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In which I waffle on about Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover

Recently I watched the film adaptation of The Changeover on Netflix. (IMDB link.) It stars Timothy Spall, Lucy Lawless, Erana James and Nicholas Galitzine, and it was an interesting (although flawed) film.

The story revolves around Laura Chant (who, in the books, is 14, but in this film, looks more like 16 or 17). She’s the daughter of a single mum who has to spend a lot of time taking care of her younger brother Jacko (he’s five in this film, but three in the book) because her mum is always working. The film brings out some of her conflicted feelings about this situation—her love for Jacko, her resentment at having to play caregiver, her struggle with wanting to be free as an adolescent, and her desire to support her overwhelmed mother. One afternoon on the way home, the two meet a man who is never named (played by Timothy Spall; in the book, he’s Carmody Braque). He has an odd little shop, which they go in to explore, against Laura’s best instincts, and as she tries to get Jacko to leave, Carmody offers him a stamp, which he accepts—only the stamp ink seems to burn him and won’t come off, even with washing. In the days following, Jacko falls ill and the medical professionals are stumped as to what’s wrong with him. Only Laura understands that it’s somehow due to Carmody, but of course no one will listen to her. So she turns to the one person she thinks will: school prefect Sorenson “Sorry” Carlisle—who Laura knows for sure is a witch.

Movie still from The Changeover

The writers decided to ground the story in a particular time and place—Christchurch after the earthquake—rather than the more suburban Gardendale subdivision of the book. I rather liked that: it gave the film an almost surreal look—this little story playing out in an almost apocalyptic ruined landscape with abandoned buildings, car parks still partially underwater, shops operating out of shipping containers, and empty green lots where there should have been family homes. The Carlisle place was also heavily modernised—more to emphasise the class difference between Sorenson and Laura Chant than to give a nod to the history of the location (though the Carlisles are still apparently well known in the community).

Overall, I liked the film: I like what Erana James did with the character of Laura—how she brought out those aspects of a young girl coming of age, struggling with her present circumstances, having a sense that something’s wrong and not knowing what to do about it, and being drawn to Sorenson for reasons she can’t quite explain. I liked Nicholas Galitzine as Sorenson, though it frustrated me that his character remained mostly two-dimensional eye candy. (In the book, you learn quite a lot about Sorenson—his back story, why he is the way he is, his complicated relationship with his mother and grandmother. I like the way Mahy portrays him: on the one hand, he’s an awkward, almost nerdy teen boy; one the other, he’s a little dangerous—a little unsafe—but in the way that fascinates and electrifies Laura because it hints at something more grown-up and intimate.)

The arc of the book is mostly the same, though there are some extra plot complications thrown in that I thought were rather unnecessary and seemed to designed to give Timothy Spall more screen time. (That said, he makes a terrific Carmody Braque, so I can see why the filmmakers wanted to use him more.) These additions also detracted from the main story arc of the book, which is all about Laura and her transformation—the changeover hinted at in the title—and how she comes into herself and her own power and then uses that power to (*spoiler alert*) rescue Jacko. I felt that if they had axed some of that unnecessary plot stuff, they could have made room for more significant material from the book—like Laura’s complicated relationship with her father (who doesn’t appear in the film, but the script hints at some other more mysterious backstory, when what Mahy wrote was perfectly serviceable and also fit in with the main story arc)—as well as Laura’s changing relationship with her mother when her mother begins a new romantic relationship. These relationships served as foils to her relationship with Sorenson, and while the chemistry between the two leads was undeniable, there were things about it that were a little clunky. The final scene in particular bothered me: I liked that she had agency and power, and I liked the banter between them, but the way the movie closes felt more like fan service or fan fiction than remaining true to the spirit of the book.

One final bit of criticism: I felt there were too many close-ups—particularly of Laura—and not enough wideshots to give you a sense of where she was. Or the wideshots came way after the close-ups, which left me feeling disoriented most of the time. I wasn’t sure if that was deliberate, or if it was meant to evoke a certain kind of mood. In any case, it just annoyed me.

The Changeover, book cover

After watching the movie, on the first day of the new year, I decided to go back and reread the book. It’s an old favourite—one of my comfort reads, though I often forget about it. I think I first read it back in high school (it may have been a set text) and then acquired my own copy (with its terrible cover, which you can see above). It won the 1984 Carnegie Medal—two years after Mahy won it for The Haunting. I was something of a completionist back then: The Changeover was my gateway into Mahy’s work, and after that, I read as many of her novels as I could get my hands on—The Haunting, of course, but also The Catalogue of the Universe, The Tricksters, Aliens in the Family, Dangerous Spaces. Strangely I remember very little about them; only The Changeover stuck with me after all these years.

I think it’s because it’s young adult fiction at its best: as I said, it’s a coming-of-age story, but it’s also something of a fairy tale and a tale of first love—a teen romance with supernatural elements before paranormal romance was a thing. The story, the characters and the themes all come together in a beautiful way, all related in Mahy’s gorgeous prose. I don’t think I appreciated her descriptions when I was a teenager (and am only paying attention to them now because I suck at description): e.g.

“Hurry up, Chant!” said the prefect at the gate. It was Sorry Carlisle himself, checking that people riding bikes were doing so in a sober fashion, not doing wheelies or riding on the footpath. “First bell’s gone!”

He had grey eyes with the curious trick of turning silver if you looked at them from the side. Some people thought they looked dependable, but to Laura there was nothing safe about them. They were tricky, looking-glass eyes with quicksilver surfaces, and tunnels, staircases and mirror mazes hidden behind them, none of them leading anywhere that was recognizable.

Laura and Sorenson looked at each other now, smiling but not in friendship. They smiled out of cunning, and shared secret flicked from eye to eye. Laura walked past him in at the school gates, bravely turning right into the mouth of the day, right into its open jaws which she must enter despite all warnings. She felt the jaws snap down behind her and knew she had been swallowed up. The day spread its strangeness before her resigned eyes, its horror growing thin and wispy as it sank away. The flow came back into the world once more, and the warning became a memory, eagerly forgotten because it was useless to remember it. The warning had come. She had ignored it. There was nothing more to be said. (p. 13)

It’s so different reading a book you loved as a teenager as an adult: there were things I don’t think I grasped the first time I read it—things more to do with the minor adult characters and the way they were depicted, their internal motivations translating into particular actions. I could see more of the strokes Mahy applied to Laura’s character arc—for example, how growing up made her more appreciative of the fact that her parents were only human, and because they were only human, they were deserving of her compassion and forgiveness. I remembered, as I was reading, a lot of things I had forgotten—tropes, ideas, character traits that had tunnelled deep inside of me and taken root, spreading through my subconscious so that they now infuse some of the DNA of the novel I’ve been writing. It’s in little things—things that no doubt no one but me will notice. But they’re there.

Finally, The Changeover reminded me of one of the life goals I’ve held for a long time—something that I’m not sure I will ever be able to achieve. But it’s this: some day I hope to write a book that becomes someone else’s comfort read—a book that becomes a favourite that a reader revisits regularly throughout his or her life—a book that this sort of reader would turn to in times of tribulation, sadness and suffering. Part of me thinks this is a laughable goal because it’s so subjective—so dependent on the reader and who he/she is. And nevertheless, I dream.

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Depression and the creative

I am by no means an expert on depression. I am a depression sufferer, but my sort of depression is my own and no one else’s. But publishing a book on the subject has made me a little more visible, and as a result, occasionally I get asked things about it. I also read things about it or related to it semi-regularly, and as I go through life with all its ups and downs, mental health is never far from my thoughts.

So what follows is a collection of loose thoughts about depression and mental health as it relates to creativity. It is by no means comprehensive, and the things I talk about may have no bearing on your lived experience. Nevertheless, I offer them up in the hope that you might find them useful in some way—and if they are not relevant to you, perhaps they will be to someone else.

Pressing in on depression

[B]eing depressed is a lot like … wearing this weird diving bell suit made of Ziploc baggies or something. And you’re there with other people and you can see them and hear them and touch them through the baggie or something, but you can’t conduct electricity. (Neko Case in an interview with NPR.)

People sometimes ask me, “How do I know if I’m depressed? How do I know it’s depression and not just having a bad day?” Generally speaking, depression is not just having a bad day; it’s low mood that persists for longer than two weeks.

It’s incredibly common, though I am still surprised at the number of people who don’t seem to know that. One stat I read says that one in four will suffer from some kind of depression over the course of their lives. This does not necessarily mean that they will be suicidal or that they will require medication; it just means that 25 per cent of us will travel through a dark period of low mood at some point. Given those stats, I think it’s good to expect it—and to even be prepared.

The thing is, there are different kinds of depression. Generally speaking (and it may be a bit reductionistic to say this), everyone falls along a spectrum between depression caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain (e.g. bipolar disorder) and depression caused by circumstance (situational depression). Often people have a mix of both, but the mix differs from person to person.

I tend towards situational depression. This means that when my situation improves, I tend to improve too. The way I see it, situational depression seems logical and obvious: we live in a pretty messed up world (what the Bible would call a post-Fall world). So of course there are going to be things that make us feel down. For example, the death of a close friend or a family member. Family or relationship breakdown. Troubles at work. Long-term unemployment. Post-traumatic stress from massive life events (like sexual assault). Personal failure. Comparing yourself to others—particular your peers—and wondering why you’re not where they are. Trump being in power. There’s a lot out there to be depressed about, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself affected by what’s going on in the world.

That said, how do you know if you’re depressed? There are common symptoms, but they can differ from person to person. Also, some of them can seem contradictory. For example, people who suffer from depression,

  • Sleep too much or not enough;
  • Eat too much or not enough/suffer from loss of appetite;
  • Suffer from sluggish thoughts or find themselves unable to switch off from thinking too much;
  • Experience a lack of sex drive or too much sex drive;
  • Complain of lack of energy or too much energy (which is what the manic stage is like for those with bipolar).

Everyone’s depression looks different. If you suffer from depression, you need to work out what yours looks like.

Creativity and depression

Woman by the sea

There’s a myth out there that you need to be depressed in order to create great work. Creators like Agatha Christie, Leonard Cohen, Sylvia Plath and Stephen Fry suffered (or still suffer) from depression, so it must be true, or so the thinking goes. Certainly there are an awful lot of creative people out there who suffer from depression, and there definitely seems to be a link between creativity and mental illness. But sometimes I think creative people suffer from depression less because they are predisposed to it and more because of the nature of the work.

As a friend pointed out recently, creative professions are brutal. Creativity means opening yourself up and making yourself vulnerable, and what you make is often subjected to intense scrutiny and criticism, which can feel very personal. Furthermore, unlike other occupations like teaching, accounting, engineering or IT, creative careers are far from stable. There’s a lot at stake and a lot of pressure to succeed—particularly if you want to make a living from what you do. But there are no guarantees, and sometimes pursuing a creative career can feel like madness.

In a sense, depression is massively detrimental to creativity, because it can prevent you from creating at all. Imagine trying to do this sort of work when you’re suffering from low mood, low energy, lack of sleep and an inability to focus. Imagine trying to do this sort of work when you can’t even get out of bed, let alone put pencil to paper.

Furthermore, imagine trying to do this sort of work with a swarm of judgemental and self-critical thoughts swirling around your head—for example, “This has been done before”; “No one is going to like this”; “What will they think of me?”; “This sucks. I’m a failure. I will never amount to anything. This will never amount to anything”; “This is a waste of time. What’s the point?”; and “Why can’t I be more like ____? They’ve has already done this, this and this and they’re my age!”

Many creative people may suffer from depression. But in my opinion, depression doesn’t really aid creativity.

Making good art in the shadow of the black dog

No matter your circumstances (or your brain chemistry), you can still make good art even if you suffer from depression. But you need to treat your depression first.

Everyone—depression sufferer or no—should be taking steps to manage their mental health. (Especially men: sorry, guys, but you don’t have a particularly good track record of doing this!) But unfortunately this is something we are not taught how to do by our parents, our schools or even the medical profession. Nevertheless, it’s important because mental health affects so much of life. It starts with observation—regularly stepping back from your life and assessing how things are going and how you are going. How has your mood been? What things have been affecting it? (Think specifics—for example, work stress, lack of sleep, relational difficulties, where you are on your menstrual cycle. Sometimes it helps to write yourself a list, even if you destroy it later.) Do you think you might be suffering from depression? If so, what does your depression look like? The nature of your depression will determine how you treat it.

Note I said “treat”, not “cure”. Sometimes depression cannot be cured—or at least not completely. Instead, aim for being able to manage it. The better you are at managing it, the closer you will be to getting yourself to a place where you can create.

Now, some people who have problems with their brain chemistry may have to go on medication. Antidepressants can be very helpful tools for keeping things on an even keel. But not everyone needs to take pills to manage their depression—particularly if their depression is more up the situational end of the spectrum.

Try some of the following to boost your mood:

Art-making in a café

Related to the above, some of the unhelpful critical or judgemental thoughts common to creatives may need some serious cognitive behavioural therapy to reverse or transform them. For example,

  • If you find yourself thinking, “I’m crap because I’m not doing as much as _____”, remember that your worth is not determined by your output—your word count or the number of pages you’ve managed to ink today. You are a valuable person in your own right. “Comparison is the thief of joy”, as one (or both!) of the Roosevelts is said to have said. Focus on what only you can do.
  • If you find yourself thinking, “It’s been done before”, think to yourself, “That may be the case, but it hasn’t been done by me .” You are a unique individual: no one else in the world is like you. No one else has your viewpoint, your life history, your skills and your particular talent. So use what you have to do it your way.
  • If you find yourself thinking, “This is a waste of time. I should just give up!”, don’t give up. Remember that nothing is a waste of time, because in creative work, everything is useful and nothing is wasted. Even if you have to scrap what you’ve just done, you’ve made progress, because you’ve figured out how not to do it. And that, therefore, means you’re closer to figuring out how it should be done. Remember that all progress is progress, no matter how small.
  • If you find yourself thinking, “I haven’t done enough!”, remember to celebrate your wins. Write yourself a list if that helps. (Daniel Pink recommends doing something like this to round off each workday, even if you’re not in a creative profession.) You showed up! You wrote some words or drew a sketch! You figured out that plot point! You nailed that character nuance! Go you! You’re now a little bit closer to achieving your goal and finishing that project.

Once you’ve got a handle on your depression and are combatting the unhelpful thoughts, be sure to nurture yourself creatively. I’ve already talked about this in a previous newsletter in an article about “Creator medicine”, so I won’t go over that material again. But one thing that’s worth mentioning here is my point about talking to other creators about what they’re working on and how they like to work: sometimes just hanging around other creative people is enough to stimulate the creative juices again. (It brings to mind Proverbs 27:17: “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another”.) If that’s something that works for you, consider doing your creative work with someone else in order to foster accountability and encouragement. That’s something a couple of friends and I used to do—meet up once a week in a café to write. I found it helpful even on the days when I didn’t get much done.

Depression is hard. Creativity is hard. There are not shortcuts—no foolproof cures. But depression can be managed, and creative work can be done in the midst of depression. And sometimes the work itself can be something of a mood booster—particularly when you’re in that zone when it feels less like work and more like play, and you’re doing it for the love of it, instead of because you have to. Creating for yourself is, I think, is the best antidepressant of all.

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Hiveminded Episode 016

It’s the final day of Bec and Karen’s writing retreat (insert wailing!) and in this episode, we talk about where things are up to, how the week met (or didn’t meet) our expectations, what we learned from doing this and what lies ahead. Download the episode or listen using your trusty web browser (19:36 min). Show notes below.

And drop us a line and let us know what you thought of our mini-series and whether you’d like to hear more.

Bec and Karen recording this episode

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Podcast feed.

Subscribe with iTunes

Listen to Stitcher

Show notes

Ang pow/lai see.

Big Magic (Elizabeth Gilbert).

Magic Lessons podcast.

Burnt.

Elizabethtown.

The phone call montage scene (which still irritates Karen to this day):

Bec’s post on The Faithful Writer conference.

Bec’s story about the pineapple tarts appears in this issue of Pencilled In.

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Hiveminded Episode 015

It’s Day 5 of Bec and Karen’s writing retreat, and today we have gone into the heart of Launceston to check out the Harvest Market and write at the library. In this episode, we update you on our progress, talk about the scenes we’re writing and find out more about Bec’s “squirrel” project. Download the episode or listen using your trusty web browser (8:37 min). Pithy show notes below.

Also, one episode to go! Tomorrow night is the last night of the retreat, so of course just in time, we now have a new iTunes podcast link

Subscribe with iTunes

Show notes

Harvest Market, Launceston.

Launceston library.

“How I went from writing 2,000 words a day to 10,000 words a day” by Rachel Aaron/Bach, who talks about the time/knowledge/enthusiasm triangle.

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Hiveminded Episode 014

It’s Day 4 of Bec and Karen’s writing retreat, but we’re actually talking about Day 3 as we didn’t get to record last night. In this episode, we update you on our progress, discuss what socialising would have been like in the Regency period (and many thanks to all the historians and romance writers who blog about this subject; your research is invaluable), explore the topic of fulfilling your purpose in life and anticipate taking a very pleasant day off. Download the episode or listen using your trusty web browser (10:37 min). Show notes below.

(NB: Current podcast feed can be found here. We are working at getting iTunes updated.)

Show notes

Supper at the Netherfield Ball (Jane Austen’s World).

A clip of the supper scene from the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice (2:28 min to 5:25 min):

Dancing at the Netherfield Ball (Jane Austen’s World).

Dancing cotillion (this clip features the music of Mozart):

Queer Eye on Netflix.

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Hiveminded Episode 013

It’s Day #2 of Bec and Karen’s writing retreat—a very different day to Day #1 in a very different writing environment. In this episode, we talk about what we worked on today (and how that went), the historical precedent for writing in places with inclement weather, and why Bec was sent back to kindergarten when she was in Year 6. Download the episode or listen using your trusty web browser (10:04 min). (Yada yada yada still no feed; hopefully soon!) Show notes below.

Show notes

Nalini Singh is the writer at last year’s GenreCon who introduced Karen to the idea of the “squirrel project”.

An interesting post about Regency-era undergarments.

1816: the year without a summer. (This Wikipedia article about Villa Diodati has a bit about Byron, the Shelleys and Polidori’s stay, and their monster story writing adventures.)

Comic creators who live in Portland.

The Artists Way (Julia Cameron).

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Hiveminded Episode 012

Welcome to a very special episode—oh, hang on, we said that yesterday, didn‘t we; instead, that one special episode is turning into a special series where we document each day of Bec and Karen‘s writing retreat.

In this episode, we talk about Day 1, our current projects and how they‘re going and things we‘ve learned so far. Download the episode or listen using your trusty web browser (13:54 min). (Sorry! Still not in the feed.) Show notes below.

Show notes

Episode 11.

Scrivener (awesome writing software).

Taken Out.

If You Are The One.

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg.

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Hiveminded Episode 011

Welcome to a very special episode of our podcast! It’s so special, it’s not even on our feed (erm, our SoundCloud sub expired and it’s not worth reviving it for just one episode). But ANYWAY! For once, this episode finds Bec and Karen on the same piece of landmass—the same room, even! We talk about our upcoming writers retreat (at Bec’s house), our “origin stories” as writers, we reminisce about good old Print Shop and the desktop publishing/home printing revolution, and we spill the beans about our plans for the week. Download the episode or listen using your trusty web browser. Show notes appear below.

Show notes

Awesome gypsy wagons.

Varuna: The writers house.

“Cat among the pigeons” by Bros.

Print Shop.

Pokémon Go. (KB: I should add I’m not actually a Pokémon Go player.)

That beautiful story about the boy with autism playing Pokémon Go (Facebook link).

“How I went from writing 2,000 words a day to 10,000 words a day” by Rachel Aaron/Bach.

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Time for creative projects

Time for creative projects

As promised last month, this month I thought I’d write a bit about finding time to do creative projects. People often ask me how I do it—especially when they find out I’m a parent of young children. “Where do you find the time?” they say.

168 hours a week

The thing is, I don’t have to find it; I already have it. You do too. We all do. We all have the same amount of time in our lives—24 hours a day, 168 hours a week, 8,760 hours a year (and 8,784 in a leap year). We may feel like we have less (or more, though people generally don’t feel like they have more time). But in reality, we all have the same amount of time. It’s just that we all have different demands on our time.

See, we all have time, but we don’t always have control of how we can spend that time. A certain amount of time must be spent on certain things—housework (as I discussed at length in this post), eating, sleeping, commuting, working in your paid job, raising children, maintaining your relationship with your partner (if you have one) and so on. Some of that time is non-negotiable: if you want to earn your salary, you need to put in the hours and have something to show for it, or you’ll get fired. If you want your kids to grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults, you need to spend time feeding them, clothing them, talking to them, nurturing them, shuttling them to and from school and other activities, being there for them, and so on. And if you want to prevent your marriage from disintegrating, you have to spend time working on the relationship—checking in with one another, having fun with one another, being intimate, working through problems together, maybe even going to marriage counselling together. (Please note there is no shame in going to marriage counselling. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed; it means you’re willing to work on stuff. More couples should go—and long before they find themselves on the brink of divorce.)

That said, there is always some portion of time—no matter how small—that is negotiable: there are no particular demands on it and you can choose how you want to spend it. Most of us tend to spend that time on rest and recreation, which is a perfectly wonderfully way to spend it, because rest and recreation are important and restorative, and act as valuable fuel for the rest of your life. But some of us choose to spend at least some of that negotiable time on making art. And because that time is so small, often we yearn for more.

The thing is, for all for us, time is a finite resource: once it’s gone, you can’t get more of it. There’s no way to increase your 168 hours per week to 170. You can’t buy more. You can’t steal more. You can’t get time from someone else to extend your life the way that people do in that 2011 Andrew Niccol film In Time, where time literally is money. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27). He’s right: you can’t. (Believe me, I’ve tried!)

Instead, our task is to spend our time wisely—to make the most of what we have—what we have been given. As Moses sang in the Book of Psalms, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). We all have 168 hours per week; how are you going to use yours?

Daily patterns

That said, not all time is the same: it changes throughout the day. Or rather, our experience of it changes throughout the day. At the risk of repeating myself in this post, I’ve found the chapter on the daily pattern we all traverse in terms of our energy levels and output in Daniel Pink’s When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing quite helpful: after waking, we rise to a peak at around lunchtime, which is then followed by an afternoon trough (or “slump time”, as I like to call it), a smaller peak in the late afternoon/early evening and then a gradual decline towards bedtime. Contrary to what many in society might actual think, we are humans, not machines; we can’t be “on” all the time.

Our days follow roughly the same shape (peak, trough, smaller peak, decline), but as Pink also points out, we start that shape at different times, according to our chronotype. Some of us are larks and rise early. (I’m definitely not one of them.) Some of us are night owls and rise late. But most of us are what Pink calls “third birds”: we fall somewhere in the middle and wake—not as early as larks, but not as late as owls. (I know it sounds ridiculous, but I was rather disappointed to discover that I was a third bird and not a natural night owl, which is what I’d been calling myself). If you’re interested in finding out your own chronotype, do the Automated Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (AutoMEQ). If the results of that aren’t satisfactory, another way to figure it out is to fill out Pink’s daily tracker worksheet, which directs you to write down what you’re doing, how alert you feel mentally and how energised you are physically every 90 minutes. Depending on your chronotype, you’ll start the daily pattern at a different time of day to the rest of the population, so the shape of your day—the rise of your energy levels—may look slightly different.

Sleeping woman

Even accounting for the daily pattern, our energy tends to fluctuate in 90-minute cycles: Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project says these cycles are derived from our ultradian rhythm: we rise to a peak part-way through the cycle (which is roughly 90 minutes long—so the peak occurs at about 45 minutes in) and then decline towards a trough. He recommends taking a 15-minute break every 90-minutes before getting stuck into things again. He also recommends doing things (like resting) to boost your energy, as energy, unlike time, is not a finite resource, it’s a renewable one. (For more about that, check out his talk, “The myths of the overworked creative” or this summary.) Your energy levels are obviously affected by all sorts of things—how much rest you’ve had (or not had!), how much exercise you’ve done, what’s currently stressing you out, and so on. But according to Schwartz’s thinking, if you can manage and control those things, you can boost your energy and thus your productivity in the time you have.

That said (and as I said earlier), not all of us have total control over our time: our time is often shaped by external factors—even for those who lean more towards the unstructured/spontaneous end of the spectrum. The patterns of the day can end up falling into blocks that fit around, say, the 9 to 5 workday, the school run or the baby’s feeding schedule. I don’t see this as a negative: if anything, it’s a positive, because endless time actually isn’t actually that helpful for productivity. In fact, having endless time can be absolutely terrifying because it contains so much potential and it can be wasted in so many possible ways. Having pre-existing fences around your time is actually quite helpful in the same way that having good interpersonal boundaries helps you to thrive.

Making the most of the time

So to bring all this together, where can you find the time to fit in creative work? Here are a few suggestions that might be helpful, depending on your circumstances:

  • Schedule it in: Figure out your chronotype and the periods each day when you are more likely to be productive. It might be in the early morning before the break of dawn. It might be late at night after the household has gone to bed. It probably won’t be after lunch during the afternoon slump. Once you’ve worked that out, look at your daily and weekly timetable, and the natural rhythms/externally imposed boundaries they place on your time. See where you might be able to fit in some creative work—but make sure that these blocks of time are as close as possible to your most productive periods. It may not be possible, but perhaps there’s a morning or two—or an evening or two—that you can reserve for yourself. An hour and a half is ideal (bearing in mind your ultradian cycle—90 minutes). If you can’t manage that, see if you can squeeze in even 30 minutes. Anything is better than nothing. Once you’ve scheduled it, stick to it. (For me, I currently have Tuesdays child-free, so after I’ve finished drop-offs, I go to a café and write for a bit, and then move to the library and write for a bit longer. I usually stop around lunch time and try to spend the rest of the time on R&R.) You may not get much done in that 30 minutes. But remember that a little is better than nothing. And maybe once you get into the routine of things, you may be able to block out more time.
  • Use your incidental time: Incidental time happens in the corners: it’s the time you spend standing in queues, commuting to and from work, sitting around in doctor’s waiting rooms, or even watching your kids play in the playground. If you can, try to make the most of that time: get out your phone and scribble down some story ideas; let your mind chew over that plot problem you’re having trouble untangling; daydream and let those unrelated connections come together to fuel your creativity. It’s surprising how much creative work you can actually do in the corners of your time—often when you’re supposed to be doing something else. (Remember the Zeigarnik effect, which I talked about in this post.) I once outlined the plot for a children’s picture book on my phone while following my then two-year-old around the IKEA showroom floor. Normally parenting and writing don’t mix, but it did that time.
Subway passengers
  • Boost your energy: If you have no choice but to schedule creative work during slump time, one way to make the time work better for you is to make sure you take decent rest before you go into slump time. Daniel Pink has a list of helpful ways to reinvigorate yourself in When that don’t actually take up much time. But, as Tony Schwartz says, energy is a renewable resource, so boost your energy by trying to make sure that you’ve slept well and rested well before you embark on creative work during slump time. If that doesn’t work and your mind and body are still choosing to rebel, don’t beat yourself up about it. Instead, roll with it: make the most of it by using the time to feed yourself with creator medicine. Watch a movie. Read a book. Passively consume things that will enrich you creatively. And don’t feel guilty about doing any of that: it’s still creative work.
  • Be realistic with yourself: That said, often creative work is hard going—particularly when other things in your life are going poorly. It’s helpful to acknowledge all of that and be compassionate towards yourself, instead of beating yourself up for not meeting some arbitrary high standard that you’ve set for yourself. As David M Barnett tweeted, “Time to write is an under-acknowledged privilege that a lot of us take for granted.” Not everyone can write 2,000 words a day (particularly not those who have to get dinner on the table every night, says Ann Patchett!) Not everyone can clear some time to do creative work—particularly if you’re a single mother of three who works full-time. Some people have chronic health problems that mean they’re barely functioning for most of the day. Talitha Kalago, author of Half a Million Words in Nine Months: The time management guide for finishing your manuscript, struggles with a range of chronic health problems, but still manages to be productive in the time she has. If this is something you struggle with too, the following posts may be helpful:
  • Deal with time sucks: With limited time—specifically limited quality time—for creative work, we don’t want to be wasting it by video hopping on YouTube, getting sucked into games or scrolling endlessly through social media. Part of the problem is that a lot of our entertainment options these days are designed to be addictive: they’re designed to activate the dopamine/reward centres of our brain so that we experience an almost Pavlovian response when we achieve that “win” or receive certain notifications. Some of these things are also designed to be intrusive—to interrupt whatever we’re currently doing and grab our attention so that we’ll be drawn to our phones, instead of concentrating on the task at hand. If you suspect this might be a problem for you, there are apps you can install on both computers and phones that monitor and report your activity so you can see first-hand what is sucking up your time. But there are other ways to deal with time sucks. Try the following:
    • Acknowledge to yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Are you depressed? Do you have a psychological need for attention? Are you just bored? If so, maybe it’s better to treat your feelings in other ways that don’t eat as much time and that are more effective than scrolling endlessly through Facebook.
    • Limit your distractions during creative work time. Turn off notifications. Put your phone on airplane mode. Use Freedom to block certain apps. Create two logins on your computer: one for personal stuff and one for creative stuff. (This might end up being annoying, though; let me know if it works for you!) “DO NOT DISTURB” is your friend. If anyone tries to contact you, get back to them later; most of the time, it’s not urgent, and it’s ridiculous to make yourself available to everyone every hour of the day.
    • Be sensible: if you’re trying to work and you’re having trouble focusing or concentrating, or you’re finding yourself nodding off, maybe the problem is you haven’t had enough rest (and by “rest”, I mean both the sleep variety and the leisure variety; everyone needs to waste time sometimes because wasting time is an important curative for good mental health). Rest, as I said earlier, is valuable fuel for energy, so don’t neglect it.
Journal and earbuds
  • Do what you can with the time you have: It may not be much, but it’s all still useful and helpful in the long-run. Sometimes, as a way to warm up, I start with morning pages (from Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way), or I have a dedicated journal that I use for scribbling 100-word exercises—little scenes or flash fiction that aren’t for anything except my amusement only. Sometimes I just write about the thing I’m working on instead of writing the actual thing. (I feel like it’s the writing equivalent of sketching or doing rough layouts in comics, and I used to feel a bit embarrassed about it until I had a conversation with Louie Joyce, who pointed out that often the hard work happens at that stage, because you’re making key decisions about how things should look and work—decisions that pay off later when you’re building on that foundational work during the pencilling/inking/colouring stage.) As I said, it’s not much, but it’s still all valuable.
  • Supercharge your creative practice: For some people, showing up is all they need to do to get the creative juices flowing. For others, something more is needed. As I said in this post, sometimes setting timers helps as it puts a fence around the time and only locks you in for a short period, forcing you to be productive. Sometimes leaving things half-finished is an easy way in the next time you have a chance to work on something. Sometimes a bit of preparation is all you need: recently I’ve been struck by this blog post, “How I Went From Writing 2,000 Words a Day to 10,000 Words a Day” by Rachel Aaron/Bach and what she wrote about the triangle of knowledge, time and enthusiasm: once she worked out what she was writing before she wrote it (knowledge) and she figured out worked best for her in terms of time of day and length of time (time) and she identified the hooks that made her excited to write particular scenes (enthusiasm), her output went up in a phenomenal way. And this was while she was looking after a newborn!

It’s difficult to find time to do creative work—difficult, but not impossible. Life can be very busy and very crowded. But even in the chaos of the day-to-day and your never-ending To Do list, you can still find the time. You just need to want to do it.

(P.S. For more on this subject, I also recommend checking out René Pfitzner’s post, “How do I find time to make comics?” and Mark McGuinness on “How to Find Time for Creative Work”.)

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Art work vs. housework

This month’s post was meant to be about finding time to write and make art—something that I know many people struggle with. But as I was writing about it, I realised that for me, I couldn’t really talk about art work until I’d talked about housework first.

I realise that sounds a little mad. (Welcome to my brain!) Housework is something we don’t usually like thinking about (let alone doing). Housework is boring: it comprises a significant chunk of my days and yet, strangely enough, I haven’t learned to love it. Housework is something most of us ignore until we can ignore it no longer.

But housework is essential to our wellbeing. It’s a necessary evil. It’s drudgery, but it has to be done—mostly for the sake of everyone’s sanity. A messy (overly messy, not normal messy!) chaotic home has a significant impact on the mental and physical health of its inhabitants, and that’s mostly due to the significance of the home. We may work outside the home, but everyone always returns to it at the end of the day in order to be refreshed and to recuperate for tomorrow. Home is the place where we relax—where we can be ourselves—where we can nurture ourselves and each other. Home has a massive significance psychologically: if our home burns to the ground, we feel that loss keenly—not so much because of our material goods reduced to ash, but because of our memories of the place and the emotional value we have invested in that place. Having no home feels awful and unsettling. In contrast, buying or moving into a home (“settling down”) implies a sense of security and stability. Home is about familiarity—knowing the quirks of a place, like where all the power points are located; the temperament of the kitchen oven; the way the light looks when it shines through the windows at different times of days; and the sound the building makes when it’s settling in the cool of the evening. Home is where we feel at home.

And housework is how we maintain that feeling of home being home. This is why cooking, cleaning, laundry, taking out the trash and so on are important. This is why parents all over the world make their children tidy up. This is why housework—boring evil drudgerous housework—has its own dignity, value and worth.

Washing machine

But historically (and this is the part that fascinates me about topic of housework, rather than the work itself, although I hesitate to talk about it because the very act of talking about housework feels incendiary—as if I’m about to start a gender war), it’s always been the lower classes who were responsible for housework: the poor served the rich and catered to their every need. The rise of the middle class has meant that most of us now do our own housework, and traditionally the burden of that has fallen to women. Certainly in the West in 1950s, that’s what being a housewife was all about—keeping an impeccable home, with housework occupying a whopping 32 hours per week back in 1965 (Jennifer Senior, All Joy and No Fun, HarperCollins, 2014, pp. 153-154). Arlie Russell Hochschild, in The Second Shift (which I haven’t read, but this summary makes me want to) found that, during the 1960s and 70s, taking both paid and unpaid labour into account, women were doing a full month of 24-hour days more than their male partners.

These days, accounting for both paid and unpaid labour, men and women are working almost equal hours, and male participation in housework and childcare, on average, has increased (Jennifer Senior, p. 53). (Side note: this is an interesting little statistic: each extra child adds an extra 120 hours of housework per year.)

But the division of domestic labour is not quite at parity. A 2015 study of working couples found that men who took a more or less equal share of the housework before kids added 40 minutes to their load around the time their baby had reached nine months, whereas in comparison, their wives had added more than two hours of daily work (source). Furthermore, mothers are more likely to multitask—usually with childcare and housework: one study found that mothers spend an average of 10 extra hours per week multitasking than fathers. Mothers are also more likely to engage in deadline-oriented time-pressured tasks—for example, getting the kids off to school, or putting dinner on the table. And mothers tend to identify themselves more as caregivers, meaning that they expend a lot more psychic energy on parenting, hence the current discussion around invisible labour and the mental load (Jennifer Senior, pp. 58-61). (Please note that these are all American stats; unfortunately the Australian Bureau of Statistics has not tracked Australian data for the past 10 years.)

To generalise broadly, part of the difference can be explained by the way that men and women are wired. Women are socially conditioned to see caregiving as an expression of love. Cooking is not just putting food on the table; it is nurturing loved ones. Tidying is not just clearing clutter and putting things away; it is creating a space in which family members can relax. Men, on the other hand, tend to view housework as just that: housework—menial labour that they’d rather pay someone else to do than do themselves. This means that a man’s refusal or reluctance to do housework can feel like emotional rejection to a woman, and a woman’s rejection of a man’s suggestion of hiring domestic help can appear ridiculous (Gaby Hinsliff, Half a Wife: The Working Family’s Guide to Getting a Life Back, Chatto and Windus, London, 2012, p. 92).

You can see why discussions about housework can be incendiary and can often end in bitter conflict, with working mothers and fathers competing with one another to prove who is doing more. (It was conflict over whose turn it was to empty the Diaper Genie that led Jancee Dunn to write How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids [Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2017.]) Gaby Hinsliff in Half a Wife quotes a study of full-time workers done by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine that found that discussions over household chores made blood pressure rise faster than work meetings (p. 91). It’s because such discussions are as much about the worth and value of what each partner does, as well as the content of what they do, and the amount of what each partner does is therefore going to affect what else they can and can’t do—including making art.

So I find myself sympathising with Rufi Thorpe, who wrote in her essay “Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid”,

I have tried to say it to my husband; I have tried to say, “I hate my life.” I have tried to say, “I need help.” I have tried to explain why I am finding being a mother so difficult, but in the face of his questions, my explanations collapse. It isn’t exactly that spending time with the children is so horrible. I mean, sometimes it is, sometimes we have a bad day, but most of the time it is relatively pleasant: we go to the store, we go to the park, everyone is well behaved, the three-year-old says something cute, the baby does something new. The problem is not in what I am doing. The problem is in what I am not doing, which is writing every day, but which is also leading a life of the mind …

There are other ways too in which I am invisible. I often feel that the work I do around the house is the work of an invisible person. How else could my husband consistently leave his underwear tucked behind the bathroom door? His wet towel on the bed? Surely, he does not imagine me, swearing, swooping to pick up his damp, crumpled briefs with a child on one hip as I listen to a podcast and ponder going gluten free. He is not making a statement with his actions, saying, “Here, wife, pick up after me.” Instead, I think that on some level he believes that he lives in an enchanted castle where the broom comes to life and sweeps, and the teapot pours itself …

Male writers have often had children, but they have often famously refused to bend to them. On her twelfth birthday, Faulkner’s daughter asked him not to get drunk, and he refused, telling her, “No one remembers Shakespeare’s children.”

Tolstoy’s wife wrote in her journal:

How little kindness he shows his family! With us he is never anything but severe and indifferent. His biographers will tell how he helped the porter by drawing his own water, but no one will know that he never once thought to give his wife a moment’s rest, or his sick child a drink of water. How in 32 years he never once sat for five minutes by his sick child’s bedside to let me have a rest, or a good night’s sleep, or go for a walk, or simply sit down for a while and recover from my labours.

When I shared these anecdotes with my husband, he responded with horror. “But these men were assholes,” he said. “You can’t possibly want to be like them? Even fathers nowadays couldn’t get away with acting like that.” “Of course not,” I said, because it is hard to defend wanting to be an asshole. “But is it the price?” I asked, unwilling to give the discussion up. “Is the price of great art being an asshole?” He looked at me like I was insane. “No,” he said. “The price of great art is not being an asshole!”

The next morning, I picked his underwear up from behind the bathroom door and wondered if he was right. I will say this: it is probably easier to be an artist and an asshole. It is probably easier to get the time you need to work if you don’t care how it affects the people around you. It is easier to focus on achieving one thing than achieving two things.

I am aware that all of this comes across as hyper feminist husband-bashing, which is certainly not my intention (and it certainly must be said that my own wonderful husband does a wonderful job with his share of the domestic load and in appreciating and supporting me). I actually don’t believe that parity is always possible (or even desirable) when it comes to the division of domestic labour. Instead, I think it’s about fairness and working out what fairness looks like to each person in the couple. The division is affected by so many other factors—not just your ability and willingness to help, but also the status of your paid employment (if any); how flexible your employer is; how much each of you is earning (and how much the household needs in order to service a mortgage or take care of rent so that you can live within a reasonable distance of each other’s workplaces); the length of each person’s commute, and how that affects when you leave home and when you return to it; and so on. These are complicated discussions, and the solution for one household will not necessarily work for another household.

The point of all this is to raise the discussion in the first place. I suspect that, for most women, the amount of time consumed by housework is going to have a far greater impact on the amount of time they are able to spend on art work than men spend—simply because women tend to carry the lion’s share of the domestic load. When I look at my male contemporaries in comics (many of whom are fathers with children around the ages of my children), I don’t see them having to wrestle with these sorts of issues. (Maybe they’ve got it all worked out already!) But as Rachel Power says in The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood (now titled Motherhood and Creativity: The divided heart),

To create art once you have children requires the commitment of more than one person. With kids in the mix, if I wanted to retreat, it required the cooperation of my partner … a situation I found both humbling and infuriating” (Red Dog, Fitzroy, 2008, p. 14).

Often the conversation is more fraught when it’s the mother wanting to create the art, rather than the father, which is why Susannah Windsor Freeman has a whole section in The Busy Mom’s Guide to Writing: Maintain your mommy-groove and achieve your writing goals on how mothers can get their partners to support their writing. Note that this is a topic that usually isn’t found in most writing books written by men.

Green salad

Until domestic robots become much more capable (I confess I look forward to the ubiquity of the laundry folding machine), we’re kind of stuck with housework and the various (and possibly gendered) discussions around housework. And when it comes to thinking about how to make time for art work, in my opinion, the key is to try to keep housework at an acceptable level. Here are some strategies for you (and your partner, if you have one) for how to do that:

  1. Divide and conquer: This is the strategy advocated by Stacie Cockrell, Cathy O’Neill and Julia Stone in Babyproofing Your Marriage: How to laugh more and argue less as your family grows (Harper, New York, 2007). You make a list of everything that needs to happen (and when they say everything, they mean EVERYTHING—even those pesky little tasks you usually forget about, like gift-buying and wrapping, keeping on top of children’s birthday party invitations and the school newsletter, and monitoring homework). Then allocate each task to someone. Of course, this may require some negotiation. If there’s something one of you particularly likes doing and the other doesn’t, it’s easy. But if both of you don’t like doing the thing, some bargaining may need to happen. Once you’ve divided and conquered, monitor how things are going and revise your lists regularly.
  2. Stick to a routine: Sometimes it feels overwhelming to get it all done. I combat that by only doing certain chores on certain days. For example, when it comes to laundry in our household, Mondays are for towels, tea towels and face washers; Tuesdays and Saturdays/Sundays are for clothes; and Saturdays are for bedding. With the cooking, on Mondays I make a meal that lasts for two nights; on Wednesdays I use the slow cooker and make something that might last for three; and on the weekends, I do simple meals, or we get takeaway.
  3. Be more efficient in the way you do the housework: Susannah Windsor Freeman likes to take this approach. So, for example, do your dinner meal prep at lunchtime; draw up a meal plan for the entire month (or have a rough one in your head!); order your groceries online and have them home delivered; make good use of your slow cooker and scale up your quantities so that one meal can be used for multiple nights; pack lunches for several family members at once (I make a sandwich for my youngest for the following day at the same time that I make sandwiches for my eldest to take to school); and hang out your laundry with clothes arranged by person so that you don’t need to sort them later.
  4. Set a timer: A friend of mine likes to take this approach: she sets her timer for 15 minutes and does what she can during that time, then leaves the rest for later.
  5. Reward yourself: Combat the boring evil drudgery by doing something nice for yourself. At the moment, I motivate myself to do housework by promising myself I can listen to podcasts; the content certainly makes the task way less dull. My mother-in-law told me she would reward herself for a job well done with a Mint Slice.
  6. Outsource: This is particularly worth doing for tasks that neither you nor your partner want to tackle. Hire a cleaner. Take your car to the car wash. Get takeaway occasionally. Pay someone to put together your IKEA furniture. When it comes to time versus money, it’s usually better to choose time.
  7. (Related to 3) Co-opt the kids: The Harvard Grant Study, which is the longest longitudinal study of humans ever conducted, found that professional success in life comes from having done chores as a kid, because you learn to see beyond yourself and take initiative. Furthermore, the earlier you start, the better! So even though it can feel easier to just do things yourself instead of nagging and nagging (and nagging), there’s value in getting your kids to help out around the home. Not only does it help you in the short-term, it really does help them in the long-run. (Not sure what your kids can handle? In The Busy Mom’s Guide to Writing, Susannah Windsor Freeman devotes a whole section to listing chores by age group.)
  8. Lower your standards: Obviously your home needs to be comfortable enough so that it doesn’t drive the inhabitants crazy. But it
    doesn’t have to look like something out of the pages of Better Homes and Gardens either. Around here, the vacuuming still gets done every week (either by me or our wonderful life-saving cleaner) because we all have dust allergies that make us more prone to illness. But I quite happily neglect the decluttering, and the mending regularly piles up in the corner.
  9. Institute a housework Sabbath: Choose one day of the week and work towards minimising the housework that happens on that day. This will probably mean getting the housework done on the other days or outsourcing, but it will be worth it because it will give you a well-deserved break.

Now that I’ve said my piece about housework, I hope to tackle the topic of making time for making art next month. Stay tuned!