December, 2014

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Run, don’t walk

Something less serious this week.

I am not, under any circumstances, going to write down my experiences over the last few months trying to get a vaguely functioning (my expectations have sunk that low) broadband service from our old provider which will remain nameless but rhymes with WalkWalk. Suffice it to say that we switched service on Christmas Eve and it now works. But WalkWalk deny any responsibility and are happy to assure me constantly that it wasn’t even their product I have been paying them for for years.  There, I haven’t written about that.

No, instead, how to run in winter.

I have learned that winter involves wet roads, frozen roads, patches of ice and generally very cold weather. Which can be a bit of an issue when you run in sandals.

This is the tread on my normal running sandals:

IMG_0530

So not great on ice, and actually not great on wet roads either. I really need to get a new pair before my next race…

So I returned to my FiveFingers days (you know, those funny shoes with separate toe compartments) and got a pair which are waterproof. And still have minimal anything else. They’re warm, dry and I ran 17 miles in them yesterday and enjoyed the run, helped by the fact that it was sunny and the scenery gorgeous throughout. Unfortunately my watch decided it could no longer find any satellites through the clear skies after nine miles, but I was in such a good mood, I just ran on anyway and was more amused than anything. A few years ago it would have seemed like science fiction to have a watch that can somehow link into satellites and tell you your speed and distance. And people managed to run just fine without it.

But I did miss my sandals. They’re just too much fun to run in. I can’t help it, I just smile a lot when I’m trotting along in them. I’m still surprised at the odd looks I get when I run in town, it’s just so normal for me to run in them now. Each to their own…

And today it was not wet or icy, just cold. So I decided to try to crack the ‘how can I wear my sandals in winter’ question and put on a pair of toed socks and my other sandals with some more grip:

IMG_0527

This, by the way, counts as ‘more grip’ for me:IMG_0529

Warm feet, happy feet, happy runner. Now if those cars would just give me a slightly wider berth along the main road…

I did say it wouldn’t be serious this week. But it took my mind off of WalkWalk and allowed me to RunRun instead (sorry, couldn’t resist it). Out again tomorrow for another sock and sandal combo.

Challenges

There are number of reasons I enjoy writing. One is definitely the challenge. I was reminded of this recently when I met with a former colleague I hadn’t seen in several years. I remembered something he had said to me when I was leaving the company we were both working for at the time (note – never underestimate people’s ability to remember for a very long time something which was meant just as a throwaway comment). I was bored there, with no realistic prospect of that changing. We had been talking about what it would have taken to get me to stay and he said ‘we were going to give you incremental challenges.’ That stuck in my mind until now because it encapsulated what I don’t want, need, or benefit from. I don’t do incremental challenge as an approach. It’s simply not meaningful enough to me. Of course, that has to be balanced with keeping a degree of sanity because you can’t do everything at once. And it doesn’t mean that new challenges feel any easier at the time, but they certainly aren’t boring.

My personal challenges in 2015 are, in addition to those associated with my main job, running a marathon at what seems a ridiculous time (under 2 hours 45 minutes, there, now I’ve said it) and finishing my novel. The marathon time comes from it being a round number that isn’t something I already know I could do. Last year, I finished in 3 hours 13 minutes, so I reckon I could do under three hours. That feels like incremental improvement to me. What I don’t know is how much faster I could go. 2:30 is definitely too far a push, so I settled for 2:45. It might even be a time that gets me automatic entry to the Berlin marathon, which would be even better. Last year, I was running for a Boston marathon qualifying time, even though I then found out how much it would cost to get there and run the race, so I’m waiting until I’m fast enough to make the trip worthwhile. My new training plan for next May started a couple of weeks ago, so I have that goal in mind now.

On the writing front, I also have a plan with dates on it, backed up with my updated goal of writing every day, without fail. The basic principle is 1,000 words a day, 2,000 on weekends unless I really am away all day, in which case it reverts to 1,000 again, and somewhere between 2 and 5,000 on Mondays. I’ve also been applying a lesson I learned when I started running. I would get out of bed an hour earlier to get a run in because otherwise I wouldn’t have the energy in the evening. And then it was done, not hanging over me all day. So I’ve been getting up at 6 again (and going to bed earlier!) and writing for an hour in the mornings, while having breakfast, all in peace and quiet. Lovely, if very dark. When everyone else gets up, I’m done or finishing up and can get on with the rest of the day.

And I’m also trying to figure out what makes (fiction) writing work. A book I’m working through at the moment is Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing.

Sol Stein

Stein has written nine novels, edited other books, taught creative writing, and written non-fiction books, screenplays and TV shows. So I’m going to listen to what he has to say. Here’s what he has to say  on page 3:

‘The correct intention [of writing] is to provide the reader with an experience that is superior to the experiences the reader encounters in everyday life.’

Right, that counts as a challenge.

The chapter I’m currently reading – I’m taking this book slowly, there’s just too much to take in – is about characters. But the chapter title says it much better – ‘Competing with God: Making Fascinating People.’ It is incredibly helpful to see sentences and paragraphs through Stein’s eyes and see the techniques he describes in action. And better still to then try them out and see the difference. It’s a good job you can edit your text afterwards.

So those are my current challenges, both are something I don’t already know I can do based on previous experience, and that makes them interesting. And they aren’t incremental. Anything other than incremental…

Wicked

We finally went to see Wicked this weekend. Finally because we bought the tickets about nine months ago and it’s taken a very long time for the middle of December to come around.

 

The Playhouse, and neighbouring shopping/eating/cinema complex,Wicked were lit up in green all around. I am always impressed by the efforts a crew of nameless magicians make to create the right atmosphere even before you get to the event. When West Side Story was on, the whole of the outside of the theatre was made to look like somewhere from New York, complete with rows of American flags outside.

Wicked itself was fabulous, including one amazing scene (no spoilers though…) where the lighting was used to create a visual impression quite unlike anything I’ve seen the theatre before. Decades ago I did the lighting for school productions and I’ve not lost the wonder at the difference well designed and executed lighting can make to these shows.

Since I’ve started to make a proper effort with my own writing, I’m also seeing productions differently, watching instinctively how the plot is developing, thinking about how issues might be resolved and observing the development of the characters. The same is true of films and television shows where you can start to see how the writers (how come they never get the big credits by the way?) have constructed the story and how brilliantly they use dialogue to tell you so much about the characters and move the plot along.

As for me I’ve been struggling with one scene for a few days now. I finally went for a long run today (the one I should have done yesterday but couldn’t fit in with everything else) and that was what it took. I came back and have started it again. I think it’s working better now. It’s good to be able to try things out, get it wrong and have another go.

And on a more mundane level, we now have working lights in the sitting room, the girls’ bathroom and outside, the latter being particularly appreciated this evening when we were coming and going in the dark and the lights made all the difference. A huge thanks to Steve, our brilliant electrician.

Reasons to be positive

It’s easy to be cynical. There are so many reasons to justify it. Politicians, companies, celebrities, governments, who can you trust?

But those are all vague categories of people and organisations. They say very little, if anything, about individuals. And it’s also very easy to be black and white about any one person. But we all have our nice sides and our not so nice sides, our good days and bad days. My experience tells me that most people want to do the “right thing”, they might define it in different ways, but their intentions are usually good.

Part of the trouble is, though, that we want to be judged by our intentions but judge others by their behaviour. The two are not always congruent.

Where am I going with this? I have been reminded recently of the tremendous generosity of some people in giving their advice. In this case, I’m thinking of the internet, itself something with its good and bad sides, depending on how we individually choose to use it. There are so many people willing to share their thoughts, their feelings, even their dreams with us, hoping I think to inspire us by sharing something of themselves, and I wanted to share some of the things I’ve come across which have really touched me.

At the beginning of the year, I found a lovely example of someone from the business world sharing an unexpected perspective via the Harvard Business Review’s website. This short article isn’t something you might expect a management guru to be writing. I printed that off and found myself giving it to a number of people, wanting to share something which had struck a chord with me. I think this is one of those articles that you can read and put into the ‘isn’t that nice’ category, or you can ask yourself if you agree with what he says and, if so, what you are going to do about it again. In my case, it led to me writing down for the first time in too long what really mattered to me, and then making some changes to get closer to it. It remains unfinished business, and it probably always will be, but it’s what I’m trying to do.

There is a statue of Heinrich Heine in Berlin (it took me a while to find it), which has at its base something he wrote:

Heinrich-Heine-web

 

Heine-text

I’m going to be lazy and use the translation from Stasiland:

“We don’t catch hold of an idea, rather the idea catches hold of us and enslaves us and whips us into the arena so that we, forced to be gladiators, fight for it.”

What a powerful way of describing the impact an idea, a thought, a prompt can have on us.

And then just this week, I discovered two new (to me) websites

Holstee.com was for me along the same lines as the HBR article – complete with a manifesto. Did I agree with every part of it? Some bits more than others. Overall, I thought it was a wonderful example of the power of words to bring ideas to life, to challenge us, to make us think, and encourage us to think differently. Bravo.

Brainpickings.org describes itself as ‘my one-woman labor of love — a subjective lens on what matters in the world and why. Mostly, it’s a record of my own becoming as a person — intellectually, creatively, spiritually — and an inquiry into how to live and what it means to lead a good life.’

What I found really helpful was a series of articles taking the wisdom of some of the great writers and passing on what worked for them. Each one challenged me and made me think about how I could apply it. I had to stop. I had too much to change. Definitely more unfinished business there.

There’s John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller and others there. I wouldn’t have known about what they had recorded about their experience of writing unless someone had taken the time to pass it on.

So I’m going to try to be less cynical. There are a lot of wonderful people out there whom I might never meet in person but who are willing to share so freely of themselves that it’s hard not to be touched. Are they perfect? Undoubtedly not. But they’re trying to do something good, and their intentions come through clearly in their actions. Thank you to all of them.

Who are we?

One of the benefits of being part of the whole corporate world is the access to resources it gives you, including just being exposed to different ideas and ways of thinking.

Several years ago, we used the Strengthsfinder tool, which aims to give you insight into your strengths (you might have guessed that already), ranking all 34 in order (see here for for all of them with brief descriptions). Alongside this is a commentary on each of the strengths. It’s basically applied psychology. At the time, I was conscious of one line of commentary in particular, as part of my ‘Intellection’ theme – ‘Take time to write. Writing might be the best way to crystallise and integrate your thoughts.’

And then, more recently, we did a different exercise, the Myers-Briggs (MBTI) assessment, another example of looking at ourselves, and how we interact with others, through a psychological lens, this time apparently based on Jung’s work (that fact didn’t mean much to me, I aspire to be an amateur in the field). The first thing you tend to do once you get your ‘results’ is Google it. It’s amazing how many ways you can view your four letters (mine are INFP, Google it…). One of the more amusing things you can then do is find out which real people and fictional characters share the same Myers-Briggs type with you. My conclusion is that most people think that Jesus had the same type as them. And you can find former US presidents and Star Trek characters all over the place.

When I looked at ‘INFP’ I found that they are all writers. Or John Kerry. My cynical side tells me that I bet all of them are also on a list of other types, and that you can make things fit whatever you want to if you try hard enough. But the consensus of the internet (take that as you will) does seem to be that writing and INFP work well together. We could then get into the cause and effect issue with that conclusion, but I don’t think it matters.

I was reflecting again on what makes some writers really stand out from the rest. I think it’s an understanding of us humans, of our characters, what makes us tick, and an ability to create fictional characters who mirror that. Which I think is another way of saying they have an understanding of psychology and how we react, behave and interact with each other. So I’ve dug out a book I got a while ago when I was looking at the psychology of religion (from what I could see, there’s not much on that), an American textbook called Social Psychology. The best part was that the second most recent edition tends to be relatively inexpensive (unlike the most recent one which seems to be in the £120 bracket!) and the content doesn’t change enough to matter to us amateurs. They are all equally heavy and there’s no lightweight version. It’s not a book to carry around with you all day. So this evening I am going to spend some time reading that and see if I can figure out better how we tick and how I can use that in my own writing.