Photo by Jaro Larnos

Creative Status: In A Relationship

I’m currently taking part in the Creative Focus Workshop created and taught by Jessica Abel, and this post is the result of trying to summarize my thoughts and feelings regarding one of the lessons. The lesson explores how the Eisenhower Decision Matrix can be applied in creative life, challenges us to understand how our self-generated creative work is  vital, and encourages us to give it the attention and priority it deserves. (This blog post explains some of it.)

Here is the bit that really did it for me:

Of course, people give lip service to Q2 all the time. They say, “This [comic, novel, blog, feature film, whatever] is the most important thing for me. This is what I truly want to do with my life.”

But when it comes down to actually choosing to spend time on it, to putting the time in the calendar, everything else comes first.

Reading this, I felt extremely called out. I’ve re-read the lesson several times, and I went back to re-read parts of Jessica’s book Growing Gills, specifically where she talks about how creating a sustainable creative practice is an existential battle. “Existential, meaning: winning the battle is pivotal to your existence.”

And here’s the thing. I agree with this. I’ve been agreeing with this for the past ten years. But more recently, my agreement has been more intellectual than emotional. It took me some soul-searching to understand why.

Short answer: I’ve been burned (out) before.

Long answer begins back in 2010. That year, because of reasons, I declared that making art was the most important thing in my life, and all other aspects of my life would have to be subordinated to it. I wasn’t in the position to quit paid work (I was and still am fortunate that between my partner and me, we can have a fairly comfortable life on 1.5 incomes), but I did sacrifice my physical and mental health, and endangered relationships, all for the Mission of Art. Five years into said mission, I had planned out a 6-book series, wrote two and a half novels in it, got one actually signed to be published by a small press; plus a handful of self-published comics, abandoned ambitions of singing-songwriting… and a case of burnout that rendered me unable to touch any creative projects without screaming. It took me a year of creative abstinence and several months of therapy to unravel that mess.

During the same period, the small press went under, and with it, my publishing opportunity. The idea of querying all over again was unthinkable, so I set out to edit my novel again, instead (no regrets: the book I ended up with is vastly better). But I would touch my creative work as lightly as possible. I would not commit emotionally. Because if I did allow myself to admit the importance of creative writing in my life, I would get paralyzed with anxiety whenever I opened a notebook or a document, because suddenly, the rest of my life hinged on my ability to produce words. (Thoughts of publishing were simply not allowed during that time.)

The upside was, I didn’t hate my creative work any more (as I came to do before I started therapy). So I would work on my writing, bit by bit, telling myself it was no big deal, no pressure, I’m just playing around, this is a hobby, much like my new interest in country walking. That was the status quo for a few years. I had settled into thinking that I could only write part time, that I only WANTED to write part-time, that even if I had the resources to quit my paid work, I would still never write for more than an hour a day. Two, tops.

That was the case until late 2018, when I went on a writing retreat. For four days, my attention wasn’t diverted to paid work or chores. And I wrote. Full-time. A good 5-6 hours of focused creativity every day. That marked a turning point for me. Maybe I did want to write “seriously” after all. Maybe writing wouldn’t always be relegated to what my friend and I jokingly called “my side ho”. Maybe I was ready for a committed relationship with it again.

So I committed to the idea of myself as a writer. I did the work as best I could: at that time, lessons in Growing Gills proved invaluable for me. But only now do I realize that I still wasn’t committing emotionally. I was afraid. A part of me felt that if I admitted that writing is important, so important, the most important for me, I would slip right back into that short-term productive but ultimately self-destructive state that had defined the first half of my 2010’s.

Well, no more.

In Growing Gills, Jessica writes:
“The decision to carve out time and attention to make your work is a breathtaking act of ego. You’re saying, ‘I don’t care what everyone else thinks I should be doing with my time. I know this is what I need to do.’”

Last week, I was able to commit that breathtaking act of ego again. And I intend to keep committing it, day after day.

My creative work is important to me.

My creative work is one of the most important things in my life and THE most important ambition.

I don’t care what everyone else thinks I should be doing with my time. I know this is what I need to do.

Review: The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes by Francesca Burke

This is a spoiler-free review for the opening chapters of The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes by Francesca Burke. You can read the beginning of the story for free on Francesca’s Words and continue on her Patreon. Francesca also runs a wonderfully eclectic blog over at Indifferent Ignorance (featuring some adorable baby elephants that surely no-one could stay indifferent about).

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When reading a fairy tale, it tends to be obvious from early on whether it’s a story intended to be read by a child alone, or by an adult reading to a child. The best stories, however, combine the best of both worlds. Those are fairytales that a child can enjoy on their own, but with enough nuance lurking under the surface that the adult can appreciate them too – whether they’re reading to a child, or for themselves. The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes by Francesca Burke is one of those fairytales.

In the first three chapters, we get an increasingly closer look at the island of the Three Kingdoms, and the Kingdom of Mirrors in particular, where the first main plot of the story is centered. We follow the young Princess Amelia as she struggles to help keep her family’s kingdom afloat in the middle of a war waged against it by an unfriendly neighborhood dragon, a threat that may seem nebulous until the mentions of death tolls and refugees (terrifyingly non-sensationalized) drive it home for the reader. With the heir to the throne (Amelia’s older brother) choosing to abdicate in favor of a loving marriage to a commoner, the king’s health fragile in the aftermath of a stroke, and the kingdom’s finances drained by the decades-long dragon threat, we find the Kingdom of Mirrors in dire straits. But Amelia has a plan – and with the support of the three-quarters of the Kingdom’s High Council, she rallies her kingdom to an unconventional defense against the dragon… that may just work.

Although these days I lean more towards sci-fi than fantasy, and fairytales aren’t my usual fare, either, I had no trouble whatsoever getting into the story from the very first lines. Francesca’s evocative descriptions bring the fantasy island to life: from sweeping vistas of Lumiere, the capitol of the Mirror Kingdom, to an intimate family dinner. Even though it’s a fairytale, the characters are the farthest thing from cardboard cutouts. You won’t find here the tropes of “handsome prince”, “plucky princess” or “Queen Mother” – but living, breathing people with quirks, desires, ambitions and weaknesses. We get given glimpses of history of the royal family and beyond (I genuinely hope that the outcome of a certain incident with a dog and a growth potion will show up at a later point in the story).

Francesca’s writing style is lively and witty, reminiscent of Chris Riddel and, even more so, Lemony Snicket (to the degree that at one point, I was expecting her to make an aside to define a more complicated word like “notoriety”, as Snicket is apt to do). Here’s a sentence I’m particularly fond of: The mosaiced fish were consistently bigger than the little people on the boat, which always made Amelia wonder whether the artist had no sense of scale or if they wanted to emphasize how brave the fishermen were, sailing out to face enormous krakens and territorial mermaids and climate change.

This description comes fairly early in the story and is mostly an aside, talking about a mosaic that Amelia passes as she walks. For me, the list of struggles featuring territorial mermaids and climate change in the same sentence worked as a perfect way to ground the Kingdom of Mirrors in my mind. It’s this kind of seamless blending of fairy tale imagery and 21st century English (complete with 21st century realities) that makes the Kingdom of Mirrors feels the opposite of far, far away – but a place a modern-day reader can easily relate to, full of beauty and very real problems alike.

In summary, The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes is a beautifully written story and, right from its opening chapters, promises to be an enjoyable read for people of all ages. I strongly recommend you get thee to Francesca’s blog to read the first three chapters available there, and, should your means allow, continue reading the story on her Patreon. I know I will be.

The Alchemy of a Freelancer’s CV

This past week I’ve done something I haven’t done in years: submit a job application. I’ve always royally sucked at applying for jobs. My first ever job was an internship-turned-full-time, and then people from that job started their own company and headhunted me into my second job. After quitting it in 2009, I’ve been 100% freelance. Jobseeking stage 1: two jobs, zero applications.

There was also a brief period in 2013 when my previous freelance gig became unsustainable and I basically applied for every part-time retail job in Liverpool. I haven’t heard back from anyone at the time, and in restrospect, I’m profoundly thankful for that, as that had ultimately led to me building a new successful freelance practice. Still, jobseeking stage 2: ~20 applications, zero jobs.

Then, last week, a short existential crisis spiral had led me to jobseeing stage 3: applying for the vacancy of an assistant librarian. Thus came the truly surrealist task of distilling 15 years of freelancing, 7 years as a novelist and comic book writer, and 4 years of largely unrelated finance experience into something that would demonstrate the hiring panel my suitability for the job.

Welp, I thought as I worked my way through the application form. I’ll just list my previous and current jobs in the appropriate section, and then make an impassioned plea in the part reserved for the cover letter, saying that even though none of my previous employment and self-employment is particularly relevant for the job, I’m really passionate about books and knowledge, I’m a writer, for Pete’s sake, so… pretty please?

I’m happy to say it didn’t come to this. Because as I thought, REALLY thought about the work I used to do, and the work I do today, the more I came to realize that none of my previous jobs and projects were a waste of time or a forgotten chapter of my life.  My skills and knowledge today are the sum of everything I’ve done – whether for an employer, a client, a volunteer project, or for creative work.

They want someone who can convey information to people in understandable ways – well, I’ve done that when I held trainings for the sales department on how to write loan applications, when I coahed new employees and my replacements, when I advised clients on their own CVs and cover letters.

They want someone who can offer friendly customer service and get people enthused about books – I womanned many a convention table, chatting up people I’ve never met before, and getting them sufficiently enthused about the books in front of them that many of them voluntarily gave me money in exchange for those books.

They want someone who has time management and organization skills – ladies, you’re looking at someone who has held a freelance gig in conjunction with a part-time job AND a full-time uni.

The list goes on, but I won’t bore you with the rest, because I didn’t write this blog post to brag about my credentials (although if anyone from the recruitment panel is reading this while running a background google check on me – hello, it’s very good to see you, enjoy your time on my blog, please pick up a free short story collection). The main point is, I think that I figured out why I’ve always sucked at applying for jobs.

Until now, I’ve never applied for a job I wanted. A job I needed, sure. A job that seemed like a good idea. A job that promised good money, security, even self-actualization. A job I knew I’d be good at. But never a job that I wanted, one that I picked out of a long, long list, one that I pointed to, and said – yes, that’s the one, that’s what I want to do. Until this one.

If I could boil my experience down to any sort of shareable advice, it would be this: if you’re struggling to put together a convincing CV or cover letter, ask yourself why you’re applying for the job. Is this the dream job? A dream-adjacent job, at least? It’s okay if it’s not, obviously: most of the time in our lives we take what jobs we can find. In that case, conventional CV and cover letter advice will serve you well (as will taking a cover letter writing lesson from Luke Skywalker)

But if it IS a dream or dream-adjacent job, what makes it such? You must be driven to it by something that you like doing, something you know, something you ARE. All those things – your skills, your knowledge, your personality – are a product of the life you’ve led up to the point of your job application. Actual jobs, passion projects, volunteering, stuff you did in uni – in all of these things people tend to practice the skills they already have and/or learn new ones. You’d be surprised at how many of those skills can be transferable.

Of course, none of the above will protect you from being filtered out because of lacking the 3 years of experience mysteriously required for an entry-level position, because of failing to include a specific keyword in your CV, or because of bias and prejudice. Job-hunting sucks, there’s no sugar-coating it, and I’m aware of how fortunate I am to be applying for a dream-adjacent job while knowing that not getting it won’t leave me bankrupt.

But if you do ever find yourself in that position, if there’s a job that you pick out of a long list, point to, and say “yes, I want to do THAT,” then don’t deprive yourself of the opportunity to give it your best shot. Ask yourself what it is about the job that appeals to you – and you may find exactly what makes you good for the job.

P.S. I’ve joked over the years that if I’m ever in a job interview that’s obviously going south and they ask me why I’m applying for the job, my answer is going to be “because under capitalism, I’m forced to sell my labor in order to subsist.” Well, in the eventuality that this application gets me an interview, I know I won’t be tempted to say the above. Rather, my answer would be to quote Neil Gaiman: “I believe that in the battle between guns and ideas, ideas will, eventually, win.”

And then there’s Lemony Snicket’s quote about libraries, of course, but I already used that on my job application. Yes, I really did that. No, I’m not ashamed.

A photograph of sea at sunset. The text on the image says "A library is like an island in a vast sea of ignorance, particularly if the library is very tall and the surrouncing area has been flooded." Lemony Snicket

Your Story’s Way of Telling You: “It’s Not You, It’s Me”

Featured image by Drew Coffman

This week, my editing efforts seemed to have run into a brick wall when my approach to a (by design) exposition-heavy chapter started as a light edit and ended up as AAAAAARGH. Part of the reason was that the Piece of Sci-Fi Technology Used for Evil I was introducing in the chapter had been conceived a good five years ago, and when I wrote out exactly what it could do, my concusion was that 90% of the Technology’s capacity was not science fiction, but the story of Cambridge Analytica. My main problem wasn’t the need to ramp up the fi in the sci-fi, though – it was the realization that I’ve never really put the Technology’s ultimate purpose into words.

I mean, I knew that Technology existed to spread propaganda of Isolationist Message for the benefit of Evil Corporate Government. But at no point before had I actually asked myself: okay, but how exactly does the ECG benefit from its citizens believing in Isolationist Message? That marked the transition of the ECG’s image in my mind from a vague capitalist blob into a collective of people with interests, opinions, egos, and history. (More on that in another blog about the perils of writing a story without a supervillain.)

This is hardly the first “brick wall” moment in my writing or editing process. In the past, whenever I’d find myself rewriting the same chunk of story over and over again, the problem usually lay either before or behind the problematic piece. In the former case, I’d likely railroaded my characters into an unnatural place – so no wonder I couldn’t get them to act naturally anymore. In the latter, I had likely tried to build story without laying some backstory groundwork, so now I was trying to bullshit my way through instead of getting to the point.

Going even further back, when I tried to write the synopsis of First Original Novel I Ever Finished, I would fail miserably time and time again. I managed to cobble something together eventually, but looking back now I can see what my real problem was: it wasn’t as much of a story as of a string of events happening one after another. Try to synopsize an average day in your life, and you’ll see what I mean.

My conclusion from the numerous run-ins with these brick walls is: when the story seems to fall apart or get stuck in place, maybe it’s trying to tell you something. Maybe that’s the story’s way of saying “It’s not you, it’s me”. As in, there’s nothing wrong with you, the writer. You’re not blocked, you’re not stupid, you didn’t suddenly lose the ability to write. The problem’s in the story itself. Maybe you need to back up and figure out something about your world or your characters. Maybe you need to rethink some bigger things, like what are the stakes, what’s the conflict, where’s the growth, etc. Maybe you actually need to take your narrative apart and reassemble it in a different way. In the past year, I’ve done all of the above, to a varying extent, and my gut tells me that I’ve got a much better book to show for it (and I’m not even done yet).

Anyone having similar writing experiences? Tell me about your brick walls!

Animated gif of a scene from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Hagrid opens the brick wall into Diagon Alley while Harry watches, amazed.

Good Books for Creatives: Growing Gills by Jessica Abel

Let me preface by saying that I’m very skeptical of self-help books and writing advice. Books that combine both tend to be on my permanent no-fly list. Thus, I went into Jessica Abel’s Growing Gills fully ready to abandon the book as soon as it suggested a specific morning routine, 4-30 am wake time, or any similarly unicorn practices.

That didn’t happen. What did happen was a series of frantic highlighting on my tablet, and said tablet being brandished at every family member available as I proclaimed, “She gets it! No, really, She Gets It. Ohmygahd.”

This is how Jessica’s book is different from many other books for creatives: it doesn’t promise to transform you into a productive individual and a morning person with a bulletproof schedule. The full title of the book is Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life – and it literally does what it says on the cover. The core premise of the book is not to transform your life; it’s to give you the tools with which to manage the life you’ve got. To, indeed, grow gills instead of expending your energy paddling towards a shore that may not even be there.

If I could summarize this book in one sentence, it would be: “You do you; here’s how.” There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. No affirmations (unless that’s what works for you). No morning pages (unless that’s what works for you). Basically, Jessica has you take stock of the goals you want to achieve, then take stock of the life you’ve got, and then work on ways to slot the former into the latter. Oh, and she’s totally on to you, frequently reminding the reader that just reading this stuff without doing won’t bring change. (As I said, she GETS it.)

A drawing of a person swimming, in various shades of blue. Growing Gills. How to find creative focus when you're drowning in your daily life. By Jessica Abel. Link to the author's website.For me personally, Growing Gills became a tool with which I went from being afraid to restart art after recovering from a long burnout, to working on my art on a reasonably regular basis without neglecting my paid work, family, or health. Equally importantly, I believe that I’m a good chunk of the way to figuring out the balance of productivity and sustainability that works for me.

So whatever your goals, if you can use more balance in your life, I strongly recommend you check out Growing Gills. Oh, and if you made a New Year’s resolution to “work on [insert thing here] more in 2019,” make sure to go and say hi to the Should Monster.