How important are your surroundings when you write?
It’s nice to have a desk, a comfortable chair so you’re not shifting around all the time, and enough light. Wherever you write is supposed to be a little bit of a refuge, a place where you can get away from the world. The more closed in you are, the more you’re forced back on your own imagination. I mean, if I were near a window, I’d be OK for a while, but then I’d be checking out the girls on the street and who’s getting in and out of the cars and, you know, just the little street-side stories that are going on all the time: what’s this one up to, what’s that one selling? My study is basically just a room where I work.
You mentioned wanting your study to feel like a refuge, but don’t you also like to listen to loud music when you work?
Not anymore. When I sit down to write, my job is to move the story. If there is such a thing as pace in writing, and if people read me because they’re getting a story that’s paced a certain way, it’s because they sense I want to get to where I’m going. I don’t want to dawdle around and look at the scenery. To achieve that pace I used to listen to music. But I was younger then, and frankly my brains used to work better than they do now. Now I’ll only listen to music at the end of a day’s work, when I roll back to the beginning of what I did that day and go over it on the screen. But even more than place, I think it’s important to try to work every day that you possibly can.
You use a computer?
Yes, but I’ve occasionally gone back to longhand because I wanted to see what would happen. It changed some things. Most of all, it made me slow down because it takes a long time. Every time I started to write something, some guy up here, some lazybones is saying, Aw, do we have to do that? I’ve still got a little bit of that scholar’s bump on my finger from doing all that longhand. But it made the rewriting process a lot more felicitous. It seemed to me that my first draft was more polished, just because it wasn’t possible to go so fast. You can only drive your hand along at a certain speed. It felt like the difference between, say, rolling along in a powered scooter and actually hiking the countryside.
Do you ever do extensive rewrites?
One of the ways the computer has changed the way I work is that I have a much greater tendency to edit “in the camera”—to make changes on the screen. With Cell that’s what I did. I read it over, I had editorial corrections, I was able to make my own corrections, and to me that’s like ice skating. It’s an OK way to do the work, but it isn’t optimal. With Lisey I had the copy beside the computer and I created blank documents and retyped the whole thing. To me that’s like swimming, and that’s preferable. It’s like you’re writing the book over again. It is literally a rewriting.
Every book is different each time you revise it. Because when you finish the book, you say to yourself, This isn’t what I meant to write at all. At some point, when you’re actually writing the book, you realize that. But if you try to steer it, you’re like a pitcher trying to steer a fastball, and you screw everything up. As the science-fiction writer Alfred Bester used to say, The book is the boss. You’ve got to let the book go where it wants to go, and you just follow along. If it doesn’t do that, it’s a bad book.
I started a Bullet Journal last weekend and it seems that I have already filled half of my notebook.
The Bullet Journal was created by designer Ryder Carroll as a journaling system to track the past, organise the present and plan for the future, using a simple notebook. It’s called a “Bullet” Journal because you keep track of your tasks, events and note using short bullet points.
It has been adopted by a lot of creatives because it’s flexible enough to serve as a to-do list, sketchbook, notebook, and diary, all at the same time. Here’s a short introduction video by Ryder on how to Bullet Journal:
Ryder likes to use really specific terminology (stacks, modules, collections, rapid logging, signifiers, migration), to create a shared language for the Bullet Journal community. In the end, however, it’s just a journal, so use it in a way that works for you and tap into the Bullet Journal community for inspiration.
My BulletJournal stack includes all the collections people usually set up:
- Index: You give each collection a page number and a title and put it in the index to keep track of where everything is. I have a main index, a book summary index and a projects index.
- Key: You use a key to remember what or symbols you are using for different types of bullets (tasks, events, appointments, travel, notes) and what signifiers you are adding to them (important, completed, migrated, canceled). I also use different symbols for ideas, inspiration, questions, resources and quotes.
- Future Log: You write down all the bullets that you can schedule in the future in advance, or wish to do sometime in the future.
- Monthly Logs: At the beginning of each month, you write down all the bullets that you can schedule for the month or wish to do sometime in the month. You also migrate relevant bullets from previous months. You can also add your monthly goals and priorities.
- Weekly Logs: At the beginning of each week, you write down all the bullets that you can schedule for the week or wish to do sometime in the week.
- Daily Logs: You track all your bullets for the day, but don’t migrate bullets from day to day. I also use it to track what I have eaten during the day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack) and write down three good things that happened during the day.
- Monthly Habit Trackers: You track all the habits you want to develop, by marking them on a calendar. This can be useful to create an unbroken chain for daily habits. This can also be useful to keep track of all the things you like to do (like: listen to live music) and remember when you did them last.
- Monthly Mood Trackers: You track how you feel everyday, perhaps using a five point scale, and note down what triggers made you happy or unhappy, then proactively pursue your happiness triggers.
- Monthly Gratitude Logs: You write down two or three things you are grateful for at the beginning of each day. I also plan to look back at each month and add three things I am grateful for at the end of the month.
- Monthly Review: At the end of each month, you review your journaling practice, reflect on what worked and what didn’t work, and decide what changes you would like to make for the next month.
In addition, I have created some additional collections to support my daily writing and sketching habits. Some of these collections are inspired by Artist’s Way (Julia Cameron), Steal Like An Artist/ Show Your Work (Austin Kleon) and Miracle Morning for Writers (Hal Elrod, Steve Scott, Honoree Corder) while others serve as a swipe file (Austin Kleon) or a commonplace book (Ryan Holiday).
- Writing Affirmations: I write down affirmations to support my writing and read them every morning before I sit down to write my morning pages.
- Writing Visualisation: I create a visual dashboard of my ideal monthly word count and what it would result in, and look at it every morning before I sit down to write my morning pages.
- Books Read: I keep track of all the books I am reading at the moment. I was surprised to discover that I am reading more than a dozen books simultaneously and I have finished six in the first week of August.
- Visual Book Summaries: I create a two-page visual summary for each book I have finished reading (see The Sketchnote Handbook and The Sketchnote Workbook by Mike Rohde). It’s a powerful way to focus on what’s most important in each book and reinforce the lessons.
- Quotes: I keep track of all the quotes I come across as I am reading books or online posts.
- Visual Artist Date Summaries: I create a visual summary for all my artist dates (live music concerts, art gallery or museum visits, classes or workshops). It’s a powerful way to relive and remember my most meaningful experiences.
- Creative Hero Genealogy: I am creating visual profiles for all my creative heroes, to understand who inspires them, how they look at the world, and what I can learn from them.
- Blog Post Ideas: I am keeping track of my blog post ideas. It makes me happy to see that I have enough already to last a month.
- Notes for My Novel: I am writing my novel using the Snowflake Method (Randy Ingermanson) where you start with a one line summary for your novel, then expand it into a paragraph with a three-part structure, then add character summaries and so on. Here’s Randy’s introduction to the ten steps in the Snowflake Method.
Four simple organizing principles will help you use your Bullet Journal effectively:
- Index: You put your new collection on the next empty page, give the collection a page number and a title, and put it in the index. Don’t worry about pre-planning the number of pages needed for each collection. This way, you will be able to find what you need to quickly without having to flip through the journal.
- Themed Index: If you know that you’ll be using your Bullet Journal to create a number of similar collections, it might be useful to create themed index pages for them. For instance, I have themed index pages for book summaries and projects. Then, put the page numbers of the themed index pages in the main index so that you can easily find them.
- Threading: If you are continuing a collection on a page further along the Bullet Journal, write down the new page number in two places: in the index, next to the original page number, and at the bottom of the original collections page, next to the old page number. This way, you will be able to find where, for instance, all your quotes collections are, either by looking them up in the index or by going from collection to collection.
- Migrating: At the end of each month, look through all your open bullets on the month’s daily logs and decide which ones are still relevant and which ones can be discarded. Then, migrate your relevant bullets to the next month’s monthly log, or the future log if it’s a back burner item, by drawing an arrow through the bullet’s symbol. This way, you’ll have closure on your bullets each month and you’ll be able to focus on the items that are still relevant.
The Bullet Journal community is extremely inventive and it’s easy to look at the immense variety in Bullet Journal stacks, keys, designs and templates and feel overwhelmed. Kendra has some good advice on how to keep things simple:
- Signifiers: Don’t try to use so many signifiers that you need to refer to your key to remember what they are. Start with the simplest system with symbols for tasks, events and notes and signifiers for important, completed, canceled and migrated.
- Collections: Don’t create collections just to fill up the Bullet Journal. Start with not more than three collections that you will use frequently.
- Embellishment: Don’t feel that you need to make your Bullet Journal as beautiful as the ones you see on Instagram, with washi tape, stickers, stamps, calligraphy and color coding. Start with a black pen and create a system that you’ll use every day.
I will most likely update this post and add more Bullet Journal (and journaling) resources, but, for now, I’ll leave you with two videos on the importance of journaling:
Ryder Caroll on leading an intentional life:
Austin Kleon on the benefits of journaling:
Three Powerful Daily Creative Practices
I’m a recovering creative developing a daily writing and sketching practice, using three powerful daily creative practices.
The first practice is to rebuild my creative muscle by meditating, journaling and sketching every morning. The second practice is to replenish my creative spirit by creating space and time for my passions every day. The third practice is to reclaim my creative identity by creating and sharing my work every day.
These three powerful daily practices have had a transformative impact on my life, and if you are also a recovering creative, they can also transform your life.
1. Meditate, Journal and Sketch Every Morning to Rebuild Your Creative Muscle
Every morning, I wake up at 5am and follow the same morning ritual. First, I meditate to focus my mind. Then, I journal to empty my mind. Finally, I sketch to make sense of what’s on my mind.
I practice a combination of Pranayama and Vipassana meditation, first paying attention to my breath, then paying attention to the sensations in my body.
I journal and sketch in my Moleskine smart notebook with the Neo2 smart pen. Writing with pen and paper teaches me to trust my hands, and combine words and figures, and the M+ Notes app backs up my daily journal entries and sketches.
My writing desk has become my favorite place in the house. The rug under it has become the favorite perch for my Persian cat Leela.
Within a short time, this simple morning ritual has had a transformative impact on my life.
I am feeling both more connected with my dreams and more rooted in my reality.
Every morning now leads to resolutions small and large and a replenished will to realize these resolutions.
2. Create Space and Time For All Your Passions Every Day to Replenish Your Creative Spirit
I am learning to embrace all my passions, create space and time for them in my house and my life, and build connections between them.
I am reading graphic novels and teaching myself how to sketch using charcoal and color pencils. I am listening to jazz and western classical concerts and learning how to play the piano. I am learning to use my body as a canvas for creative expression, even if that’s sometimes simply an excuse for buying even more sneakers. I now want to start running long distance again, practice writing and speaking Mandarin regularly, and learn how to grow an indoor garden.
I recently redecorated my house to create space for all these passions. My little one bedroom apartment now fits a treadmill, a piano, a writing desk and an art supplies cabinet. Now, it’s not only a house for #LeelaCat and me, but also a creative studio filled with books, music, plants and art.
I have always read a hundred books every year; now I am reading a book every other day. I’m reading books related to my passions that either inspire me to become better or show me how to improve. I start my day at 5am with writing, and finish my day at 11pm with reading, and fit all these passions in the hours in between.
Within a few short months, I have gone from being a minimalist to being a maximalist and my creative spirit feels more alive than ever before.
3. Create and Share Your Work Every Day to Reclaim Your Creative Identity
I am blogging again, after years, as a public commitment to create and share my work every day.
I have always felt that I am meant to write books, many books, fiction and non-fiction. I have written a non-fiction book before on the future of engagement. Since then, I have tried to write the next book a few times. I have bought domain names for these books. I have even designed the book cover for one book. But, I haven’t finished any of these books. My mind is a graveyard of unborn books.
This time, I am telling myself that it is better to write 52 essays in a year, one essay a week, and see if they add up to a non-fiction book. I am telling myself that it’s better to write 52 stories in a year, one story a week, and see if they add up to a novel.
I am telling myself that the only way to reclaim my creative identity is to create and share something small everyday, even if it’s only a photo, sketch, or story about #LeelaCat. I am telling myself that if my inner artist child wants #LeelaCat as his muse, I should indulge his need for fun and whimsy.
My inner artist child is happy these days. For the first time in years, I am writing regularly. Some days, I write as many as 5000 words, between my morning journal pages, my stories and my essays. After years. I am also sketching regularly, and I feel that the writing and the sketching, just like the essays and the stories, are helping each other.
Creative Recovery is a Lifelong Journey
There’s good news and bad news about creative recovery.
The bad news is that creative recovery is not linear. I have good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks, good months and bad months. Every few weeks, every few months, every few years, I feel like I have returned to where I started from.
The good news is that creative recovery is not circular either, it’s spiral. With every cycle I go through, I learn more about myself and my inner artist child, and I become better at protecting and nurturing him.
Creative recovery is a lifelong journey, and I am hoping to develop and deepen these three daily creative practices for life.
I am rebuilding my creative muscle by meditating, journaling, and sketching every morning. I am replenishing my creative spirit by creating space and time for all my passions. I am reclaiming my creative identity by creating and sharing my work every day.