‘Normal’ – a #HoldOnToTheLight post

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I used to live in a world where everyone was Normal.

Everyone in my family, certainly. And all our neighbours, of course.

Of course, there was the Polish guy living on the decrepit farm, who no-one ever saw, except when he came out to roar incomprehensibly at us if we rambled too close to his house. (Did someone say he’d been a prisoner of war? Do I remember that right? Not that I had any concept of what that meant, or might mean, back then).

And there were the occasional stories my father told, making a joke of it, about the shakes and the nightmares and the weird reactions he had for years, probably decades, after the war. Oh, all a great laugh, don’t you know. Nothing to fuss about, certainly not requiring therapy or anything extreme like that.

There were a few mentions of relatives – ours and other people’s – who were ‘eccentric’ or ‘odd’ or ‘tragic’, in passing, but nothing (whisper it) abnormal.

And there was the neighbour who ‘had to go away’ at intervals. (Where to? Why? Why did everyone say it in whispers, shaking their heads, and talk about ‘her poor husband’? No one explained, it was just one of those mysteries of adulthood, wreathed about with an aura of discomfort and secrecy).

And there was me. With my weird self-destructive habits. An odd child. Generally well-behaved, I just would insist on hurting myself.  It was a phase, I’d grow out of it, other than that everything was normal.

I was still doing it when I was in my teens. All the other girls at my school were, of course, perfectly normal (except me, by then I knew I was a freak).

Well, there was the girl who got thinner, and thinner, and thinner. And the other girl who had sudden radical mood changes, who sometimes disappeared from school for days. A few things like that. Quite a few of us who were, one way and another, a bit weird, unsettling, gossip-worthy. Everyone else was normal.

In college, everyone was normal too. Louder and drunker than I was used to, perhaps. Well, there was the student who attempted suicide. I mean, that was…perhaps, not quite normal, but…it wasn’t like I knew them, or anything. And the guy who went on these weird crying jags, which I didn’t know how to handle, and the woman who dropped out partway through her second year, she’d been having some kind of problems, apparently, and…well, most of us were away from home for the first time, all those academic pressures, some people just aren’t cut out for it. Quite normal, really.

And me. Most of the time I passed for normal. But now and then I stopped being able to cope with life. Or people. Or anything. Stayed in my room for days, missing lectures, missing everything, creeping out to get food only when no-one was around. Yeah, I was a freak.

But I was fairly good at acting normal.

Eventually, I had a job and a partner and was generally, to the casual eye, a functioning adult. But there were still some things, like sobbing on the kitchen floor for hours, and self-harm, that weren’t really enhancing my life, and maybe admitting that and getting some counselling might actually help.

It did. It was partially group therapy, and, amazingly, there were really quite a lot of other people there. Teachers and parents and till-workers.  Surprisingly normal people.

Of course, there was the employer who I had to ask for time off for these sessions, who warned me against telling people I was in counselling when I applied for my next job. Because it might look, you know, as if I had problems. As if maybe I wasn’t, well, normal.

But over the years, as I met more people and made more friends and read more books, as people started talking about these things in something other than horrified whispers, I realised, actually, I was normal. Mental health problems happen all the time. Some are long term, some are temporary. Some are comparatively minor. Some are life-devastating. Somewhere around all of us every day, someone is dealing with this stuff, in one or more of its various manifestations.

I don’t feel quite so much like a freak these days. It’s not that I don’t have some issues, some anxiety, some irrational fears and unhelpful reactions. It’s just that I’ve realised having these sort of problems is part of life. If everyone who has ever suffered any kind of mental health issue is a freak…well, us freaks, we’re the majority.

Which makes us normal.

And we always were.

About the campaign:
#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.
Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Hope for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors and blog posts, or reach a media contact, go to http://www.HoldOnToTheLight.com and join us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/WeHoldOnToTheLight

Nine Worlds Ahoy!

The glorious #NineWorlds aka @London_Geekfest will be at Heathrow this coming weekend, and I will be there, doing Stuff.  Quite a lot of Stuff, in fact. So if you are attending and would like to experience me Doing Stuff, this is my schedule:

Fri 15:15 – 16:30: Panel: “Waiter, you spilt some sci-fi in my fantasy!”
We’ll be talking about sub-genres and the crossing of genre boundaries. This should be lively.
Room: Commonwealth-West

Fri 9.45 – Party! My lovely publisher, Abaddon/Solaris, is having a  get together. I will be there, as will other Abaddon/Solaris writers. There will probably be drink. Come and talk to us! Make us sign things! (Er..books, preferably).
Room: Royal B

Sat 18:45 – 20:00: Panel: Religion, Faith and Geekery – What is the impact of religion on the geek genre?
As someone who writes about gods and religion on occasion, I will be saying Things.  Other people will also say Things. There is no guarantee that any deities will turn up to state their opinion, but you never know.
Room: 32

Sat 20:00 – 21.30 Gemmell Awards: Room: County
Yes, I will also be Doing Stuff at the Gemmell Awards!  Assuming there are no supervillain plots, alien encounters or anything else that delays me after the above panel…this is when you need a tardis.

Sun 13:30 – 14:45 Panel: Support Groups for Writers – how to make them work.
By this point I may be in need of a support group myself, or at least something to prop me up, but I shall endeavour to be coherent. Should be a good panel for anyone looking to join/set up a writing group.
Room: Royal-A

Nine Worlds is a lovely convention, with a gloriously wide scope, and an amazingly welcoming atmosphere.  And at time of writing tickets are still available,,,

Jacey Bedford – Empire of Dust

Jacey Novacon 2012-300pxsqu

The very splendid Jacey Bedford’s debut novel, Empire of Dust, is coming out on the 4th of November. She kindly agreed to answer some intrusive questions…

1: The first published short story you have listed on your website was in 1998 – were you already writing and submitting novels then?  How long have you been writing?
I started my first novel when I was fifteen and managed six whole chapters, written in longhand and typed, very slowly, on a borrowed Imperial 66. I’d written two novels before I had my first short story published (which was, incidentally, only the second short story I ever wrote). I was a bit in awe of the whole publisher/author thing and clueless about submitting. It was only getting to know writers on the web, from about 1996 onwards, that taught me a little more about presenting and submitting my finished work. I did my first Milford SF Writers’ Conference [http://www.milfordSF.co.uk] in 1998 and meeting real writers, face to face, gave me a huge boost and taught me an enormous amount about not only writing, but the nitty-gritty of publishing.

2: Have you ever found the process of publication frustrating?  What advice would you give to authors who are struggling with it?
I think we all struggle with the lead times for publications and, when submitting to an agent or a publisher, the length of time it takes to get a reply, even a negative one. Empire of Dust, which is published by DAW in November, spent three years on the desk of an editor at another major publishing house. I left it there because that editor had said: ‘The first couple of chapters look interesting,’ which is flattering and, frankly, encouraging enough to pin your hopes on. However three years later, despite several nudges from me and promises to read it from her, nothing was happening, so I withdrew the book and started over from the beginning again. I’m pretty sure the editor had not actually read beyond the first two chapters. I understand. Editors are busy people, but it can be frustrating.
I have to say, however, that DAW is a lovely company to work with. Though it’s part of the Penguin Group, now, it’s still got the ethos of a family firm. My editor, Sheila Gilbert, is hugely experienced and extremely insightful. She’s been a pleasure to work with.
The only advice I can give is to be persistent. Stick at it despite the frustrations.

3: You are a professional folk singer and tour manager for folk artists: is folk music a strong influence on your writing?
I’m sure there is bleed over. Sometimes a turn of phrase in a song will slap me around the chops and make me realise I need to look at something from a different angle. And I have written a YA novel based on the Tam Lin story. I think that’s obligatory if you’re a folk singer. It hasn’t been published yet, however, and at the moment it’s on a back-burner as I’m working on the three books that are part of my book deal with DAW.

4: Who or what do you feel have been other major influences on your work?
That’s always a question I get stuck on. We are all composites of our life experience. I think my novels have little bits of everything from TV and movies and all the books I’ve ever read in my life, plus experiences of what I’ve done, from (lots of) horse riding to bringing up children and keeping a band on the road.

5: How do you relax when you’re working on a book?
I don’t. I’m pretty obsessive and can spend sixteen hours a day in the office, either writing or doing the day job. (That’s the booking agent thing for folk bands and artists touring the UK.) It’s not necessarily sixteen productive hours, of course, but I always feel that if I’m in front of the computer I’m working even if I’m blogging or answering email. I love reading, but one thing I can’t do when I’m working on the first draft of a book, however, is read fiction. I may have a non-fiction book on the go, but my fiction reading drops right off the bottom end of the scale. I try to read and blog a minimum of fifty books a year. This year because I’ve been editing one book while writing the first draft of the next, I’ve reached the end of October already and have only managed nine books so far. It doesn’t stop me buying books of course. My Strategic Book Reserve is enormous, just waiting for me to have the time to do it justice. I don’t watch much TV either. At the moment I only stop for Dr Who. I just bought the second season of Arrow, but I won’t let myself watch it until I’ve finished the first draft of the current work in progress. (I’m working on Crossways, the sequel to Empire of Dust, due out in August 2015.)

6: You have two SF books coming out, and one which would more aptly be described as historical fantasy.  It’s refreshing to see a debut author publishing in two different subgenres.  Did this cause any difficulties when you approached agents or publishers?  Do you have any advice for writers who want to do the same?
DAW acquired my historical fantasy first and then asked what else I’d got. When my editor heard I had a completed space opera she was immediately interested. She read it, bought it, ordered a sequel and, in fact, both of those will be out before the fantasy. Way back in the 1990s I made the mistake of writing two linked fantasy novels without thinking it through. The second one was never going to sell until, and unless, the first one did, so effectively I wasted a couple of years. I learned my lesson. Every time I started a new project after that I made sure it was something a) that I wanted to write and b) that was completely different from anything I’d written before. So by the time I got my publishing deal I had a backlog of seven completed novels: two very different historical fantasies (different periods and locations); two linked second-world fantasies; a space opera; a YA fantasy novel and a middle grade fantasy novel featuring horses and magic (not magic horses).

7: Do you plan to branch out into other subgenres – or other genres altogether?
I’ve always written fantasy and science fiction and I find it hard to imagine not writing SF of some kind, though some of it has been fairly light, and some has been much darker and more morally ambiguous. My short stories have ranged from rewritten fairy tales to hard science fiction and from slightly scatty fantasy romances to dark fantasy bordering on horror. I can see me branching out into subgenres of F & SF, but not changing genres altogether.

8: Do you have any further plans for books in either of the worlds you’re already writing in?
Empire of Dust will be followed by a sequel, Crossways. They are already contracted, but I have plans for a third one in the series and possibly more. My first two linked novels are also set in the same universe as Empire of Dust, though possibly a thousand years in the future, when a colony founded in the Crossways book has become isolated. It reads like second world fantasy, but there’s no magic, only humans with psionic talents who may well be descended from the settlers in Crossways.
My historical fantasy (I’m not being coy about the name. Its working title is Winterwood, but that may not be what it ends up being called.) can be a stand-alone, but there’s room for a sequel. It’s already in the same universe as my middle-grade horse book even though it’s separated by 200 years.

9: Are there trends in SFF you find interesting at the moment?
I think, like many people, I’m holding my breath to see what will follow ‘grimdark’ and ‘dystopian YA’. It’s interesting to see fantasies based on cultures other than generic Medieval European, I don’t know how much of a trend that is, but diversity is always welcome.

10: What would you like to say to your future readers?
Buy my book. Buy my book. Buy my book. :)  But seriously, I’d also like to say thanks for joining me on the journey. Every new reader has a different take on the books they read. We, as authors, may think we know what we’re writing about, but readers will always absorb different things from our words and put their own spin on a story. I’m always happy to hear from readers, so please talk to me.
Also I’d like to say that in these days of fewer book outlets on the high street leading to fewer opportunities to browse, that readers are not just the consumers of the publishing industry, they are a vital link in transmitting information about new books. Word or mouth, blogging, Goodreads reviews, Facebook and Twitter are now an essential part of getting the information out to potential new readers. Please, if you enjoy a book, (not just my book, but any book) talk about it, email your friends, mention it on Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook, stick it on Pinterest, blog about it, leave a review on Goodreads and Amazon. You have an important part to play in the health of the publishing industry. Together we are mighty. Thank you.

Untitled-6Empire of Dust DAW, November 2014
Is there anywhere in the galaxy that’s safe for a Telepath who knows too much?
Implanted with psi-tech technology, Cara Carlinni is on the run from Alphacorp, a megacorporation more powerful than any one planetary government. She knows her ex-boss can find her any time, mind-to-mind. Even though it’s driving her crazy she’s powered down and has been surviving on willpower and tranqs, tucked away on a backwater space station. So far, so good. It’s been almost a year, and her mind is still her own.
But her past is about to catch up with her, and her only choice is run or die. She gets out just in time thanks to Ben Benjamin, a psi-tech Navigator for Alphacorp’s biggest corporate rival, however it’s not over yet. Cara and Ben find themselves battling corruption of the highest magnitude. If they make a mistake an entire colony planet could pay the ultimate price.

Book buy links:
Amazon.co.uk – Amazon.com – Barnes and Noble/Nook – The Book Depository – 
Powell’s Books

Jacey Bedford
Jacey Bedford is an English writer who lives and works behind a desk in Pennine Yorkshire. She’s had stories published on both sides of the Atlantic and in November 2014 her first novel, Empire of Dust – A Psi-Tech Novel, is published by DAW in the USA as part of a three book deal.
She is co-organiser of the UK Milford Writers’ Conference, a peer-to-peer workshopping week for published SF writers, and she organises Northwrite SF, a critique group based in Yorkshire.
She’s been a librarian, a postmistress and member of internationally touring a cappella trio, Artisan (and still occasionally is for reunion gigs). When not writing she arranges UK gigs for folk artists from all over the world.

Writer Links
Twitter: @jaceybedford
Website – Blog – Facebook  
Milford SF Writers’ Conference – Northwrite Critique Group 
Artisan  – Jacey’s music agency


The inimitable Chuck Wendig just put a new fiction challenge up at his blog Terribleminds (if you’re interested in writing, publishing, horror/sf/fantasy, and/or the antics of small children, and you’re not reading him, you should be. He’s very sharp, and very funny. Oh, he swears a great deal with a kind of feverish inventiveness, so you probably shouldn’t read him if that bothers you, but you’d be missing a lot).

The challenge was to write a flash horror story in the form of a spam email.  This is what my brain decided to come up with, possibly influenced by reading too many productivity blogs lately.


Dear Participant

Do you spend hours a day deciding what to watch?  What threads to read? Who to follow?  Who to ban? What to buy?  What restaurant to book?  Where to go on holiday? What job to apply for?  Who to date? Now you can be free! Autoclick is here!

We are so convinced you will love Autoclick and all its features that it is already downloading.  Don’t worry, you don’t have to do a thing.  Thank you for downloading Autoclick!

Now Autoclick is installed, you will be freed from all those difficult timewasting decisions. Autoclick – your very own combination personal secretary and life coach!

Autoclick is now synced to all your other devices.  And those of everyone you know, or may at any time interact with. Using our unique Quantum Forward Planning feature, it is also synced to every device you or anyone else may own at any time in any future.

Be free of unnecessary struggle.  Be free of timewasting choices.  You need never make another decision.

Welcome to Autoclick!

Cons, cons, cons!

Which sounds like something my heroine Evvie Sparrow would be up to. In my case – conventions. I just returned from the entirely delightful 9 Worlds Geekfest, where I was on a panel on Epic Fantasy in the effulgent company of Elizabeth Bear, Rebecca Levene and Scott Lynch, moderated by the ever-patient Den Patrick, and where I otherwise spent possibly too much time chatting in the bar. I am off to Worldcon tomorrow, where I will be running writing workshops with the fabulous Sarah Ellender, taking part in the pirate programme (yaarr!) run by the splendiferous David Gullen, helping out at the T Party Writers critique workshop…and possibly spending a few minutes in the bar. Oh, yes, and getting to some events and panels, I hope. And bare minutes after that I’ll be heading off to Eurocon, where I am not booked to do anything at all except be a punter, which will be slightly more relaxing. I will of course not be spending any time in the bar. At some point I shall, however, be trying to get some writing done, as I got far too many ideas at 9Worlds and would really like to grab some of them before they get away. After that, I shall probably fall over for a bit, before going to Bristolcon in October…

Shanghai Sparrow Sequel

I am delighted to announce that the lovely Solaris Books have commissioned Sparrow Falling, a sequel to my steampunk novel Shanghai Sparrow – (read an extract here).  Sparrow Falling is due out in summer 2015.

Shanghai Sparrow has been getting some nice reviews, too:

“I’ve hardly read any steampunk, but if they’re all like this, I think I need to change that, fast.” DRUNKEN DRAGON REVIEWS

“Jumping between Victorian England and a fantastical China with Fae thrown in for good measure. Result: an entertaining plot, a feisty, determined heroine and a good blending of fantasy and social history; all in all a great read and one I’ll be very likely to re-read too.” TERRYTALK

“…a rip-roarin’ rollickin’ adventure that had me flying through the pages. In fact, two chapters from the end, I actually put the book down, and started reading something else. Because I didn’t want it to end. I so did not want to come back to the book to find out what happened, because I couldn’t bear the thought of finishing it.” TANGLED BOOKMARKS

So, generally, a pretty good few weeks…apart from hearing about the deaths of Clive Wolfe of the NSDF, a man of immense passion and commitment, whose work had huge positive effects for so many people, gave me some of the maddest and most enjoyable weeks of my life and brought me some of my longest-standing friendships, and of Rik Mayall, who I never met but who was cool and talented and funny. Those, yeah, not so good.

Creativity – The Slog

You know what? Sometimes this sucks. Sometimes I suck. Sometimes trying to get one single measly word on the damn page feels like trying to push an articulated lorry uphill, in the rain, with the handbrake on.

Why? Why is it so hard?

Sometimes the reasons are obvious.

Real life worries screw with the concentration. Occasionally creative work can be an escape from them – but it can be really hard to find the appropriate mindset when financial or health or relationship troubles are clawing and cawing and crapping all over your brain like a flock of particularly unpleasant crows. There are means to cope with this. Writing lists of things you can do to deal with your troubles may reassure your brain that you are doing something. Actually doing one small thing, even if it’s just making one appointment, writing one email or putting a stamp on one envelope may put the Anxiety Bear to sleep for a bit.

Your health can interfere with your ability to work. This is, or should be, really obvious. If you’re in pain, or ill, or simply exhausted, it’s harder to concentrate. This is not a sign of moral weakness. If it’s a long term problem, again, taking a small step towards dealing with it can help – exploring different methods of pain control or new therapies. Finding a new position to work in that’s less strenuous, or only working for very short periods. If it’s a short term problem or a temporary worsening of a chronic condition, sometimes all you can do is just go to bed and look after yourself until you feel better, instead of trying to drive yourself on when you’re in no state to do so – you may just end up starting to hate the work, because you’re trying to push yourself to do it when you feel vile, and that’s a good way for it to stop being a joy and start being a chore. Don’t treat yourself the way a bad boss would – take a break when you need it.

Sometimes, though, the work is the problem. Is this the project I should be working on? Should I be doing something else? Should I be doing this project differently, faster, slower, better?

Maybe. If you’re struggling with the work itself, there’s often a reason – and it is not that you’re rubbish, or hopeless.

Maybe this isn’t the project you should be working on. Maybe you’ve chosen something for reasons that have less to do with your personal creative needs than with external pressures, or you’re still working on a project you started when you were in a different life situation or frame of mind and it no longer speaks to you. If you’re not under contract, then rethink. Are you trying to do something that doesn’t truly interest or excite you? Well, if no-one’s paying you, why?

If someone is paying you, that’s different, of course. If you’re under contract, you’re going to have to finish anyway. In either case, the following might help.

Maybe you need to come at it from a different angle. Maybe it needs to go in a different direction, or have a different viewpoint, or frame, or voice. Sometimes changing one thing – who the protagonist is, or their profession, or gender, changing the point at which you start the story or the setting or the tone – can be what you need. Maybe the protagonist is the cook, not the count. Maybe it’s a tragedy, not a comedy. Maybe it’s set in Moldavia and it should be set in the Midlands.

Sometimes you start again with a different approach and there’s an almost audible ‘click’ and you hear the muse going, ‘Thank you, fi-nally’ as she rolls up her sleeves and gets on with it. (That may just be my muse, mind. She can be bratty.). I’m really not sure how to translate this to other arts than writing – different media? Different colours? Different forms, starting points, background? All I can really suggest is that you change just one thing to start with, and see what happens.

And sometimes, you just need to put your head down and plough on. If you’ve already started the same project six different ways, it’s probably time to pick one version and stick with it. If you’ve started six different projects and haven’t finished any of them, then it’s definitely time to pick one and stick with it. Because those can be signs that the problem isn’t with doing the work but with finishing.

Finishing is scary. Finishing has implications. You may not be thinking about them consciously, but your subconscious may have a whole bunch of them all lined up, quivering and pacing and chewing their nails. Criticism. Judgement. Failure. Hatred. Career Implosion. Expulsion from Civilised Society and Residence in a Cardboard Box…(the downside of an active imagination can be, alas, one that’s as hyperactive as a toddler mainlining triple espressos).

Unless you are extraordinarily offensive or really, intensely, improbably unlucky, it is unlikely in the farthest extreme that one project will doom your career or result in your entire life falling apart around your ears. One project is only one project. Yes, this one might fail, might not be what you hoped, might turn off people you wanted to like it or, ye gods, attract people you would really rather it didn’t.

It’s one project. One project is not the Totality of Your Creative Self, it does not say everything about who you are as a human being or indicate the entire impact of your existence upon the multiverse.

It’s just one step in your creative journey. And it might, just might, be a really good one – a joy, a breakthrough, the one that gets you to the next stage, whatever that is for you.

Deal with what you can of the Life Stuff. Rest if you need to. Try different projects, different approaches. Try to see finishing as a joy, not a threat.

And get that one goddamned word, or brushstroke, or whatever, on the page. The next one is almost always easier.

Creativity and the Kitchen

Recently I found myself drawn to old-fashioned cooking.  Lamb stew made from the leftover roast, with celery and pearl barley.  I even made bread pudding.  I don’t normally do puddings, we just don’t eat them often enough for it to be worth it – but there was the remains of last week’s loaf, and suddenly I wanted bread pudding.  Not because I feel compelled to use up every last scrap of food but because…I just wanted it.

I wanted those smells.  The smells of my mother’s kitchen.

And I realised that it was coming up to the anniversary of my mother’s death.

I’m not saying these things are necessarily connected, but it’s not unlikely that they are.  The approaching anniversary of a death can manifest in strange ways.  A vague restlessness or depression, a desire to get away from old places or to revisit them.  And sometimes a longing for the things we remember, like the milky-spice smell of bread pudding.

And what does this have to do with creativity?

Cooking is creative, or can be.  And for me, it’s a creativity that is generally without pressure, without any of the anxieties that are tied to writing. It has its frustrations and pitfalls but they are minor, temporary, occasionally amusing, seldom more than mildly annoying at worst.

For a start, cooking is not my job. No-one is paying me to do it – so if I get it wrong, I’m not going to be fired.  If it’s inedible, we’ll shove a pizza in the oven or my Dearly Beloved will make one of his own excellent dishes.

And mainly, and perhaps most significantly, I don’t expect great things of myself.  I haven’t gone through my entire life thinking of myself as a ‘chef’ the way I’ve thought of myself, from the age of nine or so, as a ‘writer’. If a dish, especially a new one, turns out right, I’m delighted, and usually slightly surprised.

It is very valuable to have creative aspects in your life that are not tied to your sense of self-worth, and that are not monetised.  Apart from the pleasure and relaxation they give just of themselves, I believe the sense of joy and achievement also feeds back into other creative work.  It helps you relax, and remember why this stuff was supposed to be fun.

And there are lessons to be learned, specifically, from cooking.

From my mother I learned many of the basics, and a handful of dishes that I could do without thinking too hard.  But for years they never had quite the flavour they had at her hands – generally because I didn’t take enough trouble. I didn’t add the extra touches, do the specific little things that deepened and rounded out the flavour.

I’ve learned that these little touches matter.  And that very definitely applies to other forms of creativity.  It’s worth taking the trouble to get the proportions right, to fry this before adding that, to remember the shake of Cayenne in the Bolognese if you want it to taste like your mum’s.  Without those touches, you may have something edible – but you won’t have that dish. It won’t have the richness.

If you reach for the first metaphor that happens to be to hand instead of searching for the absolutely right one, the one that intensifies the atmosphere of your scene or gives insight into the thought-process of the character; if you have your character come out with what you or a random work colleague or Action Hero Type A might say, instead of thinking about exactly what words that person would use under those specific circumstances, then you’re throwing something together, it’s fast food.  Bland, unsubtle, exactly like every other burger.

And sometimes you have to add your own touches.  My mum didn’t put a splash of red wine in her Bolognese sauce, I do.  There are things I learned from writers I admire that I do differently, because I want to tell my story, my way, not theirs.  This, too, is something you learn – and learn by doing.  I didn’t know whether a splash of wine in the Bolognese was going to work until I tried it – and I didn’t know how much works best until I tried it several times.

To return to the origin of this post – creativity can be sparked by unexpected things, by things you’re not aware of.  Stuff bubbles up from the subconscious and the mostly-forgotten.

I wasn’t aware, when I wanted to make bread pudding, that I was thinking of my mother’s death, but I was – and of her life. And I might have got a little weepy as the smell of bread pudding spread through the kitchen – but it turned out to be a pretty damn good pudding.  Not only that, in the process of making it, I had some thoughts about the relationship of a character with her mother, and about the social standing of cooks in the society I’m creating.

Creativity feeds creativity.  You never know where ideas may come from, so be open to them.  And taking trouble is generally worth it – even when you’re doing it for fun.

Finding Quiet

There is a lot of noise out there.  All the time.  Sometimes it is stressful, unpleasant noise – sometimes it is entertaining noise.

The problem is, it’s noise. 

And creativity often requires silence.

This silence doesn’t have to be actual silence – I’m not suggesting you have to lock yourself in a soundproofed cell.  For some people music is an essential part of their creative space. For others, white noise, natural sounds, or the traffic going by outside can all help create the necessary headspace.

For actual aural noise which causes distraction, I suggest investing in noise-cancelling headphones (or nicking your partner’s, as I did).

But that’s not the same as noise. Noise is the stuff that batters at the creative space. The sly distracting imps of the internet. The awareness of the undone washing-up or the unanswered email. The nasty chittering anxieties of your own thoughts. Money worries, relationship worries, worries about your creative life – am I doing it right? Do I have a right to do it at all? Will I get anywhere? Will anyone notice? Why is Writer/Artist X doing so well when I’m not?

All of this is noise. Stuff. Some of it may be real, genuine stuff – stuff that you will have to deal with at some point – but you shouldn’t be trying to deal with it right now, because right now, you’re trying to get some work done.

So try to cut the noise.

There are a number of techniques for this. Meditation is one, and there are plenty of simple guided meditations available online, very cheap, or free. As one who has only recently begun to do it with any sort of regularity, I can recommend it – both for improved focus, and for reduced stress. It doesn’t necessarily block out those uncomfortable thoughts, but it can help you let them pass through your head without turning into a complete logjam in the way of your work.

It can help to make lists of the real-life things that need doing and tell yourself you’ll deal with it – after you’ve done some work. (If you want to try this, do it outside the time you’ve allotted yourself for the work – maybe the night before – because otherwise you’ll end up using your creative time for this).

The worries about creative work itself? That’s another post.  Several other posts (including last week’s). But try and put them aside for now. Again, you might want to write these worries out – not now, not in your allotted creative time, but some other time – before or after you’re trying to work. Get them down on paper (or screen). It’s amazing how much being written out can weaken these monsters.

Programmes like Freedom or Self Restraint are useful cages to lock those internet imps in. Because do you really need to find out what’s going on in the latest Twitterstorm? Will that help your work, right now? No. It’s more likely to be upsetting or irritating, even if you don’t get drawn into it.

Do you need to see if anyone’s responded to your last Facebook post?  Will that help you work? If they have, you may get drawn into responding to them, and then it’s a conversation, and then your creative time gets eaten. If they haven’t, you may (if you’re like me) start agonising about whether you said the wrong thing, or maybe everyone’s ignoring you, or thinks you’re boring…just, no. You do not need those thoughts in your creative space. So don’t let them in.

Do you need to keep up with the latest news or appalling human rights violation? Unless you’re a working journalist…no. Not right now.

And preferably not just before you’re about to try and work; there is interesting research suggesting that things that make us feel threatened – i.e. news of terrorist acts, miscarriages of justice or the latest grim thing humanity is doing to the planet – can trigger a response which pushes us towards things that comfort us or make us feel powerful, (snacking, for example, or shopping) but away from things we may already find stressful. Like doing creative work.

(On a side note, there is also research suggesting that looking at pictures of cute animals can help focus your concentration. Really. Something to do with sparkng a protective impulse which makes us more focussed. This does not translate as a license to search for new posts on Cute Overload every five minutes. I suggest a picture of something fuzzy in your workspace instead. And if your idea of cute is a cuddly Cthulhu, go for it).

Creative space isn’t just outside, it’s inside. And the more rubbish, i.e. noise, you can clear out of that space before you start working, even if all you’re doing is shutting it in a cupboard for later tidying, the easier you will find it to work.