Exercise your creativity

Arnos Vale sky by Judy DarleyIn today’s guest post, writer Nina Wells urges us to get up off our backsides and dash out into the world to beat writer’s block.

Every author from Stephen King to Dan Brown has come nose-to-nose with writer’s block at some point in their career. Even casual writers know the frustration all too well; staring at a blank computer screen, feeling hopeless in progressing their work…

Susan Reynolds from Psychology Today explains that writer’s block is only a phenomenon that has existed since the early 19th century, where it was described by English Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge as “indefinite indescribable horror.” Writers at the time believed it to be a reflection of a poor relationship with their deities. They literally felt cursed to struggle in their work.

While that explanation might be a bit outdated, people still struggle with writer’s block today. What’s an aspiring author to do? Sure, we could become caricatures of historical writers by turning to drugs and alcohol for encouragement, but what if you could get your fix of chemical-inspiration without the theatrics?

Reynolds explains that writer’s block is a result of mental exertion because of the immense amount of focus required to write for long periods of time, and that even simple activities like mowing the lawn or showering can help give writers’ a much-needed breakthrough. So, taking breaks to relax can help clear up writer’s block, but what else can be done to stimulate ideas?

Arnos Vale path by Judy Darley

For years, experts around the world have praised exercise as a means of mental stimulation, but just how much can your noggin benefit from working up a sweat?

When you exercise, your brain produces chemicals called endorphins, which provide relief from pain and boost a sense of contentment- colloquially referred to as the “runner’s high.” WebMD reports that regular exercise has been proven to: reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, improve self-esteem, and make you healthier all-around.

But what does this have to do with writer’s block?

A study from the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience has shown that regular exercise boosts creativity by improving “convergent” and “divergent” thought processes, which are responsible for creative thinking. Convergent thinking can be defined as thinking of a single, “correct” solution for a proposed issue, while divergent thinking is the ability to think of multiple solutions for a single problem.

In their study, researchers tested the convergent and divergent task-completing abilities of two groups of people; 48 being athletes, and another forty-eight being non-athletes. Both groups were subject to “intense physical exercise,” which yielded some interesting information.

As it turns out, the non-athlete group showed convergent impairment with exercise, while the athletic group showed “a benefit that approached significance.” According to the researchers, this is because the less-active group experienced a greater amount of “ego-depletion”, or in other words, they used up all of their will-power on the exertion. Meanwhile, the athletic group can capitalise on the cognitive benefits because their bodies are already accustomed to the exercise.

Arnos Vale leafy path by Judy Darley

Chapter four of the book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write by Alice Weaver Flaherty goes into detail discussing the neuroscientific reasons that people struggle with their writing. Flaherty breaks writer’s block into two groups: low-energy and high-energy. The former is pronounced by symptoms of depression and lethargy, while the latter is likened to anxiety.

According to Flaherty, depressed, low-energy writers who become sedentary to save energy, or anxious, high-energy writers turn to caffeine or other stimulants to stay on-task are both exacerbating their problems.

Both of these groups, however, benefit from regular physical activity. The endorphins that are released don’t only have an effect on your current mood, but also have the potential to treat long-term issues that can affect your entire outlook on life.

In short:

  • Writer’s block can emerge for a few reasons (all of which relate to your brain’s chemical processes)
  • Exercise and creative (convergent and divergent) thinking go hand-in-hand.
  • Writer’s block can be divided into two groups: high-energy and low-energy (anxious and depressed)
  • Regular exercise will help in both the short and the long term by activating endorphins, sparking creative thought processes, and giving relief from the paralyzing symptoms of depression and anxiety

Whether you write novels or blog posts, regular exercise will not only help you conquer writer’s block when it appears, but will also help you stay happier and healthier in general. Maybe now’s a good time to start running with a notepad, eh?

About the author

Nina WellsThis article was written by Nina Wells from Clearwells. She has more than 10 years of experience in writing health related topics and specializes in the health benefits of saunas and hydrotherapy.

I welcome guest posts. If you’d like to get in touch, you can find me on Twitter @JudyDarley, or send me an email at judy(at)SocketCreative.com

Writing prompt – moth

Atlas Moth at National Botanic Garden of Wales cr Judy DarleyI encountered this rather exceptional Atlas Moth in the Butterfly House at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. It’s not only his snakehead markings on each wing that are impressive. This beauty is the female, with a wingspan of more than 25cm (9.8in).

I asked a horticulturalist what they eat, and he told me they don’t. After metamorphosis they’re re-born without mouthparts, with their only motivator the drive to mate and reproduce in their five-day lifespan.

January seems the perfect time for a metamorphic tale. This week imagine your protagonist has been a joyful glutton, feasting their way through their youth until strange urge to tuck up and sleep takes them over. After a series of strange and painful dreams they wake to find themselves transformed, sans mouth and an overwhelming desire to fly, seduce and procreate.

Not a bad premise for a Kafka-esque nightmare!

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.

This week I’m reading…

Christmas 2016 haul by Judy DarleyI got a rather excellent haul of books this Christmas, including Kate Atkinson’s beautiful companion book to Life After Life, A God in Ruins, and Rainbow Rowell’s gritty nostalgic Eleanor and Park.

The latter of these I devoured in less than a week, the former I’m mid-way through, but being away this week (in Iceland) I opted to bring the three slimmer volumes with me – The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (thanks, Emerald Street, for the suggestion), Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, and Tales from Nowhere (Lonely Planet Travel Literature).

So far, each is providing me with moments of magic, immersion and intrigue, and each could not be more different from the others. The perfect travel reads.

What are you reading? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews of books, art, theatre and film. To submit or suggest a book review, please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Flash Frontier wants your flash fiction

MINE grotto skylightFlash Frontier is a marvellous online journal of short fiction. Every month the editors invite submissions on a particular theme designed to get your creative nodes firing.  You can, as they say, “use the theme in any way you desire. Follow it as closely or broadly as you desire – the only stipulation is that your tale should “evoke the idea.”

Previous themes have included Science and Sky (my story Altitude appeared in the latter, along with some wonderful pieces from other writers.

The current call for submissions is for the February issue, and is on the theme Remnants. The deadline is January 31st 2017.

Now the important stuff. Your story must be no more than 250 words in length. This is crucial: 251 words will disqualify you.

Submissions are due by the last day of the month for the following month’s issue. Each issue will appear mid-month.

For full guidelines, themes and to read previous issues, visit www.flash-frontier.com.

Exploring the unknown through art

Sandcloud crop by Sara EasbyToday’s guest post comes from Sara Easby, a wonderful artist, teacher and dreamer who I discovered exhibiting her Icelandic artworks at the Grant Bradley Gallery late last year. She talks us through the things that move her to paint as a means of exploring the unknown.

Drawing was always my favourite pastime as a child and I was very imaginative.

I thought I was going to be a nurse like my mother, but then when I was 13 someone told me it was possible to be an artist when I grew up. I went to Saturday morning art classes and then to the local art school at 16. It never occurred to me not to be an artist after that, and I really believed I wouldn’t be able to do anything else.

One morning an artist friend Francesca Bellingierie Maxwell and I were having a coffee and we both agreed that we’d always wanted to visit Iceland and that May was the best time to go. Discovering that the moment was right we set off the following week on an impulse. This was very unusual for me, but I had got stuck with my painting and teaching, so wanted a challenge and focus. The challenge was driving all the way round Iceland. I’m a timid driver! And the focus was just simply to fill a sketchbook.

Iceland sketch by Sarah Easby

Iceland sketch by Sarah Easby

I’m not interested in copying nature, or in representational landscape personally. That’s not my reason for painting. Much of my working life has been in designing for theatre and teaching people drawing, mainly life drawing so it doesn’t mean I don’t value those things. But painting has become a way of exploring the unknown and a kind of meditative practise I suppose.

Dark Grey by Sara Easby

Darkgrey by Sara Easby

The experience of being in Iceland gave a feeling of being right on the edge of the world and of actually becoming a part of nature. It was amazing to feel that feeling of nothing. Suddenly everything seems possible, and I came back with a lot of energy to make the series of work.

Dark Broiling by Sara Easby

Darkbroiling by Sara Easby

Our lives are made up of layers, so I’ve been exploring this in painting and drawing for ages. Earlier on this worried me thinking that each time I went back to something I was changing it because it was wrong. But gradually I realised that there was no right way, but that change was what it’s all about. Eventually you have to stop a painting when it feels ‘finished’. It has to stop somewhere if you want to share it with other people.

Gold Circle by Sara Easby

Goldcircle by Sara Easby

I use anything and everything to draw and paint with – anything that will make marks. This is what I was taught and what I hope to teach others to do. Oil paint is one of my favourite medium because it has a quality of deepness. I never want to be sure of the results, because, as Picasso once said, what’s the point of doing it if you know how it will turn out?

I teach a lot of art workshops because teaching has always been a means to make a living. I have never had the luxury of just doing my own work. Running workshops is good because people come who want to be there and it’s a way of exploring together.

Paledrips painting by Sara Easby

Paledrips by Sara Easby

It also always makes me question what I am doing. Making art is rather solitary and I like people, and you need a balance. I’m actually rather passionate about the importance of creativity in the world. It’s deeply satisfying when you see people connected through making something they can do.

What I love most about my life as an artist is that you never stop learning, and I love learning!

About the author

Sara Easby, artistSara Easby trained in Leeds, at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, and at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff. She’s worked as a designer for productions at the Royal Court Theatre, London and Bristol Old Vic, and has taught design and drawing at the Universities of Bristol and West of England as well as running workshops for students, animators, artists and anyone interested in exploring their creativity. This includes teaching life drawing to animators at Aardman Animations, originally for their training programme for Chicken Run.

All images in this post are from Sara’s Iceland series. To see more of her work go to: www.sara-easby.com.

Are you an artist or do you know an artist who would like to be showcased on SkyLightRain.com? Get in touch at judy(at)socketcreative.com.

I welcome guest posts. If you’d like to get in touch, you can find me on Twitter @JudyDarley, or send me an email at judy(at)SocketCreative.com

The Creak of Snow – A short story

Scottish Isle cr Judy DarleyAlmost a year ago, on Wednesday 3rd February 2016, in fact, I submitted my story The Creak of Snow to a special Scottish-themed edition of Literary Orphans.

I was thrilled when just a short time later, I received a merry email informing me my story had been selected for publication. Huzzah!

But then, well, nothing. No updates, no sign of the issue going head. No sign, in fact, that Literary Orphans still existed in the world. I checked the website a few times, and gradually resigned myself to that fact this wasn’t happening.

So imagine my delight this festive period when on 30th December 2016 I received an email from editor Mike Joyce explaining what had happened, apologising profusely, and announcing the publication of today!

The time difference between here and Chicago may confuse things a little, but to read The Creak of Snow, a story of a young Scottish girl coping with a new life in England, go to http://www.literaryorphans.org. Double huzzah!

Poetry review – Woven Landscapes

Woven Landscapes coverThis slim, blue volume from Avalanche Books brings together the words of six strong poets with a shared love of the world around us. Selected and arranged by editor Deborah Gaye, the affect is of attending an evening of readings, with each poet’s work presented as a mini collection within the book. It’s an unusual approach for an anthology, but it works beautifully, giving you the chance to absorb each writer’s tone and rhythms before drifting into the companionship of the next.

And each one truly does have a clear, resoundingly individual voice. Section one, from Roselle Angwin, is a sensual tangle of the intimate and universal, beginning with Apple Tree and a wassail in an orchard that offers up memories of rural customs even as the poet urges us to rest “your palm to the trunk, tell you how to open/ the eyes and ears of your hand” to experience the “journey between earth and star.” It’s a powerfully enticing beginning. Each poem conjures the same magic, elevating the ordinary details of life while contemplating big issues – politics, mortality, pilgrimage and migration, all elegantly laid out in vivid verse.

Continue reading

The Fiction Desk Ghost Story Competition

Arnoa Vale Cemetery cr Judy DarleyIn these early days of the year with so many hours to each dark night, The Fiction Desk invites you to seek a home for your spooky scribblings by submitting an entry to their annual ghost story competition.

They say: “’Ghost story’ can mean a lot of different things, from an encounter with an actual phantom to more unusual paranormal phenomena and unexplained events. All types are welcome, so feel free to experiment: we’re very unlikely to disqualify a story for stretching the definition of a “ghost”. Keep in mind that our general readership (and by extension our judge) may be more likely to respond well to psychological chills and unexplained mysteries than in-your-face gore.”

Prizes of this writing contest

  • 1st prize is £500
  • 2nd prize is £250
  • 3rd prize is £100

Rules of this writing contest

Entries should be between 1,000 and 5,000 words in length. The entry fee is £8 for each story submitted.

The deadline for entries is January 31st, 2017. Entry costs £8, and stories should be submitted online at www.thefictiondesk.com/submissions/ghost-story-form.php.

The competition is judged by Rob Redman, editor of the anthology series and founder of The Fiction Desk.

And in case you need a little prompt, The Fiction Day clarify that a “’Ghost story’ can mean a lot of different things, from an encounter with an actual phantom to more unusual paranormal phenomena and unexplained events. All types are welcome, so feel free to experiment: we’re very unlikely to disqualify a story for stretching the definition of a “ghost”. Keep in mind that our general readership (and by extension our judge) may be more likely to respond well to psychological chills and unexplained mysteries than in-your-face gore.”

Find full details here.

Dreaming landscapes

Clifton Suspension Bridge by Bill Ward Photography

Clifton Suspension Bridge by Bill Ward Photography

Photographer Bill Ward has a talent for capturing images that have a natural painterly quality. Playing with exposure length, light and shade, as well as framing to enhance the abstract elements of an image, he takes commonplace scenes and makes them magical.

It helps, perhaps, that he has years of experience behind him. “I’ve been taking photos off and on since I was six,” he says. “I started off with an old Kodak Instamatic, which was – happily – pretty much idiot-proof, and I took photos of all sorts of things.”

At that time, his subjects included cars and dogs, “nothing particularly meaningful, but when I look back now at some of the photos (pretty much all of which I’ve kept), there are quite a few landscapes and seascapes in there, which is interesting.  A bit blurry and wonky, but definitely there…”

Tents by Bill Ward Photography

Tents by Bill Ward Photography

Bill bought his first proper SLR film camera (a Praktica MTL 5B) before going travelling. “I took it round the world with me.  It was a fully manual film camera, totally solid, and pretty much indestructible.  A complete beast.”

He describes cameras as the perfect travelling companions. “I like how you’re never alone with a camera,” he says. “It always gives you a purpose, a reason to be anywhere.  I used to sit in markets for days, soaking it all up, and just peoplewatch.  I loved it.”

Rainbow Falls by Bill Ward Photography

Rainbow Falls by Bill Ward Photography

Bill is perhaps best known for his acting work, which includes roles in Coronation Street (where he played builder Charlie Stubbs for 280 episodes and three and a half years), and Emmerdale, where he acted the role of farmer, James Barton. His camera, he says, offers a sense of stability between roles.

“About six years ago I had 3 months waiting on an acting job, to see whether a TV pilot we’d made was going to make it to series – it didn’t in the end, which was a shame,” he says. “I was wondering what I could do usefully with the time, so I set myself my first ever proper photography project, bought myself a Digital SLR off eBay, and set about trying to capture Winter, as seen from the beach.”

Theddlethorpe Dunes by Bill Ward Photography

Theddlethorpe Dunes by Bill Ward Photography

For three months, Bill devoted himself to trekking up and down the East Coast of England, “in the snow, the hail, the rain, you name it, with my camera. At the end of the three months I had a much better set of photographs, and I’d enjoyed myself far more, than I’d ever imagined I would.”

Bill’s next acting job following this happened to be at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, where he noticed photographic and art exhibitions staged in the theatre foyer. “I took a very deep breath, pitched the idea of an exhibition to them, was astonished when they accepted, and things have kind of gone on from there, really.”

Wave, Storm Katie by Bill Ward Photography

Wave, Storm Katie by Bill Ward Photography

Prior to all of this, Bill spent a decade Bill working in advertising Industry, and I ask him how his time in that sector influences his photographic eye.

“Good question, and not one I’ve considered until now,” he comments. “At a purely practical level, I spent a couple of years as a Strategic Planner at Saatchi and Saatchi, and one of the accounts the agency had at the time was Pentax, so I was able to buy myself a very capable camera at a very decent price. I still use their cameras to this day. But from a creative point of view, one of the many unsung qualities of Advertising is the “singleminded-ness” of many of the best ideas. Much of the skill of advertising is working out what you’re trying to say, in as concise a way as possible – the endless pursuit of the true ‘essence’ of a thing, and then trying to say it as honestly and as freshly as you can.  I’ve definitely taken a bit of that with me into photography.”

In Search Of by Bill Ward Photography

In Search Of by Bill Ward Photography

These days, he says, his acting roles and photography projects “tend to dovetail really well. Acting is defined by a number of extraordinarily busy periods, when you’re either filming a really busy storyline, or putting a play together in a few weeks, and you simply don’t have a minute to spare. It’s totally all consuming.  There’s no time, and importantly no brain space either. But either side of those pretty intense periods, there can be a fair amount of slack.”

He explains: “I’ve just finished a three-year stint up in Leeds on Emmerdale, and one of the joys of that job was using the time I had when I wasn’t filming or learning lines to investigate the spectacular raw material that the Dales has to offer. It was a quite extraordinary time and I still feel very privileged to have had it.”

Applecross Peninsula by Bill Ward Photography

Applecross Peninsula by Bill Ward Photography

Photography offers a more psychological benefit too. “I do find that photography provides a real emotional release – a chance to spend time with Mother Nature, plug in, and let her do the rest.”

I love the dynamism of Bill’s work – his images are packed with energy.

“I suppose I’d describe my work as unashamedly emotional – I’m particularly interested not just in the places I go, but trying to capture how it felt to be there,” he says, attributing that urge to his travelling days. “From a photographic pov, I’m interested in specifically how it felt to spend this particular time, with this particular place.”

He adds: “I try very hard not to impose my will too much on what I see around me (although a bit of that is inevitable, and I suppose what differentiates you, in the end), rather I suppose I’m trying to see what the landscape has to offer on this particular day, see how it makes me feel, and try and take a photograph of that meeting point, if you see what I mean.  With greater or lesser degrees of success, but that’s the aim, anyway… It does mean I tend to do a fair amount of experimenting on the edges of the photographic spectrum, eg with Intentional Camera Movement (ICM), Multiple Exposures etc. I’m just trying to find ways to capture as accurately as possible how it all felt.”

Holkham Beach by Bill Ward Photography

Holkham Beach by Bill Ward Photography

Landscapes and seascapes are his genre of choice for a number of reasons. “I love its purity, its ‘in the moment-ness’, and how you can be completely immersed in a place, or a time, and just give yourself over to it,” he says. “It’s a very good balance to the hurly burly of everyday life, and the perfect antidote to the day-job.”

An interest in history, as well as his love of travel, feed into this.

“I definitely tend to find I take the most rewarding photographs in places to which I have a strong emotional attachment – not always, but usually,” he says. “That can come from a number of different things: my own personal interests (history is a big one for me – I have a degree in it, and a nose for it, I enjoy sniffing it out), but also going back to places I used to go on holiday growing up, or places I’ve always wondered about but never had the chance to get to. I would definitely class myself as much a Travel Photographer as a Landscape Photographer for that reason. I enjoy the being in a place as much as the photographing of it.”

Bill relishes the “unpredictable nature” of living a life based on the creative industries. “That can be a double edged sword, because with unpredictability comes a colossal amount of insecurity, but the plus sides are overwhelming positive,” he says. “The one thing you tend to get a fair amount of is time, and then it’s just up to you as to what you choose to do with it.”

Bill currently has collections in galleries around the UK, including the Contemporary Six Gallery in Manchester, and the Mick Oxley Gallery in Craster, Northumberland, “so you could pop in to see them if you happen to be passing.” He’s also a regular contributor to the Pentax Facebook page as he is now an Ambassador for the brand.

Find more of Bill’s work at www.billwardphotography.co.uk.

Are you an artist or do you know an artist who would like to be showcased on SkyLightRain.com? Give me a shout at judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Writing prompt – three

Three frosty benches by Judy DarleyI have a minor obsession with photographing park benches. I love imagining the people who might pause there for a moment to rest their legs or admire the view.

These three frosted seats intrigue me all the more for being winterly frosted up. Who might take a moment to clear the ice crystals so they can sit more comfortably? How might three very different people on these three benches interact? How could this develop into a narrative?

If you write or create something prompted by this, please send an email to Judy(at)socket creative.com to let me know. With your permission, I’ll publish it on SkyLightRain.com.