Monthly Archives: July 2011

On discipline — reporting live from the battlefield

Given my post from 2 days ago, I couldn’t help but spot this quote which appears (quite randomly) at the top of a set of instructions from a teacher to his students on how to go about structuring their final year essay.

Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success for the weak, and esteem to all

 

Letter of Instructions to the Captains of the Virginia Regiments (29 July 1759)

 

Kermit George Washington

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Fiskebäckskil writer

Now that I’ve re-caffeinated, I can admit my week in Sweden was just what the doctor ordered. Chatting over breakfast or dinner with my yoga companions, several times it came up in conversation that the person I was talking to was a tortured non-writer.

When we spend our lives wanting to do something and then finally sit down to do it the result can be heartbreaking. This is what I’ve found. The gap between what we want to say or how we want to say it or both and what actually flows out of our fingertips can puncture a dream that’s been keeping us afloat for as long as we can remember. Dragging something precious down to earth is never pretty.

Tortured non-writers are writers on the inside who don’t believe in themselves, they are writers who have forgotten that doing something badly always comes before doing it well. Or they think this is true — but for others, not them.

Yes, there are freak outbursts of raw brilliant talent splattering itself all over the page — but the only people who tell us that if this doesn’t happen you’ll never be a writer are liars.

In June I blogged a few suggestions for blocked writers that came out of an evening with my writing group, but for those not just blocked but stuck before they start — the non-writers I met in Fiskebäckskil, I’d suggest the following: buy some writing books, take a writing class and read today’s zenhabits blog post.

On buying books — skip all those that offer instruction on plot or character or grammar (these are useful for the unleashed non-writers, and even then only some of the time) — start with a tutorial on the soul, not a tutorial on the craft. Go for the ones that speak about freeing up your mind enough to let your fingertips run wild, these books tend to be a mixture of the author’s own journey combined with short writing exercises. The one I brought with me to Sweden was a gift from my mom that had been hiding on my shelf for over ten years — Writing from the Heart. But there are many more — one of the best for getting started or when we lose the shred of confidence needed to set sail is The Artist’s Way.

After I got back from Sweden this weekend I spent time with a friend of mine who I’d never have guessed had writerly trauma. Or not much of it anyway. Once a journalist and a magazine editor and now an entrepreneur with a successful business and still a writer — freelance in the press and with several books under her belt, we were flopped in her sitting room having  coffee on Sunday morning when she asked me about my writing process. As someone who coaches me on my writing and whose very livelihood rests on the assumption that not only can she write but that she can sell her writing, I just assumed she was asking in order to offer me (gratefully received) advice. But no. She was mulling over her own method after a week of being trapped in her office till 3am trying to finish a commissioned piece. She started telling me about her novel and how she forces herself to write 500 words of it for fifteen minutes everyday. And how it kills her. How it’s like pulling teeth. I couldn’t believe it. Here’s one of my writing heros telling me how hard it is for her.

One of the questions in Writing from the Heart that I answered during my week of yoga was “what’s your definition of discipline?” Yoga is a discipline and writing is a discipline. I defined it like this:

Discipline is a habit that requires effort, where often it would be easier to say “I don’t feel like it” (or less politely ‘f*ck it’) but I push through that resistance and stick with the process I promised myself. 

Now anyone who knows me will recognize the truth when I say that I am one of the most undisciplined disciplined people I know. When it comes to promises I make myself. Like running or writing or yoga. When it comes to promises I make others I just do it. Pretty much always. But with promises I make to myself, I’m 100% inconsistent. I’m not gentle with myself — it’s all or nothing. I’m either *on it* and relentless in my work or I am a total skiver.

While there are sometimes moments in yoga or in writing or in running when I enjoy it as I do it (moments I can usually count in seconds), I never look forward to it. I always feel fantastic for doing it — afterwards. Discipline is about not caving into pleasurable temptation which offers a fleeting high, and it’s about holding myself back from what I feel like doing for one simple gain: discipline deepens the pleasure of being alive. But I’ll have to stop there before I knock myself out with the exact sort of schmaltz I’d rather read than write.

Nancy Aronie, the author of the book I brought to Sweden, writes that discipline is a religion of practice, where eventually it feels worse not to do it than to do it and that the purpose of discipline is to get out of your own way — that it is only through discipline that we find freedom. I underlined that chapter loads.

So on that note, friends from Fiskebäckskil please read today’s zenhabit, but then stop reading and get writing.

Thank you very much to my new non-writer friends and my unleashed writer coach and buddy — both reminded me that just because I may never reach that place where I write exactly what I’d love to write that’s never a reason not to heave a sigh and give it a bash anyway.

* * *

A few rejections worth pining up

  • One of many similar received by Dr. Seuss: “too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”
  • On the The Diary of Anne Frank: “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”
  • “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.” Editor of the San Francisco Examiner to Rudyard Kipling.
  • Received by Colette: “I wouldn’t be able to sell 10 copies.”
  • Only seven of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published during her lifetime. “(Your poems) are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”
  • To Ernest Hemingway, regarding his novel, The Torrents of Spring, “It would be extremely rotten taste, to say nothing of being horribly cruel, should we want to publish it.”  [No wonder he drank]
  • William Faulkner received “If the book had a plot and structure, we might suggest shortening and revisions, but it is so diffuse that I don’t think this would be of any use. My chief objection is that you don’t have any story to tell.” Two years later he received, “Good God, I can’t publish this!”
  • For The Deer Park by Norman Mailer ‘This will set publishing back 25 years.”
  • In response to The Spy who Came in from the Cold  “You’re welcome to le Carré – he hasn’t got any future.”
  • On Crash by J G Ballard ‘The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”

Sourced with thanks from blogs by David Kubicek and Susie Smith

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5 days (Fiskebäckskil, Swedish West coast)

I’m disappointed by the hotel when we arrive. The pictures made it look rustic and small and the reality makes it look sprawling and new. We are here for 5 days of yoga. A large rock carved with the name of the Gullmarsstrand marks the entrance on the drive. Under the name the words contemplation and creativity are inscribed.

I’d prefer that these ideals stay implicit.

The place grows on me once I accept it’s not as I imagined.

The fishing village of Fiskebäckskil is intensely charming. Strangely shop-free with just a single general store in the town, the homes are assorted sizes and rest at slightly different levels along the rocky paths to the marina. Made of wooden planks painted white or pastel (unlike the more traditional red, white trimmed Swedish cottages just across the small bay), the village is a jumble of gingerbread houses. Black, clunky old fashioned bicycles rest in the gardens alongside rose bushes and baskets of lavender.

Under the expanse of a big, fat sea sky which shifts its pinks and whites and pale blues throughout the day, there’s a ferry that runs from the much larger town of Lysekil and people bustle off of it, along the pier and up into the village — there’s not much for them to head towards except for the working marina, just past the parish church, where there’s a small ice cream cafe, one fine dining restaurant and a shop that sells diesel and rope and liquorice pipes with pink sprinkles on top of the solid round bowls.

People come for a day of cycling or long walks through meadows of wild flowers or along forest paths or to visit the small beaches (though few have dared enter the fjord this week as the coast line is infested with the greatest army of jelly fish I’ve ever seen).

The whole place is just a bit wrong.

I don’t know if it’s the minimal commercial activity (this isn’t the place to stock up on wooden seagulls or Marimekko linens.) I don’t know if it’s the utter lack of litter or a bar (outside the hotel) or a human being smoking (though eventually I would find two), but the absence of vice is so pronounced that’s there something oppressive about the range of wholesome options.

I’m walking along the wooden pier on my way to breakfast and two teenage boys park their small boat nearby and clamber out in front of me. They’re tall, their yellow-gold hair is what my hairdresser would call chunky tousles. Both of them walk in their shoes (a pair of saltwater-faded red Converse and baby blue Keds) so that their heels flatten down the backs. They wear pajamas. Expensive cotton ones with the sorts of stripes that belonged to their great grandfather’s generation. They shuffle along in front of me dragging their pillows and duvets, everything flannel and no doubt recently laundered. These are not mere mortal teenage boys, I have stumbled into a Ralph Lauren commercial.

As I say, the whole place is disturbing.

To top it off the hotel’s restuaurant (which, aside from a small beach hut like operation open for part of the day — is the only place less than a mile away to get a hot cup of water for my tea never mind all the other food and drink I associate not just with a week’s holiday but with basic functioning) does not serve expresso.

Well, they do. But not for several days. Their machine is broken. Is it not ironic that the only thing broken on this island is this particular piece of equipment? I imagine the very nice boys and girls who work in the kitchen and translate the menu for us all day long (which really is just two words “herring or shrimp”), chatting to themselves merrily, “well, it’s no good for them anyway – all that caffeine.”

Almost a week of clean living, it’s not clear I’ll make it back …

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A rainy afternoon (Sweden)

Touring around a foreign city on your own in the pouring rain can be strangely relaxing. Why should I feel bad that I just spent a half hour in H&M and found the perfect pajama-soft jeans when I haven’t been able to fit into my usual ones for about six months.

And now — I’ve happened upon the spot my little guide book suggested I head to whether it be for breakfast, lunch, dinner, listening to the jazz or flopping on the bean bags (a two story hangout called Soho on Ostra Larmgatan –like lots of notable addresses in this city, it used to be something else — in this case a bank, with the room that held a vault still sectioned off by a thick, plaster, white wall with a slim doorway into a more private alcove). A lucky turn into the right cobbled pedestrian way. Sometimes it pays off not to look too hard.

The bartender greeted me in English which disappointed me since for the last 24 hours I’ve been getting local “Hey’s” and presumably what must mean something like Can I help you? But I forgive him because turns out he’s cheeky and South African and his Swedish isn’t so great; a number of his clientele give up trying to order in Swedish and break into English.

His two friends at the bar try to help me guess the password for various WIFI networks that aren’t available to customers and before I’ll leave in 2 hours time they’ll insist on a tequila together.

The only bar food on offer is a favourite — manchego cheese with chorizo.

Why come to Gothenburg?

I’m here en route to a fishing village tomorrow where I’ll be attempting a week full of yoga, but if I were just looking for a city break this wouldn’t have been a bad choice at all.

1. It’s designed for the rain which apparently happens here a lot (plenty of undercover shopping & canopied walkways)

2. It’s well-known for the cosy cafe culture so no need to feel guilty for spending the entire weekend lounging

3. Rather than being manicured, the flowers here are wild — whether sprouting up along the canal banks or sprucing up the outdoor tables each bar and restaurant offers despite the likelihood that the indoor option will make more sense (though like other chilly parts of the world where the locals gasp for some sun, there are blankets on every chair here)

4. Everyone speaks English but the place still feels foreign

5. Many of the buildings are old without being broken or dirty and the streets are clean without being too sterile or generic  — though I couldn’t go so far as to say the streets are stunning or quaint; they have their fair share of comfortingly familiar signage which can cost a place some atmoshpere. You do need to hunt for the more charm-filled alleys. It’s like being in a small and manageable Paris with an echo of Soviet. The soundtrack is coastal seagulls with their spooked cries and jaunty laughter. The mood’s a bit sparse with grey skies looming, but the locals are a lot friendlier than most people accuse the Swedish of being.

6. They love their bookshops and the sort of retro/vintage shops that aren’t just for charity

7. For someone who doesn’t like to shop unless I’m on vacation, the shopping’s great – lots of it and despite the odd H&M and Zara, plenty of peculiarly Swedish boutiques with clothes and quirky design I won’t find at home

8. And for someone who also doesn’t like television, the Swedish stations have plenty of properly good movies (and none of them dubbed.) When I crawled into my pillowy duvet lair after dinner at a nearby upmarket Mexican* (which made me feel that even if 2 days isn’t long enough to conquer the city, I did land an ideal spot for one of my two evenings here), I could guiltlessly stay up too late watching the screen — because this is what a holiday is for …leaving guilt at home.

9. While known for being expensive, I can’t fully agree. The shopping isn’t. And the 5 star taking care of me is only £90 per night which any Londoner will tell you is a steal (though admittedly I am in a VERY skinny room, but there’s a reasonable bath and a long desk and who needs a sofa or extra clothes-mess space for a weekend anyway?) The food and drink is normal priced for Northern Europe — far from eye watering.

10. While I’m aware that there’s some higher culture lurking about – museums and what have you – in this downpour why would I do anything but appreciate the rustic and trendy ambience, read my books, play on my laptop and occasionally talk to the bartender.

* Friends will roll their eyes that I come to Sweden and eat my favourite meals — Spanish and Mexican. In my defence most menus in Sweden are not in English — whereas I know how to order in Spanish — plus the Swedes are Crayfish and a few other fish mad and I am about to a have a week of only fishy options — and I already said, I left guilt at home, which is never easy for me but so far possible here.

I recommend the trip.

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Survey says … findings from Me & Money (2)

Last month I asked you (my public) to complete a survey about money — personal questions like how you much you earn, how much you spend, on what, whether you’re in debt, do you save or invest, does your financial situation trouble you and if so, how much?

My June 11 posting was the 1st instalment of the survey’s findings and revealed that on average most of owe more than 70% of what we earn. Not towards loans we might regard as investments – like mortgages, but against pure unsecured debt.

One of the things that struck me after attending a few sessions of Debtors Anonymous was that the people inside these programs didn’t seem any more compulsive about their spending than the average person, they were just more committed to living a saner, more balanced life and found that this depended on the support of like-minded souls rather than listening to financial advisors who can only skim the surface of the issues we have with money.

Question 38 of my survey asked to what degree respondents worried about debt along an 8 point scale that ran from “never” to “very anxious.”

Despite the huge amount of indebtedness amongst us, the stress levels of respondents is split 60/40.

The majority (i.e. the 60) are not concerned about debt:

  • 14% have no debt
  • 19% never worry about the debt they have
  • 23% are on top of it
  • 5% feel that the debt they have is “easy to sort out”

Of the 40% of us that are concerned only 7% of us are very anxious, another 16% are plain old “anxious” and a further 16% are vaguely worried.

It seems the high-stakes, debt-ridden financial collapse of 2008 hasn’t modified our tolerance for risk on any profound level.

In comparing our stressed vs non-stressed friends, some of the findings aren’t that surprising:

  • Women are more likely to be anxious about debt than men
  • People in their 30’s are more stressed than those in their 20’s or those over 4o
  • Those of us that pool our resources with a partner are more relaxed about debt than singletons or people in a money-separatist relationship

Two findings are surprising:

1. Our more anxious friends tend to be in full-time salaried employment with benefits and pensions (as opposed to part-timers or freelancers or those not in paid employment.)

2. Our most anxious friends earn substantially more than other worriers.

  • The average salary (quoted here in British £) of our anxious friends is below the national average at £23,000
  • Friends that are vaguely anxious earn an additional £5,000.
  • And our very anxious friends? Their salary average is £68,000 and when we remove low wage outliers, the average jumps up to £90,000.

Perhaps this isn’t so very surprising, perhaps the less money we have the less trouble we get ourselves into.

And on that note, are these numbers representative of the average incomes for everyone who completed the survey or just the worried minority? For the answer to that question stay tuned to the next instalment where I reveal more about what we earn.

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