Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Plot Twist: The Unexpected Nature of Living

I'm flying to Barcelona tomorrow for an unexpected family reunion in hospital. After my brother's horrendous 9 hour surgery in March last year I thought that would be the end of it and we could put it all behind us. 

But during a checkup a couple of weeks ago they discovered sarcoma in his liver. I couldn't believe it. It was a shock to everyone. The old terror crept back into my chest. 

The good news is this time it's all moving much quicker. They will be doing radiotherapy on it tomorrow. Apparently he'll be able to feel the burning. Hopefully it will only require one session. He's being really upbeat and brave about it which puts the rest of us a little more at ease.

When I moved from London to Mallorca I was sure I'd see my brother more often but I didn't expect it would be because of illness. After this is all over I plan to visit him more often and to hang out with him far away from the hospital!

I had my own little shock this morning when the gynecologist declared it was time to consider inseminación artificial. If he'd been speaking English, I guess he would have said IVF. I was sure he must have misunderstood me and my life. I had certainly not planned to have any such thing. I was to have a baby easily and naturally with my wonderful husband as simple as that, thank you very much.

I'm not going to jump to conclusions. There are tests to be had and anything could happen in the months ahead. I tell you what though, to anyone planning to have kids in the next few years, I recommend swapping the pill for an alternative contraceptive. It can take over a year to flush it out of your system. I wish I'd known that!

I think it helps to know what you want in life. I think it helps to have goals and dreams. But sometimes your plot will dole out a twist you didn't see coming and what matters is how you deal with it. Luckily, I feel I'm a stronger character than I was a few years ago. I'm determined to call on all the little lessons I've learned over the years to help me take on whatever comes my way. Thank you for letting me share them.

You have to have emptiness before you can be filled. 
You have to exhale before you can inhale - 
Tom Yeomans, spiritual director

Monday, 13 February 2017

F is for...

On Friday, after a game of rock, paper, scissors, it was decided I would  be the last person to take their driving test that morning. Expecting an hour wait, I headed to the nearest cafe. My instructor appeared after twenty minutes.

"One drove the wrong way down a street, the other couldn't park. You're up."

I hurriedly put on my coat and paid for my chamomile tea. Although I felt less nervous than the last time, my stomach was still in knots and I was trying to call on every technique I knew to calm down.

The examiner was still talking to the others when I got to the car. They weren't crying at least. Once they'd got out I slipped into the front seat, my instructor beside me, examiner in the backseat.

"When you're ready," the examiner said.

I turned the key, lowered the handbrake, changed to first and started to pull out of the car park. Beepbeepbeepbeep. I stopped to check the beep, which was showing I hadn't lowered the handbrake enough. Damn it. I pushed it down at once, before moving on, hoping the examiner wouldn't take it too seriously. It happens to everyone, doesn't it?

I thought my exam went smoothly. I didn't feel like there were any major problems. I stalled the car twice in my first exam, but this time I felt comfortable, despite the traffic on the motorway exit. After the allotted twenty-five minutes he told me to stop. I turned off the car, feeling nervous but pretty certain I'd passed.

And then he launched into his speech. He mentioned the handbrake...he mentioned I could have slowed down more at one of the zebra crossings.... he mentioned I had lost security distance at the motorway exit and he would have given me a point in my favour if I had not exited at all*. (*I don't believe this for a minute).

As he went on and on, I realised he couldn't look me in the eye. I thought, if he at least looks me in the eye, maybe I can do some Jedi mind trick! But no, he didn't. He droned on and on, while my instructor sat in stony silence in the passenger seat, looking like he planned to reverse over the examiner if he ever finished his lecture and got out of the car.

I don't think I really believed I had failed until he said the word. I stepped out of the car and swore loudly, before turning into a polite Brit and thanking the examiner.

I got home and I couldn't do a thing. I felt really miserable. Exhausted too. At some point I gave up trying to work and just went and lay in bed fully clothed until I fell asleep for two hours. I switched off my phone. Luckily I hadn't told hardly anyone so didn't have to deal with the chirpy, Sooo? messages. 

The next day I received an email from my agent. She said she didn't like my latest idea for a novel I'd sent her. An agent writing to you on a Saturday - that never happens! 

I hadn't recovered from my feelings of failure from the day before, so this just pushed me further into the ground. Not only could I still not drive, my writing career felt like it had stalled. Perhaps I should give it all up and focus on my kids, I thought bitterly. Oh, wait, I couldn't because I hadn't managed to make any yet! In that too, I was a complete failure!

I could observe these vicious thoughts, which meant I wasn't a complete slave to them. I have a lot to thank my parents for. They brought me up on an alternative diet of meditation and spirituality that was tedious at the time, but has come in handy over the years. I've got a lot of tools in my back pocket to deal with failure, I just need the strength to reach for them.

It's Monday now and I'm still trying to get my act together. My Dad told  me that after his own father failed his first driving test he never tried again. He said how you deal with failure shows your strength. I'm not going to give up learning to drive. Not just because it would be a huge waste of money. I'm not giving up because I know I'll get my license in the end. The same way I can't give up writing, because I know, if I keep going, eventually it will pay off.

I have been here before, many times. We all have, haven't we? I know this feeling of failure won't stick around forever. It will pass. It always passes. 

If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading. - Lao-Tzu (Chinese philosopher and writer)



Tuesday, 7 February 2017

A Reality Check

I just caught myself about to text the following question to a nomadic friend currently travelling around Asia:

So, when are you coming back to reality?

I stopped before I'd finished the question and tossed my phone aside, disgusted. What was I implying? 

Did I think 'reality' meant a settled lifestyle? A stable job?... a mortgage? 

Had there not been a hint of disapproval in that question? 

Wasn't there an implication that travelling didn't count as reality and therefore not as valuable? As if stepping outside your country is something you must only do briefly before knuckling down to a nine to five job. 

I know people with huge salaries and yet they can't take more than a couple of weeks off a year. Did I consider their reality more sensible?

No, of course not.   

While researching travel writers I stumbled across dozens of websites by digital nomads roaming the world without any intention at all of going 'back home'. I felt impressed by their entrepreneurial spirit and their ability to live with uncertainty. It wasn't what I wanted necessarily, but it did present me with another version of reality.

I had surprised myself, I suppose, by that nearly formulated question. It appeared, despite my irregular writer lifestyle, I  still veered towards the standard  idea of what 'real life' should be.

Dream too big and people will tell you to 'get real' and want to give you a 'reality check'. But just because they are conditioned to think one way, doesn't mean you need to submit to their fears and limitations. It doesn't mean you have to submit to their version of reality.

Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray - Rumi


Sunday, 29 January 2017

Addicted to bad news? Don't give up hope yet!

I'd planned to get a head's start for the week by plotting my new novel. But no sooner had I opened my computer I got sucked into social media and the dramatic executive orders being churned out in America. 

What's wrong with you? I snapped at myself, as I found myself clicking off course for the hundredth, nay, millionth time. Are you addicted to bad news?

I wasn't just scanning the tweets, I was clicking on every link and googling further sides to the story. I absorbed so much negativity I ended up with a headache and had to take a break from the novel I had forgotten to plot.

I spoke to a friend who suggested the world was being distracted on purpose so that other deals to do with our privacy rights could be made without us noticing. She suggested I disconnect and concentrate on my novel. 

But my novel seemed a bit pointless in the face of the impending world war. My mind flipped to Anne Frank and how many Muslims I could hide in my attic! 

I knew it was a mistake to continue absorbing any more rage and counter rage so I decided to distract myself by listening to people more intelligent than me. I turned to TED talks.

My first was: How the News distorts Our World View. It's an old video but I still think its relevant. In it, Alisa Miller shows a slide of a world map based on land mass...

and the world, how we see it, shaped by the news (in this example, US news 2008) 

Interesting perspective, isn't it?

I continued in my search feeling thirsty for knowledge perhaps, or guidance.    

I watched a video about why some people are more altruistic than others. It would seem that our brains have a lot to answer for. Apparently psychopaths have a smaller amygdala which makes it more difficult for them to recognise fear which in turn effects their capacity to empathise... 

Thankfully Abigail Marsh ends her talk on a positive note. She concludes that the world is getting more compassionate though it doesn't seem like it.

"There's a common perception that the world is becoming more cruel, but it's not" - Marsh says. "I think it may be because we know much more about the suffering of strangers in distant places so we now care much more about the suffering of those strangers in distant places."

Lastly, I watched a talk by former radical Jihadist, Manwar Ali

It was moving to hear Ali's story which gives hope that hearts can be changed. He makes a plea to his audience, and these are the words I'm going to end this day on:

Approach the world... life... with love. Learn to develop... to cultivate... your hearts to see goodness, beauty and truth in others and in the world. 

That way we matter more to ourselves, to each other, to our community and for me, to God.

That G word is a controversial one which I prefer to replace with Love. And I have to believe that we have more power acting from a place of love, than a place of hate.  

For a window into my writing life and occasional bad jokes, find me at Facebook/EmilyBenetAuthor

Thursday, 19 January 2017

5 Tips for Staying Productive and Motivated when Working from Home

Whenever my husband has to travel for work I always tell myself it's an opportunity to do great things. I visualise myself working late into the night on new books and swapping Netflix for writing extra blogs and raising my author profile. The reality is, with so much time suddenly available, after a week I find myself struggling to get out of bed.

I think back to writing my debut book Shop Girl Diaries. I had a full-time job and I would get up early to fit in some words before work or sacrifice evenings out to bash out a chapter. Look how much time you have now, I scold myself, why aren't you doing more with it?

Sometimes I wish I had a boss ordering me to do things, instead of having to coax myself through my to-do list. Is my list even right? Am I sure I'm taking the right steps? 

But that wish to have a boss is very fleeting and hollow indeed.

I'm starting to realise there are strategies available to keeping my energy up and motivation alive while working from home alone. With a bit of imagination, I think you'll find they don't just apply to writers either!

1.  Work in Short Stints - I find using a basic online timer really focuses me. For editing work I'll set it for 45-60 minutes and work continuously until it goes off. I'll have a five minute break, perhaps a cup of tea, and then I'll set it again. For new writing, I might set my timer to just 20 minutes. The timer is currently running now... I won't feel like a failure if it goes off, it's just a device to keep me concentrated on the job at hand. While the timer is running there's less inclination to scroll through your phone. Some people find they produce a lot more work in three twenty minute stints than they do in an long hour.  

2. Alternate Between Jobs - after two hours of editing, my head feels fuzzy and I start overlooking errors in the text. Instead of wrestling with a job, it makes much more sense to approach another. The energy you thought was depleted nearly always arises when you switch to a new task. For me, it may be blogging, writing or research. It might also be to putting the washing away or scraping mould off the walls caused by humidity! (Sob.) I know some people feel a need to separate  housework from their other work, but I find a domestic chore a great palate cleanser.

3. Learn Something New About Your Industry - sometimes  my well of creativity seems completely empty and I can't seem to create anything.  I've discovered that when this happens learning something new about your industry or craft might well fire you up. There is so much juicy information online and wonderful opportunities for self-improvement. 

For writing and marketing I turn to the Creative Penn Podcast or I might watch a lively webinar with author and marketeer Nick Stephenson. For insight into non-writing matters and for inspiration, I'll watch a short TED talk. After listening to an animated, encouraging voice I always feel a fresh burst of energy. If you think you have no time, perhaps you should watch Laura Vanderkam's talk How to Gain Control of Your Free Time. She argues it's not about not having enough time but about not making something a priority!

4. Read - this one is particularly for the writers out there. I didn't used to read as much as I do now. I used to think, I want to write books, not read them!  Now I think that's a ridiculous thing to say. Reading reminds me why I want to write in the first place. Coming across great lines in a book fills me with admiration for the craft. I read for pleasure but I also read to learn about structure and plot, what makes good characters and dialogue. If I love a book, I'll go through it, jotting down details about how it is done. I no longer think reading is a distraction from the job, but a part of the job. Scheduling some reading time could provide the inspiration needed for your next task.

5. Allow for Thinking Time - I've left my latest novel to breathe a few days before I send it back to my agent. In the meantime I find myself panicking over what to write next. I thought I had a half decent plot but my fingers were very reluctant to type Chapter 1. Did that mean it was a bad idea? More likely it was the result of not thinking about it for long enough. 

I find that until I stop and let myself DO NOTHING, the ideas can't come in. Yesterday, while washing up, an important plot twist came to me. Aha, I thought, and immediately regretted sending the half developed synopsis to my agent. Sometimes  you need to stop everything before you can move forward. Allowing time to just be might be the answer to that sticky problem.  

Deadlines and needing to pay the rent are often motivation enough, but sometimes staying fired up requires a few changes to the routine!

For daily updates, find me on Facebook/EmilyBenetAuthor 

Friday, 13 January 2017

It's OK to Switch Off the News

Imagine that every time you have an interaction with someone or something, a piece of you remains with that thing or that person. A piece of your energy is left behind.

By the end of the day, there wouldn't be much left of you, would there?

Or imagine yourself as a balloon at a kid's party, leaking helium each time a little pair of hands bops you up in the air. By the end of the day you would be a sagging dollop of plastic incapable of floating.

With all the bad news pouring in from around the globe, we are in danger of giving it our best attention and energy,and leaving ourselves with little to get on with living our lives fully.

It definitely feels like there's an overall sense of malaise. I've recently read blogs by people feeling unmotivated and depressed because everywhere they look they see pain and injustice, and they feel powerless to do anything about it.

When you read an upsetting article, it doesn't end when you finish reading it. You have given a part of yourself away to it. When someone upsets you, you don't stop thinking about them when they walk away. Your energy follows the focus of your mind, whether you are aware of your thoughts or not.

Last summer, I made a friend who shared with me her vision of PersonalPower. The idea is that we all have access to a source of power within us. The problem is we can't always find a way to plug into it. Or, we find we have depleted it because we have been leaking energy left, right and centre.

To refill our energy centre we have to look after ourselves. On a physical level, we need to eat well and sleep enough. Mentally, we might need to de-stress, meditate, get outside the office and spend a bit more time in nature. I look forward to sharing her book when it comes out as it's life changing stuff!

After engaging with a person or a piece of writing or a television programme, she suggests taking a moment to reconnect with yourself. She refers to it as 'calling your energy home'. Ask yourself, am I back inside myself, or is a part of me still with that person, that article, that show?

Call that energy back, take a deep breath, feel your feet on the floor and become aware of your attention. One thing is certain, you can't do anything positive while you're running on low quality energy because you've given all the best stuff to things and people who don't deserve it!

There are times when it seems impossible to focus. However much you meditate or pray or try to concentrate on your goals, you can't seem to escape the negativity. In which case, switch it off. Switch off the noise. 

Turn off the news, unfollow the people who post negative content and give yourself permission to breathe. Give yourself permission to be happy.  

Whatever you do, don't be tricked into reading all the bile on the internet. It doesn't mean you don't care.   


Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Do you have influence over yourself?

I dragged myself out of bed this morning with some difficulty. The voice from yesterday's inspirational podcast goaded me on. Don't you have any influence over yourself? If you don't have influence over yourself, how are you going to achieve your goals?

My first goal was to persuade myself to get out of bed early after days of holiday lie ins. I allowed myself five minutes to snooze before sleepily grabbing my yoga mat and forcing my aching body through a few sun salutes. How could I be thirty three and feel like ninety three?

Self-discipline, I thought hazily, you've got to retrain your brain. This will be easier tomorrow.

Then I flopped onto my back and considered snoozing some more, except my feet were too cold. Spanish houses are freezing. It's the stone floors.

After my half hearted work out I took a metallic tasting tea to my desk and spent four hours rewriting one single chapter. Number 10 out of 54. At one point I put my head in my hands and thought: 


But I persevered and that afternoon managed another four chapters meaning I'm back on track to finishing my novel's rewrite this month.  

In a way I think every day can hold the potential and optimism of New Year's Day. Every day is a chance to give life your best shot. And maybe your dream is just to have more time to yourself. More time to think about what it is you really want to do with your life.

My Dad always said he valued efforts over results. I didn't agree with him until now. Yep, now I do think making a genuine effort is what counts. Every day. Falling over and getting back up again. And again. And again.

I think we all have the power to do something special with our lives. We just need to believe it and then influence ourselves into acting on it.