Welcome to my adventures and experiments in creativity. Where writing is like running: sometimes I know where I'm going, and sometimes I see where the mood takes me.


Sunday, 24 February 2013

Mixing Business And Pleasure


I never expected to find myself reading business books.

Being creative, writing – what does any of it have to do with business? And yet, here I am. The last book I finished was Make Your Idea Matter by Bernadette Jiwa. Currently, I’m halfway through Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception – the book I won from The Clear-Minded Creative.

As I’ve got to know Godin’s work a little more over the last few weeks, it has become clear just how much of an inspiration he is to many creative souls. And the crucial word in the title of Jiwa’s book is ‘Idea’.

In other words: these aren’t dry, weighty tomes full of traditional theory and called things like, 100 Common Mistakes Made By Top CEOs (I don’t know if that is a real book, by the way. I’m guessing it isn’t!). I’m not some wannabe industrialist who wants to bring the essence of Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War to his shop floor.

I’m just a guy who wants to write. And as interesting and inspirational as these books are, a small piece of me thinks I’m betraying myself by reading them. The old, It’s only the quality of your writing that counts reflex kicks in. It kicks and screams a bit; tells me I shouldn’t need to create a ‘brand’ around myself.

Meekly, I reply, “I’d have gone to work at the local newspaper if that was the case.”

In truth – and however much it pains my subconscious to say it – the only reason I’m starting to make any sort of progress is because I finally understood what ‘fruitless work’ meant to me. After four years with a blog jokingly entitled ‘The Repository of Fruitless Work’, suddenly I inverted the whole thing and worked out a way to use everything I’d done before as an example for others of how not to do things.

Finally, I had an idea of how to stop flying so low and aim a little higher. And now, I can write sentences like that because the likes of Godin have made sense of those thought processes.

In Make Your Idea Matter, Jiwa writes: “The best artists market to save their own souls, so they can keep doing the thing that matters. Marketing is part of your art now.”

I think I’ve gone some way to understanding and accepting that. And it’s why I’ve added an ‘About’ page to the blog. Because it’s part of my writing now.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Lunchtime in Aldi


“Can I have these as well?”

The man in front of me in the checkout queue handed over a couple of seed packets to be added to the total.

“Have you grown leeks before?” the Store Assistant asked.

“Yeah, they were really easy.”

“Hm,” came the disappointed response. “Mine were terrible. Tried growing asparagus as well, but that failed. My potatoes and carrots were mint.”

No wonder you couldn’t grow anything, I thought as I loaded my shopping on the conveyor, if you expected to get vegetables from herbs.

BADUM-TISH!

Education, Education, Education


A couple of lessons I’m learning as a customer, which carry greater meaning for me as a writer:

1.      Saying ‘coming soon’ too often gets tiresome.
Either set a date in stone, or say nothing until such time as you can.

2.      Typos and incorrect facts are REALLY annoying.
Maybe I feel this one more than most because a mild OCD exerts its influence on my life more heavily than it should. Nevertheless, imperfection becomes irritating, so I try to be meticulous about spelling in my own work.
Of course, where facts are concerned, an incorrect one is only spottable if you know better than what is written. There will always be someone who knows better, however. Someone who genuinely knows better, as opposed to someone being argumentative for the sake of it.
I know there have been occasions where I’ve written a statement based on being 75% sure (at best) that it’s correct. Now the realisation has struck that I need to be more meticulous, rather than making vague pronouncements that decrease the probability of being taken seriously.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Sunday Supplement


Continuing the theme of the most recent Fruitless post – about applying for and filming a quiz show – it seemed only right to share the scary, exciting but fun stories of a few fellow bloggers.

If you enjoy either of the following tales about the pursuit of creative ambitions, I would encourage you to explore their blogs further.

The first is Ali George’s recounting of her attempt to write a novel in a weekend:


The second is Emily Dodd’s account from New York about attending the Kidscreen conference, where she pitched ideas for children’s television:


Finally, I wanted to share this post (shared by Thom Chambers on his excellent Twitter account) from the blog of a website called The School Of Life. I’m not sure if I can be classed as ‘highly creative’ – though, who knows, maybe I can – but what it had to say chimed with me. It’s as close a thing as I’ve yet come across that satisfactorily explains what it means to be creative.


Happy reading! And please share any or all of the above if the mood takes you, because we all deserve a few scares, some excitement, and lots of fun in our lives.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Pointless Advice


Or: the next life-changing instalment in my unplanned series of advice you never knew you needed.

In the first of the series, we looked at following your dreams. It was never my dream to write a blog post that used the words ‘follow’, ‘your’ and ‘dreams’ quite so much, but I followed the path anyway and look where we ended up.

Now, we’re going to look at something else that’s aspirational. Not for everyone, admittedly, but that is the point. I didn’t know I wanted to do it, but when I did it, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done.

I applied to go on a gameshow.

Ivory Coast

It's nearly a year since my friend Martin and I filmed two episodes of the popular BBC teatime quiz show Pointless. Standing before a studio audience and thinking of countries with a 'Y' in their name was as far outside my comfort zone as I've ever dared go, but it was scary, exciting and - most importantly - fun.

The end result might not have been what we hoped, but as something to experience in life, I'd recommend anyone download an application form for a quiz show they enjoy watching.

That form is a precursor to an entire process that you almost wouldn’t believe from watching the end product on television. On a Thursday morning in December, at the Palace Hotel in Manchester, we did a short general knowledge quiz and then played the best version of Pointless that it’s possible to play in a hotel conference room equipped with only a flip chart. Mart and I won that, by the way…

Malaysia

Doing scary, exciting and fun things is important. For a reserved, introverted soul like me, even printing off the application form was a big deal. Pointless is a game for teams of two, so the form has a box where the applicant can write about their partner.

Despite being friends for years, I was a little nervous about what Mart would say about me. In some respects we are polar opposites, but there is never a need to articulate that during the course of day-to-day life because more things unite us than separate us.

In the end I needn’t have worried, for he was exceedingly complimentary: “Paul is ambitious … and really rather driven. That is why I believe he might reach his goals…”

If pushed to describe myself, ‘driven’ is not a word I would ever use. Yes, I have a decent work ethic, but I’ve always been too conscious of my failings to consider that particular adjective to be appropriate. For which reason as well, I have never been able to dwell on praise. We were having too much fun imagining what it might be like to get on the show, so I soon forgot the words we had written about each other. Deep down, though, I think Mart’s assessment stayed with me.

Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia

Because we never have to articulate what we feel for our friends, we miss out on the insight of those closest to us. They might give us ideas or offer support when it comes to our ambitions, but we’ll spend more time with them simply ‘having a laugh’ rather than worrying about the meaning of existence (unless we count Albert Camus as one of our social circle).

Now that I’m having a proper crack at this writing lark, Mart’s words have crept out from the dark recesses and emerged at the front of my brain. I’m doing the best I can with it while balancing commitments at home and a full time job – like many other people do, of course – but those people would probably howl with laughter if they read my blog stats.

I believe in what I’m doing though. I’m happy with the projects I’ve got in the pipeline. Part of the reason I’m prepared to keep chipping away is because I now understand myself in a way I perhaps wouldn’t, had we not applied for Pointless. I don’t doubt that plenty of friends and family believe in me, but when validation comes from such an unexpected source it is somehow that little bit more affecting.

So there we have it. Unless you want to be unusual (to say the least!) and create a questionnaire about yourself for your friends to fill in, I recommend you go on a quiz show with a few of them. Preferably one where you all have to describe each other on the application form, and then who knows what you might learn about yourself.

Monday, 11 February 2013

How To Follow Your Dreams


Follow your dreams, right?

It’s one of those gloriously clich├ęd sentiments. A piece of advice that’s easy to dish out without meaningful substance to back it up. Easy to dish out without meaningful explanation of how to do it.

We all have dreams. Wild, ecstatic dreams that we would follow if only someone believed in us. Beautiful dreams, terrible dreams; dreams of the life we could lead if we were freed from the clutches of modern life for a short time. Just a day, even.

If we could just follow those oh-so-vital dreams.

Well, tonight is your lucky night. I’m going to explain how to follow your dreams. I’m going to unlock the secrets of success for you. Make you realise anything is possible as long as:

a) You dream it, and
b) You then follow that dream.

I could have hidden this groundbreaking advice behind some sort of pay structure. I could have created a ten week online course, or written an e-book and charged tens of pounds for it. But I’ve done neither of those things. I’m offering this advice for free.

Why? I hear you cry. Why are you taking it upon your shoulders now to be so benevolent?

I’ll tell you why. It’s because I want you all to share in this unearthed wisdom. I want the profundity to reach deep into your hearts and your souls, so that you might act upon the advice I am about to impart. I want you to act upon it with all your energy, and without hesitation or fear.

But you have to be ready. Are you ready?

Yes?
Then here it is:

Follow your dreams! Literally.

That’s right. Whatever fevered imaginings your brain might create while you’re asleep: do them. Sure, many of the dreams you have might be completely impractical. Illegal, even. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the things I did for the first time during 2012 and two of the items on the list were dreams:

Dreamt that I let a man plummet to his death in a broken lift.
Dreamt that a woman tried to kill me with a felt tip pen.

Now, of course I’m not going to try and make those situations a reality. That would be stupid, and I’m not sure I could live with the guilt or the ink stains. But one of the other items on the list was:

Expressed interest in running a half marathon.

Back in October, I had a dream that I was about to take the start of the Great North Run. I’d not prepared for it, and I seemed to be dashing round trying to find somewhere to get changed ready for the race. For the most part it was like any other dream – illogical, lacking in sense or a satisfying narrative. But it was a dream about something that must have been a sub-conscious goal on some level.

The next day, I joked about it being a premonition.

The next month, I entered my e-mail address on the Great Run website to be notified about the opening of the ballot.

The next year, I completed my application. There was no anticipation of success – after all, just think how many people submit their details for these events. I laughed about suggesting a target time for a distance I’ve never come close to running. I laughed even harder at the terms and conditions stating roller blades and wheelbarrows are not allowed on the course.

Then I forgot about it.

Last Thursday, I received an e-mail saying I had been successful in my application. In September, I will be running the Great North Run.


Now, I’m taking it seriously. Not in a detrimental way, I hope. But I’ve never done anything like this, and I want to see what I’m capable of. The event is seven months away. I don’t intend to follow any sort of fixed plan to prepare. I simply intend to keep running, get better, and do the very best I can.

I’m writing this on a Monday night. Over the last three days I’ve eaten no biscuits. One ‘After Eight’ mint is the sum total of my chocolate consumption.

I’ve no idea if I can sustain it. But surely this approach is more sustainable than saying, I’ll start next week or I’ll start next month? Even more exciting, if the blog post I wrote the other day is anything to go by, it means I’ll be writing even more during 2013.

So there we go. That’s my advice. Sometimes, dreams literally can come true. Though hopefully I won’t be dashing around and unprepared come September, but you know what I mean…!

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Never Seem To Find The Time


The Dark Side Of The Moon is popularly considered to be Pink Floyd’s best album. In a collection of stand-out songs, one that rises that little bit higher is ‘Time’. It includes the following lyrics:


And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.


It’s a haunting, brilliant song. It is also completely true. You chip way at projects without any real confidence or intent, and suddenly the best part of a decade has disappeared with nothing to show for it.

There is plenty of writing on the subject of creativity that will tell you to Go. Start. Whatever it is you want to do: Do It. There is never a better time than Now.

And they’re right, so you should follow that advice. The trouble is, you probably won’t. Lack of confidence will make you think, I’ll start tomorrow. The trouble is, there is always a tomorrow and so you’ll never start. You’ll miss the starting gun.

Starting at the sound of the gun is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter if you don’t run quite as fast as everyone else. It’s all about being in the game.

Up until last December, I’d spent seven years making false starts or missing the gun. Trust me when I say that the time went very quickly. When your art does not feel important – when you keep saying you’ll start tomorrow, or next week – the days and the months and the years skip by without any concern for your confidence or the work you could/should be doing.

Conversely, when you do finally get in the game, it will probably feel like you can’t run as fast as you’d like. But the simple act of doing is doing enough. Remember the times when you produced nothing, and realise that producing even a little something every day is an improvement on that.

And then think what you might achieve with a decade of doing, compared to a decade of regretting.


Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught, or half a page of scribbled lines.
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

A Month Of Eating Dangerously


February 1st

Friday afternoon, and like clockwork the Empire film magazine e-mail blinked into my inbox. The opening paragraph celebrated the start of the new month; celebrated that people could drink for the first time since 2012, or release the shackles of whatever diet plan they had been following.

I was sure it was mostly light-hearted. I know people struggle to introduce good habits in January, but the idea that they are habits for only 31 days (at most) can’t be that ingrained can it? Surely it’s just a perception fostered by the media?

Later that evening, on the Radio 2 Drivetime show, a woman requesting a song mentioned that she was looking forward to her first drink after a dry January. It felt like the world was trying to prove me wrong…

January 7th

The first Monday morning of 2013. We’d had a few days back at work, but they were largely meaningless and everyone navigated them in a collective daze. Now the usual festival could commence: the festival of people feeling sorry for themselves and committing to a period of healthy (or, at least, healthier…) living.

A few colleagues mentioned they had tins of biscuits at home, and they’d considered bringing them to work “to get rid of them”. I winced at the thought of others spending good money on food that people were ready to just give away – not out of charity, but to save eating it themselves – but that is a different topic. As well as the dieters, one guy said he would visit the gym every day, another would stay off drink, and yet another said he would get out on his bike more.

Now

At the time, I dismissed all the talk as nothing new; the standard office blather of people trying to atone for festive excess without really meaning to do so. In the light of February’s ‘evidence’, I wondered whether I’d been right to adopt that attitude. I started wondering why people persist with an unsustainable approach to these things. Even BBC News had carried a feature about ‘how to keep resolutions’.

Why has this ritualistic behaviour suddenly struck a chord? In previous years, I wouldn’t even have noticed it happening. I might have joined in, bemoaned what I’d eaten over Christmas, but with no intention of doing anything about it. This time though, by accident, I’ve found myself doing the reverse of the standard New Year resolutions.

Keep On Running

Although the start of December was icy and made running treacherous, the mild Christmas period meant I could regularly lace up my trainers. It was a challenge to fit in around the usual Christmas traditions, and the times/distances weren’t earth-shattering. But it was exercise, and it kept my body ticking over. I even managed a run on Christmas Day, which felt good. It gave me energy, made me less inclined to vegetate all day and eat nothing but rubbish.

Then the weather intervened – unsurprisingly – and I was done. Where’s the sense in risking a turned ankle or a bad fall? It was time to sit things out, let the rain/snow/ice do its thing, and start again in February.

Slowing Down

At first, the deliberate lack of exercise removed the incentive to eat well, and failing to eat well affirmed the desire to be sedentary (something the bad weather was doing a good job of encouraging anyway). A month is long though, and three weeks in I was on the ropes. Things got progressively worse, culminating in a day of quite shameful excess. Bad habits were re-emerging, boxes of After Eights were evaporating from the cupboard, and my body was crying out for meaningful exercise.

I tried to reign in the poor eating during the last week, tried to get back to something approaching normality. I looked forward to running again, and on January 31st did a quick two miles to remember what it all felt like. The progress I made in the second half of last year didn’t feel wasted, like I feared. After a month long blow out, ten (or hopefully eleven) months lie before me, filled with the promise of frequent – and better - running.

Nearly a whole year to build something good; to eat well and maybe even complete a half marathon.

Back In The Habit

Running and writing are now inextricably linked for me. I kept writing during January, but it only got harder as the energy levels dropped. Reaching February and starting running again has reinvigorated the good habits I developed in 2012.

This whole thing was an accidental experiment. It’s something that has, ironically, become clearer as January has progressed, albeit becoming slightly out of control at the same time. But the more I’ve thought about it as something that could be planned, the more I’ve thought: ‘why not?’

Instead of fighting through the post-Christmas blues with unreasonable expectations of what you can achieve, why not let it all go and wait until February? Instead of flogging yourself for one month and ending up disappointed, why not commit to eleven months of achievable goals and let January be whatever it needs to be?

Inspiration

I’m not the only one to have taken a different approach to January, though I might be the only one who has gained some clarity on it after the event rather than before it. Back in December, I listened to a podcast by Milo McLaughlin and Fabian Kruse, in which they discussed starting their creative year in the second month of the calendar:



I can’t say that I planned much, nor reflected upon a great deal. I wrote as much as I could, and enjoyed a lack of pressure. A lack of pressure on my body, mainly. Yes, I took it too far in the end – to the point that I ate so much cake and chocolate, ate so many biscuits, that I stopped enjoying it. My relationship with food has always been a difficult one, but again: that’s a topic for another day.

2014 (and beyond)

That doesn’t mean I have to take it too far in future years. Depending on the depth of winters to come, I may have to encompass December and/or February as well. At the end of the day, if I have discovered a way to keep writing while accepting the realities of the season, and if I can maintain motivation and positivity while doing less exercise than I’d like, then that can only be a good thing.

Doing things differently to the accepted norm is a strange sensation. But it appears I might have a template for future years that works for me. It might not be the easiest thing to describe in the office when everyone else is pledging to eat better and drink less, but I can live with that. While they’re having that conversation, I can just think about what I’d like to write…

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Speaking Out



The other night, when Kath and I were sitting in bed doing our best Morecambe and Wise impression, we got talking about work. Kath is a nurse at a veterinary practice; a very good nurse with great empathy for her patients.

“We’ve got a kitten in at the moment,” she said, with the hint of sadness that usually means the animal in question has been mistreated in some respect.

I steeled my insides. One of the things I’ve gained from four-and-a-half years with Kath is greater compassion, as well as a better understanding of the feelings and personalities of animals. The downside of that is a struggle with the stories she brings home about injustice to innocent creatures.

You’d be amazed to discover the relationship a veterinary practice has with the RSPCA, for example; heaven knows how I’d cope if she worked with children from broken homes…

What the owner did I'm not allowed to say. It wasn't deliberate malice, but it was stupid and I could feel the anger rise. Anger that people can be so ignorant about taking on a pet. Anger at the burden that ignorance puts on Kath and her colleagues. And anger that I could do even less for the poor thing than she could.

There was frustration there as well – that Kath has a passionate voice for her work but lacks the means to make it heard. The passion she has for her profession, and specifically for the caring of her patients, is part of why I love her. And for that reason, I want to help her find that voice.

* * *

A few nights later, I was out driving in the small hours of the morning.

When I first owned a car there was nothing greater than the freedom of the road – particularly at night, when there was nobody else around to share it with. But as the years have gone on, my friends and I have succumbed to the inevitability of age and domestication, and late night drives are now something to simply get out of the way before retreating to the comforts of bed.

This night, though, was a throwback to those times a decade ago. The latest Ben Folds Five album was on the CD player; it was on loud, and I was rediscovering the beauty of songs I’d last listened to a few months previous. As often happens when you come back to something fresh, lyrics that had gone undeciphered before were suddenly becoming clear. Lyrics both beautiful and profound.

“It’s a frame, it’s oblique like life
Oh and how much now should we pay for the past
Cause you could age with grace if I freed you in my mind.”
(Away When You Were Here, Ben Folds Five)

I’ve always been jealous of musicians, the way they can express thoughts and feelings so completely in just two-and-a-half minutes. The way their music complements the lyrics and causes a great swell of emotion inside. I’ve never felt confident that anything I write can possibly achieve the same economy, or inspire feelings to a similar extent.

I wonder if other writers feel the same.

Yes, you can write in a certain rhythm or cadence, choose perfect words and demonstrate great profundity, but nothing quite matches soaring orchestral strings or the pain in a singer’s voice. Maybe the written word is simply more powerful when delivered out loud, rather than absorbed in silence by a solitary mind.

* * *

That last thought is, surely, hardly groundbreaking. After all, scripts are brought to life by actors, and poetry takes on a new life when delivered in performance.

None of this is to say that I think Kath should start writing ballads about animal cruelty or veterinary practice. More likely, she’ll one day start a business educating ordinary folk like you and I who want to own a dog but don’t know the first thing about their training and behaviour. Her business will have a website and hopefully I’ll get to write a few bits and pieces for it.

That is for another time. For now, this is a musing (if you will!) on what it means to be heard. Maybe, even, what it means to understand the expectations of your audience. I read novels when I want to enjoy a good story, I listen to music that suits my mood, and I devour information from the web when I have nothing better to do.

Everybody else, presumably, does the same. We pick our entertainment as we desire. Hopefully, people will one day read my work because it means as much to them as some other form of expression. To want it to be the best I can possibly make it is natural, but that won’t stop me envying those who express different emotions in other ways, and it won’t stop me envying those people who have found the format for their particular message.