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Trying to write during a pandemic

Attempting to create art at any time is an audacious and difficult act. Attempting to do it during a pandemic can be near impossible.

When I realised that COVID-19 was serious enough to warrant keeping our children home from school, part of me was also deeply in denial. I knew that home learning in combination with my part-time job would completely decimate my writing time. It had taken a while, but I had finally reached the stage where I had managed to confine my paid working hours to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, thereby leaving Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday mornings free to focus on the writing. (I would average about 8-14 hours per week.) I had grown accustomed to spending many a happy hour sitting in one of my local cafés, the library or even the food court near my gym, plugging away at my current work in progress—a young adult fantasy novel set in a world that roughly resembled Edo-era Japan. I viewed writing as being my part-time unpaid job, and even though no one in particular was awaiting this manuscript and even though it may not end up being very publishable (because the one book has since turned into two and publishers are less likely to pick up series these days), I liked what I was doing and wanted to see it to completion.

I spent that last day before home learning began out on our balcony, ignoring my paid job and defiantly scribbling because I knew I would not get the opportunity to do that for a long while.

Then when shutdown measures were put in place and our girls were home with us all the time, life changed completely. It took a while to get used to the new normal, but eventually it started looking like this:

  • Waking up later than usual and having my breakfast (one nice thing about the pandemic is being able to sleep in a little; I am thankful I have kids who will do this);
  • Getting the girls up, dressed and breakfasted; supervising home learning for both Miss 9 and Miss 6 using the schedule the teachers send through at the beginning of the week (it consists of a weekly timetable filled with tasks—mainly English and Maths, but occasionally there are activities related to Science, History, Health, Art, Library and [guh] PE. [I never thought parenting would involve teaching my child the Macarena and the Nutbush]). On a good day, I will spend most of my time supervising Miss 6 while Miss 9 just gets on with it; on a bad day, I will be on both their cases to try and get them to do the work. On a great day, I will even be able to get a few work-related tasks done at the same time. We are fortunate to have enough devices for this: Ben and I never got rid of our old laptops, so the girls have one each for their school work and occasional Zoom meetings;
  • Breaking for lunch: I pack four days’ worth of lunches at the beginning of the week so all the girls need to do is take their lunchbox out of the fridge. But I still need to prepare lunch for me and Ben. Most days it’s a salad of some description. On Fridays, we get takeaway from our local café as a way of supporting them and keeping them in business;
  • Making the girls do a bit of tidying and chores. In the early days, we worked on decluttering and tidying their rooms as the build-up had gotten a bit out of hand. These days, it’s more surface cleaning. Or sometimes I will get them to make a card to post to someone (e.g. if there’s a family birthday coming up) or finish some colouring in they started that they refuse to part with. This is also when I am able to squeeze in some housework;
  • Letting the girls have screen time: at the moment, they are completely addicted to Minecraft Education, so I log Miss 9 back into the laptop she uses for home learning and I log Miss 6 onto the iPad. The nice thing is they can play together in their virtual worlds. Occasionally they even get together with other school friends and play. They also never seem to get tired of it!
  • Working on tasks related to my paid job. Now that I’m finally doing just one job instead of two and I have a very lovely employer who is happy for me to work flexibly and who has always allowed me to work from home, I tend to spread my hours across five or six days a week. I also have some time in lieu I can use if need be;
  • My husband taking the girls out for some exercise at around 4pm. This is when I drop everything and write;
  • Throwing dinner together;
  • Squeezing in another hour or so of work after dinner while my husband does the dishes, bath and bedtime (though sometimes this time is also devoted to housework);
  • Spending my evenings after the girls are in bed either watching Netflix, reading, doing more work for the paid job (if need be), catching up with someone over the phone, online Bible Study, etc.
Hallway PE lesson

Hallway PE lesson.

Given I no longer have large swathes of creative time, I’ve found that there’s certain types of writing that I’m just incapable of doing right now. I can’t write new stuff. I can’t even re-draft what I’ve already written because I don’t have the brain capacity. Instead, my writing has consisted of scribbling longhand in a journal about things to do with my novel. It’s not quite a zero draft (though aspects of it are); I think of it being more like a subzero draft. It’s not the prose that will go into the novel; it’s writing around the novel to do with things about the novel.

Initially I wrote about the section I was up to and the section after, trying to work out what happens in it and why. Lately, though, I’ve started sketching out the arcs for each of my point of view characters—trying to work out where the plot twists and turns, as well as some of the finer details around that. Sometimes the sketching takes me off on research tangents. (I spent a very long time looking into Japanese arrows and how they’re made one afternoon.) Sometimes the scribbling is about minor characters I’m trying to get to know. The rule is that I must write about the novel, but I can write about anything I want related to it.

An old me would not have seen the value of this sort of writing because it doesn’t seem like actual writing (even though I am averaging 5-6 hours a week on it). And then a couple of years ago when I was at ACAF (Australian Comic Arts Festival), I was talking to my friend Louie about it and he compared it to that stage of comics when you’re thumbnailing/sketching roughs. He said something about how when you’re doing that, it can seem like you’re not doing much, because usually you’re just messing around and trying things. But often you end up making very key decisions that carry over into later stages of the work—when you’re pencilling/inking/colouring, etc.

That little comment stayed with me because I realised he’s totally right and that it’s true of prose writing too: as I’ve been playing around and giving myself permission to write whatever (even if it’s a grammatical and spelling nightmare, and it sounds completely incoherent), I have been making key decisions about story and characters that I know will carry across into the finished work. What I’m doing isn’t a waste of time; it’s actually constructive and helfpul. Furthermore, it’s even fun.

And when it’s fun, it’s a very nice escape from the current situation. (Indeed, one of the good things about writing a fantasy novel is being able to slip away into a different pandemic-free world.) And that’s very good for sustaining my mental health—at least until the time when I will finally have my writing days back again.

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Confessions of an exercise hater

(I’m dumping this here because I’m not sure where else to put it. It’s too long and too complicated for a Facebook post and part of me hopes (faintly) that it might be useful to someone else.)

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss my gym.

I’m not a gym rat and never have been. In fact, I hate exercise. (Though I suppose I can’t say that anymore, given I’ve been going to the gym pretty much three times a week for the past couple of years.)

Exercise and I first made our acquaintance during school PE (Physical Education). I like to think that if exercise was a person, the dislike was mutual. It involved running pointless laps of the local park, gymnastics on my high school’s antiquated equipment, teeball games where I was too uncoordinated to knock the ball off the tee, and soccer on the uneven hockey field in teams for which I was always picked last.

I had good reason to hate exercise.

But some years ago when The Biggest Loser became a television phenomenon, some of my friends started getting into a Jillian Michaels routine called No More Trouble Zones and I became so curious over what the fuss was about, I asked to borrow it. Another friend suggested we do it together, so for a time, exercise became going to her place one night a week, doing the routine in her lounge room while chatting and making fun of Jillian’s Jillian-isms.

This friend held me accountable so that even if we didn’t meet up, we would do it separately in our own homes—perhaps not on the same night, but at least on one of them.

Jillian Michaels No More Troubel Zones DVD cover

The routine goes for an hour and consists of a cardio warm-up, seven circuits of five exercises each (which you go through twice), and a cool-down. All the circuits involve strength training. The first time I did it, I had trouble sitting down the following day, and I was in so much pain, I wondered why people voluntarily subject themselves to this sort of torture. But subject myself I did—once a week pretty much every week for about three years.

Then I got pregnant again. Unfortunately for me, pregnancy means Symphysis Pubis Dysfunction (SPD) (that’s when the hormones in your body that loosen things up for birth go too far). I managed to keep going for part of the first trimester, but then eventually had to stop because I was in too much pain. By the final trimester, during waking hours, I had to wear a band around my hips to keep myself together and I was barely leaving home (or at least restricting my comings and goings to just once a day).

After the birth, however, I tried to get back on that exercise horse—very reluctantly, I might add. I still hated exercise, but I could see the value in doing it—all that stuff about how it’s good for your body, good for your mental health, good for your sleep, good for life expectancy, etc etc blah blah blah. I also missed the strength that doing Jillian had given me—strength that had accumulated slowly over time as I went through the chair squats, scissor kicks and side planks. “Once a week,” I thought. “I can manage once a week. I’ve done it before.”

That worked fine for as long as the little one was little. But soon enough, she became mobile, and being confined to a play pen or a high chair was becoming more frustrating for her. When I let her out, even though I tried to distract her with food for morning tea during my exercise time, more often than not, she would come up to me while I was doing the floor exercises and try and climb on me.

“This is not sustainable,” I thought under five kilos of baby toddler. “I’m going to have to join a gym.” But I’d never joined a gym in my life. I instinctively thought I’d hate them.

After procrastinating for several months, I decided to check out one that another friend (who had since moved out of the area) used to frequent. This friend had given me some coupons ages back that had since expired. The things this gym had going for it were 1. it was women-only (i.e. no stinky guys!) and 2. it had a crèche. It took me another couple of weeks after to deciding to actually make the call, but eventually I booked a visit, was given a tour of the facilities and signed up to be a member on the lowest tier that allowed me one visit per week.

I used that visit to attend a Pilates with props class on a Wednesday morning. The baby and I would drop the preschooler off at preschool, kill time at the park or at the mall, and then head to the gym, where she would go off to crèche and I would go to class. Inevitably I’d be called out to do a nappy change (for a while, the little one’s bowel movements were like clockwork). But at least I was doing some exercise. And it was Pilates—the sort of exercise you do when you’re lying down! (which I had done before for a couple of terms in hall of the local school)—and it was with a teacher I liked.

Time passed. Once a week was working pretty well, but I was also becoming more concerned about my weight, which had ballooned a bit for various boring reasons I won’t go into (but of course, my lack of movement was probably one of the factors). I loved Pilates, but felt like I needed to do a bit more. I had tried other classes at the gym—spin (that was the first class I had tried. Never. Again), weights (I liked that one a bit better), even aerobics to cool 80s music (I liked that one, but the class disappeared due to lack of numbers). I felt a bit constricted by the class timetable and wanted to figure out if I could do something more self-directed that would allow me to come at any time. I decided to spend some money and booked a session with a personal trainer at the gym, who weighed and measured me, and then put together a routine for me to use on the machines (which she had to teach me how to use). I also upped my gym membership to the standard rate, which gave me unlimited access. (What’s amazing is that since then, the rate has never gone up, and that was probably about five years ago.) Then, on the advice of that personal trainer, I aimed to go three times a week.

But self-direction only gets you too far: “I don’t like those machines at the gym,” says Jillian on her DVD, and I eventually got bored with them, even while listening to podcasts. I still hated exercise, but I found I hated it less when certain conditions were met—

  1. Doing it with other people (because I like sharing the pain and because I need an instructor to push me and to encourage me to persevere for that last little hard bit);
  2. Moving in sync to music (which is what we do in weights and, at the time under a certain instructor who I still miss, happened in Pilates too);
  3. Moving in sync with other people (which does have psychological benefits—see Daniel Pink on synchronisation:

    … when we do things collectively, especially in the synchronised in time setting, we literally feel different. So there’s research showing—so I put you—have you row in a single shell, boat, right, and you can measure basically the physics of how much you’re exerting yourself rowing. Then I can put you into a boat with other people. We can measure your individual exertion there and it can be exactly the same, but when we measure your pain levels, you’re feeling less pain when you do it with other people than when you do it on your own … There’s something almost—I hate to use the word ‘magical’, but there’s something powerful about when we synchronise with other people.”).

(Strangely I never developed a liking for Zumba—probably because I am too uncoordinated for it; the instructor says to go left and I go right.)

Women doing Pilates in the park

All this meant doing classes—which also meant arranging my life around doing the classes. So I did weights on Monday morning (or if I missed that one, Tuesday morning), Pilates on Thursday morning and weights again on Saturday morning. If I had to miss certain classes due to other things, I knew exactly when I could make them up. Or I’d do two back to back (not ideal—particularly if you’re going from Pilates to weights, instead of weights to Pilates, but at least you get the time in).

Something else that helped: a friend recommended magnesium tablets for the muscle soreness and they helped me a lot; the morning after classes, I no longer felt like I had been run over by a truck.

Also, after a while of doing this and not seeing much change in my weight and feeling fed up with comments about it, I talked to a GP and she suggested cutting carbs out of one meal a day. So I switched to salads and soups for lunch, and then the needle on the scale finally started moving.

I lost close to 8kg in about a year/18 months. (I wasn’t keeping close track because that wasn’t helpful for my mental health, but I know it was around that.) I also got stronger, adding more weight to my bar every couple of months. Before my gym closed in March this year due to COVID-19, I was managing 22.5kg on the leg track, 12.5-15kg for chest, 12.5kg for triceps and 10kg for biceps. (I know that’s not much compared to what other people can do, but it’s more than the majority of the women in my class.)

I miss my gym. I miss my classes. I miss the regulars I’d see at those classes—awesome women usually older than me who were all in terrific shape. For a short time when we were allowed to gather in groups of 10, the gym organised classes in the park. But now that they can’t do even that, they’ve switched to online instruction via Zoom on a timetable that doesn’t work for me.

Since social distancing began, I’ve tried to keep up the hated exercise. I’ve been going for walks—with the family and without them. I’ve mapped a route around my neighbourhood that takes up almost exactly half an hour.

But I knew it’s not quite enough. I knew I wasn’t working some of those muscles I became accustomed to using during weights and Pilates. I hated the fact that the strength I’d built up for the past however many years was fast disappearing—even if, a friend consoled me, I’d be able to build it back up again.

I knew I had to do something.

But it’s tricky. We (four us) live in a shoebox. The space I have to exercise in is less than 2m x 1m (see the photo at the top of this post). I could go down to the park, but I feel weird exercising in front of other people when it’s just me, doing it alone. Given the shape of life at the moment, it’s difficult to do exercise with other people, even if I could tee it up. Also, there’s my continual battle with motivation: I may love my gym, but I still hate exercise.

Street art in my local neighbourhood

“Necessity is the mother of invention”, as they say. I remembered vaguely that there had been a NPR Life Kit episode on exercise that I had listened to sometime last year (transcript). It had detailed a 22-minute exercise program recommended by the man who trains US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It consists of:

  • 10 minutes of cardio (broken up into two five-minute segments);
  • 8 minutes of strength training;
  • 4 minutes of stretching.

(It’s 22 minutes long because the recommended amount of exercise for adults is 150 minutes per week, so 150 minutes divided by 7 days = about 22 minutes.)

My problem with that and similar workouts (like this seven-minute one on the Science Versus podcast, and even this NPR Life Kit episode on how to start running) is boredom: I knew I would probably do the routine once—maybe even twice—but then lose motivation and never do it again.

So I decided to hack it.

Given my above conditions for exercise and given that 1 (doing it with other people) and 3 (moving in sync with other people) weren’t going to be possible, that just left 2: moving in sync with music. So I decided to choose music that I’d actually want to move to for each section of the workout and try to tailor the routine to that. So I started making lists—lists of songs that would work well for cardio (i.e. high tempo), for strength training (i.e. slightly lower tempo) and for stretching (slow songs worked best for this).

Then I went through Jillian Michael’s No More Trouble Zones routine, wrote down all the exercises for each circuit and picked out ones that would work for each section of the 22-minute workout that could also be done in a small space.

It took a few goes to get the mix right, but I think I’ve done it now. So here goes: I present to you The Exercise Hater’s Home Workout Routine that Can Be Done in a Very Small Space.

You do all the exercises in time to the music with the general rule being that when the music changes, you change what you’re doing. It’s a bit longer than 22 minutes (it’s 28), but that’s also because the strength exercises go for about 11.5 minutes and the stretching time is doubled.

Here’s how it works:

1. Warm-up/cardio 1: “Kill vs. maim” (Grimes)

Exercises (cycle between them):

  • Marching in place
  • Jump rope
  • Star jumps/jumping jacks
  • Running on the spot (but try to kick your butt with your heels).

2. Strength training 1: “Graffiti” (CHVRCHES)

Exercises:

  • Slow standard squats (do this during the verse and the first part of the chorus; try and get your bottom to the floor each time)
  • Low squats with isometric hold or pulses (do this during the pre-chorus—when Lauren Mayberry sings, “Time to kill was always an illusion …”—and also during the final bit of the chorus where she sings, “And now we never will, never will”.)
  • Forward lunges (start these at the bridge; try and get your knee to the floor)
  • Backward lunges (ditto).

3. Strength training 2: “All you need to know” (Gryffin and Slander)

(This is one they used to play at the gym during weights class—possibly for the tricep section.)

(This is the hardest track.)

Exercises:

  • Wide arm push-ups (which work your chest; start on your toes and switch to your knees when you can’t stand it anymore)
  • Pilates push-ups (which work your triceps because your arms are closer to your body; start on your toes and switch to your knees as above).

Do wide arm push-ups for the first and second verse, then bring your hands to your feet using Downward Dog and roll up through your spine. Roll down again and walk your hands out again to do the Pilates push-ups for the chorus (where he sings, “I’ll lift you when you’re feeling low …”).

  • Recovery: child’s pose during the instrumental part of the chorus (“And that’s all you need to know”)
  • Third verse: lie on your front with your hands by your sides, pointing towards your toes. Rotate your arms from your shoulder joint so that your palms face the ceiling. Rotate them back again so they face the floor. If you’re doing it properly, you’ll feel it in your triceps and you will want to die.
  • Last chorus: do the above, but hold your upper body and your legs off the floor as if doing Superman.

Cardio 2: “Gimme sympathy” (Metric)

The exercises are the same as for the first cardio track as it’s a little hard to do more than that in such a small space. (But feel free to substitute your own.)

DO NOT STOP MOVING.

Strength training 3: “Unstoppable” (TobyMac—Phenomenon Remix By Soul Glow Activatur/Audio)

(This is another track from weights class, but I forget what we used to do to it. I have a vague memory of doing push-ups to the opening bars.)

  • Slow double crunches (during verses and pre-chorus)
  • Bicycle crunches (during the chorus—“We are, we are”—and the rap section)
  • Recovery: child’s pose during the rap section (“We keep it movin’”).
  • Plank pose with toe taps (during the third chorus)
  • Plank pose with leg lifts (during the bridge: “There’s no disguisin’, truth is risin’”)
  • Plank pose with toe taps (final chorus to the end).

Stretching: “Like a star” (Corinne Bailey Rae) and “Finish what we started” (Jessie Ware)

“CONGRATULATIONS! You made it! It’s all easy peasy from here,” as Jillian Michaels used to say.

This is how I like to stretch:

  • Pigeon pose (both legs)
  • Froggy (but often I don’t have enough space)
  • Hamstrings while lying on my back
  • Glutes (opposite leg over opposite knee and pull through)
  • Child’s pose
  • Calf stretch
  • Shoulder stretch (can be done while also stretching calves)
  • Side bends
  • Tricep stretch
  • Shoulder rolls (forward and backwards).

I also like to hold the stretches for a LONG time—mostly because one of my instructors said that 30 seconds is the recommended length because after that long, your body settles into it.

For anyone who wants to try it out, I put the playlist up on YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music.

I’ve made it my aim to do it about every other day and go for a walk on the alternate days. It can be hard summoning up the motivation to do it, and certainly I have no shortage of procrastination on the days when I feel I should make myself do it. But I haven’t got bored with the routine yet. (And if I do, I figure I’ll just change the music around.)

In case, you’re wondering, it does work: I’ve got the muscle soreness to prove it. It’s not as good as my old weights and Pilates classes. However it will do for now. And hopefully one day when I am able to return to my beloved gym, I won’t end up in a ridiculous amount of pain after that first return visit simply because I haven’t been doing anything—which, you know, is really the purpose of all this.

(Yes, my goal is not to keep fit or lose weight or build my strength; it’s to avoid pain when I return to the gym!)

(Did I mention I hate exercse?)

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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.

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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.