This ‘week’ involved a long holiday – a week in Vienna followed by a week with friends – so there wasn’t much time for introspection or privacy. My morning pages suffered accordingly, but I’ve been reading voraciously (albeit off my reading list, but reading is reading). I’ve been physically exhausted by the heat, mentally exhausted by translating/coping with the language barrier, and emotionally exhausted by the lack of exercise. I am surprised by how much better I feel having got away from work. I think it’s the change in routine and the relaxation of stress – much like the reading deprivation, reducing the amount of input I have to deal with is something I should be seriously looking at.
The biggest issues I’ve faced this week have been:
Making time to write my morning pages
Keeping with the weekly schedule
An improvement over last week – I managed two days! Out of six weeks, but still: two days is better than none! If I’m honest with myself, I’ve not made this a priority and not really worked at making it a habit. Next week, I’m going to make a serious effort to nailing this. The pages have been useful and, when I get to them, I enjoy writing them.
Okay, so this might have been a cheat – for my birthday, my parents bought me a Big Cat day at the Jessop’s Academy, learning how to use my DLSR. It was a fantastic experience and I’m much more confident about setting the aperture and ISO and not just resorting to some flavour of automatic. Next up: shutter speed!
The exercises were moderately easy this week but, despite my lofty announcement that “I’m doing this on my own schedule”, I feel like I’m missing out on a lot by leaving such large gaps between weeks.
I’m going to take a week of making time to write the morning pages (at any time of day!) before starting week six. Try to reinforce the foundations before building any higher.
This was the week of the reading ban. I decided to update the instructions, given that my copy of TAW was published in 1992:
No news or articles, via online or print media
No phone games
10 minutes of social media/day
The other news to come out of this week is that, via a sequence of coincidences, I have developed a new Special Interest: runes. After helping out at DragonFest at West Stow Anglo-Saxon village, I chanced upon Lauren Panepinto’s Muddy Colors articles on art and magic    and, as a result, I ended up picking up a set of rune stones and starting to read voraciously (after the reading deprivation, obviously). Between learning the the staves themselves (in all four variations), memorising the ideographic interpretations with all their nuances, learning how to write in runic (and thereby adding Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic to my ‘to learn’ list), boggling over the rune riddles, learning about runic cryptography, practising making bind-runes, and figuring out how I could use a combination of those things in my art, that’s given me quite a lot to play with. And that’s just the rune-work! Let’s not get into my decision to make a Lenormand deck and start tinkering around with sigils.
The main thing that surprised me about this exercise was that I didn’t miss reading books. For anyone who knows me, especially anyone who knew me as the kid who mastered walking, eat and even brushing their teeth while reading, that’s pretty shocking! I definitely don’t have a book-reading issue, but that’s been replaced by a phone-checking problem. I used the Leechblock plugin to curtail my browsing on a desktop and Extreme Power Saving mode to short-circuit the habit of checking apps on my phone and, although my social media use dropped off fairly easily, I was compulsively checking my messages (I decided I ought to be able to talk to people and not drop off the face of the Earth for a week, a mistake in hindsight – if I hadn’t been able to check at all, I might have found the task easier). I worried that I was setting myself up for future issues by simply adding interesting articles to Pocket to read later, but since coming off the deprivation, I simply wasn’t that interested in the articles and deleted them. Being disconnected from the world definitely improved my mental health and it’s a practice I’d like to repeat periodically.
The biggest issues I’ve faced this week have been:
Keeping to my 10 minute social media limit
Checking messenger as a substitute for reading/games
Remembering to turn on Extreme Power Saving mode
Restraining myself from buying too many books
Keeping myself focused on the projects I’m already working on
Making time to do my morning pages
A complete wash: between the 4th of July and the 23rd, I didn’t do any morning pages.
I don’t know if I did a specific artist’s date this week. Unfortunately, I wrote my checkin in stages, so I’m writing this bit nearly six weeks after I started. I can see from my planner that I made more of an effort to get out of my own head, meeting friends and working on physical, non-art projects – my rocking chair is dismantled, sanded, and ready for new springs, which I ordered this week. Interesting and tiring and fulfilling, but not ‘play’.
All in all, it’s been a big week, and discovering an interest in runes and the rekindling my lapsed spirituality gives me things to think about in Week Six, which has a stronger than usual emphasis on faith.
This chapter has been a nightmare. Not through the exercises it’s asked me to do, but for multitude of reasons, including the death of a friend, which meant that a lot of things got deprioritised.
Thinking through who I admire and why, some (most) of my choices felt superficial. I know that they were based on the public persona of famous people, but I look up to the persona, not the person. I still love Ray Bradbury’s prose, even though I disagree with some of his personal opinions, and I’m pretty sure Carrie Fisher and I would have very little in common, but – based on what I know of her – she seemed amazing.
In the last few days, I’ve also started dreaming again. Nothing that makes any sense, and nothing that I can recall in the cold light of day, but I did recall having a dream for the first time in years.
The biggest issues I’ve faced this week have been:
I’m pretty sure Quirk and Robbie are on their way out. It’s sad, but I tried my best. Apparently potting trees from the wild has a very low success rate. They might come back, once they’ve had time to recover. Only time will tell.
Real life taking priority. Everything in its own time, but it’s still a little frustrating.
I feel better for writing them, but I’m not sure they’re reaching as deeply as they need to. I definitely felt better about my bereavement after writing about it, but I think there’s more deep-seated stuff that I need to excavate and the pages aren’t touching it yet.
I honestly can’t remember what I did for this. At one point, I said I was going to learn a magic trick, but I haven’t yet. I baked, maybe? Had a lie-in?
This week dragged on so long and it’s been such a mental and emotional rollercoaster, I can’t remember most of it. I know I said working through this in my own time was fine, but I think I’ll try to pick up the pace!
This one got off to a tricky start. I didn’t re-read the chapter, and so missed out on some of the instructions, and took two weeks to complete this one. It’s okay, I’m doing this on my own and I can go at my own pace.
This chapter, Cameron talks a lot about “crazymakers” (her word, not mine). People who turn up at inopportune times and wreck your plans with utter disregard for your feelings or wellbeing. I don’t seem to have any in my life – they sound like the sort of ‘friends’ I’ve avoided or excised – so, instead of trying to disentangle myself from them, I examined my own behaviour. After all, Cameron said that such people are often blocked creative. I don’t thrive on attention – quite the opposite – and the idea of upsetting my friends genuinely concerns me. I could stand to do better (everyone could, probably), but the person I sabotage the most is myself.
The biggest issues I’ve faced this week have been:
I had a chat with my therapist about them and he thinks they’re probably useful. He also suggested only writing two of them if time was an issue. I was hesitant – I’d noticed that I start to uncover some significant thought processes around the one-and-a-half-pages mark and didn’t want to jeopardise that, but he reckons that the brain – when confronted with a finite amount of time/space – will put off doing the important work until it absolutely has to and that, by shaving a page off my writing, I’ll come to the same conclusions half a page earlier. I’ve been trying that for a few days, and it seems to be working out.
I planned to go somewhere new this week, but life intervened and I ended up gardening instead (making hay while the sun shines). It’s been a while since I gardened and, in one of those fantastic coincidences, a chance conversation has reignited my old interest in bonsai at the same time that my weeding uncovered some oak saplings that had planted themselves way too close to the house, so I’m now the caretaker of two potted oak trees.
Because I’m a shameless nerd, I’ve dubbed them Quirk and Robbie. Quirk (in the foremost pot in the photo), and is a single root ball with with four trunks; pragmatic and fmily-orientated. Robbie (in the hindmost pot) may have become detatched from Quirk while I was digging them up, but is now an independant young thing looking to establish his own identity (having given them name and personalities, their inevitable deaths as a result of my incompetence will crush me, but that’s future me’s problem).
All things considered, this was a pretty chill week. The topics of my morning pages are still varying wildly – ideas for The Story With No Name one day, musings on mortality and grief the next, and whinging about how tired I am the day after. It’s a process and I am finding it useful; the switch to two pages doesn’t seem to have affected that too much. I rated adventure and spirituality as the weakest points of my life this week, and I’ve been trying to think of ways to fill them up. Meditation has, ironically, been pushed out of my morning routine more often than not because the morning pages ran long. That said, the weather’s nice so I’m in the garden more and been trying to pay more attention to my environment during my my lunchtime walks, and I’m feeling more grounded in reality than I used to.
Having started this week with an attitude of “get it done and get to the good stuff”, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how cathartic some of the exercises have been. The artist’s date – a page from a ‘mindfulness’ colouring book – was particularly refreshing, and the exercise to write a letter to a champion led me to look up my old art teacher and find he’s still exhibiting.
The biggest issues I’ve faced this week have been:
writing the letters – short tasks are easier to fit into a busy schedule and, psychologically, ‘writing a letter’ is not a short task. When I actually got on with it, each letter was 20 minutes, tops.
actually finding all the tasks – the Core Beliefs exercise, referenced in later weeks, is hidden in the middle of the chapter and I had to go dig for it. Lesson learned for the future – re-read the chapter before diving in.
finding time to do the morning pages. Cameron says leave 30 minutes, but I’m clocking in about 50. My regular morning routine is suffering because, despite getting up earlier, I only have time to do my pages before rushing off to work. That said, they’ve led to some noticeable mood shifts, so they’re clearly unjamming something in there.
I don’t know that my pages have led me to dwell on negative thoughts – beyond how blasted tired I am – but it’s something to keep an eye on.
As far as the artist’s date activity goes, I also haven’t done anything resembling play for a very long time – a dearth of time and a surfeit of stress means all that went out of the window years ago – so I’m cribbing date ideas from Ellen Bard’s list 101 ideas to boost your creativity.
This week’s date was a page from a colouring book. I’m sure the spooky ghooosts and creepy castles were seasonally-appropriate when I bought the magazine (back in 2015) – like I said: it’s been a while since I just let myself play around. It was really quite pleasant.
And then I immediately regretted wasting an afternoon on such frivolity. Baby steps.
I’ve got a long way to go, but I’m feeling generally positive. This week wasn’t too rough, except for the damage to my morning schedule. I’m looking forward to next week.
After picking up Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations at a bookshop clearance sale, I’ve been reading up on Stoicism, and the more I read, the more I like the sound of it.
The stated aim of Stoics is to achieve tranquillity of mind, which, for a chronic worrier, sounds wonderful but utterly unachievable. But I’ll try most things once, so I’ve read a collection of Stoic texts and the lessons do seem to be of the ‘easy to practice, hard to master’ variety. I’m told there’s a lot of overlap between Stoicism and Buddhism, especially around the idea of non-attachment (I’ve never read too deeply into Buddhism, but that tallies with what little I have read), and it seems to mesh with mindfulness and meditation, which means I can build on what I’m already doing.
“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts: therefore, guard accordingly, and take care that you entertain no notions unsuitable to virtue and reasonable nature.”
Stoic values (virtues)
Navigating complex situations in a logical, calm, informed manner. Translated variously as intelligence, prudence or mindfulness, the Stoics cultivated wisdom, valuing rational thought, science, and knowing what in the world is good, what is bad, and what is neither.
“It is our attitude toward events, not events themselves, which we can control. Nothing is by its own nature calamitous — even death is terrible only if we fear it.”
Exercising self restraint and moderation in all aspects of life. Epictetus said that the worst of vices are lack of courage and lack of self-control, and mentions several times in the Enchiridon that a student of Stoicism should look to act out their virtues rather than talk about them*.
“No man is free who is not master of himself.”
Treating others with fairness, even when they’ve done wrong. Other people’s failings aren’t our concern – we don’t have any control over anyone’s thoughts or actions but our own, so we should look to being the best person we can be. People can only act according to their nature, and we can’t expect them to do otherwise. If someone’s behaviour bothers us, it’s because we expected them to act contrary to their nature; we can either try to correct them or accept that they’re the type of person who acts like that and lower our expectations accordingly.
“Humans have come into being for the sake of each other, so either teach them, or learn to bear them.”
Facing daily challenges with clarity and integrity Some of the sources I looked at described courage as being analogous to endurance, determination or even industriousness. It looks to be about having the perseverance to continue, despite minor (or major) setbacks, and to follow what you believe to be the right course of action, despite opposition or ridicule.
“Be like the rocky headland on which the waves constantly break. It stands firm, and round it the seething waters are laid to rest.”
Everything in life – friends, family, health, wealth. prestige, even life itself – is transitory and we will eventually, inevitably, lose them. By practising non-attachment, Stoics aim to prevent themselves from becoming distressed at their loss. Epictetus suggests that we think about the things we value in abstract definitions to prevent ourselves getting too attached to any one specific person or thing – I love, not my partner, but human beings in general; I am fond of, not the specific mug I use at work, but mugs as a whole; I love, not my job, but being meaningfully occupied.
Locus of control
We have control over a very small set of things in the world, namely our actions, thoughts and desires. External things, like whether people like us or if we’re going to succeed at a venture, are all beyond our control and worrying about them is an exercise in futility, because we can’t do anything about them. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare – when packing for a holiday, it’s sensible to bring some clothes suitable for wet or colder weather, instead of assuming the forecast of wall-to-wall sunshine is going to be accurate, but there’s no sense in worrying about what the weather is going to do, and even less in trying to change it. We can’t do anything about things beyond our control, but we can mitigate the risk and prepare for the worst-case scenario. For example, driving is (statistically) one of the most dangerous things I do on a daily basis, but I wear a seat belt, obey the speed limit, maintain a appropriate braking distance and check my mirrors before manoeuvring. I control the things I can, but I have to accept that everything else is out of my hands.
“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.”
I’m not sure how authentic this technique is, but it’s been recommended from a variety of sources. As you acquire more things, you become complacent about what you have and desire things you don’t have. This leads to strife and discomfort, especially if the thing you desire is something you can’t have. By imagining life without the things or people, you love refreshes your joy in what you already have, making you grateful for them and less complacent. Additionally, having practised grieving for them can help buffer you against their loss in that you won’t have so many regrets or things left unsaid.
“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly.”
Stoicism and me
On the face of it, Stoicism seems like a pretty grim outlook – regularly imagine if life was so much worse than it is, eschew nice things in order to “build character”, accept other people’s crummy behaviour as par for the course – but I’m finding it immensely helpful. I’m an anxious person, so taking a realistic look at what I can and can’t control, and then acknowledging that what I can’t control isn’t worth worrying about, is useful to me. For a long time, I was paralysed by the idea of embarrassment and failure and the fear of being thought stupid or foolish, but Stoicism has helped me to accept that what other people think of me isn’t my problem, and that’s liberating. The other thing I have long struggled with is a sense of my own mortality. The sense I’m wasting my precious, finite time – has wasted more of my time that I care to think about. While I talk about being death-positive, I don’t know that I’ve really internalised that, and I need to push through, accept that there are certain things that I can’t control (I have to work, I have to eat) and focus on the time I do have. Mindfulness should help here, and hopefully Stoicism will give me a framework to practice within.
“Life is like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.”
That said, the main area I see myself struggling in is in temperance. My self-control is very poor in certain areas (snacks and books, mostly), so that’s my primary area of focus. Snacking is easiest to establish rules around – not eating between scheduled meals, proscribing certain types of food and drink, the usual – but sticking to them is going to be harder, especially in the face of temptation.
As far as reading goes, I considered making a rule that I have to read two books for every book I buy, but tackling my to-read pile already feels like climbing the North Face of the Eiger, and I have a horrible feeling that imposing such a rule means I’ll be found crushed to death under my books in short order. Limiting myself to one new book a month would be more practical.
No shopping for non-essential things on Sundays and bank holidays
No more than one new book a month
Read at least one book a month
No fizzy pop
No deviating from the meal plan
* Epictetus did follow this by saying that a student of Stoicism should refrain from talking about their philosophy, as wanting to talk about Stoicism shows they haven’t grokked it and will only mislead the people they’re trying to teach. In that light, take what I’ve written here as my personal notes, and check the references for more information:
It takes energy to be creative, and being sick, stressed, strung out, or tired. My health has been an utter bloody shambles these last few years, but I’m solving the problems one-by-one. I won’t ever be well-well, but I’m upright and functional, with a greater appreciation of how it feels when all the wheels come off and a determination never to go back there.
Stay out of debt
Bit late for this, what with student debt and a mortgage, but (rightly or wrongly), I differentiate those debts from debts accrued by having too much month left at the end of the money. I’m fortunate to not have to worry about money right now, but I still try to live like I did when I was earning entry-level wages in a startup company in a basement, not out of some self-imposed asceticism but because I remember having to choose between dry boots, a boiler service and food, and I don’t want to go back there, either.
Keep your day job
There are several reasons to keep a day job, not just money (but the money’s important).
Routine, connection to the world and other people, and freedom to do what you want with your art. Use what you learn in your job to enhance your not-work life, and build a routine that allows you to be creative. Work gets done in the time available
Get yourself a calendar
A body of work is the accumulation of small bits of effort. A body of work is the accumulation of small bits of effort. A body of work is the accumulation of small bits of effort.
20-30minutes of work, 500 words, whatever the smallest unit of work is, every day will get me where I need to go.
Kleon proposes the X-Effect, which I know of, but need to get serious about. Today is the first day of he rest of your life and all that. Let’s go.
Keep a logbook
Look forward to future events, but also keep track of the past. Keep track of how far you’ve come.
I have a bullet journal, but I need to keep it better. I already track what I’m grateful for, but I could also ask myself “What’s the best thing that happened today?”.
A good partner supports your dreams and keeps you grounded. I reckon that this is the garbage in, garbage out of people again. Find relationships (emotional, romantic, sexual) that fulfil, sustain and support you, and ditch ones that drag you down or make you feel small. And, I would argue, you don’t even have to marry; all relationships are important and I don’t like the cultural emphasis on marriage as the be-all and end-all of emotional connections. One person can’t sustain you emotionally or intellectually.
10. Creativity is subtraction
Choose what to leave out
I often have trouble knowing my limits and, despite reading Essentialism last year, I don’t think it’s fully sunk in yet and I appear to insist on taking on a hundred projects at a time. Time for a re-read, I think. Kleon advocates using limitations to spur creativity, which is a solution to a different problem, but worth bearing in mind when the well runs dry. Working within limitations – financial, material – can bring out our most creative solutions (although ‘d say that, in my experience, chronological constraints tend not to bring out my best work). In his Ideation Lab, Sterling Hundley talks about a “three sided box”, where a concept is bounded on three sides by a deadline, physical dimensions and concept, but that constraint gives creativity room to grow. ——
Take a walk
Start a morgue file
Go to the library (do the ‘role model family tree’-thing)
Buy a notebook and use it
Get a calendar
Start a logbook
Give a copy of this book away (nice upsell; does this series count?)
Borders are no boundary, timezones no obstacle; we live in the future! The internet means that your peers can live everywhere around the world. Connect to people all around the world, do your networking online, make professional contacts through social media and build a digital Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
Solitude is good; self-imposed isolation is better. Make time to disconnect from the internet for a bit, clear some space – mentally, physically, temporally -and put it to good use.
I love isolation, although I need to improve the “without distractions” bit, but I know I can easily become isolated and need to pay attention to when I last saw my friends, left the house or had a conversation with a person.
Despite the interconnectedness of the digital age, where we live still affects the work we do. Travel broadens the mind – without new experiences, we can’t form new mental connections and go on to create new work. With freelance work, a digital (or portable) studio and an online community, the “digital nomad” lifestyle is definitely viable. I’m not sure it’s for me (I have too many books, to start with, and would struggle to part with them), but it is an option.
Kleon says that, ideally, the weather should be bad for about six months of the year, the food should be good and the company varied. And you shouldn’t stay for too long! Keep seeking out new experiences
8. Be nice (the world is a small town)
Make friends, ignore enemies
“There’s only one rule I know of: you’ve got to be kind”
I don’t think I’m the type of person to badmouth people generally, but I know I can have a temper and I know I can get riled up, and that’s the danger for me – getting into arguments and showing myself up. People are going to find that and, if I only post when I’m frustrated or argumentative, that’s what they’re going to think I’m like all the time, because they won’t have any other reference.
In short: be nice and don’t post when you’re tilted.
Stand next to the talent
Garbage in, garbage out applies to people, too. Hang out with arseholes for too long and you’re going to start to smell like an arsehole.
“Find the most talented person in the room, and if it’s not you, go stand next to him, Hang out with him. Try to be helpful.”
“If you’re the most talented person in the room, find a different room.”
“Quit picking fights and go make something”
Anger is great. It’s jet fuel, and it’s pushed me through some awful times, but it isn’t always useful and my key takeaway from this chapter is probably going to be “learn to ignore insults and let people be wrong”.
Write fan letters
Like Kleon, I wrote to my favourite artist when I was a kid and I was lucky enough to get a letter back (an illustrated letter, no less!). Public fan letters (fan art?), blog posts with links to websites, answer questions, solve problems – and don’t worry about getting a letter back.
Validation is for parking
External validation is for chumps. It either comes too late (or not at all) or it pressures you into doing more of the same, even long after you’re sick of it. Get busy, keep working, and don’t pay attention to the people who want you to do the thing they like.
Looks like there are two most important lessons from this chapter.
Keep a praise file
External validation is for chumps, but it is nice.
It’s also temporary.
There will always be dark days, and the Black Dog is only a few steps behind, so build an emotional buffer of proof that you don’t suck, that people like your work, that life isn’t always this grim.
Have a variety of projects on the go to keep from getting burned out on any one.
But also: remember to breathe. Space between projects allows ideas to percolate and give your mind time to find connections.
I already know the importance of having a hobby I’m not trying to turn into a business, and I know how rapidly I fall apart when I sacrifice leisure time for more work. My meditation practice is equally important, giving my space in the day where I can just be for a moment.
Don’t throw any of yourself away
“Keep all your passions in your life.”
If you love two or three different things, see if you can marry them together. Trying to ignore them doesn’t work
The things I’ve enjoyed most in life have always been books, drawing and animals. I’m fortunate that finding a link between those three shouldn’t be too hard!
6. Do good work and share it with people
In the beginning, obscurity is good
How do you get discovered? Wrong question. How good can I get before the pressure to perform starts to destroy my ability to play?
The not-so-secret formula
Do good work and share it with people.
Part one, do good work:
Make stuff every day.
Accept you’re going to suck, fail, and get better.
Part two, share it with people:
Put it on the internet
The secret of the internet is also simple: marvel at the world and invite others to join you. Marvel at odd, obscure things that move you, and be open about sharing your passions, and your methods, with other people. (Consider making online courses?)
We learn through teaching, and we find something to say by speaking – having a blog encourages you to write, apparently. I certainly feel obligated to write.
Share your dots, but don’t connect them
Find people who like the same things you do, and connect and share your passion with them.
Tease your audience with sketches, doodles and snippets, share tips and advice, link to interesting articles and talk about what you’re reading.
“We make art because we like art. We’re drawn to certain kinds of art because we’re inspired by the people doing that work.” If you want to see, read, hear, play it, so will others. If something disappoints you, make it better.
“Whenever you’re at a loss for what move to make, just ask yourself, ‘What would make a better story?'”
4. Use your hands
Step away from the screen
I’ve been moving to and from digital work for a while; on the one hand, the cheapness, speed and ease of setup and teardown is fantastic but, on the other, I feel less involved and less fulfilled by digital work. Working standing up helps, but I miss the smell of paint and the feel of stylus on glass is nothing like as pleasant as pencil on paper.
Kleon talks about analogue work engaging all the senses and they’re not wrong.