Writing tips: practise what you preach

Classic diagram of the life-cycle of a project

I’m fully focused on a summer writing school I’m planning for January 2018, right here in Mt Victoria, Wellington, New Zealand. And when I say planning, I mean that in a rather formal sense.

Swerving offline to teach writing

I’ve been teaching online for nearly 20 years, one way or another. I’m not knocking MOOCs or virtual courses! I’ve done great things online, and I still get a buzz from the creative component of online teaching.

But last month, the Manawatu Writers’ Festival reminded me just how much I love teaching courses about writing — in the flesh, to real live people, in the same room as me. So I tried for the umpteenth time to book the space I’ve had my eye on for years, but never managed to secure.  Bingo! It has new management, a new website, a calendar of bookings, a contact email that worked, and an efficient person who said yes instead of no.

Motivation and venue collided in a happy crunch, and I quickly grabbed some suitable dates, and got a deadline for my new venture.

Project management skills: useful for any project

So the start of this project (a 4-day Write Into Life summer school in January 2018) was seemingly random, accidental, impulsive, irrational. If so, re-examining the concept might show that it’s doomed to failure. In fact this little dream has been brewing for years, but when the moment was right, the decision happened in a flash.

And now it’s urgent! The first workshop is only 17 weeks away.

I was halfway through creating an online course called Fix That Novel: use project management skills to finish the book you’ve been writing… or just dreaming of. For now, the online version of that course is on the back shelf. But I don’t want it to feel neglected, so I’m going to tackle my summer school as a formal project, and practise what I preach.

No phase of project management will be bypassed in this project: I want it to run beautifully, and it will. I’ll keep you posted.

 

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Wedding song

I think you’ll like this love poem. Do reblog if you have friends about to marry, or just in love.

Poems in the wild

wedding.jpg

So you are the hunter
and I am the gatherer
and you are the gardener
and I am the traveller
and I am the dancer,
and you are the dance.

And I am the dreamer
and you are the harbour
and you are the future
and I am the farmer
and you are the juggler,
and I am the clown.

I see you—I know you,
I love you—I see—

that you are the builder
and I am the weaver
and you are the mover
and I am the mender
and you are the mountain,
and I am the cloud.

And you are the lover
and I am the lover
and we are a twosome,
and you are the one.


poem by rachel mcalpine cc by 2.0, photo by Ashley Rehnblom cc by 2.0

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19 books about aging, happiness, and the bonus years

books-for-the-bonus-years
Books to sustain, enlighten and entertain us as we dare to contemplate the prospect of growing older and dying.

For the record, I list some books below that have educated or entertained or enlightened me as I nervously anticipate the final stage of life. Happy reading! Links are to the Amazon page for each book.

Please share your own favourite books about these topics, and tell us what they gave you. (That’ll be your good deed for the day.)

Non-fiction

  1. The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. Norman Doidge, 2007 — Inspiring. Revolutionary at the time. Introducing neuroplasticity, the reason why a boot camp for old age is a goer.
  2. The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable discoveries and recoveries from the frontiers of neuroplasticity. Norman Doidge, 2015 — Exciting sequel to The Brain That Changes Itself.
  3. Mindful Work: How Meditation is changing Business from the Inside Out. David Gelles, 2015 — Valuable. Entertaining. Why it’s never too late to start meditating.
  4. The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. Charles Duhigg, 2014 — Boot camp basic. The science behind forming good new habits and replacing bad ones.
  5. The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: Discover the surprising talents of the middle-aged mind. Barbara Strauch, 2010 — Thrilling.
  6. Stumbling on Happiness. Daniel Gilbert, 2006 — Joyful science.
  7. Amortality: The pleasures and perils of living agelessly. Catherine Mayer, 2011 — Sobering. Documents the new wave of Peter Pans and their (our?) denial of old age.
  8. The Art of Aging: A doctor’s prescription for well-being. Sherwin B. Nuland, 2007 — Thoughtful.
  9. How we die. Sherwin B. Nuland, 1995 — Unforgettable description of exactly what happens to body and brain as we age and die. Lays bare the cost and conflict induced by medicalized death.
  10. Being mortal: Medicine and what matters in the end. Atul Gawande, 2014 — Brilliant and brave. Deservedly top of the pops.
  11. The Nostalgia Factory: Memory, time and aging. Doowe Draaisma, 2013 — Fascinating, perceptive and wise.
  12. Travels With Epicurus: A journey to a Greek island in search of a fulfilled life.  Daniel Klein, 2014 — Enriching. Studies contented old age as lived by Greek friends and described by philosophers.
  13. Somewhere Towards the End: A memoir. Diana Athill, 2009 — Irritating, but widely admired.
  14. From age-ing to sage-ing: A revolutionary new approach to growing older.  Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, 1997 — Advice on how to become wiser with age, and start a revolution. (Good luck with that.)
  15. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. Jonathan Haidt, 2006 —Walk through 10 big ideas and find one that matches your style.
  16. How to Age. Anne Karpf — An important essay on gerontophobia in the west with all its cruelty, daftness and implicit self-sabotage — and the high price we pay for this.
  17. This Chair Rocks: a Manifesto Against Ageism. Ashton Applewhite. This book is  a tonic, suit of armour and box of chocs rolled into one. Go Ashton!

Fiction and poetry

This list is short, because I quickly realised that it could become e-n-o-r-m-o-u-s. Please share your favourite fiction and poems that sustain or enlighten or entertain you, because of some association with death and aging.

  1. The Summer before the Dark. Doris Lessing — Stunning. Must-read. The heroine is plunged into an artificial old age by circumstance. An exercise in empathy and experimentation.
  2. Memento Mori. Muriel Spark — Loved it. A mysterious caller announces to each character in turn, “Remember you must die.” Rrright! How do you respond? Call the police? Explode? Run away? Or agree… Beneath a feather-light, frivolous treatment of death lies a timeless message for us all.

Joy of Writing in Feilding, Manawatu

Manawatu Writers' Festival 2017, September 8-12

Tomorrow I’ll bus to a little town two hours north of Wellington for the inaugural Manawatu Writers Festival. An impressive programme includes more than 40 sessions over four days. I was asked to speak at the official opening and to run a workshop, and am delighted to be part of this boutique writers’ festival.

This event is special because the population of Feilding is a mere 14,000 — on the other hand, it’s only 20 minutes from the provincial capital of Palmerston North. At least three writers’ groups are active in Feilding.

In my workshop I’ll be asking participants about their main source of joy as writers. I know what will happen: each individual will have a definite answer — and their answers will be varied in the extreme.

I’ll also ask them to state what spoils the joy of writing, for them personally. Then I’ll ask everyone to place the kill-joys on a wonky chart on a scale between unchangeable and changeable, and external and internal factors.

  • What would you say were the greatest enemies of your own joy in writing?
  • Where would you place them on the chart below?
  • That’s all: now I’m interested in your thoughts!
Chart for the factors that kill your joy as a writer
Chart for the factors that kill your joy as a writer

A radically adventurous bucket list

Jenny Cossey, mountain biker, outside one of the 50 NZ mountain huts on her bucket list
Jenny Cossey knocks another mountain hut off her bucket list

We know what a bucket list ought to be, right? It’s a list of wonderful things a person decides to do before they kick the bucket, i.e. before they die. They WRITE THEIR BUCKET LIST, thereby making it real, making it part of the life they will live.

  • Most people write their own bucket lists.
  • Most people decide what goes on their own bucket list.
  • Most items are things that the writer really would like to do.
  • The expiry date of most bucket lists is the expiry date of the person.

But Jenny is different. She decided to ask her friends what she should aim to do before her 50th birthday. Some nominated things that Jenny might normally do, like cycle all the NZ national cycleways — mountain biking, rafting, kayaking, trail running and dancing are as natural to her as breathing. But at least half the suggestions were right outside her comfort zone: friends challenged her to do things that would never have occurred to her otherwise, like “go blonde” or do a 10-day silent meditation course.

50, OLD ENOUGH TO KNOW BETTER. CARD AND KEN DOLL
Jenny was given a toy boy for her 50th birthday: a Ken doll.

After culling duplicates from the ensuing list, she did her darndest to achieve all 50. Pretty awe inspiring, especially as she achieved almost the entire list in a single year.

  1. Kite surfing YES
  2. Kayak Cook Strait CHEAT (kayaks on the ferry)
  3. Visit 50 Huts YES
  4. Cycle all NZ national cycleways YES
  5. Groovy dance event (Pole Dancing) YES
  6. Vipassana 10-day silent medication course YES
  7. Wrist flower arrangement YES
  8. Catch a cray in the Cook Strait (went diving and Raymond caught one) GOOD TRY
  9. Breaker Bay Beach in Breaker Bay style YES
  10. Read a book in a week YES
  11. Water ski (next year in Lake Wanaka) ORGANISED
  12. Hillary Trail YES
  13. Dating young for fun PASS WITH A PUSH (online, no dates)
  14. Scooter the Bays YES
  15. Buy a corset and wear it YES
  16. Tie a fly YES
  17. Go commando for a week YES
  18. Stay in bed all day and read a book YES
  19. Qualify for the mile high club (NO LUCK)
  20. Drink a bottle of absinthe with friends YES
  21. Go blonde YES
  22. Hot stone massage YES
  23. Learn to surf (trial session at Lyall Bay beach) PASS WITH A PUSH
  24. Snorkel Island Bay Reserve YES
  25. Toy boy (given a plastic male Barbie called Ken) CHEAT
  26. Hot air ballooning YES
  27. Listen to a live messiah YES
  28. Listen to a male kiwi boom (a kiwi whistling in the dark) YES
  29. Go out for high tea by bike in frocks YES
  30. Learn a new craft YES
  31. Clay shooting (NO LUCK)
  32. Artistic roller skating YES
  33. Roller Derby YES
  34. Make a margarita YES
  35. Read Tristram Shandy (began it, but boring) SERIOUS SHAMEFUL FAIL!!
  36. Wear a daffodil in your hair all day YES
  37. Wear a wedding dress (a red one) YES
  38. Wear a veil 30 minutes in Courtenay Place YES
  39. Re-learn how to touch type FAIL
  40. Visit D’Urville Island YES
  41. Do the Karapoti classic MTB ride YES
  42. Learn Spanish (30 hours on Mango, WCC Library) YES
  43. Tour on a tandem (no luck — friend too small) GOOD TRY
  44. Try a Chalkie event YES
  45. Make a pavlova YES
  46. Ride a snow bike (fat bike) YES
  47. Make real pasta YES
  48. Learn to parapont (attempted on the Remarkables) PASS WITH A PUSH
  49. Organise my sons so they all visit me on the same weekend YES
  50. Go to Antarctica (job interview at Union Glacier) FAIR ENOUGH
Jenny tries pole dancing
Pole dancing was on this middle-age bucket list

Other things Jenny tried

  1. Setting off a PLB (personal locator beam) in the Landsborough (5-day hike and raft adventure)
  2. Hitching with my bike in a bike box
  3. Try a dry suit (it leaked)
  4. Walking on bonker curved stilts
  5. Tango in the moonlight
  6. Won best dressed at the Kapiti MTB (?) race and 3rd woman in my age group
  7. Flicked my (?) into back wheel and broke spokes. Had to single gear last 10km out of Heaphy Track.
  8. First tooth implant
  9. Be in American TV commercial running at midnight with sparklers to 2am
  10. Leave a child behind on a school trip to swimming pool
  11. First mole map of my body and first eye exam
  12. Have reflexology on my feet

Bring another bucket!

Phew! I feel tired just looking at that list. And excited. And inspired. Are you?

What will she do when she turns 60? or 70? Can’t wait to find out. She has already written her best self into life.

A fun day meditating on death

Monk Nhat Hahn Dekar meditating on death.
Monk Nhat Hahn Dekar meditating on death

bootcamp2015-small 2(Reposted from 2015) In which I eagerly and fearfully spend a whole day meditating on death. On purpose. For fun.

 

At last the event I had wanted and feared: a full day dedicated to contemplating my own mortality. It turned out to be quite jolly.

To be precise, I was booked in for a day’s retreat on Life, Death and Transformation, under the guidance of a remarkable of pair of leaders. Hilary Lovelace has decades of experience in nursing the dying, and Stephen Archer as a trained Buddhist monk has been on close terms with his own death for years. I was very impressed: they were wise, clever, honest, funny and kind. And non-religious: I prefer that.

Here’s the blurb:

The purpose of this workshop to explore how freeing up our relationship with death can become a transformative force for healing and well being.

What did I hope to achieve?

Let me see. Perhaps to look my own death straight in the eye without flinching. Perhaps to own the knowledge, deep down, that yes, my death is inevitable.

And why in the name of goodness would anyone desire such a thing, you ask?

Not sure. I just see it as accepting reality, not just intellectually but emotionally, which in this case is extremely difficult to do. I need help!

Anyway, it’s the flip side of accepting that I may live another 25 years. Without this bucket of cold water, a healthy energetic oldie like myself could slide into magical thinking. I might believe I am sure to live all those bonus years, instead of just quite likely. I might believe that blueberries will banish the grim reaper.

Most people keep awareness of their mortality safely at bay until they drop in their tracks.  It’s too scary. That’s OK, I’m not criticising. What would I know, anyway? Do whatever makes you happy.

But for me, a “good” old age (which is not a bad old age) needs a supplement: awareness that it will end some day, nothing surer. Have I got that awareness yet? No way.

Writing puts it in perspective

If I just went to the workshop without writing about it… it might fade away rapidly. By writing about it, I figure out what I’ve learned. I’ve been writing into life…