Here Comes the Sun

This morning as I sat down to write, I had to shield the sun from my eyes as the rays drilled through the east-facing windows in front of me. It was blinding! Or maybe I’m just not used to bright sunshine in January. As I tried to write with the bright sunshine beating on my face, I unconsciously bobbed and weaved, trying to shield my eyes from the sun, but to no avail. Holding my hands out to shield the sun quickly grew tiring. After a short while, I felt a flush of warmth on my skin. I couldn’t be getting a sunburn ― through a window ― in January, could I? After fighting through my whole morning in the glaring sun, it dawned on me what I was doing: I was trying to shield myself from the sun in January. Was I nuts? I finally shut my laptop, squeezed my blinded eyes shut, and turned into the sunshine.

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At noon, I met my husband for lunch, and as we were seated, my husband noticed a rash on my neck. “I think I got too much sun this morning,” I said, laughing. As we settled in our seats, I noticed the sun beating across my face, right in my eyes ― again! I immediately began searching for a blind to pull down, but found none at the tableside window.  “Do you want to switch seats?” my husband asked. I stayed in my sunny seat, squinting through lunch, wondering if the universe was trying to tell me something.

Traditionally here in Nebraska, January is one of the nastiest months for winter weather. Omaha ranks number 5 among the coldest major cities in the country, on average, 133 days of subfreezing temperatures a year, with most of those days in Omaha are cloudy. (Remember About Schmidt, a grey, gloomy movie shot in Omaha?) Anyone who hates winters as much as I do knows that late January is hump time. Just get through January, survive February, and we’re on the downhill slide to spring. So who in their right mind would be fighting to stay out of the sun? What was I thinking? I wasn’t.

“Most aspects of our culture currently lead us to try to reduce uncertainty: we learn so that we will know what things are. Instead, we should consider exploiting the power of uncertainty so that we can learn what things can become.” – Ellen Langer.

Mindfulness is all about being in the moment, and it took me half this sunny day to be reminded of this. But we’re all human, and how often do we mindlessly behave in a way contrary to logic, for instance, turning away from something that might bring us joy? We all have what psychologists refer to as “pre-programmed scripts” that guide our day-to-day behavior, a kind of autopilot of behavior. For instance, the sun usually doesn’t shine in Omaha in January; I’m not used to it shining in my face, so I’m going to shield myself from it because, in my mind, it’s not supposed to be there. Mindless!

What does this have to do with writing? Consider the mindset we bring to each writing session. How many pre-conceived ideas and assumptions do we make each time we sit down to write (or participate in any creative activity)? How might our creative choices change if we were to take ourselves off auto-pilot and let go any pre-conceived notions about how we think writers should be or act or do? What if forcing ourselves to sit our butt in a chair for however many number of hours a day or pages a day other writers say that “real” writers should sit and write was found to be counterproductive?

In the wonderful book on creativity, The Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron says, “As artists, grounding our self-image in military discipline is dangerous. In the short run, discipline may work, but it will work only for a while. By its very nature, discipline is rooted in self-admiration. . . . We admire ourselves for being so wonderful. The discipline itself, not the creative outflow, becomes the point” (153).

Do you sit in front of your computer screen, running on auto-pilot until you’ve met your pre-determined word count? Do you pull the curtains shut because the sun isn’t supposed to be shining in January (guilty)? Consider that stopping to enjoy a rare warm, sunny day in January instead of BIC (butt in chair) might, just might, be much more productive in the long run than trying to ignore the miracle that it is.

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Recent sunset behind my house.

In her book, Cameron goes on to explain that for creatives, enthusiasm is much more important than military-like discipline: “Enthusiasm is not an emotional state. It is a spiritual commitment, a loving surrender to our creative process, a loving recognition of all the creativity around us” (153). Perhaps the universe was simply trying to get me to stop and appreciate the beauty that was surrounding me – and get my butt out of the chair. Snow is in the weekend forecast. I’ll be grateful I did.

 

Mindful Writing and the Power of Observation

Each morning this winter, I have entertained myself (and fought off Seasonal Affective Disorder!) by bird watching. (You know you’re middle aged when you resort to bird watching for entertainment!) I’ve spent a good chunk of change on high quality bird seed and kept the feeders full outside my kitchen window. The first thing I now do when I rise is throw on my bathrobe, go to the kitchen, and watch the birds breakfast outside my window.

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A winter’s day at my bird feeder.

 

As I’m outside the city, my bird population might be a bit larger than most urban neighborhoods. I have a rather large population of blue jays, the biggest, fattest blue jays I have ever seen. Yesterday we counted nine at one time. I was a bit surprised to find they’ll feed on the ground alongside other birds without running them off as they are known to do. Most mornings also bring a few sparrows and flocks of juncos. A family of mourning doves live close by, and my favorite downy woodpecker comes once the others have had their fill. So many others come and go that I haven’t identified as of yet.

This morning ritual has become habit for me, and I find if I don’t take the time to simply sit and observe the feeding birds for at least a few minutes, my day is a bit “off.” I can’t put my finger on it, but I feel as if the powers of observation help to center me, help to rev up my brain for the day. Recent research has shown that perhaps there is something to the powers of focused observation. Scientists at the University of Amsterdam found a connection between observation and creativity. In their studies, the better observers, whether inherent or learned through training, were measurably more creative than those who were found to have weaker observation skills. I do find that I am much more creative in my writing after even a short time at the window.

“A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.” –  Susan Sontag

The simple act of just observing something, especially an object from the natural world like an insect or animal, and watching it as if you are seeing it for the first time (a mindfulness practice) can not only regulate emotions but also can improve cognitive abilities, so it makes sense creativity can be enhanced as well. Mindfulness is observing without judging. In this focused observation, our minds don’t get hung up on what we notice. We just notice.

For years I have told my writing students that if they want to be a writer, they must be an astute observer. The best observers simply notice without passing judgments or imparting their opinions or perceptions of what something should be or look like or act like. But this can be sooooo hard to do, especially with our minds always set to make meaning out of everything we see and hear. How can we possibly turn that off?

“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.” ― Thích Nhất Hạnh

When I first saw the flock of blue jays foraging alongside the juncos and sparrows, I began to wonder why they weren’t exhibiting their usual unfriendly behavior and scattering the smaller birds. Why were these blue jays being so nice, so un- Blue Jay-like, so outside their known behavior? As morning after morning passed and I witnessed this same scene, I finally quit questioning and simply enjoyed it. I’ve let go my expectations of the way it should be and simply observe what is. Perhaps this is the first step toward joy.


(Read the research at http://psp.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/05/23/0146167214535813.abstract)

Filling the Well

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We are in the throes of another cold winter here on the Plains of Nebraska, where the wind whips through the leaky windows of my 1905 farmhouse in a rolling sea of chilling waves. I shiver under my blanket as I write this with my fingerless gloves, my breath not quite visible but lungs catching with each breath of winter air.

On this old former farmstead, we’ve improved, updated, and remodeled what we can to make our lives easier and more convenient, though our modern conveniences don’t always work to our modern-thinking expectations. Just the other day, I stood in the shower with no water; perhaps, I suspected, the well-pump had frozen, or worse – I couldn’t consider worse naked in the shower with no water.

The well company came after our desperate call for help, discovering the emergency switch had shut off to prevent the well from running dry. It was a switch we didn’t know, in our city-living ignorance – even existed. The well water was low, so to prevent it from going dry (the absolute worst problem, I’m told) this switch shuts the well pump down so the well can, I suppose, generate more water. I’m not sure I’m even describing it correctly, but with the flip of a switch, we had our water back.

As I sat down to write after a hot shower, I considered how with the flip of this miracle switch, we had our water back. How simple, I thought (though still relieved it wasn’t a frozen well pump!). Wouldn’t it be nice, I surmised, if writers had an emergency shut off when their writing well was running dry. How many hours, days on end sometimes, we sit in front of a computer screen wringing out every last word we can muster until, eventually, we dry up. We pump the well and pump the well without pausing to replenish ourselves, squeezing every last drop from our dwindling supply of words and verses and imaginings until there is simply nothing left. Our mind, depleted, spent, worn down and out, cries surrender. Through our selfish attempt at milking every last drop of creativity we might have with no time for rest, respite, or restoration, we’ve thoughtlessly depleted our creative well. Then, you guessed it: writer’s block.

But what if, instead, we had a built-in emergency alarm that would shut us down before we drained ourselves dry? What if that alarm sounded when it sensed we were working ourselves into writer’s block (or worse), notifying us that it was time to stop and refill the well?

I follow a few writing groups on social media, and it’s often a competition to see who can out-write the other. I’m not sure the ability to write yourself into exhaustion is something to brag about; however in our American I-can-work-on-three-hours-of-sleep-a-night culture, we buy into the notion that it’s something to strive for, or even be commended for. I wonder how quickly those writers burn themselves out. I wonder.

What if, on the other hand, we stopped doing, in our case, writing, when we heard that internal alarm (and we all have one, we just ignore it) when we find ourselves tired or worn down, and took care of our needs? Consider, what if, before you run your well dry, you give yourself the gift of rest? What if you took some time away from the act of doing for some restorative work, like yoga or meditation or a walk outside, or even a nap? When was the last time you let yourself take an afternoon nap? Stephen King says he takes one every afternoon, and his well seems to stay pretty full.

Losing time when you’re writing is the ultimate high, the perfect state of mindfulness, but in this state, your well is full. Pushing yourself past your limits and running your creative well dry is mindless, and can cause not only creative blocks, but health problems as well. An African proverb says that we only think of water when the well is dry. Let your well regenerate to keep the writing flowing.

How do you regenerate your creative well?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mindful Writing: Get Your Head Out of the Way

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How often have you sat down to write with the perfect mix of inspiration, motivation, and a great idea, and after a few paragraphs or pages, the negative self-talk begins. You hear voices in your head saying things like

“What made you think that was a good idea?”
“Why do you think you can write anything worth reading?”
“This is one fat piece of crap.”
“You’re a lousy writer.”

Those are some harsh words, yet I’ll bet you’ve said them to yourself plenty of times. Think about this: if someone else said these horrible things to you, how would you respond? I’ll bet most writers would tell this nasty person to jump off a cliff. However, when it’s our own internal voice spewing out these insults, after a while, we start believing it.

Everyone has experienced negative self-talk at one time or another, but artists –  and especially writers – are most susceptible. Why? We often make false assumptions or interpretations of our talent or aptitude with little to no reflection on reality. These interpretations are rarely, if ever, based in fact, but are based on our own prejudices. Many writers judge their writing talent with little attention toward reality. Truth: How many times have you judged your first draft in comparison to a published book? Yep, thought so.

If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage. — Cynthia Ozick

As you pile on the negative self-talk, damaging thoughts and pointless fears begin to emerge. Artists are an insecure bunch of creatives, and all insecurities are based on a firm foundation of fear. Fear kills creativity. Fear even kills inspiration and motivation. All of these negative, fear-based thoughts not only squelch your writing and crush your creativity, but can even undermine your well-being.

Taking a mindful approach, a daily practice of mindful meditation, of training your brain to interpret what’s real and not what’s imagined or fictional, can alleviate self-made fears, creating a solid foundation of loving kindness (a tenant of mindfulness) toward your writing. Look at your early drafts as you would a new puppy or newly planted seedling. It needs time (and many drafts) to germinate and develop. Don’t give up on your writing before you’ve had a chance to grow and mature as a writer. And quit comparing yourself to Annie Proulx or Stephen King. They’ve had a lot of practice at being Annie and Stephen.

I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I’m one of the world’s great rewriters. — James A. Michener

The next time your head gets in the way of your writing (or anything else!), stop and examine the specific thoughts you are thinking, and consider if these thoughts are grounded in reality or are perhaps your faulty assumptions and interpretations of your talent grounded in anxiety and fear.

Then tell them to shut up and go away. You’ve got work to do.

Ditch BIC! Get Moving to Enhance Production and Creativity

 

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During a recent check-up, I complained to my doctor about my lack of energy and motivation. Everyone now and again experiences a loss of energy, often in relation to the stress level in our lives, but this was different. My lack of energy and motivation had moved in and settled, like a permanent resident. My doctor asked if I exercised.

“I belong to a gym,” I shamefully answered. “My gym bag is actually in my backseat.”

My doctor tilted her head and smiled. “How about you use it,” she suggested. “I want to see you back in 6 weeks, and your homework is to exercise at least twice a week.”

Ugh. Didn’t she know I had things to do? A job, books to write, writing groups to lead, Facebook pages to check? Serious writers have to forgo other pleasures (as if exercise is a “pleasure”) in life to be productive. We proudly live by BIC (butt in chair), right?

Finally a week after our visit (or her intervention) and an exceptionally lackluster day, I forced myself into my tennis shoes and through the gym doors. I had a headache, my neck was almost immobile from stiffness after hours at the computer, and quite frankly, my ass even hurt from sitting so much. How could I ever muster the energy to exercise?

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I drug myself to a treadmill and walked at a pace only turtles would appreciate for 15 minutes. That wasn’t too torturous. I then moved to a recumbent bike with a TV on the handles. Before I knew it, another 15 minutes had passed. I felt pretty good, so I hopped on a couple of weight machines. As I was doing some leg presses, I had an idea for a chapter in my memoir that’s been languishing in my drawer. Then I had a great idea on an upcoming writing workshop I hadn’t even started planning yet. Ideas were coming faster than the sweat could pool on my brow.

The more I moved, the more ideas came to me. The more ideas that came, the more I wanted to move. After an hour, my headache was gone, my ass had feeling back, and I felt motivated to write, something I hadn’t felt in months of lethargy. I left the gym and hurried home to dig back into my writing. That night, after finalizing some notes for the next day’s writing, I realized that all the day’s productivity and creativity came during and after my hour at the gym. Maybe I was onto something.

Research has shown that even moderate physical activity increases creativity. For writers who spend countless hours in a chair only moving their fingertips, some type of aerobic exercise – even a walk around the house or a yogo session – provides benefits. Although the BIC method of writing does help us to develop a regular writing practice, sometimes it’s just as important and necessary to get up and move. Listen to your body. If your creative juices have stalled and your butt is numb, get moving.

Tell me what you think.

How have you balanced your writing with exercise, or do you?
Is it a choice between one or the other?

Turning Over a New Leaf

earth_day_slide_2_3_fullsizeI worked with a student recently whose first language was not English. English is difficult for anyone to learn, but add to that the complication of idioms. An idiom is an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the words expressing the phrase. The words or phrase forms a figurative meaning, as opposed to a straightforward literal meaning.

“Explain to me what it means, ‘Turn over a new leaf’,” the student said.

I explained it means to make a fresh start, to change behavior or start anew. The student, a young male, considered my answer, though I’m still not sure it made sense to him. After I considered his question – and my answer – I’m not sure it made sense to me; it’s just a phrase I’ve always heard and often used without thinking.

After he left, I Googled “turning over a new leaf” and learned that in the 16th century, people referred to pages in a book as leaves, so they turned the “leaves” of a workbook to a blank page to start a new lesson. The modern idiom reflects this idea of “turning a new page” in our lives.

The opportunity to actually consider this student’s question forced me to reflect on the importance of looking at things in a new or different way. Just as the use of idioms are so ingrained in our language, we often only think and act in ways we are used to without questioning the basis for our thoughts or actions.

Recently I read an article suggesting that, to avoid the winter doldrums, we should occasionally do things outside of our regular routine or comfort zone. This sounds so simple, but even though I’ve had the intention to do something new or different since I read that article two weeks ago, I’m so ingrained in my routine that I can hardly think of a thing to do! For one, that’s just sad, but it also shows how easily our thoughts and actions can become mindless habits. Just think: how many daily habits are so ingrained in your life that it’s difficult to consider simply doing something different?

When writers complain of writer’s block, it’s often a matter of looking at a piece of writing the same way we always have. This way of thinking is mindless. Of course, if we continue to look at our writing in the same way, from the same old vantage point, this often is a recipe for writer’s block. We prevent ourselves from seeing the writing in a new or different way, from an altered or fresh perspective.

The next time you are stuck in your writing, consider how you are approaching it, and try coming at it from a mindful vantage point. How might you look at the scene or situation differently? Just as I had to rethink how to explain the meaning of an idiom, rethink how you are approaching either a specific piece of writing or your writing in general. How did you do?

Turn into the Skid: What to do when writing gets tough

For many of us, the act of writing can lead to many wonderful moments of joy, satisfaction, and feelings of accomplishment. Still at times, writing can be a frustrating, anxiety-producing, even depressing task. Often when we get to a place in our writing that makes us feel uncomfortable, sad, depressed, or anxious, we turn away. Many times I’ve walked away from my memoir-in-progress when it got to just be too much to sit with. I didn’t want to recall painful experiences from the past –even though that is the whole point of writing a memoir!

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While reading a recent article about how we handle conflict in our lives, the writer said we should “turn into the skid.” The writer, Diane Hamilton, uses the analogy of driving; when we hit a bad patch of road, our instincts are to brake hard and turn away from the danger, but of course, this only causes us to skid more and possibly crash. By turning into the skid and letting off the brake, we allow our vehicle to correct itself and coast to safety.

In relation to writing, when we hit a bad patch of difficult writing, our instincts are to turn away from it. We find other things to do – eat, surf the web, check our email, text our friends, or worst of all for a writer, pretend it didn’t happen – anything to avoid the difficult job in front of us. We’re putting on the brakes and turning away from our writing. But by turning into the skid, we face the difficulties ahead. Turning away, or avoiding our writing when we get to the pages that are most difficult to write, can cause us to lose a bit of ourselves. Hamilton writes:

“We may not really even know how we feel about things. We’re so deeply habituated to withdrawing that we don’t even take the time to think and feel and wonder what something is, if it matters, how it matters and what it means. We just disappear” (“How Do You Cope with Conflict?”)

The next time you’re writing and come upon a particularly difficult moment, turn into the skid. Mindfully face what is in front of you and avoid finding reasons to turn away. Don’t be afraid, embarrassed or ashamed to tell your story. Consider this an opportunity to rethink, re-evaluate, and recall moments that are still causing you sadness, pain or guilt. Consider this also as an opportunity for growth. Turn into the skid.