Trying to find your voice? Listen

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I worked with BBC Light Entertainment for six weeks in 2015 on Vote Now Show during the 2015 election.

The work culminated in an all-nighter as the results came in and half a dozen sleep-deprived writers attempted to get our heads around a Tory landslide, and then make jokes about it.

There weren’t enough biscuits.

One meeting stuck with me from this time. Various comedians were being discussed with a view to casting them to write monologues on various topics for the show. An exec producer described an act as having ‘found her voice’ recently.

I was immediately fascinated by this idea.

What is a voice, and how do I get one?

This morning, reading Maria Popova on voice, “the waveform of the soul in writing”, I found this from poet Jane Hirshfield:

Voice … is the body language of a poem — the part that cannot help but reveal what it is.

Everything that has gone into making us who we are is held there. Yet we also speak of writers “finding their voice.” The phrase is both meaningful and odd, a perennial puzzle: how can we “find” what we already use?

The answer lies, paradoxically, in the quality of listening that accompanies self-aware speech: singers, to stay in tune, must hear not only the orchestral music they sing with, but also themselves.

Similarly, writers who have “found a voice” are those whose ears turn at once inward and outward, both toward their own nature, thought patterns, and rhythms, and toward those of the culture at large.”

– Jane Hirshfield

So the good news is you have it already. It’s just a case of listening, paying attention to yourself and the world, and of course practice, dedication and discipline.

This American Life’s Ira Glass has a soothing explanation for why the first few years of making creative work is so frustrating:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this.

We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.

Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

― Ira Glass

And when he says the first ‘couple years’ he means 10.

The Interconnectedness of All Things

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In the course of creative endeavours, artists and scientists join fragments of knowledge into a new unity of understanding.”

– Vera John-Steiner

Ideas are ‘just’ connections between existing elements.

Sherlock Holmes is the product of 19th-century detective fiction and medical investigation.

Holmes’s deductive powers were inspired by some of Arthur Conan Doyle’s medical lecturers, including Dr. Joseph Bell.

In a rare piece of film from 1930, Conan Doyle depicted Bell’s extraordinary ability to diagnose patients on sight:

He would look at the patient, he would hardly allow the patient to open his mouth, but he would make his diagnosis of the disease, also, very often, of the patient’s nationality and occupation and other points, entirely by his power of observation.

So naturally, I thought to myself, well, if a scientific man like Bell was to come into the detective business, he wouldn’t do these things by chance, he’d get the thing by building it up, scientifically.”

– Arthur Conan Doyle

Doyle became obsessed with Spiritualism as he got older, travelling the world to visit mediums and psychics, searching for ‘positive proof.’

The conclusion, then, of my long search after truth, is that in spite of occasional fraud… there remains a great solid core in this movement which is infinitely nearer to positive proof than any other religious development with which I am acquainted.”

– Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Revelation, 1918

Connecting Sherlock Holmes and spiritualism gives us Dirk Gently, Douglas Adams’ ‘holistic’ detective.

Gently is a creative extrapolation of Holmes’s technique of eliminating the impossible to reveal the truth.

What if the famous detective had embraced the impossible?

Sherlock Holmes observed that once you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the answer. I, however, do not like to eliminate the impossible.”

– Dirk Gently, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

The Gently stories feature ghosts, time travel and ‘interconnectedness.’

Despite continually probing his own belief systems, Adams described himself as a ‘radical atheist,’ (adding ‘radical’ to show he really meant it.)

In a thought experiment designed to falsify the finely tuned universe argument for God (and typical of a man obsessed with baths and rain) Adams describes the thoughts of a sentient puddle:

This is an interesting world I find myself in – an interesting hole I find myself in – fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!”

– Douglas Adams

Adams looked at the universe from other perspectives and what he found permeated his work. If you enjoyed this, you might like this article about keeping an open mind.

Creativity requires more than a meeting


I’ve written a few posts on how to start a creative meeting, and how to run one. But scheduling creative time does not guarantee good ideas.

Your lifestyle and approach have a huge effect on your creative ability.

And time away from the problem may be the key to a breakthrough.

Be open to new things

If your thought processes are rigid and inflexible, you risk rejecting ideas too quickly.

If Galileo saw the world as his parents, teachers and spiritual leaders taught him, he would never have championed heliocentrism, moving us towards a better (not correct, better) understanding of the universe.

The same goes for most scientific breakthroughs. These academics were able to immerse themself in the problem, paying very little attention to how everyone was telling them the world works.

“One prerequisite for originality is… that a person shall not be inclined to impose his preconceptions on the fact as he sees it.

Rather, he must be able to learn something new, even if this means that the ideas and notions that are comfortable or dear… may be overturned.”

– David Bohm.

To come up with new ideas, remain open to new things and ways to look at the world.

“Never trust a man who, when left alone in a room with a tea cozy, doesn’t try it on. ” – Billy Connolly

Keep your brain healthy

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to build new connections and repair itself.

If we maintain good levels of neuroplasticity throughout life, our brains can adapt to new environments, come up with new stuff, and thrive in difficult circumstances.

Maintain plasticity by looking after your brain:

Creativity is connecting – fill your brain with good stuff

“Creative people are better at recognising relationships, making associations and connections, seeing things in an original way – seeing things that others cannot see.” – Nancy C. Andreasen

Advertising genius James Webb agrees in his brilliant book on how to come up with new ideas:

“An idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements.” – James Webb

Neuroscientist Nancy C. Andreasen interviewed a bunch of highly creative people (her subjects included George Lucas and Kurt Vonnegut – how?!)

She noted, “I’ve been struck by how many of these people refer to their most creative ideas as ‘obvious.'”

Steve Jobs agrees:

When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something.

It seemed obvious to them after a while.

– Steve Jobs

It seemed obvious because they were able to connect experiences.

Jobs went on to say that a lot of people don’t have ‘enough dots to connect’ so they end up with linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem.

How can we give ourselves more dots to connect?

Activities such as travelling (ok, staycationing), learning a new language, visiting museums, talking to a diverse range of people and/or reading fiction can help provide a deeper ‘creative well’.

“Creation comes from an overflow, so you have to learn to intake, to imbibe, to nourish yourself and not be afraid of fullness.

The fullness is like a tidal wave which then carries you, sweeps you into experience and into writing.”

– Anais Nin

Better yet, involve other people from different backgrounds in your creative process, and see whether your combined experience creates sparks.

Choose carefully

Just as with food, you are what you eat. Writer Annie Dillard warns:

“The writer… is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write.

He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know.”

– Annie Dillard


Once the work on the problem is done, allow your brain to combine thoughts on the problem so far with the archive of everything you’ve ever experienced, while you take a well-earned break.

Einstein relaxed by playing the violin. Douglas Adams took baths, an idea he stole from Archimedes.

Joan Didion took an hour before dinner, with a drink, to go over what she’d written that day. She wrote, “Also, the drink helps. It removes me from the pages.”

I’ll have what Joan’s having.

Ideas might occur to you while you shower, nap, or go for a walk.

The brain is freed up from actively working on the problem, and combines elements of it with your experiences while you take pictures of trees and squirrels.

“What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind.

You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring the two facts together and see how they fit.

What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle.”

– James Webb

So remain open, keep your brain healthy and full of good stuff, do the work, then give your brain a rest to work on the problem for you.

I’d love to hear how you come up with new ideas. Drop me a comment and let me know.

Coming up with creative ideas

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A successful creative meeting:

Ideas flow freely. Coffee, biscuits and emergent laughter.

Everyone is contributing.

How familiar does this feel?

Creative meetings can be great for the confident and extroverted.

But I’ve definitely been in ‘creative’ meetings where I’ve been the least experienced in the room.

There is ‘banter’ – people are laughing at one another, putting down ideas they don’t like, vying for status.

What do we want out of a creative meeting? LOTS of ideas.

‘Lots’ means good ideas + bad + terrible ideas.

And if this is the ‘creative’ atmosphere, what you get are the ideas of the socially high status people, and nothing from anyone else.

So how can we run successful creative meetings?

The rules must be clear: we want all the ideas. That old cliche, ‘There are no bad ideas,’ is obviously wrong, but that needs to be the vibe at the meeting.

It’s important to encourage everyone to contribute in order to capture everything and keep the ideas coming until we have exhausted every avenue.

Under no circumstances must any idea be assessed, judged or analysed at the ideas stage.

If in doubt, use the rules of improv with your team: affirm and build. Add to other people’s ideas, rather than judging them.

The four animals in the room

There are, according to One Minute Millionaire, four types of animal that you can have in your team. Not only is this much more adorable than Myers-Briggs personality profiling, it is easier to understand, doesn’t require an online quiz, and can be summed up with an easy acronym, HOTS:

The hare – has lots of ideas, likes to hop from one to another and is more interested in generation than execution.

The owl – is wise and measured. Best placed with the hare to catch ideas. Good at seeing the bigger picture and working out how to take ideas forward. Team leaders are often owls.

The turtle – troubleshoots hare-brained schemes. Turtles like to turn ideas into plans, so that they can work out the problems and suggest solutions.

The squirrel – loves getting things done, happier with a list of tasks than in a creative session.

Work out which animals you have in your team. Encourage everyone to understand their spirit animal, and to embody it during the creative process.

Let the owls and the hares generate ideas. Encourage turtles to resist the urge to problem spot at this stage, or ask them along once generation is complete.

Some of your team might be less happy speaking up. Some people come up with ideas hours after the meeting. Allow ideas to come in late and/or submitted in private.

Give it a bit of time.

Once the ideas have been generated, it’s time to work out which ones to proceed with.

This is where the turtles come into their own. In a separate session, the owl invites the turtles to interrogate ideas. We send the hares for lunch at this point so that they don’t get upset.

The ideas the turtles like can now be given to the squirrels to execute.

If there’s just you in your team, you have hare, owl, turtle and squirrel within you.  You can use this model to plan your day.

If you’re generating creative ideas on your own, separate idea generation and analysis to ensure that you’re not talking yourself out of half the ideas at the generation stage.

This must be why writers like the Ernest Hemingway quote, “Write drunk, edit sober,” (despite there being no evidence he actually said it.)

How do you run your creative meetings?


How to start a creative meeting

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Regular creative meetings can be a bit of a challenge.

Who says I can pull an idea out of my ass at 2pm on a Tuesday, just because we agreed to talk then?

I may have just had a stressful morning trying to link up a wireless printer.

Or be in the middle of a complex situation with a friend/SO.

Or have been trying to engage my kids in homeschool for the last three hours.

We ask each other, ‘How are you?’ at the beginning of meetings and respond politely rather than give an answer which indicates how fit we are to do creative work at this moment.

Here’s an idea from Nathan and Barrett at The Future Belongs to Creators.

Start your meeting with a simple traffic light guide.

Each person reports whether they are ‘red’, ‘yellow’ or ‘green.’ Find colours which represent a mix if three options are not enough.

‘Green’ is in a good, open and creative mood. We’re not stressed, the creative juices are flowing, good things are going to happen today.

‘Yellow’ is somewhat stressed, perhaps there’s a lot going on at work or personally, we might be a little distracted.

And ‘Red’, presumably is the day when it might be best to sack the whole thing off until tomorrow. Not in a creative mood, distracted, stressed beyond the point where anything useful is going to get done.

Now you know how everyone’s feeling, adjust the approach of your meeting accordingly. Today might not be the best day to push hard for a huge brainstorming session. Or to deliver some difficult feedback to a colleague.

Are you red, yellow or green today?


6 Easy Ways to Start Writing

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The blank page is terrifying.

But the good news is, writer’s block doesn’t exist.

Not really.

Not being able to think of anything to write is easily overcome with a few strategies.

And if writing is what you do, and you’re serious about it, not being in the mood is not a good enough excuse. You just have to keep turning up, and getting started.

Which is not to say that I’m not the world’s greatest procrastinator. Lately I’ve been tackling this head on.

Here are 6 of my favourite ways to get started.

1. Start by writing an email to a friend

Here’s a lovely way to trick yourself into writing when you’re not feeling it.


Start an email to a friend instead!

Address the email to a friend you think might like the post or the story you’re about to write, and start writing directly into that email, instead of into a word document.

This also helps to make the style of writing friendly and relatable.

2. Start first thing in the morning

First thing in the morning, our brains are at their quietest.

If I can wake up early, and give myself a couple of hours in which to get some writing done, it can feel like there’s nothing else I should be doing.

No children clamouring for me to download them an app, no washing to put on, no emails pinging around or messages coming in on my phone.

3. Start by getting really bored

The Internet is sometimes not terribly helpful for writers. It can provide a million different types of distraction.

And yet, the most powerful way to overcome writer’s block is to have nothing else to do.

So if it’s difficult to start writing, and there seem to be a million and one other things you could do to procrastinate, turn all of that off.

Put your phone on airplane mode, and sit quietly until ideas start tumbling around in your brain.

4. Start by writing longhand

I was writing a couple of days ago about Pen and ink vs computer.

Starting to write with a pen in a notebook might be less intimidating than watching a cursor blink at you on a screen.

It can change the style of writing that you do as well. Having to physically form the words we want to write can make us more thoughtful.

5. Start by knowing what kind of writer you are

“There are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners.

The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house.

They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be.

They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up.

The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it.

They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever.

But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows.

And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.”

George R.R. Martin

If you’re an architect rather than a gardener, it might be helpful to plan your writing before you start.

More and more detailed planning can be satisfying if you write this way. All you need to do afterwards is fill in the sections you’ve created in your blueprint.

I love everything that ConvertKit does, they have a great blog template on their site.

If you’re a gardener, the best thing might be to just start writing. Don’t worry that you haven’t had an idea yet. Allow the idea to emerge as you write.

To know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing…

When I find myself facing a blank page, that’s always going through my head.

What I capture in spite of myself interests me more than my own ideas.

Pablo Picasso

6. Start by blocking distractions

Having Whatsapp messages, texts or carrier pigeons flying in through the window can be distracting.

Start by putting your phone on airplane mode. Or use an app like Flora to keep you on track. This is a lovely app. You plant a seed, the tree grows while you’re writing. If you close the app or wander off into other apps on your phone. THE TREE DIES. Brutal.

Above all, don’t panic! Writer’s block can be more to do with what else is going on in our lives than a lack of ideas.

If you can make space for it and try all these techniques, the ideas will start to flow.

Unless you’re trying to come up with a completely new idea. I’m not sure that’s possible.

Leave me a comment if you have any more ways to start I should know about. What works for you?

Pen and ink vs computer

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Is it harder to write now that it’s easier to write?

Hundreds of years ago, there was no digital editing, paper was expensive and to find a pen you had to butcher a peacock*.

*Or something. Turns out quill pens were made from goose, swan and turkey feathers.

19th century landowner, explorer and ‘first modern lesbian’, Anne Lister used to write her letters using every last inch of paper – it was pricey stuff.

In a ‘cross-written’ letter to her lover, Sibella Maclean, she turns the paper to write across what she’s already written.

In it she says, “I am an enigma even to myself and do excite my own curiosity.”

With thanks to the West Yorkshire Archive Service.

When writing materials were expensive, you would want to have a pretty good idea of what you wanted to say before committing quill to parchment.

Shakespeare, (who may have written King Lear during lockdown) never crossed a line, according to legend. But maybe he just had a massively inflated ego.

These days, you can just digitally vomit onto a word document, and there is no cost to you if the majority of it is garbage.

But is this a less satisfying way to write?

Some modern writers still swear by the pen and ink approach.

Neil Gaiman explained on The Tim Ferris Show that he usually writes his first drafts longhand, with notebook and fountain pen.

Nobody is ever meant to read your first draft.

Your first draft can go way off the rails, your first draft can absolutely go up in flames, you can change the age, gender, number of a character, you can bring somebody dead back to life.

Nobody ever needs to know anything that happens in your first draft. It is you telling the story to yourself.

Neil Gaiman

Then he extracts the best lines to type up..

Then, I’ll sit down and type.

I’ll put it onto a computer, and as far as I’m concerned, the second draft is where I try and make it look like I knew what I was doing all along.

Neil Gaiman

Creativity is about gumption as much as it’s about talent.

And there’s a lot to be said, psychologically, for doing things this way.

A second draft sounds more satisfying if the method is to select the best lines from a notebook, rather than deleting great swathes of digital text.

There might be something to slowing down and writing ‘analogue’ before committing finger to keyboard.