Geetanjali Mukherjee

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.
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