Fiction

Little Red

The night I died, the cold permeated everything. The kind of cold that got into your bones.  My fur had thinned so much that I feared hypothermia may kill me, but that wasn’t how my story would end.  

It was unusually dark at the edge of the forest. I could barely see in front of me. I felt something catch on my fur and yelped, waiting for the searing pain of the killer fence, but none came. Over the cliffs I could see the yellow haze that usually hung over town was gone, leaving a dark hole below and an inky blue sky punctured by shards of white light above. I sat down to catch my breath. The chill of the damp floor on my stomach reminded me how hungry I was. It had been nearly 6 weeks since I’d eaten. 

When the colonists came, they brought giant machines with jagged, tree-eating teeth, flattening our home and building theirs in its place, forcing us to retreat to the high forest. A treacherous journey with young pups and elderly parents. We lost some to the ravines, but most of us made it unscathed. For months they left us alone up there, but before long the food was gone and things got desperate. Those brave enough to risk the journey into town suffered a cruel fate, their pelts ripped from their carcasses and strung up as a warning to the rest of us. Enter at your peril.  

It was October when the fence went up. A wire thing, as tall as 2 men, which traced the perimeter of high forest and buzzed like an angry wasp. I could still smell acrid, charred fur whenever I went near it. I felt powerful knowing it had no effect on me that night and climbed through to explore the settlement. 

Out of the blackness, I saw a spot of light moving jerkily. The scent of meat hit me like a bullet. My muscles tensed, my fur stood on end. At least my instincts were still strong. It was a girl. Young, maybe 15. When she spotted me, she shone the torchlight into my eyes. She was rooted to the spot, eyes wide, fear palpable. I snarled, baring my teeth. The smell was driving me wild. 

“Please, I lost the path, the power’s out and I’m looking for my granny’s cabin. It’s not far from here, she’ll starve to death if I don’t take her food!” 

I held her stare. Fearful eyes peered out from under the hood of her thick, red cape. I could have ripped her throat out right there and then, but even in my deranged state, I knew killing a youth would have been wrong. As I contemplated, she ran, disappearing into the darkness. I didn’t chase her though, I knew the cabin, and how to get to it. 

The old lady lay in bed while a solitary candle guttered on the nightstand. The girl was right, there was no food. I’d been told human meat was stringy and tasteless, especially the old ones, but hunger had taken over my senses. As I clenched my teeth around her skinny neck, the smell of lavender was so strong it almost choked me, but she didn’t put up a fight and it wasn’t long before I was tearing the meat from her fragile old bones until I was satisfied. 

I had expected the panic-stricken girl to return home, but instead she came bustling in the old woman’s back door, ruddy cheeked, regaling granny with her tale of the grisly old wolf. I attempted to conceal my heinous deed by hiding underneath the old woman’s nightdress, but as she approached the bed, she realised the truth and shrieked. I sprang up and around the girl, straight into the path of a brawny, axe wielding sawmill worker who happened to be passing within earshot. I felt his thick hands around my tail as he yanked me backwards and flung me onto my back. He looked into my eyes as his heavy boot landed in my guts, but looked away as he swung the axe down, hacking my innards in half.  

I believed in my dying moments that my thoughts would have turned to my pack. My home. Instead there was only one thing on my mind. Why hadn’t I just eaten the girl?

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Non-Fiction

5 Ways To Get Out Of a Creative Rut

This article was originally written for and appeared on LinkedIn.

Creative block. Brain fart. Hitting the wall. Whatever you call it, every creative has experienced that deadening inability to come up with an idea, leaving you questioning everything you thought you knew while gently banging your head against your desk.

Being able to churn out creative ideas day in, day out, is not an innate ability. It’s a skill. And no matter how skilled we are, we all have off days. Or off briefs.

So when you feel like you’ve fallen down a hole of creative ineptitude, how can you drag yourself out of it? Here are 5 tips I use:

Take a break

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out why this is a good idea. Pressuring yourself to continue struggling when you’re feeling totally frustrated is unlikely to produce the result you want. After all, pressure is a creativity killer.

Have you ever had that Eureka moment in the shower? I regularly think of great ideas when I’m in the car on my commute home, so much so that I have to leave myself voice memos so I don’t forget by the time I reach my destination. Your subconscious brain is working on problems long after you stop actively concentrating on them, and those moments when you’re alone, winding down, or performing a monotonous task allow your mind to wander, and find solutions to those problems that have been bugging you.

There’s also evidence to suggest that trying to work on a mentally taxing task for more than 4 hours is pointless. Some of the most outstanding creative thinkers are known to have only worked for 4 hours a day, and achieved amazing things within that time.

So go and put the kettle on. Chat to a friend or colleague. Or even better, take a walk in the park. Spending time out in nature has been shown to have myriad positive effects, including stress relief, improved concentration and, you guessed it, a boost in creativity.

Change Your Environment

This works in two ways. You can physically go and work somewhere else, or you can try and optimise the environment you’re already in.

The stereotypical image of a trendy author or social media expert working from a coffee shop is sometimes mocked, but the levels of ambient noise in places like coffee shops can actually improve your creativity. Where silence forces focus and loud noise or music can overwhelm, a moderate level of ambient noise increases abstract processing, and therefore, creativity.

If you can’t get to a coffee shop, apps and sites like Noisli can pump canned coffee shop ambience into your headphones for a similar effect.

Lighting is also important. Dim lighting can help you find focus by reducing distractions; and let’s face it, any excuse to escape the cold, sterile lighting of most offices is good news to me.

Getting comfy can work wonders for your creative brain too. Comfortable chairs where you can sit in close proximity to colleagues you’re working with can make you more creative, while maintaining a warm but comfortable temperature boosts creative thinking. For most people working in an office, the air con struggle is real, so if you can’t make the office warmer, invest in a good cardy or jumper to keep at your desk.

And if all else fails, head to the pub. As well as being comfy and dimly lit with plenty of ambient noise, drinking alcohol has been shown to improve creative performance. There’s even a Danish beer called Problem Solver designed precisely for this.

Think Obliquely

Being forced to employ oblique strategies can be frustrating, but it can also produce astonishing results. In Tim Harford’s Book “Messy” he describes how Brian Eno used the technique when working with artists like David Bowie and Phil Collins. He’d make the musicians draw a card with an oblique statement on it, and immediately do whatever the card said.

Commands include “think like a gardener,” “emphasise repetitions,” take away the elements in order of apparent importance” and “work at a different speed.”

Apparently, Phil Collins was so infuriated by the process that he threw a beer can across the studio, and while I don’t advocate getting into that kind of state, making your brain think in a different way can lead to ideas you’d never have had otherwise.

A former colleague of mine used to swear by a brainstorm technique called the Random Links Box. With your eyes closed, you would plunge your hand into a box and fish out an object. You’d then have to try and link your object to your brief, with sometimes hilarious, sometimes surprisingly effective consequences.

You might never use the ideas you come up with during these exercises, but the process of making your brain do something different can help you overcome your creative block when you get back to it.

Switch Projects

This might sound counter-intuitive. If you’ve reached an impasse on one project, switching to a completely separate one might feel nonsensical, but it could be exactly what you need.

There’s anecdotal and laboratory evidence that suggests switching between projects opens up your mind to creative thinking, in a similar way that taking a break to do a monotonous task, as discussed above, does.

Tim Harford also discusses this in “Messy,” with examples of inventors and scientists who regularly switched between projects, often finding a breakthrough for one while working on another.

Collaborate

Forced collaboration can be bad for creativity, but choosing to collaborate with somebody you trust and work well with can really help. Chatting through a problem with a wise mentor, or getting an enthusiastic junior or intern on board can show you different perspectives and make you think outside of your own bubble.

Collaborating with people from different disciplines can also provide surprising results. If you’re working on a radio brief, talk to a designer about how they’d create a visual for it. Their visual ideas could get you thinking of ways to spark an image in the listeners imagination.

Talk to the target audience too. Really get under the skin of the people you’re trying to talk to. Understand their language, their needs and motivations – ask them what would make them take the action you want. In his book “We, Me, Them & It” John Simmons goes into great detail about the power of language, and about writing in a way that people speak and relate to, in order to drive action and brand loyalty. So if you’re not sure what your target audience will respond to, or how they talk about a subject, ask them!

These are my 5 tips to get out of a creative rut, what are yours?

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