To Be or To Do? That is the Question.

I read an article by Richard Branson. It took the form of an open letter in which he invited his readers to cultivate happiness and claimed he isn’t happy because he’s successful, wealthy and connected – but is successful, wealthy and connected because he’s happy. Now, while I’m not convinced that’s always the order of things, I do believe being a happy person can draw a measure of success to you.

Quoting Branson: “So many people get caught up in doing what they think will make them happy but, in my opinion, this is where they fail. Happiness is not about doing, it’s about being. In order to be happy, you need to think consciously about it. Don’t forget the to-do list, but remember to write a to-be list too. If you allow yourself to be in the moment, and appreciate the moment, happiness will follow. Because allowing yourself just to be, puts things into perspective. Try it. Be still. Be present.”

Now, while that’s a lovely sentiment, it’s also the words of a very rich, successful man. These words may be harder to apply if you are poor and hungry and struggling to feed your kids. Too many people have to do two, three or more jobs just to keep a roof over their family’s head and food in their bellies. The idea of stopping to ‘be in the moment’ may be foreign to them.

We are created, not just to be, but also to do. When created, mankind were given the mandate to subdue and cultivate the earth, to extend the borders of paradise. And they were promised happiness while doing it. They disobeyed and it all went terribly wrong, but there is still happiness in hard work. It hasn’t altered the fact we were created to do, not just to be. The secret is to find the balance.

There’s something about the satisfaction of working hard, of putting that food on the table, of keeping that roof over your head: the feel-good factor.

To put it simplistically: Working to feed your family raises self-respect. Working to make your fortune raises expectations, followed by disappointment when reality fails to match them. Working for the sake of working raises stress levels – and perhaps that’s what Branson meant. If work is for the sake of it, or for the goal of success and fortune, it might be time to take his advice and take that moment.

I particularly like part of his conclusion: “Happiness shouldn’t be a goal, it should be a habit. Take the focus off doing, and start being every day. Allow yourself to be in the moment, and appreciate the moment. Take the focus off everything you think you need to do, and start being.”

After reading the article, I spent quite a bit of time sitting in the garden, in the sunshine, just being. I took the moment, I appreciated the moment, I took the focus off everything I thought I should be doing and just let myself relax and be present in my life. It felt good. A feeling I often have because it’s something I often do. I’m blessed in that I don’t have to do multiple jobs to feed my family. I don’t have to work all day until I’m exhausted. I have time to take my moments. And I’m grateful for that.

In one of those moments, I got to thinking about all the opportunities I have and take to actually be present in my life, and realised they are many. Every morning, I stand at my bedroom window, look out at the day and say thank you for it and for my life. I am happy. Often, later in the day, I pause in whatever I am doing to take a thankfulness walk around the garden. Because I’m happy. Before I eat, I pause to say thank you for my food and think about how blessed I am to have it. And there are many other times during the day when I am consciously ‘present’ in my life. And consciously happy. But more often than not, it’s not because I’m just being, but because I’m busy doing.

One of the things I like to be busy doing is writing. I love writing. I find it satisfying work. It may not ever take me rich and famous, but it does make me happy.

Thinking about my writing, I realise that I gave Rosanna, the main character in Gold Plated, satisfying work to do, and it made her happy. Her painting and her dressmaking are not just hobbies: there have been times in her life when she has earned from them. And she has been happy and fulfilled doing so. But I also gave her ‘a moment’ here and there too. Let her tell you about one of them:

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The walk down to the little wooden jetty I can see ahead of me is glorious. A few steps from the cabin, the path becomes dappled with the shade of the many trees beside it, their leaves having already covered it in gold. I love the scrunch of them under my boots. The only other sound is of the many birds who live in those trees. Or perhaps they’re visiting, like me.

There is a rich, musty smell. An earthy smell, mixed with warmth trapped by the canopy of trees. A faint rustling of woodland creatures scampering for cover as I invade their territory. I step with a light tread, having no desire to disturb them.

I’ve tried to imagine the joy, the luxury of sitting by the banks of some stream or loch, lost in thought, with nowhere else to be, nothing else to do, and, while I could see how that could be welcome if you were a particularly busy person in your day-to-day life, I could never see how it would be different from my day-to-day life, where I am pretty much left to my own devices much of the time.

But it is different. The air smells different. Laden with wafts of wet vegetation, rich earth, sunshine and water. If asked, I would not have thought water has a smell, but it does. When it’s an open loch of fresh, sparkling water, it smells of all good things, tingling my nostrils and making me smile. I close my eyes and fill my lungs with it.

The sound of the water lapping against the wood of the jetty, the sparkle of the sun on water, the feel of the air, fresh and cool on my face, the need for patience and stillness – both qualities come easily to me – it is all wonderful, peaceful, satisfying. I thought I’d do a lot of thinking, but I find I don’t. Not the thinking I need to do, anyway. Instead, I allow my mind to wander across the loch to ramble in the fir trees on the opposite bank. I can make out a wee track going through them and climbing the hill behind, and I imagine myself walking there, scrambling up the hill to look over the top. As is the way in Scotland, there’ll be more hills beyond the ones I can see, layer upon layer of heather-clad slopes. Easy to get lost without a map or a compass, just as I am lost in my personal life – without map or compass. Right now, it’s pleasant to let my mind drift on the wind, caring nothing about being lost. Time enough to find the right path home.

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Gold Plated is available now on Amazon Kindle and will be available soon in paperback.

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Where and when do you find time to just be? To cultivate happiness?

I have to say, I enjoyed the few minutes I took after reading that article.

Then I took three deep breaths, savoured happiness for another few moments before getting back to the housework and my writing – things I not only needed, but also wanted to do. Because they make me happy.

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Life in Fiction

Writers, what do your characters DO? When they’re not catching criminals, falling in love, crossing the ocean or solving mysteries, what to they do?

Readers, have you ever thought outside the book? Have you ever wondered what the characters you’ve come to know and love do when they’re not cavorting across the pages of your books?

Or have you, the author, told your readers already? Have you included the characters hobbies and interests as part of their story, part of revealing their character? Because, let’s face it, we all do something in our spare time, even if it’s sitting in front of the tv, or falling asleep on the couch. Our interests and hobbies tell a lot about us.

If someone tells you they like to go scuba diving and hillwalking, you quickly get the impression they are pretty active, energetic, out-doorsy. If they say they like to go fishing, taking the dog for a walk in the park, doing a bit of gardening, you’ll think of them as a little less adventurous but still active and still enjoy being in the fresh air. What about stamp collecting, video-gaming, knitting, reading – quieter pursuits? Perhaps they’re altogether quieter and prefer to be indoors.

Sometimes you meet someone who likes a real mixture of all of the above. Maybe most of the people you know like doing a good mix of things.

But, whatever it is they do, it can shape how they live their lives. It dictates how they use their time, how they spend their money, how much they interact with other people.

As writers, if we want to make our characters live on the page, if we want our readers to identify with them, feel they know them, almost expect to bump into them on the street, then we need to think about what our characters do when they’re not rushing about through the main plot of the story. We might only allude to it in passing, or we might build the story round it. Either way, it can enhance our writing to give our characters a hobby, an interest, a passion.

As readers, do you find it helps you identify with the character who enjoys gardening, as you do? Or who scuba dives like you’d like to? Who horse rides? Or who plays video games? Or knits? Or sews?

In my latest release, Gold Plated, my main character, Rosanna, loves to paint, to design clothes and to make them. She’s enjoyed these pursuits since she was a young girl.

Can you imagine her lying on the grass in her mother’s garden, sketching the shrubs and trees, painting the flowers? Or sitting at the patio table taking inspiration from the colours and shapes of the flowers for the next dress she intends to design and make?

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What about now she’s older? Can you picture her sitting in her conservatory, looking out at her garden, still allowing nature to inspire the dresses she designs

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What does her interest in such a pursuit, and the fact it has been the interest of a lifetime, tell you about her? She’s turned seventy now and it’s still her passion. Does that help you picture her?

Perhaps if she tells you about the dress she’s designed and made for her Golden Wedding Anniversary party:

“The dress I’m going to wear tonight is hidden in the wardrobe till later. I want it to be a surprise for Paul. He hasn’t seen it yet and has no idea of the peaceful hours I’ve spent sewing while he’s been out and about. It makes me smile every time I open the wardrobe door, push aside the things it hides behind, and see my handiwork hanging there. Inspired by the pale, creamy-yellow, woodland primroses that bloom in our garden every spring, designed and fashioned over the summer months after their faded beauty folded and faded further, it has been such a delight to make. Impossible to improve on nature, all I could do was allow the delicate flowers to inform my eye and guide my hand as I sketched and painted, desiring to capture the essence of their beauty in the spring to infuse into my work in the summer.
The chiffon material I sought out is gossamer thin and beautiful, the colour soft as sunshine on a misty day, and the dress slips over my still-trim figure in flattering, floaty, fluted layers to just below my knees.
Being so fine, it is one of the most difficult materials I have ever worked with, but worth every painstaking moment of the hours and days it took to cut and sew. Even the buttery silk lining had to be handled gently. Never have I worked so slowly and never have I been so rewarded for my care.
My fingers melt with pleasure as they linger on the fabric, and I long to feel my creation slip over my body to caress my skin.
I thrill with contented anticipation.”

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Rosanna and Paul are celebrating fifty years of marriage.

Their daughter, Heather, has helped plan their Golden Wedding Anniversary party, and it looks like being a wonderful night: sixties music, all their friends and family present, and Rosanna has bought the perfect golden gift for Paul.

What could possibly go wrong?

When an uninvited guest shows up, Rosanna’s world is shaken and she is forced to look back over their fifty golden years and see them as they were.

Were they golden? Or just gold-plated?

Gold Plated is available right now on Amazon Kindle. You can read it FREE if you have Amazon Prime. And the paperback will be published in a few weeks.

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Click here to buy Gold Plated on Amazon Kindle

Give yourself a treat!

Enjoy!