Back to the Writing Desk

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A new year is well underway, and I’m back at the writing desk. Truth be told, I never really left it—I just upgraded, relocated, and decorated.

Upgrade

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Wee! Standing is fun! Well, not really…

Thanks to Santa Claus, I can join the ranks of the noble writers, like Dickens, Kierkegaard, and Hemingway, who stood while they wrote.  I’m now the proud owner of a Varidesk. It’s a table top surface that I can raise and lower, depending on the posture I want to work in. I try to cycle between standing and sitting in half-hour shifts.

Getting used to the new postures has been slow but steady. It’s not easy giving up a hard-core sitting habit. The body has to adjust, but already I’ve found I do miss not having this flexibility at work. After making some adjustments to get my screen height just right (very important if you don’t want to end up at the physio), I’m settled in.

As most of us know, sitting for long periods can be harmful to good health. Researchers have linked a sedentary lifestyle to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and a shortened lifespan. If office workers sit for an average of five hours and forty minutes a day, just imagine how long a hardworking writer sits! And while suffering for one’s art is admirable, dying for it is probably going too far.

Relocate

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Bye-bye old friend…

My second-hand corner desk in my home office is falling apart, so I’m afraid it won’t support my Varidesk, which weighs in at almost 24 kilos or 52 pounds). I’ve temporarily shifted to the kitchen where I’ve commandeered the old breakfast table to use as a desk surface. I thought I would hate this locale, what with the hubbub and traffic and constant visual reminders of household chores, but it’s worked out fine. I’ll move back to my little scriptorium once I find the gumption to dismantle my old desk.

Even Huckleberry the canine muse is happy with this arrangement.  The move from under one desk to the other hasn’t bothered him in the least. The kitchen floor is nice and cool on these sweltering summer days.

Decorate

Surrounding myself with a jungle of greenery inspires me. My old desk had plenty of space for my plants, which was my favourite feature. Well, I am happy to report my new desk accommodates my need for green. My daughters gave me a couple lovely vases to display blossoms from my garden. At the moment, my dahlias are going off! Every morning I snip a couple buds to freshen my test tube bud vases.

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Hello, Gorgeous!

And how about this rose! I swear its beauty makes me swoon. It’s an Avon, which has a spicy perfume. All this beauty to inspire my writing and yours. Enjoy Ali’s Desk-Cam and some floral inspiration. While you’re here, check the drop-down menu above for updates on my latest book. There’s something new there… (Wink, wink!)

Happy writing, reading, gardening—whatever makes you happiest.

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The Creative Power of Restrictions

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There’s nothing quite as daunting as a blank page. Gasp! That void could be filled with anything. Or everything. Or nothing. The emptiness stymies. It taunts. It goads.

According to Stephen Sondheim, restrictions can unleash creativity. It seems counter-intuitive. Absolute freedom seems as if it should loosen us up, but what gets us going are boundaries to bounce against.

Powerful Restrictions

  • Name a theme.
  • Set a word limit.
  • Pick a genre.
  • Add a deadline.
  • Break a rule consistently.
  • Enter a competition.
  • Play word games (five-word sentences; narrative through dialogue only; no adjectives; no words beginning with A; create palindromes; play with a literary device).

All of these restrictions make it easier to get started and keep going.

Poetry and flash fiction are excellent writing practice for this reason. Both challenge the writer on with their super-tight restrictions (especially if the poetry you’re writing has a form rather than free verse.)

Restrictions give you a point.

Over to You

What’s your favourite creativity-sparking restriction? Please share in the content.

Writing With Your Feet

Writing with your feet - S Papaspyropoulos

Every occupation has its hazards, from the moral injury of soldiers to the everyday burnout of teachers. Tilers suffer bad backs, and hairdressers are prone to carpal tunnel syndrome. Nurses and counsellors succumb to compassion fatigue.

Even writing comes with a catalogue of complaints. Authors are the masseuse’s best clients, with their cricked necks, tight shoulders, and lower back pain from too much sitting. Endless staring at bright screens leads to eyestrain, headache, and sleeplessness. And then there’s the author’s bane: writer’s block.

Put Away the Pen; Pull on the Boots

No need to pop pills or guzzle booze. Writers can walk their way to health and creativity. Walking does wonders to loosen hunched up shoulders and compressed organs. Walking is aerobic, so it oxygenates the blood and refreshes the brain. It causes the  release of endorphin, the balancing of cortisol levels, and improvement of brain function.

The benefits of walking go beyond the physiological realm. Researchers have proved that walking uncramps the imagination, making it the perfect antidote to the dreaded writer’s block. A 2014 study at Stanford University showed walking boosts creative ideation. You read that right: walking enhances creativity!

The Stanford study is recent, but this is old-world wisdom. Dickens, Woolf, and Stevenson were avid walkers, but William Wordsworth left them in his dust, clocking in an estimated one hundred and eighty thousand miles in his lifetime.

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!” –Henry David Thoreau

Old Old School

Lyceum of Athens - J NorrisLong before these literary giants rambled, the great teachers of Antiquity used walking to promote learning. In ancient Greece, lessons at the Peripatetic School happened while meandering among the colonnades of the Lyceum of Athens.

Ever heard of the Method of Loci? It’s a mnemonic device that uses memorized spatial relationships to order and recollect the things you’ve learned, and it came from this method of learning while walking along a familiar route or through a well-known building. Greek and Roman orators used the technique to help deliver long speeches without notes. I’ve experienced this with audio books. If I re-listen to a section of a book, I can automatically recall where I was when I heard the passage the last time. It’s kind of freaky.

Memorization is one thing; creativity is another. A contemporary of Plato and Socrates named Diogenes summed up the power of walking:

 Solvitur ambulando. It is solved by walking.

That little Latin lesson is worth remembering if writer’s block strikes.

Authorial Ambulation

Maximise the benefits of walking with a few steps of preparation. Do take a notebook and pencil (or a recording device*), but don’t take the dog. Keep writerly perambulation free of distractions (even the cute K-9 variety). Vary your routes, and don’t be afraid to focus your walk by honing in on a plot problem before you set off.

Give the fingers a break, and let your feet do the writing. Your body will thank you, and your writing will be blessed.

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* Apps for Writers *

Dragon Dictation is a voice recognition app for your phone, tablet, or laptop. It records and converts your message to text, saving you a step of transcribing your notes.

CC 2.0 Image Credits

Girl Walking by Spyros Papaspyropoulos

The Athens School by Justin Norris

N.B.: This post was submitted as an assignment in a MOOC.

Journal Day is a Thing.

Anne Frank Street Art by  TIA, CC I hereby declare the 12th of June World Journal Day in honour of Anne Frank’s birthday. Journal Day is officially a thing–at least in my little corner of the blogosphere, and you heard it first here at Spilling Ink.

On this day in 1943, Anne Frank received the diary that became The Diary of a Young Girl, so in Anne’s honour, I have a super-cute Kiki.K journal and pen set you can win. Read to the bottom of the post for details.

To kick off the giddy World Journal Day celebrations, I’m sharing some of the benefits of journalling. It turns out writing in a journal is good for your soul–and a whole lot more! Did you know keeping a journal benefits you physically, mentally, and spiritually? Researchers have spent decades unpicking the hows and whys. Here are a few to ponder.

Body Boosthttps://www.flickr.com/photos/jek-a-go-go/

I’ve known for years that journalling makes me feel better, but I had no idea that the benefits were so powerful. Various researchers have discovered journalling has positive effects on the symptoms of asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and even HIV/AIDS.

Another study found writing expressively improves liver and lung function, reduces blood pressure, and  can shorten hospital stays–and more. They list 16 benefits to well-being!

Other research links journalling to improved immune function. University of Texas at Austin psychologist and researcher James Pennebaker has been studying the health advantages of writing since the mid-80s. “…research by Pennebaker indicates that suppressing negative, trauma-related thoughts compromises immune functioning and that those who write visit the doctor less often.”

Dr Pennebaker told Psychology Today, “When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experienced improved health. They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function. If they are first-year college students, their grades tend to go up.”

There you have it, students! Journalling is not only good for your body; it’s good for your grades!

Some researchers are quick to point out that rehashing trauma and negativity isn’t as helpful as writing through the events. Journalling that documents growth and transformation seems to be the most helpful. Finding the story is the key! (Sounds like good practice for writers.)

Still skeptical about the power of journalling and writing? Here’s a study that will blow your mind: Researchers have shown the act of writing affectionately about someone can lower cholesterol levels! I’d love to see someone explain the mechanism behind that one!

Mind Boost

https://www.flickr.com/photos/erinkohlenbergphoto/Any regular journaller will tell you the practice helps them manage stress and navigate difficulties. Some people use journalling as a sleep aid–I do. I find journalling helps me “empty” my busy mind before I turn out the lights. It’s as if downloading the worries frees my mind of the burden of care, thus allowing me to sleep.

A journal provides a safe space to make sense of the things we go through. Even the effects of trauma and the intensity of emotions can be reduced when we can find the story thread in events. Psychology Today reports:

In a different but related theory, the ability to construct a story from our experiences may give us the opportunity to detach ourselves and approach our situation more objectively. Stories may also be better stored in the brain as memories, rather than what may otherwise be a random amalgamation of strong emotions.”

Spiritual Boost

Journalling can be a form of meditation, the new buzz word in well-being management. Writing and Mindfulness dovetail nicely, and both practices are good for your soul. Plenty of creatives, myself included, have found that writing in a journal helps shift stuckness and stagnation. It lets me move past self-doubt and other internal hindrances and frees up creativity.

Writer Natalie Goldberg advocates free writing in her timeless writing book Writing Down the Bones. Free writing is a perfect form of writing in journals–without censors, without an audience, just being present. It’s good for your soul and great for your creativity.

Many major religions link gratitude with spiritual growth and well-being. Researchers can now prove the benefits of practising an attitude of gratitude through writing. One study found that gratitude journalling reduces stress, materialism and negative self-comparisons.

In General…

Journalling helps you:

  • Prioritise
  • Find clarity and focus
  • Improve self-awareness
  • Identify unhelpful thinking patterns
  • Practise positive self-talk
  • Process challenging events

Here’s a link to a huge list of journalling prompts–enough to keep you writing for half the year.

 Win! Win! Win!

To celebrate Anne’s birthday and Spilling Ink‘s inaugural World Journal Day, I have one lovely Kiki.K journal to give away. It’s an A5 bonded leather journal in “Why-Not Pink.” (Click the link for a sneaky-peek.) The matching pen features the words  “Life is Sweet” in curly script.

To be in the running to win, “like” this post or leave a comment about how journalling helps you. (Winner selected in a random draw on 14 June 2015.)

Happy World Journal Day! Here’s to your health and your soul!

Image Credits

Anne Frank Street Art by TIA, CC

Drat 172.365 by Jessica Wilson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Writing in the Journal by Erin Kohlenberg, CC BY 2.0

Long-Haul Flights & Flow

Long-haul flights are the pits. If the lack of leg room doesn’t kill you, the monotony will. But I found a way to exploit the time and disembark with a spring in your step. It turns out, 30,000 feet is conducive to getting in “The Zone.”

118024748_4a17a0d234_zThe Zone is not an easy destination. Whining kids, ringing phones, the lure of the internet, mounting emails and housework–the boss’s demands. All the pressures of the daily grind conspire against The Zone. Distractions kill any chance of getting there.

The Zone requires two things: space to focus and time. So forget the airline’s entertainment offerings of movies and the silly games on the seat-back screen. They don’t work. Time drags when you’re trying to fill it with mindless entertainment.

One hour into my thirteen-hour flight from Australia to LAX, I stumbled into the zone. Who knew it was located thirty-thousand feet above sea level? Without life’s mundane distractions, and, in particular, without the internet, I achieved  Csíkszentmihályi’s  state of flow, and it was bliss. Bliss on a long-haul flight–seems like pie in the sky (sorry for the pun), but it is possible.

Aside from a couple breaks for meals, leg stretches, and water bottle refills, I focused on my writing. I clocked in over ten highly productive hours on my WIP, finishing an outline and a synopsis. Now I can get stuck into my draft.

Time Flies on a Plane…

Normally, I stumble off the plane and lug my bedraggled self through the terminal, bleary-eyed and muddle-headed. The horizontal urge is so strong that I have to will myself not to curl up on the luggage conveyor belt.

The crazy thing is, this time I can’t remember the flight! I was so absorbed in the creative process that time flew (sorry for this pun, too). I bounced into LAX buzzing with energy and feeling elated about my progress. Flow, it turns out, induces a pleasant neurochemical cocktail of norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin. All of these things enhance creativity and some boost your mood.

Now that’s what I call a good take-away from a long-haul flight! It’s too early to say for sure, but even the jet lag seems less severe. I am actually looking forward to the longer return flight because I’ll have an extra hour of writing time.

Keys to Flowing when You’re Flying

  1. Sit in the aisle seat. Your row-mates’ trips to the loo will remind you to take a break and move around, something that’s especially important on a flight where there’s an elevated risk of DVT. If you’re tucked up against the window with no one to make you move, you could get lost in the flow and cause a clotting risk.
  2. Use a laptop. I’ve taken an iPad before, but the native keypad slows me down too much. A Bluetooth keypad is out due to the flight mode requirement. Handwriting is good, except that you’ll have to use the overhead light, which might bug the others around you. I am convinced the laptop made all the difference this time.
  3. Prepare! See this as a time to create, not to research. Anticipate the info you will need and pre-load it on your computer before take-off since you won’t have internet access.
  4. Refill your water bottle on trips to the loo. Staying hydrated on a long-haul flight is super important. I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure we’re sharper when we’re topped up with fluids.
  5. Have a specific, achievable goal. Focus comes more easily when we know what we want to achieve.

Creative Commons Image Credit: Michael J. Slezak (JW)

Four Simple Creativity Sparks for Writers

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Today is a daydreaming kind of day. In order to make progress on my projects, what I really need is time to go for a walk, doodle, and play.

Walking, doodling and playing to get things done? Absolutely. In this crazy-busy era, it’s all too easy to be swept in the stream of urgency. We churn out tasks. We grind through our day. We brainstorm ideas and slash budgets and scratch things off our list. So much violence in the name of productivity!

All this frantic, sedentary busyness is killing our creativity. It’s time to move.

Slowly. Purposefully. Playfully.

Get Up

Movement is good for creativity—just changing your position or location will do. No plane tickets or cruise ship necessary. Go for a walk, people! Ditch the iPod and earplugs and listen instead to the birds or analyse the music of traffic.

This isn’t new-agey twaddle. The advice is centuries old. “Solvitur ambulando” is Latin for The problem is solved by walking. I’d heard it attributed to Milton, but according to the font of digital knowledge, it goes back to a witty Greek guy named Diogenes the Cynic. Apparently some esoteric big-noter was waffling on about motion being unreal, so Diogenes shut him down by standing up and walking off. (Nice move, but I can’t explain why a Greek was speaking Latin…)

So, if you can’t solve that plot problem, take it for a walk around the block.

Have fun

Play is fundamental. It’s an innate learning strategy for children, so why should we adults pooh-pooh it? Play changes your perspective and opens new options. Take your cue from your favourite geek: put some toys on your desk. Lego bricks, puzzles, a tub of Playdough–or better yet: Kinetic Sand. Go on–Release your inner toddler!

Therapists have understood the power of play for decades. Sandtray and Play Therapy are wonderful strategies for digging below our usual defence mechanisms. (And let’s face it: adults have plenty of those.) Anything we writers can do to bypass the inner critic is a good thing–it may as well be fun!

Role-playing is a fabulous way to breakthrough rigid mindsets. It’s not just for Comic-Con aficionados or drama students. Just imagine what a business owner could learn by playing the part of a first-time customer. Writers—stand up and act out your scene. Feel your character’s response in your cells.

Go ahead and Doodle

Maybe your teachers roused at you for drawing instead of listening, but new research shows that doodling helps people focus. It also helps us access parts of the brain that otherwise wouldn’t be engaged. More brain power is usually better than less…Right?

If you’re making notes or doing an outline, try adding some doodles or sketches. You may find the act of drawing frees up some new ideas.

Daydream…

You’ve heard the cliché about hopeless daydreamers? Well, it turns out they’re not so hopeless after all–particularly if they work in a creative field. Neuroscience has proven a correlation between daydreaming and creativity, so go ahead: Prop your feet up on the desk, sit back, and untether your imagination.

Over to You

Do you have fun, effective ways to kindle your creativity?

More on Creativity from the interweb

Stoke the fire of your creativity with these 5 TED talks.

CC Image Credit, idea_m by nic519