Reclaiming the magic morning hours

sunrise

Writer’s block, Part II

So, it had been decided that I wasn’t too old to write another book. So what could be the problem? If there is an external reason why this book wasn’t getting written, I can either change something and write, or at least get the message and move on.

Writing a book requires more than a functioning body and brain. It requires habits, tools, and (as I have advised many a would-be writer) motivation.

My almost forgotten morning habits

For about a decade I was a full time writer. Imagine that, what luxury! During those blessed years, early morning was dedicated to the current creative project. Wake, think, write. That’s how it went, day after day, year after year. Wake, think, write. I suppose I ate breakfast, probably in bed.

One by one came changes that destroyed the simple beauty of my mornings.

When I started a business in my 60s that familiar rhythm went right down the tubes. My early morning routine became more cluttered: wake, meditate, feed the cat, tai chi, breakfast in bed —so far so good, it’s still only 6.30—but oh la la then came the smartphone and social media. To add to the confusion, I now host occasional AirBnB guests, adding more flurry to mornings. And thanks to my boot camp for the bonus years, I then developed a beautiful exercise routine that took place, naturally, in the early mornings.

Goodness knows how I managed to spit out the occasional book. My last novel took a very long time to write, which only makes it harder. My writing behavior was chaotic. I’d create plans that changed from week to week — I would vow to spend Thursdays at the National Library, or write after lunch (daft), or write on Saturdays, or stay in the country for a few days. None of these habits ever stuck. Mornings are better. Mornings happen every day.

Arresting the smart phone saboteur

My smart phone perpetrated the deadliest, most pervasive sabotage. It didn’t just disrupt my mornings: it was disrupting my brain. You know exactly what I mean, don’t you? I’ll confess to my own folly, confident that I’m not alone in this. For you it may be a tablet that lures your attention, but same reason: the internet and all who sail in her.

I had been squandering that precious early morning time by diving into the iPhone at breakfast or even earlier. Sometimes even before meditating. Now that is weird, like getting a fix before rehab. What would I check in the morning? Some, no, many of the following: messages, The New York Times, The Guardian, BBC news, Stuff, news apps of Japan and Korea, The Daily podcast, Facebook, comments on my blog, other blogs, the weather, earthquakes, meet-ups, and yesterday’s step count. (Over 24 hours I might use 30 applications, including books, podcasts, email, videos, browsers, notes, maps, and games.)

Social media snuck up on me

Social media is a prime culprit, and it contributes to an endless jabber and jumble of news, flinging handfuls of trivial, deep, true, fake, wanted, unwanted, personal and global information in our face. I had been paddling in the shallows, just the way Nicholas Carr predicted.[1]

Worse for the mind is the fact that all this activity was merely consuming content, not doing original work, not producing. Those very words—consume, content, produce—have gained new meanings with the rise of the internet. They used to puzzle me, but now I get it: content means stuff, any old stuff that you put into a container such as a blog or app or website or magazine. Quality is irrelevant. Some people produce stuff and stick it in containers. Other people suck it up, they consume it. Some stuff is good stuff, but we don’t need it more than once a day.

Whenever I picked up my iPhone, I stopped thinking and started sucking. This had been obvious for years, had I cared to see it. Now, finally, I looked at my iPhone and saw the physical manifestation of writer’s block, and I’ve changed the way I’ve been using it.

I’ve kept my Facebook page, Rachel McAlpine Books: that still matters, but I’ve disabled my personal Facebook timeline. Sorry, my Friends, I won’t see your posts any more.

WordPress matters to me: my blog and the blogs of others. But blogging, though “creative”, is fragmented and unsatisfying compared with a bigger work. So that drops back in the queue for my attention.

News finds you: no need to graze

I’ve unsubscribed from news sites. I got addicted to the New York Times when Trump was elected, that’s a fact. But you don’t need to actively hunt for news. You get news by default, you can’t avoid it. If something big happens, people will tell you. Now I get news on the kitchen radio, and I read the New Scientist and local newspapers in cafes. Later in the day I sometimes sample a more reflective article instead of the thrill of endless updates.

My job is not sucking: it’s writing. For the last three weeks I have changed my habits, writing for two hours every morning. When it’s reading time, I read a book. (The iPhone’s handy for that.) Wish me luck with the new regime.

[1] Nicholas Carr The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Photo by Rachel McAlpine CC BY 2.0

 

Too old to write another book?

pass-solitude-768-sm.jpg

Writer’s block, Part 1

I wrote the first draft of the first chapter of my next book. Unconcerned as always about the quality or even the topic, because a first draft is just that. (Significantly, the chapter was called I didn’t want to write this book.)

Months have passed since I wrote that first chapter. I’d never stopped “working on it”, and my office is overflowing with books, links, and notebooks real and virtual. I kept writing on my blog now and then— and yet curiously, I hadn’t written another word of the book.

Is old age the cause of my writer’s block?

This nasty question is a variation on a mantra that rings and rings, like an automated fraud call from India: “Your current problem is an inevitable, insoluble, bloody awful consequence of advancing age. Get used to it.” Too often that thought springs to mind automatically.

Resist, refine, reframe! Make a list—that might help.

  1. First let’s clean out the pejoratives and make it a genuine question: Is this non-typical (of me) procrastination at least partly a consequence of old age? (Now we’re in business.)
  2. If so, what can I do about it?
  3. If not, what else might be causing the problem?
  4. OK, how can I solve the problem?

Because I’m 78 I have to take this question seriously: is it a sign of old age, that I, who have loved the act of writing all my life, cannot get started on this particular book?

True, my short-term memory does seem to be changing. It’s mobile, it feels like layers of misty muslin, shimmering and distorting with digressions and flourishes. But I believe it was ever thus.

Is my ageing short-term memory to blame?

Half asleep one morning, I constructed half a chapter in my mind, just the way I used to do for every book I’ve ever written. But at my desk later, I couldn’t remember the gist. That delicious creative hypnogogic creative flash was gone, puff, into the void. Like we all do, one day.

So what does it mean, that I forgot two pages of “thought”? As I learned recently[1], our memories are dynamically recreated with each recall. Our brains do not store complete memories but dedicate perhaps a single neuron to remembering something highly specific, freeing most of our brain resources to work on constructing meaning. Remembering and perceiving use the same mental process. When we try to remember something, we’re not just fishing in a pool of complete memories, a pool that grows bigger and bigger as we age, we’re working to make sense of something.

So if I can’t remember what I was going to write, too bad. Why waste time reconstructing a reconstruction when I could use the same resources to construct meaning from scratch, to start from the same point (namely forgetting what I’d decided to write) and think a new thought? The old thoughts were not wasted just because they got forgotten.

Instant write-up trumps instant recall

Fortunately I remembered something else: After thinking a scene or a chapter, I used to write it down immediately, without delay. Interrupting the flow is wasteful, damaging, an insult to the muse. To re-establish contact, I would need to tweak my morning routine—again.

Writing a book requires a functioning brain and a functioning body: all of these eventually degrade—but right now mine are functioning, and that’s all I ask.

Writing a book requires energy and stamina

It also requires intense, sustained, consistent bursts of energy. For us old people, loss of energy can be a problem. I commiserate with my friends but I tend not to admit to it personally. However, at this moment, as I type, nobody’s reading these words, so I will admit that torpor features in most of my days. Catch me after lunch. Sometimes, happily reading, sometimes doing pointless Sudoku. Never dozing! It’s just that I often wake from not-dozing with quite a jolt. Sometimes I debate whether to have a little lie down, but by then it’s too late.

Nevertheless, for many hours of the day I have a familiar level of energy, and my days are my own, I’m in charge of the way I spend my time. No job, no business, and an almost manageable set of commitments. In the last two years I’ve kicked two major stressors out of the way: first my business, then the thankless role of body corporate chair. I am free to reshape my days.

Rejected: old age as a barrier to writing

And so, here and now, I forbid myself to blame the physiology of old age as a legitimate cause of my mysterious procrastination.

Surely now I’ll be able to unpick the true cause or causes of an unfortunate case of writer’s block.

[1] Rodrigo Quian Quiroga. The Forgetting Machine: Memory, Perception, and the “Jennifer Aniston Neuron.” Interview with Ginger Campbell, MD. Brain Science Episode 141

Illustration from Old Book Illustrations, public domain, by Peter Newell in Hunting of the Snark

Perils of being regarded as a confessional poet

Cartoon of poet vomiting her crimes, sins and secrets into a poem
Confessional poet at work: the popular view

If you intend to be a poet and to publish your work, it’ll be a lot of fun but be prepared for three things:

  • many people will assume that all your poems relate true facts about your actual life
  • some people will completely misunderstand your poems, even taking the opposite meaning from your intention
  • once in a while, this can lead to trouble.

That’s the deal!

I’m pretty sure that most people believe that any poem that seems to be about a real person is about a real person. And particularly if you write in a confessional style, people will naturally assume that you are confessing the truth about yourself.

I try to make you believe all my poems are true

This phenomenon is a mixed blessing. I’ve often been labelled a poet of the confessional school, and yes yes yes, I do want people to plunge into my poems and suspend disbelief.  Sometimes my poems are true — in fact I hope they all seem that way, and that you can’t tell the difference.

However, fact is I’ve written hundreds of poems that start from my observations of other people. For example, I’ve written “love” poems that are actually about or addressed to gay men friends, platonic men friends, strangers on a bus, strangers seen from a bus, trees, flowers, road signs, birds, weather, mythical, historical and literary characters, my mother-in-law and other family members, and the imaginary wife of an imaginary member of parliament. I wrote poems for every woman in a 1970s sensitivity group, all the occupants of a house I lived in in Kyoto, and fifteen love poems to a funny little house in Berhampore. I did not have sex with those entities. But I loved them!

I wrote a wedding song not for my husband but for two friends, and it fits almost any couple getting married. I wrote a love song forty years ago for a man who I still adore:

if I die
before I lie
with you
rocks will rain from heaven
on my grave

Sounds like I was deadly serious, right? And yet we have never gone to bed and we never will—it was never going to happen, and it’s a kind of excessively affectionate in-joke. Actually, I love this poem almost as much as I love the real live person who inspired it. (Now that’s a true confession.)

When I’m in full lyrical mode, I fall in love about five times a day. At the Harbourfront Market this morning I fell in love with a shiny black aubergine, a perfect mango, a couple of Italian baristas, and a pain au chocolat. I’m in love with my two gorgeous young AirBnB guests and with a yellow flag flapping above the ngaio trees outside my window.

You think that’s weird? If you’re a poet, attending so deeply to the other that you almost drown, being not only the imaginary lover of your subject but also the cool observer—that is all part of the crazy poet-package. But I am starting to see that it is little bit weird. That’s probably why I’ve never written about this: I don’t want to seem as if I am denying the truth of my poems, but it’s a different kind of truth, so hard to explain that I assume nobody understands except another poet. (Maybe I read too much Martin Buber in my youth.)

Where passion, poem, and assumptions spell trouble

Last month my lawyer had to intervene in a strange case. A woman discovered that I had known and worked with her father 40 years ago, and she jumped to the conclusion that we had had an affair (not true). Then she read some of my poems and decided that they must be about her father, and that I was an evil person who told lies. (I have behaved badly in the past, but not with her lovely father.)

She sent her literary theory with some documents to various academics, hoping that they would archive them, revise their view of my work, and preferably prosecute me.

I felt sorry for her, so angry and so wrong. But for me, it’s all in the job description.

I have a message for people who study poetry. Have fun, have theories, but remember, a poem is not a documentary. Let that knowledge liberate you as a reader.

Two poems in House Poems with a drawing of a house growing roots and vines
Two love poems to a little house

Cartoon by Rachel McAlpine; photo of House Poems by Rachel McAlpine, Nutshell Books, Wellington 1980. Both CC-BY 2.0

Keeping up with selected blogs your way: follow and fix WordPress settings

Screenshot of WordPress with Settings for notifications
When you follow a blog, set your email preferences at the same time.

Once there were RSS feeds, and I had one on my blog. For months it shuffled people to the wrong URL—my fault, and what a waste.

Some people still prefer RSS feeds, and who am I to suggest a change? Changing online habits is such a pain, and I myself resist it with a little question: how does this improve my own life or others’?

Nevertheless I can’t resist whispering a word of unsolicited advice. O ye bloggers and readers, one tiny new habit can save you rather a lot of time, in the long run.

Follow other blogs without pain or penalty

The immense size, the richness of the WordPress blogging community is both thrilling and overwhelming. After a certain point you need a strategy or you will go crazy!

  • Never miss a post from your favourite bloggers.
  • Never feel overwhelmed by blogs you like but want to read only occasionally.

Each time you follow a new blog by hitting the Follow button (top right of the screenshot above), pause for a second. By activating the Settings icon immediately below, you get some options. First, do you want to be told by WordPress when a new post appears on the blog you’ve decided to follow? It’s not mandatory, it’s a choice. Second, do you want an email with that information? If so, would you like instant updates? Daily updates? Weekly updates?

  • Maybe you spend a lot of time in the blogosphere and don’t want to miss a thing: then you’ll opt for instant updates by email as well as notices in your personalised WordPress Reader.
  • Maybe you have only got about 15 minutes per week to read blogs: then you’ll want updates from just a few key people, and catch up on others on vacation.
  • Maybe you follow 1,000 blogs, but only need to read posts on specific topics. Then you might get weekly updates on specialist blogs, and skim the others with Reader: Search.

 Skim in Reader to select before you read

Using email notifications is a great way to follow your hot favourites, and never miss a post. But you’re sure to follow other blogs as well, blogs that delight you now and then. You’ll want to see a headline before you open that blog. What is this post about? You need a signpost and a summary.

You get that on WordPress Reader facility. For skimming in advance, it is a beauty, on a screen of any size.

So you see, you can probably do everything you need as a reader without exiting the WordPress system. Which saves time.

Still want me to add an RSS Feed? I might. I might not.

Walking back home: joy of serendipitous pavement art

It’s not a long walk home from aerobic dance class, just five small blocks, and I’ve walked that route hundreds of times. But it’s still full of beautiful surprises. Walk home with me now and I’ll show you what I saw tonight.

  1. Small bunch of grapes, elegantly squashed.
Small bunch of green grapes squashed on the footpath
Squashed grapes: a sweet bouquet with a juicy shadow

2. A question mark on the footpath.

Question mark on footpath
Huh? Just what I was wondering…

3. A gloriously decorated parking spot.

Number 23 on footpath with yellow and white squiggles
Carpark no. 23 comes with mysterious runes

4. A tree with a splendid pair of antennae

Tree with street lamps apparently growing from its crown
Is it a tree or a very large insect?

5. Ngaio tree growing in the gutter: good luck, darling.

Miniature ngaio tree trying to grow in a dry gutter
Miniature ngaio tree trying to grow in a dry gutter. So far so good.

6. Road cones are a beautiful sight if you’re waiting for fibre-optic cable to reach your property.

Road cones in Queen Street
Road cones in Queen Street: progress

7. Before installing cable, workers put squiggles everywhere. But I don’t like the look of this one.

Workers' notes painted in purple on pavement: Dunk
Purple prose: but what are they going to dunk?

8. Nearly home, and it’s crab-apples and lichen: cute, ay?

Crab-apples and lichen on Queen Street footpath
Crab-apples and lichen on Queen Street footpath

As my friend Dale says, ain’t life grand? If we are lucky enough to be able to walk, such visual delights are just around the corner. If our luck stretches to a smartphone, there’s a bonus.

I tend to notice very small things, and take pleasure in them. And I’ve got a theory about why this is so. I believe that’s an echo of a Japanese aesthetic, and I thank my time in Kyoto for this extra layer of delight.

Are you a search engine or a filing cabinet?

Spectacles on a small filing cabinet that reveals untidy files.
A folder for everything: nice idea, shame about the execution thereof

On first encountering the web in 1996, like most people I was fascinated by two key questions: how can I find information online and how can I enable my own web pages to get found? Like any poet trying to get her head around a problem I constructed real-life analogies—analogies that failed promptly, because a digital world is not a physical world.

By the time I got involved around 1995, Yahoo! and WebCrawler and Lycos were doing their thing, then came LookSmart, Excite, Altavista, Inktomi and Ask Jeeves. Their processes were mystifying, their Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) even more so.

Two filing cabinets for the World Wide Web

But Yahoo! stood out. Why? Because in its early years, it didn’t rely on spiders (robots that crawl the web and index and catalogue every page). You could submit your website to Yahoo! for inclusion. Yahoo! used real live human beings to evaluate each site—is it worth listing? is it correctly categorised?—before listing it in a ginormous directory.

(You realise that I’m over-simplifying, of course. This is a little blog post, not a PhD thesis.)

Such a pedestrian system of indexing is unimaginable now, with over 1,860,000,000 websites—oh, seconds later, that figure is way out of date. But it was doable, and kind of comprehensible. You could imagine Yahoo!’s sub-contractors as working librarians in a monstrous ethereal library. You could send them your “book” and they would decide whether it was worthy of inclusion, and which Dewey number would apply. In other words, they were filing websites. There was a “place” for every website, a folder, or a sub-folder, and if every website was filed correctly, they could be quickly discovered.

DMOZ, or the Open Directory Project, was even more noble in concept. Their conceptual filing was performed entirely by volunteer editors. I don’t think they ever developed other layers of search technology, such as web crawlers. And DMOZ closed down in 2015.

Who are you?

search engines vs. filing

  1. Extreme filing cabinet types have a place for everything, and everything in its place.
  2. Extreme search engine types wander around searching plaintively for their car keys every day.  On a good day, they say “Keys!”, and five sets of keys leap into their arms.
  3. Most of us fall in the middle, doing our best to file things correctly and failing quite often.

All search facilities are cross-breeds using multiple methods

In the digital sphere, today most search engines combine a raft of criteria into a jealously guarded algorithm that changes frequently. If you were there in the early days, I’m sure you’ve noticed that results have improved exponentially as searchers, publishers, bloggers, developers and search engines refine their techniques.

On WordPress, for example…

  • Bloggers can give each blog post a Category (that’s rather like putting the post in a kind of folder dedicated to one type or topic of information).
  • Bloggers can list an unlimited number of Tags (other words or phrases that tell people and search engines what the page is about).
  • We can also write an SEO Description (a summary of what a particular post is about or for), a “slug” that gives us control over the URL, and an Excerpt.
  • WordPress makes it easy to provide titles, captions, alt-text and descriptions for every image we use.
  • WordPress gives bloggers advice about how to use all these fields. Not that bloggers follow guidelines as a rule: most of us do our own thing.
  • WordPress performs other magic Search Engine Optimisation tricks in the background, buried in code that most of us never see.

All these titbits of information about the topic or function of one particular blog post provide more guidance for search engines, more information for readers as they search, and a higher probability that search results are relevant and listed in order of value to the reader.

In other words, the Filing Cabinet is incorporated into every search engine, and a Search Engine into every Filing Cabinet. This is inevitable, given that digital information does not suffer from the intrinsic limitations of a physical folder.

  • To cross-reference information, we had to pack at least two folders with identical information, for example one filed according to topic, one according to date. And we tagged items with coloured labels.
  • To file the entire contents of the world wide web, you’d need an outrageous number of categories, making the whole process almost pointless. Take DMOZ: On October 31, 2015, there were 3,996,412 sites listed in 1,026,706 categories. (Source: Wikipedia) One category for every four websites? Imagine a library organised like that, with four books per category.
  • To categorise sites perfectly, you would need to see the future.

Search engine technology permeates all our work

all-apps-use-search

Search engines are everywhere, and their success is always connected to a vigorous effort at imposing order on the materials.

Every application that purports to organise our virtual office provides choices between Folders (they might be called Notebooks or Categories or any one of 40 other names) and Tags (again, every developer thinks up a new name for the same thing).

Can you think of any application you use that does not incorporate search? I can’t.

Filing cabinet habits are invaluable for real stuff

Putting everything in its place doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Instead we learn from painful experience that it does save time.

I’ve just appointed myself life coach to my 18-year-old grandson, who is suddenly in sole charge of organising his own studies, apartment, meals, money and his time. All alone. He’s doing great, but it’s an overwhelming task. You can picture it, I think? So he’s begun three tiny habits, each with a trigger, and action, and a reward. One is to put away every garment that he takes off. Reward: clear floor space and satisfaction—Nice work! he says. Yes: ideally, every garment will be put in its place, whether a chest of drawers or the washing machine. With such tiny gestures will order emerge from chaos.

I’m a fraud as a life coach, because I badly need to cultivate my own tiny habits. Organising my computer files is a work in progress and always will be. Folders feature strongly and I too drop stray files on the floor (desktop) every day. They all have a place—mainly in the trash.

What of our minds as we shift to instantaneous information feeds?

It’s easy to get sloppy about controlling our own information, now that search engines are brilliant. Yes, yes, excuse me but they are brilliant at what they do. Maybe you hate them but just think back 20 years and count your blessings! Maybe you fear them for their invasion and stealth, but it’s a tradeoff we make while fully informed of the risks.

So has the extreme efficiency of Google changed the way you work and read and think? I believe I’m more scatty. I flick across websites. I taste and taste and taste, half-hoping there’s something more appealing only one click away.

I don’t like this. I yearn for limits, constraints to my information guzzling. I dream of the old days when you had to know where to look.

I’ve recently deleted news apps and Facebook from my iPhone, disturbed by the constant updating on news sites and the random news items on Facebook. For my news I now rely on the radio, the odd newspaper in a cafe, and a couple of long reads per week. It’s a start.

I can’t blame search engines alone for this. But they play a part. I’ll use them forever, but  … mindfully? Bring on the tiny habits.

 

Exotic fabric finally finds its function: a TV cosy

Friends know that I’m a fabricaholic. A few years back they gave me this luscious blue, gold and purple fabric from Bangladesh.

It’s stiff when ironed, and crumples shortly afterwards. It’s semi-transparent and yet firm. Elegant, yet camp. Symmetrical, yet erratic.

Now, what to do with this cloth? For us fabricaholics, that’s never an issue. You keep it, doh! You store it in a cupboard and every now and then you take it out and experience it. Finger it. Touch it to your face. Lap up the colours, stroke the textures. Place it in the sitting room as an artefact on view. Meditate on it. Tuck it away again.

A beautiful fabric does not need to DO anything. It simply has to BE.

Nevertheless, this fabric has now been put to work. It has lost its privileged existence and does two jobs.

How are the mighty fallen!

One half of this glamorous cloth is now thrown over food on the dining table, to keep flies (and Ursula the cat) at bay.

The other half, with two seams, now tucks over my TV screen to soften its intrusive glare. I hate the way my TV used to dominate the room, a large black announcement that TV was the very purpose of this space, even the purpose of my day, of my very existence. Now the TV is disguised and robbed of its power by a strange garment. This showy, exotic fabric, once a magnet of attention, is now an invisibility cloak.

Friends have named my invention a TV-nightie (more accurately, it’s a dayie), or a TV cosy. What would you call it?

Daily prompt: Fabric