Friday, 21 April 2017

We need to talk about Brain Waves

I’ve recently finished the first draft of my brand spanking new novel. It’s the first entirely new ‘thing’ I’ve written in a couple of years – personal reasons – and I’d forgotten the utter joy you feel when you forget about life happening around you, put a gag on your critical self, and give creativity some breathing space.

With her inner critic gagged, Violet was finally able to finish her novel.
Adjusting to my new role as a carer was not easy. Caring is all-consuming, taking up space in your mind, your heart, and your daily routine, making it difficult to focus and concentrate. Desperate to write, and yet unable to commit to anything fresh for very long, I found myself stuck in the eternal loop of editing, rewriting, editing, reinventing, editing, and so on. I was getting nowhere.

But enough was enough. This year, I had to – needed to – find the head space, heart space and time to focus on something new or else my writing career was over. Nobody wants to read a polished turd, no matter how much glitter you sprinkle on top.

So I turned to science; more specifically, neuroscience. Because I knew there was a link between slower brainwaves and increased creativity I wondered if that could help me.

Our brains contain billions of neurons that communicate with each other at various speeds for different reasons and different effects. Think of them as waves of electrical activity; some fierce and fast like a raging storm at sea, while others offer a glassy stillness full of calm and quiet. These waves affect your thoughts and moods and are linked to specific states of consciousness.

Beta brainwaves are typical in normal waking consciousness. They are relatively fast; useful when we are alert and engaged in problem-solving or decision-making, but tend towards rut-like thinking patterns which do little to support creativity. The majority of us operate in Beta, but unrelenting Beta brainwaves lead to stress, anxiety and often depression.

Alpha brainwaves are slower. They are often associated with daydreaming but can be induced in meditation, mindfulness or even exercise. They are good for creativity. I’ve used Alpha waves before, taking time to relax before writing, but in my new all-consuming role as carer, it wasn’t working for me. I’d just get twitchy and distracted by the mental list all the things I needed to do. When it came to writing, sure, the words would flow, but my heart wasn’t in it and my nagging inner critic wouldn’t shut up.

I needed something to help me concentrate, focus, and get me in THE ZONE from the get go. That’s when Theta came in.

Theta brainwaves are slower still and commonly occur during REM (dreaming) sleep and deep meditation. They are associated with visualisation, inspiration, creativity and insight. That’s what I wanted; instant inspiration, creativity and insight.

I knew that sound can affect the way a person works. I’d heard about the Mozart effect, (listening to Mozart's music may induce a short-term improvement in some mental tasks ) and I knew about brainwave entrainment, (the capacity of the brain to naturally synchronise its brainwave frequencies with the rhythm of external auditory stimuli), and I wondered if a different sound environment could help me step into a more creative mindset, even though the external circumstances in my life were ganging up against me.

I turned to the app store on my phone, and there at the top of the pile was a free download of Theta Waves. I had nothing to lose.

I listened to my Theta waves through headphones every day for an hour or more, and during that time I wrote continuously. Of course, I had a rough idea of what my story was about; I had a few scenes in my head and I knew how I wanted it to end, but the rest of the journey was an unknown to me. I didn’t stop to edit, read back what I’d already written, or play with the wording – even though the temptation was strong some days; I just wrote my story out, as if I was telling it to someone else for the first time.

Less than three months later, my brand spanking new first draft was complete and I’m feeling pretty good.

Of course, there’s still a mountain to climb ahead of me; nailing voice and characterisation; strengthening subplots, themes, and story arcs; killing a few darlings, and fine tuning, but at least I have something to work with.

For my next trick, I’ll be looking at the benefits of Gamma brainwaves, also known as The Insight Wave, supposed to increase mental activity, concentration, information processing, focus ... and hopefully, mountaineering.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Reading the last page first

Ordinarily, I don’t read the end of a book until I have read the rest. It is cheating.

Or at least, that’s what I thought, until today.

I’ve been reading a YA book and the plot is dragging a bit. I’m not crazy about it, but I’m invested enough to want to know what happens in the end. A friend of mine suggested I skip to the last page. Literally, the ONLY circumstance which would force me to read the last page (before I’ve read all the others) is when I am so bored that I just can’t be bothered. My friend, however, confessed to ALWAYS reading the last page first.

“Doesn’t it spoil the whole reading experience?” I asked.
Apparently not. He thinks it makes it better. And when I posed this question to Google, I discovered he is not alone. Lots of you read the last page first. And what’s more, studies* suggest it does make reading more enjoyable. The brain may find it easier to process a story when you know how it ends – especially if it is a complex plot – and, it seems that knowing the ending can give plot developments greater meaning or significance. You read with more awareness of the nuances and are better able to contain the emotional experience, keeping it story focused. Also, if you read the end first you know what’s coming so you lessen the chances of being disappointed by an unsatisfying ending.

I’m still not convinced. I want to be there with the protagonist, experiencing her highs and lows and I definitely don’t want to spoil the surprise.

“But hang on,” said my friend. “Just because you know how a story ends, doesn’t mean you won’t still have surprises.”

As a writer, I know this to be true. Good writing is littered with surprises of all shapes and sizes. Surprises up the ante in the plot, test our characters in new situations, they delight us with fresh sparkling prose and play with our emotions. If I read the end of the story first, will I lose all of these things?

No. Obviously not.

And what about those stories which I’ve loved and loved again, knowing not just how they end but all the twists and turns on the way there? Did knowing what was on the last page actually stop me reading them time and time again?

I guess the answer is also no. 

So maybe it’s time for a new approach to reading? Maybe I should start reading the end before I get there naturally? Not sure if I can break the habit of a lifetime, but I think I'll give it a go...

Or should I? What would you do? 

Monday, 13 March 2017

10 Reasons Why Writing is Like Juggling

1. Everybody can learn how to juggle if they want to.
2. To juggle well requires a lot of skill and patience.
3. Watching other people juggle, will help you develop your art and become a better juggler.
4. You also need to practise. Sometimes you will drop the balls and look like a complete arse, but you just have to pick them up and start again.
5. You can juggle almost anything – from raw eggs to flaming spears – but you still have to learn the basics.
6. Throwing the first ball into the air is the easy bit.
7. Catching it is the next easy bit.
8. Keeping all your balls in the air at once is when it gets really difficult.
9. Done well, juggling is a thing of beauty.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Hello Darkness My Old Friend...

I’ve started writing something new. It’s been a while since I did this. Over the past couple of years I’ve been getting to grips with being a carer, and although I did start a couple of ‘new’ things in this time, mostly I’ve been rewriting.

Now, five thousand words into my new project, I remember how easy it is to fail.

I’ve got the story very clear in my head. I’ve written notes about plot, characters, the emotional journey of my protagonist, the sub-plots, climax and resolution. I’ve mapped out a few twists and turns, and some of the scenes are really vivid in my mind. Only last night I was excited about progress and told my partner how confident I was feeling about this one...

And then today, darkness fell. It blurred my vision with stupid details that aren’t important and compelled me to rewrite scenes, adding colour, texture and pointless observations that took me off on various unhelpful tangents. Before I knew it, my brain was tangled, my vision was clouded, and I started to doubt myself.

I’m horrified.

Rewriting or editing before the first draft is complete is a mortal sin. I know this, not just because that’s what every successful author tells you, but because I have a computer full of half-finished/barely-started books that got edited too soon and dug themselves an early grave.

So, enough is enough. I’ve hung up my writer’s hat for the day and sent my critical voice on vacation. Tomorrow I shall return to first draft simplicity and to getting the story out of my head and onto paper. I’ll worry about everything else at some other point in the distant future...   
Writing may well be rewriting, but if you do it too early, you risk writing your precious prose to death.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Forgiving Myself

I often think about the irony of having written a book in which a young girl unwittingly becomes a Young Carer only to find myself some years later, as an Old Carer. It’s not something I planned – not something any Carer plans – but when my elderly dad needed to move nearby, and when his new home in sheltered housing was flooded by Hurricane Desmond, my own life went on hold.

Caring for a relative is hard. Even when you’re not actually in their presence they are never far from your mind. And because they are dependent on you, it’s hard to walk away when you need some space or a bit of your own life back. You are constantly juggling their needs with yours.

Consequently, my writing suffered. It’s hard to be creative when your emotional energy has been drained by another medical non-emergency, another shopping trip, a pile of wet laundry, that lost hearing aid, or an update on bowel movements. You can’t just turn off the crazy conversations in your head. And whilst I did manage to carve out some writing time (a couple of hours or a day here or there), my creative flow was missing and it was a real struggle to make progress.

But that was 2016.

And this is 2017. My dad’s not getting any younger, I’m still a Carer, and I need to find a way back into my writing life.

Only £7.99!
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks resurrecting a book I’d mostly written before Dad’s big move north, before Desmond, before my brain was taken up with Dad’s Alzheimer’s, and over the weekend I published it on Amazon

In Your Write Mind is a collection of therapeutic creative writing exercises. I’ve used a few of them this month and I have to say they’ve helped. They reminded me that I’m not a bad person for wanting my life back, that I can still write, and that this is just a phase in my life. It too will pass.

So I’m going to share with you one of the exercises which made me feel a little better and helped me be a little kinder to myself. Have a go, and if you like it, why not buy the book and try them all.


Exercise 5 ~ Forgive Yourself in a Letter

“Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”
Mahatma Gandhi
Forgiveness is about letting go of blame and resentment and implies a willingness to move on. When you forgive, you do not necessarily forget but research shows that forgiving a wrong may make it easier to forget. Those people who cannot or will not extend forgiving compassion to themselves risk increased stress and the possibility of serious health problems. Forgiveness, therefore, plays a key role in emotional, mental and physical well-being. [*]
One way you can help yourself to feel better about past events and behaviours is to allow the ‘past you’ and the ‘present you’ to interact, because writing to yourself is a very powerful way of acknowledging what you have learned in life and how it has helped you to be where you are now.
    • Write a letter to your younger self, beginning Dear Me.
    • If there is a specific thing you want to forgive, acknowledge this in your letter as much as you feel you need to, and tell ‘past you’ that you are happy to let this go.
    • Also tell ‘past you’ what you have achieved in your life, what you might expect to happen over the years and tell them how they got through the bad times and how they enjoyed the good times.
    • Give ‘past you’ the benefit of your ‘what you know now’ knowledge.
    • Tell ‘past you’ you forgive them and remember to send back some love.
Whatever has happened in your past, the simple fact is that you made it through; you are here today, trying to find ways to feel happier. The past is gone. You are in the present.

* There is plenty of research to back this up, for example:
a) Forgiving a Wrong May Actually Make It Easier to Forget | Saima Noreen | Association for Psychological Science,  2014
b) Forgive yourself if you want to live longer: Those lacking ‘self-compassion’ get stressed more easily and let it affect them over a longer period of time – leading to serious health problems. | Adam Withnall | The Independent, 2014
c) The New Science of Forgiveness | Everett L. Worthington, Jr. | Greater Good Science Centre | University of California, Berkeley. 2004 (