Monthly Archives: May 2012

Mind and mindfulness

This is called a “Mind Eraser”. I could do with one of these.

“Mind” is such a multi-purpose word, isn’t it? As a verb, it can mean to object to, to look after, and in a more archaic sense, to remember. As a noun, it encompasses all those nebulous concepts that we associate with our non-physical selves: the spirit, the personality, the intellect, among many others.

Today, my mind is all over the place. Since it is a work day, this poses a serious challenge. If my mind were connected to a printer, this is an extract from what it might be printing right now:

gottobookthatportraitsessionformysonmustphonetheeventspeakerfortomorrownightohgodidon’ttknowyet what’llimakefordinnermustsendthanktocardtofriendforlovelypartygottoremindhusbandtocomehomeearly onwednesdaybetterwritecheuqeforcommitteetreasurerohgodihaven’tmademuchprogressonmynewshortstory sincelastweekandihaven’tevenstartedontoday’sblogpost.

My mission for today – and I have no choice but to accept it, since I’m a writer – is to extract something meaningful from the whirl of nonsense in my mind. Right now, I feel like dangling by a rope from a precipitous cliff-face might be the easier task.

“Mindfulness: Finding peace in a frantic world” by Mark Williams and Danny Penman

One thing that really helps with calming a chaotic mind is Mindfulness. Those of you who have read Mindfulness: Finding peace in a frantic world by Mark Williams and Danny Penman will know what I mean. Those of you who haven’t, I strongly recommend it. The CD of guided mediations that comes with the book is worth it alone.

I find the first CD track, an eight-minute “body and breath” meditation, great for clearing the mind. The mind printer certainly outputs less of the scary, stream-of-consciousness stuff afterwards.

If anyone else in the writing field or other areas of the arts uses mindfulness techniques, either in conjunction with the book or otherwise, I’d love to hear about it. Just leave a comment below.

Being prepared…

Explaining your beliefs to other people… may my students be as rapt as these!

There’s nothing that makes you analyse your beliefs more than having to explain them to other people.

I’m coming up against this hard fact a lot at the moment, as I’m preparing to co-facilitate a half-day workshop. It’s called “Selling yourself without selling out”. (It’s for artists of all kinds, and aims to take the cringe factor out of self-promotion.) My co-facilitator is novelist, writer and creative writing tutor Derbhile Dromey.

For one thing, just because it’s obvious to me why using social media for self-promotion is a good idea for artists, workshop attendees may not necessarily agree whole-heartedly. So I am having to peel back the layers of my assumptions on that score, and come up with a way to elucidate my reasoning.

For another, like any skill as you practise it more, using social media for self-promotion as an artist becomes second nature. Consequently, if I am asked “Should I create a separate Facebook page for my artistic work, or can I just use my personal account?”, I really have to scratch my head to ensure that I give a clear answer. I know what I would do, but telling someone else what they should do, and why, is a different matter.

It’s all part of the preparation work, which, like anything worthwhile, is a time-consuming task.

On the plus side, I’m hugely excited about working with Derbhile and having the opportunity to support some fellow artists with their self-promotion work in the world of social media.

How long does overnight success take?

There is an inspiring new post by Rosie Lugosi on the Myslexia blog called “Hare / Tortoise”. In it, Rosie describes how her novel-writing career is finally taking off after twelve years of slog. The post has got me thinking about the cultural phenomenon of “overnight success”.

I have often mused about this with a friend who is also interested in the topic. We in the English-speaking world are obsessed with the idea of overnight success. It is the concept upon which talent shows like The X Factor are based: Someone is plucked from obscurity and thrust into the limelight on the strength of their amazing talent, which was just waiting to be discovered.

Mary Byrne on The X Factor

Mary Byrne on The X Factor

Mary Byrne and Susan Boyle are perfect examples. In the PR narrative that was presented along with them as they came to media prominence, both women (both undeniably very talented) had languished in obscurity for decades, their gift known only to their nearest and dearest, until Simon Cowell and co. swooped in to rescue them.

However, look a little more closely, and it emerges that both Ms. Byrne and Ms. Boyle had been singing for many years, and with some success, long before they went on The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, respectively.

Susan Boyle

Susan Boyle, runner-up in Britain’s Got Talent

Mary Byrne had been a singer in her brother’s band and had actually won a singing content on Irish TV in 2008. Susan Boyle began singing in school productions at age 12, and she and her mother often talked about her possibly becoming famous. She sang for years in pubs and local competitions before The X Factor. In both cases, they had worked and grafted away for years. There was nothing overnight about it.

As an artist, I resent the overnight success concept. Anyone who has ever achieved anything worthwhile, ever, no matter in what field, knows that it takes graft, graft, and then more graft. Staying up til all hours, getting up at all hours, working when you could be out socialising, working when you could be spending time with your family… and you keep doing all these things for months, years and quite possibly, your whole life. That is what lies behind most creative success.

There are several examples in fields other than showbiz: Search engine behemoth Google and the ridiculously popular game Angry Birds both appeared to gain incredible popularity in no time, whereas in actual fact, both took several years’ steady, unremarked-on work on the part of their creators.

Overnight success is a myth, in all senses of the word.

Despite this, as a human being, I love stuffing my rational brain into a drawer and gorging myself on reality TV sob stories.

So why are we so in love with the idea of being suddenly “discovered” and catapulted to instant success?


Cinderella, before Disney got her

It has to be something to do with the Cinderella meme that is still so strong in Anglo-Saxon culture. We all love a good rags-to-riches tale, and the Disneyfied Cinderella, the version now most familiar to us, is the iconic one. After pining for years amongst the cinders, Cinderella is transformed into a beauty by her fairy godmother (or the spirit of her dead mother, depending on which version you read), goes to the ball, and after some token faffing about with glass slippers, marries the prince and lives happily ever after. This is the original overnight success narrative arc, now found in countless movies, books and TV shows, and we can’t get enough.

The key question is, of course: Which came first? Did something inherent in human nature lead to the creation and rise of the Cinderella meme, or was an original affinity with the idea of sudden success nurtured by the rising popularity of the Cinderella fairytale?

For my part, I don’t know. If anyone with expertise in sociology or cultural history can shed more light on the question, I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

In the meantime, all hail to Rosie Lugosi on getting her debut novel picked up by Harper Collins after she won last year’s Myslexia Novel Competition. Her overnight success took twelve years. I’m still hanging in there for mine. 🙂

The write advice

Well-known writers are always being asked, “What advice would you give to new writers?”

This question must fill writers with dread. For one thing, it is quite a responsibility to give advice that someone may actually act on. For another, it is even more of a responsibility give such advice publicly. For yet another, advice is a strange beast that can reveal more than is intended about the giver of the advice.

Every week, in the “There are no rules” section of Writer’s Digest editor blogs, the author trails through the magazine’s archives, searching for writing advice from famous authors. The most recent list includes Harper Lee, John Steinbeck and James Thurber.

The article contains several contributions from famous and less famous writers, and is worth a read. Also, it’s fun to try to connect each piece of advice to the author’s personality (or persona).

Harper Lee’s contribution seems typical of the notoriously media-shy and no-nonsense author of To Kill a Mockingbird: “I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career, that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide”.

John Steinbeck and Carl Sandburg both take a subversive approach to giving advice:

“Beware of advice – even this” (Sandburg)

“Sorry – if I had any advice to give I’d take it myself” (Steinbeck)

My favourite is the single word provided by Robert Fuoss: “Write”.

If you have any favourite pieces of writing advice, from well-known or less-well-known writers, I’d love to hear them – just reply below!

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