About Me

My photo
I still feel like a teenager on the inside, unfortunately my children do remind me how old I am!! I have lived for 20+ years as an Irish expat in The Netherlands. My favourite city here has to be Amsterdam.

Writing, reading, authentic living. It's all here at The Writing Process

Welcome to my blog. Let me start by telling you that I love writing. I love the sense of vitality it gives me. I love that it helps me to make sense of the world and to the people in it. I love that it helps me become wiser, more intuitive, empathic, and most of all autonomous.

All aspects - reading, writing and observing - are what make the process complete. The essence is storytelling, and learning about
life and yourself.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Strongest Life. Don't ask how, just ask why not.

I had a wonderful meeting with Manon, from UMAI centre in Alphen where I live. Inspired to create workshops for women to rediscover their strengths, desires and dare I say it, calling in life.

The key word is AWARENESS. Becoming aware, and choosing to face every day with an openness and willingness to truly absorb and experience each situation to its fullest is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself.

AWARENESS implies having the courage to see your dark side, to integrate that, and thus allow it to become another bridge to your authentic, fulfilling life.

Being aware will help us tranform painful experiences into learning experiences. AWARENESS makes the pain endurable.

What follows is an article I wrote last year, but one I feel merits republishing in light of my meeting this morning.

In the spring, I heard I was being made redundant. My company was downsizing and I was superfluous to needs. At that time I did the Marcus Buckingham workshop on line, and filled in the questionnaire on Strengthsfinder.com. An eye opener, a turning point, a revelation. It led to my reading the articles on Work-life balance on Business Exchange and even to contributing my tuppence ha’penny’s worth of commentary.
Later, when I had thought more seriously about the subject, in particular in relation to the premise that women at mid life, though seemingly more successful are sadder and sicker than ever, I was prompted to write my own article on the subject, ‘Let’s Get Personal’. I published it on my blog, found Marcus Buckingham on twitter just to keep up.
All the while I’m thinking, there’s a book in here somewhere.
And of course, there was. Marcus Buckingham has just written it. Find Your Strongest Life is all about the choices women make and how and why we make them. His motivation for writing it stemmed from the Oprah workshop and the subsequent response on the discussion boards.
He is a great analyst, an intuitive observer, and intelligent enough to step aside and process all the information impartially. But he is not a woman.
In the last couple of months I have been working on these issues myself and getting excited about my life all over again. And excited about my friends’ lives too. Since learning to live to my strengths and being manifestly happier I am also a better friend.
The biggest wake up call for me was realising that I had always instinctively known what my strengths were and that using them would be to my and possibly everyone else’s advantage. Unfortunately my working environment was not conducive to employing these strengths. In fact, though it is hard to believe, what were in fact my strengths were the very traits that my bosses wanted me to minimise and hide. As a Creator and a Pioneer I was always coming up with new ideas, new ways of doing things. But when I voiced these in meetings, I was repeatedly overruled more or less told to get back into my box/ Frustration grew. I became resentful, recalcitrant and de-motivated. But before Marcus Buckingham and learning to live to your strengths I spent a lot of time feeling weakened and uninspired at work. Why not go for another job? You might ask. Because somewhere deep down, I almost believed the bosses were right. I believed they knew better than I. I believed that I was a difficult, dissatisfied employee, and that there was no point in moving on because I would antagonise the next boss just as much.
When the redundancy notice came, and I coincidentally came across the Oprah workshop, my life turned around. Learning to respect who I am, and learning to nurture my natural talents has given me a new lease of life. I have more energy than ever. My ability to learn new things, and my curiosity and determination to learn them, has returned in abundance. My mind is again filled with new ideas and despite still being ‘officially’ unemployed I am more contented than I have been in a decade. It is also much easier to be around me.
But, I want to get away from only discussing my own evolution because there is much more to this subject than that. In my previous strengths article ‘Let’s Get Personal’ I investigated the reasons why I turned out the way I did. I asked myself why it was so hard for me to find and live to my strengths, why I would I take on a bosses view of me above my own view of who I am.
Now, a couple of months later it is not just about me reading a book, and applying what I learn to myself. Everywhere I go, whomever I meet, friends, acquaintances, online contacts via social networks, I am walking the walk, and talking the talk. And that is what I want to go into here. I want to discuss what it is to share this with friends, to learn from them and more importantly to give back to them a little of what I am experiencing.
It is amazing.
I know a woman, a mother and career woman. She likes to achieve. Lately she and I have been talking a lot about character, and strengths and stumbling blocks. She is at a crossroads career wise and has been doing some self study and getting advice from others too. Yet she said something to me recently that made my jaw drop. Ok, she said. So I’ve been shown who I am, what my characteristics are. I am being given new insight into my personality. But, where are my strengths? Tell me more about my strengths. More importantly, what are my weaknesses, so that I can work on them?
And that’s the thing. Aren’t our strengths related to who we are? Marcus Buckingham tells us that our strengths are those talents that were always present and that they are inherent to who we are. Unfortunately we have been programmed to think that strengths and weaknesses lie outside of our core, and that we can learn new strengths and that we should focus on weaknesses, work on minimising them, or if we are lucky, turn them into strengths. That just isn’t true. Core strengths and weaknesses will always be just that.
We might say that our strength might be that we are quick to learn, but it will only be a strength if it is applied to learning things that fit us. If we put our energies into learning skills that we don’t like performing then our strength becomes a weakness. So, let’s define the strength more accurately and in Marcus’ own terms. I feel strong when I apply myself to learning new skills in areas that stimulate and please me. I know in my case, being a quick learner soon became a noose around my neck, and actually made it harder to find my real strengths, those activities that thrilled me, that made time stand still. Now, when I puzzle over new ways of designing a web page, or when I am writing an essay for my film studies, or thinking up the plot of my next book, then being a quick learner is a strength.
So during my talks with the mother and career woman, I said that her greatest gifts lie in those character traits that were defined in the test. The fact that she is searching and feeling weakened is because she may be utilising them wrongly, and so turning her strengths into weaknesses. Is the job she is doing the right one for her? Does the company ethic suit her own high standards? She has a need for excellence and always produces top quality work. She is good at taking on new projects, especially in areas where structure and clarity is needed. When she achieves that, she is happy. However, if others do not share her need for excellence, and she is drawn into dead end discussions, she feels weakened. In summary, she feels strong when she takes on a new project and brings structure and clarity. She feels weak when she is unable to convince others to do it her way. So, instead of thinking she can work on that weakness and be more accepting of less than top quality input from others, which in turn will eat away at her strength – producing excellence, maybe she needs to look for a company that operates to the same standards as she. I feel honoured that I can go through this process with her. I already see how great she is. I will be there to celebrate when she is ready to see it herself.
Other women in my circle of friends struggle with other issues. But the essence is the same for all of us. We have all been forcing ourselves to perform tasks that don’t build on our natural strengths. We think that all we have to do is put our minds to a task or activity and just get on with it.
One woman in my circle, a painter and wonderfully creative woman, spent twelve years as an administrative assistant. She told me time and again that she just didn’t understand why she was so tired all the time. She didn’t understand why her output was so below standard and why she was constantly being put under pressure to work harder, and make better results. The simple truth is that she was spending all day in her weak moments. There were weeks when she honestly couldn’t remember one moment when she felt strong, and energised. There were whole months when she was so drained she didn’t have the energy to paint. Now, she too is unemployed, and all she knows is what she doesn’t ever want to do again. She has spent many hours writing and painting, and rediscovering who she really is. We talk about authenticity; we are ready to talk about our darker sides. Our friendship allows us to be honest with each other. We trust each other.
That is the whole point of Marcus Buckingham’s Strongest Life book. To finally get us to wake up and see that we don’t have to do anything and everything. The successful amongst us, and by successful I also mean, happy and contented, are the women who at some stage listened to what the inner voice was telling them. These women, whether consciously or unconsciously, decided to build on those moments that made them feel good and fulfilled instead of ‘working on’ those areas that left them feeling bad.
I have a friend, someone I have always admired. Her mother and father raised her and her siblings to believe in their talents. All of them were gifted musicians, and no one was telling them that music was not the way to make a living. No one told them to learn a trade, or study engineering just because they were clever enough to do so. No, in their family you could be who you wanted to be, who you were born to be. Their mother in particular encouraged them to follow those strong moments. She knew all too well what could happen if you didn’t listen to your own inner voice. She had been an actor and was passionate about theatre and literature and the stage. But for reasons she never spoke about she abandoned her dreams and spends a lot of her life in clinical depression.
What was first, the chicken or the egg? Who knows? What I do know is that my friend never doubted for a moment that her life belonged to music and music belonged in her life. Money or lack of it never stopped her pursuing excellence in her chosen field, never drove her to a career or a job that would have taken away that passion. Initially her music earned her very little, money wise. But she continued to improve and refine her skills. Today she is a vocal director for musical societies for youth theatre groups. Her choirs have won international and national prizes. She has raised three boys through university. Her passion for music has carried her through many hard and difficult moments over the years. But the thread that has run through everything, for her and her siblings, is the truth and authenticity they have. Both her brothers are well known composers, arrangers and orchestra leaders. Her sister teaches at the Royal Academy. All are highly respected, as musicians and human beings. Money and status were never their motivators.
I count myself blessed that I know her. She is the proof I need that living to your strengths will enrich your life. She found it early, I didn’t. But I know I am not too late. You can never be too late. If I ever start to think I am too old, or that I’ve gone past the sell-by-date, then I remind myself of how it was, how I was, and I know I will never lie to myself again. I ask the question Robin Sharma asks of us “Who will cry when I die?” and I know for sure it won’t be me. I won’t cry for a wasted life or chances not taken.
According to the strong life test, my core characteristics are Creator and Pioneer. I always knew it, deep down. They popped up in so many ways. Over the years I have written several novels, even published one. For the last twenty years I have read a vast amount of literature on self realisation. Everything from The Artist’s Way to Now, Discover your strengths and numerous others in between. I have taken courses in Body Work, Transactional Analysis and others. I have been a member of several writing groups. Yet, when it came to earning a living, I locked all of that away in a box and hid it in some dark place.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

More on Characterisation

In the article ‘Arms and Legs’ I talked about the importance of getting to know your characters, and there motivations within the plot of the novel. I mentioned the strength of House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III where the importance of impartiality when telling a story. In alternating he gives us descriptions of the two protagonists, as seen through the eyes of the opposite protagonist. This technique gave him the freedom to bring out negative and positive characteristics of the two main characters without having to take sides himself.
In my article on characterisation I was describing the process of getting inside the characters’ head and minds, and deciding what makes each of them tick. But, there is more to characterisation than that.
What about what a character does? How he does it? What are his interests? How does he dress? Does she wear makeup? Watch soap series?
The questions are endless. As are the answers. And for each question, the answer may be different for each character.
It all comes down to the old adage of ‘show don’t tell’, the application of which may be an important element in bringing a novel to life.
Do we want to have a high power character, successful or at least ambitious in business? How would such a character start his day. Probably by showering under his power shower, shaving with a high tech electric shaver and subsequently splashing a well known after shave on his face. He might have slightly long hair, which he ties into a designer ponytail. If he is balding he might just have a millimetre haircut.
He wears a suit or well tailored jeans, a shirt, not necessarily a tie, has an iphone, or at least a Nokia smartphone, and will drink a ready made high vitamin liquid breakfast.
On the way to work in his car he will most likely have his phone in a carset, and be on handsfree.
Incorporating any or all of these elements to describe the way your up and coming entrepreneur ‘does his thing’ and by including, if possible some suitable dialogue, will do a lot more for your writing than telling the reader that he is an ambitious young business man who hopes to make his first million before reaching the age of 25. Let the reader come to this conclusion by just walking your character through his usual routine.
Want the reader to know he is, or at least for now may appear to be, contented, then have him whistle a tune (for example).
In one of my later novels I wanted the reader to know of the ever growing confusion of my main character, an unhappily married woman, mother of two children. So I had her write lists every day, to remind herself to carry out certain tasks. The lists were stuck to her fridge door with magnets. So, this is a woman who is at home, a lot.
I could give endless examples. Try it out, and see how the writing comes to life.
Dialogue is a second tool that will bring a novel to life. Whether a character is intelligent, well-read, thinks things through, can be illustrated by the way he converses with others.
An untrustworthy character, may behave in one way when alone and in another way when with others.
The possibilities are endless.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Book Thief

This book is so good I don't even know if I can do it justice in a review. It is as good as perfect. The narrative is tight, not a word too much. The plot glides smoothly forward, encorporating a wide range of issues, including first and foremost WWII in Germany, the meaning of parental love, friendship and loyalty, and the impact of sudden, violent death. It talks of sacrifice and risk, and growing up. The narrator is a very down to earth 'Death' without the black cloak, bag of bones image. This is death with compassion and a sense of humour.
It is a 'can't put down' read, of the like I haven't had in years. As all encompassing as War and Peace, but a lot easier to read!

for all of us wannabe published writers, bow in humility to this one.