Creativity, Balance, and Mental Health

One of the hardest challenges for me, as a writer, is knowing when to push myself and when to stop.

It’s a depressive thing as much as a writing one. As I’ve touched on here before, I’ve been dealing with depression for several years. I’m a lot better than I was, but it’s one of those health issues that will probably never entirely go away.

Depression can be a bitch when it comes to creativity. It numbs the brain and wrecks your concentration. But one of the hardest things is knowing how to deal with it. Some days, I get sluggish, but what I need is to push on through. The satisfaction of achievement improves my mood and lifts me up. Other days, I get sluggish, and what I need is to stop. To let my brain rest and recuperate.

The problem is, those two sorts of days feel very, very similar, and it’s hard to analyse them from the inside. Doing what’s good for one can make the other worse. Trying to work out which it is is a total nightmare.

Whatever your mental health, getting the balance right is vital to creativity. Burning out can kill creativity as badly as giving up. I don’t have any easy answers, but just being aware of the problem is a good start.



I’m taking up drawing, to give my creative muscles a bit of variety. And if you’re going to start drawing, why not start with a dinosaur?

Might have to start writing monster stories, just so I can do my own illustrations. Though if they’re going to be destructive monsters, they might need to look less placid than this chap.

Lets Change This Up! Thoughts On a Playful Culture

What do toy soldiers, Bruce Springsteen and a computer generated city have in common? On one level, not much. But on another, they draw attention to an increasingly important tension in our culture, around the modification and reinvention of all forms of art.

Gaming Miniatures and Remaking Your Toys

Fear my poorly painted warlord!
Fear my poorly painted warlord!

I started pondering this after reading Patrick Stuart’s excellent articles on HiLoBrow about wargaming miniatures. Despite the hours of pleasure I’ve taken in painting and remodelling my own figures, I’d never thought about their nature. That’s what happens when you pick up a hobby at the age of eleven – from then on out, it’s a journey through familiarity to disdain and finally nostalgia.

As Stuart points out, wargames miniatures, apart from being an incredibly detailed form of pop sculpture, are designed to be reinvented through painting and unique conversions:

It’s assumed that the user will and should want to alter the product. Means are designed specifically for the end user to do that. Is there any other form of art in which it is assumed that the consumer is also a minor creator?

I say, barkeep, that's an unusual light fitting you have there.
I say, barkeep, that’s an unusual light fitting you have there.

At first glance I accepted this defence of why something I love is extraordinary. But it didn’t take long for doubts to set in. I agree with all the reasons Stuart gives for miniatures being a fantastic form of art, but without even stretching I could think of another hobby where the consumer is a creator – Lego. From following the instructions on the box, through to throwing all your pieces together and building the best damn castle the living room has ever seen, Lego makes everyone an architect.

If art that makes the consumer a creator isn’t unique – and yes, I do consider Lego design art, just look at the joyful intricacy of the things that company creates – then how widespread is this sort of thing?

Singing Songs and Modding Games

An obvious comparison is song writing. Anyone who comes up with a song hopes that others will enjoy it, and knows that part of the enjoyment comes in singing the song. If you’re really lucky maybe you’ll get cover versions. If you’re in folk, you’ll get endless variations. And each time the song is replayed, the consumer, the person who heard and enjoyed it, is being a creator, making their own version of that song. It might be a near-identical performance, it might change genre like Postmodern Jukebox, it might be a full-on spoof. Regardless, it’s a new act of creation.

Then there’s the much more modern phenomenon of modding – the creation of adaptations and additions for existing computer games. Voo’s Reviews brought this to the forefront of my mind with a discussion of current modding debates, but it’s been around for almost as long as the games have. The gaming industry, being modern and forward looking, is even seeking ways to make modding part of their mainstream, monetised model. Sure, those attempts have included clumsy failure, but modding is still widely accepted and celebrated.

Given the popularity of musical covers and modding, are we actually very comfortable with art as something we recreate?

The Inevitable Push Back

Of course not. We’re human beings, and our behaviour is never that simple.

I could write a dozen blog posts on the current state of intellectual property law and how that limits this culture of re-invention. If you’re not already familiar with these issues, then the Crash Course Intellectual Property YouTube series is a great place to start. Debates around this are focused on power and business interests, but while those discussions are important, I want to consider a more subtle and insidious sort of reaction – the one that comes from within our subconscious.

A few examples I’ve experienced will show the breadth of this. In the comments on a video of Mumford and Sons covering Springsteen’s Atlantic City, someone protested that the singer’s status didn’t give them the right to change the song’s words. China Miéville’s excellent talk on the future of the novel was immediately followed by comments from audience members outraged at the idea of people changing the literary classics. When I recently made a Lego mad scientist layer, I sat it on a shelf for a month afterwards, unwilling to have my toy changed.

When we find or create something we love we want to protect it, and we try to do that by fixing it as it is. That’s only natural, but it’s not necessarily helpful. Different lyrics for Atlantic City don’t stop the original being out there. A chopped and changed War and Peace will still leave the original available. If I take apart my Lego town, I’ll still have the memory of enjoying the old build, not to mention the photos I took. And when our defensiveness extends to stopping others adapting things, that becomes problematic. We aren’t just looking after our own happiness, we’re limiting that of others.

Dealing with this isn’t easy. Not all forms of art are designed to be reinvented, but they’re all designed to spur further creativity. If that involves reinventing the old version, creating refinements and variations, doesn’t that just add to the pleasures out there?

Sure, we shouldn’t treat a Rodin sculpture like a Perry Brothers one – the Rodin is unique, and you can buy 40 Perry miniatures for £20. But in these days of mass consumption and easily accessible copies of songs, books and other products, maybe we need to let go and reinvent some more. Clinging defensively to what we have is exhausting. Inventing something new is reinvigorating.

I disassembled the mad scientist layer in the end. I don’t know what I’ll make next with those bricks, but in the end the creativity is more important than the creation.

Preparation and Improvisation – Writing Lessons From Kind of Blue

5771025070_bddb7e2ec6_zI’m a big planner where writing’s concerned – working out where I’m going helps the words to keep flowing. But it’s interesting to see how, even for artists who prefer to improvise, preparation can be key to success.

This short video on the BBC website features jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb talking about working with Miles Davis on Kind of Blue. It’s a record that, to my ears, is one of the most sublimely perfect pieces of music ever made, a fluid, graceful masterpiece. But even if you don’t like jazz, it’s interesting to hear how Davis worked – picking the people to work with and the themes to explore meant the music just flowed, and they seldom needed more than one take.

The new year’s a great time to think about how you prepare to write, or for your other creative activities, and to set things up for success. If you feel like sharing how you do that, then please leave a comment below – I’m always interested in other people’s creative processes, whether or not they’re legendary jazz musicians.


Picture by photosteve101 via Flickr Creative Commons

Making the most of Write Or Die

Author David Nicholls has used Write Or Die to help him with his latest novel. I’m a big fan of Write Or Die, and it makes total sense that even an established author would find it useful.

Write Or Die is a word processor with a difference. Its whole purpose is to stop you delaying or getting caught up perfecting your words instead of getting them down on the page, and it can be quite brutal about it.

First you enter your goal, like maybe 500 words in 30 minutes. Then you hit the start button. Write Or Die immediately works out how many words you need to have written by each point in that half hour to hit your goal, and if you start slacking off then it tells you. Pause for too long and it punishes you. Fall behind and it punishes you. Start going back and editing rather than getting enough words down in time and it punishes you.

You get to set the punishment. It ranges from the screen going red through screeching noises and alarms to Write Or Die deleting the words you’ve already written – whatever’s going to get you motivated.

I have the old version of Write Or Die, and I don’t use the delete setting, but I’ve still found it a great way of getting motivated. When the screen goes red and the alarm starts to sound and I can see a counter telling me I haven’t hit my target, or better yet the waves of relief as I consistently reach that target…

Well, it works.

I used to do a lot of my writing in Write Or Die, but I don’t at the moment. I found that using it for a while got me trained to write at a faster pace, but that the stuff I wrote unsurprisingly needed more editing than normal. So now I just use it occasionally to get myself back up to speed, and without it I’ve got a good balance between speed and what I want to write.

It’s a great habit builder. And if your priority is getting lots of words down with the intention of going back and editing heavily later then it’s also a good way to stay motivated.

It’s probably not for everyone. It can get stressful, and personally I’d never touch the delete option – too much risk of losing some words I loved. But if you haven’t tried it and you’re looking to get motivated on your writing then it’s only $20 and well worth a go.

Thanks to Everwalker for the heads up about the Guardian article. And if you want to read some of the things I’ve written with all these high speed words, there are links to buy my books here.

The myth of the lone artist

The idea that writers create their works in isolation, that novels and other stories aren’t acts of collaboration, is one of my pet hates. Tackling that myth is one of the reasons why I think China Miéville’s talk on the future of books is so good, and why I couldn’t bear to listen to the audience responses. The first few responses were apparently intelligent people, creators in their own right, leaping up and defending the status quo, saying how they didn’t want people meddling with existing texts, how they wanted to carry on working in splendid isolation.

It was reactionary nonsense, scared of facing the future, and indeed the reality of past and present writing.

Not an island

It’s not just that storytelling is becoming more collaborative. I firmly believe that every creative act is an act of collaboration. Even writers, who might seem at times to be working on their own, are really working with others.

No-one stands alone
No-one stands alone

There are some obvious elements to this. The role of alpha readers and editors in helping polish the piece. The cover artists who evoke an atmosphere before the reader has even turned to page one. The people who create fonts.

But there are less direct collaborators as well. Any writer works within the ideas and expectations created by those who have come before. They adapt and build on the ideas of those who wrote before them, and of their contemporaries within their genre. They are not working in isolation, but in communication with those authors through the ideas that they have put into the world.

At the most basic level, stringing together sentences involves working with language others have created, remixing the ideas of others.

The idea of the lone creator, the isolated artist driven purely by his or her own inner magic, is utter rot.

Special snowflakes

So why does this myth persist?

I can see two obvious reasons. The first is a psychological defence. Seeing ourselves as individual creators helps us to feel special. If someone challenges that it threatens our identity, puts us on the defensive. But it shouldn’t. The effective collaborator is a far more admirable figure than the lone wolf – they work well with others and are open to ideas.

The other reason is the ‘great man’ view of history and the world around us. Thinking that the world is shaped by significant individuals and their special abilities saves us from having to make sense of the more complex reality, of intertwining social, political, economic and artistic influences. It takes some pressure off our brains by making the world seem simpler than it is. It’s very soothing.

Busting the myth

But the myth of the isolated artist is becoming ever harder to defend. In an age of remixing and fan fiction, of collaborative cross-media storytelling, of the TV writers room, it just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Perhaps we can now let it go and relish the fact that we are all collaborators.


Picture by Scott Cresswell via Flickr creative commons.

Nothing new under the sun

Today I was going to write about the commercialisation of art and the effect of economic markets on creativity. But I’m far too excited because I just booked tickets to see Postmodern Jukebox on the UK leg of their tour. So instead I’m going to enthuse about their music and then use it for a creative writing related lesson. Because, lets face it, drawing tenuous parallels to whatever’s drawn my attention is becoming my MO.


A painter’s pallet, but with notes

Postmodern Jukebox, like 2CELLOS, mostly perform covers of pop songs. But unlike 2CELLOS they don’t have a consistent musical style, instead playing around with different musical genres. The combination of styles is amusing, occasionally moving, and often better than the original version (depending on how you feel about the original, of course). I even enjoy their bluegrass version of Robin Thicke’s loathsome Blurred Lines (yes, I know it’s catchy, but that’s no excuse for misogyny).

Some people might argue that this isn’t really creativity – they aren’t writing new songs or creating new styles. But I totally disagree. Creativity is all about combining existing elements in new ways, like a painter mingling colours on her pallet.

Tolkien talks creativity

J R R Tolkien believed that the only acts of pure unadulterated creation came from God. In Tolkien’s view, what we humans do is a secondary act, using the elements that are already in place. As story tellers we create secondary worlds.

I don’t agree with a lot of Tolkien’s take on creativity,but I do think that he was onto something. In my view there is no pure, unadulterated creation, no bolt from the blue, flash of inspiration stuff, nothing completely novel and unprecedented. That’s a myth, a dream we’ve been sold that puts creativity beyond our reach, makes us feel like we can’t achieve it and so, in many cases, give up.

But creativity is about taking what’s already there and combining it in new ways. When you put together vampires and gangsters you get From Dusk Till Dawn. When you combine superpowers and food you get Chew. When you combine a pop song and a solemnly singing clown you get this:



These are all acts of creation, as pure and wonderful as any others. They all give us something new. They are all great.

Get creating

Idealising some pure form of creativity, over-using terms like ‘derivative’ as criticisms, these behaviours disempower us. No-one mocked the second cavewoman to bang two stones together and make fire. Hell, she probably used better stones than the first one. That’s creativity, a constant act of building on what’s come before.

Re-mixing, re-writing, copying a sketch, these are all acts of creativity. And that means we can all be creative, not because some secondary form of creativity is OK, but because this is the only form of creativity.*

This afternoon I’m finally going to watch the new Captain America film. Will it be uncreative because so many elements in it have been used many times before? I doubt it. And I can’t wait to see it.

In the meantime, here’s one more Postmodern Jukebox song to play us out. This one has a fantasy theme, and it makes me laugh every time:



*OK, if you believe in God then you might believe that he has another form of creativity. But humans don’t, and that’s what I’m concerned with here.

Getting past writing blocks

Tenabreme, who is blogging over here to find inspiration for a thesis, asked for advice on how to keep writing when you’re finding it a struggle. And I thought, hey, I’ve faced that problem a dozen times in the past few months, that’s worthy of a blog post.

I’ll admit, the pride at being asked for writing advice by a total stranger may also have encouraged me – look Geppetto, I’m a real writer now!

So anyway, some things I’ve learned that help me keep writing:

Get an early start

I’m more productive if I just get up and write. This is a family trick passed down the generations, like my grandad’s old wood working tools. My Uncle John has those tools, and he also recommended that I get up and write for half an hour before anything else in the morning. I don’t usually manage that, but an early start does prevent my brain from putting up barriers to writing. I don’t get to feel daunted or distracted, and I’m fresh and rested. Achieving something at the start of the day makes me feel productive and energised for the rest of it.

My Grandad's tools - a working piece of family history
My Grandad’s tools – a working piece of family history

Eat the big toad first

I wrote a whole other post about this, so I’ll direct you to that rather than repeat myself.

Be careful about breaks

I used to reward myself for writing by taking a fifteen minute break. I also used to swear by the full hour-long lunch break. I’ve recently learned better. Taking a break from writing means I lose the flow, and I have to face the act of willpower that is going back to work. Maybe you need your breaks, especially if, like Tenabreme, you’re writing a thesis. But try going without them for a day or two, see how it works for you.

I do still take lunch breaks, because everyone needs food. But it’s always a battle of wills to turn off Dexter after I’ve finished my sandwich and get back to the keyboard.

Seriously. Dexter is freaking awesome.

If all else fails, write about how you’re struggling to write

Sometimes you just need to get past the blockage in your head. Circling round it like a jackal round a dying lion won’t help. So if all you can think about is how you’re struggling to write, then write about that. Write about how hard it is to get motivated, how frustrated you feel, why you’re struggling. Because you clearly care about that, so it’ll get you typing away, and it’ll get you passionate. It’ll vent that blockage from your head and let you move on to more productive work.

This works for struggling with your emotions too. That’s how I learned it – from a counsellor. Thank you to her, as she pretty much saved my sanity.

If you’re taking a break, take a proper break

I used to take my laptop on holiday. I was so attached to the idea of writing, I didn’t want to let it go. But that meant that I never really relaxed. I kept feeling like I should be working.

So when you go on holiday, leave the laptop at home. By all means, make notes in your notebooks. Read books that inspire you. But have a proper rest. You’ll come back refreshed, not ragged from battling every day with whether you should be writing.

What else?

Who else has some tips? Leave them in the comments below. Goodness knows I could do with more tricks.

And Tenabreme, good luck with that thesis.

Kids in the pool

One of the best things about culture, whether it’s books, music, theatre, or any other medium, is the way that people can enjoy the same thing in different ways.

The exercise bikes at my gym overlook the swimming pool. The other day, as I strained to push my unhealthy body into action, I saw an aquarobics lesson. The instructor stood on the side, while a dozen older ladies and gentlemen followed her motions in the water. They were all enjoying the satisfaction of exercise.

And behind the instructor, in the shallow pool, four young kids were enjoying this in a different way. One was watching the instructor in silent fascination, taking in her surreal, dance-like performance. Two more were trying to join in, imitating the movements like the people in the class. And the last one was inventing her own aquarobics, spinning round to the music in her head.

Everyone in those pools was enjoying aquarobics, and so was I, taking pleasure in the joy on others’ faces – frankly, any distraction from the aches of exercise was a pleasure. Most of it wasn’t what the instructor intended, but it all made the world a richer place.

It’s easy for creators to get protective over their work. To feel defensive when others take pleasure from it in ways they hadn’t intended, whether spoof, or imitation, or subversive readings of the meaning of the text. But none of us see the world in exactly the same way, and as a creator, isn’t it better to be misunderstood than to be ignored?

I like to think that, if someone got a different meaning than I intended from one of my stories, I’d enjoy knowing that. After all, it shows interaction with the text, it shows thought, it shows intellectual pleasure.

It’s someone acting like those kids at the pool, and who’s to tell them that they’re wrong?

Passionate Writing and The Prague Cemetery

I was thinking again about The Prague Cemetery, and I realised that there was a lesson in how I responded to it.

Umberto Eco is clearly passionate about the subject matter of this book. Insane amounts of research must have gone into getting the details right. But that passion, that intensity, isn’t there on the page.

As a writer, it’s not enough to care deeply about what you’re writing. That won’t automatically appear in what you write, or transfer from there to the minds of your readers. You have to think about how you get that passion across. That’s a skill, not a feeling.

Guess I’d better go practice that then.