A kick in the behind for the creative mind

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Are you a highly creative person who constantly struggles with structure and efficiency? Who flings yourself with abandon into every shiny new thing, and then you lose track of your thoughts or lose interest once you’ve jotted down your ideas in a notebook you’ll never look at again?

If so, this blog post may not help you at all – but you already know that, don’t you? Because you’ve already poured hours of your life into an Internet drain of tips and tricks to get more organized. You’ve hoarded planners and notebooks and pens – you’ve even tried Outlook’s calendar because everyone said it was the future. Or you’ve put things into your phone with alarms attached, but when the alarm went off you still didn’t do the thing because the time was wrong, or you missed it because it wasn’t in the to-do list you were following on that particular day.

Well. I know how you feel. And I hope I’ve found a Panacea.

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This has nothing to do with the blog post, but my hands are beginning to resemble my mum’s. It’s so weird to look down at them and see HER hands!

You may not be like me (INTP, 5w4, air-and-fire chart, cold-but-sensitive, disciplined-but-lazy, razor-sharp scatterbrain), and you may not be helped by what I’m about to tell you. But I’ve had an epiphany, okay? And who has the strength to keep quiet about epiphanies? So anyway, my big Eureka moment came when I realized that it’s essential for me to play at work. To use precious time to do silly things like writing and rewriting and colour-coding things in a planner, or drawing elaborate brain-storming maps on giant pieces of paper.

And perhaps, perhaps using a bullet journal.

You see, a while ago I got a relevant ad on Facebook. I know, unicorn, right? Never happens. But it did happen. I got an ad for this blog, and I checked it out because I sensed that it would speak to me. Sure enough, it proved to be a veritable rabbit hole, and I dove in with all the death-defying grace of Evel Knievel. After a few hours of reading, I took Little Coffee Fox’s advice and decided to apply my creativity to the most boring aspects of my life. To force those boring things into my world of colour and fun.

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I did struggle for a while. The whole of September disappeared into a frenzy of trying to merge my new bullet journal system with the GTD system I’d been using so far. I read David Allen’s book a few years back and it changed my life, especially the “next task” bit which has really helped me get control over my planning. But I used to use a binder and rip out my ugly, prefab weekly spreads when I was done with them, which meant that I didn’t keep any memories from my life. It’s like I obliterated the days I’d lived every Friday, and when I came across bullet journalling, I realized I didn’t want to live like that.

Okay, it wasn’t just the bullet thing. It was also the death of a friend. I suddenly felt like oh my god, this stretch of time on Earth actually is precious and I want to remember it, savour it, live it consciously.

And here was this system that would let me do exactly that.

But integrating bullet journalling into GTD was easier said than done. Results partially demonstrated below.

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I’ve been using a binder for so long that I’ve forgotten how not to move pages around all the time. As I improvised with the new system, I had to rip pages out and glue them in where I needed them – and then redo it all again when that didn’t work either.

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Pretty, yeah? Nah. Not exactly something you’d post to Instagram to brag about your planner.

I pondered going back to my binder so many times, but there were two things that stopped me:

  1. Every so often – since I’m a total klutz – I’ll drop things. And when binders hit the floor, well… basically, papers fly, which means you can kiss your careful organization goodbye.
  2. The fucking rings! They’re in the way 24/7. You can’t write on the left side of your spread, and bullet journalling absolutely depends on The Spread. I was not going to miss out on The Spread because of the fucking rings.

So I persevered.

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Not very far into my bullet journal adventure, I realized that having pages with Random Stuff in between my weekly spreads was a no-go. Scotch tape to the rescue! But does it feel inspring to use a falling-apart planner with scotch tape all over the place?

No.

So after a few weeks of agonizing, doodling, thinking, ripping-out, glueing-in again, and taping together of pages, I finally decided to abandon my first “growing-pains” journal and migrate to – yes, I fell for it – a Leuchtturm1917. :-/

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And it actually seems to be worth it. I love the dotted grid and the prenumbered pages. I love the discipline it inspires in my hand.

I also love the slew of coloured pens I splurged on because… well, I can rationalize all I want, but I needed to say ‘fuck you’ to certain aspects of my life (dead friends and all that), so I felt like I deserved something frivolous. Also I needed to reconnect with a younger me who loved all things colourful and stationary-related (and who hadn’t met said friend yet… You want symbolism? I’ve got symbolism!).

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So yeah. I remember now. Pen and paper was my first love in life. That said, I love – no, I adore – computers and gadgets and editing software and the Internet. But now and again, I need to touch base with pen and paper in hand, with doodles and colours and the actual physicality of putting pen to paper. I need to feel the structure in the page, the way the ink flows from my fingertips.

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Sometimes I think I deserve my back pain. This is my idea of ergonomy – and always has been. No desks for me as a child. Floor or bed works fine.

It’s simple, really. A child would understand it. I’ve always known I was creative, but when life/work/accountant types have told me to suppress it, I’ve dutifully suppressed it (until the drudgery of soulless work drained me of all sense of fun and I lost the will to live).

But no more. Nowadays I follow my whims and spend time decorating my planner, thinking through the day to come with colourful pen in hand, however frivolous it may seem when I’ve got tons to do. Because sooner or later, I know I’ll check off all my duties, but since I’m inspired to do them, I’ll be much more efficient.

So when I’ve tired out my brain with reading scientific reports for two hours, I don’t force-feed it more scientific reports just because there’s still a pile to get through. Instead I turn to something else, something fun and silly and “pointless”, and I let myself do that until a new spark leads me in a more “serious” direction again – which invariably happens!

You just have to trust yourself to get back in the groove after your little outing into la la land. Because if you don’t allow yourself to play, you won’t do the other things well either.

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Funnily enough, this way of living often leads to the opposite of procrastinating: I do things that don’t need to be done in months, instead of what’s actually on my desk at the moment. But the great thing about this is that when the deadline for the future thing approaches, I’ve long since started the project and perhaps even half finished it, so I already have wind in my sails!

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To sum up, I firmly believe that if you’re creative (and I mean deeply, pathologically creative), you need to make your life creative, even the boring things. Like, sure, you can curse your way through paying your bills and cleaning your house, or you can – I dunno – put on some music and dance with the broom? You know best what will work for you, but my point is that we have a choice either to suffer through the boring stuff by closing our eyes and thinking of England, or we can make the task adapt to us instead of the other way round.

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Finally, a note on the often gorgeous spreads you see on Instagram and the like: those are the result of painstaking practice and countless mistakes. Nothing is perfect the first time – or the thousandth time. There’s always a different truth behind the scenes.

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How to experience life (abridged)

This blog post and the links in it contain advertisements for my books

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As an INTP, I’m wired to question received wisdom, and there’s one thing in particular that’s been preying on my mind lately – something that’s specific to one of my functions. It’s about Introverted Sensing (Si).

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You often hear that you should ‘experience the moment’ instead of photographing it and experiencing it later, through your photo. That you cheat yourself of, say, a holiday if you live it through your camera.

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But there’s another truth as well, one that I’ve been made aware of during this past year when I’ve truly lived life through my camera: that I live more intensely when I take photos. That I see the world differently – actually, that I see the world full stop. Things I would ignore if I didn’t take photos of them. Things I would miss if I didn’t search a scene for a subject. Wonderful places I would leave early because I would be bored with them if I didn’t try to create something of my own out of the atmosphere in them.

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I’m a restless person, and I’m not much for sitting in the sun and just feeling the warmth on my face, or just looking at pretty views without doing anything. But with a camera in my hand, I’ve got a project. I document and transform, I convey an impression. I engage with my surroundings, I melt into them rather than distance myself.

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I think this is because of Si. A Se user (Extroverted Sensing) can experience the world more directly. They can take in what’s around them without trouble. But at least for me, Si needs time to digest. I don’t realise that a ball is whizzing towards me until a split second too late. Likewise, I can’t fully be in the moment when something wonderful happens. There’s always a kind of delay, so that the memory of it is almost more palpable than the experience itself.

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The camera changes that. It gives me the key to Nirvana, and I think it’s because I’m engaging Extraverted Intuition (Ne) as well as Si. Ne helps me ‘get at’ reality by exploring it and trying to create something new out of the familiar. It brings me out of my thinking shell and lets my hand pass through the veil and touch the Now. By making something, I exist in the moment.

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I always need to create in order to live. If I can’t see the creative use of a thing, I’m not interested. I loved Shakespeare for years without caring about the particulars of his life, but then I suddenly decided to write a book about him, and then there was no end to the ‘facts’ I devoured in order to be able to pull it off. So now I know that his neighbours Hamnet and Judith Butler lost a string of children, that Shakespeare’s parents had a legal dispute over a piece of property with his aunt and her husband, and that his childhood ‘friend’ Dick Field signed a petition to stop him and his company from converting a building in Blackfriars into a theatre.

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Talk about trivia. And the only reason I learned those things and not, say, the capital of Albania, is that I had an immediate use for it. The day I write a novel set in Albania, I will learn the name of the tiniest village if the story needs it.

And, um… well, true to my explorative auxiliary function, I’ve now strayed from my original statement about Si to the nebulosity of Ne, and I’m struggling to tie this text together with a catchy summary. But maybe I should just let it stand like this: unfinished, left hanging, with possibilities sticking out of it like stray hairs. It’s not wrong or sloppy or pointless. It’s just another way of being.

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The need to explore

One of my favourite sources for information on the MBTI is personalityhacker, and they’ve dubbed my auxiliary function as an INTP ‘exploration’. It’s what makes you want to discover new things and go where no one has ever gone before.

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As a child on holiday I always wanted to leave the main road and potter along tiny cobbled streets to find out where they led. I think I realised that they didn’t lead anywhere special – other than a park or a pocket restaurant or something – but I just wanted to feel like I was on an adventure.

And according to personalityhacker, that was a good instinct. All types benefit from developing their auxiliary function, even though it may feel like a chore at times. It’s often easier to fall back on your tertiary function – in my case introverted sensing, which stands for memory and routine and safety – than make the effort to grow.

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In the case of INTPs and INFPs, the auxiliary function to develop is extraverted intuition. These types become happiest if they try to discover new things and break old habits, tasting new food and seeing new places. In fact I tend to do this to a fault when I’m in a new town: every time I’ve moved somewhere new, I’ve spent one or two of my first days getting lost almost on purpose, because I’ve relied on my non-existent sense of direction to take me where I want. And maybe that has been a good thing. You never know what you’ll find when you take the road less travelled.

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The more I learn about the MBTI and my auxiliary extraverted intuition, the more I understand past experiences. For example I remember being really happy when hubby and I went to Santorini. I was in a rut at the time. I had this feeling that nothing in my life would ever change much. But then I looked out of the airplane window and saw those beautiful, alien (to me) houses, and hope was kindled – just because I saw something different, something I didn’t already know.

To quote my WIP set on that very island:

I haven’t dared believe it until now, but as I gaze out of the window, there’s only the sapphire sea all around. Not an island in sight. It actually looks as if we’re going to land on the water.

But then the plane veers right, and a startling sight comes into view: a monster of a mountain, towering above a small, dark grey beach. As the first few houses appear, I feel a welcome pang of happiness. This is something new. Something I’ve never seen before. Just what I need to get me out of the depressive coma I’ve been buried in for half a year. Nothing has been able to touch me, but now the sight of those houses – so different from the timbered cottages at home – gives me hope somehow.

Because this was why I went here in the first place.

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Extraverted intuition is also at the heart of my photography: it’s a way to discover new ways of looking at the same old things. I want to change my perspective, to see past the dullness of the everyday. I want to see everything shrouded in light. I want to see the tiny things that are so easy to miss.

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If you are an INTP or an INFP, you too can benefit from using your Ne. Sure, it takes effort to get out of that rut, but there are rewards – especially when it feels like the last thing you want to do. And you don’t need to invent the wheel – it can be as simple as walking a new path in a known forest.

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Fourteen years and counting

This post and some of the links in it contain advertisements for my books.

The fourth of July means a lot to some people, and I’m one of them. Because July 4, 2003 was when I met my nemesis – no, sorry, love of my life!

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Now I’m a complete romantic fool. Maybe that’s why I write romance books. But my idea of romance isn’t always that… uh, romantic.

You see, I’m an INTP, which is a personality type according to the Myers-Briggs typology system (if you’re unfamiliar with the MBTI, this is an awesome site for information on it). Anyway, INTPs tend to be unsentimental about things, or at least that’s the stereotype. Think Sheldon in Big Bang Theory (or so I’m told, I don’t watch it). INTPs love ideas and finding out how things work and logic and systems. Flowers and champagne? Not so much.

Yet here we are.

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Chin-chin!

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So what gives? How can this purple prose Angst Queen who photographs backlit flowers profess to be an INTP? Well, because the stereotype is a, how shall I put it? Stereotype. Yes, INTPs love systems and ideas, but that doesn’t mean they’re all mathematical geniuses. Ask my primary school teacher what my math book looked like. We had a meeting about it.

Because this particular INTP (pictured above with romantic interest, flowers, and champagne) is interested in human systems. Language. Psychology. Sociology. Physiology. The hard sciences are meh, but anything that helps me figure out what the hell makes people tick? Count me in.

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(Last Communion)

You can see this again and again – in a romantic context – in my books. In All You Can Eat, I explore not only the psychology behind eating disorders, but also the way we sometimes try to scare off people before we let them in: the old princess-guarded-by-a-dragon-of-her-own-making mechanism.

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In Not Safe For Work, the hurdle to overcome is other people’s expectations and not being allowed to make your own decisions because the script has already been written by other people. A mindfuck I really enjoyed torturing my poor boys with – especially because of the added breathless stress of having that script spreading like wildfire across social media!

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In Rival Poet, I go full INTP and have my protagonists find each other through their writing. Sometimes you can hardly separate their creative collaboration from their lovemaking – because that’s what makes it romantic from my point of view: working towards a common goal, admiring and enjoying each other’s talent and intelligence.

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The same goes for the Pax series, where play-writing is replaced with musicianship. During the long and arduous periods where Jamie and Michael are unable to talk to each other about their feelings, their music talks for them.

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So I guess this all sums up my view of romance. I’m a sucker for one-to-one-ness, for the concept of soulmates and the one person who understands and appreciates you. But I don’t have my characters yell “I love you, honey” at every possible moment, and I don’t think any of them has bought the other flowers or chocolate. The closest I ever get to a Hollywood moment is this type of confession from Rival Poet:

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!

When Kit spoke, his voice was the mere wisp of a sound. “You’re going to hate this,” he prefaced. “Or laugh at me. But…” He stopped to breathe, to gather his courage. “I’m in love with you, Will.”

Will froze. Stared into those hypnotising eyes, that unique golden colour. In love? His whole upbringing rebelled against the words. They didn’t make sense. Loving someone was one thing, but being in love… that was just possible when one of the two was a woman.

Only… when Kit said it, it did make sense. In the secrecy of this room, in the greyness of predawn, with just the two of them present to hear it, it made perfect sense.

Will breathed in. “If it’s something you can be,” he replied slowly, “Then… I am too.”

Well. I guess that is kind of mushy. But if you’re not allowed to be mushy about the kiss at the end of the rainbow, then what other opportunities are there really?

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The Ne knockout

I don’t know what it’s like for other INTPs, but my extraverted intuition really doesn’t need much prompting to go off on a creative spree. Today I decided to just lie down and read since I have a bad case of lumbago (too much photography in cold weather?). Well, I managed three pages before I was hit by the Ne lightning and scampered off to the computer to cram a whole truckload of ideas into my article – ideas that were mostly unrelated to the book I was reading.

I mean… this is Ne, right? Like the erratic spangles on a river, glinting here and there, almost too fast to catch. And if you don’t snap that shot, they’re gone forever.

 

The trouble with focus

It seems like some kind of cosmic joke that I have trouble focusing with my new camera. I mean, it’s metaphorical enough to be a theme in a book of mine! (Actually, maybe I’ll use it. Maybe for the Midsummer story.)

I’ve been googling and also reading the old-fashioned way, so I know sharpness in images comes down to shutter speed, aperture, ISO, movement and, well, focus, and I’ve identified a few areas that need work. But ridiculously enough, the hardest one to master is the goddamn focus.

I adjust it to where I’m planning to stand (if it’s a self portrait) and then switch to manual, and then I position myself where I focused… and yet I turn out as fuzzy as I feel.

Because that’s just it: I have trouble focusing. In my life, in my writing, in my PhD. I jump from idea to idea, and the grass not only always greener, it pops out at me before I’ve even had a taste this side of the fence, which means I never get any grass at all. It doesn’t matter if my glass is full or not, because I’m already looking at something else and will never drink it.

This is the curse of extraverted intuition. But it’s also an absolute joy. I wouldn’t trade my Ne for anything. It’s what keeps me interested in life, writing – and yes, occasionally, the PhD. It’s how I can take two wildly different ideas and merge them to create a connection that wasn’t there before. It’s the basis for my sense of humour. It’s my childish excitement about everything that’s bright and shiny.

But what it lacks is focus. To harness all that wide-eyed wonder, I have to use other functions. I have to force Ne into submission for the half minute or so it takes to snap that self portrait. Because without focus, everything that Ne loves just peters out and disappears.

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Trying to get some focus.