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While that explanation might be a bit outdated, people still struggle with writer’s block today.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

Create a setting for your story

Buddhist monks and offerings cr Dipika Mukherjee

Author Dipika Mukherjee tells us how she came to set an award-winning novel in Shambala Junction, India, and advises how we can make setting play a role in our own writing.

One of the nicest perks about being a writer is that it is a great excuse to travel, all in the guise of research. Although Shambala Junction is an imaginary place, writing the novel took me on lovely long train journeys through India.

Mine your own memories

Shambala Junction begins with a rather jinxed train journey for the protagonist, Iris, an Indian-American young woman visiting India with her new fiancée. I mined the memories of my own childhood, especially the wonderful nostalgia of long train journeys from New Delhi Station to Howrah in Kolkata, to write Iris’s wide-eyed enchantment with the ubiquitous details of Indian life.

Every summer, when the heat drove Delhiites to cooler cities, my family would board the Rajhdhani Express for a 24-hour journey with a long halt at Mughal Serai. Mughal Serai in my childhood had makeshift stalls selling colourful wooden dolls; although, it is almost impossible to find these artisans at railway stations anymore, Aman’s stall is inspired by my vivid memories:

He had an array of colorful wooden dolls spread out in front of him on a pushcart: there were dolls with turbans and flared coats playing flutes and dholaks; there were men riding horses with colorful stirrups and dazzling sword-sheaths; there were dancers dancing with the left leg slightly on tiptoe, caught in mid-swirl in the disarray of flouncing skirts.

Iris was enchanted. She had once owned a dancing doll just like that one, a beloved painted wooden thing with a crack in the veiled head, a gift from some unremembered relative in her childhood.

New Delhi cr Dipika Mukherjee

Start with a vein of truth

I started writing this novel after being enraged at the tone of an article about ‘baby shopping’ which was about international adoptions fuelling child-trafficking in India. This is a global problem, not just limited to India, and the trafficking moves from one impoverished country to another as the authorities start clamping down on severe irregularities I wanted the western world to realise that we are all complicit in this, especially by pretending that if poor children are placed in affluent homes it makes the world a better place.

I wrote the first draft in about three months in Amsterdam, then I edited this novel over four years, toning down the rage and making the characters blossom into real people. A novel like this taught me that there are far too many victims in these stories to be a novel about the East vs West or the Consumerist North vs Impoverished South. This story needed nuanced characters, and I was very aware of how easy it was for me, as an author, to have them climb onto soapboxes.

Use your imagination 

So this story shifted, from being based in New Delhi, to an imaginary Shambala Junction, loosely based on Gaya. Gaya is an ancient city and a deeply spiritual place where the Buddha attained enlightenment. It has a real hill where the Buddha preached the Fire Sermon and a Mahabodhi temple, and these feature in the novel as well. At the same time, Gaya is also within the state of Bihar, which was at that time considered one of the most badly governed, lawless and corrupt states in India. I travelled to Gaya alone to get a sense of the place and visited the Mahabodhi temple, with its most international gathering of Buddhist pilgrims from all around the world alongside general tourists like me.

Buddha cr Dipika Mukherjee

I also visited the cave with an emaciated Buddha figure; an image rarely portrayed in Buddhist iconography, yet the rigors of attaining Nirvana would certainly have necessitated this condition. It was a startling image; a reminder of the frailty and mortality of all human condition.

The hill where Buddha preached the Fire Sermon was quite a trek, and in the novel, I transmute my experience into the voice of Emily, a Canadian woman wanting to adopt an Indian girl-child:

Emily raised her head. She could see the motley group of children heading for the next tourist bus pulling in. They had no time for play; it was work for them as long as tourists like her showed up. She felt her eyes prickle; so many children with miserable lives. Too many children who could not be adopted into better lives.

Beside a square white enclosure it was all brown on the hill. The rough-hewn rocks scattered on the dusty ground made room for brown shoots to limply wave in the wind. Her skin tingled with a tragic epiphany; on this hill, pregnant with religious history, she could see absolutely no signs of life.

Unlike Emily, I was left with a very happy memory by my trip to Gaya. During my visit to the Mahabodhi temple, as I sat under the Bodhi tree meditating with other people at the site where the Buddha had attained Nirvana, a stray leaf twirled down from the green canopy of the Bodhi Pallanka overhead and fell into my lap. That dried leaf is now framed and hangs in my home in Chicago; I like to think that the Buddha approved this story much before it found a publisher or won a prize!

Author Dipika MukherjeeAbout the author

Dipika Mukherjee’s debut novel was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize, then published as Thunder Demons (Gyaana, 2011, South Asia) and Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, 2016, World). Shambala Junction is her second novel and won the 2016 Virginia Prize for Fiction (Aurora Metro, 2016). She won the Gayatri GaMarsh Award for Literary Excellence (USA, 2015) and the Platform Flash Fiction Prize (India, 2009). Her short story collections include Rules of Desire (Fixi, Malaysia, 2015) and edited collections Champion Fellas (Word Works, 2016), Silverfish New Writing 6 (Silverfish, 2006) and The Merlion and Hibiscus (Penguin, 2002).

Read my review of Shambala Junction tomorrow.

Free up your creativity

Paledrips painting by Sara Easby

Paledrips by Sara Easby – www.sara-easby.com

I’m a great believer in the energy we can derive from creative mediums other than our own. My comfort zone is writing – spooling words together to create stories, narratives, or images in the mind. It fires me up and helps me make sense of the world.

Listening to music can influence this, while baking or any kind of physical activity, from running to dances, makes ideas pop in my mind like mustard seeds in a pan of hot oil. And art has been the starting point of many of my creative written works.

Over the past couple of years I’ve been moved to dabble in making my own art – splashing a bit of paint around or doodling scenes as they form in my head. I’ve begun attempting to draw the views in front of me, or focus on small still lives, in an attempt to get my body to wake up the muscle memory laid down when I drew and painted copiously as a teenager.

But it’s been so many years since I last took an art class. Or at least, it had been.

Last Tuesday I strolled over to the Grant Bradley Gallery in Bedminster to see Sara Easby‘s BRÆTT (MELT) exhibition, inspired by Iceland. The work was raw, elemental, and enthralling. I wanted to know how to capture emotions the page as she does.

Then I discovered that the very next morning she was due to teach an art class at the gallery. I sent her an email and she promised to squeeze me in.

What a wonderful experience. Two hours of freedom to ink, paint, glue, scrape and create.

Artwork by Judy Darley

It connected me to my emotions in a way that reached beyond words – such a liberating change! Creative writing cannot exist in a vacuum – we need to experience life and part of that is to experience art. As enjoyable and moving as it can be to view it, to make it is far more vigorously inspiring.

Blue and gold by Judy Darley

It doesn’t have to be visual art, of course. You could learn to play the drums, or take up ballet, join a stitch and bitch group or even enrol in a Spanish language class. All these things exercise parts of the creative mind that writing along cannot reach.

To get you started, Sara is co-hosting an Art and Writing Workshop on 10th December from 10am till 4pm with Nigel Gibbons. “This will be a chance to enjoy both creative forms, exploring these two ways of working, and allowing them to interact,” says Sara. “The aim will be to enjoy a space to be creative. No previous skills or experience necessary.”

There is a charge of £20, which includes some art materials. For more details, or to book a place, contact Sara on sara@sara-easby.com or Nigel on 077 40 200 991. The venue is Cotham Parish Church Hall, Cotham Road, Bristol, BS6 6DR.

Who knows what riches it will help you to unearth in your future literary works?

Invent your own interior

AzurArt Studio loungeWith things taking a turn for the worse recently, I’m increasing impelled to retreat into my own imagination and, frankly, pretend this isn’t happening. In my head I can surround myself with things I find beautiful and quietly edit out anything that scares me. I know it’s not real, but that doesn’t make it any less enticing.

Artist Nadia D Manning has come up with a rather more tangible solution. Okay, she can’t undo the judgements and votes of others, but she can make your surroundings far more appealing.

AzurArt Studio notebook

Working in collaboration with her aunt Svetlana Condé in Prague, as well as a creative array of artists and designers, Nadia’s aim is to dream up artwork that can brighten up every part of your life, home, and business, from gorgeous rugs and wallpapers to crockery and even clothing.

AzurArt Studio t-shirt

“At AzurArt Studio we would like to encourage every person to explore and discover their unique style of living, surrounded by art,” says Nadia. “Our spectrum of creative services is broad and our aim is to work with people to design the personalised living or work space which will best inspire their own creative potential.”

AzurArt Studio sneaker

Quite simply, every part of your living and working environment can be ‘made to measure’ your individual style. What a great way to ensure a positive mindset and give your ideas the space to run free! This is interior design in the most extreme sense of the term.

Find out more here www.azurartstudio.com/projects

AzurArt Studio bedroom

How to add drama to your writing

Gigi and The Cat by ColetteI recently read The Cat by French novelist Colette. Now, Colette was no slouch when it came to seeding her stories with escalating tension. Nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, Colette’s most renowned work is the novella Gigi, but for me The Cat far surpasses that tale.

It begins slowly enough with our introductions to Alain and his fiancée Camille; Alain’s beloved rescue cat Saha in the background. As the narrative progresses, Alain’s resentment of Camille’s position in his life deepens. The wedding takes place off-screen, hinting at how little significance this change in circumstance holds for Alain.

The newly weds move in together and muddle along relatively all right, until Alain brings Saha to share their temporary home.

The home, leant by a friend, is in a tall, skinny building the unhappy couple refers to as The Wedge. Their apartment is nine storeys up, and Saha quickly develops a tendency to sit “washing herself at length on the parapet” above the sheer drop.

Initially this behaviour terrifies Camille, but jealousy is a dark and unpredictable thing. Alain’s love-making is “hurried” and “peevish”, while he reserves all his warmth and affection for Saha.

In the first pages of chapter eight, Camille’s thwarted dreams of wedded bliss crack through to the surface. While Alain is out, she and Saha “were resting on the same parapet”, providing Colette with the perfect setting for a truly dramatic scene. “They exchanged a glance of sheer mutual investigation and Camille did not say a word to Saha.”

Instead, Camille behaves as if Saha is not there, perhaps pretending to herself that her “rival” truly does not exist. Yawning, stretching and pacing, she impels the cat to move endlessly, over and over, in the small space they inhabit high above the ground.

After a few near misses, “the cat was looking at Camille’s back and her breath came faster. She got up, turned two or three times on her own axis and looked questioningly at the closed door. Camille had not moved. Saha inflamed her nostrils and showed a distress that was almost like nausea. A long desolate mew escaped from her, the wretched reply to a silent, imminent threat. Camille faced round abruptly.”

As Camille strides to and fro, Saha has continually to dodge her feet to avoid being kicked, or trodden on. Rhythmically, the torture continues, with Camille feigning ignorance while forcing Saha to leap onto the parapet and back to the balcony floor to save herself, again and again.

And, as in any great drama, it is just as Camille is distracted and Saha has a chance to relax that the scene reaches its breathtaking climax.

My copy of The Cat by Colette is part of a volume published by Vintage in 2001, which also contains the novella Gigi. Buy it from Amazon.

What are you reading? Impressed by a particular scene? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews and comments on books, art, theatre and film. Please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Writing between the lines with Heidi Heilig

The Girl From Everywhere coverIn reading Heidi Heilig’s luminescent The Girl From Everywhere, I encountered an elegantly written scene that shows (rather than tells) you everything you need to know about how to portray emotion through what is left unsaid.

In the 2016 edition from Hot Key Books, it occurs 63 pages in. Kashmir, our narrator Nix’s closest friend and crewmate, has just given her a stolen necklace. It’s one of many “trinkets” (his words) he has stolen for her in the time they’ve known each other.

When Nix tries to give him the necklace back, he demurs, saying he enjoys it too much to stop “‘Bringing you treasures you care nothing for.’” And here the author gets Nix involved: “He spoke lightly, but his words were too flippant and behind his eyes was something I recognised: loneliness.” Three extra words add an infinite level of tension to the scene: “The moment stretched.”

Nix has to find a way to respond to their intensity, and does so by telling him that she does care, and lifting her hair – that subtly sensual movement – so that he can clasp the necklace around her throat, “His breath smelled of cloves, and his fingers were warm.” The word ‘throat’ is Heilig’s choice: so much more loaded than ‘neck.’

The atmosphere heightens as Nix tries “to remember the Persian phrase I’d found in an Iranian guidebook and tucked away in my head for a moment like this, ‘Takashor.’”

The fact she has made a mistake and Kashmir corrects her: “Tashakor”, only adds to the intimacy of the scene, as Nix thanks him again, this time in her own language, and “we both smiled like it didn’t mean anything.”

What are you reading? Impressed by a particular scene? I’d love to know. I’m always happy to receive reviews and comments on books, art, theatre and film. Please send an email to Judy(at)socketcreative.com.

Suspense writing with Iris Murdoch

The Nice and The GoodThere is a scene in The Nice And The Good by Iris Murdoch that encompasses everything you need to know about suspense writing.

Plumped 295 pages towards the end of the 1969 edition of this rather meandering novel, it involves Gunnar’s cave, “its sole entrance only above water for a short time at low tide.” Murdoch drops this line in far earlier, building on the cave’s status in “the mythology of the children.”

For 15-year-old Pierce in particular, this sea cave is a place of fascination and dread. He fears it more than the other children do, and, equally, wonders about the possibilities of this hidden space, and marvels over the chance there could be a secret safe spot in there, or whether one would inevitably be drowned.

Towards the end of the novel, his heart has been broken, he’s cross with the world, and his behaviour is becoming increasingly erratic. The cave, seems to be the answer to this – the opportunity to face the threat head on, while allowing it to prise from him the choice of life over death. Once inside, with the entrance sealed by the tide, he will be at its mercy, and that, in his current state of mind, is oddly appealing.

But even this disastrous plan doesn’t go quite to plan. No sooner is he swallowed up by the darkness than he hears splashing nearby and discovers that Mingo, the family dog, has followed him in. Then John Ducane, a friend of his mother’s, swims in to see if he can find the boy. Now three lives are at peril in a dense, cold, alien blackness of the cave, and the reader (in my case, at least), is transfixed.

Continue reading

How to give a book wings

Craftivist Collective_hopeHave you heard about Unbound? They’re a rather ingenious new kind of publisher. They’ve already attracted the literary talents of Salena Godden, and are now jumping up and down in support of craftivism queen Sarah Corbett.

The way it works is: an author pitches an idea for a book, then you, the potential reader, can choose whether or not to make a donation towards the completion and publication of that book.

In return, you receive a beautiful e-book, paperback or hardback copy of the finished book, depending on how much you pledge. You also get access to ‘the author’s shed’, showcasing their progress and offering insights into the process of putting the book together.

Craftivist Collective_minibanner

Sarah’s book is How to be a craftivist: the art of gentle protest.

Intrigued? Sarah says, “If we want our world to be more beautiful, kind and fair, then shouldn’t some of our activism be beautiful, kind and fair?”

Sarah’s been running Craftivist Collective since 2009, tackling issues ranging from climate change to the businesses failing to pay employees a living wage.

“My approach to Craftivism is to tackle issues not with anger and shouting, but with gentle protest. Gentleness is not weak, it requires self-control in the face of anger, injustice and sadness. Gentle protest lets us have conversation instead of an argument, debate instead of shouting, and collaboration instead of opposition.”

Craftivist Collective_heartonyoursleevecampaign1

Sarah vows that her book will get to the heart of Craftivism – the purpose, process and pitfalls. Areas it will cover include:

1. How to use the process of making to engage thoughtfully in the issues you care about.

2. How to see every detail of your creation as important: from the colour you use to the fonts, the size, the messaging….

3. How Craftivism can engage people on and offline around the world.

4. How Craftivism can create conversations and action.

“Gentleness, conversation and collaboration can make our world a better place, and the road there less angry, aggressive and divisive.”

Craftivist Collective_minibanner1

Find out more and help Sarah on her way to making her book a reality at unbound.co.uk/books/craftivist.

Find out more about Unbound here.

How to write children’s books

Sunshine snail cr Judy DarleyI’ve decided to treat myself to a special gift by signing up to Rachel Carter’s Children’s Book workshop at Bristol Folk House.

Taking place on Saturday 12th March 2016, Children’s Book in a Day promises inspiring exercises that will help you explore aspects of writing “such as character, setting and plot.”

Ethan's Voice coverRachel Carter is the author of children’s novel Ethan’s Voice, about a boy who cannot speak. I was keen to discover more about the course teacher, so got in touch with Rachel to find out what drives her own writing.

“I was always drawn to creative writing as a child,” she says. “When I was twelve, I was chosen to be sent on a residential writing course in a big old house for a week. I think that experience sowed a seed.”

Rachel grew up surrounded by animals and fields on a Somerset smallholding. “There was lots of space and time to reflect. I worked in publishing for years, including children’s non-fiction publishing. I decided instead of editing other people’s work my heart lay in creative writing and I was drawn to writing for children because it felt like such a flexible medium…a really broad genre.”

She admits that writing for children is challenging. “I think it’s harder than writing for adults because you have to tailor your language and so on to the age of the children you’re targeting. It’s very competitive and hard to make a living just from being a writer. There is a lot of rewriting involved as with any form of writing.”

Rachel CarterThe best things, Rachel suggests, are “being able to lock yourself away, or sit in a cafe, and focus on creating something you really want to create; meeting children who genuinely love what you have written, and going into schools to do author visits.”

The course is designed to provide the tools needed to start writing your children’s book. “It’s a combination of discussion, imparted advice and inspirational creative writing exercises,” says Rachel, who is also available for school author visits, talks and workshops. “It covers character, plot, setting, the ages and stages and the industry/getting published side of things. It is a fun, uplifting day that uses pictures and objects, and guided exercises to prompt the imagination.”

Sounds wonderful to me.

Children’s Book in a Day at Bristol Folk House is on Saturday 12th March 2016. Taking part costs from £18.10 to £25.90. Find out how to book your place at www.bristolfolkhouse.co.uk.

Lessons in storytelling

The Trip #9 (2015) cr Matt Henry, Short Stories

The Trip #9 © Matt Henry, Short Stories

They say an image is worth 1,000 words, and that the camera never lies. In Matt Henry‘s new photographic book, Short Stories, these hypotheses are tested to the limit.

Each of the scenes displayed in this beautiful and unsettling book offers countless possible narratives. Cast in vivid sun-drenched technicolour, they sing shrilly of a far earlier era, and yet each was snapped sometime between 2007 and 2015. Even more unexpected, the majority were staged on UK soil with a cast of actors and friends playing the characters apparently caught while going about their everyday lives. Powerfully, it suggests, the American Dream really is an illusion.

Alice (2013) cr Matt Henry, Short Stories

Alice (2013) © Matt Henry, Short Stories

“Everything was to play for in this era,” says Henry of 1960s and 70s USA. “Culture and politics fused like no other time. The tension between burgeoning liberal ideas and the stubborn conservatism of rural America is fascinating for me, and provides the most fantastic backdrop for storytelling.”

Phone Call (2012) cr Matt Henry, Short Stories

Phone Call (2012) © Matt Henry, Short Stories

There’s so much happening in each of the scenes – even empty rooms ripple with a sense of anticipation. Paranoia and hope sizzle with equal emphasis, suggesting that drama awaits at the every corner – and the direction each life will take could rest in the spin of a nickel. Any writer who can imbue their work with such palpable tension will be a master of their art.

Short Stories Matt Henry cover

Short Stories by Matt Henry is published by Kehrer Verlag and is available to buy from www.artbooksheidelberg.com or from www.matthenryphoto.com.