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!