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Learn something new

In an interview with the BBC World Book Club Anne Tyler said, ‘I don’t have any hobbies.’

I like the honesty of that response. How it reveals the nature of a true writer: obsessed, single-minded, ruthlessly focused. It will take me a lifetime to learn the art of novel writing, and so, like Tyler, I want to devote every second I have to this great love. I’ve written before about how writers can learn from the training regimes of Olympic athletes and professional musicians – I doubt those who train for hours every day have many hobbies.

That said, stepping away from our art for a moment and learning something new can be incredibly enriching. We can see it as an experience rather than a full blown hobby. That’s what I did this weekend when I attended a two-day course at The Photography School with my husband.

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Over the two days, I came to understand that by learning something new, we:

Gain a new perspective

 Every art form makes us look at the world a little differently. From painting a watercolour to sketching a caricature to taking street photos or making a sculpture, our eye focuses on something new. Point of view is a writer’s bread and butter – the more perspectives we gain of the world and its inhabitants, the richer our stories.

 Train our brains

 Personal trainers tell us that doing the same exercises every day will, after a while, lose its power. We need to put our bodies through different training regimes to keep them getting stronger and faster. The same is true of our brains and our creativity. By stretching our brains a little, they will be sharper and more toned when we sit back down to our writing.

 Make connections

 E.M. Forster’s ‘only connect’ concept is one of my favourite intellectual ideas: that we are enriched by the connections we make between seemingly dissimilar things. By studying photography for two days, I came to see how close it is to writing, how each medium strives to recreate what is seen and experienced, how both forms aim to tell a story, how writers and photographers hope that the finished product will have the power to entertain and move – perhaps even to change those who engaged with our work.

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 Meet new people

 No single thing has benefitted my writing life as much as meeting new people. By learning something out of our field of everyday knowledge, we meet individuals who you might not otherwise come across, people who, whether consciously or subconsciously, give a deeper pool to draw on for our characters and our stories.

Re-learn how to learn to learn

There is a healthy humility to feeling like a complete beginner, to being at the beginning of the learning process, to remember what it’s like to have to struggle a bit before learning even the basics. It helps us find a new and deep respect for the experts around us, for the hours and years they have put into mastering their craft. Watching Freddie Walker at work with a camera showed me how important it is for me to excel at my own writing, to keep learning so that I can inspire others too.

 Let go of perfection

 When I write I want every sentence to be perfect, I want my plot to work seamlessly and my characters to be so real that they dance off the page. That pressure can be wearing. It’s therefore a relief and somewhat of a rest to do something in which we have the freedom to experiment, to play, to get things wrong.

Smile at small successes

Very occasionally over the course of the two days, in the spinning world of terms like ISO, Shutter Speed, Aperture and Depth of Field, something sunk in and I took a photo that worked. Beginner’s luck, perhaps, or those first tentative steps towards understanding – but the feeling is great.

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And finally… 

Return to our first love with a new joy

We all love going on holiday – but isn’t that feeling of coming home just the best? A bit of time and distance makes us realise how much we love it: the smell, the way the light falls in through our bedroom window, the give of our favourite chair, the sound of our partner coming in through the front door. The same is true of taking a little time away from our art. When we return to it, we are grateful for the familiarity and feel a renewed longing to sit our desks and to pick up our words and our characters.

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Challenge: take a weekend, an hour or even a few minutes and learn something new. Bake a cake, take a photo, book a golf lesson, train for a half marathon, get out your water colours, make origami out of your meeting agenda. Feel the stretch in your brain and then the joy of coming back to your first love motivated and refreshed.