Taking Downtime

We are traditionally rather proud of ourselves for having
slipped creative work in there between the domestic chores
and obligations. I’m not sure we deserve such big A-pluses for that. 

Toni Morrison

 
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I was currently revisiting the wonderful Julia Cameron bestseller, The Artist’s Way, when I came upon this quote. I admit, I’ve always been a bit of a self-congratulatory multi-tasker. I’ve juggled full-time work with full-time school, then three part-time teaching jobs with creative writing. I don’t mention family and home obligations, as that’s just a given. I never even thought about taking a moment of downtime to just be. In my mind, that would just be unproductive, wasted time, and I never had time to waste.

Now that I’m a little older and, I hope, a bit wiser, I have come to appreciate the value of downtime. Cameron says in her book an artist must have downtime to do nothing, but defending our right to such time takes courage. I recall the first time I decided to go to a writer’s retreat for a one-week stay. The guilt I felt about taking that time for my writing was almost physically painful. I felt selfish that I was doing something so outlandish for myself. I would bet if you are a mother, you are nodding your head. I am a mother, but my daughter is 35! It’s not like I needed to leave my kids with a sitter for a week! I’m still holding on to what I call my “mother guilt,” because when something goes wrong or doesn’t work out, it’s always our fault, right?

I think men might feel guilt as well, but for other reasons. Creative men often feel guilty to take time for their art, as they carry so many obligations on their shoulders. A week away, or even a weekend, would make them appear inconsiderate and selfish. Even irresponsible. It wouldn’t be nice.

What happens when we don’t take time for ourselves? We run the risk of becoming self-destructive. This may manifest in resentment, anger, even depression. The outcome of ignoring our needs  isn’t pretty.

Consider if there really are obstacles in your path to taking downtime, or if the obstacles are self-imposed or in your head. I admit, mine were all in my head. I have a supportive husband who was happy I was finally taking time to devote to my passion of writing. He said I wasn’t pleasant to live with when I was ignoring my passion. I was the one making excuses. Now when I feel I need time away to write or just be, I take it. Sometimes it’s only a day, but even a day to yourself can be transforming.

Homework:

Try to plan for a day of downtime this month. Look at your schedule, and pencil it in your appointment book. And don’t cancel it! Drive out to the country. Walk through a state park. Get a quiet hotel room. Write if you want, or just take notes or journal. Note how you feel.

Be Present

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I recently attended a mindfulness workshop where the facilitator was explaining the principles of mindfulness when he said something that woke me up. “The past is a memory; the future is a vision. All there is, is the present.”

As a memoirist, I tend to live in the past. This is what I write about, and have written about, for at least the last decade. When I write about my past, I immediately live it. I don’t relive it; I live it, like it was happening all over again. Believe me, if it were possible to relive it, I’d revise it extensively!

He was right; the past is simply a memory, but how often do we continue to live in the past? How often do we become so entrenched in what happened way back when, that we fail to focus on what is happening now?

“When your past calls, don’t answer. It has nothing new to say.”

This quote just popped up on my Facebook page (coincidence?). Sometimes our past keeps calling, and we keep answering, even though we know what it’s going to say. There aren’t many rules of life, but one rule I’ve learned the hard way is that we can’t change the past. We all know this. So why do we spend so much time there?

As mindful writers, we often mine our past for stories. Sometimes these stories dredge up painful memories, and we embody these memories in every cell of our being. If you have a painful memory that keeps popping up, causing you discomfort or despair, consider re-writing it.

First, write down the memory as you remember it, then, on a new page, write it down the way you wish it would have happened. As you write, envision how all of the people involved, including yourself, could act differently to create a different outcome. If someone is physically harming you, create a large protective wall that keeps you safe. If a situation didn’t go the way you wanted, re-write it as you wanted it. Re-imagine events in a way that brings you joy. Write it down.

You’ve created a new story. Check in with your body. How do you feel?

Spring is in the Air

Here in the Central time zone, we sprung ahead Sunday morning, or set our clocks forward one hour. It’s 7:00pm as I write, and still bright outside. I notice I have more energy at this hour than I did last week, when it was darker out. Or maybe it’s the anticipation of warmer weather. Whatever it is, I feel full of energy and look forward to beginning some new writing projects.

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Just as we reset our clocks, the arrival of spring is also a great time to reset our writing. I like to schedule out one whole day each spring to plan my writing for the next few months. If you can’t spare an entire day, take as little as an hour or two to simply think about how far your writing has come, and where you want it to go. Maybe it’s time to take on a large project, write that memoir you’ve been thinking about for years. Or maybe you might be considering taking a writing class or going on a writing retreat. The summer brings loads of educational opportunities for writers; read Poets and Writers or Writer’s Digest for upcoming workshops.

As writers, we often get so consumed with details that it’s good to stop and look at the big picture. Ask yourself, are you as productive as you want? Are you writing what you want to be writing? Are you happy? If the answer to any of these questions is “No,” then perhaps it’s time to reset your writing.

WRITING RESET:

  • Find a quiet spot, get comfortable and with eyes closed, breathe in, breathe out.
  • For 5 minutes, simply breathe, checking your body for points of tension.
  • After the 5 minutes, continue to breathe in, and breathe out as you ask yourself, “Am I the writer I want to be?”
  • Take a few minutes, or as much time as you need, to name it. What do you want your writing life to look like? Pick up a pen and paper and write down what you want as a writer.

Have you considered what the word “writer” means to you? Everyone has differing levels of expectations, dreams, and goals. There is nothing wrong with being ambitious as long as you don’t become too attached to the outcome. Many writers hold the idea of being a “writer” to such a high esteem they would never dream of identifying themselves as a writer, even though that’s what they do the majority of their time!

Once you have identified the writer you want to be, write down some things you can do in the short term and long term to become that writer. Take the first step today. Maybe it’s taking a class. Maybe it’s scheduling a two-hour writing session for Sunday morning. Maybe it’s not writing but taking some time out to live so you’ll have something to write about!

Whatever steps you decide to take, make sure you remain mindfully in the present while you plan for the future, and don’t despair about setbacks. Today it’s 70 degrees here; tomorrow the forecast is rain changing to snow.  That’s a minor setback. Spring officially begins March 20. Will you be working toward the writer you want to be?

Why Bad Writing is Good for You

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American poet William Stafford once said, “There is no such thing as writer’s block for writers whose standards are low enough.” Stafford isn’t poking fun at beginning writers or encouraging bad writing. What he means is that sometimes writers have the disease of “perfection-itis.” This ailment often begins with feelings of self-doubt, followed by pangs of harsh self-judgments, ending with a paralysis of the brain that is referred to as writer’s block. Stafford is suggesting writers must lower their standards and stop judging themselves so harshly in order to get that initial draft out. Even Shakespeare didn’t get Romeo and Juliet perfect the first time.

I am a notorious bad first-draft writer. My first drafts are the most horrific pieces of writing you could imagine. But I know myself, and I am a type-A perfectionist. Perfectionists, if we’re not careful, make very poor writers. Why? Because in our eyes, nothing is ever good enough, so nothing ever gets finished. I know when I sit down to write if I don’t just get some words out, no matter how bad, I’ll get too far into my head and start judging, editing, and eventually censoring, the death knell for creativity.

~   “The first draft of anything is shit.” Ernest Hemingway  ~

For many writers, first drafts are torturous, but usually it’s because we are not treating the writing for what it is: a first draft. First, or even second or third drafts, aren’t supposed to be perfect, so why do we think they should be? Because when we read, we read final, highly polished, published drafts. The language is striking, the story meticulously woven – for the reader, it’s a work of art. But we don’t have the benefit of reading the first draft, or second, or third; we only see the published end result, so this is what we compare our own writing to. We are setting ourselves up for failure if we measure our early drafts to published material.

~  “The scariest moment is always just before you start.”  ~
Stephen King

Breathe. Stop judging. Stop comparing. Let go of attachments – to the outcome, the output, your own or other’s expectations. If you find yourself paralyzed with the blank page – write ugly. Write drivel. Avoid writing in sentences.  Write anything, as long as you get words on paper. Don’t censor yourself or mark anything out. Let your mind roll. Get the story down and go back later to pretty it up. Once you can quiet the judgmental self-censor, you’ll find your blank page is soon filled with words, and you might find they aren’t all that bad.

 

 

Benefits of Reading our Writing

 

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Recently I was revisiting Natalie Goldberg’s newest book, The True Secret of Writing and reread a passage about the importance of reading our work aloud. I marked this because reading what we have written aloud is often one of the most daunting obstacles many face as we journey on this path of becoming a writer.

In one Mindful Writing class I taught this past year, I met a woman who had written plenty and met regularly with her very supportive writing group, but refused to read her work aloud. She was afraid/embarrassed/worried for others to hear what she had written.  In The True Secret of Writing, Goldberg says the idea is “to hear your own naked, unedited voice in the present and to learn to accept it, to stand behind it and not be looking . . . for praise or criticism. If it feels naked, you are not hiding and covering up.” It’s extremely exposing to read our writing aloud, but I believe this is where we can make the most progress as mindful writers. It should feel uncomfortable. If it doesn’t, you aren’t writing honestly.

I’ve read much medical research lately on the health benefits, both mental and physical, of narrative writing. But the research actually shows that the true benefit is when the writer shares his writing with others. Little benefit was found simply in the act of writing; it is in the act of sharing the writing with others where the benefit lies. We read to put our story out there, acknowledge it, to take ownership of it , to make sense of it – and then let it go.

The woman I mentioned earlier that refused to share her writing? I gently convinced her — no pressure — to try, and she did, in fact, read her work aloud in class. By reading aloud she took ownership of it, she accepted it as valid and valuable. She accepted her voice and her place in the larger voice. Reading her writing aloud changed her. She thanked me privately afterwards for persuading her to read. It was “cathartic,” she said, “liberating.”

Hopefully, you have a few fellow writers with whom you can meet with to write and share your writing. I find that a strong writing group is invaluable for those following this often lonely and solitary path. The next time you have the opportunity, read your writing, even if it’s only a paragraph. You’ll be glad you did.

Mindfulness and Groundhog Shadows

This coming Sunday, February 2, is Groundhog Day. I’ve always been fascinated with the popularity of a day celebrating if a groundhog will forecast six more weeks of winter. If Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow after the winter many of us have had, he just might come to a sudden demise.

I’ve heard from so many friends how hard this winter has been for them. Long illnesses that never seem to improve, down, depressing mood swings, lack of energy and motivation; all signs of seasonal affective disorder. It’s hard to get motivated to write when our energy levels and mental storehouses feel so low.

I have complained of the same ills, but over the weekend, I forced myself to sit down and write. And you know what? Once I quit spinning my wheels (checking email, cruising Facebook, dusting the monitor) and finally got down to the business of writing, my energy (and brain function) gradually improved. By the end of the day, I didn’t want to stop.

Research has shown that the most productive writers schedule writing just like a doctor appointment or a lunch date. I have begun to schedule writing in my weekly appointment book, and I have been much more productive. If writers only sat down to write when they felt mentally and physically ready and capable of creative thought, we would never write anything. If you want to write, you have to sometimes, unfortunately, force yourself to write.

Forcing ourselves to write doesn’t sound very mindful, but Mindful Writing isn’t just about being mindful, it’s about the act of writing. Of course we all need downtown, playtime, time away from our writing, and often, this is when we often are most creative. Just as we need to schedule time to write, we also need to schedule time to play, especially in the middle of winter. Mindful writing is all about balance, and to stay in balance, don’t neglect the child within who sometimes just needs a playdate – or an afternoon winter’s nap.

Today in Nebraska where I live, the actual temperature is 1º; the wind-chills are –30º to –40º. I have no energy – it’s frozen solid! But as I sat down to write, my energy – and motivation – has begun to warm up. The act of writing, even though I didn’t really feel like it, has made me want to write more. It’s like exercise: we don’t really want to do it, but once we start, it feels great! And just like exercise, if you fall off the writing wagon today, you can get right back on tomorrow.

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Don’t let a groundhog‘s shadow determine how you feel or what you do the rest of the winter. Mindful writers know to avoid judging their output and outcome, but they also know when they are giving excuses for not writing. Use mindfulness practices to catch yourself making excuses and transform those thoughts into action. Practice is like medicine: it is bitter, but good for you.

Unlocking Creativity

To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.
Joseph Chilton Pearce

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Remember when you were a child, and you approached life opened-armed with unbounded enthusiasm, without fear of failure, without considerations of what others thought or fear of being judged, and just played for the sheer joy of play?

Then you grew up.

Somewhere along the way, that creative child was told they were making mistakes. Maybe at some time, that child broke a rule. Other kids – or adults – made fun of that child’s ideas. Or maybe the child was told they were stupid, or a daydreamer (as if that was a bad thing) or irresponsible or – fill in the blank.

Now you’ve grown up and want to write, and when you sit down to begin, panic sets in, accompanied by negative self-talk: I can’t write like that writer. . . I don’t know how to start. . . I don’t know how to conclude. . . I’m too embarrassed to tell my story. . . I’m bad at punctuation. . . I’m bad at spelling. . . I’m bad at everything. . . I’m a lousy writer. . . I’m a lousy person. . . I’m such an idiot. . . Nothing significant has ever happened to me. . . I am not significant. . . Something happened between being the child who tried anything without a care in the world, to being paralyzed with fear of making a mistake, and it might take some years on an expensive therapist’s couch to figure out what. So what do you do in the meantime?

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.                                    Pablo Picasso

We are in the middle of winter here in Nebraska. It’s cold and crazy windy. No one wants to go out. This is a perfect time to go inward. Clean the mental and emotional slate to prepare to start anew in Spring with the writing project you’ve been avoiding or might be blocked. Now is a good time to work on unlocking our creativity that may have been “frozen” over many winters. Everyone was born creative, but most of us were educated, scolded or guilted out of it. Once we relocate that creative child and give him or her permission to experiment without worries of judgment, shame or embarrassment, great things begin to happen. We realize we can compose a mighty fine poem or short story or essay.

Inspiration may be a form of superconsciousness, or perhaps of subconsciousness . . . . I do know it is the antithesis of self-consciousness.                                                                                                             Aaron Copland

Exercise:

Each morning (or night) for the next week, take ten minutes and just write. It doesn’t matter what you write, just start writing. Write about what is weighing on your mind right now. Write to discover why you can’t sleep. Write about that recurring dream. Write your very first memory. Write about what inspires you. Write about your flat tire. Write about a bad hair day (we have a lot of those in Nebraska— that darn wind!)  This writing is just for your eyes, so no need to judge it. Just let it fly.

At the end of the week, check in with your body and see how you feel. Did you sleep better? Did you have fewer headaches? Did you mine some good story ideas?

Share your experiences in the comments.