There’s a lot of talk these days about ‘mindfulness’, about staying in the present moment and being here now. Long before it became fashionable, I learned about this practice as a key tenet of Buddhist spirituality, back when I was on the path to being ordained as a Buddhist ‘priest’ (yes, even with the red lipstick!). I was immediately impressed by the simplicity of this concept, but also by the depth of its possibilities. For someone whose creative and academic/ analytical mind likes to tie itself in the knots of the past and future, suddenly there was a way of dealing with life which cut the general noise in my head, but which also helped my creativity and it’s the ways I believe mindfulness can help our writing life which I’m going to share with you today.
1. Writers need to be present in order to observe the world around them
Taking note of how people work is key to conveying characters and situations well in writing. Writing tutors, like myself, often suggest sitting in a cafe to people watching or idly absorbing the comings and goings of your fellow commuters on a train because such exercises sharpen your eye.
Indeed, in one of my writing workshops, I actually played the children’s party game of bringing out a tray with an array of objects on it and showing it to the students for a minute, before taking it away and seeing what they could remember. I did this as a bit of fun – I like my classes to be full of laughter! – but it was also a basic lesson in looking.
You need to be able to see clearly and sharply as a writer and to do this, you need to be present as, without being in the moment, your head will be elsewhere, regretting the past and worrying about the future, and you could easily miss the great character or plot idea which is, literally, standing right in front of you!
Moreever, I would argue that it is only by mindfully observing the mechanisms of the world that you can portray it successfully in writing. If you are too frazzled to see what’s going on in your life or street, you may struggle to convey that same world well in your writing.
2. Writers need to be present to observe themselves
You know that mindful observation I was suggesting you need to gain inspiration from the world around you? Well, it’s equally important to be able to stay present with yourself and for similar reasons.
If you are lost in memory or dashing relentlessly into the future in your mind, without being aware of what is actually going on in your thinking, feelings and body, then, I would argue, you might find it difficult to convey internal processes, such as interior monologue and how characters experience emotion and physical sensations, in your work. How can you capture how a character reacts to plot events, if you have no idea even how you might respond to a similar situation?
It’s not just knowing either that something would make this character ‘sad’, you have to be able to be present enough with yourself to be precisely aware of how you process emotions, how they shift like a tide within you (grief is so many feelings, after all), and how such things are also experienced as physical sensations.
In fact, being aware of how your body experiences the pain and pleasure of the world is key to portraying such matters in writing and, yet, in our Cartesian-influenced culture, we’re taught to put mind over body and so often the more intellectual you are, the more disassociated you are from your body. I know this is a big struggle for me and my work reflects this by often giving emphasis to the psychological workings of characters. Hence I have to make a strong effort to keep them grounded in their fictional bodies.
Staying mindful of ourselves then – our minds, feelings and bodies – presents us with a great opportunity to understand how humans work and this helps us to set out those amazing contradictions on the page.
One of my favourite ever literary quotes is from Jeffrey Eugenides’ fantastic novel, Middlesex, where his narrrator states: ‘I, even now, persist in believing that these black marks on white paper bear the greatest significance, that if I keep writing, I might be able to catch the rainbow of consciousness in a jar.’
If I had to claim a job title other than ‘writer’ and ‘coach,’ it would be ‘someone who tries to catch the rainbow of consciousness in a jar’ (though I think it would be hardly fit on a business card!) and I cannot to do that unless I stay present and mindful of my inner workings. Because, without knowing myself, there is no way I can pull of the ‘trick’ of knowing my characters.
3. Writers need to stay present to touch their joy and lessen their fear
Last week, I wrote about the importance of keeping writing and publishing apart as much as possible in order to stay encouraged and, as part of that post, I recommended staying in the present and enjoying the writing process in order to stave off the insanity which can come from worrying too much about whether a piece will get published/sell like hotcakes/scare your dog.
Getting caught up in stories about our past failures really isn’t helpful to creative work as just because the last novel didn’t get picked up, it doesn’t mean the current one won’t! (John Grisham’s seventh novel was the one that finally got a book deal, so there’s no point torturing yourself with things that came before!)
Equally, flashing forward to the future and picturing your manuscript going through an agent’s shredder (as I did when I wrote Welcome to Sharonville – a book which was later longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award!) is also a sure-fire way to bring on procrastination and even outright writer’s block!
However, if we remain mindful, staying in the present moment, there’s only what is in front of us – the keyboard, the notebook, the sound of the pen … the words flying across the paper or screen.
Immediately, that is much easier to handle as we’re freed from any past errors or disappointments or worries for our creative futures. It’s just us and the writing. The good old friend we love so dearly.
I truly believe that we will write better, more deeply, more fully, if we engage fully with our writing in this very present way, rather than coming at it through the dirtied glass of the past or the unknown, wavering flag of the future.
Being mindful, being here now with our work, gives us sensual immediacy, a key element in making writing vivid and stopping the dreaded ‘show, not tell,’ as it dips us into the fullness of experience, but it also helps us stop being overwhelmed by what has been or might have been and simplifies the creative process into just doing the work.
It’s easy to make it much more complicated than it is, but what if you just settled into the moment when you are writing and just enjoyed it for all it was worth? What if it was absolutely okay to feel your tiredness or the bubble of anxiety when facing the blank page? What if you could accept it all, good, bad and indifferent, in an act of compassionately befriending your writer self?
You can worry about submitting another day. You can worry about rejection another day. You can worry about your successes another day. Those days will come soon enough.
After all, you will never write this stuff you’re writing today again (it would be a redraft, even if you do), so you may as well be here and make the most of it.
Let’s be mindful and make us our creative Valentines today!
HOW TO GET MINDFUL AS A WRITER
TAKE THREE LOVELY DEEP, SLOW BREATHS RIGHT INTO YOUR BELLY AND THEN ANSWER THE FOLLOWING QUESTIONS:
LOOK AROUND YOU WHEN YOU ARE WRITING: What do you see? It’s nice to have something pleasant to look at on your desk or just a nice notebook and pen to write with, but the fact that you have a space, even if it’s just on a bus, to write is something to notice and be grateful for.
LISTEN: What sounds do you hear? Try not to judge them too much as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – after all, a neighbour playing ABBA might be paradise for some and hell for others, so just use the noises around you to anchor yourself.
FEEL OUTWARDS: How does your body feel in the chair/bed/train/floor/bench? How do your feet feel on the floor or sofa? Feel into where your body touches your seat, where your feet are placed – close your eyes and go deeply into the sensations which are created, the points of pressure and ease. How is the air on your skin? Is it warm or cool? Humid or dry?
FEEL INWARDS: How are you feeling today? We so often ask others that as part of polite conversation, but we rarely ask it of ourselves. Perhaps we fear telling ourselves the truth – ‘I’m tired,’ ‘I’m angry’, ‘I’m lonely’, ‘I’m not sure I cannot pull off this scene.’ Whatever it is, the chances are, we’ve had this feeling before and 100% survived it! And we’re not alone – all humans feel this range of experience (even though social media may suggest otherwise!), so we don’t have to fear our inner workings so much. It’s okay and natural to feel – we only get stuck in emotions when we refuse to feel them.
TASTE: So how’s the coffee this morning? How’s the water you’re drinking? How is the lunch you’re scoffing as you scribble that poem? Yum. (And, if it’s not yum, at least we’re eating, right? We might even find something tastier or more nourishing to nibble if we’re more mindful of what’s going in our gob!)
SMELL THE ROSES: I love to burn scented candles or essential oils when I’m working (lemon and rosemary wake you up, peeps!), so you can also easily open up the olfactory senses in that way, but it could be you can smell flowers in your room or even last night’s curry! It doesn’t matter what it is – just use the scent as a way to ground yourself in the now.
If you would like to join me and a band of fellow scribes supporting each other in being exactly where we are in our writing journeys, join my #WRITINGMOJOMARCH writing challenge which starts on March 6th. I’ll be sending out ten emails over two weeks to get your creative juices flowing and it’s all free! You can join simply by popping your email address in the black dropdown box at the top of the page or you can get more details and use the sign up form here.
If you’d like to talk to me about how to stay more present with your work, you can also book a free 30 minute ‘Writing Breakthrough’ session (these are the main ways I support writers as a coach and mentor) or simply download a free copy of The Hectic Writer’s Handy Workbook here.