Outsmarting the inner critic

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In order to progress on my different writing projects this weekend, I spent a lot of time attempting to outsmart the shitbird (as my writing teacher so poetically calls it). For those unfamiliar with the term shitbird, you may know it under another name such as inner critic or personal sabotager.  It’s that voice inside your head that says writing (or any creative activity) is not worth the effort, that it’s very tiring, that what you’ll write will be mediocre anyway, that no one will ever want to read it and so on.  The shitbird also kindly recommends less threatening activities to distract yourself, such as reading other people’s writing online or watching another couple of episodes of Casa de Papel.

Despite the fact that the shitbird makes a systematic appearance, I know that once I sit down and write, I will get into the flow. When I am actually typing the details of a scene, thinking of what happens next in my story or figuring out how to make my dialogue work, the fear melts away and the shitbird goes quiet.

Some of the tricks that work for me are the following:

  • Setting a timer for 25 minutes and telling myself all I have to do is focus uninterrupted or that amount of time. Usually when the timer rings, I feel entitled  to stop, however more often than not, I’m immersed and happy to continue for a while longer.
  • Working on different types of pieces in parallel, like fiction and non-fiction. The positive thing being that I can procrastinate on one with the other depending on where the shitbird is being more vocal.
  • Planning a fun activity/treat I can enjoy only once I’ve spent a certain time focussed on writing.  This works really well for me.  Most of us do this intuitively to some extent and I learnt recently that this strategy carries the beautiful name of ‘temptation bundling‘ (term coined by Katy Milkman from the University of Pennsylvania). Basically it means linking an activity with short-term benefits you like to do, with an activity with long-term benefits you should do, in order to feel motivated to do the latter.

Please let me know your techniques for dealing with the shitbird in the comments. I’d love to try them!!

Creative writing course

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‘Improving my writing skills’ started popping up regularly on my dream lists last year, so in January I decided to treat myself and use these quiet winter months to follow an 8-week creative writing course.

It is a very fun and interactive class, and it works like this:

  1. We read in detail a 2 page extract from a published writer, analysing the type of narrator, tone, mood and techniques. Then our homework for the next class consists in writing a 2-page double-spaced piece inspired by the extract. The goal is to try out the techniques that made the extract successful. I love reading, but I hadn’t looked at a text in such detail since I was in high-school. It’s fascinating to see the craft used to have an effect on the reader and how words can take us into another world in no time.
  2. We critique the piece written by each student. Though this sounds daunting and it is definitely outside my confort zone, it is actually really interesting both when you are critiquing and being critiqued. It’s fascinating to see in real-time how people react to something I’ve written and get feedback from fellow students and the teacher. It helps to see what people liked or didn’t resonate with. I also really love reading what other students have come up with based on the same instructions, the outcomes are so wildly different and amazingly creative.

So each week lately I’ve been spending several hours on my assignment, and I’m enjoying the challenge so much, regularly finding myself in flow.  Based on the guidelines, I start getting ideas, jot them down, improve the wording and then it is like a puzzle  to manage to rearrange the parts, putting them together so the story flows somewhat logically.

Though it is challenging to stick to just two pages, it’s fun to see how in so little space it’s possible to create a small world, stretching myself to find solutions and iron out the creases as the idea becomes more concrete in my head. The great thing is that having only one week between classes, I just need to squeeze writing time into my schedule and get on with it. Of course my inner critic makes regular appearances but I reassure it that these are ‘just exercises’, so no need to worry;)

The set-up is constructive because it’s a great way just to get something on paper regularly, it doesn’t need to be perfect because with feedback from the others you leave the class with concrete points to improve your piece.  This course is definitely one of the most fun things I’ve done lately!

Counter-intuitive

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Lately I’ve been noticing a pattern whereby when I react to things counter-intuitively, I am positively surprised by the ease of the outcome. In the spirit of my words of the year IT WILL WORK, here are some examples to remind myself when I am tempted to go back into autopilot!

  • When I have lots of things to do and start to feel overwhelmed and exhausted, my tendency is to panic and tackle random tasks immediately like a headless chicken, leading only to more stress.
    Instead, when I stop, go for a walk to get some fresh air, have a nap or read a book, I find that after I am better able to prioritise and that there is always plenty more time to do things later.  Taking some distance, then focusing on the most important next task creates space for the rest (and it turns out lots of things are less urgent than they seem!)
  • When I feel an emotion I don’t like, such as sadness or anger, my go-to reaction is ignore and numb it, filling my thoughts with anything as long as I don’t have to feel it.
    Instead, I am trying to become more aware of the emotion, to lean in and feel the feelings and be curious about what triggered it. Usually if I just acknowledge it, the emotion will disappear surprisingly fast as the next one comes along.
  • When my inner voice is telling me that I am letting people down or I worry that I am not enough, I just want to retreat and avoid people.
    Instead if I have a chat with a friend or a colleague, I’m always reminded of our shared humanity, that I am OK just as I am however much (or however little) I am able to do. Turns out others don’t have unrealistic expectations of me like my inner-critic does.

I’m curious if there are other counter-intuitive reactions you have come across. Please share in the comments, I’d love to read about it! 🙂

Mushroom wisdom

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JOYFUL GRATITUDE #103

As I write this, the rain is pouring down outside. I am indoors, warm and watching rain drops slide down the windows, with a delicious cup of coffee by my side.  Like every week, I’m wondering what I want to write about.  I have a lot I am grateful for, so it is never a problem to come up with some ideas, but sometimes inspiration brings strange ideas with it.

Today I am grateful for this mushroom, spotted in a local vegetable garden on one of my afternoon walks, to get out of my head and into the fresh air while looking for some interesting details to photograph.  I felt so drawn to this beautiful mushroom and I believe it has wisdom to share with me. What is so special to me about this mushroom, you may wonder…

It stands tall and dignified, not wondering if it is sticking out or whether it looks funny.  It does it’s mushroomy thing, confident and unencumbered by the way other mushrooms look and behave. It is not questioning whether it is doing things right or well enough, and does not care what the leaves around it might say.  It is centered and grounded, fully in the present moment, unafraid of the rabbit that may come and nibble on it in the future.  I want to be more like this mushroom. These are the precious lessons that I am tucking away in the folds of my mind this week, to bring up again when the inner critic raises its head.

Solar system

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I love making collages. I’ve been making them since I was a teenager. When I am looking through magazines to find images and words that catch my eye and combine them, I feel totally in the flow.  I’m a very visual person and looking at beautiful pictures, intriguing forms and varied colours feed my creative well.

Recently we created a new game we call ‘collage challenge’, where Paolo chooses a theme and I have 30 minutes to peruse my stock of already-very-cut-up magazines and make a collage (loosely) related to that theme.

It’s a good exercise for several reasons. The fact that Paolo chooses the theme means I have to get out of my comfort zone, look at images from a different point of view and be creative. Also the time constraint is extremely efficient for shutting out my inner critic and getting something on paper.

This time the theme was Solar System.  Not an easy one when most of the magazines are travel magazines… but I decided to keep an open mind and above you can see the result. I particularly like the shisha-smoking caterhuman reflecting on the origin of the Universe:)