Different Kinds of Downtime [en]

[fr] Déconnecter ou se décontracter peut prendre plusieurs formes, et je viens de réaliser que malgré tout le temps de libre que j'ai pris pour récupérer de mon printemps un peu intense côté travail, je ne me suis pas laissé beaucoup d'espace pour penser. Laisser vagabonder mon esprit sans arrière-fond de musique, d'activité, de TV ou de jeux iPhone.

At two points in my “grown-up” life, I’ve been through phases of intense work which drove home the importance of making sure I had enough downtime. One was when I started teaching (I ended up on sick leave) and the other was when I was preparing Going Solo (a welcome cat bite probably prevented me from burning out completely).

I learned that when you do nothing but work, you can’t recuperate. Since then, I’ve always paid attention to preserving enough time “for myself”. Even when I have a lot of work and have “no time”, I still make time to eat with friends, watch TV series, read, sleep, etc. I never work until two in the morning, I take my week-ends off (there are exceptions), and generally am pretty good at setting boundaries between “work” and “non-work” modes (which might make certain people feel I’m hard to reach ;-)).

Over my lunch break today, I think I understood something really important — and funnily, just after saying that I don’t feel like writing anything these days, I feel an urge to blog about it here.

The thing I understood is the following: there are different kinds of downtime.

I’ve been thinking about this these last days — for example, I use both iPhone games and TV series to relax or take my mind off stuff, but for different purposes.

One of my ongoing grievances about life these last months is that I feel tired and worn-out and don’t seem to be able to recuperate despite having taken a lot of time off (holidays here and elsewhere) since working too much this spring.

I go home for lunch break (it’s just two floors above my coworking space eclau, so it’s not much of a commute). I needed to sit a bit before preparing lunch, so I took a book and sat down on my balcony couch (yes, you can be jealous).

But I didn’t open the book. I just stared outside at the garden, looked at my plants, stared into space some more, did some low-level plant maintenance, stared into space, looked at the garden… See the idea? All that time, my mind was wandering idly around, thinking about this and that, and that and this, going back in time, forward in time… Just undirected thinking about… “stuff”.

And I realised that I don’t actually give myself much time for that. Thinking without doing anything else while I think. Maybe my discomfort these days months has to do with the fact that I have things to process and haven’t really been making appropriate space for that — despite all my downtime.

So, what kind of downtime do I give myself, and what need does it fulfill? And what are your types of downtime?


Fiction (whether books or TV) takes me out of my life. It disconnects me from what is preoccupying me. At the same time, it’s like an emotional catalyst. I’m the kind of person who’ll end up crying whilst watching CSI. I like movies that take you on an emotional roller-coaster. So in that respect, fiction also helps me reconnect.


I’m the kind of “on-off” casual gamer, but ever since I downloaded Angry Birds (end of last year) I’ve been playing iPhone games regularly. Games allow me to wind down and distract me, but without the emotional component I get from fiction. Games are also more active, and speak to my obsessive streak.

Physical Activity

I have an exercise bike at home I try to use regularly, I do judo, sing, and go sailing. Physical activity empties my head and tires my body — vital for something with a desk-bound job like mine. Sometimes my mind wanders off and I do some light thinking, but most of the time, I’m just completely taken by what I’m doing.

Online Downtime

Online downtime includes idly chatting, catching up with people, reading random articles… It’s a way of keeping busy without being productive, and maybe of avoiding “more down” downtime. It also leads to new ideas and insights, new interests to explore. It’s good for a breath of fresh air but at times like now where I feel worn out, overworked and oversocialized, I avoid it.


I’m not sure if socializing is a “downtime” activity for me. I’m not much of a bar/club person, so for me socializing is either “networking” (and that’s work) or long (often personal) discussions with people I’m close to. I also know I switch modes when I’m around people. I guess it is a kind of downtime I need, but there are times when I’m more in an introvert mood and seeing people adds to my stress (maybe — hypothesis — because it’s stressful for me to be around people when I’m unsatisfied with something I do not manage to put in words; hmmm, maybe blogging is to be included under “socializing”?)


Thinking is just that. Thinking. Not really doing anything. It happens when I clean the flat or the dishes or do laundry, but only if I’m taking all the time in the world and not really paying much attention to what I’m doing. Going for a walk or sitting on the balcony (without a book or an iPhone!) is also an opportunity for this kind of downtime where I let my mind wander around freely and think about whatever it is I want to be thinking, without real aim or purpose.

I’m sure that when watching TV, or exercising, or reading a book, there is some background processing going on in my brain. I’m sure it’s useful and necessary. But this is more like frontground processing.

And this, I think, is what’s been missing — and might be the reason why I’m having trouble identifying what is behind my feeling of “not quite right” (although objectively, everything is going fine).

Having understood this, I’m going to make sure I have time every day to sit on my balcony and stare into space. We’ll see what happens.

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Sam 1 [en]

[fr] Exercice d'écriture: personnage Sam.

The adventure begins.

She doesn’t know Sam yet. She just knows his name. She’s not sure if she’ll like him or not. She’s afraid of making him too likable, too cliché, too unidimensional. She realizes that if she makes him too cliché or perfect, he will not be likeable. You see, she’s stuck already.

Sam is roughly her age, in his mid-thirties. The jeans and t-shirts he wears make him look like he still believes he is seventeen. He has a job, though — not a very exciting one, but a stable one. His life is outside of work, with his friends. They go out for drinks on week-ends, play video games, watch football matches.

He met a girl he liked at The Great Escape the other night. Said like that, it sounds like an exceptional event, but it isn’t. He meets plenty of girls he likes, and has plenty of fun with them, but it’s usually short-lived. He hasn’t had anyone stable in his life since he and Greta broke up. He figures he still needs time.

She thinks Sam sounds pretty normal and boring so far. She remembers that stories are about putting normal people in extraordinary situations, and seeing how they react. Like a scientific experiment. She wonders what she could do with Sam.

Shove him through one of Dan Simmons’ Brane holes, straight into another universe? She thinks that’s a little radical. Baby steps, baby steps.

Maybe to start off, she could have him arrive at The Great Escape, hoping to see that girl again, but the bar has disappeared. Disappeared, as in “never existed” for anybody but him. That’s not a new idea, she knows, but it would allow her to see how Sam reacts.

Let’s do it.

So, Sam heads out into town like every week-end, and parks his car somewhere behind the cathedral. He’s got a car, and he’s a confident driver. She gives him a car because she thinks it makes him a little more grown-up. And also, chances are a 30-something living in Lausanne with a stable job and no family to feed will have one. The car also tells us he’s probably not a green activist. The truth is he’s pragmatic, like most people: he’s got a nagging concern about the environment, but he also wants his freedom and his quality of life. He’d go for a solar car if they existed (provided it didn’t cost twice the price of a normal one).

She’s starting to feel curious about Sam now. She realizes that she’s actually looking forward to learning more about him. She’s aware it might not make for fascinating reading, but she can see herself typing through the night to satisfy her curiosity. She might even start liking him.

As she gets ready for much more typing, she notices that she actually knows more about Sam than what she initially thought. For example, he’s not that good with domestic stuff. She doesn’t know why yet, but his flat is a bit in a mess at all times (though still functional) and he’s pretty crap and shopping for groceries, so he eats out quite a lot. Another thing she knows now is that although most of his friends assume that Sam’s proper name is Samuel, it’s in fact Samson. He finds his name a bit ridiculous (the biblical references and all that) so he keeps the information under wraps as much as he can.

She’s aware that if she was really trying to write a story, she wouldn’t be dumping those random facts about Sam like that for her readers, but she would be a little more subtle, letting them emerge from Sam’s interaction with the world and people around him. For now, though, she’s satisfied with the rather dry police-description of her nascent character.

So, back to the story. Sam finds a parking spot behind the cathedral — it’s a little walk away from his favorite hang-out, but he actually enjoys the fresh air on the way. He makes his way briskly down the steps to the little square next to Palais de Rumine, and heads for the bar. He absent-mindedly registers that the usual signs indicating tonight’s match and menu are not out as usual, but most of all, he’s disturbed by the absence of people clustering around the door.

At this point, she thinks she should probably go and check out The Great Escape on a Friday or Saturday evening, to make sure she’s not saying stupid things about the place, as it actually exists. She might do that sometime next week — one of her friends goes there quite regularly, it could be an opportunity.

Well, assuming she hasn’t got it all wrong, Sam arrives in front of what looks like a closed bar, when it should be open. (As she doesn’t have the bar handy, she checks online: it’s open every evening.) Sam has never seen it closed except a few times in the morning — like many similar places, it’s open all week, every day. (She’s looking up reviews on TripAdvisor, now. This almost feels like proper research. She decides to set aside the bar for the moment and concentrate on Sam again.)

So, Sam arrives in front of a closed door when he was expecting to find his usual favorite bar a-buzz with his friends and other strangers. He walks to the door, his legs chugging numbly beneath him, his mind floating uncomfortably somewhere between “bad joke” and “am I losing it”.

He tries the door. He can see it’s closed, but he tries it all the same. He looks around the little square: he doesn’t see anybody looking lost or confused because their usual bar isn’t open. He doesn’t see anybody, actually: the square is empty.

She’s starting to feel taken in by the story she’s writing. She feels a bit bad for Sam. She put him there, after all. But it was the only way she could think of to get to know him better. But she wants to know what’s going to happen next, and the only way to know is to let it write itself.

Sam is definitely confused. He checks the time, checks the date, tries the door again. As he’s trying the handle, a sinking feeling  as he glances at the building tells him more is wrong then he initially thought: the name of the bar has disappeared from the building — and from the door, too, now that he actually looks.

Something very wrong must have happened for it to close overnight (or rather, overday). And why wouldn’t anybody have told him?

He calls up Roger.

“What on earth happened to The Great?”
“Hey, Sam! The great what?”
“The Great. It’s closed. The signs are even gone from the building.”
“What are you talking about? You’re not making any sense. Oh, and when are you getting here? Sophie asked if you’d be there tonight.” Sam can hear the “nudge nudge, wink wink” in Roger’s voice when he mentions the girl from the other night.
“Oh, er…” Sam’s confusion has just gone up a notch. “I’m coming. Where are you?”
“Captain Cook! Where else? Are you OK? Come on over!”

Roger hangs up. Sam looks around again, and heads up the stairs to the Captain Cook, wondering if he is losing his grip on reality.

She stops here, and wonders if this kind of little adventure really tells her something about Sam. Wouldn’t pretty much anybody react like that? She’ll have to put other characters through this kind of exercise: make them face the disappearance of their favorite hang-out. Maybe they won’t all react the same.

But first she has to take Sam a little further. She has second thoughts about the brief phone call with Roger. Shouldn’t Sam have insisted a bit more? That dialogue makes it look like Sam readily accepts that Roger has no idea what he’s talking about. Hell, if she called up one of her friends with such an odd disappearance and the friend reacted like Roger, she would be calling the friend back instead of stumbling towards the next bar.

Maybe Roger has a history of being slightly inebriated, busy with girls, and generally not very coherent on the phone when he’s out drinking bear in a full noisy pub. That must be what Sam thought. He’s still confused, but he hasn’t yet figured out that he’s the only one to have noticed The Great’s disappearance (or escape, haha). So, he’s on his way to the Cook, confident that he’ll get some explanation from Roger once he gets there. He’s in for a nasty surprise.

Roger thinks Sam is playing some kind of joke on him. He reacts as if he’d never even heard of The Great Escape, or any kind of bar on the little square halfway down the stairs. Roger’s on his third or fourth pint, which doesn’t help Sam try and get his point across. He asks a couple of other people about The Great and gets confused looks and lots of question marks.

In an attempt to refrain from questioning his sanity, he decides to wash away his growing discomfort with something slightly stronger than usual and chats up Sophie (who confirms they met in the very same bar earlier that week, and gives him a puzzled look when he tries to talk about The Great’s disappearance).

She’s really getting into the story now. She’s going to have to make up for her tea-totalling habits with some “academic” research on alcoholic beverage consumption on normal Lausanne Saturday nights.

Sam drinks a little more than usual and follows Sophie to her place not far from the bar — not that he needs more drinking than usual to go and have some Saturday night fun with a cute girl picked up in a bar. Before picking up his car to go home in the pre-dawn haze of too much smoke, alcohol, and meaningless sex, he drops by The Great again to make sure it really is closed (“escaped”, he says to himself).

His mind is working, at least that much. There is no open bar where he remembers The Great Escape.

He drives home, collapses into his half-made bed — he must remember to change the sheets one of these days — and dozes straight off, hoping that The Great’s escape will have straightened itself out by morning, one way or another.

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From Essay to Fiction [en]

[fr] Exercice d'écriture: une aventure à la recherche de personnages pour porter ses histoires.

It’s an adventure. The adventure of a mind bubbling with ideas and things to say and write. The adventure of a mind which would like to bubble with fiction that makes people dream big things, and read on in wonder at the worlds created.

But all she can come up with are disasters and worst-case scenarios. And she wonders: do people want to read about all that will go wrong? Should she give in to the dystopian fantasies her mind produces on a daily basis?

She’s not that sure about the dystopia bit, either. Because on the flip side, she has hope, hope so huge and solid that it smothers everything else. Beyond all reasonable hope, she hopes, and imagines things working out against all odds.

She has imagination.

What she lacks is characters. She needs characters to fall in love with and to pull her along through her stories.

Her adventure will be the adventure of conjuring up characters to carry her stories.

She will delve in herself and those around her, clumsily at first, cobbling together patchworks which will barely stand on their two feet. But with practice and patience she will grow nimble, and her characters will breathe life and love. They will dance through her worlds under sunlight and starlight, singing the stories their lives will weave.

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Plot Grows Out of Character [en]

[fr] J'ai enfin compris comment écrire des histoires. Les histoires naissent des personnages. Il faut partir des personnages et les développer et les écrire à la vie, et non pas partir de l'histoire elle-même.

“Plot grows out of character,” says Anne Lamott, author of “Bird by Bird (Some Instructions on Writing and Life)”, which I am currently devouring.

Today, February 20th 2010, I think I have finally understood how to come up with stories. The stories come from the people in them, the characters. Who they are, what they’ve been through, what they care about, the choices they make, the way they react to what happens to them.

I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but failed at coming up with anything resembling a story or a plot. I started writing 50-word short stories about 18 months ago to jog my creativity, and it has worked pretty well in demonstrating both that I am capable of coming up with story ideas and that it is possible to excercise creativity.

But so far, I have been concentrating on the story, and not on the people in it.

Recently, I have realized how very good I am at imagining explanations for the behaviour of people surrounding me, or people in general. I tend to have a pretty anxious personality, which means I have “Disaster Channel” playing in my brain 24/7 (fear not for my sanity, though, after years of therapy I have learned to turn off the sound and ignore it most of the time).

So, give me a situation, say, X. is late, and my brain will immediately and effortlessly produce half a dozen plausible and disastrous reasons for her lateness. As I have learnt, though, that Disaster Channel does not provide a realistic view of the world, I have also trained myself to come up with “reasonable” and “reassuring” explanations.

I’ll stop there with the dissection of my psyche. Suffice to say that I am really good at inventing a whole range of explanations for human behaviour. (OK, with a biais towards the disastrous, I’ll give you that.)

Today, at long last, I have realized that coming up with a plot is just that. A story is about people and their behaviour. Writing it is about coming up with characters that are believable, and listening to what they want you to write.

To prove the point, I have written no less than two “really shitty first drafts” over the last few hours.

I’ve unlocked something today.

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50 Words [en]

[fr] Ce soir, j'ai eu pas moins de 13 idées d'histoires courtes (50 mots). J'en ai écrites 5 dans le train en rentrant, et 8 attendent d'être développées. Du coup, j'ai décidé de les reposter ici, au lieu de squatter les commentaires de Vince systématiquement. Va aussi falloir que je m'y mette en français, pardi!

Tonight was almost magical. On the train home, I wrote no less than five 50 word short stories. Then on the way home from the station (bus and walking), thought up starting-points for eight more.

I started out feeling a little shy about posting them here, so have been parasiting Vince’s comments in the post above. I feel like I want to have these stories here, too, so I’m going to be back-posting them to CTTS. I’ll use the tag “50words” to keep track of them, so you can see them all on one page by clicking on that link.

One thing I understood tonight is that I don’t have to feel capable of writing a novel based on the idea I develop in 50 words. I can make up a 50 word story about a serial killer, even if I know I wouldn’t have the beginning of a clue how to portray one.

It’s liberating.

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Writing Stories [en]

[fr] Depuis toujours, j'ai envie d'écrire des romans, mais je me sens fondamentalement incapable d'inventer des histoires. Je sais raconter une histoire (enfin, de façon relativement compétente, je pense), mais si mon cerveau fonctionne en surchauffe pour produire des idées d'article ou des pensées à développer dans mon blog, il reste désespérément muet pour ce qui est de la construction de scénario.

Après quelques conversations avec Suw et son ami Vince, qui en est à son cinquième roman, j'ai décidé qu'il était temps de prendre sérieusement cette envie qui me hante (oooh... ohhh...) depuis belle lurette. L'imagination et la créativité, ça s'exerce. Je vais exercer mon cerveau à inventer des histoires.

Had some interesting conversation these last two days here in Leeds with Suw and Vince about writing fiction. Vince actually writes fiction, Suw has quite a bit at some point, and I’ve always wanted to.

I write loads and always have (mainly on and around this blog during the last years), but it’s mainly essay-ish or fact, like the many pages of my journal of the year I lived in India. What little fiction I have written, mainly in my school years (some of which you can find in the writing section) is mainly scenes, atmospheres, small episodes. No stories, really.

I’ve always wanted to write stories, but always felt myself fundamentally incapable of doing so. I remember two attempts to write meaningful fiction in my early years. First, I must have been nine or ten, and I had received a nice thick notebook. I decided I was going to write a story in it, but it fell flat after one line. Second, I was a teenager, and I spent a good part of some winter holidays diving into the creation of a science fiction novel. I think the impulse came after reading a C. J. Cherryh book. I had a main character, a bit of a world, but no story. I just started writing, and about 12 pages later it was going nowhere and my interest fizzled out. I still have what I wrote in a folder — it was called “Aurora”.

My head is always bubbling with ideas of things to blog. Stuff to comment upon, ideas about the world, life, or tools that I want to talk about. But my head is completely void of stories. It’s as if the storytelling part of my imagination was broken, or so still it couldn’t move. Well, I can tell a story if I know what the story I have to tell is (so, based on fact) but I can’t come up with one. At least, I don’t come up with stories naturally.

What the conversation with Suw and Vince made me understand was that I could excercise that skill. I can train my mind to think up stories. I just need to do it explicitly at first. I need to try to think of stories.

Vince told me to think up an ending before getting started, and I think that’s a good point. A good novel can be killed by a lousy ending, and a medium story can be redeemed by a good ending. And I remember, in school, when we started creative writing, our teacher mentioned that it was often really hard for us to come up with good endings, and that she recommended we do not try and write stories with ends, and stick to vignettes or scenes. I think it was good advice at the time, but now I’m not 12 anymore. I’ve grown up and am probably capable of thinking up endings to stories 🙂

So, yesterday, as we were driving Steph and Virginie to the airport, I found myself daydreaming and trying to come up with stories. Interestingly, what I came up with was mainly “world ideas”. Minor changes one could make to our world and which would create an interesting setting for a story.

But no stories yet. I’m going to keep working on it.

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