Creative Prompt: Community Library

I saw these books lined up on the wall outside a house that I think is being cleared for rennovation. I was kind of in a rush and had to cross the road to get the photo but I’m glad I stopped for it. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the library that was built but never opened, that’s now been officially closed, and the murky buisness of the money behind it. This feels a bit like the opposite for me, someone has put all these books on a wall for anyone to take, no money involved.

When I walked past the next day, most of the books were gone. I like to think that they found new homes, and that even now someone may be finding inspiration in one of the stories contained in one of these books.

Sometimes an unexpected find or gift can inspire new thoughts, ideas or stories in us. If you saw a pile of books on a wall like this, would you take one? Where might that lead?

I’m not a huge fan of creative exercises, so it’s not my habit to tell people what to do with these prompts. There are lots of options – a scene, some flash fiction, a short story, an idea for a short film or a physical piece of art. If you do have a go with this one and would like to drop the result in the comments please do so. I would be very interested to see what people make of these so please do link to blog posts or comment below.

If you like the photos featured in these creative prompt posts you may be interested in my latest collection of prints and other things on Redbubble which feature a small selection of my best shots.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you like these prompts and want to get a copy of a free short book of them I wrote, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

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Ideas from science to boost your art: The restorative impact of nature

Before I started writing this blog post I took a walk in a nature park that is close to my home. I had spent the morning trying to upload my film to a website in order to submit it to some festivals (more news on that to come), and was in need of a creative reset before I started working on a different project. I frequently find that a walk in a wild place will help me think through what I want to say or do next on any number of my creative works in progress, and it has significant positive impact on my mental and physical health too. I’m not the only one who finds this, and the positive impact of being in green or blue spaces on humans has been established for some time.

This is why I wanted to discuss some of the ideas of Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in this next ‘ideas from science to boost your art’ post. I came across their book, The experience of nature: a Psychological perspective while working up a proposal for a project at work. It’s an old book, published in 1989 and doesn’t appear to be in print any more, but I was able to access it for free here.

The book outlines a theoretical perspective on how natural environments are beneficial to us, and then brings together a lot of evidence to support different parts of the theory from psychological studies that the authors and their students conducted around that time. I really liked how they described an inclusive understanding of natural environments on page 2 as “places near and far, common and unusual, managed and unkempt, big, small and in-between, where plants grow by design, or even despite it.”

I’m not actually going to write about the evidence here. This is partly because the evidence is likely to have been built upon in the thirty years since it’s publication, and should I try to update that here this would turn into a very long blog post. It’s also partly because I think the basic ideas are something that may be helpful and thought provoking to creatives and non creatives alike. Given the book is 368 pages it’s unlikely that I’ll fit everything into a thousand words or so of a blog post, and I have also simplified things because of this. If you like what you see, try giving it a read.

Humans and information

They begin by describing how human beings are highly dependent on information to function, which they hoover up from their environments through all the senses available to them. The brain is in a constant state of sorting through which information is important and requires some sort of action, and which is not. In order to do this hoovering and sorting the brain can engage in two different types of attentional processes:

  1. ‘Involuntary attention’ – the kind of focus you may have when engaging with something you already find interesting. This kind of attention is relatively low effort, and enjoyable
  2. ‘Directed attention’ – the kind of attention you have to work at. If we think about this as writers, it’s the kind of attention you may need to sustain your concentration through a difficult scene or a series of picky revisions or edits. Sustaining this kind of attention for extended periods of time can result in mental fatigue, even if this has been in the pursuit of a project that is enjoyable.

They then make the argument, which feels intuitively right to me, that in modern society we have constructed urban environments and social structures that constantly provide us with lots of interesting and distracting information, and thus there is lots of ‘sorting’ to do between the information that is just interesting, and the information that requires action. As a result we frequently engage in directed attention, which can result in mental fatigue.

Mental fatigue

For most writers and creatives, especially ones like myself who are trying to fit creative stuff in around other bits of life, I think that mental fatigue may be a familiar feeling. It is the state where someone may feel ‘worn out’ without necessarily having engaged in any physical activity. They even note that people who experience this may complain that they have not engaged in enough activity.

The consequences of mental fatigue may be familiar too. People who are mentally fatigued are more likely to commit human errors and to be aggressive, less tolerant, and less sensitive to socially important cues. So here is the explanation for that gaping plot hole that you didn’t notice first time round in that bit of the book you wrote while really tired and highly caffeinated.

Restorative environments

The bulk of the book is dedicated to building a case around why natural environments may be ‘restorative environments’, by which they mean environments that facilitate rest and recovery from mental fatigue. They cite four different characteristics that environments they consider to be ‘restorative’ have:

  1. The sense of ‘being away’ both from one’s every day concerns and responsibilities, and from noise and cluttered urban spaces
  2. The sense of being in ‘a whole other world’ in which things may look and feel quite different
  3. They are inherently fascinating, and easily engage those processes of ‘involuntary attention’ we met earlier
  4. They are compatible with the things that people like to do

The descriptions of these four types of characteristics are quite long and detailed. I’m not going to paraphrase them here as this blog will never end, and I feel like these characteristics will intuitively make sense to a lot of people. If you do want to read about the detail, the relevant sections start from page 184.

I think many of us can see how being in a natural space may fit the bill for all of the above. Being out in a green or blue space means we are away from our desks, our work places, perhaps even our caring responsibilities, and things feel quite different there. Allowing ourselves the time to pay attention to the plants and insect and other animals can feel like being in a whole other world, and is, for many people, inherently fascinating. Being in calm green places allows many of us to do things that we enjoy, like hiking, cycling or sitting near bodies of water.

Recovery from mental fatigue

The final aspect of this theory that I think is really helpful for creatives is their discussion of how being in a natural environment can help us recover from mental fatigue. They suggest this can happen at four levels:

  1. Clearing the head and allowing your mind to pack away the ‘cognitive leftovers’ from a recent task or project
  2. Recovering our abilities to engage in the processes of directed attention, i.e. our ability to concentrate
  3. The ‘soft fascination’ that is induced by exploring the plants and creatures of a place allows for a kind of cognitive quiet which may give space to think about things that are ignored, or not felt to be important on a day to day level
  4. The space for deeper reflections on one’s life , priorities, actions and goals

For me I think the most important take away from these ideas is that as a creative, the key to being productive and having good ideas is not to work on this or that project in every spare moment as western culture may sometimes suggest. Rather, those moments when we step away from our desks and out, into the garden, or away to the park are really important for our brains to be able to function when we do next sit down to work on something. Personally I found this insight really helpful as I often feel a bit guilty when I take an hour out of my ‘art day’ to walk in the park, and perhapse I don’t need to feel like that at all.

I hope you have found this blog interesting or thought provoking. If you have thoughts or comments, I would love to hear from you.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. You can read my short fantasy stories here on Simily. If you are interested in the process of creativity and want to get a copy of my free short book of creative prompts, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon page here.

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Reasons to be grateful: A quiet moment in misty London

It’s not often that I get time to myself these days. I started back at work after my maternity leave at the beginning of 2021 and things had changed quite a lot while I had been away. In response to the pandemic most of our work has gone online, so I rarely go into the office now. It will confess that the adjustment to online working hasn’t been smooth, and I still feel that a lot of my best work has happened in a face to face environment. My days are frequently filled with zoom calls, which I find awkward to navigate if there is a group, and in the absense of travel time to break up the day it seems like the number of meetings has multiplied. The end of the day often finds me exhausted.

I think home working has had a second consequence that is difficult to really quantify. My world feels smaller some how. I go out less often, and when I do go out, I do not travel as far.

So it was quite a treat a few weeks ago to actually get on a train and go into the office. When I arrived in central london the sky was heavy with mist and the top of some of the buildings were shrouded in fog. I really love this kind of weather. There is something about the suggested mystery of a building rising up into the cloud, it’s upper levels unseen, that provokes creative thoughts in me.

My train got in early enough for me to take a few minutes to stop and look around a bit, to take some photographs and have a moment of contemplation before I started my work day. Moments like these are precious now. To still be able to have them, and to appreciate them, is a reason to be grateful.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. If you are interested in the process of creativity and want to get a copy of my free short book of creative prompts, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon page here.

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The Heroine’s Journey is the narrative template we all need right now.

I’ve been sitting on this post for quite a while now, having first drafted it when I was listening to the audiobook of The Heroine’s Journey by Gail Carriger (affiliate link) back in the summer on Audible (affiliate link). I’m not really sure why I’ve held on to it for so long, other than I wasn’t quite clear on what I wanted to say. But a few weeks before the holiday season begins feels like an appropriate time to put this put there, so I’ve tried to pull those thoughts together a bit more coherently.

Anyone who has tried to write long form fiction will have heard about The Hero’s Journey, which was described by Joseph Cambell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces (affiliate link), which is a kind of narrative template that forms the backbone of many, many books and films and describes the archetypal ‘journey’ which will take a hero from the start, to the end of the story.

I had come across this template when I was completing my PhD in the psychology of stories and how they influence us, and found it an interesting and useful tool in helping to shape a story in progress. However, over time I have become increasingly troubled. I’m not going to go into the specifics of the template, as this has been done many, many times before, but the main point of the journey is that while a hero may pick up many comrades along the way, to eventually save the day he must face the major challenges alone. When he returns home, he is so deeply changed by his journey that he may not be able to find his place there again.

My main beef with this, apart from being such a poor representation of so many of the real life major human triumphs, is that is sends such a troubling message. The kind of individualism glorified by the Hero’s Journey implies that anyone who needs help, who can’t defeat their deamons on their own, is essentially weak. I’m thinking specifically through a mental health lense when I say this (I have worked in mental health research for almost ten years). This is not the first time that I have said that we need better stories about mental health, and I really think that the focus on doing it alone, or failing alone, is part of the problem here. But my thinking hasn’t got very far on how we do that. As we all know, it is easy to point out a problem, but not nearly as easy to point to a solution.

Luckily for me, Gail Carriger has written a really great book about the alternative narrative framework, The Heroine’s Journey. If you have not read it, and you are interested in telling stories that offer an alternative to the ‘going it alone’ narrative, I strongly suggest that you read (or listen to) this book.

I’m not going to do a thorough summary this complex and rich book here, as that wasn’t my intention when I wrote this post. The headline is that Carriger carefully unpicks the Hero’s Journey, and explains exactly how the Heroine’s Journey is different. The main point that I am attracted to, both for my own work and for the more general message it sends, is that strength comes from building and working with a community of like minded people. The heroine will collect together a group of trusted co-travellers, seek collaboration, compromise and peace rather than revenge, and will prioritise protecting the people she loves over the glory of a victory. Through this process the heroine will get to know each one of her co-travellers, undertand their talents, and when the time comes, give them their moment to shine.

As Carriger states, to the heroine, ‘Asking for help is not seen as a weakness, it is the very definition of her strength,’ (I’m really sorry, I don’t know the page number for this) which for me is an essentially positive message with particular relevance to mental health.

In these difficult, and isolating times, we need to move past narratives that further promote the kind of individualism that can be toxic to mental health and look to something that helps us reclaim the value that can be found in connection and in community.

The Heroine’s Journey is the narrative template we all need right now.

Thank you for reading. I also write, make art and films. If you creative prompts and want to get a copy of a free short book of them I wrote, and to hear more about my writing projects please join my mailing list here. You can see my films at my YouTube channel here. You can see things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

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2019: Thinking about Now or Never Times (Part one)

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Lots of people over the last few days have done a kind of ’round up’ of 2019 in which they talk about highlights and low lights. I didn’t actually blog for the majority of 2019, taking an unplanned break due to personal circumstances which I will explain. For that reason I don’t really have a blogging round up to do, but I do have some thoughts about 2019 I’d like to share.

What I did in 2019

In early 2019 I moved house and started my first round of IFV. Those of you who were (probably quite disappointed by now) followers of this blog will know that I had struggled with treatment for infertility for over a year before this. To be honest I did not expect it to work for me, but I was entering the final few years of my 4th decade and was very aware that it was a ‘now or never time’ for something like IVF to work, so we went for it. In May this year we became pregnant on our first go, and we have stayed pregnant. I am now seven months pregnant, my belly is large and I can feel my baby squirming about inside me through out the day, which is pretty amazing. Having managed to get pregnant, my partner and I decided to move closer to my sister, who has also had a baby this year. So we bought a house and moved again just before Christmas. It has been an eventful year.

What I actually did in 2019, instead of blogging

Since becoming pregnant I have experienced quite severe tiredness. I thought that it would be something like anxiety that got me, but actually I have been in a good place, mental health wise, for most of the year. I was also worried that something would go wrong with the pregnancy, but so far we have been very lucky. However, I have been incredibly tired throughout the whole of my pregnancy, and the IVF beforehand. So tired t that most of the year has passed in a daze. I have managed to keep up the day job, and have taken very little time off sick. However I have struggle to keep up the kind of thinking, and creative stuff I was doing, often losing many extra hours a week to napping. I have managed to write quite a chunk of my novel here and there, but it will need significant re-writes at some point. I have also been watching a lot of crime dramas in a kind of mindless daze.

It has left me feeling rather rubbish, because, apart from the amazing feeling of him moving about inside me, I cannot claim to have enjoyed this much wanted pregnancy that a team of scientists and clinicians helped me and my partner to create. I have a number of friends who have not found IFV successful for them, and so I feel very guilty about actually complaining, but let’s say I have not felt myself. Last year I was swimming 5KM swims, and at times this year I have barely made it up the stairs. I’ve not really been able to help my partner much with the logistics of moving house, again, although I was able to unpack a lot of boxes when they arrived. I don’t know if this level tiredness is normal, but I have to say if it is then frankly I don’t know how women with large families do this over and over again. Still, not long to go now, and hopefully it will all be worth it.

So that’s mostly what I’ve been doing this year: lying about, watching telly, or sleeping.

I also make art. You can things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying. If buying art is not your thing, but you would like to support what you see I also have a Patreon Page here.

Blogging – taking some down time

Things aren’t often noisy over here on Magpie, but they’ve been a bit quieter than usual. I’ve been having a bit of an emotional slump, which I think are related to the hormone injections I’ve been having as part of the fertility treatment. I’ve been quite flat. As a consequence I haven’t really had much to say. My intellectual muscles aren’t really engaged right now.

When not in work I have found myself drawn to a more physical existence. Pottering in the garden, making sure everything has had enough water in our uncharacteristically hot summer, and picking courgettes, which seem to be doing well while everything else wilts. Swimming in the Serpentine Lido. Drawing with pencils on paper. Cutting up bits of cloth (soaked in watered down glue to prevent the edges fraying) and paper into new shapes. Arranging and rearranging things so experiment with different forms and colours. Anything that I can touch with my hands, anything with texture.

The online world feels a bit more unreal than usual to me at the moment. A little less engaging than it has been in the past. I am sure it will pass and I’ll have a bit more to say. Soon.

Like what you see? I also make art. You can things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying

Objects with Meaning #21 – Birthday nail varnish

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This is a part of a series of photos of objects that have meaning to me. Want to know a little more about the origin of this project? Have a read here.

Fellow magpies, what objects have meaning for you? If you would like to join in and tell the story of your own objects with meaning have a read of this post, or post in the comments below.

Like what you see? I also make art. You can things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying.

Objects with Meaning #20 – Glam headband

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This is a part of a series of photos of objects that have meaning to me. I’ve still never worn it, 7 years later. Want to know a little more about the origin of this project? Have a read here.

Fellow magpies, what objects have meaning for you? If you would like to join in and tell the story of your own objects with meaning have a read of this post, or post in the comments below.

Like what you see? I also make art. You can things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying.

Objects with Meaning #19 – Birthday Card

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This is a part of a series of photos of objects that have meaning to me. Want to know a little more about the origin of this project? Have a read here.

Fellow magpies, what objects have meaning for you? If you would like to join in and tell the story of your own objects with meaning have a read of this post, or post in the comments below.
 

 

Like what you see? I also make art. You can things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying.

Objects with Meaning #18 – Birthday Pen

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This is a part of a series of photos of objects that have meaning to me. Want to know a little more about the origin of this project? Have a read here.

Fellow magpies, what objects have meaning for you? If you would like to join in and tell the story of your own objects with meaning have a read of this post, or post in the comments below.

 

 

Like what you see? I also make art. You can things with my designs on at my shop here. Could even treat yourself if you wanted to. Just saying.