A left-brainer does poetry

Right brain

I know nothing about poetry. I never read, studied or had any interest in it. I blame my glutinous left hemisphere. And my lack of patience. To read – and appreciate – poems you need to be the type of person who stops and smells the roses.

Yet, here I am taking a short course in poetry.

Why? I don’t know why. But I’ll take a stab. A microscopic crack let a sliver of light seep through in 2017. That sliver was Rupi Kaur. A poet who became famous through instagram. I appreciate Rupi’s succinct delivery of truisms. Plus, her style was easy for my logical mind to digest. And thus a seed was sowed.

Writing poetry, though, is another matter. It started last year, with just four poems. And I have written a handful since. They’re not great. I know this. They might not even be considered poetry.

These poems spilled out organically. I later realised why. Writing in stanza offered me something that writing in prose didn’t: An easier way to express emotions. I found that charged stuff got bogged down in the many words of prose. And I wouldn’t be able to come out with what I wanted to say.

In the first week of the course, I was introduced to a definition of poetry:

Poetry is expressing the inexpressible.

The crack widens each week. Good poetry is, to put it in my teacher’s words, “distilled language”. It also needs to be “evocative, associative and allusive”. And that for a reader of poetry “the beauty of not knowing the meaning makes it alive”.

Verbs are paramount for creating distilled language. To paint this picture, we were given 12 verbs to turn into a poem as a writing prompt:

  • dancing
  • pressed
  • collapse
  • disappeared
  • order
  • worry
  • sliding
  • humming
  • playing
  • raking
  • suturing
  • cauterising

Here’s what I came up with:

Dancing in the sky
I pressed myself against clouds
they did not collapse
but I disappeared
in which order
I do not worry
sliding / humming / playing
I find myself
raking clouds
suturing not cauterising
puffs into a blanket
buffering my being
from all that is dust

I giggled while writing this. I could picture myself having a good ol’ time in the clouds, but at the same time, it does hold a philosophical meaning for me.

My right brain is chasing the tail of my left. It might just catch up yet.

Liane Moriarty and the writing process

Last Friday, making our way to Chilli India in Melbourne’s CBD for dosas, my friend Art asks me about my book idea. We had just seen Toni Jordan interview Liane Moriarty for The Wheeler Centre in a jam-packed Athenaeum Theatre.

Liane, Toni tells us as she introduces the no.1 New York Times bestselling author, is one of Australia’s most famous novelists, having sold over 14 million books worldwide. Her breakthrough book was The Husband’s Secret, and the book that first lifted Liane from the page onto TV was Big Little Lies, with actresses Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon in the lead roles. All seven of the author’s books have now been optioned for the screen.

Humbled by Liane’s gift of storytelling and ability to craft 3D characters with words, I struggle to answer Art. I mumble something about wanting to write a memoir. In reality, my book idea has no backbone. No scaffolding from which I could comfortable perch myself and shape a piece of art. But, at the same time, if I hadn’t just heard Liane speak, I might’ve quashed the idea altogether.

Toni gets into the nitty-gritty almost immediately and asks Liane about her writing process. The author tells us a story: If you had asked my husband this question a few years ago, he’d have told you that I research and plan my book chapter by chapter. This is what he had told other guests at a dinner party that I had not attended. But when he returned home and reported back on his discussion, I quickly corrected him.

But that’s not what I do at all; I’m not a planner.

Maybe you should be, so you’ll become famous – and I can get my Maserati?

Ha!

For each new book Liane’s begins, she buys a notebook. It must be pretty. Hardcover. Beautifully bound. Then she heads to a café to make some notes. But in reality, she acknowledges she needs to head home and just bang the words out on her computer. (I liken this – the notebook, the café – to a ritual. The oiling to get one going.)

While Liane isn’t a planner, it doesn’t mean, she tells us, that she is a ‘vessel through which words flow through her fingertips and onto the computer’. It’s still a struggle. When she gets stuck she goes for a walk – walking helps to unblock the writer’s block. And when she’s not writing, Liane is always thinking about her characters and how their stories will unfold. Usually, two-thirds of the book gets written before she knows how the story will end. (Hearing all this is a relief!)

Now that she’s a full-time author, Liane likes to write in three-hour blocks. Her one rule is to write at least 500 fresh words in that time – otherwise she finds herself chiselling away at what’s already written, and the story doesn’t move forward. (This hits home. Lately, I’ve taken to writing my first draft by hand in a bid to override the editor that takes over when I’m tapping away on laptop.)

Earlier in her writing career, Liane looked towards other authors’ methods for ideas. Her favourite novelist is Anne Tyler. And when she discovered that Anne uses index cards to write her books, Liane bought a pack too. But then she didn’t know what to do with them. When her one of her novelist sisters – Liane comes from a family of writers – told her she uses highlighters, Liane added those to her writing kit too. Again, she didn’t know how to use them.

Before Liane had the luxury of writing in three-hour blocks she had a full-time job in marketing and advertising with ‘a corner office’. It was here, all those years ago, that she recalls receiving a phone call from her sister Jaclyn, informing Liane that her first manuscript was just accepted for publication.

Of course, I was happy for my sister, but I was also filled with envy.

It was the proverbial kick that she needed to get started – otherwise, Liane informs us, that she might still be in advertising with no books to her name. To get a jumpstart, Liane enrolled herself into a Masters course, which required a 30,000-word thesis.

But I was a show off and wrote 100,000.

That thesis became her first book, Three Wishes, and she hasn’t looked back.

In any case – no matter how famous you are – the message is universal: just write. It is only through writing you discover your process; that you get anything written; that you improve your craft. Do whatever it takes to get you going.

Sure, come and listen to me talk, but instead of attending writers’ festivals, you should be writing.

The aspiring authors in the audience laugh sheepishly in recognition of this truth. I think I’m laughing the loudest.

Make the habit the goal

I’m constantly jotting down ideas into one of my two notebooks – whichever I can reach first before the idea fades away. But while I capture many of them, they usually remain as ideas – wonderful ideas that hold meaning for me – instead of blossoming into blog posts, articles or even a book, should I dare dream.

I know why this happens: it’s a mixture of perfectionism and impatience. I worry it may not come out perfect from the get go. Or I may start writing a piece, but I’ll constantly tinker, chiselling away each sentence, rather than be in the flow of it. In this way, I take forever to finish it, or I don’t finish at all. I carry the mental weight of “I’m no good” all the time.

I’m aware of this limiting behaviour. It frustrates me. But it’s something I know that I can change, which I am determined to. So I booked myself into a writers’ retreat to hopefully overcome this irritating pattern I have myself webbed into.

I’m on that retreat right now. And in our lesson today, we shared tactics for moving forward with our work rather than getting stumped by perfectionism. I found all ideas offered valuable, but one in particular hit home for me. It was presented as this phrase: The habit is the goal. And it was an epiphany.

By reframing goals into habits, I know I can work towards overcoming my perfectionism and fear of being no good. For example, in my world, the goal would be to create a writing habit – instead of to “win a writers’ award this year” or “get x number followers to my blog” or “get published”. With these latter goals, I am seeking external validation that my writing is good. But these are outcome-based goals, and are never in my control. Only the writing is.

So my new goal could look like writing for 30 minutes first thing in the morning three times a week. That’s it – to simply show up to my practice consistently (habit). With such a habit, I’m likely to write more, and improve and share my work – whether or not I win an award or garner a following. And that is success in itself, and something that is in my power.

Now, how could you redefine a goal so that it’s more in your control and therefore achievable?

For example, if your goal is to lose 10kg over the next six months, you could reframe it to: work my way up to exercising at least four times a week over the next six months, and then maintain it so that it becomes second nature.

Whether you lose 10kg or not (you might lose more!) is not the point. The point is that you create healthy habits so you that have a healthy body – which you will because of the autopilot nature of habits.

Whatever you want to achieve make the behaviours that will help you get there consistent – regardless of the end outcome. The outcome is simply the icing on the cake. You must bake the cake first.

___

If you’re open to it, please share in the comments below a goal that you will reframe into a habit. I would love to hear about it – and I’m sure others would too!

Lesh xx

The importance of noting your little successes

Yesterday I was deep in conversation with a friend. Let’s call him Art.

For the past 10 years, Art had lived and worked overseas, where he had created a name for himself and his indie performances. But a few months ago, he moved back to Australia to help his ailing dad.

Art is in his 40s. He had used up all his savings to invest in his projects, and now this unforeseen return home put him financially in the red.

Because he couldn’t afford outings or accommodation, Art found himself housebound and living with his parents – people who weren’t supportive of his work, and made his life difficult in the past for not conforming to their ideals of success.

But one of the main blows for Art was his projects also suffered, since he didn’t have his creative networks within reach to collaborate with, or his trusty fans to perform to.

Art was teetering on a dangerous edge, mentally.

“If I didn’t do anything about it,” he pronounced, “I knew I’d find myself spiralling into a dark, deep depression.”

Looking at At’s smiling face, I asked, “So, how did you turn things around?”

“By focusing on making each day a success and writing down every little triumph I had,” he replied.

Art doesn’t recall how he got the idea, but he says it’s what  made him get out of his funk.

By focusing on and writing down his daily, run-of-the-mill achievements, he felt worthy. Worthy enough to create, live, be who he is.

What did Art’s successes look like? “Writing,” he had recounted. “Sometimes painting, cooking, and taking a walk. The key was jotting it down.”

Art went on to get a casual job in a café – so he can afford life’s little luxuries, like enjoying a cup of coffee and eating out with a friend occasionally. He also creates his art every single day.

Hearing my friend’s story, I realised that anyone – even if their circumstances aren’t that dire – could benefit from writing down their successes daily. They don’t have to be grandiose ones either. Think caring for someone, vacuuming, fitting in some exercise, calling a friend. Heck, some days it could just be getting out of bed and having a shower.

So yesterday, at the end of the day, I took a leaf out of Art’s book and wrote down my small wins of the day:

Doing 25 minutes of yoga at home, using my favourite app.

My three-hour deep-and-meaningful chat with Art, over coffee and a nutritious bowl of goodness, all of which fed my soul.

Taking my dogs to the park, even when I was tired and didn’t feel like it (looking at their happy faces as they ran around aimlessly made me feel glad that I did).

Changing the template of my blog for a fresh start, now that the plan was to write more in 2018.

Cooking the lamb skewers we had for dinner to perfection – not chewy at all!

Reading a few pages of The Happiness Project – I have read it a couple of times, and it makes for a motivating read at the beginning of a new year.

It  was gratifying experience. It’s the little stuff, daily, that matters, that makes a life, I realised. Thank you, Art, for this invaluable life lesson.


Life is full of little victories if you choose to see them. And by writing them down, you get a boost. A pat on the back. Something we all need from time to time to keep on keeping on.

I’ll be writing my daily successes in a journal for the next few weeks to see how it makes me feel. Want to try it, too?

Lesh x