Category Archives: On writing

Pass the remote, I need to hit PAUSE

Sometime towards the end of last year the following words came out of my mouth:

“The only way I’d be able to do that is if I worked less, AND had fewer writing projects, AND stopped socialising so much and AND went to bed earlier. But how on earth, would I pull off all of this…”

The “that” in the first part of my remark  referred to “create some free time”.

The only way I’d be able to create some free time is to work, write, socialise & sleep A LOT LESS. I wasn’t even being Melodramatic Me when I said this. In a plain and unexciting way, this statement is more than true.

If I had free time I could

  • read the newspapers
  • find my missing socks
  • stop and chat with Bruce & Leon, our cats (who no doubt know the location of the socks)
  • write a few un-electronic letters now and then
  • be available for spontaneous cups of coffee when a friend texts to say she’s in the neighbourhood
  • or for when my brother calls me out of the blue.

If I had free time I might even

  • stare out the window and watch a squirrel run along the fences in the garden.

Never mind free time for free time’s sake, the quality of my work and writing and time with friends and sleep would likely double were I living off a less frenetic schedule … were I soaking up Life one thing at a time, rather than living everyday on auto-rush.

On the right hand column of Panic Station there’s a feed to the zenhabits blog where Leo Babauto campaigns for things like minimalism, freedom from goals and yes, DOING LESS. I guess I thought that by promoting this way of life I might escape having to live it.

Which is exactly the sort of thing a person too busy to think straight tells themselves.

And so my statement about how hard I’d find it to do less has stuck with me ever since I made it.  Which brings me to the point of today’s post — I’m here to report that sadly, Panic Station must come to a PAUSE.

The aim of my writing life this year is to stop being such a commitment-phobe by fragmenting my writing self across 3-4 too many projects. I need to devote my finite writing time and energy to One Big Thing. To see if I can make a go of it, I need to commit to it. And for this year that committment is Counting Zeros … which itself is barely One Thing at all, but rather a blog & a book & a set of daily + weekly + monthly + quarterly assignments on top of writing the blog and the book…which pretty much makes it a BIG THING. At least, for me.

All of December I angsted about Panic Station. It has become my outlet for Nat-randomness and so I LOVE IT.

I don’t want to kill it.

I don’t want to lose you.

But I need to accept that the only way someone like me does less and focuses more is to make decisions I don’t like making. I must choose some things in favour of others. I can’t keep it all.

And so the PAUSE is about to be hit. Next week’s post will be the last for 2012.



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Filed under On writing, Self-help, Time management, Work

I love my friends but … (2)

So there have been 6 of us here at the shore and today we welcome our 7th member ( whose been on maternity leave from us but has come down from Oxford for a day of writing.

The 6 in the house include:
One Ace Couple
One Swedish Barista
The person we regard as an Editorial Wizard
A man called Joss.
And Me.

If you want to know more about us, Dave, our podcaster in residence is recording a special WG (writers group) edition of his show GBA ( I’ll send the link whenever the show gets produced but highly recommend you check out Dave’s series before then.

Back to the activities of our group these past few days ….

The evening we arrived (Wednesday) we set up home and ate a big meal together and since then it’s been a full-on schedule of writerly pursuits — hearty chunks of the solid solitude that makes writing possible followed by evenings fuelled by drink and debate as we critique each other’s work.

There are 6 types of writing spots found throughout our cottage.

1/ the conservatory table
2/ the conservatory’s soft furnishings
3/the dining room
4/the sitting room
5/the bedrooms
6/the back yard

All six give us access to an ocean view. And except for the bedrooms all give us access to each other.

Typically two people have taken the conservatory (often the Swedish Barista on the sofa and either me or the Editorial Wizard at the table.) Increasingly Dave’s been in the back yard overlooking the ocean or up in his room with his ukulele working on his song. The other half of the ACE Couple (
works at a small desk that’s technically in the sitting room but feels like it’s in the conservatory thanks to the huge pane of glass that separates the two.

During the writing day Joss ( stays in his room. Unless he’s reading the paper or on a food break. Or yelling from the kitchen, “this sink is stupid!” as he’s just done now.

The rest of us are spend the day working within ear shot of other people’s keyboard pitter-patter. The odd chair shuffle or a sneeze reminds you you’re not alone but surrounded by other tormented writers some of whom are entering that state of grace known as Being on a Roll. There are offers of tea for those on their way to the kitchen, but other than that there’s an unspoken group committment to considerate noise levels and gentle separateness.

Pajama-wearing is not only acceptable, it goes unnoticed. It’s possible that I’ve never spent such an extended period of time embracing my most scruffy self without self-consciousness… at least not surrounded by 5 others who aren’t family.

This is also the first time my clock has been in sync with the collective clock of a group of people sharing an experience.

We’ve been waking, sleeping, eating, writing, reading, fighting and playing exactly when I’ve been most ready to wake, sleep, eat, write, read, fight and play.

The looseness but togetherness of our individual daily habits combined with our group’s evening rituals has made this possible.

And that’s been possible because more than a group of hand-picked friends, we are a group of group-picked writers. And that gives us, despite all sorts of personality variations, a shared temperment. It gives us a natural right-working-ness.

It might even make us a team and not a group at all. Or, maybe, as one of us said during our GBA recording session, a group of people who share a writing friendship.


Filed under Not in London, On writing, Relationships

I love my friends but …(1)

We’ve lost internet access here at Lattern Cottage on our writers retreat …but through dogged determination my antique blackberry has pulled through and will permit me to post bite-sized updates to Panic Station.

Now – there is more to say about boredom. Who knew there was so much philosophical debate on the topic. Never mind a nifty framework or two. But we’re taking a break from exploring this state of mind (and its finer cousins which I promised to mention) so that I can report live from the retreat. Where boredom hasn’t stood a chance.

Since arriving here I’ve learnt something new about spending time with groups of people.

Here it goes:

The best groups to hang out with are not necessarily those full of people you’ve hand-picked as friends.

Sometimes the best groups to hang out with are those who’ve hand-picked you.

I mean no offence to all my lovely hand-picked friends. But it turns out I do love you more separately than all bunched together for days at a time.

More on this to follow … If you’re still talking to me

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Filed under Not in London, On writing, Relationships

Going on a field trip

This week’s posts arrive at Panic Station ahead of schedule. That’s because this is a special weekend. It started earlier than normal (today) and it takes place away from home (on England’s southeast coast.)

I’m holed up here in a place called Lattern Cottage.

Right now I’m seated at a wooden table at the back of the house looking out this window. It’s not the clearest picture but that’s because it’s not the clearest view — the windows are glazed with the fine mist of wind-flung salt and sand.  And you can’t see the beach, because it isn’t there right now. Just over the garden wall (that white thing with the circles) the tide is so high that a huge expanse of coast has been temporarily wiped out.

The waves are practically banging on the back door of the house and I can barely hear the click of my keyboard above all the racket that wind and water can make. It’s perfect.

I’m here with 5 others. Usually we meet on Wednesday evenings in the squashed back room of a pub near the City — where there’s a low-hanging bulb, a window which opens out onto the alley below and just enough space for the group of us to squeeze our chairs ’round the table.

We are a writers group. One of those magical, communal inventions like carpools or AA meetings — where people with a similar problem band together.

We share dinner (3-4 packets of crisps), drink red wine and listen to each other read our latest work aloud. And then we critique it. Some of us say a lot, some of us say less. Some of us are better at fixing dialogue or grammar and some of us go big picture. We do what groups do best — we bring different things to the table.

And because it works so well we decided that we should organize a writing retreat where we string together several evening meet-up’s.  So that’s what we’re here to do at the shore this weekend.

That and to do whatever it is each of us do when we write (stare out the window, surf the net, flick through the paper, get up and make more coffee, go for a walk, send a few emails, do the dishes and here and there make some progress on our novels and screenplays and short stories and songs and podcasts and blogs) — except that for this weekend each of us gets to do that in a house full of other people attempting exactly the same. With the rise and fall of the tide as our clock.


Filed under Not in London, On writing

Anyone for Solitaire?

I’m here on the Jersey Shore with my brother and his wife and kids (and our mom) for a week of sand dunes, smashing waves, sun lotion and iced coffee.

At night when the small people have been tucked into bed, the card games start. My brother won’t play because he’s too busy with his own kind of cards — index-cum-flash cards; he’s got an exam next week that’ll test over 623 pieces of small trivia. In addition to a stolen hour or two at night, he might also grab a half hour of sneaky study in the morning as our entourage hits the dunes.

Watching my brother steal time to study reminds me that the most significant upside to my single lifestyle is the amount of solitude I get to enjoy.

I’ve often wondered what’s going to happen to me when I meet the right person and settle down — I fear I might malfunction without all that time to myself. I’d rather not be single, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I do worry about this.

Solitude has been frowned upon throughout history. According to the National Geographicsolitary confinement as a form of punishment dates back to the 1700’s (and was introduced by the Quakers of all people.) Not-so-nice experiments have shown that monkeys are prone to psychosis if they end up with too much alone time. And because of what’s known as social desirability bias, if you score high on introversion on a personality test you’ll collect bonus points that bump that score higher. Because introversion is considered far less socially desirable than extraversion, the test designers assume you are inadvertently downplaying your little flaw.

The opening line on Wiki states: “Solitude … may stem from bad relationships, deliberate choice, infectious disease, mental disorders, neurological disorders or circumstances of employment or situation (see castaway).”


I spend most of time writing, researching and reading. And I love that. It’s my choice. My work matches my personality. But equally I need a daily dose of time with friends and family. About 24 hrs of no company is the most I can genuinely enjoy. But I could never be a teacher — extraverting all day long, and I’d suffer if I had to spend my day in meetings or working as a team.

But my most ideal state is being alone together.

I love blogging from the beach chair right now with my 20-month nephew quietly burying my feet in sand. I love reading my book surrounded by the diffuse sounds of other people’s chit chat. And in terms of being single, one of the things I miss most is reading the Sunday papers with someone special. Separately but together.

Recently I downloaded OmmWriter. Omm is like Microsoft Word except that it’s Zen. The screen is pure uncluttered blank – no toolbars around the edges. Omm let’s you select the sound of your typing (my favourite: the old fashioned typewriter option), the background theme and colour  (my favourite: a vista of barren trees covered with snow) and the backing soundtrack which includes options like nighttime crickets or chimes in the wind (my favourite: random household noises.)

With Omm, I create my own writing environment where I type on my trusty old typewriter looking out at the snow all the while surrounded by the comforting sounds of someone busy in the next room sorting through some papers or shuffling down the hall to make coffee.

I guess the makers of Omm must have known — plenty of us want to be alone. Surrounded by the comfort of company.

Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device


Filed under On writing, Random idea, Relationships

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


Filed under Bibliotherapy, Books etc., On writing

Help for blocked writers

Now, if you have time to read this, you have time to take my survey – 43 people have completed it. I need 100 by Sunday! Be a part of fascinating research.  

* * *

Last night a group of writers met and one of us shared a compelling list of all the reasons they could not write. 

Here’s what we suggested.

This Year you write your novel – Walter Mosley
Becoming a Writer – Dorothea Brande
Steering the craft – Ursula Le Guin

Find a blogathon and sign up!

Join a writer’s support group

Listen to Elizabeth Gilbert (whether you like her stuff or not)

But basically we all said, SO WHAT? Just do it. We all feel the same. We all feel the shame.

Most of us (all of us?) can’t write as wonderfully as we desperately desire … Not without practice, blood, sweat & tears. And even then, the gap between the magic in your head and the reality on paper is just part of the way life is. But what on earth would we have to read and be inspired by if those of us so compelled didn’t stick with it …


Filed under Bibliotherapy, Books etc., On writing