Thursday, 20 November 2014

Easing The Struggle

I've been having a difficult time over the past few months. An episode of worse depression than usual coincided with some external difficulties, which means I haven't been coping well and my writing (including blogging) has been neglected. I'm feeling a little better today and am trying to help myself, but it's very hard when depression leaves me feeling unmotivated, useless and hopeless for much of the time.

One thing I've learnt over the years is that sometimes you just have to ride with depression and do what you can. So I changed one situation that was making things more difficult than usual: the family desktop not connecting to the internet and being generally awkward to use. This is partly because my dog, Murray, tends to misbehave when I'm on the desktop and picks up/chews stuff to get my attention. When I'm the only person home, which I am on weekdays, it's difficult to work for longer than an hour on the desktop. this is not conducive to writing.

What was the solution? I bought a laptop. It's not very expensive and I don't have to pay for it for a year, so I'm hoping the advantages of having it will outweigh the disadvantages of adding to my debt. I consider it an investment in myself and my writing career. Now I just have to write more and try to earn the cost of the laptop...

Another aspect of doing what I'm able to do is to write what I can when I can, even if it's just a line or two at a time. I wish I could write for hours at a time, but it's not happening at the moment. I'm also reading a lot, which helps to inspire me and reminds me that I'm better than I have been in the past, when depression stole even the pleasure I gained from reading.

This post feels a bit pointless and self-obsessed, so I hope it might help anyone else suffering from depression in some small way. I know that it helps sometimes just to be reminded that you're not alone.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

I Have a Published Story!

I have mentioned that I sold my first story this summer, but I was rather coy about it because my superstitious streak told me not to jinx it. So now it's in print, I can shout it from the rooftops! The story is called Fighting On Home Turf and it's in the second issue of Confingo magazine, which you can buy here.

I am, of course, thrilled to be published. Although I started submitting stories regularly earlier this year, I have been writing and honing my craft for years, so being published is encouraging and a reward for my hard work. I hope it's the first of many pieces of my writing to be published, but for now I'm proud of this small achievement.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Take the Pressure Off of your To-Do List

Goals should be specific and measurable, right? You've probably come across the acronym SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Tangible. Making SMART goals can be incredibly useful. It forces you to pinpoint what you want to accomplish and when you want to complete your goals. It makes sense, right? Especially if you tend to have abstract goals and no concrete plans. 

But sometimes SMART can be too restrictive. Even if you break down your goals into mini-goals that are relatively easy to achieve, your to-do list might be too rigid for your current situation. When you fail to achieve your SMART goals, you feel like a failure.

SMART goals are supposed to avoid failure by being Specific, Measurable, etc. — which is why failing to meet them makes you feel worse. SMART goals have their place and can be a useful tool, but they aren't suited to everybody in any situation. I think this is particularly the case with writing; doubly so if you're a writer who struggles with long term illness.

Sometimes it is more helpful to make goals with CARE: Compassion, Abstraction, Realism and Engagement.

Compassion — don't be hard on yourself. We would all love to be a superhero, but as humans we need to take it easy from time to time. Don't expect too much of yourself.

Abstraction — forget deadlines and don't think you have to define your goal. How does that work? My current to-do list has a few items that simply say 'work on X project.' That's it! No word count to aim for or specific task to complete. All I have to do is something — anything.

Realism — this is where the CARE approach overlaps with SMART goals, demonstrating that they are not polar opposites. Make sure your goals are ones that you have control over and can achieve. Example: getting an agent isn't 100% within your control, but sending queries to agents is 100% down to you.

Engagement — your goals should interest you; you should want to achieve them. It sounds obvious, but so many people make goals based on what they think they should do or what other people are doing. Your goals should excite you and give you pleasure, at least in the long term, otherwise there's no point.

There you have it: a revolutionary approach to creating to-do lists! Setting goals with CARE won't be appropriate for every situation, but is useful for activities that aren't predictable and lives that are often erratic due to uncontrollable circumstances. CARE is more forgiving than SMART and because there are no deadlines, there is no failure to make you feel bad. Making goals with CARE also fits into the kaizen approach to writing: making small, continuous changes. They ensure you do something, even an extremely small task, rather than nothing.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

A Sorry Excuse for a Post

Shelley at My Resolution Challenge very kindly nominated me for the One Lovely Blog Award and I said I'd accept, but am forced into semi-acceptance because the internet on the family desktop computer isn't working and my iPad won't copy the pic and makes linking challenging. In lieu of a proper acceptance post, I offer you...half! 

I've linked back to Shelley as required (and it's one of the most inspiring blogs I follow, so check it out!), but won't nominate anyone because I'll mess it up and end up deleting the whole post. I can't display the pic, but I will offer you 7 facts about myself:

1/. I have my nose pierced. I wanted it done since I was about 10 and finally got it when I was 16. It's been nearly 14 years and I have never regretted having it done — even if my nose does bleed whenever someone hits the left side!

2/. I love screwball comedies. They are so much more intelligent and less sexist than most modern romantic comedies, though most were made in the 30s and 40s. And if they star Cary Grant, all the better...

3/. I'm a little obsessed with tennis. I will stay up very late (I think 6am was the latest) to watch matches, but don't ask me to reel off statistics because I can never remember figures.

4/. I blame my love of spaniels on Dogtanian. It's the floppy ears, I think. I was in love with him as a kid and listening to the theme tune on Youtube makes me all misty eyed...

5/. My favourite song is Across the Universe by The Beatles. It reminds me to rise above all the crap life throws at me.

6/. I like vintage style. Especially 1950s stuff, though I also expand into the 40s and 60s. It's something I've chosen to embrace recently, so I don't have many vintage-inspired clothes yet, but would love to buy more! Katherine Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe are my style icons.

7/. I have Borderline Personality Disorder. It's not a secret and there's no shame in it, so I declare it whenever I can! It's my way of chipping away at the stigma surrounding mental illness in general and BPD in particular.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Fresh Starts

I know everyone mentions the back-to-school feeling in the air, but it still affects me despite the fact that I'm not going back to school. It's been 3 years since I last faced a new academic year in full time education, which sounds preposterous because it doesn't feel that long ago, but every September brings a sense of excitement and apprehension. It's a time for fresh starts, so my attention turns to my goals — my New Year's Resolutions and other goals I've picked up along the way.

Fresh starts also involve tying up loose ends. A couple of loose ends have tied themselves over the past week or two: Murray's abscess has healed and the vet declared his scrotum normal, so he can go off the lead again! I'm more thrilled about this than he is, since I've had to put up with his excess energy. The other loose end was my Intro to Bookkeeping and Accounting course, which I somehow managed to pass with 91%. I suppose it shows that hard work can overcome most problems, even those concerning numbers!

My mentorship with Emylia Hall has started this week, which means that my major fresh start concerns my writing. After a summer of stagnancy, it's much needed. Some stories have fallen by the wayside, but there are a couple which I will (hopefully) be working on with renewed vigour. I've also got some ideas which could be turned into half decent stories...

One of my sticking points, however, is the novel I've been working on. Something doesn't feel right about it and I'm beginning to think that the best thing to do is to put it aside for a while. Part of me thinks I'm just being lazy for thinking this way, but it hasn't progressed much for months, despite me starting to rewrite it in a different way. I think it still has potential, but suspect it's not the right novel for me to write at the moment.


After all, fresh starts mean casting things aside so that new things can take their place. It might be saying goodbye to long, leisurely summer days in favour of studying an interesting subject or following a passion. It could mean cutting back on one hobby to pursue another wholeheartedly. For me, it's putting one novel away so that I can work on one that's right for me to write at this point in my life and career. It feels like a loss or a failure, but I hope I'm merely making space for something amazing.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Forget Recharging — I Need a Reboot!

I've spent a month doing very little, so why do I still feel tired and lacklustre? I'm supposed to be recharging, but my battery is still almost empty. My motivation is low, as is my mood in general, and I'm frustrated because I ought to be doing more writing.

I wish I could reboot. I'd revert to the settings I had a few months ago, when I was enthusiastic and productive. I keep telling myself that if I want to be successful — in writing and other areas in my life — I have to put in the work and take steps towards my goals. Trouble is, taking action involves more than good intentions...

It's been a tricky week: my puppy was neutered a week and a half ago and on Saturday, his supposedly empty scrotum had swollen to the size of a large apple. We took him to the vet and she was amazed that he was so lively, since his temperature was a few degrees above normal. He has an infection and had to be put on an antibiotic drip for a few hours. They drained the scrotum too and it's getting smaller as he continues a course of antibiotics. He doesn't try to lick it, which is just as well because he chews the cone-shaped collar that is supposed to stop him licking, but he's a Springer Spaniel and stopping him from jumping and running around is impossible. Suffice to say, I'm a little stressed!

But that's no excuse. I've been wasting time on TV and iPad games instead of writing. I have a few projects I should be working on, but I've done nothing except think about them a little. I wish I knew how to give myself a kick up the arse — all I've managed to do is write a minimal to-do list for today, to make sure I did something instead of nothing. I suppose I will keep going and try to do a little more each day. Until someone figures out how to reboot humans, what else can I do?

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Lazy Days

I've been meaning to blog for a while, but it's somehow fallen by the wayside... I have no excuse other than laziness: I've spent the past 3/4 weeks doing absolutely nothing. I've missed deadlines I meant to meet (nothing important, just competitions I would have liked to enter) and apart from generating a couple of story ideas, have done very little writing.

My excuse is that I needed to recharge. I haven't been ultra-busy, but doing a bookkeeping course from May to July took a lot out of me. I've also spent rather more time than usual socialising this year — April involved a hen weekend (for which I made a teddy bear cake!), May included lots of 30th birthday celebrations and June another birthday and a wedding. Having anxiety can be exhausting at the best of times and although I loved being with my friends, it sucked a lot of energy out of me.

I'm also trying to spend some time thinking about my next moves. An unexpected opportunity has come my way and I need to figure out how to get the best out of it: I've been offered mentoring via the fabulous WoMentoring Project. I'm thrilled to have been chosen by Emylia Hall — I had to wait a day to reply to her email because I was so excited I couldn't think straight! 

The trouble with not having expected to be chosen is that I haven't done a great deal of thinking about the mentorship since submitting my application. I've never been the type of person to attract mentors; I'm socially awkward rather than charming and while some tutors/lecturers seemed to like me, I was never confident enough to ask for their help. I'm still kicking myself for not getting more feedback throughout my MA by attending office hours, though I was too an xious. Hence I'm glad that my mentorship will be via email!

My writing goals have shifted a little and I need to recalibrate. I've been focused on getting published for so long that now I'm going to have a short story published in October, I'm not entirely sure what's next. The biggest questions surround my novel-in-progress and the short story markets I ought to target. I need to think about the direction I want my writing career to take and the type of writer I want to be. And if that involves lazing in the sunshine, it's just something I'll have to cope with!

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Rewards

After feeling quite crappy for the past few weeks, I've been cheered up by some rewards for my hard work. The big news is that I received an email from a literary magazine, saying they want to include my story in their October issue! I will give details when it's actually published, but I don't want to jinx it; they asked me to confirm that the story hasn't been published elsewhere and that I accept their terms and conditions (it hasn't and I do!) and said they will send a more detailed email, but I've no idea if anything can/will go wrong. It might be unlikely, but I would rather keep quiet until it's a dead cert. Needless to say, I am thrilled.

If all goes well, this means that I can tick off another of my New Year's Resolutions: to get published. Technically, I've written some columns for a local newspaper so have technically been published, but I meant the resolution to refer to my fiction. Getting some Fabulous Rejections has been encouraging, but getting an acceptance makes the hassle of submitting work and the disappointment of form rejections worth the effort.

I'm also feeling pretty pleased with myself because I managed to run 5 miles on Sunday. I did it on my treadmill and was incredibly slow, but as I'm very overweight and struggled to run for 10 minutes at the start of this year, I'm happy with my progress. It also earned me a reward: I allowed myself to buy a book! I'm getting Bark by Lorrie Moore, which has been on my wishlist since before it came out.

Rewards reassure me that I'm on the right track to achieving my goals. They also motivate me to work harder and achieve more. Rewards from other people, that are out of my control, are awesome. They give me a great buzz. However, giving myself rewards is also important; it reminds me that I'm progressing (even if others don't notice or care) and feels pretty damn good!

Saturday, 5 July 2014

I've Lost My Mojo!

I've been writing only in dribs and drabs for the past month. Even when I came up with an interesting idea for a short story, the spark failed to ignite. It's waiting in the wings, like a hopeful understudy. I once read that writer's block indicates either a problem with the material, or a problem with the writer. I'm not sure whether or not I should be pleased that the problem is definitely me!

I've been feeling more depressed. Don't get me wrong; I'm nowhere near the depths of my worst episodes of depression. I just feel empty and less motivated. I'm doing my best to ride it out and do things that help, like exercising and focusing on other stuff, but it's still difficult. That's one of the most annoying things about depression and the hardest to understand: even when you've experienced worse in the past, you feel like you can't fight through the fog of your current depression.

I honestly do feel like I've lost my mojo. Plus saying 'I've lost my mojo' in an Austin Powers mockney accent makes me smile! I'm not sure how to get it back, but I'm trying to figure it out. In the meantime, I'm nearing the end of my bookkeeping course, so I'm focusing on completing my end-of-course assessment rather than my writing. Nothing involving numbers comes easily to me (except sudoku, but that's really just logic), so wish me luck!

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

From Small Changes to Life Changes

I bought How I Changed My Life in a Year by Shelley Wilson a couple of days ago — and I've already finished! Shelley blogs at My Resolution Challenge and in 2013, set 12 New Year's Resolutions. She focused on one goal a month, blogging about it as she went. She was already satisfied with her life — she has 3 children and enjoys her career as an holistic therapist — but everyone has unfulfilled goals and lists of things they want to try. Shelley wasn't expecting to change her life, but that was the result!

I love this kind of book. It charts Shelley's progress, but offers plenty of inspiration and advice for readers to follow their own goals. It reminds me of The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, another book I enjoyed which has a similar format (which I wrote about here). I'm left feeling pretty motivated...

The book also fits in with a theme that keeps cropping up in my life recently: making time for what is important. It's no use bitching about wanting to do something but never having the time. It's up to you to set goals, divide them into 'chunks' small enough to fit into your life and manage your time effectively so that you can do what matters to you. After all, most of us can fit Friends reruns (or other TV programmes) into our lives, so we ought to be able to fit in getting fit or learning a new language.

Shelley's book reminds me that we are defined by what we do every day, not what we do once  in a blue moon. Writing is a good example — how many people have you met who say 'I quite fancy writing a novel one day'? Are these people you think of as writers? Or are writers the people who find time to work on their novels/poetry/short stories/essays/whatever inbetween work and childcare and studying and walking the dog?

I've introduced 5 minute wonders into my life. These are tasks that take 5 minutes or less, but which accumulate and make a difference. It doesn't mean I won't ever spend more time on any of these tasks; it's an easy way to ensure I do something towards my bigger goals. My current 5 minute wonders are yoga, push-ups, squats, Italian and meditation. 

I've been trying to do more yoga and resistance exercise, but running has been my focus so strength and flexibility get left behind. 5 minute wonders are a way of fitting in something — anything — so that I'm actively working towards my goal. I hope to build up momentum and do more of these things, but I'm not going to stress about it. Ditto for Italian and mediation. Stressing about meditation would be pretty crazy anyway!

It's a fun way of bringing more kaizen into my life (I blogged about kaizen here and here). 
I keep track of my daily actions in a page-a-day planner, so I simply list my 5 minute wonders beforehand and tick them off. I might not do them all every day, but I'm happy as long as I hit 3 out of 5. Try it and you might find these little seeds grow into big life changes.




Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Scatterbrain's Guide to Getting — and Staying — Organised 2

My original post, The Scatterbrain's Guide to Getting - and Staying - Organised, is one of the most popular I've written, so I thought I'd share a few more tips I've picked up. As I explained back then, I'm not naturally organised. I would forget everything if I hadn't developed strategies to get myself organised. 

Yet people who met me after the age of 16 tend to assume that being organised is something I find easy. Not so! I just find it easier to put a little effort into being organised than to sort out the mess created when I'm disorganised. These tips/tricks/tactics (or whatever else you wish to call them) might seem like a hassle at first, but once they're set up it takes little effort to maintain them.

1. Create more email folders
In The Scatterbrain's Guide to Getting - and Staying - Organised, I suggested you create an email folder labelled 'Important' to keep emails with important information separate from everything else clogging up your inbox. I also love the tip provided by Stina Lindenblatt in the comments, which is to create a 'Pending' folder for emails that need a reply, but which you don't have the time/info/energy to reply to immediately.

Now I'm saying make more folders! Since I've been submitting work more regularly, I've got folders which separate my writing-related emails into relevant categories. Mine are 'Writing Submissions' which I use to save acknowledgements of stories I submit, 'Writing Rejections', 'Writing Acceptances', 'Writing Back-ups' and 'Writing Miscellany'. If I find myself wondering where I submitted a story or if a magazine ever responded to my submission, I can find the emails I need (if they exist!) in about 3 seconds.

2. Learn to love spreadsheets
Okay, so regular readers are probably fed up with reading about how I'm no longer scared of spreadsheets since doing a computer course earlier this year, but learning to use spreadsheets for basic tasks makes life a lot easier. I have an Excel file which I use to keep track of what I'm submitting where. It has worksheets detailing what stories I've submitted, any non-fiction I've submitted and a list of upcoming competition/submission deadlines.

I've even inserted some formulae to help me out, since I now know how! It's handy to see how many stories I've submitted at a glance. It's also handy to see how many half-decent stories I've written. Using formulae may seem superfluous if, like me, you haven't written that many stories (well, stories I care to submit), but if you put these mechanisms in place at the start you will still be well organised when you're submitting dozens at a time.

3. Get yourself a ring binder
And some file dividers. Into your ring binder, put anything and everything that you might need to refer to on a day-to-day basis. I've got sections for upcoming competitions, magazines/literary journals publishing the type of stories I write, odd articles of writing advice, leaflets from the non-profit organisation I do volunteer work for, etc. What you put in your folder is up to you, but there are 2 essential sections: current work and miscellany.

For me, the current work section simply provides somewhere I can put my most recent drafts without them getting lost or chewed by my springer spaniel puppy. I also find it useful to keep all drafts for my current work in one place, so that I can refer back to them easily. A miscellaneous section is essential because, in my experience, there will always be something that doesn't quite fit into another category. 

4. The important/urgent matrix
I've stolen this idea, but I don't know who to credit because I've seen it in several places. It's a handy tool for figuring out which tasks to prioritise. You divide a piece of paper into quarters and label the top edge 'Important' on one side and 'Not Important' on the other. The side edge is labelled 'Urgent' and 'Not Urgent.' 

This results in 4 boxes: 

  • Important and Urgent
  • Important but Not Urgent
  • Urgent but Not Important
  • Not Important and Not Urgent

You can then insert each item on your to-do list into one of the boxes. Your priorities are the tasks in the 'Important and Urgent' box. The 'Important but Not Urgent' box is the trickiest, since these are the tasks you need to make an effort to fit in. It's hard to remember that they should take precedence over the 'Urgent but Not Important' box because they don't have a deadline attached, but important stuff should be near the top of your list of priorities.

So, should you do the 'Not Important' tasks at all? It depends. Some of these tasks may become important if left undone - cleaning the kitchen floor, for instance - but other things can be removed from your to-do list with no consequences. This exercise may serve as a reminder to avoid drains on your time and energy, if your 'Not Important' boxes are cluttered.

Of course, it also depends on the time you have available: if you want to bake a cake for your children's school's summer fete, for example, and have a couple of hours to spare, it's a nice thing to do. However, if you have a million and one 'Important' things to do, your time is best spent tackling those things. No one should criticise you for prioritising work, health, family, friends, etc. over everything else.

5. Use 'dead' time
I've talked about this before, in Stop Pre-Wasting Time! and Killing Time Thieves. If you are indeed a scatterbrain, chances are your day is stuffed with dead time. What do I mean by 'dead' time? Any period of time you're not using to its full potential. This may include:

  • Short periods of time between tasks, which you think are too short to use to do anything productive.
  • Time spent waiting for something, or which consists mainly of waiting between small tasks. Eg. waiting for dinner to cook/stirring it every 10 minutes ir si.
  • Travel time - if you travel on public transport or have a driver!
  • Time spent zoning in front of the TV.
This is by no means an extensive list, but I hope you get my drift. 

Dead time is the time you write off; you may think it's not practical to do something more important at the same time as cooking dinner or you might think the 10 minutes between getting home from work and walking the dogs isn't worth filling. These are poor excuses! You can check (and organise) your email in 10 minutes, or even 5. You can research short story markets as you keep an eye on dinner. You can plan a story on the bus. Some tasks are better suited to doing little and often - you might find it's easier to learn a new skill this way, for example, than it is to spend 3 straight hours learning at the weekend.

Think of creative ways to use the time you've got. I once read in a self-help book or article (I can't remember where, but it's been oft-repeated) that we all have the same amount of time as Einstein, Helen Keller, Martin Luther King and everyone else. We all have 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. You can waste as much of that time as you like bitching and moaning about the pressures you're under and your never-ending to-do list, or you can tackle the tasks you need to get done and find ways to achieve your goals. Your choice.

Bonus!
I saw this post on How to Remember Everything earlier and found myself nodding along. It's about Evernote, which is my favourite app and a great way to help yourself stay organised. It's useful for synching information I need on my iPad with my non-Apple smartphone. I use it a lot when I'm out and about, for writing down ideas, noting important stuff and shopping lists. Check it out!


Wednesday, 28 May 2014

The Small Stuff

I've written about kaizen - making small, continuous changes - in the past (see How Kaizen Can Motivate Writers and Kaizen in Writing), but lately I've been noticing how little things can have a big impact; without much effort or conscious thought put into building on them. For example, I decided at the beginning of last year to use body lotion at least once a week. Why? Because my legs and elbows were getting dry and sore. However, paying more attention to my body has been instrumental, I believe, in helping me to make healthier choices.

I found confirmation of my observation in a book I've just started to read, You Can Change Your Life by Rob Yeung:
"Introducing even small tweaks into our lives can create a virtuous cycle, an upward spiral, a self-perpetuating process of fulfilment and further change."
Yeung is a psychologist and everything in his book, he assures us (I don't know - I'm only a little way in!), is backed up by scientific studies. So my body-lotioning may well be behind my recent improvements in health fitness,

After reading this, my first thought was "how can I use this to help my writing?"

Then I realised I already am helping my writing by making small changes. The most obvious one is that I'm making an effort to submit my stories to literary journals and competitions. This has made me take my writing more seriously and forced me to act like a professional writer by resubmitting work that gets rejected, whereas I used to abandon rejected work assuming it simply wasn't good enough.

Similarly, when I make an effort to write every day, I tend to write far more than I do by writing nothing some days and "bingeing" on writing a few days a week. By the way, the binge-starve cycle doesn't work for losing weight (and maintaining it) either - I learnt that the hard way!

So now I'm wondering what small changes have had a large, perhaps unexpected, impact on other people's lives. What "tweaks" have sent you on an upward spiral? What changes have had unexpected, positive side effects in your life and writing?


Friday, 16 May 2014

Getting Back into the Swing of Things

My eye operation went well: I am neither blind nor dead. My left eye is still a little blurry, but it's getting better and I'm back to reading with both eyes open. I didn't expect the general anaesthetic to have the effects it did...

My side-effects included headaches, a sore throat that has finally subsided and an overbearing exhaustion that reminded me of having the flu or the worst periods of my depression. I've spent over a week on the couch and for the first 4 days, I was too tired to read or even watch much TV. After that, I was more motivated to do stuff, but too tired to do much at all. I was bored and more frustrated than usual!

But now I'm alert enough to blog, read and join the world again, I think my enforced downtime was exactly what I needed to recharge. Yes, I hated being so unproductive, but it made me think about how much I love writing and what I plan to do over the summer. I'm kind of excited to resume writing.

I've still got to take it easy, since I'm not back to 100% yet, but I never thought that feeling like crap for a week could make me more dedicated to my writing career!

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

A Different Way of Looking at Things

I'm having an eye operation tomorrow. It's not very exciting  the hope is that it will stop a condition I have, keratoconus, from getting worse. They shine a light in my eye for 10 minutes to strengthen the cornea, which is getting increasingly cone-shaped. I will be under general anaesthetic, since my anxiety might prevent me from staying still throughout the operation. I'm a little bit terrified.

I know that the likelihood of something going wrong is small, but I could end up blind in my left eye. I've had general anaesthesia before, many years ago, but that doesn't mean I won't have a bad reaction this time. It throws everything into perspective.

More than anything, it reminds me of how much I want to achieve my goals. 

The thought that I could die tomorrow (improbable as it is) makes me feel annoyed. I've only just begun getting my life back on track! My 30th birthday is in 2 weeks! I want to go to my friend's wedding in June!

Not so long ago, when I was very depressed all the time, the idea of death was a relief. I wanted to die. But now, I want to give life a chance. I want to see if I can earn a living through writing, get super-fit, speak Italian fluently, go skydiving... I don't have a zest for life as such, but I definitely have the motivation to live.

I understand that this sounds strange to anyone who has never experienced mental illness, but it's a huge departure from what I thought of for many years as 'the norm'. Even the enforced downtime as I recover from the operation is frustrating: I can't run for a week and when I do, I have to wear a sweatband so sweat doesn't go in my eye. I don't know how long it will be until I can read and write for long periods of time. The courses I'm doing will be put on hold.

I hadn't realised I was so invested in all of these things. It makes me more determined to achieve my goals. Wish me luck  for the eye op and beyond!


Thursday, 1 May 2014

Fabulous Rejections

You may remember from my post Positively Productive Writing that one of my favourite things about Simon Whaley's book, The Positively Productive Writer, is his attitude to rejections. He encourages writers to write booster cards, which may include the phrase 'I am a writer  I get rejections!' 

The point is, if people are ever going to read your writing, you need to be published. If you're going to be published, you need to submit work to competitions, journals, etc. If you submit your writing, you will get rejections. 

If you submit lots of work, you will get lots of rejections  and that's wonderful!

I'm serious. As much as I love sarcasm, I am definitely not being sarcastic. Honest. Gaining the confidence and courage to submit your writing is a big deal. It's something I've avoided, until this year. Sure, I might have entered the odd competition, but I wasn't systematically sending out stories.

This year, I've been making more of an effort to put myself 'out there'. I've already achieved my modest goal of submitting 12 pieces of writing in 2014, despite being only a third of the way through the year. I cannot over-emphasise how weird this is for me!

And now I've received what I thought was an urban myth: personalised rejections.

Yep, I'd heard of writers getting a rejection that refers specifically to their submission, as opposed to a general 'not right for us' comment, but I didn't think it happened often. Especially not to me. It seems that my stories are actually being read, not discarded after the opening sentence.

One personalised rejection gave me a valuable critique of my story's ending. I'm not sure whether I will change it, because other people have liked the ending, but I was thrilled to get this advice. I will probably try my luck a few more times and see if I get similar responses.

Another was not only specific my story, but apologetic! The editor of an anthology liked my story, but it simply didn't fit in with the anthology. He wished me luck in getting it published. Needless to say, I was thrilled!

I'm trying to be a more assertive writer (see this post), but it can get demoralising when your inbox fills with emails that say the same thing over and over. My recent rejections have confirmed to me that:
a). My submissions get read
b). Some editors quite like my writing
c). Rejection is not personal

So now I have no excuse, I'm off to re-submit some stories!

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Nearly 30, Frustrated and Impatient

I turn 30 next month and, at the risk of annoying everyone older than me, it's made me think 'damn, I've done nothing with my life.' In fairness, I have lost several years to mental illness and I've achieved more than I thought I would when I was in the depths of depression  actually being 30 will be an achievement, since for so long I never thought I'd get here. However, I'm still sitting here thinking that a couple of degrees and a driving licence aren't a lot to show for 3 decades.

CAUTION: why comparing yourself to others is stupid

The trouble is, I tend to compare myself to other people too much. My mum had 2 kids, a husband, a house and a dog when she turned 30. I still live with my parents, though I am on my second dog! Even among people my own age, it seems like everyone else is either married or doing exceptionally well in their careers. I feel left behind.

The crazy thing is, I don't want to be married! I may never want to get married. Ditto for having children. I'm just frustrated because I wanted to have my own place and to be earning a good wage by now. Instead, I'm in the same house I've lived in all my life and rely on benefits because my anxiety is too bad at the moment for me to get a 'normal' job.

I'm trying to work around that, of course, by strengthening skills that will (hopefully) help me to have a successful freelance career and by writing. Oh, and getting around to submitting my writing, which is something I've struggled with, but is kind of vital if you want to stand a chance of making a living through writing. One of my New Year's Resolutions was to submit at least 12 pieces of writing to journals or competitions and... *drumroll*... I've done it!

It just feels like such a paltry achievement. I look at the writers who were literary superstars by the time they reached 30  and those who died before 30 but are still legendary  and I feel pathetic in comparison. I haven't even completed a novel I like enough to submit to agents.

You can't change the past

How obvious is that statement? Very. But how much time do I waste wishing it was otherwise? Lots. I'm trying to change my focus: I want to make my 30s the best decade of my life.

I'm much happier than I was at 20, but by the time I'm 40, I want to be living the life I want. It won't be perfect, of course, but I don't want to be sitting here in 10 years thinking 'I wish I did this or that.' I believe you're never too old for anything, but that doesn't mean you should put off your goals until 'sometime in the future.'

Too often, 'sometime' becomes never. The achievements I'm most proud of (my degrees, learning to drive and going to Paris and Rome) are the ones that scared me most. It was so hard to gather the courage to fill in university applications and agree to let my friend book the trips, let alone to go through with each step along the way. There were many times when I wanted to run away and not bother trying to achieve my goals.

But you can't run away from yourself

I recently posted about Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project books. Her main happiness commandment is 'Be Gretchen.' How fabulous is that? 

I've spent a lot of my life apologising for being me. I was constantly criticised by members of my own family for being 'too thin' as a child, then insulted by the same people and bullied at school for being too fat when I gained weight in my mid-teens! I apologised for my mental health problems, because seeing the symptoms of my anxiety made some people feel uncomfortable. They didn't seem to consider how uncomfortable I felt at the time, or how their behaviour increased my discomfort.

I've apologised for everything from being disorganised, to being clever and back around to being too organised! I've apologised for the few things I've always liked about myself; my generosity, my sense of humour and my creativity. I'm fed up with apologising for being me.

Embracing the commandment to be yourself also means following your own interests and setting your own goals. Do you want to run a marathon because you like running and relish the challenge, or because lots of other people do it? Do you want to see the Egyptian pyramids because the ancient Egyptian culture has fascinated you for years, or because you think you should? 

I've been working on this for the past few years, yet I see some goals in my list of New Year's Resolutions that I'm not 100% sure I want. Do I really want to join a running club? I'm not sure. There's a strong chance I might want to in a few months or a year, but it's not something I'm desperate to do. It's something I put on my list because I think of it as something 'proper runners' do.

Make your own rules

Which brings me full circle: why does turning 30 make me feel the pressure to do things I'm not bothered about doing? Why does it make me compare myself to other people? Why does it persuade me to measure my success according to criteria I don't care about?

My main goal from now on  my megagoal, if you will  is to Be Hayley. All of my other goals should help me to fulfil the megagoal. If they are antithetical to the megagoal, I will strike them off. If I'm ambivalent about whether they contribute to the megagoal, I will put a question mark next to them and not worry about them until I'm sure one way or the other.

Landmark birthdays tend to make you think about your life and try to throw everything into perspective (often while achieving the opposite!). They encourage you to create goals or to obsess about goals you haven't yet achieved. All of this isn't necessarily bad, but I think landmark birthdays should have one primary effect: to remind you to Be Yourself.


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Challenging Who We Are

I thought my theme for this year was tackling my weaknesses and gaining new skills in these areas. But the more I think about it and the more I work towards my goals, another theme is emerging: challenging who I think I am. 

Inspiration from Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Projects
Yesterday, I bought the ebook version of Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin. I had been wondering whether to buy it for ages, because I loved The Happiness Project and this is the sequel, but it focuses on Gretchen Rubin's home life, which is very different to mine. For a start, I have neither a husband nor kids! Two chapters in, I am loving this book and Rubin mentions something that made me stop and think: that you can find evidence for the both sides of any argument.

For example, if you say 'I'm shy' it's easy to think of evidence to support your argument. However, Rubin also discovered that it's easy to find evidence to support the opposite statement, i.e. 'I'm outgoing.' While we usually err to one trait or the other, the truth is that there are many times in our lives when  we were shy and many when we were outgoing. By choosing to 'argue the positive,' we open up more possibilities and feel better.

Fooling Ourselves
We assume we know ourselves better than anyone else, but we are also experts at fooling ourselves. We make sweeping statements about our abilities and personalities, then we scour our memories to find evidence to support them  ignoring all evidence to the contrary. There are benefits to doing this, although most are short-term (they don't call it a comfort zone for nothing), but it's also very limiting.

I'm starting to discover the reality behind my hitherto constant claim that I'm not technologically-minded. The effect of telling myself this for years was that I avoided doing anything technological unless I absolutely had to, or wanted to. I am particularly good at using Word and the internet, because I love writing, reading stuff online and shopping. I dreaded spreadsheets because I was never motivated to learn to use them. When I did a computer course at the beginning of this year, I discovered that not only did I pick things up pretty easily, but I had fun learning.

Stepping Outside Self-Imposed Limits
That I find it fun to learn new things wasn't a complete surprise, but these things were usually related to my strengths and current areas of interest. To have fun learning a different skill, one I both avoided and disliked in the past, was new. It spurred me on to try other new things  so I am now doing a Web Design course!

I've always been a geek, but never considered myself a computer geek. I thought I would find the course extremely difficult and was ready to spend hours feeling perplexed while trying to figure out what HTML is all about. But... I like it!

It challenges me, but I'm picking it up well enough to build my confidence. I won't be winning awards anytime soon, but I hope to be able to build a basic website by the end of the course. There's also a logic behind my enjoying it: websites combine design and communication, both of which have interested me since I was a kid. I wish I'd tried it years ago, but I was too busy telling myself I wasn't technogically-minded!

A Multiplicity of Possibilities
So I've been trying to challenge the assumptions I make about myself. I believe this is especially important as my mental health improves. Mental illness makes you lose yourself  in my case for several years  and it's all too easy to accept assumptions that are actually symptoms of the illness. I find myself thinking 'I'm not the type of person who can walk into a dance class on my own,' but that's purely because of my anxiety. It has nothing to do with the type of person I am. 

Challenging yourself is scary. It forces you to accept that the 'truths' you've clung to for years are nothing more than schemata you formulated at some point in your life. Maybe these schemata protected you by forcing you to stay within your comfort zone, but that doesn't mean you still need them. Challenge your limitations and see what happens  perhaps what's really scaring us is the enormity of our own potential.




Thursday, 10 April 2014

Why I Disagree with Science

Okay, I think I need a disclaimer: I don't disagree with science in general (far from it!), but there is one scientifically proven piece of information that I must rally against. Evolution? The big bang? Gravity? Um, no. The theory in question is that it's better to have just one goal at a time.

Sorry if that was an anti-climax, but I'm fed up with reading that I should be limiting myself to a single goal at any given time. Here are my reasons:

1. Pursuing different goals means at least one is bound to be going well
Instead of feeling down about not progressing quickly enough in one of your endeavours, you can get a confidence boost from reminding yourself that other goals are on track  or even ahead of time.

2. Goals can be complementary
This is the case even when goals seem unrelated. Running has improved my writing. Well, not so much my writing skill, but it's given me more energy to write and the motivation to submit my work. When I was learning to drive, it helped me to focus and stay (relatively) calm when tackling my university studies. Some of the benefits of pursuing 2 goals at once are obvious, but others are surprising and may only be realised in retrospect.

3. Time is short
I'm not saying you should overload yourself with goals, but aiming to do things 'someday' often means they never get done. If a goal is important to you (which it should be), it's worth doing now  or at least in the near future. 

4. Not all goals fall into discrete categories
Sure, if your goal is to run a marathon, it is either 'done' or 'not done', but many goals are about improving your situation and are best assessed using a continuum. Mini-goals along the way may be specific enough to categorise, but they don't, in themselves, represent your actual goal.

Example: I want to earn a living from writing. Because it is a continuous goal, I will need to achieve it again and again. There are thousands of mini-goals that I need to achieve to stand a chance of achieving this goal. If I focused on just one of these goals at a time, I would never get anything else done. 

I find this type of goal easier to stick to than what I call ultimatum goals, like saying 'I'll never eat chocolate again' instead of 'I will eat more healthily'. Some goals need your total attention, but others are best tackled in conjunction with other goals and/or just generally living your life.

5. Priorities change
My approach is flexible: I'm working on all of my goals, but 2 or 3 are usually prioritised at any given time. Flexibility is important to me, because as my plans change and life gets in the way, my priorities change. My goals also need to change and adapt.

Over the past few weeks, for example, my running goals have been on the backburner due to my getting massive blisters. My career goals, though always a priority, came to the fore and I spent more time on them. In a month or two, I want to prioritise goals that involve improving my social confidence, in preparation for one of my closest friend's wedding in June.

6. Making changes inspires you to make more changes
Getting fitter makes me want to eat more healthily. Learning that spreadsheets are nothing to be scared of has given me the motivation to improve my skills in other areas that intimidate me. Improving my mental health so that I feel less depressed means I want to work on my anxiety and get out more. 

Small changes accumulate and lead to you achieving more goals and creating new ones  with relatively little effort. Limiting yourself to one goal also limits your ability to take advantage of this momentum.

7. It can be fun
Maybe I'm just weird and this is my perfectionist streak talking, but I enjoy pursuing a variety of goals. Several years ago, I was too depressed to even make goals. For the first time in my life, I like myself and I'm proud of my achievements. That's a major buzz!

Working on multiple goals works for me, but I know this approach doesn't suit everyone. Experiment and see what works for you, whether or not it's endorsed by science. I wrote about achieving your goals last week, which details the strategies that work for me  most of which have been scientifically proven to work!

Monday, 7 April 2014

Stop Pre-Wasting Time!

I recently talked about Killing Time Thieves but today I became aware of another time thief: pre-wasting time.

I worked on a couple of projects this morning, then ran on the treadmill for 25 minutes. When I got out of the shower, I found myself thinking 'by the time I eat a late lunch and watch Neighbours, it's going to be 3:30pm. That's pretty much the whole day gone.' But wait  I don't go to bed until 10:30pm at the earliest. That's 7 hours — longer than I had been awake!

I was ready to write off the whole day before it was half over. I was pre-wasting time.

Sure, it's harder to concentrate when my parents and brother come home from work. But it also means there are other people to keep an eye on my very naughty puppy. There's no reason why I shouldn't get things done in the evenings, especially as I'm often more alert, yet I tend not to plan my work for the evenings.

Perhaps it's just laziness, but I think it's more complicated. When scheduling work, it's easier to imagine filling the long, blank spaces in your day  even with lots of things  than it is to imagine getting work done in the gap between walking the dogs and cooking dinner. Yet this time is just as valuable as time during the day,

I find it easier when I have deadlines to meet; I grab all the time I can, even if it's 10 minutes here and there. I know from experience that using chunks of time in the evening can be productive, yet I only think of using it when I'm under pressure. I could create pressure by Powering Through, but I need a longer term solution. I need to change my attitude.

Pre-wasting time can lead to more than a lost evening of work: how many of us write off goals because we think we'll never achieve them or it's too late in our lives? I used to think I was too old to go to university  at the grand old age of 22! In my defence, I was very depressed at the time. I was also very wrong.

Sometimes we need to be reminded that although life is short, there's plenty of time left. Mindfulness is a great aid for reminding yourself to live in the moment. I've been dabbling with it for a while now and saw this great post today, which has mindfulness exercises that are easy for anyone to use.

So whether you're in danger of pre-wasting your day, your week or the rest of your life — stop!

You have time and how you use it is up to you. You may not see how you can achieve your goals in the hour between the kids going to bed and the 10 o' clock news, but you can. By the way, I went to university at 24 and loved it so much that I stayed on to do my MA — and I wasn't the oldest on either of my courses. As for tonight... I have a story that needs drafting and some reading to do and some organising I'd like to complete  wish me luck!


Thursday, 3 April 2014

How to Stick with your Writing Goals (Or Any Other Goals)

Inspired by my recent post, Refresh: My Quarterly Review, I've been thinking a lot about how to achieve my goals, particularly those related to writing. How can you cope when goals change? Does a change of objective indicate failure? How can you stay motivated and committed to your goals? I don't claim to have all the answers, but this is what works for me...

1. Write down your goals and keep them where you can access them easily.

I use a notebook, but a phone or computer will also work well. The key point is that you can review your goals at frequent and regular intervals. This keeps your goals at the forefront of your mind, even when life, work and other distractions get in the way.


2. Divide and conquer.

Split your goals into mini-goals. It's essential that you do this for the first steps of your goals. It's preferable that you create mini-goals to lead you right from step one to completion. Don't worry about detours: it's important to have a map rather than nothing, even if it's not 100% accurate.


3. Embrace change!

Don't be afraid of changing your goals as you progress; just change them for the right reasons. If your original goals are no longer appropriate, it's better to jettison them than to waste time and effort trying to achieve something that's not important to you.

However, if you want to abandon a goal because it's harder than you anticipated or because you're procrastinating, remind yourself of why you chose the goal in the first place.


4. Blaze your own trail.

Choose goals that you want to achieve for your own reasons (i.e. not because everyone else has similar goals or someone said you should do it) and make adjustments as you see fit. 

Just because X famous writer self-published their first novel doesn't mean it's right for you. You may have heard that writing nonfiction is a sensible option for getting established as a writer, but if you find it soul-destroying and would rather focus on writing fiction, maybe you should  and good luck to you. 

There are plenty of mavericks who find success in their own way and there's no reason why you can't be one of them. In fact, a large proportion of successful people are successful precisely because they went off the beaten track.


5. Never strive for perfection. 

It doesn't exist and leaves you drained. Read my post Fighting Perfectionism for more on why being a perfectionist means you're constantly fighting a losing battle. Perfectionism sucks up your time and energy: you either spend too much time on unimportant things, or you're so paralyzed by perfectionism that you end up doing nothing. It's far better to focus on doing things as well as you can within a sensible time limit.


6. Make small, continuous adjustments.

I've posted about kaizen before: Kaizen in Writing and How Kaizen can Motivate Writers. It simply involves making tiny changes and making them often. These changes accumulate and turn into big changes with minimal effort.

As you review your goals and mini-goals, think of how you can adjust your actions in order to achieve them. It could be as simple as deciding to write a haiku every day (kaizen is Japanese, after all!). Once the habit becomes ingrained, you could then decide to write 20 words of a short story every day. 

These tiny pieces of writing are far better than writing nothing and you'll probably end up writing much more than you planned. Kaizen takes the pressure off, allowing you to progress without too much emotional turmoil.


7. Remember, you will fail.

Yep. And this is why failing is good. Writing involves many failures, big and small. Failing means you're trying. If this thought gets you down, read Positively Productive Writing. If a goal is important to you, keep working on it. So what if you fail hundreds, or even thousands, of times? At least you're trying  that's more than a lot of people manage.