Geetanjali Mukherjee

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My Top 5 Creativity Apps of 2013

As other bloggers tend to create end-of-year lists around this time of year, I too wanted to write down the most useful apps for increasing my creativity and productivity this year.

No such list is complete without a mention of Evernote, the fantastic note-taking app. What appeals to me most is the ability to keep everything in one place, so I no longer forget ideas for books or research that I would usually put in some document or piece of paper and never find again. With Evernote, I simply have to create a new note with my idea, and tag with a label like “writing ideas”, and then its instantly searchable.
The other way I use Evernote is to keep track of my goals for projects - usually with a simple table - and I simply update my progress on my phone, which syncs across all my devices.
Finally, something that I only started doing this year, is sending articles that are relevant directly from my RSS reader (Feedly) to my Evernote email address (you can find this in account information), which automatically creates a note with that article. I save articles related to tips and interviews on writers and thinkers that I want to re-read again in this way. It saves having to copy the article, open Evernote, create a note - it’s a one-step process instead.
Feedly is my new go-to RSS reader since Google Reader shut down. It’s really easy to add subscriptions, and has a great streamlined feel. Most importantly though, I can save to Pocket with one touch, or email articles directly to Evernote from within the app.
3. Pocket
I had heard a lot about this app, but was initially reluctant to add yet another reading app. But this has slowly become invaluable, as I like to save not only articles I come across and want to read later, but also articles I have read and would like to read again later or reference for some reason.
This app I use exclusively on my iPhone, and I updated to the Paid version after a few weeks after I realised how useful it was for me. You can create activities to track, and each activity can be set up with a different icon and colour. With one touch, you can track the time on an activity, and again with one touch, you can end it. Over the course of the day, you can see different charts that add up what activities you did, and how much time you spent. The free version allows you 4 activities at a maximum, and the paid one allows unlimited.  You can track more than one activity simultaneously, for the multi-taskers amongst us.
I use it to track how much time I am spending on any one project, and anything else I want to increase my time on - blogging for instance, or writing in my journal. I’ve noticed that whatever I activity I start to track, over time I increase how much I have been spending on it. Additionally, time tracking allows me to see how much time I have spent on each session on my project, and gauge how effective my work sessions are.
5. Moves
This last app is indirectly related to creativity - as I believe improved fitness helps to increase productivity and creativity in equal measure. This free app tracks the steps you take all day, and gives you an accurate picture of where you have been during the day, and how many steps you have walked at each point. As we all know, walking improves health and fitness, and also increases mental clarity, and often ideas for resolving our creative roadblocks appear while walking. Ever since using this app, I have increased my walking almost subconsciously, and feel guilty on days I don’t walk much or not at all, staying locked in my home office working. The app reminds me that I haven’t logged any steps, and am often compelled to go out for a quick 10-15 minute walk.
So there it is - my list of apps that I use daily to help me continue to improve my quality and quantity of creative work. Please leave comments below to add to this list, I would love to hear what apps help others on their creative quests.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Smashwords Author Interview

I just published an in-depth interview on Smashwords, which provides this amazing tool for writers. .

I have tried to answer some questions about my writing, and writing process. I would love some feedback on this, so feel free to leave comments.

An excerpt from my interview:

Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up in Calcutta, India, a city known for its cultural contribution to India. The only Indian recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Rabindranath Tagore, is from the same city, and in fact, I am named after his Nobel Prize winning book of poetry. Thus, in some ways, writing was in my destiny. I grew up surrounded by ideas, and one of my favourite memories with my mother is going to the children's library to spend an entire afternoon reading books.
What do you read for pleasure?
I love to re-read some of my favourite books, like the works of Austen and classics like "The Wizard of Oz". I am a huge fan of chick-lit, especially from British and Irish writers, and everyone in my family knows, once I have started on one, I won't emerge till I'm done with the book! I also love cartoons, especially Dilbert, and Calvin and Hobbes. I am also a huge fan of Agatha Christie, and have read every book of hers, many of them twice.

I have lately become a fan of John Gardner's James Bond novels. I also have read every single Amy Tan book, and wait eagerly for her next offering. I enjoy some literary fiction as well.

In terms of non-fiction, I read business and productivity books voraciously, as well as an eclectic mix of books on economics, public policy, science and history. I also love cookbooks and nutrition / diet books.
Who are your favorite authors?
Depends on genre, but in no particular order: Jane Austen, JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling, Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Malcolm Gladwell, Vikram Seth, Amy Tan, Azar Nafisi, Daniel Coyle, Oscar Wilde, Leo Tolstoy, and many many more that I can't remember right now.
Read the rest on my Smashwords profile.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Accomplishing Your Goals in 15 Minutes

Creativity, in any field, is hard. Not only do you have to squeeze out time from your schedule and already demanding life, you also have to conquer your inner demons in order to create something original.
You know what I'm talking about, that voice in your head that says, nay shouts, “Don’t bother, it’s been done before”. Or if it truly is original, then it will say, “You’re not good enough to do something this ground-breaking”. This voice is always telling you why something can't be done, or shouldn’t. It is difficult to take any creative steps with this voice nagging away.
I have been working on a project, one that is very close to my heart, and the main reason that its taken so long is because of this voice in my head. It makes me so nervous I avoid working on my project altogether, and set it aside sometimes for weeks, even months at a time, giving myself excuses like ‘I’m too busy’, or ‘I’ll work on it after I finish this current project’, or ‘I just need to take some more notes first’. Despite all these excuses, I know deep down, that they are just those, excuses, and I really should be working on my project. Its only when I can't bear being away from it anymore, that I get back to it, wishing I hadn’t spent all that time away, wishing I didn’t succumb to that voice.
Recently I decided that I was sick of the voice’s control over me, and also that I needed to clear house, accomplish some of the older pending smaller projects, all the better to gather steam for this larger one. I decided to republish an e-book I published online a few years ago, on a different site; one that provided better distribution options, but required a fairly involved submission process. I had been putting off this task, since I was quite apprehensive about what it would entail. As the end of the year approached I was determined to accomplish this task, however long it would take; but secretly I didn’t believe I could do it. Not that I wasn’t capable of doing it, just that it would be too difficult, or I would make lots of mistakes, or find some reason or the other to give up.
While I started work on this mini-project, I was finishing up a research project with a collaborator, and in between edits on that manuscript, I decided to start working on this one. I told myself I only had to work for short bursts of time, which was the only way I could do it, as I had to keep going back to my collaborative project. While waiting for my colleague to revert with changes, I would put in 10-15 minutes on formatting my manuscript. These little bursts of work were non-threatening to the voice, pre-primed with thinking you can't really get into something in 10 minutes, so therefore there was no need to criticize. By flying under the radar of detection, I started to pile up the amount I got done. And it started to look like I was making real progress, like I might really get there.
Finally the other project was done, handed in, and I breathed a sigh of relief. This would usually be my cue to take a break, call it a day, after 2 days of almost non-stop work, late into the night. But I was pumped with adrenaline, and besides, I was really into the task now, and decided to see how much further I could get before bumping into trouble.
I did hit a few trouble spots, and each time the voice came back, telling me I would have to give up. Or wait till I found someone to help me. And then it told me that it was unlikely I would find help. But I took a short break, refueled, and told myself I would give it another 15 minutes, and if I made no progress in that time, I would give up for the day. Each time I either found a solution in 15 minutes, or was so engrossed that I kept going, and eventually figured it out. Ultimately, I did it. I published my book. But more importantly, I realized, that I may not believe in myself and my creative ability all the time, but I can manage it for 15 minutes at a time, and that may be enough.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Making a Fresh Determination

I have been a Buddhist for the past 15 years, it is an important part of my life, and informs many of my values and beliefs. And I find many of the lessons from Buddhism translate well into improving / increasing creativity. Today is a landmark day in my faith, as it is the founding day of our organisation, and traditionally, the day that we make a fresh departure, we make goals and determinations for the next 12 months. I know that the rest of the world does this on Jan 1st; well we Buddhists get another chance in November.

In fact, in Buddhism we have a fair few days that we use to make new resolutions – different commemorative dates. What, having to go through the process of seeing what resolutions I have failed to achieve (hint: all of them), more than once a year? No thank you! Well, in fact, having more than one day in the year to reflect can be far from demoralising actually. Sure, when it comes to May 3rd (another important day for us), I can look back over the past five months and see how much or how little I have achieved, which usually galvanises me into action for the next month or so. Then in a few months we have another significant date, or a campaign to work towards Nov 18th, and I push myself hard for another few weeks.
To tell you the truth, I love the heady excitement of making goals, and imagining them come true. When I read self-help books that tell you to make lists of goals, I immediately sit down on my laptop and start firing away. The problem however, is that I am great at making the goals, not so great at the follow-through. I often forget all about my goals within a few weeks, sometimes sooner, and in previous years when I made New Year’s Resolutions, I used to forget them by February end at the latest, until the last week of December, when I was making my new resolutions. And then I kicked myself for not making any headway in the past 12 months.
On the other hand, getting an opportunity 3 or 4 times a year to review my goals and assess my progress means that I am reminded of my goals and also my lack of progress. And since I usually manage to make at least a month of progress towards my goals, in this way, I spend about 4-5 months a year working on my resolutions instead of one. This way, in the past year, I have been able to complete a first draft on a book that I have been writing primarily in my head and on stray scraps of paper over the past 10 years. This has been huge for me.
Today too, I am renewing my determinations to complete previously incomplete goals, the first of which is to turn that first draft into a publishable book. I intend to work on it solidly for another month, by which time it would be time to make resolutions for 2014, and assess how much progress I made.
I urge you too, to try my approach of going back over your resolutions for 2013, and seeing if there are any that you can have a go at – after all, there are still 6 weeks left in this year. Maybe you wanted to go to the gym more often, or eat more healthy food. In 6 weeks you can go to the gym 12-15 times, which is a lot more than not going, and vowing to do so in January. You can learn some new salad recipes and try them out for your family, in preparation for the holiday season overindulgences. Whatever your goal is, there is surely some progress that can be made in 6 weeks.

Friday, November 15, 2013

My First NanoWrimo: Lessons From the First Two Weeks

This month I finally decided to make use of my dormant Nano registration. For those of you who haven’t come across this annual craziness, NanoWrimo is an event where every November hordes of would-be writers from all corners of the world attempt to write a 50,000 word minimum novel from the 1st to 30th of November.

Every year since 2007, I have wanted to participate in Nano but two things held me back: November was always the month with exams and papers due, and more importantly, I never had any story ideas. Which is code for: I didn’t think I had the stamina to write 50,000 words of fiction.
This year something changed, not sure what. Perhaps the fact that I have been keeping track of how many words I have written since the beginning of the year (excluding emails), and its almost reached 350,000, which is a personal best I'm sure. At least I know I can type a lot of words, but none of it was fiction. Most of it was for a non-fiction book that I’ve completed the first draft of, and set aside till I am done with Nano. Perhaps it was also because this year, for the first time ever, I have had numerous ideas for novels over the years, and have actually managed to write them down somewhere I can retrieve them, instead of jotting them on the nearest napkin, and chucking into a cardboard box, which has been my system for keeping track of writing ideas in the past.
Thus I decided, with a lot of enthusiasm, that I would undertake Nano this year, and win. And then a short vacation was planned during the first week of Nano, which meant I started a week late. Bummer. And I couldn’t decide between my various story ideas which would be the one I could stretch for 50,000 words without a lot of research. All of this took away precious writing time, and I toyed with the idea of doing what I do every year, gearing up to write, and never actually writing even the first word.
Miraculously, I managed to start typing, and the after the first two or three pages, it got easier. I am at 7,000 plus words, which means I'm hopelessly behind. However, this is the most fiction I have ever written, and I am proud of that fact. Even though most of it is drivel. Despite that fact, I have learnt more about novel writing in the past week or so than from all the books I’ve read over the years.

I have learnt more about novel writing in the past week or so than from all the books I’ve read over the years.
And that’s my first lesson. That sometimes, even when a project we want to undertake seems daunting and impossible, and we are tempted to first research the hell out of it so we are prepared for what’s coming, don’t. As useful as research can be, and who doesn’t love a long session on Google, jumping from one interesting fact to another, it’s easy to not only get side-tracked into spending a lot of time researching, sometimes it can be a detractor. You may feel so overwhelmed by all the things you feel you need to know before you start, that you may postpone starting indefinitely. I know without the big Nano clock ticking away, I wouldn’t have written even one out of the 7,087 words that I have written so far.
Simply diving in and writing, I have learnt a lot about what I don’t know, and what I need to learn before I revise my current draft; it turns out I could get by on the first draft without knowing any of that. Sure at times I have wanted to tear my hair out, but it’s the only real way to grow as a writer. By just writing. By trying to reach for a goal that is just out of my reach. Apparently that is the way to improve at any skill – the way our brains learn is by creating something called myelin, which only happens when we are constantly uncomfortable, constantly trying to do something that we aren’t good enough to do, yet. [This is actually fascinating stuff, how our brains help up form new skills. If you want to know more, read Daniel Coyle’s excellent book, The Talent Code.]
The other lesson I learnt during this period, is that while taking breaks to get up and stretch are required, I don’t really need another cup of tea, or to watch another episode of ­---. Even if my eyes are shutting on their own accord, I can still write another few hundred words, and they aren’t too different in quality from the words I wrote whilst wide awake. In fact, I have found that being half-asleep improves my writing.
Now it is completely possible that I am in fact a terrible writer, so that awake or asleep I write badly. But I actually think there is another explanation for this. Tom Bird’s book, The Call of the Writer, actually advises writing just after waking up, when our conscious mind hasn’t quite kicked in, and the inner editor isn’t fighting us on every word. I have actually discovered this to be quite true. And this is a revelation to me, as previously I have always wasted valuable writing time, by thinking that since I was tired, I couldn’t write, and would have to resume the next day when I was less tired. But inevitably life and real work get in the way, and often the only time available for writing is the half-hour before going to bed. I have realized over the past week or so, that simply by writing every day, even for short bursts, the word count can pile up.
So I suggest to all creatives reading this, what project have you set aside to return to when you have more time? Maybe you have a half-hour today, even just before bed, which you can use. Check this space for an update on whether or not I complete my 50,000 words. Fingers crossed…

Update: I did not complete 50,000 words in 2013, but in 2015 Nano I did. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Colourful Creativity: A Lesson from Rangoli

Early this November Indians worldwide celebrated the Festival of Lights, Diwali. In my house, one of the annual traditions is a colourful design drawn on the floor, usually near the entrance, with either dry coloured powder or flower petals, or both, called a ‘Rangoli’.

This year, we decided to keep it simple, and instead of buying a lot of new colours for the rangoli, we would simply reuse the leftover colours from the last few years. When I finally sat down to fill the design drawn by my mom (another tradition, she draws, I fill), I realised that some of the colours only had a tiny amount left, not enough for an entire section. One had even lost its original colour, and all that remained was a dirty grey hue. My mom and I puzzled over what to do, and initially I embarked on using the colours I had in larger quantities.
But soon I tired of the same colours, and wanted a change. That’s when we decided to mix different shades of the same colour together, using up different types of yellow in varying quantities, or mixing different pinks together. It turned out quite well, so I decided to be bolder, and mix blue and green to form a new shade. That resulted in my favourite colour, teal, and became the focal point of the finished design. And in the process, I discovered that I could mix the colours together to form more interesting tints, and there was no need to be confined to the traditional hues sold by the merchants every year.
I also learnt a larger lesson about creativity. Sometimes we look at what we have in front of us to complete a project, our resources, our time, maybe even our talent, and we feel discouraged thinking that it is insufficient to create something beautiful or accomplished. We tell ourselves that if only we had better quality materials, more time, if only we had more skills, we could create a masterpiece. However, this experience taught me that sometimes scarce resources lead us to improvise and maybe even innovate in a way that we couldn’t have imagined with unlimited resources. In Twyla Tharp’s excellent book about creativity, she makes this very same point.
Sometimes, even when we have just a few minutes or only a few materials, we can create something remarkable. This Diwali I was happy to simply continue our tradition of creating a rangoli, and create something that was just passable. However, it turned out that it was the best rangoli we had ever made.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Taking Stock

Last few days I have been very annoyed with myself, for not really making good progress on my current work-in-progress. I have been procrastinating more than usual, and eating more junk food to compensate, and generally feeling like I haven’t been putting my best foot forward.

Trying to cheer myself up, I was talking to my mom, who asked me if I was being hard on myself. To which I mentally replied – ‘no, I don’t think I'm being hard enough’. Then she told me about something difficult she accomplished recently – and that given the obstacles she faced and the constraints she was under, she did the best job she could under the circumstances. And when she said that, I realised – I was upset because I was comparing to myself to other people, vague others who were probably writing 5000 words a day and completing their books in 3 weeks. Which I wasn’t – nowhere close. I had to instead be content that I was making much better progress than I had been previously – at least I was writing every day, or almost every day.
And then I looked up my stats for this year – my cobbled together spreadsheet listing everything I have written so far this year – and realized that my total word count for this year till date – is more than 290,000 words! Which is an awesome feat for me, compared to any other year so far. And granted, not all of that is great or publishable, but it means I'm making progress, I'm getting better as a writer.

It’s easy to compare to ourselves with others – there is always someone better, prettier, richer than us. The only way to maintain sanity is to keep taking action, keep making progress, and sometimes take stock – look back on that long road and see how far you’ve come. Stop, drink an ice-cream soda, and then start again – renewed and refreshed by taking stock of how many steps you have already taken.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Just A Restless Feeling

Lately I have been having trouble with momentum, as I have mentioned earlier. The last few days working on my current book-length project, it’s really felt like pulling teeth. I keep finding all sorts of distractions, things I would rather be doing than work on my project. I do have a self-imposed deadline coming up, and knowing that I am behind already, I have been pushing myself to make good progress.

I finally gave in and decided to catch up on my RSS feeds, and I came across this article, which quoted author Josh Shenk, reminding me that writing a book-length project is hard:
Writing a book is a crushingly lonely experience in ways that no one who hasn’t been through it can really imagine.
Reading this helped me recognise my restlessness and nervousness of the last few days – I'm at the point in the project that the initial excitement has worn off and I'm far enough off from the end that I'm feeling the burn, it’s getting progressively harder to maintain a good pace. I just have to recognise to myself – yes, this is hard, yes I’m lonely because I have declined all social invitations in order to write, and that’s just how it is. But the good thing I that I'm not the first author to face this, I'm not strange or weird. Knowing others have gone through this, survived and gone on to other projects makes me feel much better.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Obstacles to Creativity

Artists, and indeed anyone trying something new, taking some risks, going out on a limb, face obstacles as a matter of course. The only problem is that every time we face them, we are surprised, unprepared and more than a little annoyed at the disruption to our routine and plan.

Obstacles can be in the form of an unexpected event taking precious time away from a deadline, like the family emergency that happened to me at the beginning of the month, taking away 2 whole weeks of precious time from my deadline, and even more time trying to regain my previous momentum. They can be in the form of a sudden illness, or a last minute request from a client or boss, that may threaten to derail your present assignment.
Obstacles may also come up in your creative arsenal – your laptop starts to give trouble, freezes or becomes agonizingly slow just as the last hours of the deadline creep up on you; you discover that you’re out of the exact shade of fabric you needed for a crucial detail; or, as I have been facing for the last few days, you get pain in your fingers and find it difficult to type or hold a pen.
Our tools are everything to us, and when they don’t work or we forget a crucial implement in our toolkit, it can be beyond frustrating. It can be debilitating. The first thought at such a time is to curse, get angry, blame sundry forces that are conspiring against you.

However, I have come to believe that obstacles are actually your friends, in disguise. They are there to test your resolve, to see if you really have what it takes to complete your project, to wow your client and deliver on your promises. It’s not supposed to be a test so you can fail; if you recognise that it’s simply a gut-check time, do you have the conviction in yourself to go all the way, to follow through, then the obstacles transforms into a challenge, something you are anxious to overcome, to triumph over and send packing.  

When the project is over, when you have crossed the finish line, the obstacles that you have overcome are what you will look back on with pride, they will fuel your sense of accomplishment. So look at them with appreciation, and tell yourself that the obstacles you’re facing are actually a sign that you’re getting close to the end, and to your achievement.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Regaining Momentum on a Creative Project

I'm getting quite close to the wire on a long-term creative project that has already had several delays, and for which I set a deadline of November for it to be completed in its entirety. Last month I was finally starting to make good progress, and the last few days of August my fingers were flying on the keyboard as I started to pile up the word counts.

And then I had a family emergency and had to travel to India. It was a stressful time, and there was a lot to be done, and work on my project halted completely. Understandably, many people would say. And yet it’s been more than 10 days since I have been back, and attempting to pick up the thread on my project. And my momentum has been shot to h*ll.
I can't for the life of me get back to the pace I was working at before I left, and I can't even summon up the same level of motivation I had on the project as before. I know intellectually that I still need to meet the deadline, and need to work even harder than before to make up the time shortfall. And yet, I'm dragging my feet as it were, and languidly typing a few sentences at a time.
Usually I read books on writing when this happens, but advice on starting a project and doing a little everyday isn’t helping, since I am doing a little everyday; it just happens to be not enough. Writing teacher Julia Cameron has said that “writing rights things”, and in this instance, not writing is making me grumpy, I'm finding faults with every aspect of my life. Or these faults were there, but when I was writing, they weren’t so visible to me. Hmm…so the solution is to write more, but that is also the problem.
I tried taking a break – I took a day off to read a book, and generally chill. The next day I got more done, but not nearly enough, and the day after that, the lack of energy is back. I don’t really have any other tricks up my sleeve – other than the old favourite – powering through. I will keep sitting down at my computer, until the pace picks up and I start to fall in love with the material again. I’ve read enough interviews of writers to know that this happens to many people, and they get through it, and I will too. Its just that now I know this intellectually, but in my heart I still have this gnawing feeling: “What if I can't finish this book on time? Should I just give up now? Maybe I don’t really need to write this book.” These feelings are scary – and my instinct is to tamp down on them and ignore them. But I know from experience, not acknowledging feelings just encourages them to grow, so here I am doing the opposite – and strangely I feel a bit better already. Its like when the sun comes up, the monsters that freaked you out the night before feel like silly shadows that disappear in the sun’s rays.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Lessons from 3 Idiots: Beyond the Obvious Takeaways

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot from non-Indian friends and acquaintances about the Bollywood movie 3 Idiots, which I absolutely love by the way. Mystically, it was playing on TV last night, and somehow I couldn’t resist watching it again. In light of conversations I had had about career success earlier that day, I pondered the message of the movie.

At first blush, the takeaway seems obvious – after all, the movie reiterates the line which purports to underscore its message several times – “Don’t run after success, run after excellence and success will run after you”. This pithy message is made even more poignant with the final image, of the ‘3 idiots’ (the protagonists) running, and so-called ‘success’ in the form of a character illustrating the corollary viewpoint running after them.
When I thought about it a bit deeper, what occurred to me were the following points:
1.       The central character, ‘Rancho’ illustrated not only the pursuit of excellence, but even more importantly, the kind of person one should presumably aspire to be – generous, kind, helpful, unswayed by excessive praise or criticism. This is illustrated over several anecdotes, but the feeling generated by him is generally that most people sooner or later love and admire him. Becoming this sort of person could then be seen as a goal in itself.

2.    Excellence stems from sustained hard work, and hard work, even if it doesn’t give you an immediate reward, can only be sustained over the long period required by loving what you do. This returns to the passion hypothesis, derisively disputed by Cal Newport, but includes his premise that only by being “so good they can't ignore you” can you succeed. The movie then is implicitly arguing that the hard work needed to acquire mastery can only happen when you start by choosing a path you love already, or are interested enough to pursue. If you secretly harbouring an infatuation with some other professional calling, then you won't be able to achieve excellence in the path that you’re following only out of a sense of duty – like the wildlife photographer trying to be an engineer in the movie. This point especially appeals to me – as I am afraid to fully commit to the marriage to writing, keeping a toe in other pursuits, in case I'm not good enough or lucky enough to succeed in this endeavour.

3.   The final point, and to me the most important one, centers on creating value. Simply focusing on excellence is a bit pointless if you are excellent at conning people out of their money. It may make you successful by a narrow definition of sheer net worth; however, if by success you mean feeling fulfilled and happy in a larger sense, creating value is the key to success. If you notice, all the inventions Rancho worked on found a problem or gap and filled it. Although the movie doesn’t explicitly mention this, I believe that creating the most value possible through one’s work is really the oft-neglected ingredient in the elusive formula for success; at least the 3 idiot-brand of success.

Multi-tasking: Trying to Read More

I read this suggestion on Jamie Rubin’s blog that he walks with audio books, so he gets reading done, especially classics that we wouldn’t otherwise get around to reading. And I thought that was a fab idea, and one I should try out. I tried it out, while listening to Anna Karenina, which I got on audiobook a while ago, and listened to a few chapters, but never got around to finishing – other stuff got in the way, and I changed my walk route, and started trying to walk more and faster and everything.
So today I tried this, allowing myself to walk slowly so I could get back into the rhythm of the book, especially because I'm not great with listening, I always prefer subtitles in movies for instance. I actually managed to walk my usual amount – about 40 minutes, without breaking a sweat, or getting exhausted, which I usually do. And I made great progress on my book! So I'm now resolved to try walking in the morning, first thing. I like to start my day by reading, but this way I could get my walk and reading done at the same time. Let’s see how the experiment goes…
This comes on the heels of a determination to read more classics, ones that everyone says they want to read, or have read, but haven’t gotten around to yet. The Bronte Sisters, Leo Tolstoy, Dickens, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, obscure Austen novels…the list for me is long. I have been wanting to read these for ages, especially because I believe as a would-be writer I should be well-versed in the greats. If I could combine my walking with reading, then I will be ecstatic.
I have also been trying lately to figure out how to put more into each day, get more done, but in a natural way, not by obsessively making lists, and rushing around like a headless chicken. I have always envied those who get huge amounts done, and also come across as super-relaxed, have great relationships, and generally are very balanced. You know the sort I mean – people you admire and envy in equal measure!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Balancing the Well

Julia Cameron wrote in one of her books about filling the well, filling ourselves on art and images and creative input, so that we are brimming with fresh ideas and creativity for our own projects. This is the premise behind her concept of 'Artist's Dates' - spending time on your own doing something creative like visiting a gallery, or a bookstore, or watching a play.
In my own life I have noticed that if I go too long without fresh creative input, I start to feel stale and dispirited. It starts to infect my work, even if I am working on something dry like a journal article. Taking the time to fill my well, even if it’s as simple as watching a movie that is quite different from the kind I usually watch, can inject fresh enthusiasm and ideas.
I have even started to intuitively feel the level at which my well is filled - half, three-quarters, full to the brim. When I am feeling full to the brim of ideas and thoughts, I can actually overcome the usual crippling writer's block that assails me most days. Skipping with enthusiasm and admiration for the talent and creativity of others' work, I feel slightly braver and want to attempt my own. To me, this is the main advantage of filling the well - keeping the sniping Critic at bay.
The other side of this though, is that you can be endlessly filling the well, but never drawing from it. It's much less risky to keep reading books, watching movies and listening to other people's music, and never putting yourself on the line by attempting any art of your own. Thus, you are basically overflowing your well - you keep adding to it, but never withdrawing and using any of the creative sparks generated by all this input. Without output of a fairly regular nature, you're not able to use the excess input, which simply drains away.
I was like this for many years, and am even guilty of it now at times. It can be tempting to have lots of exciting ideas, write them down on a notepad or Evernote, and then keep diving into ever more exciting creative entrees, gorging on the smorgasbord of art available for consumption in the digital age. You may think by writing the idea down you have made sure it doesn't escape, but what about the raw materials of injected creativity which are now lost? It's like a dancer warming up for a dance session, and then sitting on the sofa and watching a documentary on History Channel. The effort put into the warm-up is wasted if the dancer doesn't then practice her dance routine, taking advantage of her warmed up muscles.
Creating art needs a delicate balance - we must take in enough input to keep the ideas flowing, keep our muscles warm and ready, and we must also exercise those muscles on a regular basis to be ready for the fabulous ideas when they come to us - fed on a mulch of great art. The past few weeks I had been dangerously close to overfilling the well, but a spate of productivity (driven by deadlines) in the past week, have withdrawn enough to keep the well just at three-quarters level. I believe that has earned me a curl-up in my bed with a good book - just as soon as I outline my next chapter...
Where are you on the spectrum - filling your well too little or too much?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Buddhist Parable on Procrastination

This year my New Year’s resolution, or one of them in any case, was to overcome my procrastination problem and start to do all the things I had been putting off. This was a tall order, I can see that, but without putting the big goal out there, I knew even slight progress would not be within sight.

In order to really convince myself to stop procrastinating and start taking action, I read everything I could on the topic - sophisticated theories and exhortations from everyone from bloggers to best-selling writers on why we procrastinate, on taking action, chunking, and many other nuggets of advice. Some I tried to implement, with some success, some I ignored or promptly forgot. As we do – we read so much on the internet, sometimes it feels like it’s in one ear, and out the other.
The one thing that really sticks out for me is a Buddhist parable I first read about in high school. It’s the legend of the kankucho bird. The story goes like this: the kankucho bird doesn’t have a nest, and consequently is very cold at night. It is shivering, and vows to itself that this situation is ridiculous, he must build himself a nest as soon as morning comes. Then morning dawns bright and beautiful, the sun is shining, and the kankucho bird is delighted with the possibilities of play in the sunshine.
All day long he plays in the sun, and then, before he realises it, the sun sets. It is suddenly dark and cold, and the bird bitterly regrets the day he wasted playing instead of building his nest. He now looks back to what he spent his day on, and compares it to the joy of having a warm nest, and berates himself on the way he spent his time. He vows anew to himself that no matter what, tomorrow morning he would definitely build the nest first, before getting distracted by anything else.
Morning comes, and full of intention the bird, badly shaken from the conditions of the night, rallies out to start building. And who does he meet but his best friend? Who invites him to join in this really wonderful new game he has invented – and before he knows the kankucho bird fritters away yet another precious day. This state of affairs continues till one day, the cold overcomes him and the bird dies, shelterless and defeated by its own follies.
Does this parable remind you of anything? Presented with endless amusements on our iphones and ipads, it is all too easy to do busy work or play games and fritter away our lives, never really getting to the things we really want to accomplish. Someone recently reminded me of this story, and I realised how hard it is for us to realise how precious time is until we no longer have any of it – just like the hapless kankucho bird. It’s so tempting to pursue the immediate pleasures and ignore the pressing, less fun but ultimately more rewarding tasks that we keep putting off till tomorrow.
What are you putting off that could change your life?

Monday, June 10, 2013

First Draft is King

This week I have been volunteering with this organisation that I have been part of for many years on a show put up by a bunch of young people in July, here in Singapore. I am helping with the script of the musical, something that I have never worked on before.

I actually didn’t write the first draft, someone else wrote the scenes and placeholders for dances and songs that are being composed by others. To be perfectly honest, the draft I saw didn’t read too well, it felt very stiff and formal, the dialogue was stilted and the essence of the story, the emotions weren’t really coming across. I was brought in to make changes as I saw fit, along with the director, which has now meant going over the entire script and making changes to everything other than the underlying structure.
Through this process I learnt so much about my own struggles to complete my writing projects. Although the first draft was quite flawed, without it in place our process would have taken twice or three times as long. Just in my mind, having something to work on made me approach the work differently, with a lot more confidence and less pressure than I would otherwise have faced. I was able to chunk the work in my mind down into this set of lines, this scene, this speech. I worked on it a bit at a time, and the combination of reduced pressure and focus on a few lines at a time helped to completely transform the script.
It’s a work in progress, which should be done in the next couple of days. However, already the dialogue is much more natural, important elements are being added in, the design flaws are being considered and better alternatives found. And most importantly, I realised the fundamental importance of a completed first draft, no matter how terrible. Sure I have read many great writers talk about shi**y first drafts, but I just assumed that since they are great writers, their standards of really terrible would differ from mine, and there was no way I could write really badly and then improve it substantially. I assumed I would have to sort out the knotty design and structural problems, figure out where to add in the really important thematic points and have all my research done BEFORE I worked on the first draft because these were substantive issues. Now I have the confidence to know that drafts can be completely transformed just by changing a few things, and even the many changes seem few when layered onto an existing, completed document.
So lesson learned – first draft is really king, and anything can be achieved ONCE the first draft is in place.
So what project are you putting off till you have all the elements in place, where you can start right now with a baseline first draft?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Book on poetry "From Auden to Yeats" launched

I just launched the second edition, with some revisions, of my book "From Auden to Yeats: Critical Analysis of 30 Selected Poems for Literature Students".

Here is a description of the book:

This book is a ready reference for students of English literature looking for help navigating the poetry of some of the late nineteenth and twentieth century’s greatest poets. The book contains in-depth critical analyses of 30 selected poems from the work of W.H. Auden, Ted Hughes, John Keats, Philip Larkin and W.B. Yeats, as well as brief biographies on each poet, which help to put the poetry in context. The book aims to provide not only a basic understanding of each poem featured, but also explains themes, motifs and symbols used in the poems. This is an invaluable guide for school and college students of English literature or anyone wishing to gain a deeper understanding of some of the best-known poetry of the last century.
I became fascinated by poetry in high school, especially the nineteenth and twentieth century greats. This is my second book, my first book was commissioned by a leading educational publisher in India, on the poetry of Seamus Heaney. It's available in paperback version, now in its 5th edition.

This book is available currently on as an ebook.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Dunce to B+ - Insights from “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”

I recently read Cal Newport’s latest offering, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”, and had so many thoughts, that I had to try to sort them out on paper. The book is definitely worth reading, even for those who are relatively secure in their career path and are confident they have it all mapped out.
I had a few insights, and will try to put them down in a few posts.
Cal writes about deliberate practice, a method by which you basically improve your skill in a given endeavour. I’ve read two books on the topic, and am already very familiar with the idea. Cal underscores the point that deliberate practise is meant to be uncomfortable, that it is important to go through that process to increase skill. And I thought to myself, this means that if I find something uncomfortable, that’s simply because I haven’t developed the skill yet. And when I do, it will no longer be uncomfortable.
So the point I'm making here is very different from the point made by Cal Newport. He states (or rather the research literature has discovered) that in order to improve a skill we have to go out of our comfort zone, stretch ourselves. I’ve read this before, and this is why improving a skill isn’t easy. However, the corollary to this of course is that if you’re doing something, and its difficult or uncomfortable, that means you are stretching your abilities and becoming better at whatever you are doing. This may sound obvious, but in some contexts it may not be so.
We don’t need to be world-class at all skills. In some situations you may need to simply learn how to do if efficiently and effectively, and then it’s important that the skill becomes automatic, that you don’t need to think too much about it. The classic example of this is driving. Learning to drive is initially difficult, but most people get to a point where they can carry on conversations or plan the dinner menu in their head whilst driving (not that I think being distracted being the wheel is advisable).
For me, this insight, that the discomfort in applying a skill is only temporary till I have gotten the hang of it, or mastered it as such, means I am much more likely to hang on in a new skill till I’ve gotten to this point of basic mastery. A prime example recently has been cooking. I know a lot of people love to cook, and I used to be among those when I cooked occasionally, with a lot of help, and only made special dishes. Cooking was fun then, but also an elaborate affair taking many hours, and necessitating lots of clean-up after the mess I made in the kitchen. Recently however, I have had to take over the everyday cooking for my family, with the added requirement of making healthy, low-fat dishes for a new eating program I had started. And initially it was too hard. I could easily cook everyday dishes like pasta, but that wasn’t on the eating plan. Instead I had to make soups, salads, stir-frys, meat dishes with less oil and less processed sauces. And these all had to taste good, because I am an incredibly fussy eater, and far more inclined to eat toast than salad.
Long story short, it was hard; I tried many things, but not only were most of my dishes just ok, they took ages to prepare, and I was feeling very discouraged. When I read this book I realised that maybe this meant I was still developing my skill, and just had to keep at it a little while longer. And although I'm not really a pro yet, I have recently found a few simple and delicious dishes to add to my repertoire that don’t really take as long as before. These were ones I came up with, or variations to recipes I found, that I could only make as my skill developed.
So what’s the point of this story? I have no intention of competing for Masterchef any time soon, when I think about developing skill, cooking doesn’t even make it to the top 5 list. But my goal is to make quick, healthy, tasty dishes. So I had to develop my skills to a certain point. And that’s where the concept of deliberate practise came in – simply by hanging in there, trying new things, riding out the wave of discomfort, I got to a point where I am a good enough cook to achieve my goal. I am still trying to improve my efficiency, to the point where cooking seems to me really easy. Notice how Cal’s goal is to make things harder, to stretch to improve a skill you already have, to hone it further. Yet my goal is to make things easier, to hone a skill I don’t have yet to a point where I don’t have to think about it, it doesn’t stress me out.
If you’re reading this, how can this insight help you? Think of something you need to learn to do, or something you are already doing, or have maybe given up – because its too difficult, it takes too much time and you decided this isn’t something I'm good at. It maybe cooking like me, or learning to make presentations at work, or sorting through your paperwork. If it feels difficult, keep at it, keep trying different strategies till it feels easier. It will feel easier. At which point you can add this skill to your list of things you do automatically, and move on.
What new skill / habit can you make easier for yourself?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Twigs on the Beach

I was out walking along the promenade by the beach near my place, and stopped by the railing to look at the sea swirling just below me. The sea looked really calm and beautiful, and as I saw the pile of twigs, wood chips and other debris on the strip of beach below the promenade, I had a thought. I usually dismiss the beach as ugly because of the pile of debris, thinking that I could appreciate it if only it were pristine and clean. Suddenly yesterday, the debris seemed like a minor issue, one that receded behind the beauty of the scene; a serene and calm sea, light blue sky, and the cool breeze blowing. I stopped to catch my breath and felt grateful that I was able to experience the moment.

And then it struck me. How the twigs represented the problems in my life. For the past few years, moving to a new city, struggling to construct a career and life, I haven’t always been happy. I’ve seen the problems as so big and important that they mar the scene of the beach, the scene of my life. Yesterday standing there I realized, what if the twigs weren’t the focus? What if I could enjoy the scene and be grateful, and the twigs just receded into the background, there but not really that important? I realised that my problems were mostly things I worried about for the future, or issues related to my ego – was I successful enough, or making enough money, or achieving as much as I possibly could in every area of my life. They weren’t real. Not real like problems I have faced in the past, potentially not having a roof over one’s head, worried about income, safety. Real problems that people face everyday. I am so lucky that I don’t need to worry about that anymore. So why then am I still unable to feel safe, secure; why am I still struggling, in my head?
As I realised that I could choose, that even though I do need to take action and work hard, I don’t need to let the twigs mar my enjoyment of the sea, I relaxed. And I felt a huge weight lifted off. I know that I may not remember this every day, that some days trying to get everything done, and work on my long-term goals may feel overwhelming. But I hope I remember the feeling, of knowing that I can choose to let these issues recede to the background, even if for a moment, and regain that feeling of complete stillness and beauty. For that I am truly grateful.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Productivity: For What Purpose?

I have been lately pushing myself to improve my productivity and getting frustrated with lack of progress on certain projects, and in general in my goals. Today while praying / meditating about it, I had a sudden thought – what is my purpose behind this desire for productivity?

And the answer came crystal clear – I want to show off. I want to see quick results in my weight loss so I can look good, post photos of myself on Facebook. I want to get more projects, a better title, so I can update my networking profiles and show off my success. And so it went on with all my goals. The clear pattern that was emerging was ego. I was thinking from my ego, my lesser self, what would make me look good.
And I asked myself, if I thought from my higher self, how would that be different? And I realised instead of obvious weight loss, I would like to feel healthier, have more energy, eat better, and see my health markers improve. I would like to be able to exercise joyfully with nothing hurting. I would like to create work that had an impact, that made a difference to someone. Sure, I still wanted to get more done, but the purpose became different – I wanted to do more, so I can create more value. And I wanted to be healthier so I have the energy to do more, and therefore create even more value.
Perhaps the subtle change in motivation won't make any difference, but more likely it will. I already feel a spring in my step, I feel I have a better reason to push myself. And paradoxically, I also don’t seem to be as harsh with myself as when I was working from ego – the shift in consciousness makes me feel that a slightly imperfect outcome is fine if it still creates value. The biggest change for me is in my current project – a book project I'm working on. I was feeling stuck and operating from fear because I wanted to write something brilliant, something with technical genius. And that objective of course gave me writer’s block, and I couldn’t progress.
Changing my objective to writing something that would touch a chord emotionally, something that would inspire readers, even in a small way, gave me permission to write simply, but from the heart. And that is really more up my alley. Don’t get me wrong, I'm still nervous. Because I have always believed that striving for brilliance is important, otherwise I would just slacken and do what’s easy. But perhaps maybe changing definitions – of what is difficult, what is easy - is in order. It may be even harder to focus on creating something that is emotionally honest, rather than technically flawless. It may be harder to put aside one’s ego, one’s need to shine, to think about what might be more likely to bring gratitude rather than accolades.

So next time you’re worrying about getting things done, ask yourself: what is the purpose of completing these tasks, and am I coming from my lesser or greater self?

Monday, April 29, 2013

Making Up for Lost Time

I have this tendency to take on a challenge, something that is especially difficult for me, and then expect to have results really quickly. I suppose it can be characterized as impatience, but also as having unrealistic expectations.
For instance, I haven’t really been very regular at blogging for the past few years. Now that I have decided I would like to be more regular, I set myself a target of 3-4 blog posts a week. And of course I am not achieving that. It’s not exactly realistic to assume that going from one post every few months to one every other day is doable in one giant leap.
The other scenario in which I try to make up for lost time is in losing weight. I am sure others do this too, despite the scientific evidence that weight lost too quickly tends to come back on quickly as well. The other day my friend commented: “You didn’t gain the weight in one day, so you can’t expect to lose it overnight either”. Which is really what I forget when I'm setting my targets. And the problem with unrealistic targets is that they can sometimes be off-putting, and thereby counter-productive. You get so intimidated by the difficult target that you don’t end up doing any of it. It’s the all-or-nothing mindset. Far better to do something, make some incremental progress, and over time the increments will add up to an unexpected leap.
Tonight I will follow this advice when going for my walk. I skipped it yesterday because it was too late in the evening for my new program of longer, more intensive walks. I forgot that I could just go for a shorter, easier one, which would really have been far better than skipping it altogether. Hopefully I won’t make that mistake too many more times, before I re-calibrate my expectations.
What aspects of your life are you setting too high expectations and falling far short consistently?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

A New Beginning

It’s almost four months into 2013, and I have finally got around to one of my New Year’s Resolutions – update my blog and start posting regularly.

This year has been all about new beginnings – the year in which I finally accomplish the last few years’ worth of New Year resolutions – losing weight, writing that book I’ve been struggling to finish, well actually start, reaching out to more people.

It’s April – not the month traditionally to discuss resolutions. However, for the past couple of months I have been tackling tasks that I’ve put off for years, more than 5-6 years. These weren’t resolutions, but starting work on them has given me enough confidence to work on my recurring resolutions. And in April I decided to dedicate the next three months to two of my toughest challenges – losing weight and writing my book. And now I'm publicly announcing this determination – wow, it feels a bit like jumping off a cliff with a rope that I don’t fully trust!

Out here in this scary territory all alone is quite frightening, so I thought I would extend an invitation to brave souls to join me – what New Year’s Resolution did you relegate to bottom priority in February that you can rededicate to? Or if you don’t have one, can you make a new resolution?
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