Mark McGuinness is an award-winning poet, author, and creative coach. He also hosts his own podcast, The 21st Century Creative.
In this podcast episode, Mark explains how he worked with Brian Clark of Copyblogger and how the copywriting lessons he learned have stayed with him ever since.
We also talked about how the pandemic has impacted creatives. Mark describes some of the steps he's taking to break out of his self-imposed "introvert's paradise," which he set up during lockdown.
Mark also talks about the importance of looking on your computer for that messy creative project that you've been putting off. That messy creative project could be the one that pays dividends for you over the long term.
In this episode, we discuss:
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Mark: I like to think about if you’re a creative professional that either — that means you’re working to a professional standard, whether or not you earn your living from it. You may earn your living from it as well or you may earn it from a combination of different activities so I think one of the great things about the 21st century is we have a lot more choices available.
Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: What does it mean to be a creative professional today?
Hi, there. My name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast. That’s a question I’ve been wondering about for quite a while.
For years, I was a copywriter for the British software company, Sage, so I had a pretty clear plan for what my day would look like, you know. I would get up at half five or six and I would write for an hour or an hour and a half or do something creative before work and then it’d be time to, you know, get the kids off to school or to the childminder. And then I typically start my day as a copywriter in Sage.
Now, a typical working day involves spending a good chunk of the day writing copy, that’s writing words that sell for products and services. I also spent a good chunk of the day on conference calls over Microsoft Teams where I present copy to stakeholders and they would provide feedback on the copy and then they would say what they needed to be changed and if it, you know, accurately conveyed the messaging for the product in question.
Then, I’d normally go away and take that copy, rework it, and then have another call a few days later where it would either get signed off and published on the site or I’d have to go back and rethink the whole thing again. So, in other words, it was doing something in the morning, which was writing short stories and later non-fiction articles, and then it was doing something during the day, which was paying the bills, which was copywriting.
Now, when I left Sage and when I started working on Become a Writer Today full time, one of the first things I noticed is my day was immediately opened up. I could write in the morning for a couple of hours for more than an hour and a half if I wanted, but I didn’t have anything in the afternoon like long phone calls or conference calls. But I usually found after two or three hours of writing that I was pretty tapped out for the day so I started thinking about other things I could do to, grow Become a Writer Today and some of the other sites that I’m running, take them to the next level, and I also considered this podcast so I started increasing the amount of podcast interviews I was recording each week and publishing each month.
The other thing I found with all this extra time was I was able to ask myself questions like what creative project do I want to work on next because when I only had 10 or 15 hours a week. I was quite limited with what I could do. I could work on a single book or a single project for the site, but now, I could plan out multiple books that I could potentially write over the next year or two. Plan out courses and other creative projects that I’d like to do for the site. I’m still working on finding out an answer to what it means to be a creative professional, at least for me, but I recently had the chance to catch up with Mark McGuinness who is an award-winning poet, author, and creative coach and he also hosts his own podcast, The 21st Century Creative.
One of my takeaways from this week’s interview is the benefits of copywriting for all types of writers and Mark McGuinness explains how he worked with Brian Clark of Copyblogger and how lessons he learned about copywriting has stayed with him ever since when he’s considering what to do on Lateral Action, his site. We also talked a little bit about how the pandemic has impacted on creatives. Mark describes how he set up what he calls an introvert’s paradise and that’s certainly something I’ve done and he talks about some of the steps that he’s taking to break out of this introvert’s paradise wants the lockdown ends, which hopefully by the time you listen to this interview, it will be over and forever behind us.
One of my other key takeaways from this interview is the importance of looking in your closet or on your computer for that messy creative project that you’ve been putting off for quite a while because you’ve had no time to work on it or you didn’t feel like it’s gonna go anywhere, because Mark basically says that this messy creative project could be the one that pays dividends for you over the long term and it could actually turn out to be the creative project which you’re most excited about but perhaps you’re simply procrastinating so that’s certainly a question I’m gonna ask myself, “What messy creative project am I procrastinating about and what one should I work on next?”
Now, if you find this interview helpful, please leave a short review on iTunes, Stitcher, Overcast, or Spotify or share the show, and also, for a couple of dollars a month or for the price of a cup of coffee, depending what country you’re in, you can become a Patreon supporter and I’ll give you discounts on my writing courses, software, and books. If you’ve got questions about the show or feedback or you simply want to let me know what you’re up to, please reach out on Twitter, it’s @bryanjcollins.
Now, let’s go over to this week’s interview with Mark McGuinness.
Bryan: Mark, there’s a few people I’ve been following online for quite a while, Joanna Penn and you, so I’ve been fascinated by some of your books and your approach to creativity, but before we get into that, could you give listeners a flavor for who you are?
Mark: Sure. I am a poet who earns my living as a coach for creative professionals so I work with people across the whole spectrum of the arts, the creative industries, media, performers, and so on. And, in relation to the coaching, I also have a podcast, 21st Century Creative, and four books I’ve written for creatives on different aspects of the creative life so the kind of the poetry and the coaching and the writing about creativity are in a kind of an ongoing dialogue. I find working with other people is a really good way of reflecting on my own practice and, obviously, being a poet informs the kind of people that I like to work with. I like to work —
Mark: — with people who are on the same kind of creative wavelength, even if they’re working in a very different media.
Bryan: Yeah, that’s one of the things that came across in your work. You work with people who are not just writers but they could be involved in other creative pursuits. I think I saw one of your tweets was about why people should take a class in pottery to give them a different medium —
Mark: Oh —
Bryan: — to express themselves.
Mark: Yes, I did a lovely interview with a guy called Nick Hand here in Bristol who runs a letterpress, Printing Collective, I think Nick calls it The Letterpress Collective, but, basically, he’s got a whole workshop full of Victorian printing presses and you can go and learn to do this. When the pandemic’s over, I’m gonna be going down and taking a class on how to print a poem using an old letterpress thing —
Mark: — and Nick is really — he’s a real enthusiast for traditional crafts, particularly as an antidote to all the digital distractions and, you know, brain fuzz that we have these days. So, I think that tweet was a quote from Nick saying, you know, get your hands dirty, roll your sleeves up, get ’em covered in ink or clay or whatever it is, and it’s a really wonderful grounding thing to do.
Bryan: Do you spend much time working with your hands or writing poetry with pen and paper or how do you find a balance between traditional tools versus digital?
Mark: Well, you know, for poets, the traditional tool is the memory really, you know? It’s the wandering bard, as I know you have in Ireland, would be, you know, wandering around, wouldn’t necessarily be literate in the modern sense in terms of being able to write, you know? Poetry is an oral art, goes back a long way before writing, so, quite often, I will think of a poem or at least I get the start of a poem in my head and even if I don’t have a notepad or anything to write it down, that’s okay because, if it’s any good, I should be able to remember it, right? Long enough to get home.
Bryan: Yeah, well, I suppose. I always say to people you need to write it down so you must have a good memory.
Mark: Well, you know, poetry is supposed — like Auden said poetry is memorable speech so it’s almost like a Darwinian filter but, I mean, when I’m actually working on a piece, quite often, I will capture it with — I’m using a voice-to-speech thing on my phone at the minute called otter.ai which is really great. I can capture a voice note and it’ll transcribe it and upload it and use it later but I do like, going back to your original question, I do like a bit of, you know, scratching pen on paper action when I’m writing a poem so if I’m at home and I’ve got materials to hand, I’ll quite often write rather than type a first draft and I guess when I’m actually writing a poem, one thing I like to do is write it until the draft gets too messy then type it up and play with it on the screen until I can’t really see it anymore and then I print it off —
Mark: — and then I start writing on that draft. There’s something about having a fresh copy for each iteration that kinda helps me so a lot of it goes between handwriting and digital and printed copy.
Bryan: Yeah, different formats. Yeah, I use Dragon for iOS. It’s quite good —
Mark: Oh, yeah, that’s great, yeah.
Bryan: — for speech recognition on the phone. So when you finish your poetry, what’s usually your next step?
Mark: With the poem?
Mark: At the moment, it’s sending it off to magazines and competitions because that’s how the poetry world works and then waiting several months for either a rejection or an acceptance and then rinse and repeat. So, there’s not a lot of my poetry out in the public domain because, obviously, if it goes in a magazine, they have print rights and whatever. So, it’s a little antiquated but that’s the way the poetry world works at the minute, but I do have a collection that should hopefully be published within the next couple of years.
Bryan: Is there a case for self-publishing poetry?
Mark: Well, there could be but then you would miss out on the core audience for poetry because it is so conservative. So, a lot of the hardcore poetry readers like me generally wouldn’t — we follow publishers we know, who’s published by whom and there’s a whole community and conversation that you’ll part of with poetry and, you know, it looks like a solitary art but it isn’t really because poets are always discussing and arguing and referring to each other, even over like hundreds of years or thousands of years, even, if you reach back to Homer, and so, for better or worse, at the minute, that whole conversation and community is still tied up with traditional publishing. It may change in a few years but, right now, I think if you wanna be part of that, you go the traditional route.
Bryan: I interviewed a poet recently, he described how he writes poetry and then performs at spoken-word events in the US. He said that was quite helpful for his craft.
Mark: There is, yeah, well, there certainly — I’ve done a bit of spoken-word years ago and it’s certainly a high-octane atmosphere to be in, yeah, and there’s nothing like a live reading, I really do enjoy that.
Bryan: So to go to the other side of creative work, what does a creative career look like today?
Mark: Well, I guess, you know, as long as you are pursuing — I mean, my definition is you don’t necessarily have to be earning your living from it because we poets generally don’t. I think — I’m not so sure about the word “career,” I don’t know, it doesn’t quite sit with me but I like to think about — if you’re a creative professional, that means you’re working to a professional standard, whether or not you earn your living from it.
You may earn your living from it as well or you may earn it from a combination of different activities so I think one of the great things about the 21st century is we have a lot more choices available. I mean, in the old days, either you got signed as a rock star or a, you know, novelist with a big advance or whatever it was or you kept the day job and you did it in the evenings. Whereas these days, there’s a whole series of different gradations and options you can have, you know? I think a lot of people these days have what would be called a portfolio career where you might do something that is more commercially oriented, I don’t know, editing or design or copywriting or coaching or consulting, and then something that’s more artistic. So I think the one thing I would say is don’t hold back on doing the thing that you really wanna do because you only have one life. Don’t put it on hold because you’re not, you know, as far as we know, unless the Buddhists are right, we’re not gonna get another one so —
Bryan: Yeah —
Mark: — I think it’s —
Bryan: — you might get another chance.
Mark: Yeah. So, for me, it’s really about — I guess the way I frame the question to myself and my clients is, “What’s the work you really want to do and what kind of career structure can you create to support that?” And for some people, it’s just having a day job. They’re quite happy with that. Other people, like me, have to feel that they’re somehow plugged into creative work, you know, in all aspects of their career and there, it’s more like having a little ecosystem of projects and roles that somehow, you know, the money, the inspiration, the connection with human beings and the following your own heart and being authentic to yourself, all of those bases are covered.
Bryan: Yeah, I worked as a copywriter for the British software company, Sage, for a good few years. Gave me an opportunity to try different types of writing on the side so I found that quite helpful.
Mark: Copywriting, I think, is a really good discipline. So I had a mentor about 10 years ago, guy called Brian Clark, who founded a site called copyblogger.com and so he was a real expert on copywriting in the online space and marketing and I learned an awful lot from him about really clear communication, about putting yourself in your readers’ mind and mindset and, you know, answering the age-old question, “Well, what’s in it for the other person to listen to me and what I have to say?” Now, that’s not to say I would write poems based on copywriting principles but, certainly, I think it’s a really important discipline and particularly if you’re writing and promoting yourself in any shape or form online, then don’t be shy. You know, check it out. Let’s see what you can learn from it.
Bryan: Yeah, I definitely think it’s an underrated skill set and it can help you if you have a blog or any type of website where you’re producing content. So, you’ve mentioned some of the different projects that you worked on. How do you decide what to work on next?
Mark: That’s a good question. Three times a year, I make a large pot of coffee and sit down and think, “What am I gonna work on next?” and it’s always at the project level, as you’ve identified. I think, “Well, given where I’m at, where the business is at, where my creative process is at, and what I’ve been doing recently, what would it make sense for me to do next?” and sometimes it’s something that is very obviously gonna relate to the business and move that forward.
Other times, I feel like, well, you know what, I’ve done a bit of time on the business stuff. I’m gonna indulge my artistic side a bit more, and I think over the course of the year — so what I typically do is, say, I’ve recently done this from Easter to the summer holidays, I think in terms of terms because our children are at school, what do I want to achieve in the next three or four months? And then I do a review in the summer and then I’ll do the same September to Christmas and then Christmas to Easter, and that kind of divides the year up into manageable chunks but also, you know, it’s short enough for me to think, “Okay, well, what do I wanna achieve by, say, Easter? And I better get my skates on if I’m gonna do that.” So, it can be a combination —
Bryan: Like seasons.
Mark: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I work with some people who do it by seasons, you know, spring, summer, autumn, winter. It’s a really nice way of, you know, going up to 10,000 feet, so to speak because it’s easy to do that. We all like to do that at New Year, don’t we? And we say, “Let’s look in the next 12 months what I want to achieve,” and you get to September and you think, “Gosh, where is that bit of paper?” Because it’s a little bit too hard — I mean, particularly the last 12 months, it’s a little bit too hard to anticipate what’s gonna happen, but I find doing it in three or four months at a time, there’s a much stronger sense of accountability.
Bryan: I have a working theory that it’s a good idea for somebody to work a little bit on their craft or something creative every day and also do something every day that advances their business forward but I guess, you know, you can take on a lot of projects that way. So, do you have many projects on the go at any one time?
Mark: I have, well, I have my clients — I agree with you, actually. I mean, the way I do it is I do my own projects in the morning and I do clients in the afternoon. But in terms of projects, I will generally have one main project at a time and I work on that until I get it to a certain point and this is where I sometimes have to make hard decisions, you know, at Christmas or Easter or whenever, because there may be two or three vying for my attention but I know from experience that it’s, you know, it’s easy to get a bottleneck like that so, generally, there’s one project on the front burner with a few others kind of taking over in the background.
Bryan: So when it comes to working on something like a business, typically people will keep track of things like podcast downloads or e-mail subscribers or coaching clients. When you’re working on a creative project, are there any things that you keep track of or do you just like to keep it loose and see where it takes you?
Mark: If you’re talking about — what? Like an artistic project, like a poetry one?
Bryan: Yes, exactly, yeah.
Mark: I think there would be two markers really and they’re both completely different and I track them for different reasons. One is my own sense of whether I’ve managed to capture what I wanted in the poem. That’s always the most important thing. Do I feel excited each time I read it? Because if it’s not fresh to me, it won’t be fresh to a reader. So that’s the main one and then the secondary one is where am I gonna send this? Which magazine might take it? Which competition might it have a chance of placing somewhere? And also, I guess, now, because I’ve got the collection is, well, where does it fit in the collection or does it fit in the collection? Does it need to go somewhere else?
Bryan: Makes sense, makes sense. When you’re working on a creative project and it comes to a natural end, like you’ve submitted it to the publisher, do you take a break?
Mark: Yeah, well, I usually work on something else and I like the fact that I’ve got different types of projects. So, for instance, I have my main coaching podcast, 21st Century Creative. I do that in seasons deliberately because I love immersing myself in it and I’ll record 10 one-hour episodes and that will kinda take over my life for a couple of months and I really, each time I get started on it, I’m really excited, it’s great to be a podcaster again, and to meet new people and to, you know, remember what it’s like to, you know, be playing with all the equipment, but by the end of the two months, I’m like, “Okay, I’m really glad I’m not doing that for a bit,” and I wanna do something fresh and different then so I do like having that variety of stuff that keeps everything fresh.
Bryan: Yeah, I’ve just gone through a few weeks where I’ve recorded a good few podcast interviews for the next few months. Kinda found it’s a lot easier now to get into I suppose a state of flow with the podcasts with me doing it nearly every day, whereas, for the first one or two, I felt like I had to summon up a massive amount of will to get started.
Mark: Yeah, I mean, it’s like anything, isn’t it? Once you get in the zone, it’s easy to keep doing it. I mean, I think David Allen says in Getting Things Done, he says if you’ve got a lot of difficult phone calls to make this week, he says do them all one after the other because then you’re in difficult phone call making zone. He says, otherwise, you gotta work yourself up to it about six times and you end up procrastinating a lot.
Bryan: Yeah, you gain forward momentum.
Bryan: Where do you stand on creative people having a back catalogue? So, the reason why I ask is I was writing a chapter for a book and I came across an interesting fact that Picasso had 13,500 paintings during his career, but most people don’t know a lot of them because there’s so many and that’s why he’s so successful because he gave himself more chances to take a swing at the bat. Is that something you’ve noticed with your clients that those who publish more or have more work have more success?
Mark: Certainly those who do more, they don’t necessarily publish it all. When I did my master’s, I read a really interesting book, I think the guy was Robert Weisberg and — I can’t remember the title of the book, but, basically, he’d done an assessment of the ratio of masterpieces to kind of average work in the works of the great composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and whoever and, apparently, it’s reasonable, beyond a certain level of competence, it’s reasonably consistent that even Mozart, it wasn’t all masterpieces, even Beethoven or Bach, it wasn’t, and a lot of these, like Bach, for instance, he’s produced much higher than usual number of masterpieces. But apparently, he just made loads and loads and loads of music because he was employed by a church and, in the good old days, they didn’t like old music, they all wanted new music every week so he had to come up with a new piece of work every week for the church.
I mean, imagine going to that local church, there’s J. S. Bach that’s got new premiere every single week. I bet the priest was, you know, had a full house. And, apparently, that productivity led to, you know, him producing an awful lot of really distinguished work so I certainly think there’s something in it, you know? And it’s hard to do it with lyric poetry because, unless you get an idea, there’s not really an awful lot you can do but one solution I found to that is to do a long translation.
So, I’m working on Chaucer’s long poem, “Troilus and Criseyde,” translating it from medieval English into modern English but keeping the same verse form and I’ve done over a thousand lines of this and it’s quite an intricate rhyming scheme and iambic pentameter and, apart from the fun of doing it and spending that time with Chaucer, it’s definitely made me better at rhyme and meter and rhythm and syntax and all the kind of technical skills you need so that when I write my own stuff, it seems to flow much more easily.
Bryan: Does that project take long? It sounds like something that would last weeks or months.
Mark: It’s an ongoing project. I’ve done book 1. He wrote five books and I’ve done the first book so it’s not gonna be out this summer, I can assure you.
Bryan: Wow, no, that’s a big project. And then the other side of it, which is, if you publish something and, you know, you get a negative review or you got some criticism from somebody, what advice do you give to clients to get over that?
Mark: You know, a lot of people say don’t take it personally and those people are generally not writers or artists themselves because if you really care about your work and you put your heart and soul into it, then, at some point, to a degree, it’s inevitable that it will hurt and that we will take it personally.
I think it was Gustave Flaubert who said, “We serve up a portion of our guts and the bourgeoisie get out their knives and forks.” So there was a man who had suffered a few bad reviews. But I think part of the job of being a professional is that you kind of disassociate from that or you don’t get too attached to that. You accept it’s gonna hurt but then you gotta get out there and do some more and it’s also, I think it’s really super important to ask yourself, “Well, who is making the judgment here and what are their criteria and, honestly, what is their qualification?” If it’s some random person on the internet, I’m generally not gonna get too worried. If it’s, for instance, a poet whose work and opinion I really respect and they say, “Well, you know, Mark, I think this isn’t all there yet.
There are some things you need to think about,” then I will generally take that criticism on board a lot more. So, one thing I would say is find really good sources of feedback. If you can find someone who really understands and cares about your work and gets what you’re trying to do and can give it feedback in a way that isn’t completely soul-crushing, then hold that person very close in your life.
Bryan: Good advice, good advice. The other problem creative people have is getting somebody to pay attention to their work in the first place. There’s just so much noise out there and so many more forms of media that people can consume everywhere. So, do you have any advice for people who are having trouble getting others to pay attention to their work?
Mark: Well, I would say, okay, so I can give some secondhand advice from Naomi Dunford who came on my show and I asked her about this, but it kind of confirmed what I was hoping she would say, which is there’s an awful lot of low-hanging fruit have now been taken on the internet or in the media, generally. Everybody’s out there creating content of some kind and so if you’re gonna try and play it safe and do something that is a bit, you know, that you think has the potential to reach a broad audience, that’s probably a risky thing to do. Weirdly, it’s much safer to follow your own idiosyncratic inclination and do the thing that only you could do and you still gotta do it to a really high level but, chances are, if you’re genuinely creative, there’s gonna be something that you can do and only you can do it in your way and it may take a bit of creativity and persistence and feedback to figure out what that is but, in the long term, you’re much better pursuing that than pursuing the thing that you think lots of people would want to buy because somebody’s already doing that, somebody has figured that out, you know, 10, 15 years ago.
Bryan: So you have to find a way to differentiate yourself —
Mark: Yeah —
Bryan: — in the market.
Mark: — but not in a kind of out– I like to think you’ve gotta do it from the inside out, just think — and often I’ll ask clients, okay, but tell me about the weird project at the back of your cupboard or the bottom of your, you know, your computer’s hard drive that you’ve neglected because it doesn’t seem, you know, you can’t imagine where it would go, and, very often, that is the thing that has got the most chance to get them some kind of attention, even if it’s not necessarily obvious what the commercial potential for that would be.
Bryan: So the clients that you’re working with at the moment, are they mostly poets and writers or are you working with other types of clients as well?
Mark: I don’t work with many poets, funnily enough. Otherwise, I think we would end up talking shop because — I have a few writers, screenwriters and film, you know, for film and TV as well as novelists but I’m really very lucky, you know, the whole gamut from people who are very commercially and entrepreneurially driven in terms of their creative endeavors to people who are doing fine art stuff, other people who are performers on stage or in the media, you know, TV presenters, actors, that kind of thing so — and the thing I love is that I get such a wide range of different people to talk to every week and also it forces me to concentrate on the fundamentals, the human factors, the motivation, the mindset, the resilience that it takes to succeed, the communication skills that you need, the ability to tell a great story about yourself and sometimes to engage in crucial conversations in a constructive way when there’s a lot at stake and then the kind of fundamentals around the creative process as well, which are often very, you know, common across lots of different disciplines.
Bryan: Would you be able to describe some of those fundamentals? I feel like I know what it’ll be for writing but I’m curious about what it is for other types of creative professions.
Mark: Well, I think one thing to recognize is everyone has their own kind of creative rhythm, you know? Like we were talking just now about you saying you really like to get in the podcast zone and do that very intensively for a while and then step away from it, which is similar to the way I approach podcasting. Other people would much rather do a little bit every day and a little bit every day and a little bit every day.
Mark: Some people will write a book every five years, another one will write five books a year so I think you’ve gotta find a rhythm that — the way I say to clients is, well, let’s figure out what your ideal creative process is and then we’ll see what we can do to arrange your schedule so that the schedule is arranged around your creativity rather than the other way round.
Bryan: Okay, okay. I was reading that it’s impossible to — well, it’s really hard to work in something creative in a deep way for more than three or four hours a day. Is that something your clients have found as well?
Mark: So you’ve probably seen the great book by Mason Currey called Daily Rituals where he compiles accounts of great writers and artists and thinkers about what they actually did all day and it’s really encouraging if you read that, people like Charles Darwin or Virginia Woolf or Jean-Paul Sartre or whoever, most of them didn’t really spend, even if they were full-time writers or full-time creators, they wouldn’t spend more than typically three or four hours a day on their creative work, you know?
The rest of it was going for walks and drinking cocktails and answering letters and so on so that’s quite encouraging so I like to think, if I get a good three hours done in the morning, that’s me done as a writer for the day and then I do a couple of coaching clients in the afternoon so that’s about four hours, well, that’s me done as a coach for the day, and even on the days when I don’t have any coaching clients, I’m not gonna get twice as much writing done because I don’t have the same kind of energy in the afternoon so, yeah, that definitely rings true and, I mean, it also means we get a chance to live the rest of our lives and it takes one little block away because even if you’re working nine to five, you could get three hours done in the evening or at least a couple and you get most —
Bryan: Or before work.
Mark: Or before work, yes, that’s been done too. And you could, you know, you’d be up there with, you know, the flâneur who is spending the rest of his day just sitting in a cafe in Paris drinking absinthe, you know? In terms of creative productivity so, yeah, I find that quite heartening.
Bryan: Yeah. I’ve been reading a book about creativity recently and the author was saying that incubation of ideas is an important part of the process so you need to give yourself time to reflect on something so set it aside and then come back to it the next day or the next week. Is that something you found?
Mark: Yes, with one important qualification. So, I thought about this a lot. I thought, how can you tell the difference between incubation and procrastination? Because it’s easy to be sitting around saying, “Well, I’m not really doing anything today but I’m incubating. This is really important to my creative process,” and I thought, well, how do we know the difference? Because there are times when working harder is actually the worst thing you can do.
You need to step away, you need to go for a walk, you need to get on an airplane or whatever, and the conclusion I came to is procrastination happens before you do some hard work on a problem, whether it’s a creative piece of work or another kind of problem, and incubation is what happens after you’ve done a really intense bit of work, because I noticed all the, you know, the accounts of I think Henri Poincaré, the French mathematician, was one of the famous ones, he came up with this idea, he said he would be working really hard on some kind of, you know, root cause of quadratic equations or whatever it is that French 19th century mathematicians thought about and he would work himself to a standstill and then he would go for a walk on the beach and suddenly the idea would come to him and I looked at quite a few accounts of this and thought about my own experience and thought that’s generally true, you know?
Often, I mean, it’s all very well as a poet, for instance, sitting around waiting for the muse to strike with inspiration, which does happen, I’m pleased to say. You know, you can be walking along and a line comes into your mind and you think, “Wow, that’s the start of a poem,” but I noticed that she tends to show up, the muse, that is, after I’ve maybe been struggling away on my own, you know, kind of priming the engine, so to speak. So that was — I would say, if you want some incubation, it’s great, but so work hard on something and then take a break.
Mark: But don’t just sit around waiting for the inspiration to come along before you’ve applied yourself to it and, you know, this is why I do think it’s important to take evenings off, to take weekends off, to have proper holidays because, as creators, we can be our own worst enemy in that department. You know, we work and work and work and, as far as creativity is concerned, that’s actually counterproductive.
Bryan: Yeah, I have a sign on my wall that — it’s a translation of a French saying, it translates as, “Step back in order to leap forwards,” so —
Mark: That’s nice.
Bryan: Yeah, yeah, so I came across it in a book so it’s good advice, a reminder for me to stop, which is quite difficult over the past year with everything that happened with the pandemic and the lockdowns.
Mark: There’s been a lot of stepping back, hasn’t there?
Bryan: There has, there has, yeah. Well, even for switching off can be quite difficult when you’re working at home and also living at home. You can’t go anywhere.
Mark: Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I think I was lucky in that regard because I’ve been working at home online for years before the pandemic came along. In fact, when I saw the lockdown regulations, I thought, “It’s my life.”
Bryan: Yeah, people will say that to me, “Your life hasn’t changed.”
Mark: And, you know, this might make you smile, my New Year’s resolution for January 2020 was get out of the house more because I realized I’d created this perfect introvert’s paradise at home, you know, sitting here doing writing and coaching on Zoom and, of course, the gods laughed when they saw that as my resolution.
So, if you — but there’s one thing I have learned, if you work from home in any way, shape, or form, you need to have some hard edges in your day and hard delineation between your work and the rest of your life. So, my life changed the day I could afford to have an office, you know, not being working at the kitchen table or in the living room or wherever.
Bryan: Is this a home office or outside the house?
Mark: It’s actually a home office, which I prefer —
Mark: — because it cuts down on commuting but that door gets well and truly closed when I come out of it in the evening and I do try and avoid going in the office in the evening whenever possible because it just, you know, as soon as I come over the threshold, I’m in work mode. Same with things like e-mail gets switched off about seven in the evening, switched off on my phone as well. All my clients know if they need to reach me urgently, they got my phone number, they can call me or text me.
I say if you’re sending me an urgent request via e-mail, then it’s — chances are it might not reach me so they all — that works really well so I think having some kind of hard edges in your days, start times, stop times, digital boundaries, don’t be checking e-mail in bed, I mean, and I’m sure no one would ever do that, listening to this, checking e-mail in bed at night and then going to sleep, it’s just not — it’s not gonna happen.
And if you can, have a separate workspace, and even if you can’t, you know, you don’t have a space big enough that you’ve got a separate room, you can always make sure that you pack the work stuff away and drape a blanket over it or something so that at least the environment gets transformed.
Bryan: Yeah, that’s good advice. And under normal circumstances, what would you do like to I suppose break out from the introvert’s paradise that you described?
Mark: Under normal circumstances —
Mark: — gosh, trying to remember what those are like. I mean —
Bryan: I can — it’s totally year and a half ago now.
Mark: You mean work-wise or socially?
Bryan: Well, either, either, just curious like how somebody —
Mark: I think what I was thinking about was I needed to get out of the house and do some more things where I was meeting people in the real world, you know, find, I don’t know, a local writing group where I can actually go along and see people.
I like doing tai chi. I’ve got a great group that I do that with, you know, and then seeing other people for fun and pleasure, which is always a good thing to do. So, yeah, I definitely — I think I will be, you know, when obviously the freedom is lifted, I think I will be much more oriented towards doing things where I get to go and be in a room with people and do stuff together.
Bryan: I should probably do the same. Mark, where can people find you or your podcast?
Mark: The podcast is the 21st Century Creative, which is on iTunes and all the usual places. My coaching website is lateralaction.com. You can find my books, you can find an extensive blog about creativity, you can find the podcast home there, and obviously my coaching services and if you are interested in the poetry, that is at markmcguinness.com and that’s McGuinness with two n’s and two s’s.
Bryan: Thank you, Mark.
Mark: Thank you. It’s been fun.
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