Don’t be the most regretful person on earth

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Széchenyi utca looking across Danube to Buda

Creativity can be a strangely elusive thing.

I’m currently in Budapest for a whole month of writing and arrived with a list of all the things I would do this month, including

  • writing blog posts
  • launching a novel
  • launching a new creative journaling course that has been a labour of love throughout this year
  • recording 67 audio lessons for the journaling course
  • making serious headway on a much bigger nonfiction project on the writing life
  • starting work on a new novel

Some of these things have happened.

I’ve had some blogs taken as guest posts on other sites, including one on setting writing goals over at Writers and Authors.

The launch of the novel was a fantastic event. Writing a novel set in another culture and then reading it to people who were born or live in that culture is a strange experience. But the Massolit bookshop was welcoming and a lovely environment to read in. The generous and engaged audience listened deeply, laughed at the points I’d hoped, and asked searching and intelligent questions.

The journaling course is making its way out into the world, launched with a workshop that was lots of fun and produced some lively and thought-provoking questions. And I’ve recorded the first 31 audio lessons for it.

I found a wonderful stationers in Budapest and bought huge sheets of paper and even more coloured pens. So I now have a full outline of the big nonfiction project. I’ve written about 90%, previously, but in fragments so the next task is to fit those fragments together in each of the sections.

And I’ve written the first 1000 words of the new novel and begun to pull together tiny strands of research.

I’ve also journaled daily in Budapest, grappling with the oddities of defamiliarisation in a city I’m visiting for only the second time.

Out of place in gloopy time

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Launching A Remedy for All Things @ Massolit Bookshop. Photograph, Adam Craig

When I read that back, it sounds like a significant amount of writing or writing-related activity has taken place, yet over the last week the feeling has been very different.

So often as creatives, even when we give time to our writing we put too much pressure on it. Perhaps because it feels hard-won and precious and we’re terrified it will slip through our days with ‘not enough’ accomplished. For myself, over the last week, time has seemed gloopy (a highly technical term for not being in sufficient supply and seeming to disappear with alarming rapidity).

While I was launching the course, three writers wrote to me in one day to say how much they wanted to give much more time to journaling and to the internal processes that fuel creativity. But all of them were struggling. These writers were not making excuses . Motherhood, relationships, jobs, university degrees, promises made, laundry to do, meals to cook, dogs that don’t walk themselves… these are real things that we care about and make a difference.

Yet it seems that even when we get a precious parcel of time, it’s not only the demands of the world (whether legitimate or mere annoying distractions) but also our inner workings that intercept the creative flow.

If you are anything like me and other writers I know, you’ll realise it’s all too easy to subvert the creative flow with internal doubts, or by overwhelming yourself with unrealistic expectations so that whatever you create never feels ‘enough’.

We need to tackle both areas if we are to have any hope of diving deep into our creative cores. In the superb essay, ‘ Of Power and Time’, in her book Upstream, Mary Oliver notes:

The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

So what do we do, instead, to give that power and time?

Feeding your creative power’s uprising

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Autumn produce from Szimpla Ruin Bar organic farmers’ market, Kazinczy utca, Budapest

As writers, we face distraction and feelings of overwhelm from many quarters. The sense of not having enough time, of never being able to fit enough in even when we have some time, comes from two directions:

1. the world

Giving yourself time when the world is demanding a thousand pieces of you is creative and courageous.

The world is full of alluring distraction and it was ever thus. As Eugene Delacroix put it in the nineteenth century:

Poor fellow! How can you do great work when you’re always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude. If your life is well ordered your health will not suffer.

Or, as the artist Agnes Martin puts it

The development of sensibility is the most important thing for children and adults alike, but is much more possible for children…. Adults are very busy, taught to run all the time. You cannot run and be very aware of your inspirations.

A technique I’ve written about before is to spend a week or two documenting all the ways we give our time.

Keep three lists:

A. All the ways you give time to tasks that distract you, annoy you, or that make you wonder , if I didn’t do this would it make the slightest difference? (Checking phones and apps compulsively, or cleaning your kitchen for the third time today, might be good examples.)

B. All the ways you give time to tasks that make life work, things you would see as essential but which might not fill you with delight. (The weekly laundry or grocery shopping, or emails or work tasks that are not your favourite things but are tolerable within limits, for example.)

C. All the ways you give time to things you love. (This should include your creative work, time with loved ones, favourite ways to relax and recuperate, the parts of your work that you enjoy and find fulfillment in.)

What’s the balance?

Putting it into a pie chart or block graph to get a visual idea can help.

Now ask yourself some searching questions:

How are you going to reduce group A to an insignificant amount of time?

In Essentialism, Greg McKeown makes that point that many more things are inessential than we first imagine:

You cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.

How many things in group B are essential and how many could you let go of, or at least reduce with very little impact?

Annie Dillard says it with characteristic wit:

It’s endearing how people think writers have time to dust.

If they are essential (you might sometimes have to reply to email or do laundry), how can you batch them together so that you’re not wasting time on switching back and forth between activities?

Using time blocks for email and admin tasks, rather than being reactive and doing them as they come in, has freed up huge amounts of time for me this year, for example.

The first time I did this exercise, I disliked the look of the pie chart. I was giving less than 30% of my time on passion projects, people and activities I love, work I find most rewarding or ways to relax and refuel. Over the course of this year, I’ve shifted that to nearer 80%.

Ask yourself, what has to go? What can I do in a different way?

2. our inner voices

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Cafe on Kazinczy utca, Budapest

Giving yourself time when your internal voices are telling you that you are not enough is even more courageous. Often, what prevents us from creative endeavour is not the thousand and one calls on our time, but the voices within that whisper that we are wasting our time. Mary Oliver puts it like this:

But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.

How do we overcome these internal voices?

We can only do so by adopting a resilience that is peculiar to dedicated creatives throughout history. This involves, as Oliver asserts, characteristics that we are not willing to compromise:

i. trust in the imperfect process

We must eschew perfectionism and be willing to launch into the unknown. We have to make our peace with the fact that our work will always be in process, we will never feel that it has ‘arrived’. This is how writer Dani Shapiro puts it:

When writers who are just starting out ask me when it gets easier, my answer is never. It never gets easier. I don’t want to scare them, so I rarely say more than that, but the truth is that, if anything, it gets harder. The writing life isn’t just filled with predictable uncertainties but with the awareness that we are always starting over again. That everything we ever write will be flawed. We may have written one book, or many, but all we know — if we know anything at all — is how to write the book we’re writing. All novels are failures. Perfection itself would be a failure. All we can hope is that we will fail better. That we won’t succumb to fear of the unknown. That we will not fall prey to the easy enchantments of repeating what may have worked in the past. I try to remember that the job — as well as the plight, and the unexpected joy — of the artist is to embrace uncertainty, to be sharpened and honed by it. To be birthed by it. Each time we come to the end of a piece of work, we have failed as we have leapt — spectacularly, brazenly — into the unknown.

ii. complete loyalty

As writers, we have to come to terms with the fact that what we are doing is extraordinary and strange in the eyes of the world. It is not routine, and it demands exceptional focus that only we can grant it. This is Mary Oliver again:

Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.

iii. commitment to the choices

We have to give ourselves over to the creative task. This can involve giving our time to work in the face of other calls on us. Each time we write, it is a decision; something else has to not to happen in order for us to sit at a desk and engage with the white space before us. Once again, Mary Oliver states this with clarity:

The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work… Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another. It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

Show up

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Gulls (or bats?) flying over the Parliament building, Budapest

What all this amounts to is showing up. Time has seemed to elude me in the first ten days in Budapest, but that’s my skewed perception which wants too much to get to the product and instead needs to trust the process, remain loyal and keep on choosing the writing life.

What matters is not to think about the product and outcome, but to dwell in the creative moment, even when it is flawed or seems to place us in a creative wilderness. We have to show up even on those days when nothing seems to happen.

We cannot do extraordinary writing to order. Marshalling creativity by the word count won’t produce dazzling work, but lining up one sentence and then the next, writing one line of poetry and then the next, gets us the first terrible draft that we can sit with another day. We have to be here, ready and waiting, ready to fail and to write again and again — available to every word as we etch them up onto the page — some clunking and making us despair, others, sometimes, filling us with awe and delight.

We have to show up and allow the restive creative power in us to uprise or to simmer, to burst forth or to germinate for a long time underground. We have to show up so that in the end we are not among the most regretful people on earth. To give the last words to Mary Oliver:

There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

Becoming a Different Story

Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. If you are looking to enrich your writing practice and widen its scope, no matter how experienced you are as a writer, take a look at the replay of my online workshop and leave with some powerful tools to inspire your writing and your life and a great discount code.

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Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @

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