Monday, 2 December 2013

I Won NaNoWriMo!

Yep, despite my stressing and panicking over the last month, I hit the 50,000 word target on Friday and won NaNoWriMo with a day to spare. It was the first time I'd attempted the challenge, so I didn't have a lot of confidence in being able to complete it. It took me almost a year to complete a 52,000 word novel (though that did include a lot of rewriting), so the idea of hitting 50,000 words in 30 days was overwhelming. My novel is incomplete and most of the words are cliched and crude, but NaNoWriMo has given me an incredible jump start.

This is true even if you fell short - completing 30,000 or 15,000 words of a novel in a month is still an achievement and provides the impetus (hopefully) to get the entire draft finished. I aim to complete the first draft of my novel over the next couple of months. Tackling such a challenge, regardless of how far you get, is courageous and shows dedication.

Doing NaNoWriMo has helped me to prove to myself that I have the commitment it takes to write. After all, if I am ever able to earn a living through writing, there will be countless times when I have to write instead of going out or relaxing in front of the TV. I will spend hours at my computer, crying out 'I don't know what happens next!' I will have to work through a million mini-crises when I think I'm not capable of reaching my goal. But now I know I can rise to these challenges - and more.

I don't know if my novel will see light of day, let alone be published, but every single word I've typed is good practice. As is the fact that I wrote most of them whilst berating my puppy for chewing the chair and uprooting my mother's pot plants. It's also helped keep my mind on the future at the end of a difficult year. It's been a hard slog, but NaNoWriMo has yielded more than I imagined it could.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

NaNoWriMo: The Final Push

So I have today, tomorrow and Saturday to finish my 50,000 words... It's a daunting thought, though at 43,000 words I'm not very far behind. I aim to give it a good blast today, so that I can take the pressure off and get as close as I can to finishing tomorrow.

It's strange, but I feel more nervous that I won't finish as I write more. I suppose it would hurt less to lose the challenge by 20,000 words than to lose it by 2,000; to come so close to achieving something and fail is soul-destroying. Being close to my goal also means I have no excuse for failing - I can't dismiss it as an unrealistic goal, because it's possible to comfortably write 7,000 words in 3 days. I wouldn't have survived my MA without being able to write that amount in a single day, when the occasion demanded!

Yet here I am procrastinating... Maybe it's because I thrive under pressure, so I subconsciously turn up the heat by giving myself less time. Maybe it's because I'm not enturely sure where my novel is going - though that has been true throughout NaNoWriMo. Perhaps I'm just lazy.

Anyhoo, I'm turning to my default strategy to get me through the next couple of days: write crap. It doesn't matter how terrible my work is, as long as I get words on the page. 


Thursday, 14 November 2013

Getting Through NaNoWriMo Week 2

I had no idea that week 2 pf NaNoWriMo is notorious for drop-outs, never having attempted it before, but I could feel that it was a tough week. After the initial buzz of enthusiasm and motivation, writing gets harder. I have amassed many half-written stories over the years, of varying lengths. It's hard to keep going when you're not doing NaNoWriMo, let alone when you're under the pressure of producing 50.000 words in a month. You begin to realise that you've no idea where your plot is going, you lose confidence in your ideas, your characters seem flat and writing becomes such a chore that you develop an inexplicalbe urge to clean the bathroom.

I'm still plugging away at my novel, but it's been difficult. Here are some of my survival strategies:

1. Some words are better than no words
I was disheartened earlier this week, because I'm not on target. I had aimed to write 2,000 words a day, to get ahead in case I have some bad days towards the end of the month, but I haven't even reached the 1667 words needed to be on track. However, I have written over 19,000 words. If I hadn't started NaNoWriMo, I would have zero. That's an achievement - if you write anything, it trumps writing nothing.

2. Have fun with the NaNoWriMo.org stat page
I love the graph that shows how close you are to the target - it proves that I have actually written some words and I'm usually closer to the target than I imagine I am. I also find the 'words per day to finish on time' stat incredibly motivating. I might feel like I'm miles behind, but the extra words per day I need to write isn't that much - I think I'll have to write less than 100 words more than the target, which isn't a lot.

3. Write crap
I would love to write brilliant prose off the bat, but it's unrealistic. Writing crap might not be what you had in mind when you pictured yourself as A Writer, but I always say it's easier to rewrite and edit crap writing than a blank page. Besides, NaNoWriMo is more about getting into the habit of writing than producing a perfect novel in a month - which I doubt anyone does.

4. Block out your inner critic
It's easier said than done, but ignore the voices in your head that say your novel is awful and you might as well not bother. Writing 50,000 words in a month is intensive enough, so don't you dare think about going over what you've written. Not even to remind yourself of the plot - you don,t need to. Just scribble stuff you need to remember in a notebook and refer to that if you forget where a secondary character works or when something happens to your protagonist. You can sort out continuity and other problems when you're rewriting, so forget about them for now.

5. Take a break!
NaNoWriMo is so intensive that you will spend a lot of your waking hours thinking about your novel and its progress. Make an effort to get away from it at least once a day. If you find your mind wanders when you're reading or watching TV, do something that requires total concentration. I find exercise useful for this - I'm not very fit and need to push myself, so I'm too busying thinking 'I hurt' and 'when can I stop?' to think about my novel!

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Pacing and Busy-ness

Since my last post, on how being busy can result in my being more productive as a writer, I realised another benefit of being busy: it prevents binge-starve writing. 

Binge-starve writing has often been my default setting. It involves writing thousands of words some days, then being unable to get even a few words down on other days. This wouldn't be so bad if they were the extremes of an otherwise stable and regular writing habit, but these binge-or-starve days have tended to form the largest proportion of my writing practice.

But busy people don't have time for bingeing. If you spend hours writing when you ought to be doing other things, it throws your schedule off track and then it affects your daily routine and sleep patterns... Everything becomes chaos. And when you don't binge, you tend not to starve so much.

Doing NaNoWriMo for the first time has highlighted this for me. Having a 'diet' of 1600-2000 words a day means I stop when the ideas are flowing, instead of waiting until my writing dries up and I'm exhausted. It also gives me extra motivation to write every day, as opposed to thinking 'I'll just write 10,000 words over the weekend to catch up' and not writing for a few days. 

Writing every day can also help keep the momentum. Ernest Hemingway is known to have taken a similar approach, stopping his working day when the writing was still flowing. I hope to kickstart the habit of writing every day by doing NaNoWriMo, as well as finishing a hefty chunk of my novel's first draft. Pacing myself, in theory, should result in my sustaining a regular, solid output of words.

I'm finding this approach particularly beneficial for novel writing, as I need to absorb the story in order to continue writing each day without extensive recapping. An hour of writing every day is thus more productive than doing 5 hours twice a week, huge chunks of which would be spent reading my notes and reviewing what I've already done. It also gives me a daily time-out from chasing my puppy around the house!

Monday, 28 October 2013

In Praise of Being Busy

Having a lot to do and think about is often stressful, but it can also be exhilarating. It can force you to prioritise and organise the various elements of your life. A long to-do list can be motivating and, when you tick off tasks, very satisfying. Being forced to do things can give you more energy. It makes you value the odd moments of fun or relaxation you manage to squeeze into your schedule. Being busy gives life a fullness that can yield a lot of pleasure.

I think my experience of depression makes me hyper-aware of the busy-as-good phenomenon. My lowest points have been drawn-out periods of inertia, when I neither wanted to do anything nor was able to do anything. Feeling stressed and anxious usually indicates an improvement in my life; it is a sign that I am pushing boundaries and challenging myself. But being busy is more than that - whereas I can spend two weeks stressing about a 15-20 minute appointment at the Job Centre when there is nothing else going on in my life, being busy means there is a limit to the stress.

I started noticing the pleasures of business when my dad had a heart attack in March this year. Despite the demands of hospital visits, driving him around and trying to ease my mum's stress, it was my most productive period of writing since I finished my MA the previous August. Although the seriousness of the situation may have made me realise I have to prioritise writing before it's too late (I don't remember consciously thinking this, but I can't rule it out), I believe the main reasons for this productivity were practical. Instead of thinking I'd get around to writing later, I knew that I had to grab time when it was available. I even scheduled writing sessions, rather than allocating 'sometime this afternoon' or 'later'.

Being busy also helps you develop a routine. Back in August and early September, when I was making an effort to be healthier and happier, I made myself follow a routine that involved eating a proper breakfast and exercising. I only realised how happy it made me when my dog died and I sank into sadness and then depression.

Now I'm busy with my new puppy and preparing to do NaNoWriMo for the first time - and I wouldn't have it any other way! I've endured one of the worst months of my life, but now I'm feeling better and I'm ready to be busy again.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Endings into Beginnings

I've had a terrible month - my darling springer spaniel, Roxie, died suddenly on 12th September, the day before her 10th birthday. I was devastated. She helped me through the toughest times of my life, when I couldn't imagine wanting to live, let alone having the motivation to go to university and write. I miss her every day, at the oddest times. I used to get so annoyed when she followed me to the toilet all the time, but now it feels weird to be alone!

The month got worse when we found out that my grandmother was dying from 3 bleeds on her brain the weekend after Roxie died; she gave up her battle last Wednesday. She was 88, so we were prepared, but she went through a lot of pain and it was horrible to watch. I can only imagine what it must have felt like for her.

The third ending in September was a positive one: I finished my novel! I didn't want to use Roxie's death as an excuse for not entering the Mslexia novel competition like I said I would, and although I know she was a dog and knew nothing about novels, I felt that she would have wanted be to finish it. The novel is far from perfect - it needs a good polish and its brevity makes me nervous, as if I have forgotten to include a lot of stuff. But nevermind, I can put it aside for a while and move on.

Conversely, my life has also been full of beginnings. One of my best friends had her first baby yesterday (and it's a girl!) and another got engaged earlier in September. I also have a friend whose second baby is due in December. It's an exciting time!

The major beginning for me is... I'm getting a puppy on Saturday!

His name is Murray and he was supposed to be ready 16th October, on his 8 week birthday, but the vet said the puppies could go a little earlier, so it turns out that I will get him on the 1 month anniversary of Roxie's death. I can't wait to own a dog again (and to belong to him). I always knew I would want another dog soon after Rox and I think he's the perfect choice to be my second one. I met him a couple of weeks ago and he was very, very cute - I can't wait to bring him home!

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Searching for Happiness

I love positive psychology. Regular readers will have heard me mention it many times - it's an area of psychology that focuses on wellbeing and happiness. In short, it's about how to achieve good feelings. I find the approach refreshing because so much of psychology focuses on the bad stuff. It's necessary, of course, for psychology to address mental illness, criminal behaviour, how people cope with trauma, etc. but as someone who has lived with mental illness for years, I can vouch that there have been many times when I felt like my illness was ruling my life and I wanted to scream "there's more to me than this!"

I've been feeling this way more lately, as my mental health has improved since earlier in the year and I'm trying to move past my symptoms. When depression and anxiety prevent me from doing so much, it's easy to lose track of who I am and what I can control. I had already been seeking solace in positive psychology when I came across The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

The book's premise is simple: one woman, one year, a list of resolutions that will (hopefully) improve her happiness. Rubin did loads of research into happiness, much of which comes from the school of positive psychology, in order to decide how to improve her life. She comes across as a very rigorous and dedicated person - reading her reading lists in the back of the book made me feel exhausted!

The Happiness Project is, above everything, inspiring. Not because its author has made gigantic discoveries or overcome terrible situations, but because she's like many other women who have no time and wish their partners would do the chores without having to be nagged. Rubin points out that her book is not about dealing with mental illness and that you should seek professional help if you are suffering from depression or another illness (as I have done and would reiterate), but I nonetheless found her book extremely helpful. Unlike other books on the subject, The Happiness Project is full of practical advice on how to apply scientific findings to your own, everyday life.

Gretchen Rubin is full of tricks and strategies. My favourite is the resolution chart, an idea which she adapted from Benjamin Franklin. It acts as a checklist for the new behaviours you are trying to adopt and you can see the whole month at a glance. It's very motivating to see how your small actions add up.

So I decided to start my own Happiness Project!

I'm keeping it low-key and while I won't be blogging specifically about it, I will probably mention it a lot in future posts so I thought I'd better explain. My initial resolutions are simple and include:

1. Exercise
2. Meditation
3. Writing 3 things I am grateful for every day
4. Finding ways to be kind to myself and to others
5. Writing

All of these are proven to make people happier (in this case, writing counts as following one of my passions) and I'm hoping that the small steps will lead to bigger ones.

For some of the areas of my life that I'm working on, I have an idea of where I want to go. For others, I don't have an inkling! I'm taking things slowly and aim to add more resolutions each month as I build the older resolutions into habits.

One thing I would advise people with a mental illness to bear in mind if creating their own Happiness Project is to start with resolutions you know you can do. Don't say you're going to go for a two mile walk every day if you haven't left the house alone for months or years and have nobody to accompany you. Don't say you'll run three miles if you struggle to walk briskly for half a mile. There's no shame in starting from the beginning and progressing at a slow pace. Build a foundation and add more challenging goals once you get going.

For example, I know that working actively on my confidence would make a huge difference to my life, but I also know it will be difficult to achieve. The last thing I want to do is force myself into anxiety-inducing situations and lose the little confidence I have when something goes wrong. I've tried that in the past. Instead, focusing on things like fitness and doing what I enjoy will gradually build up my confidence for when I'm ready to push this goal.

However, there are also some things I know I ought to push myself on right now...

After weeks and weeks of dilly-dallying, I've decided to enter the Mslexia novel competition. I hadn't looked at my manuscript for a few months and knew it was too short, but I also knew I didn't want to regret missing an opportunity. The novel was planned and plotted before I wrote it, so the last draft was in a pretty good state despite its lack of length.

The deadline is 23rd September, by which time I hope to have redrafted the whole thing to the length of a novel. (Okay, so it's only a few thousand words under and I'll probably add several thousand more, but 'too short' feels too short however far away it is from the desired length. As anyone who has ever worn a mini skirt shorter than was comfortable can testify.) I should also have time for a final polish/edit if I work fast.

I think I must be mad, but my friends are encouraging me and I admit that it's something I want to do, even if I fail miserably. Besides, embracing the fun of failure is one of Gretchen Rubin's aims in The Happiness Project, so it must be worth doing!

Monday, 12 August 2013

You Will Fail.

Any successful person has failed and failed again. Most of writing is failure - failure to get the words right, failure to publish work, failure to win competitions, failure to get words on the page. The perfectionist in me wants to fight. I want to say "If I try hard enough, I won't fail!" But the fact is that you can try as hard as it is humanly possible and you will still fail some (or most) of the time. Many factors are out of our control; even those within our control can be affected by unforeseen circumstances. A straight-A record isn't feasible in the real world - and the real world encroaching on our studies means that most of us didn't get straight As at school.

A close friend recently managed to shock me. Did she commit a crime? No. Did she behave outrageously? No. Did she announce that she was a Justin Bieber fan? Absolutely not, thank goodness. She said she never learned to ride a bike. She tried when she was about six years old, but gave up because she kept falling off.

I find that ludicrous. I fell off my bike hundreds of times as a child - and dozens more in my teen and adult years. It never occurred to me to give up. I feel the same about writing. It's difficult to maintain confidence at times and the process can be tricky, but I never want to give up. I can't be the kid who decides not to bother learning to ride a bike just because it's hard.

I'm glad I learnt to ride a bike: it's given me many hours of fun and many glowing feelings of achievement. Ditto writing. I accept that I'm bound to fall off my bike every now and then. I can get distracted and veer into a hedge. I could hit a patch of gravel. Someone could ride into me... Well, actually, I rode into my mother! The point is, I'm learning to accept and embrace failure as an intrinsic part of writing.

Failing over and over is horrible, almost soul-destroying. But it's vital to get back on the bike and keep riding. What's the alternative? Never knowing the rush of freewheeling down a hill. Never feeling smug and satisfied at making it up a large hill without having to get off and push. Never simply enjoying the scenery and the hum of your tyres.

So, since mental illness has cause many writing failures this year, I'm going to celebrate failing as well as my small successes (like writing this blog post!). I suggest you do the same: congratulate yourself for every rejection letter and every crappy draft. Believe me, it's better than giving up.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

How to Begin Writing Again After a Period of Depression

I've been depressed for the past couple of months. I've had depression for years and have been improving overall, but am susceptible to periods of moderate to severe depression that disrupts my already-limited life. These periods are difficult: depression can steal everything you value and enjoy. My most recent period hasn't been the worst - not by a long shot - but it has been difficult to cope. One of the most difficult aspects, as a writer, is getting back into a writing routine. Or even writing at all.

As my depression has improved, I've made some discoveries and observations that have helped me understand how recovering from a period of worse-than-usual depression affects my writing and my feelings about writing. I have found ways of being more productive while making the transition back into "normal" writing life. I hope other people find these startegies useful too, whether they suffer from mental illness or are experiencing the low moods that affect most people from time to time.

1. Understand that it's a WIP
You're unlikely to go from not writing at all (or writing very little) straight into a writing routine. Sorry, but none of these tips will make the process easy; I'm merely aiming to make it marginally less difficult. Getting back to writing is a work in progress. You will experience lapses and setbacks. It might be frustrating to accept, but there will be times when you cannot write, or when your writing seems pointless and terrible. But remember that every single word counts. Your progress may be slow and patchy, but it's progress. Hold this thought foremost in your mind.

2. If you can, read.
Read whatever you can. Read old favourites. Read your literary equivalent of comfort food, whether it's childhood classics or the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. I find that my ability to read returns long before my desire and ability to write when I'm depressed. I suspect this is the case for most people - reading is less taxing than writing and more enjoyable when you're feeling down. Use this to your advantage. As you feel better, read books you wish you'd written, read books in genres you love and those you don't, try books that differ from your usual taste. Then, when you're feeling much better, read books to inspire your writing. These may be books on the craft of writing or discussions about reading and/or writing. They may be stories similar to those you hope to write. Try everything and anything!

3. Embrace the darkness.
Writing anything is better than writing nothing, so use your fears and grief to fuel your writing. It may be scary and, of course, if it raises issues that you ought to discuss with a doctor or therapist then seek help, but sometimes writing about your worst thoughts and emotions is a way of getting past them.  You may produce an outpouring of feelings that you shut away and never use or you could
choose to use this powerful material in your prose or poetry. There are benefits to either approach. The important thing is to write.

4. Track your progress.
One of the many difficulties of mental illness is that motivational tools become double-edged swords.
  By tracking your progress I am NOT talking about setting unrealistic goals and then beating yourself up when you fail to achieve them. I mean that you should acknowledge the times when you manage to write. Don't get caught up in numbers - the time you spend writing and the amount of words you write are irrelevant when you're recovering from a period of extremely low mood. Instead, circle the date in your diary or tick the calendar to record your steps towards writing regularly again.

5. Eschew deadlines.
Following on from the previous tip, go easy on yourself and don't pressure yourself into meeting unessential deadlines. Self-imposed deadlines can be great motivators, but when you're depressed they can also become more "reasons" why you're not good enough. If you have external deadlines, think about whether you can miss them without losing too much (e.g. Competitions you would like to enter but don't have to), or extend them. Mental illness should be regarded as no different to physical illness: if you had a physical illness that affects your ability to write, would you be more understanding or compassionate?

6. Keep struggling!
It may sound flippant, but keep trying to write. If something is important to you, you must have faith that it will be worth the effort. Depression may rob you of faith and hope, but remember that this, too, will pass and keep on wiritng whenever you can.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Disappearances

I haven't posted for a while, which is the obvious disappearance. Neither have I been writing much elsewhere, thanks to the disappearance of my motivation and confidence. I've felt depressed. And worrying about not writing didn't help!

Mental illness can be unpredictable. There's no rhyme or reason concerning phases when I feel more depressed and/or anxious. Hence I feel pretty crap at a time when my life is relatively stable and some good things have been happening.

I don't have any answers. The main reason I'm posting is to say "hi, I'm still around" and if it also reassures people in similar situations that they are not alone, all the better. My strategy is to take it easy (as much as I can!), be easy on myself (ditto!) and spend time thinking about how to change things for the better. I hope to resume writing soon, but right now writing anything is a bonus - and that includes this post!


Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Recharging

I spend a lot of time trying to motivate myself.  I have a perfectionist streak and am convinced that everyone else is working harder and better than me. Every time I read about a writer who has been published and/or had other success before they're 30, I feel like I'm lagging behind. It's time to realise I'm not in a race.

I lost sight of the value of stepping back. When you paint a large canvas, you have to step back at frequent intervals to see how the whole looks. Focusing on the detail makes you lose sight of the bigger picture and you can no longer see the whole. You may have to leave the room and come back later, when you can see the canvas with fresh eyes.

It's the same for writing: stepping back is essential to get a clear view.

It's relatively easy to see the importance of stepping back in the case of individual projects. Most of us learn that setting a draft aside for a length of time, whether it's for several weeks or just several hours, can help our rewriting/editing to be more effective. But how often do we remember to step back from our writing as a whole?

I'd been dashing around trying to write as much I could, making long to-do lists of all the stories I needed to draft or rewrite or edit or enter in a competition. Although I knew my priorities were the two projects that came out of my MA dissertation, a short story collection and a novel, I found myself neglecting them. I was procrastinating by doing work that didn't matter as much as my priorities. I tried putting my priority projects at the top of my to-do lists, but had limited success. I would either work on other projects or not work at all.

So I tried a drastic solution: I gave myself permission to stop writing. No to-do lists, no deadlines, no goals. All I asked of myself was time to consider how I wanted to continue with my writing career.

This time has been invaluable. It's given me the chance to reflect on the kind of writer I want to be and the break from stressing about my (lack of) progress has let me recharge. And the weird thing is, I've done far more work on my novel!

When you have mental health issues, it's essential to place your wellbeing ahead of everything else in life - even writing. If my mental illness worsens, I can't write. However, recharging is beneficial for everyone. It helps realign your priorities and refreshes you. As a result, you find time to do the things that are most important to you. In my case, that's working on my priority projects and letting other writing take a backseat.

It also means accepting that I'm not in a race - it's more of a solo run. Obsessing over my perceived failures and being a perfectionist is detrimental, because there's no one else to compete against. I've tried competing against myself in the past and discovered it gets me nowhere. There's no point in sprinting to the finish line; it's crucial to enjoy the run.

After all, an artist doesn't build a career on exquisite details if the rest of the canvas is a mess: he/she must produce superb paintings, which accumulate to create an exquisite portfolio.



Wednesday, 17 April 2013

How Kaizen Can Motivate Writers

I wrote an overview of Kaizen in writing a couple of weeks ago. I explained how the concept is about taking small but continuous steps towards improvement. Since I started thinking about kaizen and how it can help writers, I haven't been able to stop! I also thought others might benefit from seeing how I apply kaizen to more specific aspects of writing.

Kaizen gets you past the fear.

That's one of the reasons for its success: big actions tend to be scary and involve a lot of risk and effort, whereas kaizen encourages you to take small, incremental steps that are so easy there's no excuse for not doing the tasks. Dividing what you want to achieve into tiny steps is rather like chunking. When using kaizen, the idea is to make the chunks ludicrously small - whether you feel you need to or not.


Example: you might want to write a short story. The initial kaizen steps could look like this...

1/. Pick a name for your protagonist

2/. Give your protagonist a problem
Any problem that pops into your head. Or pick one from a magazine problem page or website.

3/. Pick a setting
Any setting that works for your character and his/her problem. Stick a pin in a map if you're stuck.

4/. Select a key personality trait
Anything. Even if it sounds silly. Don't worry about how it fits in with your character's problem.

5/. think of what can go wrong
You can do this all in one go, as a brainstorming exercise, or separate into mini-steps and think of each obstacle as a step.

6/. Choose your main obstacle
Don't over-think it. Pick whichever one catches your eye.

7/. Pick a secondary obstacle (or two, or decide you don't need one)

8/. Choose names for the characters who cause problems/obstacles for your protagonist
This might be obvious because of the problem you've chosen - if your character's problem is that her mother is terminally ill and wants to do a skydive that the protagonist thinks is too dangerous and therefore wants to stop, the mother is the main antagonist.

Your obstacles may also create antagonists/mini-antagonists. In the example above, the protagonist's major obstacle might be that her sister thinks it's a great idea and is helping her mother get a lot of sponsorship in aid of a charity that helps the mother.

If your problem and obstacles don't offer an obvious antagonist, brainstorm people who could try to stop the protagonist reaching their goal. Again, you could break this into mini-steps and think of one such character per day.


And so on...

Doesn't this look ludicrously simple? Yes. That's the precise point of kaizen. It's about finding low-key solutions rather than huge innovations. It's much easier to implement and is just as effective as a massive change - if not more effective.

I could go for a walk, for instance, and think of an idea for a short story that comes in one huge blob. Great! Trouble is. I could walk for hours without getting such inspiration. The kaizen approach, on the other hand, ensures results.

I could go for an hour's walk every day for a week and not come up with a story. Or I could follow a few tiny kaizen steps that take a few minutes each day and come up with an outline. For minimal time and effort, I get a tangible result.

Which you can emulate!

Of course, one of the best things about Kaizen is that anyone can do it. I would struggle to explain how I get ideas when I'm in the middle of something else - I could offer theories as to why some of my best ideas come the second I leave the computer and go to the toilet, but I can't describe the process in detail. At best, I could offer vague advice about keeping your mind open to ideas. Kaizen, on the other hand, enables me to show how big changes can be broken down into simple actions. It is highly adaptable and accessible.

The initial motivation comes from the steps being so small that there's no excuse not to do them. The steps then spark ideas that may motivate you - but even if they don't, it doesn't matter! You just continue doing each small step because there's no excuse not to. Having said that, in my experience, small kaizen actions lead to a plethora of ideas that renew your motivation.




Thursday, 11 April 2013

Writing Our Own Narratives

What do you want your life story to be

I remind myself of this question during tough times. I want to be a successful writer, of course, but I can't control exactly how that will happen - assuming it does. Framing the hard times in the context of what I hope will be my life story can be comforting and motivating. Put simply, my narrative would read "despite struggling with mental illness, Hayley persevered and her first novel was published in year X." If this does happen, I hope it will inspire other people who face mental illness or similar obstacles.

But what if I never find success?

Leaving aside the question of how to define success (for now), the unsuccessful life story has two main narratives:
a). I let myself get discouraged and abandon my dreams. I may, against the odds, be content. I may do other important things with my life. However, my unpursued ambitions will hang over my head and I doubt I would be truly happy.
b). I continue to find pleasure in writing, despite never getting published. I do other work in order to earn a living, but writing is still my main passion. No amount of rejection can dissuade me and as long as I continue to write, there's always the possibility of success.

The second option sounds much better, right? Doing something you love is never a waste of time. 

A narrative of meaning is available to everybody.

I read Man's Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl this week. It's a rich, inspiring book about Frankl's experience of the holocaust and his survival. Through this narrative, he explains the school of psychology he developed, logotherapy. Logotherapy explores the ways people can find meaning in their lives and pinpoints three major areas:
1/. Finding meaning through work
2/. Finding meaning through love
3/. Finding meaning through suffering

We can't control what happens to us, but we can control our reactions. We can accept a difficult situation with grace, rather than riling against it or living in denial. We can focus our attention on what provides us with meaning and pleasure, rather than obsessing about the bad stuff. We can wallow in our misfortunes, or we can strive to understand ourselves better through the challenges we face.

We can see that option b). mentioned above contains the opportunity to find meaning in all the areas outlined by Frankl. Writing is work, so continuing to write allows me to find meaning regardless of its outcome. Writing is also one of the great loves of my life. And in the suffering of rejection, there is an opportunity to keep trying and learn from this resilience. Yes, I want to be successful, but I choose this narrative for myself, for my life, regardless.

Defining success

I have ignored the precise definition of success so far, since it differs so much from person to person -  and is liable to change over time. However, I think it's vital to address the fact that success comes in many forms. Making a living from writing is one type of success, but simply making time to write is another. There are a range of inbetween stages too, such as making enough money through writing to allow you to work part time at the day job or earning enough through writing non-fiction to subsidise your fiction writing. A Booker Prize winner may influence a huge number of people, but telling your stories in a local school or nursing home also provides people with pleasure. I want my narrative to embrace all forms of success.



Monday, 1 April 2013

Kaizen in Writing

I first came across kaizen over a decade ago, when I was at college and doing a Business Studies A level: it was described as a style of business management that involved continuously making small changes. This philosophy appealed to me. I have always tended to be goal-orientated and results-driven (often to my detriment!), so monitoring what works is something I do automatically. However, I also have a strong perfectionist streak that screams 'why make small changes when you can make big changes?'

Kaizen is much more effective when you overcome such perfectionism. The point of making small changes is that they are achievable, which is also motivating. The point of them being continuous is that you build momentum and the small changes accumulate into big changes.

Kaizen is also marvellously flexible. You can apply the principles to pretty much anything, in every area of your life. There are lots of ways writers can use kaizen; far too many for me to mention in one blog post. Besides, part of the fun is in adapting these ideas for yourself!


Here are some examples to get you started:

1/. Kaizen Editing
Focus on changing one tiny aspect of your draft at a time. This could be anything from flagging up clichés to spotting spelling mistakes. Conveying a character's mean streak or checking punctuation. Finding plot holes or removing excess adverbs. You get the idea!

2/. Kaizen in your Routine
Think of small changes that will make it easier for you to write. Many people have a coffee before they think about writing to perk them up, for instance, whereas coffee gives me gastritis so I warm up my brain by checking emails, online banking, editing my Amazon wishlist, etc. if you feel tired mid-afternoon, would you benefit from a power nap or a power walk? How do certain foods affect you? A chocolate bar may sound like a good idea for a late morning energy boost, but not once the sugar high wears off. How could you make your writing area more comfortable or inspirational?

You may need to think a lot about what is preventing your routine from being more effective, but once you pinpoint the problem and make small changes, you can make a big difference to your productivity.

3/. Kaizen for your Submissions Process
Or, in my case, lack of submission process! Again, you might need to address some major issues, such as confidence, but kaizen is about making things generally easier - you don't necessarily need to tackle an issue head-on to yield results. So, you may be reluctant to submit short stories because you lack confidence, but making submitting easier and more convenient could lead to you submitting more stories. I find it hard to work up the confidence to submit to competitions, but most of the competitions I enter are ones I can pay for and enter online. Why? Because once I find that iota of confidence, it takes 2 minutes to submit! I don't have to sustain my confidence as I print the story, fill in an entry form, write a check, find an envelope, take it to the post office...

And just by writing this, I can think of many more things that would make it easier for me to submit: I could buy a load of stamps at the postage price of my average submission, make a list of free competitions and/or journals accepting online entries, get critique partners to tell me which stories are good enough to submit and which need work. Of course, I should also work on building my confidence, but I wanted to show that kaizen can offer simple solutions in complex situations!

And once you start making changes, continue...


Kaizen can be used in such a range of applications related to writing that it's impossible to mention them all in a single post. It's a topic I will experiment with and revisit in future. Meanwhile, have fun conducting your own experiments and let me know the results!

=

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Reality Award!



Thanks to The Busy Teapot for nominating me!

The award is lovely as are the rules which are nice and short:
The rules are - visit the person of the blog who nominated you and link to them on your post. Answer the questions, nominate more bloggers and let them know.


1. If you could change one thing, what would it be?
I’d redistribute wealth so that people don't die of hunger and other basic needs while some people waste millions on trivial stuff. 

2. If you could repeat an age, what would it be?
Hmmm... Being 2/3 was pretty fun. I'd also like to repeat my teen years, only with the confidence I didn't have at the time, so I can make the most of being a teenager.

3. What one thing really scares you?
Never giving myself a fair shot at achieving my dreams. Though small spaces and fish also scare me!

4. If you could be someone else for a day, who would it be?
A glamorous 1920s flapper. Or Elizabeth I; she's more interesting and probably still had plenty of fun!

I’m nominating:

Joanne http://jfoxwriter.blogspot.co.uk/
Joanna http://brightwriter60.blogspot.co.uk/
Rosemary http://ros-readingandwriting.blogspot.co.uk/

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Be Your Own Writing Coach!


I love applying self-help techniques to my writing, as writing is inevitably entangled with my perceptions, attitudes and emotions. So I was thrilled to discover Coach Yourself to Writing Success by Bekki Hill, who has done all the hard work and provides strategies I can directly apply to writing. Bekki Hill is a life coach who specializes in working with writers - and it shows.

The book is chock-full of excellent advice and fantastic ideas. It's split into 3 sections, which cover pretty much any writing problem you might encounter:
1. Building the foundations of success
2. Motivation and creativity
3. Challenges
It's designed so that you can turn straight to specific problems easily, often cross-referencing other parts of the book that might be helpful. However, I read it cover to cover and it flows well from dealing with the big issues of forging a writing career to coping with specific problems.

My favourite exercise is the writer's timeline. You write your goal at the end of the time line and past/present achievements near the beginning, then figure out the steps you need to take to get you there. You can leave some of the timeline blank, but Hill says it's most useful to fill in at least 2 thirds.

I found this motivating and it helped me to clarify my writing goals and what I need to achieve on the way to reaching them. I've always written down my goals, but have noticed that I often feel a disconnect between the goals and the writing I'm currently working on. The timeline shows the connection explicitly - and I tend to think visually, which makes it doubly effective.

I may revisit this book on the blog in future, since it's so rich with information, and I fully recommend it. It's provided me with much-needed guidance at a time when I feel adrift, having finished my MA and not being enrolled on a course of any kind for the first time in 5 years. If you want more info, Bekki Hill's website is www.thewritecoach.co.uk and you can follow her on Twitter: @bekkiwritecoach

Monday, 25 February 2013

When The Chain Breaks

In my last post, The Chain Commands, I talked about how to get into the habit of writing every day - but what if it goes wrong? When you break your chain of writing days, how can you get back on track?

1. Just do it.
In the words of a famous sportswear brand, sometimes all you can do is push yourself to get something done - just do it. Write something. Anything. Don't worry about how little you write, or how terrible it is. Write the world's worst haiku: it doesn't matter. It's the act of writing that signals 'I'm writing again' as opposed to 'I haven't written for days'.

2. Add the next link.
Do the same the next day - write a haiku that's even worse than yesterday's. Why? Because once you write two days in a row, you have a chain. Instead of a single link that may never join with another, you have started the chain of writing every day again.

3. Write something different.
I wasn't merely being facetious when I suggested you write the world's worst haiku - I find it effective because I don't usually write them. Or any other kind of poem. Allowing yourself to write something different to your usual style/genre/subject/whatever removes the pressure. Instead of sitting over your notebook with pen quivering, you can scribble some words and have fun. Try writing a segment of screenplay, a fable, a sonnet, a character's to-do list, flash fiction, a description of a dark and stormy night...

4. Do something different.
If you're stuck in a rut writing-wise, your life in general is probably stuck in a rut too. When I'm trying new things - or even learning new things - I tend to feel inspired and more motivated to write. Shaking up your routine doesn't have to be dramatic - a bungee jump may work, but so could a walk somewhere you haven't been for ages. Or cooking a new recipe for dinner. Or visiting a charity shop (especially if you challenge yourself to buy the most interesting item you can find under a certain price).

Brainstorm or ask a friend to suggest something if you get stuck. You could also try writing activities on pieces of paper and pulling one out of a jar. They could say anything: do a salsa class, talk to a stranger, make a dress using only materials you already have in your home, go on a swing, participate in a (non-writing) competition, count how many types of animals you can find around your home town... The weirder, the better!

5. Make a game of writing.
There are thousands of writing exercises that are fun to do - so try some! Open the dictionary at random, select a word and write whatever comes into your head. Make flashcards with various words on them and create sentences, or use the word order to create a story. Tell a story through a different medium - like drawing, photography, plasticine models, sock puppets, music, mime...


The idea is to create a springboard. You may think the writing that results from these ideas is stupid, but writing rubbish is better than not writing at all. However, I find that the exercises that seem most ridiculous are the ones that generate the best ideas. Having fun can be motivating in itself, but the ideas you produce will motivate you further and before you know it, your chain will (like a certain brand of toilet paper) be long and strong!

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Chain Commands!

I read recently that Jerry Seinfeld got into the habit of writing every day by putting a cross on the calendar each day he wrote. One of my New Year's resolutions is to get into the habit of writing every day, so I decided to mark my progress in a similar fashion. Using a calendar would be pointless, because I never remember to look at the bloody things, but I do have a Mslexia Writer's Diary...

I use the diary for everything and anything to do with writing: competition deadlines, to-do lists of writing tasks, random thoughts and writing plans, etc. I already checked it most days, so I started circling the days when I managed to write. I also drew in squiggly lines between the circles, to emphasize the idea that it's a chain I want to avoid breaking.

And it's surprisingly motivating. Far more motivating than I expected. So I got thinking "how can I increase and harness this sense of motivation?"

1. Keeping marking your progress and look back over the chain to remind yourself how well you're doing. An obvious point, but if you don't flip back the pages of your planner/diary/calendar, you're missing out on a massive confidence boost. Also try marking the chain when you hit 50/100/200+ days of writing in a row.

2. The earlier (in the day) you write, the more likely you are to write more. This doesn't mean you have to get up at 5am and/or write before you have as much as a cup of coffee - if you can and do, good for you, but I am NOT a morning person. I love the idea of doing morning pages, as suggested by Julia Cameron among others, but it takes me 2 hours to wake up enough to find a pen, let alone write. During those 2 hours, I do stuff like sort out my emails, reply to comments, online banking, writing a to-do list, wasting time playing games on the internet... I think of it as gently warming up my mind! But once I am alert, I tend to be more productive if I get some writing done straightaway.

3. They say it takes 21 days to form a habit, so push through those 3 weeks and it will become easier. I don't know when it happened, but at some point I began to think of writing every day as an integral part of my daily life. Most days, I do it automatically. The longer you keep going, the easier it gets - you might have to schedule it in at first, especially if you've got a busy lifestyle, but soon you will find yourself snatching a few minutes of writing time here and there without noticing you're doing it. But you will notice afterwards, when you add another link to your chain!

 
And if you want more inspiration, this Mslexia Competition is giving away Writing Maps (also available to buy from www.writingmaps.com) which contain exercises that guide you through different aspects of writing. The comp closes 28th February 2013. They sound pretty cool, so I might buy one or two - whether I win the competition or not!
 
There are diffrent types available, including My Writing Life, Writing in Cafes and Writing the Love, so you can choose the one(s) that suit you. The Writing Maps are £3.90 each and the website offers free shipping worldwide. They fold up, so the idea is you stick the Writing Map in your pocket and go forth with writing prompts available when needed.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Feel the Fear and Submit it Anyway!

One of the books that has helped me most with my struggle to cope with mental illness is Feel The Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers. Self-help books often get a bad rap. Especially if they have catchy titles. However, I found Feel The Fear to be a revelation and it's incredibly useful. This book is one of the main reasons I was able to crawl out of the depths of anxiety and depression. And the most revelatory part? Everybody feels fear.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? But I was convinced that confident people were a different species to me. I never considered that they feel fear.

Jeffers also offers 5 truths about fear:
1. The fear will never go away as long as I continue to grow.
2. The only way to get rid of the fear of doing something is to go out... and do it.
3. The only way to feel better about myself is to go out... and do it.
4. Not only am I going to experience fear whenever I'm on unfamiliar territory, but so is everybody else.
5. Pushing through fear is less frightening than living with the underlying fear that comes from a feeling of helplessness.

Jeffers explains these in detail and they are the foundation of the book, which I recommend to anybody and everybody. It helped me when I was afraid to leave the house; it helped me hop on a plane (for the first time ever, on my own) and visit a friend in Valencia.

But it's only in recent weeks that I have thought of applying the lessons in Feel The Fear to my writing. I tend to be self-critical and avoid submitting my writing anywhere, because I'm convinced it won't be good enough. Whenever I get up the nerve to enter a story in a competition, I imagine it get photocopied and passed around - for people to laugh at.

If I was to continue like this, where would it leave me? At home, writing thousands and thousands of words I will never send out. I have to face the possibility not only that I'm too scared to be a writer, but that I might be scared of being a writer.

So what can I do? Give up on my lifelong dream? Er, no. I have to take action. I have to literally feel the fear and do it anyway.

I've submitted stories to a few competitions this week and plan to submit several more over the next week or two. I don't know when I will stop worrying about judges reading my stories and saying 'what possessed her to send us this crap', but I know there will be a day when I enter a competition or send a story to a literary journal and not feel it's such a big deal.

Because it's not a big deal for a writer to submit stories: it's a necessity.

I will have to do it again and again, for as long as I want to keep writing. And you know what? It's infinitely better than being stuck in a fog of fear.

If you're in a similar situation, find places to submit your work to - and submit them. It might cost you a bit of money through printouts, postage and entry fees, but the cost of staying scared is far greater.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

A Change of Name and (slight) Change of Perspective

As you may have noticed, this blog has changed its name to Hayley's Write Mind. This is more a renewal than a reinvention: I've been writing the blog long enough to clarify its purpose and the types of posts I want to publish. Writing, Reading and Waffling was a vague, nondescript title that suited me when I was testing the waters of blogging. Hayley's Write Mind describes my blog much better and is succinct. Besides, I can't resist a silly pun!

So there it is: this blog is about my writing and writing in general, with some psychology thrown in. Writing about my writing means that mentioning my experience of mental illness is inevitable, but psychology is also a topic that fascinates me. I've read a lot about psychology over the past 5/6 years, initially to understand my mental illness better and to treat it, but also as research for various university assignments. Now the craziness of university is over, I've spent a lot of time thinking about ways in which I can apply psychological knowledge and techniques to writing.

The comments on my last couple of posts seem to confirm that other people find this useful, so I intend to post more about psychology and writing in future. I will continue to blog about my own writing and experiences and hope you enjoy this (slight) change of focus - and the new name!

Monday, 28 January 2013

How Writers Can Cultivate Flow

Flow is that state where you get "into the zone" or "lose track of everything else". It's tricky to describe - which is surprising since I bet everybody has experienced Flow many times throughout their lives. A wonderful man called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (he likes to be called Mike, apparently, and the surname is pronounced cheeks-sent-me-high) is an expert in the field of Positive Psychology, which looks at happiness, fulfilment and, um, the positive side of life. His book Flow: The Psychology of Happiness is amazing and accessible; which is why I'm borrowing the criteria that define Flow from it...

Being in a state of Flow usually involves:
1. A challenging activity that requires skill
2. The merging of action and awareness
3. Clear goals and feedback
4. Concentration on the task at hand
5. The paradox of control: a sense of being in control, while simultaneously no longer worrying about being in or losing control
6. The loss of self-consciousness
7. The transformation of time: minutes can seem like hours, and vice versa, as time loses proportion

Thinking about Flow, I realised that some of my best writing has been done it that state. I was also aware that I don't very often achieve a state of Flow when writing. So I thought of some ways writers (including myself) could cultivate Flow and, hopefully, improve productivity.

Strategies/exercises that encourage a sense of Flow:

Freewriting - I've mentioned freewriting a lot in various blog posts, but I love it! All you do is write whatver's in your head. Even if it's "I don't know what to write about" or "everything I write is crap". Don't pause. Keep writing, spewing out all those thoughts and ideas you tend never to notice.

Focused Freewriting - this is a variation of freewriting where you consider a specific topic and write everything you think of in relation to that topic. The topic could be a theme (like jealousy or love), a character, a situation, a problem you're having with a particular story (how can I write about a coincidence without it seeming too contrived?), a setting or location... Anything. Again, just keep writing and let your mind bring forth ideas you might otherwise cast aside.

Micro Goal-Setting - ask yourself what you want to achieve during a writing session and keep writing until you get there. You will have to experiment to find out what types of goals work best for you; which induce Flow most effectively and which leave you dissatisfied. Your might be to write continuously for X minutes, to write X number of words, or to generate X number of ideas.

The important thing is that the goal should be quantifiable: it should tap into the "clear goals and feedback" aspect of Flow. Focus on your goal and doing something towards it - even if your writing or ideas seem rubbish, keep at it. Besides, if you're criticising your work, you're not focusing on the goal!

Planning a Writing Route - decide a chain of goals you want to achieve during a writing session, preferably ones which require you to complete them in order, and approach them as a puzzle you need to solve.  This works best if the goals are plot points - such as how you get a character to a certain location and then to tell a person at that location a piece of vital information - but could also work for other story elements. Focus on each part of the problem in turn and write your solutions. Again, don't judge or criticise your writing: focus on problem-solving. 

Writing Meditation - being in a state of Flow reminds me of mindfulness meditations, where you observe the processes of your mind and bring your concentration back to a focus point (often your breathing) each time your mind wanders. So why not turn your writing session into a mindful meditation? Each time your mind wanders or something distracts you, bring your attention back to your writing.

As Csikszentmihalyi says on page 211 of Flow: The Psychology of Happiness, "concentration leads to involvement, which can only be maintained by constant inputs of attention." It doesn't matter if you get distracted - just bring your attention back to the page/screen. This takes patience and practice, but becomes an effective way of increasing your attention span and actually writing when you intend to write!


Go Forth and Flow!
I hope you find these exercises useful and enjoy trying them out. Their nature means that a lot of what you write may well be rubbish, but you'll be surprised at the number of diamonds you find among the dross. I'm also sure that if you repeat the exercises, over time you will find they produce an increasingly better quality of writing - a bonus!

 





Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Do You Chunk?

Nope, chunking isn't a new dance craze akin to crunking. It's an anti-procrastination technique. I first came across it in a counselling session several years ago and I've used it ever since. The idea is to break down tasks into small, manageable chunks.

A lot of people try this, then say it doesn't work because the chunks aren't manageable. They give up and continue putting things off. Instead, they should break down the chunks into smaller and smaller chunks until they become manageable.

Since this is easier to explain through doing, I'll show you an example. Here's something that has been on my to-do list for months:

Sort out photos on camera

Last night, I decided to 'chunk' this to see if I'd find it easier to get off my butt and do. Here are the chunks:

1. Save all photos on USB stick
2. Create folder labelled 'Decent Photos'
3. Look at photos and copy good ones to 'Decent Photos' folder
4. Save 'Decent Photos' folder on USB stick and computer

Simple, right? And I did all of those last night, taking each step one at a time. It took twenty minutes.

But what if those chunks hadn't felt manageable? I found them relatively easy, but I'm doing pretty well at the moment and felt quite motivated. There are times when I feel absolutely demotivated and even this list would seem too big and exhausting to cope with.

I would break down the chunks into smaller chunks. This can be difficult, but visualising the process of each step makes it easier. So this is how I would chunk the first chunk:

1. Save all photos on USB stick
a). Take camera out of my handbag
b). Take photo card out of the camera
c). Turn on computer
d). Put photo card in computer slot
e). Put USB stick in computer port
f). Open 'My Computer'
g). Double click on the photo card
h). Right click on the folder and select 'send to' and then 'USB stick'

Also remember there's no rule that says you have to do all the chunks at once - quite the opposite, in fact. Even taking out the camera and putting it by the computer can be a huge step if you're suffering from depression, for example, and feel overwhelmed by everything. I ended up doing all of the steps last night because the task turned out to be quick and easy for me, but any chunk you complete is progress.

I love chunking because it's so versatile. During the worst phases of my mental illness, I have used chunking to cope with everyday tasks like taking a shower or preparing lunch. I also use it a lot for writing.

Because writing requires a lot of abstract thinking, so does breaking it down into chunks. You need to be creative to split big chunks like 'edit manuscript' or 'write chapter 7', but it can be done. If you have a daily word target, you can easily break that down into smaller chunks - doing 10 chunks of 100 words is less daunting than a huge 1000 word chunk!

Experiment and find out what type of chunking works for you: whether it's easier for you to edit through chunks like 'edit first 100 words' and 'edit next 100 words', or
whether you progress better using chunks like 'underline good bits in green' and 'mark clichés in red'. I prefer the latter and believe it results in more thorough editing. Again, be creative in choosing your chunks - something that sounds ridiculous might be astonishingly effective.
Here's how I've chunked a short story idea I want to draft:

1. List the plot points
2. Expand each plot point into a list of scenes
3. Write each scene - without worrying about how terrible it is!
4. Print and set aside

I've had the idea for a while and have planned a lot, so it's developed enough to start at this point. In fact, I already knew the plot (though I hadn't yet written it into a list or any other clear format) and some of the scenes. I completed the first two steps last night (yes, I was a busy girl last night - must be something in the air!). I aim to complete step 3 today and it seems rather daunting - but it's already been split into smaller chunks because I have listed each scene I need to write. I will tick off each one as I write it.

Confession: I haven't been using chunking very much of late. I should have been chunking, because it makes things much easier and the planning alone makes me feel more productive. Now I've rediscovered chunking (though it hasn't been that long - only a few months), I remember how effective it is and hope this post has been useful in showing you how effective chunking can be. I plan to do a lot more chunking in future!



Monday, 7 January 2013

Resolute.

I've decided I want my story to be a happy one. Not any story I'm writing - my life story. My recent lack of blogging has been due to soul-searching and thinking about the life I want. After an autumn feeling depressed, lethargic and hopeless, I perked up during December and this sparked a change of attitude. That's the nature of mental illness: try to be as proactive as you can, but sometimes you have to wait for yourself to reach the right frame of mind before things start to fall into place.

The past few years have been frustrating because I've been functional in many ways. It was incredibly difficult, but I managed to complete my BA and MA and got good results. However, most of the time I've been too anxious to go into shops on my own or make my own doctor/hairdresser/whatever appointments. That's the flip-side of being well enough to function in some ways but not in others: I got very frustrated with myself. As you can guess, this made my anxiety worse!

But lately, I've been looking to the future more and taking more action in the present. I've started to focus on what I can do, as opposed to what I'm not (yet!) able to do. I've made New Year's resolutions/goals which adhere to this attitude.

I'm not going to list all my goals - some are a little weird, some are very ambitious and most avery boring - but a few are worth mentioning:

1. This is the year I will finish Ulysses! I've been stuck at page 140 for 3 years and it's been a New Year's Resolution for those years. The ridiculous thing is, I want to read it. I'm not one for reading books just because they're classics or people have told me I should. And when I make the effort and start reading, I enjoy doing so. This resolution is about not making excuses. If I read 2 pages a day, which takes all of a few minutes (ok, 5 or 6 during the densest parts!), I will finish by the end of 2013. I hope to do it sooner, but either way means there's no excuse.

2. I will get fit enough to run (yup, run) 10 miles. I completed my goal of being able to walk 4 miles on my treadmill by the end of 2012. In fact, I finished a couple of weeks early. Now I will focus more on speed, as well as distance, and improving my overall fitness.

Apart from the physical and hormonal benefits, this goal is about making a commitment to myself. If I don't think I'm worth committing to, who else will? I don't mean that in terms of romantic relationships (though it would be nice if I met someone...) but in general and especially in regard to writing. Living my ideal life would involve an agent and publishers committing time and money to my work and me as a person - and I'll never convince anyone unless I demonstrate I'm worth the commitment.

3. I will approach writing professionally. There are many facets of this, but the main ones are confidence and dedication. This means putting in the hours and producing reams of paper covered in words. No procrastinating because I'm convinced I'm crap and my work will never be accepted even if it was finished. No shying away from submitting stories and entering competitions. There are many ways of making a living through writing (which is my ultimate goal), but they all involve putting words on pages and letting others read those words.

So there you have it: one of a billion New Year's Resolution blog posts, Hayley-style!