James Hollis Archive

40before40, Writing Blog, Writing vs. The Ego

Learning how to work (better)

Sometimes, the only thing one can do is lie on the floor. If it’s outside on grass or sand, even better. It’s still a little too cold for that. So indoors is fine. I had a presentiment, not totally disconnected to knowing that Carl Jung, on splitting with Freud, returned to childhood play to re-find his way back into what was for him ‘meaningful work’, that to lie on the floor as I worked through a writing problem would resolve at least half the problem.

Lying on the floor feels wholly unprofessional, and as such, much more fun and relaxed than how one normally works out problems. I only wish we could introduce it to conference proceedings.

Anyway. I’ve been fiddling with this question for a few weeks now: how can I work better? There are subtexts of efficiency and productivity in this, but truthfully, the question is more soulful and grounded than this (and why lying on the floor helps). I’ve peeled back a few layers over the last few weeks (and posts here, on practising, on omnivorous reading, on finding writing models) that are about craft, inspiration, technique.

But what it comes down to is this. I have a 10-page document culled from somewhere of provocative, audacious anonymous aphorisms, and in the very centre of it, it says this:

“Address the objects that are at the centre of you.” There are only a few of them, of these truly vital objects of yours. Turn to them, speak to them, speak of them. Speak from your centre of gravity.

Clearing the desk space, filing the journal articles, organising the piles of scraps of newspapers and stories for stimulation, only go so far in helping make you a writer. What you need to do is make an address to yourself. Find your centre of gravity.

And so I went to the floor.

I went to the floor after sitting for a while, after editing a piece of flash fiction and entering it into a competition, and then finding I didn’t know where else to begin. So I went to the floor, and took with me this 10-pager filled with provocation. “Kick Shakespeare in the balls and shove Homer down the stairs. Writing is easy—it costs you no less than your life.”

I’d sat in the chair for a while and burnt out the first thoughts, as advised by Natalie Goldberg, and got through to a place where I could address myself to this question: how can I work better? Because I’d realised it is not ‘how to write’ or ‘what should I write about’ that needed addressing. It is simply this: how to work. What does it mean to work as a writer? What does it take?

The presentiment I had was of drawing out the problem—literally. So I got out the big pad of paper and a pen and I began to draw some islands. (And make lists). I wanted to think of bodies of work. My body, but also the body of the writing. My body as the work, the writing, but also the writing, the vital object, that is my body’s centre of gravity. What would this be? So I drew some islands of work in a body of water, around a central question, one of great gravitas for how to work: ‘Say for example I spent 2014 working on a body of work around…’ and then drew in the islands.


They are the Island of Love and Relationships; Conservation Isle, the animal reserve; The Island of Running through Place; the Critical Tower; Vegania; the Island of the Craft.

The problem, which is also the same for many creative people, is that I’m an island hopper. I find it difficult to settle in any one community of expertise for long enough to get to know the earth, dig my feet into the soil. Make a home for my writing. My centre of gravity, perhaps, is not in any of these places, but in the journey around them.

Which may be fine, in the long term. But when hopping becomes spinning, when the feet barely touch the ground, when there is no opportunity or time to lay down, what becomes of the body of work, the work of the body?

For me, what was interesting, was that this question came out of the question not of writing, but of reading. Reading is invaluable, essential, such a part of writing that there is no suture between them, no divisible line, no mark, or re-mark, as Derrida might say, to make a definition. My reading felt scattergun. I began from my reading, and saw that, indeed, I was not spending long enough on any of these islands for my reading to compost into writing. To nurture the seeds of the idea that might grow into the body of the work, and ripen.

And then (still on the floor, still drawing, mapping, writing, like a child) I recalled a phrase I’d read on a writer’s website (I stalk, I stalk, but only to learn) about their ‘current writing projects’ and I thought, okay, so, what are mine? And I listed 13. Woeful! Unlucky! Overwhelming! As the Jungian analyst James Hollis rightly identifies, overwhelming is a wounding, a not-dealing with the world, “a manifestation of our sensed powerlessness to alter the course of the outer world.” Or as my friend K quotes to me, “as above / so below.” We create in our outer world the fears that we cannot face in the inner world. And so in my attempts to alter the outer world, through gaining knowledge, by doing things, what I am doing (still doing) is overwhelming myself innerly.

how to write

So back to the question. How can I work better? It’s a question of responsibility, of soul-activism, in the psychotherapist Steve Thorp’s terminology, to become, as Rob McNamara says of us, our most elegant self.

This. And recalling the poet Abi Curtis’s words said to me a decade ago on West Drive, Brighton. “You’re working on six projects? I can only manage two, at maximum.”

And it has served her very well.

So not 13 projects. Two. Two. My current writing projects are…

later, later

(Those empty boxes… Don’t make me choose! Later. Later.)

The most powerful thing this narrowing down does is guide my reading and working hours. Rather than focus on those big questions “how to write”, or “in what genre”, or “what to write at all”, a renewed focus on the process identifies the problems with the process, and so clears away the obstructions. “How to work” is the question, and it is a question of the body, perhaps first, and the mind only later, after. That’s why I needed to get down onto the floor. And perhaps why, in a bizarre admission to this post, I spent last night not hoovering, but going over the carpet a thin strip at a time with masking tape, cleaning it of its imperfections and cat hair and dirt. I knew already I would be lying on it this morning. That was the presentiment. That was the gift of gravity at the centre of this morning’s contribution to the growing body of work. (Soon to become nothing more than a bed for Misha, anyway.)

misha gets in

21 Soul Activism, 40before40, Projects, Writing Blog

The 40 x 40 list; a writer’s utopia of habits

I have a small silver box full of post-it notes. Written on those post-it notes are ideas I’ve had over the past five years while completing my PhD in Creative Writing at Newcastle University, the creative element of which is my novel Obélisque. Both are all but finished (the PhD just waiting for the viva; the novel finished enough for now to pass that viva; I’ve also had an idea for what I need to do next with it).

The box was a helpful idea for how to deal with all those ideas that arrive as exciting distractions, bundles of energy to ‘do stuff’, while already committed to a major project. I’d have the idea, write it down, put it in the box, and put the lid back on the box. Suffer a little of the sadness of not being able to jump into that new idea right away, and get back to the discipline of, as Neil Gaiman says, finishing things.

So one of the reasons for looking at a list of 40 things to do for my 40th year was about, now those two big projects are all but ended, taking that lid off, literally and metaphorically. It feels so good to have an idea for something new and be able to act upon it. Rather than diverting it onto a post-it note and putting it away.

So that’s Reason One for my 40×40 project, which began officially this week (forty weeks until my 40th).

Reason Two is because none of these things are bad things to do. In fact, they are the easy habits that I want my life to be filled with (as Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do…). And over half of them are all to do with honouring my commitment to write; either writing itself, or gaining inspiration to write about. A few friends have looked at what I’m proposing and warned me of not taking on too much. But these are all small, everyday things, rather than the large challenges some people set themselves (which are amazing and worthwhile in themselves, such as this XL challenge).

These are the things I sometimes fill my life with, and sometimes am too tired and lethargic to see through. Lethargy, as the Jungian analyst James Hollis suggests, is often the result of not grappling with the potential largeness of our life. To become is painful, and challenging, because it means change from the routizined life. So we often sink backwards away from even easy actions. It’s too easy to be overwhelmed.

Somehow, turning all of this into an aesthetic project feels a useful way to develop good rituals to replenish energy, rather than suck it away. It’s what the cultural theorist Ann Cvetkovich calls “the utopia of ordinary habit” that forms the ground from which energy for life can grow rather than become depressed. Heart-opening practices that will feed my writing and creative life.

Naming and visualising my actions also helps me commit to them. I have a very large 70cmx100m piece of art paper taped onto a piece of hardboard on which I am recording the activities as I do them. I’ll also do a weekly update for myself here about the most interesting things to come out of the project.

And there’s one last thing. When a friend questioned me on the size of the list, I replied by saying it was okay, I’m not being hard on myself, if I fail to do some of these things, so what? And yet I’ve wondered about that statement. I’ve wondered what it is about these everyday habits I’m okay with not doing, when so many of them are connected to the soulful sense of what I can achieve as a best self: as a writer, a vegan, a runner, a friend, a human being.

So I’m not okay with not doing these things. They are important, grounding, creative. And, as I’ve pointed out to a few people, “40 afternoons doing nothing” is high on the list.

So here is the list. With a couple of gaps still. There are a few ideas that, like all important challenges to one’s comfort and old habits, keep slipping away from my consciousness each time I think them. I’m sure I will pin them down at some point. And just creating this list has been an act of creative self-awareness, rewarding in that so many of the things I thought I wanted for myself—my professional career as a writer, my animal advocacy, my social networks—figure as central activities.

And finally, the sensation I feel when I read this list, or look at the board, which I have also begun to decorate with collage, is one of opportunity and energy. That tells me it’s a good thing to have done. And to see through.

Reading, Writing, Inspiration

  1. Read 40 books from my shelves
  2. Write 40 letters
  3. Spend 40 afternoons doing nothing
  4. See 40 performances
  5. Learn 40 Koans or prayers
  6. Plant 40 plants (and learn their names)
  7. Make 40 things
  8. Submit 40 pieces of creative writing
  9. Finish 40 bits of existing writing
  10. Listen to 40 albums without distractions
  11. See 40 exhibitions
  12. Write 40 new flash fictions or poems
  13. Review 40 books on the mid-life
  14. Contribute to 40 collaborative projects
  15. Read 40 random journal articles
  16. Learn 40 yoga poses
  17. Write 40 posts about being/going vegan
  18. Read 40 poetry collections
  19. Review 40 animal rights/ethics books
  20. Learn about 40 pieces of art

Feeding my social self

21. Help 40 animals
22. Friends over for 40 dinners
23. Run 40 races
24. Learn 40 new vegan recipes
25. Have 40 proper conversations
26. Remove 40 things from my home
27. Give 40 presents
28. Spend 40 hours learning French
29. Meet 40 new people

Looking after the self

32. Meditate 40 days in a row
33. Be alcohol free for 40 days
34. Be chocolate free for 40 days
35. Do a 40-mile run
36. Commit 40 hours to Steve Thorp’s 21 Soul activism programme
37. Let go of 40 things
38. Take 40 walks with the ecological self

Thanks to Viccy Adams, Ceri, Jill Clough, Susan Tonkin, Jo Montgomery, Rachel Fay, Steve Thorp and others for some stimulating conversations and ideas for things to go on the list.