The quest for a creative safe space (and the necessity of finding one)

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Photography by Rafael de Oliveira. Image via Flickr CC.

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything creative outside of work. Too long, I would argue — unless you count a particularly risqué parody of One Direction fan fiction written as an Easter joke as creative, then my last proper piece of writing was a half-baked short story, left abandoned after Christmas ended.

Truth be told, it’s been hard to get the words flowing ever since I moved out of my parents’ home. At first, I attributed it to work — after all, it’s easy to suppose that being part of a marketing agency, where I have to write copy for most of the day, does put a strain on coming up with new ideas outside of work. But I’ve had plenty of ideas that I’ve done nothing with. I then figured it might have something to do with time, and while it’s true that I’m always busy, my level of free time outside of ‘working hours’ isn’t that different to when I was at university. Finally, the only thing left was the place in which I was writing — a place I just couldn’t get feeling right.

At my parents’ home, I had my bedroom — a space that was my own and nobody else’s. While it wasn’t luxurious by any means (a fairly average desk chair, an overly large desk that was full of crap and a bed with a fairly rigid and back pain inducing headboard) but it was mine. I could retreat upstairs with ease, pick up whatever I was doing and not worry about a thing. I felt safe to explore whatever ideas I wanted to explore — even if that was cheesy tales of vampiric woe or self-indulgent music reviews.

Although this new house is warm, and cosy, and has everything I might need (like copious amounts of coffee and fluffy blankets), I still haven’t found my corner. It is a house that is filled with love and support and yet my creative safe space is still missing, lost in the ether, like the words that run through my head in the car and never make it onto the page. As soon as I start to write, it feels cold and aloof, like an empty hotel lobby where the wifi doesn’t quite work properly and the concierge keeps staring in your direction because he has nothing better to do.

I’ve tried the living room, both the sofa and the dining table within it. Neither feel right. There are too many distractions, and nowhere comfy enough for a mammoth novel-planning session. The bed just doesn’t seem right — it’s not just my own but shared, and even though I have that feeling of warmth and safety at night when his arms are wrapped around me, that doesn’t extend well to my laptop. The garden? The wifi doesn’t stretch that far and I hate bugs. The spare room is my boyfriend’s studio so that he can record his songs, and I can’t help but feel jealous that he has his own room where he’s free to play, but I suppose we make sacrifices for those we love. Those bastards.

Maybe my new safe space isn’t in the house, but coffee shops in provincial towns can be so dreadfully inconvenient, with their sensible closures around teatime. The pub’s not an option — I don’t fancy beer on my MacBook Pro — and I haven’t even set foot in the tiny library. I can’t even return to my true home, that childhood home, because my room’s been repurposed into a perfect, placid guest room with no more posters on the wall, no more idle Post-it notes and no more dismal Ikea desk.

I constantly envy those creative troubadours that can just plonk themselves down onto any coffee shop sofa with a latte and a laptop and bash thousands of words out at the blink of an eye. But perhaps there’s a way of training myself to become one, of refocusing the mind so that I can carry my safe space with me. For now, the quest continues, so if you see me in a café, tapping away in vain, just leave me to it — you never know, I might just have discovered my crafty corner.

About the author of this post

13231227_10209425815752741_151755471_nRobyn Hardman is a writer, blogger and a PR and marketing consultant based in the Cotswolds. When she’s not writing press releases about silly cars, she’s usually in the pit at your local punk show. She tweets as @twobeatsoff.

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Find of the day: Raymond Carver reading ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’

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Described by the New York Times Book Review as “surely the most influential writer of American short stories in the second half of the 20th Century”, Raymond Carver is perhaps best known for his celebrated short story – and short story collection – What we talk about when we talk about love.

It’s incredible therefore to have stumbled upon this audio recording of Carver reading his most famous story. In fact – as far as we here at Nothing in the Rulebook are aware – this is the only known recording of Carver reading his signature story, taped in a Palo Alto hotel room in 1983.

You can listen to the story here: https://beta.prx.org/stories/42401/details

The program not only presents What we talk about when we talk about love, read aloud by Carver; it also provides a detailed introduction, setting the scene of that 1983 morning in a random motel. After a short conversation, philosophical and sometimes funny, Carver reads his celebrated story.

Crucially, this is the edited version of his story, which was originally entitled Beginners. In fact, What we talk about when we talk about love has raised important questions about the subject of the editorial influence on writing – and much has been made of how much influence Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, had in establishing the unique minimalist style that pervades the writing. You can read more on this here at the New York Times.

While there is much to discuss about Carver’s writing, for the moment, take this rare opportunity to enjoy a truly brilliant example of short fiction writing; read aloud by its creator.

 

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Rules? Where we’re going we don’t need rules. Charles Bukowski on writing and creative passion

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“Write what you want. Write how you want. Write where you want, why you want, when you want, who you want. It’ll either work or it won’t. There’s no right way”, acclaimed Scottish author, Iain Maloney observed while lamenting the tendency to believe in perceived “rules” for writing.

Few writers are – or, indeed, have been – totally comfortable in breaking with perceived literary conventions. Yet one author to whom going one’s own way seemed to come natural was that great literary curator, Charles Bukowski (16th August 1920 – 9th March, 1994). A writer of strong opinions and undoubted skill, all of his writing – his poetry, his prose, and his correspondence – is electrified by an unapologetic and unique sense of aliveness.

Consider, for instance, his classic poem on writing and creativity – So, you want to be a writer? (Don’t do it). You can read the poem here, or watch it in the video below:

It’s difficult not to be struck by the passionate, frenetic energy Bukowski both writes with, and also argues is necessary for success in all creative pursuits. And this same energy and style seems to come so naturally to Buk, because it’s entirely of himself. You can see it on show again and again not only in his writing, but also in his thoughts – both typed and spoken.

For example, see this extract of a fantastic interview with the great man himself.

Consider his words, here: “when you write, your words must go like this: bim bim bim, bim bim bim; each line must be full of a delicious little juice, flavour – they must be full of power. They must make you want to turn a page – bim bim bim, bim bim bim.”

Writing well does not mean conforming to rules or paradigms. But about something more honest and real – more human and more passionate.

Bukowski establishes these thoughts in more detail in a 1959 letter to his friend Anthony Linick, arguing that the only thing of importance when it comes to writing (in this specific instance, writing poetry), is not what the poem is or what it does, but that it is – a notion that gets at the heart of all great art:

“I should think that many of our poets, the honest ones, will confess to having no manifesto. It is a painful confession but the art of poetry carries its own powers without having to break them down into critical listings. I do not mean that poetry should be raffish and irresponsible clown tossing off words into the void. But the very feeling of a good poem carries its own reason for being… Art is its own excuse, and it’s either Art or it’s something else. It’s either a poem or a piece of cheese.”

And in a letter to another friend, he suggests that what really matters in writing is that the writer writes what they want to write: and not to let their writing be corrupted with what or how they think they should be writing:

“It’s when you begin to lie to yourself in a poem in order to simply make a poem, that you fail. That is why I do not rework poems but let them go at first sitting, because if I have lied originally there’s no use driving the spikes home, and if I haven’t lied, well hell, there’s nothing to worry about.”

Indeed, in another letter to Linick, Bukowski traces his style of writing back to a distaste for restrictive rules, even – or perhaps especially – those of grammar:

“I didn’t pay a hell of a lot of attention to grammar, and when I write it is for the love of the word, the color, like tossing paint on a canvas, and using a lot of ear and having read a bit here and there, I generally come out ok, but technically I don’t know what’s happening, nor do I care.”

And in another letter, he continues:

“I think some writers do suffer this fate mainly because at heart they are rebellious and the rules of grammar like many of the other rules of our world call for a herding in and a confirmation that the natural writer instinctively abhors, and, furthermore, his interest lies in the wider scope of subject and spirit… Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, Saroyan were a few that reshaped the rules, especially in punctuation and sentence flow and breakdown. And, of course, James Joyce went even further. We are interested in color, shape, meaning, force… the pigments that point up the soul.”

Indeed, while Bukowski railed against manifestos and rules, he puts down – in a letter to the poet, novelist and film and television writer John William Corrington – what could be taken as a manifesto for all creative pursuits. Arguing that, in order to be a writer – or a photographer, or an artist – what matters is the courage to create something outside formulaic conventions:

“The sanctuary of the rule means nothing to the pure creator. There is an excuse for poor creation if we are dithered by camouflage or wine come down through staring eyes, but there isn’t any excuse for a creation crippled by directives of school and fashion, or the valetudinarian prayer book that says: form, form, form!! put it in a cage!

Let’s allow ourselves space and error, hysteria and grief. Let’s not round the edge until we have a ball that rolls neatly away like a trick. Things happen — the priest is shot in the john; hornets blow heroin without arrest; they take down your number; your wife runs off with an idiot who’s never read Kafka; the crushed cat, its guts glueing its skull to the pavement, is passed by traffic for hours; flowers grow in the smoke; children die at 9 and 97; flies are smashed from screens… the history of form is evident.

[…]

Really, we must let the candle burn—pour gasoline on it if necessary. The sense of the ordinary is always ordinary, but there are screams from windows too … an artistic hysteria engendered out of breathing in the necropolis … sometimes when the music stops and leaves us 4 walls of rubber or glass or stone, or worse — no walls at all — poor and freezing in the Atlanta of the heart. To concentrate on form and logic … seems imbecility in the midst of the madness…

Creation is our gift and we are ill with it. It has sloshed about my bones and awakened me to stare at 5 a.m. walls.”

So, if you’ve found yourself awakened with creativity sloshing in your bones and come to spend the early morning hours staring at walls – think of it as a good sign! And, if you want further inspiration from the mind of signor Bukowski, why not check out the letter he wrote explaining why aspiring writers should quit their soul sucking day jobs and pursue their creative passions.

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Join the gang as one of our contributors!

Nothing in the Rulebook – a literary and new writing blog dedicated to new ideas – is looking for contributors.

We are a collective of creatives bound by a single motto: ‘there’s nothing in the rulebook that says a giraffe can’t play football!’ Our news, opinion and interviews are read around the world and attract on average 20,000 unique views a month. We’ve featured writers and artists such as Iain Maloney, Julia Bell, Paul M.M. Cooper, Russ Litten, Asher Jay, Tim Leach, Rishi Dastidar, Eric Akoto, David Greaves, Charlotte Salter and many more.

We are looking for people who think just because there’s one way to do things, it doesn’t mean that’s the only way.

We’re commissioning a wide range of articles including opinion, commentary, news and features. You can get an idea of what piques our interest on our website, Twitter and Facebook.

Nothing in the Rulebook was established by Warwick University creative writing alumni with over ten years’ experience in journalism, marketing and communications. We’ve won awards for short fiction, poetry and writing and our work has been published in national newspapers, literary anthologies and magazines.

If you’re interested, get in touch via email at nothingintherulebook@gmail.com, Twitter or Facebook.

The importance of boredom in writing

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When was the last time you were bored – or even just waiting alone by yourself for a spare moment – and didn’t instantly spring to bridge that feeling of boredom or fill that moment of waiting by checking Facebook or Twitter or Instagram (or even LinkedIn if the boredom were really acute)? And how about the last time you were out for a meal with your partner, and didn’t reach for your smartphone the minute they left to use the bathroom?

What we are doing, when we do these things, is recoiling from the dull. But why? Why do we do this? Perhaps this desire to flee boredom and escape from it is created in our minds because boredom is intrinsically painful – we describe it, after all, in linguistical terms that imply this pain: ‘deadly dull’; ‘excruciatingly boring’; ‘bored to death’. And studies even suggest that people prefer painful experiences to being alone in a room with their own thoughts for fifteen minutes.

Our lives, however, are completely entwined with experiences of boredom. We can all recognize that feeling of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins; that mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that fiercely strong desire for action, for movement.

An ode to boredom: a force for good

Yet, although boredom is an intrinsic part of life for everyone; it needn’t be destructive – and it certainly needn’t be painful. In fact, there’s a growing consensus that boredom should be embraced – and that avoiding boredom is potentially far more destructive and dangerous.

Indeed, consider the words of British Philosopher, Bertrand Russell, “A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men… of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

Meanwhile, Soren Kierkegaard – perhaps the world’s first existentialist – explained that “the unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself.” In this, he hints at what lies behind our decisions to constantly reach for the smartphone; for the device that distracts us. It is an unconscious desire to be “absent” from ourselves and from the world: an insidious form of escapism.

And in acquiescing to our fear of boredom, of sitting quietly and thinking hard about things for thirty minutes instead of thirty seconds, we deny ourselves the opportunity to become greater than we are: we deny ourselves the opportunity to better understand who we are, at our very deepest levels, as human beings.

Boredom is important, then, because it opens channels. It expands our potential and helps us to grow – to better understand ourselves and the world. We can find new ways of thinking about life in those moments when boredom forces us to think about things other than the latest post about cats on Facebook.

On writing

Boredom, of course, is not just a ‘real life’ issue, which affects us intermittently depending on the flows of our lives. It is, instead, a very real part of the writing process. Writing is, after all, essentially the attempt to elucidate thoughts and ideas: the very things boredom helps us dwell upon and create.

It’s perhaps little coincidence so many inspiring thoughts are had in moments of quiet solitude – sitting beneath apple trees or relaxing in a bath. These are the moments in which we are able to think carefully about ideas and draw unexpected conclusions we are otherwise unable to in a world of constant stimulation – of music and television everywhere you go; of constant out-of-office emails and work patterns; of incessant digital background babbling.

Certainly, there seems a feeling among certain writers that boredom is essential for writing and creative thinking. For example, comedy writer Graham Linehan said, in a recent interview for the Guardian: “I have to use all these programs that cut off the internet, force me to be bored, because being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored.”

It is the fear of boredom, and the ease of distraction from boredom – enabled by the internet and smartphones – that is dangerous to writing. Little wonder Kingsley Amis said “the art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” We have to be willing, as writers, to embrace boredom and resist that desire to flee its embrace.

The boredom paradox

One of the issues with suggesting that we need to embrace boredom in order to become creative and to think in new and unexpected ways, is that, once we start being creative and thinking in this way, we stop being bored. Very few people hit upon an idea that absolutely inspires them and are able to retain a detached distance from it in which conversations about their work proceed something along the lines of:

“So I’ve discovered the meaning of existence.”

“Oh, really? That’s incredible!”

“Yah. Yah, it’s okay I guess. I dunno. I guess it’s fine to be getting on with for the time being.”

In fact, in a way it perhaps seems strange that we recoil from boredom at all: because why would we fear the opportunity to be creative, to think stimulating thoughts and break down boundaries? Perhaps there’s something else here. Something deeper. That it is not boredom itself that we fear: but rather, the things we might discover in ourselves, within that boredom.

The late writer, David Foster Wallace, touched upon this in questioning why we held in ourselves “This terror of silence [when faced with] nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.”

It is that something else, perhaps, which truly frightens us. Because perhaps what we fear most is understanding who we actually are – or allowing ourselves to realise and acknowledge those things we spend so much time trying to ignore: that we are mortal, and never ever more than a breath away from death. That we are alone in a vast, spinning, and infinite world; that we exist in a universe in which we are totally and utterly and completely insignificant.

These thoughts truly are terrifying. I don’t know about you but I am literally screaming at the top of my lungs as I write this and think these thoughts, eyes wide and pupils dilated. But in all that terror, there’s also something deeply, intensely interesting.

In fact, in a way, it’s incredible, really, that we allow ourselves to become bored, anyway. After all, there is an infinite amount to be thought of; an infinite number of ideas to be had. We live in a universe full of wonders, so impossibly vast that we can’t comprehend it, even with our minds, which are themselves infinite and vast and go on forever.

What is to be done?

So what do we do, then, other than taking all our mobilephones, our laptops and computers and throwing them in the nearest ocean? Perhaps we could become hermits, and live alone by ourselves in perpetual solitude. Although I hear this is a dying trade and an industry in great decline.

Once again, Bertrand Russell offers the following thoughts: “A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.”

How about that, then. Perhaps we should just start talking a little more quietly. I know this can be difficult, especially in the digital age of ‘social media’ – which so often just seems to be an echo-chamber in which communities of like-minds write ALL IN CAPS as their empty theses, condensed into 140 characters, are lost in a cacophony of data and trending #hashtags.

Indeed, this is a problem of social media highlighted by Mark Fisher in his work, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? As he suggests the internet “facilitates communities of solipsists, interpassive networks of like-minds who confirm, rather than challenge, each others’ assumptions and prejudices.”

If true, what this suggests is that rather than broadening our horizons, as is necessary to think deeply and hard about subjects and ideas – a crucial act in writing – we are instead simply shouting loudly over the top of other people saying the exact same thing. In such scenarios, a break away from technology; from these communities, can only be a good thing for our minds and our writing. So perhaps the first step in embracing boredom is to step away from that which tries so hard to distract us from being bored – the internet. Perhaps the first step is to turn off the power and start to think.

Coda

The greatest irony with all this, of course, is that I have written this post on my smartphone while waiting in a queue to watch The Minions movie, because I couldn’t bear to stand by myself doing nothing. Indeed, in writing this, then, am I myself escaping the reality of boredom? That necessary reality we must embrace in order to live a happy life? And here I was hoping those little yellow bastards would help distract me for 90 minutes from the ultimate reality that we are all slowly being drawn toward that sweet caress of death.

But wait, this isn’t just me, is it? You’re probably reading this on your iPhone, while sitting on the toilet, aren’t you? What are we to do?

Pfft. Everything’s just too meta these days. And too meta meta, as well. Meta2, if you will. Oh the humanity. I’m off to find a little stream where I can sit quietly and listen. You should too, if you want to, maybe.

The hard truth: it’s time to finish writing that novel you’ve been working on

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Ah yes. The summer. The evenings are long, sultry and glorious; workloads are diminishing (at least in Europe, anyway); and the possibilities are endless. Now is the perfect time to finish writing that novel you’ve been working on. Definitely. Right now. This evening. Maybe this weekend. Maybe on vacation. Definitely soon, though. Very definitely almost right now is when you’ll be able to get past that first impasse – Chapter One – and empty the entire contents of your linguistic genius down on paper (or, more accurately, Microsoft Word).

Maybe you’ll also finish reading that prohibitively long novel, too! Wouldn’t that be good? Besides, there’s only so many times you can read the first seven pages of Ulysses, before getting distracted by something important like the vacuuming.

Of course, when it comes to finish writing the novel you’ve been working on, it’s easier said than done. But maybe – just maybe – this summer is going to offer you the inspiration you need to start writing.

Summer changes us. Boundaries blur; borders relax. In the space opened up by these currents, a hope remains that we might fudge something through our own sluggish systems. The stilted, listless lassitude of days drenched in summer sunshine presents opportunity to relax, yes, and take stock of our lives (which is important, of course); but it also opens up new possibilities for real action – not simply contemplation. If Jack Kerouac can write On the Road during three short weeks in 1951, then maybe you can write your own little masterpiece on your summer holidays – or at least get a significant amount of writing done.

There are plenty of calls to action these days. If you’re in need of motivation or inspiration, then you need only watch Shia LaBeouf’s speech on YouTube, or look at endless ‘motivation and inspiration’ posts on Instagram (or, if you’re in the mood for motivating quotes that will send you into a deep existential crisis, there’s always a David Foster Wallace Motivation Twitter account that can serve you well). Unfortunately, however, simply listening to a call to action isn’t, actually, enough. You have to act on it. And that’s the hard part.