I couldn’t quite believe I was saying it, but I was. I did.
I was at a Meet The Tutor session, a few weeks after the launch of How To Write, a course at The Idler Academy. There were guests from all over the place, including at least one from the West Coast of the US.
A question arose: what to do about your inner critic?
I explained that I have given quite a lot of attention to the Inner Critic over the past few years, including running workshops on how to deal with it / him, and now wish I had ignored him. Then I said the thing I hadn’t expected to say.
But I’m glad I said it, because a) it is true and b) it might help.
I explained that after leaving psychiatric hospital I spent a lot of time walking the streets, partly for exercise and partly as just something to do, at a time when I was not capable of working. When I got tired, rather than go into a cafe and spend money on a coffee I didn’t want and couldn’t afford, I would walk into churches.
Not having been a church-goer, except in the Scouts and subsequently at social occasions such as weddings and funerals, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do in churches. So I sat down quietly and pretended to be praying, in case somebody decided to chase me out. (Do people get chased out?)
Anyway, there was one particular Catholic church I popped into fairly often. It had loads of reading materials available at the front, on a table near the exit. These included prayers on folded sheets of A4. Some of the prayers were called Novenas, which I’d not heard of before – basically, cycles of prayer.
There were prayers to St Anthony, who was always pictured holding a baby, prayers to Saints Peter and Paul (pictured together, as a pair), and prayers to Saint Joseph (with young Jesus). I kept all of them in my back pocket, and re-read them often as a distraction from the negative thinking that was, at that time, almost unbearable.
The one I liked most was addressed to St Michael. It asked for help in seeing off the devil.
It seemed to me at the time that “the devil” is a silly fiction, ridiculous – a pantomime villain in red tights – but then it dawned on me that whatever I could say about the devil being nonsense could also be said about the modern-sounding Inner Critic.
If St Michael could see off my Inner Critic, that would do just fine.
I leave it up to you to decide whether angels or other supernatural beings had anything to do with the definite improvement this occasioned. One thing I can say for certain is that repeating the prayer over and over again, until I remembered it by heart, allowed no room in my mind to the negative thoughts.
At yesterday’s Meet The Tutor session, I found myself telling the people assembled there about my prayer to St Michael. In fact, I recited the whole thing.
So far as I could tell, nobody lodged an objection, or hurled missiles. And today I received a message in the Idler Academy forum, asking for the text of the prayer. Here it is, along with a picture I drew for a friend, with whom I shared it a couple of years ago:
St Michael The Archangel, defend us in the day of battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, oh prince of the heavenly host, by God’s strength strike down to hell Satan and all evil spirits that do walk the earth seeking the ruin of souls.
Drawing my home screen just now, and each individual element on it, turned out to be remarkably interesting. It gave me the chance to think about it all from scratch. What’s working, what isn’t?
I’m going to start at the top left, move right, then down…
Two bars on my phone signal. Not untypical, on a sweltering day of thunderstorms.
O2-UK. I have previously been with Vodafone, but O2 suits me fine. Nothing to report.
4G. I have been deeply frustrated with Wifi recently, and up here in the converted loft I rely entirely on mobile data. Also, see below.
14.45. Well, that’s when I happened to draw it.
79% battery. The battery on this particular handset (iPhone 6S, iOS 13.4.1) is dreadful. I turn off Wifi and Bluetooth to save battery.
Calculator. Rarely use it. Doesn’t need to be on first screen of apps, let alone top-left. Should move it really.
Google Maps. Quite good, something I rely on, but I don’t like it much. Why is that? I guess because it’s part of the great Google monster that has swallowed my life up.
Calendar. This works quite well. Despite that, I also keep appointments on paper.
Evernote. I’ve got tons of material saved on Evernote. I rarely go back to look at it, despite having taken care (mostly) to tag the various notes, and use key words that should be intuitively searchable in future. I have realised in the last couple of years that I simply prefer to have things on paper. The sheer boundlessness of Evernote makes me feel slightly dizzy.
Settings. I mostly go in here to change the setting for auto-lock (how quickly the screen shuts off). Normally it’s set to go dark after 1 minute, but I quite often have to time people speaking on Zoom, in which case I set it to “never” for the duration of the meeting.
Camera. I don’t use the flash, I don’t HDR, or Live photos, I practically never set a timer, and I don’t like taking selfies.
Photos. I can’t work out why this phone doesn’t sync with the vast amount of photos I have stored on the iCloud, which is really annoying.
A bunch of apps related to sound, including Sound Recorder, which I have occasionally used to record interviews (journalism) and the Apple Podcast app, which I use quite a lot, actually.
Notes. I love this app. I use it to store repeating content, like certain kinds of hashtags on images I post. Also to make and share shopping lists (I like the list to start with the bits that you encounter on first walking into the supermarket, eg, fruit and veg, and to continue along my “normal” pathway through the supermarket (often Waitrose at Finchley Road, since you ask). I like using the feature that lets me tick items as they go into my shopping trolley. I’m mad about lists.
Monzo. Phone banking. I like it enormously.
Kindle. Rarely use it on the phone, now that I have an iPad. Should probably delete.
Audible. Only when drawing this logo did I realise what it means: the V at the bottom is an open book, and the rest is basically a Wifi signal.
Spotify. I like Spotify, have sometimes used it a lot. Not currently, dunno why.
BBC Sounds. Not even logged in yet. Used to listen a lot on the old phone. I hate this phone.
Anchor podcast app. I use this to make my own podcast, it’s very simple and I like it. I never listen to other podcasts on it. Anchor is owned by Spotify now, and you can listen to my podcast there (and pretty well any other podcast app, to be honest).
Calendly. An app to make scheduling easier. I have found it a great help. I have used the free version in the past but currently have the cheapest paid option. I use Calendly to schedule “office hours” with members of my Special Projects group, and my Whizzy Group.
Slack. Slack is terrific, and I used it as the place for messaging between members of the first Whizzy Group. It’s like having my own Facebook Group or LinkedIn Group, without all the distraction. Unfortunately, the individuals in the Whizzy Group were kicked out after some weeks, because unlike me they didn’t have paid accounts. I’ve not found anything to be as satisfying subsequently, and I think if I do another Whizzy Group I’ll insist people sign up. (Not very expensive.)
Freedom. Not at all sure, yet. Relatively new (to me) app that’s supposed to stop me being distracted by apps and websites. I actually jumped right in to the paid version, but it’s really not helping me at all.
Twitter. Joined Twitter a long time ago. Spent about three years off it after having a breakdown, felt absolutely terrified about all the noise and showing off there. Have very slowly gone back in. I’m @jpflintoff
Whatsapp. Works very well, but I keep all notifications off. I used to just mute noisy groups, but even that was too stressful. I regularly miss Whatsapp messages till too late to act on them. Sorry about that.
Find Your Fit. App for my local gym, a chain, which provides helpful information about how busy the gym is at any given time of day. Reminds me that I haven’t been for a few days, might go after writing this.
Messages. I do have notifications showing on this app, but I don’t always rush to see what they are. Partly this is because I have the phone on Do Not Disturb a lot of the time, and in Airplane mode too, so there’s often a message or two waiting for me.
Mail. Currently 167 unread emails, coming in from two different email accounts. That’s higher than usual. I try to keep it to about 100 for peace of mind. Completely artificial threshold, but there we are.
Safari. I keep various windows open. At the time of writing they include: The Backless Chair, Spiritual Direction, Writing Lives, iSmash, The Art of Rhetoric, 35 Times People Were Confused By The English Language, Roden, Paris Review Art of Fiction No. 81, John-Paul Flintoff (home page), Artist Statement, Everyday Writing, Periodical Literature (Wikipedia), Bullet Journal, Book Review: The Bookseller of Florence, Log In To Your Paypal Account, Eight Wishes Workshop, Mind Over Tech.
Telephone. I like to use this sometimes, instead of Zoom. It’s restful not to have to stare at anything in particular. I’m pretty hopeless at picking up voicemail, however.
Thank you for reading. I can’t imagine what you make of this.
Caroline W, knowing I like to make patterns, and designing my own T-shirts, asked me to make a T-shirt showing her lovely dog.
First, I cut out the very appealing face (!) she sent me on Whatsapp, then I imported it to Procreate on my iPad. I multiplied and manipulated it to form a pyramid.
Finally, made a few tweaks to the colour, light and saturation, so the faces weren’t too same-y.
Having done that, I went to Printful, where I get my own T-shirts made (and sometimes other things too).
I was about to do this for Caroline when I realised that it might be helpful to make a quick film showing how I do it, so that you can do the same. (Caroline or anybody else.) I hope you find it useful:
Handwriting is a spiritual designing, even though it appears by means of a material instrument — Euclid
Last year, I wrote approximately 96,000 words, by hand. Mostly I used pens, but pencils and biros laid down their lives too.
One in three British adults don’t write anything by hand for six months at a time. Our average speed is 68 letters per minute (or roughly 13 words). Fast writers manage 113 letters (20 words, not so bad) but slower writers copy just 26 letters per minute, or five words.
Assuming I’m fast, I spent 80 hours writing by hand. If I’m slow – well, it’s probably best not to work it out.
You may wonder: what kind of fool would write anything by hand when he can touch-type at the speed of ordinary conversation? And why type at all, when a relatively ordinary phone allows you to film everything, and save it to a boundless digital archive?
Answer: because time-consuming though it is, the physical process helps me to understand information, and remember it. And typing doesn’t do that.
Studies show that students who type notes tend to do so verbatim – they just drill it all down. Writing by hand is slower, so hand-writing note-takers are more selective, using their brains to digest, summarise and capture only what is needed. In memory tests, note-takers who type consistently perform worse than hand-writers.
But there’s a bigger problem with digital: it’s gone beyond being good, becoming too good, and ultimately no good.
We live in an age when almost any fact or opinion can be found online. But if that’s all we do, we leave ourselves no note of what we have learned – what we care about – to pick up and enjoy again later. And if you don’t remember a particular fact or insight, did you ever really learn anything?
Relying entirely on digital, I have realised, makes me giddy – actually light-headed. But when I hold one of my physical notebooks, I feel grounded.
Some that I filled have curled pages, a result of all the pressure from pencils and biros. Others, filled mostly with Pilot V5 rollerball pens, lie flatter. The pens flow easily over the page and, to be perfectly honest, make the job less tiring. (Note to self: stop using pencils and biros.)
To put my 96,000 words in context: it’s longer than any of my published books. To keep on top of it all, I “tag” my notes so that I can find what I need, even long afterwards.
I won’t go into the whole process, but here’s the most important bit: every time I buy a new Leuchtturm I leave two pages at the front to fill in gradually, as I go along, with numbered “contents”. I list regular themes and topics in the back of the book, each with a different colour, and I mark the edge of pages with that colour, wherever that topic is mentioned.
Time-consuming? If I do it as a go along, I hardly notice.
In this episode, James Mayhew talks about the process of finding his own style as a young man – initially, by copying others. If you’re a regular listener, you’ll know this is a regular theme: there’s a real liberation in setting constraints for your artistic practice.
In this particular case, the practice is visual art, but what James describes is relevant to any other kind of creative work, including writing.
I first came across James’s art as a parent, reading picture books before bedtime. We loved the Katie books. The first of these was published in 1989, soon after James left art school. Here’s what you need to know: in the Katie books, James takes his main character into the world of other artists – literally stepping into their famous paintings to meet the people pictured there.
As it happens, I have recently been doing a very slightly similar thing, and posting my drawings on Instagram. I’ve learned a lot from copying the great masters, and after I had done a few I thought of James, drawing the Katie books, and just knew I had to ask him about it. I’m so pleased he said yes.
Also in this episode, we talk about how (for a decade before the pandemic) James did live drawing sessions, collaborating with orchestras to convey the world of particular pieces of music. And we hear how he adapted that work, with a pair of musicians, to do it online.
If you write speeches, why not learn from other speechwriters? That’s what I was hoping for when I joined the European Speechwriters Network for a discussion led by Lucinda Worlock1.
You can watch the whole discussion here. If you’re in a hurry, scroll down to find the times of particular bits of discussion.
0:22 Intro by Brian Jenner of the European Speechwriters Network2
I ask the online audience to put cameras on and say hello (unless naked and can’t bear it). This, as becomes clear, is an important part of building a sense of connection.
4:15 Lucinda (Zooming from her spare room/office in West Sussex) asks where everyone is.
Locations include: Ottowa, Altrincham, near Frankfurt, in the woods somewhere in Holland, Marylebone Road, Cambridge, Cardiff, Norwich, Ripon, outside Boston, Cheltenham, north London (x 2), New York, and Bournemouth. Most importantly, audience members are seen, and heard.
10:15 Lucinda mentions A Modest Book About How To Make An Adequate Speech, and asks what prompted me to write it.
I explain that my 2018 breakdown felt like I was starting everything again. But that I found public speaking surprisingly easy.
15:30 Question: What is it about writing that helps you open up and connect with other people?
In which I describe, among other things, overcoming shyness and the value of “cliffhangers”.
18:00 Question: How do you decide which stories to share?
I start by explaining what I learned in improvisational theatre about status, and how to adjust it in the moment.
I add that I’ve learned to trust my own intuition. Good stories should feel exciting / fear (the two things are indivisible).
23:00 Question: How do you approach writing a book v writing a speech?
I find it almost impossible to write either without a sense of my audience.
Also: be heartfelt. Don’t be entirely in your head.
And consider what you want to be the effect on your audience. Start a revolution? Have a laugh…?
27:00 Lucinda describes the dangers for speakers of wanting to be liked – or even understood.
I ask if I’ve shot myself in the foot, marketing-wise, by publishing a book about speaking merely adequately.
29:40 Question: What have you had to unlearn, in public speaking?
Don’t try to be good. It’s drummed into us at school. But forget it. Take the focus off yourself. Focus on being of service to the audience.
And I describe the revelation I experienced, years ago, while teaching a class on “How To Be Confident”.
35:00 I’m glad the language of vulnerability is starting to evolve in the world of leadership… But how to be authentic?
I screenshare and explain A Supposedly Scientific Graph about what makes a great speech, then The Spectrum of Communication.
39:20 Question: I love the drawings and mind maps in the book… How does art help for you in communication?
Drawing, because it’s non-verbal, is a great way to get out of my head.
42:30 Question: Is it a double-edged sword to be always reading the audience?
I try to notice, but not draw any conclusions. One way to do that is to step back and watch myself, too. And to draw attention to what’s happening in the moment. Naming The Thing can have a huge impact.
44:30 Question: Is that something you learned from impro?
For my answer, watch the video!
46:45 Question: You dedicate your book to your daughter, with the words, “May you always speak well”. What do you mean by that?
48:30 Question: In one of your videos you talk about reading Tintin with your daughter in other languages. Do you still do that?
49:30 Question: Did you start improvisation before or after playing creative games with your daughter?
50:30 Question: What do you want people to do, having read the book?
52:40 Question: Do you think of writing, including speechwriting, as a kind of performance?
I encourage writers always to try to entertain, to delight. But that doesn’t mean you have to tell jokes: you can entertain by bringing people to tears.
Why would a writer put her/himself into the background? Wendy Jones has written many kinds of books – fiction, and for children – but in this episode we focus on how and why she likes to tell people’s stories in their own words.
She did this in her biography of Grayson Perry, and in The Sex Lives Of English Women.
In this conversation, we talk about what drew her to use this technique, and how she actually goes about it – the hard work, like the figure of the writer, can sometimes seem invisible.
We also talk about Studs Terkel, the American radio broadcaster and pioneer of oral history, who inspired Wendy. The Studs Terkel book Wendy mentions is When Will The Circle Be Unbroken?, and the illustrated book I describe afterwards is Working.