get it — everyone, in every walk of life! It’s certainly not unique to us. Self-doubt is basically fear. It’s a defence mechanism designed to somehow keep us safe, even if it is a little misinformed and ultimately wholly counterproductive. Depersonalising it immediately takes the sting out of it.

Secondly, once I’ve depersonalised it, I personify it. This might make me sound utterly crazy, but I find it helpful to give it a name and form. I call my self-doubt monster Fred. Fearful Fred. He looks like a big, fat and slightly ungainly grey caterpillar. Most the time he just wiggles about in the recesses of my mind, doing whatever it is caterpillars do. Occasionally however, something gets Fred riled and he gets all worked out and inflates in size, becoming a gargantuan blob full of his own hot air. This happened last night when I somehow convinced myself I was the worst writer in human history.

I isolated the emotion in my body (it seemed to be around my belly, or solar plexus) and I decided to have a chat with Fred (as the personification of my self-doubt). He was beside himself with fear, anxiety and dread. So I made him a cup of tea, sat him down and explained that I’m grateful he’s so diligent in looking out for me, but there was no need for such stress and worry. Yeah, it’s always a little scary releasing a new piece of work into the world, as it probably is for a baby bird being pushed out of its nest in the hopes it will fly for the first time. But I reminded myself the importance of keeping everything in perspective.

I wrote an article last year about the power of karma yoga. Karma yoga isn’t a sequence of physical postures as you might expect, but a mindset with which we approach life. As it says in the Bhagavad Gita, we have the right to act, but the fruit of those actions is not up to us. So the karma yoga attitude — which is the greatest antidote to stress that I know — is simply to do our best and let go of the results. Once an arrow has been fired it’s no longer up to us whether it hits the intended target. Chances are we’ve done our best to ensure that it does, but it’s now under the control of a set of natural laws and dynamics that are completely outwith our sphere of influence. All we can do is relax, take it easy and endeavour to take whatever comes with good grace.

The self-doubt monster can be an implacable and relentless foe to any creative person. It’s probably cost me years of my life. I’m certain I’d have more than one novel published by now if I hadn’t spent years under the sway of Fred, bless his heart. Now I’ve learned to master my mind and emotions a little bit more. This doesn’t mean that self-doubt and other self-limiting thoughts vanish forever. But it does mean that when they come up I can put them in their place and simply get on with things. As the Tao Te Ching says:

Mastering others is strength; mastering ourselves is true power.

Self-doubt and anxiety are defence mechanisms generated by the unconscious mind to keep us safe. But we are safe! As artists we follow our calling, we write the stories and paint the pictures that our muse is kind enough to share with us. We learn and grow and improve our skills all the time. We make mistakes, but mistakes are an essential part of the learning curve. Never be afraid to make mistakes! And never allow yourself to be held prisoner to the tyranny of other people’s opinions. Some people will love what you do, and some people won’t. Some people are fair in their criticism and some people are jerks with clear psychological deficiencies (I now refrain from reading comments sections on youtube and other websites because of this!).

Learn to wrestle with your self-doubt monster. Or make it a cup of tea as I do. Usually once I’ve had a firm but loving chat with Fred, I imagine sending him off on an all-expenses paid vacation to Tenerife where he can just relax in the sun all day drinking Pina Colada while I get on with what I have to do.

Self-doubt is ignorance masquerading as truth. Don’t let it cripple you. Take charge of it and educate it. You’re doing fine, let it know that and these lagging parts of the mind will eventually catch up. When we no longer give fear or doubt power over us, when we educate them and put them into perspective, we give ourselves the greatest gift of all. Freedom! And freedom is the ultimate goal of all creative — and moreover, all human — endeavour! So dance with your doubts and allow yourself to be free.

This fantastic song and video by one of my favourite artists, Bat For Lashes, is about just that. This was the song that Natasha Khan wrote after a long spell of creative block, and it’s very much about learning to tame and dance with the monsters of self-doubt, despair and fear. Enjoy.

Myth, Storytelling & the Journey of a Writer

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The blog tour continues, and it’s been great fun. Today I’m sharing a guest blog I wrote for my publisher, Cosmic Egg Books, which is a brand new imprint of John Hunt publishing. I put quite a bit of thought into this one, relating my creative process and the power and importance of mythology and its relationship to storytelling and why, as a culture we desperately need stories with depth and substance. Hope you find it insightful.

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This Week Our Guest Blog is from Rory B Mackay, Author of Eladria, First Of an Epic Fantasy Series

I always knew I wanted to be a writer or storyteller of some kind. I can remember sitting in my room when I was only about six or seven and, with a pad of paper and felt tip pens in hand, I let my imagination soar freely as I conjured whole new worlds, with all kinds of characters and fantastical adventures. I had a rich and colourful inner world (the ‘real world’ simply paled in comparison!) and I knew I somehow wanted to be able to share it with others.  I started off with a story called “The Lost World”, although my dad informed me that there was already a book by that title. I’d been beaten to it — by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, no less! But that was only a minor setback for this young writer…

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12 ways to kickstart and boost your creativity

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Creativity ought to be as natural to us as breathing, and when we’re in the zone it is: the ideas flow, we see inspiration all around us and solutions present themselves with effortless ease. When we’re in touch with our creativity — which is an innate part of our nature, even if we’ve convinced ourselves to the contrary — there’s nothing we need do but ride the wave and have fun seeing where it takes us. It’s a gracelike state requiring little effort on our part, and we usually feel invigorated, excited and buzzing with life (a pleasant byproduct of being creative).

But we all go through times when we find ourselves blocked, stuck and stifled. That’s when it’s necessary to shake things up, blast away the blocks and nurture our creative side. Here are 12 practical and time-tested tips for kickstarting our creativity.

1. Create the necessary time and space
In order to be creative, you need to make sure you have the time and space to actually be creative. It may be almost habitual to fill up every moment of your life with activity, both productive and unproductive. It’s necessary to take time out to flex your creative muscles, preferably every single day. Clear some time in your schedule, even if it’s just 10-15 minutes a day. Guard that time and be aware of any tendency to procrastinate. Procrastination is the number one enemy of creativity. Ask yourself why you’re procrastinating (often it’s out of fear of failure or not being good enough) and commit to overcoming it.

2. Keep a journal
This tip is from Julia Cameron’s book ‘The Artist’s Way’ which is well worth checking out. She calls them ‘morning pages’: every morning, you have to write 3 pages of stream-of-consciousness writing. This can be about absolutely ANYTHING, from problems, ideas, grievances and annoyances, inspiration, plans for the day and all kinds of random and rambling thoughts. You have free reign to spill your mind onto the page. Essentially this works as a kind of ‘brain drain’, freeing up mental energy, relieving tension and enabling you to tap into your inherent creativity. Try it for a month and be amazed. It’s well worth getting up 10-15 minutes early to do this. I’m willing to bet that after a few days you’ll be hooked.

3. Seek inspiration — fill your artistic well
Julia Cameron also encourages us to go on an ‘artist’s date’. This simply means taking time out to give ourselves fresh creative input and stimulation. Creativity needs to be encouraged and nurtured and you can facilitate this by making a specificed time to do things that inspire you. Ideas might include going for a long walk on the beach, visiting an antique shop or old bookshop, going to an exhibition or having a latte in your favourite coffee shop while reading up on people who inspire you. It’s best to spend this time on your own, so you can give full attention to what you’re doing and not get lost in conversation and distraction. Creativity feeds on fresh input, on images, sounds, sensations and new ideas and experiences, so be sure to keep the well filled.

4. Unplug
Stop watching TV! Or at least limit the amount you watch. Television tends to dull the mind and numb the senses. Why it can be an enjoyable way to spend an hour or so, especially after a busy day, if you’re spending entire evenings (or perhaps days) zoning out, it’s probably time to take a break. Generally television is not designed to spark or foster creativity. It often does the opposite. Try also limiting the amount of time you spend on the internet, whether social networking or aimlessly surfing the net. This will free up time, space and energy which can then be channelled creatively. A 24 hour media/TV/internet fast every so often is immensely refreshing. Why not try it?

5. Take a walk
A 20 minute walk has a way of rebalancing the mind and reinvigorating the senses. A short walk is not only good for you physically, but can elevate your mood, free up creative blocks and get the inspiration flowing. It doesn’t really matter where you go, although I recommend being in nature if possible, for nature has a harmonising and energising effect, particularly if you spend a lot of time indoors. Why not go for a walk without a destination in mind and just see where you find yourself (a creative walk!) or take a camera and be on the look out for interesting photographs, which will help you keep you in the moment and paying particular attention to your surroundings.

6. Be quiet
It’s hard for creative ideas and insights to emerge when the mind is continually filled with thoughts and bombarded with stimulus. Creativity needs space to flourish, much like the sun needs a gap in the clouds to shine down. So sit quietly for a while. Learn to meditate, or simply relax. In our fast-paced culture our minds are conditioned to be constantly seeking input and stimulus and many people find it impossible to sit still for more than a few seconds without needing to do something. Try to overcome this urge. Sit still and just look around. Observe with vivid clarity, bringing your full attention to whatever your eyes rest upon. Even if you’re in a room you’ve been in a million times before, try to notice little details you’ve never before seen. As Pierre Tielhard de Chardin noted: “The whole of life lies in the verb seeing”. Another thing that can open the creative channels is to take a nap, especially if you are feeling stuck and uninspired. Often a short nap is enough to shift our thinking patterns and tap us into heightened creativity. It certainly worked for some of history’s greatest creative minds, including Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali.

7. Learn to bypass the inner critic
You’re probably already familiar with your inner critic or censor, the part of you that’s constantly judging, analysing and criticising your work — and everything else besides. The inner critic does have its function and its place, but given free reign will probably sabotage your creative efforts before you’ve even begun. The first stage of any creative endeavour is simply to create, to freely get ideas onto the page and canvas. If your inner critic is continually criticising every single word or brushstroke, you’ll quickly end up getting blocked. So learn to send the critic on an all expenses paid vacation to Bermuda until you’re ready for it. Create freely and without censor and don’t fear making mistakes (see the next step). When you’re ready for the next stage, which is analysing, editing and polishing up the work you’ve done, that’s when you can let the critic do its job. But remind it to do so kindly and constructively.

8. Be fearless
Let go of the need to be perfect. There’s no such thing. Relinquish your fears of inadequacy and your determination to create something that’s ‘worthy’. Give yourself permission to make mistakes, because that’s often the best way to learn. The need to create something ‘great’ can make it hard to create anything at all, so just surrender to the process and learn to enjoy it. Play around with ideas, words, paint or clay. Allow yourself to innovate, to think outside of the box and let go of any fears about what other people may think. Fortune favours the brave.

9. Explore music
Music has a way of loosening up the mind, allowing you to access heightened levels of creativity. It has to be the right kind of music, though; mainstream radio stations are unlikely to be of great help. Explore and experiment with different styles, including classical, world music and ambient. See what inspires you and compliments your creative process.

10. Observe, question, experiment
The key to innovation is to observe, question why things work they way they do and experiment to see how you could make them work better. This is a basic framework used by inventors and innovators in numerous different fields.

11. Hang out with creative people
Creative people generally love being around other creative people. If you don’t have many artistic friends, then consider joining or forming a group. Share work, discuss ideas, exchange experiences, reflect on what inspires and excites you. Creativity has a kind of resonance, and simply being around creative people and innovators of any kind can kickstart your own creative flow.

12. Take inspiration from the greats
Are there any creative geniuses whose work or lives you’ve always been fascinated by? Perhaps Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Tolstoy, T.S. Eliot or Thomas Edison? Why not adopt them as a kind of creative role model. Learn all you can about them, read biographies, view or read as much of their work as you can and learn how they functioned creatively. There’s probably a whole lot you can learn from their achievements, mistakes and methods of working. Heck, you might even choose a creative genius who is still alive and someone you might even be able to get in touch with. Having a creative mentor is a surefire way to spark your own creative fire.

Is art important?

As an artist who hasn’t exactly made it ‘big’ (think considerably less than big), I was recently questioning my future and wondering whether I should be devoting my energy to something else. As the economy continues to flounder and as our esteemed leaders continue to make things worse, people are tightening their belts and luxuries such as the arts are obviously the first things to be abstained from.

Always one to question just about everything, I found myself wondering whether art really matters. Is it really important? Is it worth pursuing? Or is it just a self-indulgence that has no real value to our lives? (When considering this question, I was reflecting not merely on visual art, but also music, prose and poetry, sculpture, film-making, etc)

I instinctively feel that art has importance. But there are two kinds of art, I think. There’s art that’s created simply to make money and is tailored to a specific market or audience and which usually adheres to a specific formula while perhaps simultaneously attempting to pass itself off as something ‘different’. This might sound exceptionally snobbish, but to me, that isn’t art, it’s merely product. Most of the music industry is product and in our X-Factor era that’s a fact that’s hard to dispute. I feel the same about a great deal of the publishing and film industry. It’s driven by profit and the desire to sell; any claims of wanting to find genuine artistic innovation are usually just lip-service.

Product  generally has mass-market appeal and is largely consumed as entertainment. Nothing wrong with entertainment, I like to be entertained as much as the next guy (although maybe perhaps not QUITE so much), but entertainment rarely transcends its function. There are certainly lots of instances where it does, where films, music and books actually do take risks and wholly deserve to be called ‘art’, but in the vast marketplace it’s still the exception rather than the rule. I’m not decrying this, simply pointing out a fact. People need to make money and they do that by selling products to as many people as will buy it. It’s the way the world works.

With regard to the visual arts, it’s a little harder to find the distinction between art and product. It’s a grey area. Artists need to eat like everyone else, so they usually need to have some kind of target market in mind when they create. The quality and importance of the work is entirely subjective and that’s probably the way it should be.

I was at an exhibition just last week and it reinforced my feeling that in order for art to be taken seriously as ‘art’ it helps if it’s grim and bleak. In order to be a ‘cool’ artist the general criteria seems to be that your work has to be edgy, dark and a little depressing or — even better — repulsive! Now this could all just be in my head, and I don’t even take my own thoughts and opinions that seriously any more, so I urge you not to, either. But it’s possible that even some of the most fiercely independent and ‘out there’ artists are still just creating stuff that they consciously or unconsciously think fits a formula of ‘cool’ and ticks the right boxes.

Myself, I really don’t care what’s cool or not. Generally I’m drawn to create things that inspire people rather than nauseate and repulse them. I mean, life is difficult enough, why should art confound that by making us ever more miserable? But that said, when I view someone’s work, even if I don’t like it, I still usually respect it as a creative endeavour, as an expression of the artist and an artistic statement — whether or not I agree with that statement.

So why is art important then?

It’s not important simply for making statements. Anyone can make a statement and like anything that’s mind-generated, it ultimately doesn’t mean that much. A lot of the time it’s straight from the ego, and there’s already enough of the human ego stamped over this world of ours. Art in service of the ego may still be art, but it’s not, in my view, important art.

I believe art is important when it has a transcendent quality; when it points us beyond the surface-level miasma of humdrum human existence — what Buddhists refer to as samsara — and hints of the possibility of something greater, something beyond. I believe art, in its highest expression, serves to remind us who we are. Through images, stories, narratives and sound, it reflects back to us what we truly are. There’s a place for examining the surface-level world of maya, but we don’t really need art for that, we simply need to look around us or turn on the six o’clock news.

But it’s possible for art to take us deeper into ourselves, inviting us ask questions about ourselves and life itself. Who are we? Where did this consciousness come from and where is it going? What is the world? Where did it come from and where is it going? Is it everything we’ve always assumed it to be, or is it possible we’ve somehow misperceived the universe, ourselves and our relation to it?

I’ve come to learn that the answer is never in the answers. It’s in the questions.

At best, I believe, art can make us reflect upon these questions; questions that serve to bring us back to ourselves. Just about everything else in the world is pulling our attention outward and distracting us from OUR SELVES (which is actually the very thing we’re truly seeking in life — direct, conscious awareness of our own being).

Some time ago I was sent one of those email questionnaire things and one of the questions was “do you prefer art or technology?” and I was amazed at the number of people (practically everyone) that said technology. I probably shouldn’t have been, for nowadays technology is almost like a drug or religion for many people. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but what can technology do but distract us from ourselves? It’s never going to compel us to venture inward and perhaps, in time, stumble upon the in-built but long-dormant self-realisation mechanism — which is the only legitimate end to the cycle of suffering that drives us to seek out distractions in the first place.

I still feel compelled to create art, to write and create music because I feel something within me wants to be born into the world. I don’t think it’s in service of the ego or just to express emotions or viewpoints (although the latter point I suppose you could debate). If there’s any purpose at all behind what I do, it’s because there’s some element — and it’s not really on a conscious level — that would like to use this channel to spark something in others. A spark of inspiration, of remembering, of insight? Or just an opening that might prompt further questions? I’m not entirely sure. I don’t feel it’s entirely ‘me’ that’s controlling the process. It just is. It’s unfolding as it wants to.

I first had an inkling as to this when I began my first novel, a number of years ago. I thought – “yeah, my novel is going to change the world and make people happier and more enlightened.” I think my ego crept in, in the nicest and kindest possible way. Now, I have no such expectations. I don’t know if what I make will sell or interest anyone, much less whether it will enlighten them. That’s really not my business and I no longer have any investment in the outcome. I just do what I feel compelled to do, because I have to and because a little part of me would wither away if I didn’t. A rose doesn’t bloom in order to make people happy and get some kind of a reaction. It doesn’t hold itself back, either. It just does what it does, because…!

So that’s basically why I feel art is important. There are many artists (not necessarily mainstream ones or ones with great followings and publicity) whose work serves as kind of opening into something greater. It can serve as a catalyst that makes people stop, reflect and open themselves to new possibilities and new ways of seeing life. It can pierce the dream bubble and spark something quite wonderful, enabling the viewer/experiencer to blossom themselves. Maybe they’ll then bring that same essence into the world where it will have a similar effect on others, whether it’s in the form of art, behaviour, actions or simply BEING.

No motives though. It just happens — or it doesn’t. And it has an effect on others and the world — or it doesn’t. Art is alive and when it comes from a place beyond the ego and beyond consumer concerns and market pressures, it has the ability to change us and to change the world. Not change us in the sense of making us something other than we are, but simply removing the clouds of illusion that currently obstruct so many of us from being what we are. Art then can be a great wake-up call, which will resonate for those that are ready for it and go straight over the heads of those that aren’t.

For now, if I’m able, I’ll continue to respond to the creative impulses that compel me to create art in different forms, knowing that the impulse to create is there for a reason, that I’m not truly in control of it and that the reasons and outcome are way beyond my control. Some artists fall into the trap of ego, mistakenly believing it’s them that is responsible for their creations. But for me, it’s the humblest job in the world. I don’t own creativity, I can’t control it and I’m fully aware that it’s not really me that does anything (and frankly I don’t even consider myself particularly talented).

It just happens and I’m very cool with that, because it feels good. I’m really very clear on that point — and it’s a strangely liberating realisation!