Morning pages experiment

So. I said I’d blog about morning pages, so here goes!

Definition
Morning pages. Brief definition for those who don’t feel like clicking the link above (in which Julia Cameron outlines the original concept): morning pages are three longhand pages written in the morning. They don’t have to be – shouldn’t be – amazing writing. They’re supposed to be stream-of-consciousness, writing about whatever comes to mind, such as “what I need to do today” or describing the dream you woke up from. Nothing stellar, nothing special.

The thing is, they’re supposedly great for unlocking thoughts and feelings and getting them down onto paper, and thus freeing the mind from small worries etc. The theory is that if you get the clutter out of your mind first thing in the morning, you’ll be freer and more able to do creative things afterwards.

Morning pages and me
My history with morning pages: I tried doing them for the first time a couple of years ago; I think I persisted for about two weeks before I gave up. It just felt like too much of a hassle. Now, since 13 March, I’ve been doing morning pages again. Every morning.

An important point here: I am not a morning person. Specifically, not an early-morning person. If it was up to me, I’d stay up till 1 or 2am and get up around 9 or 10am. Sadly, this isn’t possible five days a week due to work. I have to get up between 7 and 7.30am on weekdays, which I know isn’t all that early for early birds, but for me? Uuugh. Every time the alarm rings, I’m grumpy and sleepy. Yeah, so if I went to sleep early enough I might not have this problem. But my energy tends to increase towards the evening, so going to sleep early is troublesome.

When I started doing morning pages again almost two and a half weeks ago, I was incredibly dubious at first. It takes me about 15 minutes to write three pages in my current diary (a bit bigger than A5 in size). That means 15 extra minutes to incorporate into my morning routine. Now, I’m slow in the mornings. I thought morning pages would create extra pain and grumpiness.

Sometimes they do. Sometimes my only wish on weekday mornings is to crawl back into bed for 15 more minutes. But I’ve persisted so far, because you can’t really tell if a new habit is working based on a couple of weeks.

I’ve been quite successful at incorporating morning pages into my routine. It’s more pleasant on weekends of course, since I usually get to sleep as long as I like then. I’ll get up, do some short exercises to get my chronic-pain back/neck to be less cranky, and then I’ll do my morning pages. I try not to let myself wake up too much before writing them (usually not a problem!), so that they’d be as natural, as stream-of-consciousness as possible. They’re not always three pages. If I’m in a hurry, they might be two, or even just one. Mostly I’ve kept to three, though.

What goes in them? Rambling. I often wake up from a dream, so dream descriptions abound. I may write about what I need to do that day, or about what I’ve done the day before. Mundane things. I usually start with grumbling about how tired I am and how and where my body aches.

But what’s also found its way into my morning pages are ramblings about weightier stuff like
– writing: what I want to work on, how I should go about it
– my future: pondering PhD things, worrying, planning.

Stuff that’s important to think about, stuff that I don’t often have time to properly think about. So, even considering how little a time I’ve been doing them, I’d say that morning pages have the potential to bring up things from the subconscious that I might not concentrate on otherwise. And it’s good to bring those things up. It means I either a) think about them more, if they’re important things that require pondering, or b) let them go, if they’re just small things that bother me.

I don’t think morning pages will solve all my problems. Haha, if only. But I’ve been greatly surprised by how even for a night owl like me, it’s not necessarily an impossibility to do them. Even a week ago I was grumbling about doing them, but now I feel more positive. I’ll keep writing them at least till the pages run out in my current diary, then I’ll see how I feel. I’d sort of like to try another experiment with “evening pages”, written just before going to bed, which would be more of a traditional diary-type thing, with analysis of the past day and so on. We’ll see about that.

Strangely, it seems that morning pages are actually doable. I’ve yet to find any profound spiritual enlightenment, but I’ll keep doing this for the time being and see if I come up with brilliant solutions to all my problems with the help of my morning pages. Even if I don’t, this may be a routine I want to keep. We’ll see.

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Walking in snowbroth

Slept late, read a wonderful book for two hours, went for a walk. A poem rushed out, and I thought I’d share it here:

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Crushed Ice

I can’t see my future, the coming years are hidden
but in this moment the sun’s
shining on me, the sky’s coloured
with promises. The night cold has faded,
the path’s filled with snowbroth –

I wade in spring, the ice cracks under my boots
water welling beneath. My smile
of satisfaction, my wet socks:
it’s like my first spring in Finland
when I learnt the magic
of ice to water

in our garden,
when I crushed ice into shards of the past.

* * *

(Snowbroth is among some delicious words I want to start using.)

Short stories: the challenges of brevity

I edited and sent off a short story today. Exciting! I should really write more shorts. The trouble is, I often tend to go for expansive stuff rather than the knife-sharp and short stuff…

I’ve been thinking I should practise writing flash fiction to hone my short-writing skills. Was inspired by this piece in The Guardian; I love the notion of “stories in your pocket”.

Related to short stories, a while ago I read David B. Coe’s post on Magical Words comparing novels vs short fiction in terms of the writing process. I wish I could learn to do this well:

This is the essence of writing a compelling short story: taking a situation, a moment in time, and giving it narrative structure so that it becomes something greater and more meaningful, something that feels complete. It is what I strive to do with my short fiction. When writing a short piece, I know that I can’t explain everything about my world or my characters or even my magic system. So I tell my readers the bare minimum of what they need to know and I try to allow my story to exist on its own terms.

Today I also wrote a poem draft during my walk to work and did some daydreaming for a potential fantasy trilogy (shhhh), so it’s been a surprisingly good writing day, all in all.

Sunday recs: On the problematic sides of grimdark

Evening, gentle readers!

It’s been a rollercoaster weekend; I haven’t got any creative writing done, which is egregious. Ah well, at least today I had a very productive café session with a dear friend: I worked on an article I’m writing related to my MA thesis. Oh how I enjoy crafting academic text!

Anyway, links!

Before the serious discussion links, let’s go for a poem. A Glance Across the Ballroom, by Ada Hoffmann: one of the most delightful Cinderella-inspired poems I’ve ever read.

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Eleanor Arnason’s Me and Science Fiction: Hope for the Future is an interesting column on optimistic science fiction and why there should be more of it. I mostly agree with her. Yes, I think sf needs to tackle the grim, difficult stuff, too – but why should it entirely shun the brighter visions? Optimism doesn’t need to mean lack of conflict. In a setting that doesn’t paint an entirely bleak future for our planet, you can still have interesting stories.

Personally, I’m not much a fan of grimdark. I prefer my fiction with more than just a sprinkle of goodwill and optimism. There’s a time and place for dystopia – definitely yes – but I just don’t think it needs to be the default option for sf. Human beings are capable of horrific, dark things, but we’ve also got the potential for good, for healing. Fiction – perhaps especially science fiction – is a great way of looking at the consequences of what we’re doing to the planet, for instance. But sometimes, I’d love to see a sf future-vision that ended up bright. Through darkness, perhaps, in the way of the most heart-wrenching stories; but ending in hope.

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Foz Meadows writes about grittiness and grimdark. Very good post. I really recommend taking the time to read all of it. She writes, for instance, that if

the grim in grimdark comes only from the presence of graphic violence, full-on sex, drugs, swearing, disease and character death, then it should still be possible to write grimdark stories that lack rape, domestic violence, racism and homophobia, and which feature protagonists who are neither straight, predominently white men nor the ultimate victims of same. And yet, overwhelmingly, that is what grimdark consists of: because somewhere along the line, the majority of its authors have assumed that “grittiness” as a concept is necessarily synonymous with the reinforcement of familiar inequalities.

So true; and one of the reasons grimdark doesn’t appeal to me. I want sf/f to look at issues, problematise them and deal with them, instead of just perpetuating the same cycle of misogyny/homophobia/etc.

In this post, Kate Elliott (a wonderful writer!) approaches the grimdark question from the point of view of sexual violence and its unfortunate prevalence in “gritty”, “realistic” fantasy. She counters this with a discussion of consensual sex in fantasy, and why it’s important to portray positive sexual encounters in fiction.

Rape is used way too often as an “easy” way of giving a female character a tragic backstory, for instance. In too many portrayals of rape in fiction, writers don’t pay attention to the actual effects of the act of violence, but instead rape becomes trivialised. It’s especially worrying if a story contains frequent rape scenes or dubiously consensual sex, but little to no consensual sex at all. As Kate Elliott writes:

To my mind, we lessen the story we are telling about human experience if we do not include and see as worthy all of human experience, especially including positive depictions of sex and love. What kind of world do we vision if we only tell the ugly stories about such intimate matters?

Well said. I, at least, want to challenge notions of “that’s just the way it is; women have always been mistreated, so thus it shall be in my Fantasy World”. And I want to write happy, joyful depictions of sex and love in addition to sad things. Who says a happy sex scene can’t contribute to character development?

New poetry in Curio and forthcoming in Polu Texni!

Now for the nice stuff I mentioned yesterday! Publications!

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Two of my poems are now online in issue 11 of Curio, “a journal of poetry that explores the world at a micro-level: tiny spaces, instants, individual objects, scraps of dreams and memories, et cetera”.

‘Silver and Gold’ and ‘Man Playing Piazzolla’ can both be found here.

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Both were written last year. The first draft of ‘Silver and Gold’ happened in early February. I was still working as a research assistant for the Varieng research unit at the University of Helsinki at that point, on the top floor of the Metsätalo building. Lovely views of rooftop Helsinki: the office room I worked in had a view of Helsinki Cathedral. Anyway, one evening in February I was at work late – well, no longer doing research assistant stuff, but working on my MA thesis after my paid job, as was my way. (Those were good times. Yes, seriously! Getting to write my MA thesis at an actual office at uni instead of home or in the library – brilliant.)

Anyway, early evening, I shuffled into the corridor for a break and chanced to see an enchanting view from the big glass wall: thus, a poem. It’s one of the approximately three poems I wrote during the three months I was both working and intensively writing my thesis. So I’m even more pleased that it has found a home!

‘Man Playing Piazzolla’ was written in September last year when I challenged myself with a “week of poetry” as I occasionally do. I was unemployed, wandering the city with my friend, and came across one of the most enchanting street musicians I’ve seen in Helsinki. I’ve seen him since, but that time in September was the first. Magic indeed. He was straight out of an urban fantasy story, and I may yet use him as character inspiration!

There you go. Long rambles about my poems. :) Hope you enjoy them!

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And another poetry sale: my poem ‘Beauty Remembers’ is forthcoming in Polu Texni! Yay!

Sunday recs: short edition

I was going to post a far longer rec list tonight, but the day ran away with me. Now it’s midnight, I’m really hungry, and I have to wake up horribly early tomorrow to go to my first physiotherapist’s appointment. Hence, just two recs today: two stories from Strange Horizons!

I Have Placed My Sickness Upon You, by Karin Tidbeck. This story is delightful and sad and weird in a good way. Awesome first sentence, too: Then came that Thursday in February when I stepped into my psychiatrist’s office and was presented with a goat.

I need to check out more of Karin Tidbeck’s stuff. I’m rather inspired by her bilingualism-wise, because as can be discerned from her website, she writes in two languages: Swedish and English. I always like finding other bilingual writers, seeing how they deal with their languages when it comes to creative writing. Perhaps one day I can be as confident in my Finnish writing as Tidbeck is with her Swedish.

My second story rec for tonight is Town’s End, by Yukimi Ogawa. I haven’t read Japanese speculative fiction before (my experiences with Japanese fiction in general are pretty much confined to Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami), but now I want more! Love the atmosphere of Ogawa’s story. Japanese folklore meets the modern day in a wonderfully subtle way.

Finally: if all goes well, I’ll be posting about pleasing things in a day or two. :)

Peppermint tea and a new moon

Warning for rambling just-before-bedtime thoughts.

I’m drinking peppermint tea and eating my second slice of berry pie. I haven’t done any writing today even though I was supposed to (both academic and creative) – well, apart from my morning pages (I’ve started a trial run again; I’ll blog about it later, perhaps). Today I’ve thought about writing; I’ve read about writing; I went to an invigorating fiddle class and finished my re(re-re-re-etc.)read of Lord of the Rings. And was at work for eight hours before all that, of course.

So why do I feel like I’ve accomplished almost nothing today?

I’ve always been good at trying to take on more than I can handle, and at being dissatisfied with what I do manage to do. At the moment it feels like that again, and nevertheless/as a consequence I’ve been spending lots of time alone and too much time on the internet. Procrastinating, of course. That’s the problem when the “too much to handle” thing isn’t in the form of full-to-bursting schedules right now, but in the form of overwhelmingly big decisions and finding out things and creativity and, well, all sorts of matters requiring extensive brain activity. Which is in very short supply after work.

I get frustrated with myself if I don’t have the energy and creativity for fiction/poetry, but I suppose I should be more gentle with myself. But at the same time: the year is rushing along, and I want to get stuff done fiction-wise too. I want to get my poetry out there. I want to start a new novel, I want to finish a few short stories.

I feel like I need new energy, new motivation. Unsure where to find such things. More sleep would probably help (although I’ve been going to sleep at slightly more sensible hours – finally getting used to my 9-to-5 days?). Dunno what else would. Sheer pig-headedness and perseverance?

I’m going to try to set myself a goal of writing every day – something, anything as long as it’s creative. Should try writing exercises. Should do a poem-a-day week again. Just something to get the words flowing and get rid of this anxiety.

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But when I came back from my fiddle class this evening, I saw a sudden joy: a papercut-thin crescent moon silvering in the sky. It was one of those silhouettes that make my love for Helsinki deepen: Dark buildings on the horizon, where the sky was still a faint shade of orange from the memory of sunset. The colours sliding from orange to eggshell blue to the elven dark of early evening, and the moon a breathtaking silver sword, its crescent hanging almost horizontal in the sky.

Beginnings and endings

Today I read two blog posts on writing, and the topics fit so nicely around one another, ouroboros-like, that I thought I’d post my own thoughts inspired by them. The first post, by Terri Windling, is on beginnings. The second, by Carrie Ryan (blogging at the awesome Magical Words), is on endings.

Windling’s post is not so much about actual story beginnings as it is about the act of beginning. It’s a love song for head-over-heels story-exploring! It really resonated with me because (see below), I’m all about the headlong rush into story. Windling’s quoted some really lovely stuff that I utterly agree with. Just go for it: don’t be afraid of beginning! I found the whole post really inspiring. (Also, pictures of trees and a lovely dog!)

Ryan’s post is a more general discussion on endings and their difficulty. It’s rather validating to know that published authors also struggle with the matter of endings! :) Good points about how endings should resolve aspects of the story.

Which is easier?
Beginnings, endings: two essential features of any story. No matter how non-plot-driven, every story has a beginning and end. Beginnings affect endings, vice versa too. And like in all aspects of writing, every writer has their own ways of dealing with both beginnings and endings. So what are mine?

I’ve always found beginnings far easier than endings. I can come up with a bunch of beginnings for stories in half an hour, but struggle for months with finding endings that feel right. Oh, the number of unfinished stories languishing (possibly forever) in my writing folder, lamenting their want of a proper ending! (Well, in truth, the stories that never get an ending probably weren’t worth the trouble in the first place: had ideas that didn’t take wing, were clumsily done, etc.)

Note: I’m talking first drafts here. In the editing process, beginning and ending alike pose their own problems. What felt like the perfect scene to start a story can end up being cut, or changed entirely.

Sometimes I’ll know the ending of a story the moment I start writing it, but mostly I’m a pantser. Or at least, more of a pantser than a planner. I guess I’m a percolator, really (to quote from the link: “I let the drips of a story filter through my mind over a long period of time, letting it steam and swirl about without determining it”). So, yeah. I’ll plan a bit before starting a story – unless sudden, unexpected inspiration hits.

I think mostly it’s about the attitude to beginning. Even if I’ve planned something in advance, the ending is rarely entirely clear. So I jump into a new project with mind open and a blind faith that eventually I’ll find my way through the maze to the ending. I love hurtling into a new story (or longer poem) without quite knowing what’s going to happen along the way. Only once I’m past the initial rush do I start giving serious thought to how the story’s going to end.

My problem with endings is something that’s plagued my writing my whole life. It’s not like every story is problematic with regard to its ending, but like I said: beginnings are definitely easier than endings. I think one of my main problems with endings is that they are what resonate (or not!) with the reader once the story’s done, so there’s a lot of pressure to make the ending Matter, and be Brilliant. Of course, beginnings should also be Brilliant, and hook the reader and so forth. But I can forgive a book a lacklustre beginning if it has a breathtaking ending, because the ending is often what lingers with the reader.

Case study
I’ve been trying to plan a story for a competition organised by a Finnish sf/f con (named… wait for it… Finncon!). In Finnish, naturally. It’s nice to flex my Finnish-writing muscles again, but what’s been difficult so far has been the ideas and planning, not even the writing. Since the deadline is in around a month, I thought I’d plan the story first. Efficient, organised, all that.

Well, yesterday I came home from work with the snow falling briskly around me: the city all white again, daylight gone. And suddenly, bam, an idea (only vaguely based on my previous plans) and words tumbling out so fast that I had to type the first sentences into my mobile phone so I wouldn’t forget them. So now I have a typical me-situation: a first page of prose with the initial scenario, plus a few notes for the future. No actual plot yet, and definitely no ending in sight. But a strong atmosphere and a love for the words and characters.

I wish I knew the ending for this story. But I think I’ll have fun finding it out even as I write! It’ll require more editing, but I hope I come up with a satisfying end… erm… in the end.

What’s more difficult for you, dear readers? Beginning a story or coming up with an ending?

A fall and some recs

It’s been rollercoaster weather here, the sun melting the snow, temperatures rising – and then shifting back to winter, the frost snapping its fingers. Last night, 15cm of snow, snow so thick in the air that it looked like a deep fog.

I edited 6-ish pages of novelette yesterday, but apart from that it’s been quiet on the writing front, this past week. I’ve recovered from my ear infection, thank goodness. But right after, another mishap: before the snowfall yesterday, I slipped on the ice outside despite walking carefully. Nothing bad: a slightly bruised arm and thigh. But the fall jolted my body, and today all my chronic-pain muscles have been giving me hell. Grrrr.

Just a couple of recs tonight.

Poetry: I’ve been reading old issues of Stone Telling. Both of the following poems are rather grim, but beautiful: Eliza Victoria’s prose poem Sodom Gomorrah, and Sonya Taaffe’s Persephone in Hel.

(The latter poem reminds me: I wrote a poem related to Persephone earlier this year; I should submit it somewhere…)

And here’s a post by fantasy author Marie Brennan on how to write a long fantasy series. I haven’t yet tried my hand at writing a series, let alone a long series, but I’ve read plenty, so I think I can say that Brennan has several good points. :) Especially relating to pacing and POV characters. Anyway, many of her points can also apply to any complex novel, so it’s useful reading!