Helen is one of my social media buddies. We have never met face-to-face (although when she visits Melbourne at the end of this month we'll be having a coffee for sure!!!!) and we engage with each other through various social media platforms. Our passion for research, sharing people's voice, arts and creative practices has meant that our online interactions have continually collided...and in great and inspiring ways! In this Explore & Create Stories interview I am so delighted to introduce Helen. She has a background in private, public, and voluntary sectors, and now carries out commissioned research and evaluation, mainly for public and voluntary sector organisations and partnerships. Her focus is in the areas of social care, health, and the voluntary/third sector. Say hello to Helen, and I do hope you enjoy this wonderful interview...and the surprise video towards the end!
Tell us about what you do.
I'm an independent researcher and author, and I am occasionally accused of scholarship, even though I have never held a salaried academic post. I write about research methods, and teach, and speak, and even do some research now and again. I am proud to be the first fully independent researcher ever conferred as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. I'm also a Board member of my professional body, the UK and Ireland Social Research Association, and I hold two honorary academic posts: Visiting Fellow at the UK's National Centre for Research Methods and at the graduate school of Staffordshire University, where I did an MSc in Social Research Methods many years ago.
What are you passionate about?
Writing. I love the magic and power of written words. They can make pictures in your head; impel readers to action; bind people against their will. I also love research methods, and ethics - more on those below.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm doing a lot of work around research ethics. A lot of people think ethics is dull, but I find it fascinating because it's about people and their priorities and the decisions they make. Researchers have demonstrated a link between ethical thinking and creativity (Mumford et al 2010), which interests but doesn't surprise me. As an indie researcher, I rarely have to tangle with research ethics committees, but I am committed to ethical practice and so I've had to figure out for myself how to work ethically. It seems to me that ethical considerations underpin all stages of the research process (or, at least, they should), not just data collection, data storage, and institutional welfare, which seem to be the priorities for most research ethics committees and their equivalents.
What led you to your latest project or focus?
When I was young, my parents followed a Christian religion, and we talked a lot about what was good and bad, fair and unfair, moral and immoral. They were open-minded and encouraged me to discuss and debate. I'm an atheist now and just as concerned with human rights and social justice. When I did my MSc in Social Research Methods in 2000-1, I had an inspirational ethics teacher, Sandie Hope-Forest, who showed me how fascinating research ethics could be. Now I'm writing a book about research ethics – not a how-to book, there are enough of those already, but a book about the links between research ethics and other types of ethics such as individual ethics, societal ethics, institutional ethics and political ethics.
How do you approach creativity in your life (personal/professional/or both)?
It's about identifying constraints to thinking and finding ways to subvert or circumvent those constraints. Clichéd thinking is the enemy of creativity. Creativity isn't just about the arts, it's about all sorts of things like relationships, and food preparation, and how we use the spaces in our homes and communities, and making decisions and connections and links.
We talk a lot about "being in the moment" or “being" when creating. What does this mean for you?
Creating is living. I create my life. Creating is my being in every moment, not just some of them. Even when I'm asleep: I'm creating a more rested 'me' for the next day, and some of the time my brain is creating dreams for me.
What defines you in terms of balancing creativity and mindfulness for flow? How do you do this?
By 'flow', I presume you mean that state when you get in the zone and the hours whizz by. That happens sometimes and sometimes it doesn't. I don't worry about that, I just get on and create stuff anyway. I think the concept of flow has a dangerous side, in that people can assume (a) it's necessary for creativity and (b) experiencing 'flow' implies that you are doing good work. I sometimes hit flow state when I'm working on a first draft, but the words I write in that state need editing just as much as the words I write while mainlining chocolate and weeping.
I don't pay as much attention to mindfulness as I should, but I do like going for a think-walk when I get stuck on a problem. Putting one foot in front of the other, repeatedly, for a while, seems to help me find solutions. I need to walk outside, though, on a little journey; the treadmill doesn't work as well. If I have to be indoors, yoga works best.
What’s the biggest challenge you find in approaching your creative endeavours?
Having too many ideas for the time available. Right now, I want to start a YouTube channel, expand my e-books into audiobooks, start podcasting, and write a novel, among other things. All of those ideas are good ones but I need to borrow Hermione's time-turner to get them done.
How do you find your zen?
The first place I look is among the sofa cushions, then I check my pockets, but really my zen can be anywhere. Sometimes it's halfway up the stairs, when I pause, suddenly unsure why I'm climbing, in a perfect moment of certain uncertainty. I found it in the forest once (I was clapping with one hand at the time). Generally speaking, the best way to find your zen is not to go looking. I found my car keys in the fridge, once, when I didn't know I'd lost them. It was a lovely surprise.
When you experience flow, what is the impact on your productivity? Tell us about this.
Flow is great but I don't look for it, I let it come when it comes and carry on creating when it doesn't. When I do experience flow, my productivity is usually higher, though I often have to explain to novice writers that work produced in a flow state still needs editing. There's a misconception about writing that inspiration can strike and make you produce flawless work at the first attempt. Not so – writing is hard graft and almost inevitably goes through several drafts. Perhaps it's because we learn to read so fluently that we think writing happens the same way: you start at the beginning then carry on in a linear fashion until you get to the end. Not so. I start in the middle, write the parts I most want to write, move sections around – it can be quite a disjointed process that doesn't lend itself easily to 'flow'.
Who have been the biggest 3 – 5 influences in your life, in terms of your career and doing creative/mindful work?
Sandie Hope-Forest taught me research ethics in 2000 and started a process which I think will culminate in my next book.
Ken and Mary Gergen have given me permission to do many things; they are pioneers of interdisciplinary creative scholarship.
My life partner encouraged me to take the independent path.
How would you rate your level of happiness about your creative endeavours at the moment? (1 being sad, 10 being love it/awesome/BEST EVER.)
7. Which is an A grade, so pretty good. If someone was paying me to write it would be a 10.
Tell me, who are you clicking on at the moment?
I click on the blogs I follow when notifications fall into my inbox. Most of those bloggers are people I've met on Twitter who have interesting things to say. They include Pat Thomson, Naomi Barnes, Inger Mewburn and Debs Netolicky. I'm not so good at keeping up with blogs that don't have the email notification option. There's some great stuff happening on Tumblr but I find the platform confusing.
Tell me, who are you listening to at the moment?
A CD of oud music called Tamaas by Palestinian brothers Samir and Wissam Joubran. It's very beautiful. I don't listen to it when I'm writing, though. I know a lot of people like to write to music, but I find it gets in the way. I do enjoy listening to instrumental music – classical, mostly – when I'm analysing data; I guess that uses a different part of my brain. I like pop, rock, folk and jazz when I'm cooking.
Tell me, who are you talking to at the moment?
My friends and family, mostly, because I like them best.
Tell me, who are you are reading at the moment?
I'm reading, and very much enjoying, Dawn Mannay's book Visual, Narrative and Creative Research Methods: Application, Reflection and Ethics. I'm only up to page 17, so not much in the way of insights yet, but I'm looking forward to the next chapter on 'making the familiar strange' as I think that's another key to creativity.
What’s some advice you would offer to someone who is struggling to find their creative spark?
Don't worry about where it is, create something anyway. Draw a picture, write a poem, make food for yourself or someone else. Don't worry about whether the things you make are 'good', focus on how it feels to make something that didn't exist before and that only exists now because you brought it into being. Creative practice is good in and of itself. If you keep practising, you'll get better, in both senses of the word. Making things is a great antidote to anxiety: not necessarily a cure, particularly if you suffer from severe anxiety, but making can keep anxiety at bay. Some artists know this, such as Edvard Munch and Louise Bourgeois, both of whom suffered terribly from anxiety and used it to create great art. They weren't great to start with, though; they had to practise for years before they developed a high level of skill. You can do that too.
What’s the best ever quote you have seen in terms of creativity or mindfulness or flow?
I have no idea; I must have seen thousands over the last few decades and I have forgotten them all. Will one I just found on the internet do? I looked for Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (couldn't remember how to spell his name, but luckily the internet could) aka Professor Flow, and found this:
“It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)
It's from a book he wrote called Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. I really should read it some time.
I found another quote (from Instagram - love social media!): the Russian musician Igor Stravinsky said:
“Work brings inspiration.” (Igor Stravinsky)
… and that's how it is for me, really.
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