My grandfather spent his whole working life in an engineering workshop. He would set off in the morning on foot, return to eat the cooked lunch my grandmother had prepared, go back to work until five, return. Day after working day for about four decades.
How times have changed. Our lives are so fragmented now the boundaries between the workday and our home life are incredibly blurred. Sometimes this is convenient: many of us are our own bosses now. Many of us work from home and relish it. Sometimes, though, it’s not so great. We don’t stroll down the hill to our workplace – we stand in an overcrowded commuter train carriage. We don’t switch off from our working lives on the dot of five in the afternoon. Tasks overrun, overflow, invade our time – and, more crucially – our attention.
The more work invades, the more it pushes out other things. We do not relax. We do not take a breath and look around. We scurry, time-pressed, like mice in a maze, pressing buzzers in the hope of reward.
Recognise this? Of course, some of you may just have returned from a sunny holiday where all you did was sip coladas and read big fat airport thrillers or romances. If so, I hope you had a wonderful time! However, there can be phases in our lives where all that advice to ‘take a step back’,or ‘have a break’ just won’t cut it. Because of our responsibilities and commitments it may not be possible to take a break – or at least not when you actually need it.
So, what are you to do?
First of all, I’m not in the business of offering easy answers here. I struggle with this problem as much as you do. I’m at the end of a hectic summer and there’s absolutely no doubt about it – fuel is low in this woman’s tank. But here are some suggestions which may help you.
1. Dream. Even if you can’t have a break right now, you can still make preparations for one. Half the joy in these things lies in the anticipation anyway. Look ahead over the next few months. Is there a time where you can mark out a week or even two for a holiday? Can you start putting any money away for that? Where would you like to go? If, financially, you really can’t see yourself having that dream holiday, plan a ‘virtual’ holiday. Research it on the internet: the location, the hotels, the activities, the route you’d take. (For me, several days on the Canadian Rocky Mountaineer train, Gold Leaf service of course, would do just fine!)
2. Treat yourself. Be kind to yourself. Spoil yourself, even if all you can spare is fifteen minutes with a magazine and a chocolate bar. Or watch your favourite self-indulgent TV show. Easy to say this, of course, but the thing is to switch off properly while you allow yourself this pleasure. I know I’m prone to letting my anxious thoughts invade while I’m trying to read or watch something enjoyable – but it’s important to say ‘For this hour’, ‘For this quarter-hour’, ‘For this evening’ – I will not think about the pressure I’m under. I will shelve it for the duration I’ve specified. It doesn’t exist. (If, by the way, you’ve achieved a mini-goal before the start of the treat-time, all the better, because then you really do feel you deserve it.)
3. Be kind to yourself. I know, I just said that – but it can’t be said often enough. We are so harsh with ourselves, denying ourselves proper rest and fuel, letting the nasty inner critic chatter on inside our heads. We wear ourselves out being cruel to ourselves. Praise yourself for what you’ve achieved. Keep your promises to yourself when you say ‘I’ll have an early night’ or ‘I’ll go for that walk’. We don't ever want to be described as selfish – but sometimes you have to think of self. You live inside a vehicle, your body, which you depend upon to carry out the tasks you set yourself and fulfil those dreams you cherish. So cherish it.
4. List the benefits of the task you’re on right now. Sometimes we are so bogged down in work, endless work, that we lose perspective on it. Why are you working so hard? Yes, to earn money, probably. There are those pesky bills to pay. But is there more to it than this? Does your work give you self-respect? Will that tricky task teach you new skills? Are you constantly growing with every job you do? What, specifically, will this task enable you to do in the future?
5. Look beyond the crisis, if there is one. Sometimes you just want to lay your forehead on the table and whimper. You’re tired, you’re drained, and the pressure goes on and on. Yes, it’s tough right now but you’re a grown-up. You will get through this and there will be calmer waters beyond. Look ahead to the satisfaction you’ll feel to have got to the other side.
6. Be mindful of the present. Yes, you’ve heard about mindfulness until you’re sick of it. It’s not that easy. You’re distracted, your mind is whirring, the to-do lists are spilling off the desk onto the floor. Stop. Right now. Go to the nearest window and look out. Come back in five minutes. I’ll wait…
So, what did you see? What did you hear? Did any birds flit past? Did a little kid on a bike go down the street, legs pedalling furiously? Did you see a leaf fall or were the clouds gliding gracefully in the sky? What did you notice?
Yesterday, in my crazy rush, I paused to watch a squirrel out in the garden. It darted, paused, darted, paused, its tail flowing beautifully behind it as it nipped about from tree to tree. I realised I had actually stopped. Still. For. Five. Minutes. It did me good.
7. Write a little something. Now, before you feel a wave of pressure hit you, let me stress the word ‘little’. One of the ways to break the log-jam is to be creative on a small scale. It can be a haiku, or a diary entry, or a single sentence or an image. Can you write a sentence about that kid on his or her bike? Does that lead to your imagining where the kid was going and why? What does the bike mean to them? Were they given it? By whom? You can write a single line, with no pressure to write more, and the paradox may be that more come flowing out as your imagination lays hold of it. Give it a try. Writing a little something is a welcome escape from the Big Novel or the Big Whatever it is you’ve been struggling with for months/years. Writing a little something is both release and achievement.
You’ll notice I’ve said nothing here about drawing up schedules or anything like that. I want to focus in this newsletter on the sense of inner well-being you may have lost because to-do lists and strategies distract us with the minutiae of trying to keep up with ourselves. Take a moment, instead, to be in the now, to be kind, to get things back into some sort of perspective. As the mind-chatter fades and the waters still, you may attain a modicum of peace - and out of peace comes inspiration. Even if the peace is temporary, even if it only lasts a minute, welcome it. Ask it to return. Keep the door ajar for it to enter.
Well, that’s another newsletter I thought would be a short missive and turned out … not to be!
I’m about to follow my own advice. This week I’m racing to finish some client edits, in the aftermath of the highly-successful, totally exhausting Historical Novel Society’s Conference in Oxford. Then I’m stepping back, as of Saturday, for some very much needed rest and recuperation. That means I’ll be going offline from the 17th through to the 29th of this month. I need to stare at the squirrels for a while.
You can still send emails, but don’t expect a response until the end of the month! In the meantime, if you’d like to visit my blog, Literascribe, I’m writing posts about the HNS conference: so far I’ve discussed what Fay Weldon and Jo Baker, author of Longbourn, had to say about books set in big country houses; a panel discussion on the Next Big Thing in HF, with agent Carole Blake, publishers Nick Sayers, Jane Johnson and Simon Taylor, plus agent and bookseller David Headley of Goldsboro Books; and what Lord Melvyn Bragg had to say about the Peasants’ Revolt in relation to our current political situation. Visit here and here for these – there will be more to come!
Also, a reminder that bookings for the new Fictionfire season are open:
Three workshops – Fictional Friends; Share and Support and Building Backstory
One Simply Write Retreat
One exciting day course, taught by Julie Hearn, on writing teen fiction
Details are all on the website: www.fictionfire.co.uk
A couple of competitions worth considering, both with rather hefty entrance fees, which is a shame – but both with rather nice prizes, too.
(Very imminent!) – the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition. For unpublished women writers. Submit the first 3000 words of your novel. First prize £5ooo. Full details at www.mslexia.co.uk/novel. Closing date 19 September
The Manchester Writing Competition – poetry and fiction categories, each with a first prize of £10,000 – yes, you heard me right! Closes 23rd September. www.manchesterwritingcompetition.co.uk
Oh, and by the way (clears throat), in case you missed my announcement, I published a short collection of stories, An Oxford Vengeance, just before the HNS conference. It features my award-winning story ‘Salt’, which won the HNS London 2014 award. As I was a judge of this year’s competition, my next newsletter will feature advice on writing short stories for competitions. In the meantime, you can find out more about An Oxford Vengeance at my other website www.fictionfirepress.com and you can buy it at www.amazon.co.uk/Oxford-Vengeance-Lorna-Fergusson-ebook/dp/B01LBU3216