7 ways that mindfulness can make you a better writer

jonathan-pielmayer-252923-unsplash - smallAfter an exceptionally busy summer where I did hardly anything but work and recover and work some more, I am now back in a mind-space where I can re-introduce myself to my writing. (Hello, Writing, how have you been? Great to see you. It’s been too long. You look fantastic. Have you lost weight?)

Over the summer, my writing projects took a back-seat in my brain. They were lazy and laid low. But now they’re up and about and ping-ponging all over the place. I can’t seem to catch hold of one idea long enough to do anything about it. And more keep cropping up. So many ideas! How wonderful! How energizing! How…overwhelming!

It’s not unusual for me to be a scatterbrain. I am a Restless Writer, after all. But there must be a way for me to corral all my ideas and see one through to completion, right?

Maybe the answer lies in mindfulness.

Mindfulness has its roots in the practice of meditation, and it was all the rage just a few years ago. Experts and gurus were spouting the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness, and how it could be used to enhance productivity and problem-solving; how it could help people tap into emotional intelligence; how it could help us be more resilient to stress and trauma. Everyone from yoga instructors and schoolteachers to CEOs and your employer’s EAP was doing it, and it spawned magazines, gadgets, apps, ringtones, retreats and colouring books—a whole industry devoted to helping us “be present” and “live in the moment” (and spend money while we were doing it).

Do I sound skeptical? Maybe a little. I get squinchy when I ponder the woo-woo stuff. Plus there’s a whole “first-world problems” side to mindfulness that makes me uncomfortable. Not to mention that entrepreneurs are getting rich by telling me to focus on one thing at a time and take deep breaths.

But okay—and I am taking a deep breath here—skepticism aside, how can I apply some of the lessons of mindfulness to writing?

Hold up. Is it even possible for writers to train themselves to be aware and present in the here-and-now when their minds and imaginations are pulling them far, far away? Writers are characterized as dreamers. We either have our noses in a book or our heads in the clouds. I’m forever thinking about people who don’t exist and putting them in impossible situations—how mindful is that?

It’s true, however, that I find the act of writing to be very grounding. When I have my butt in my chair and my fingers on the keyboard, I’m exactly where I should be, and doing exactly what I should be doing. One of the Restless Writers’ favourite quotes is courtesy of Gloria Steinem: “Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” That sounds like the very definition of mindfulness.

So maybe there is something to this mindfulness thing for writers after all.

I did some research, and there are some lessons that I can take away from mindfulness when it comes to me and my writing. Here’s my short list of learnings:

  1. Do one thing at a time: We often overestimate how much we can get done in a day. I often boast of my multi-tasking skills, but maybe that just makes me more scattered. When my mind is constantly thinking about the Next Thing I have to do, how do I get the One Thing done? Multi-tasking is the intellectual equivalent of the fidgets—it just wastes energy and doesn’t lead to anything productive. It’s good practice to tamp your enthusiasm down a bit, and focus on seeing one thing through to completion before switching tasks.
  2. Live “in the now:” “The now” and “the here” provide endless wells of inspiration for writers. Going grocery shopping? Grabbing a coffee? Eating lunch at a diner? These are all opportunities to tune in to what is going on around you and to witness how people interact with each other and their environments.
  3. Be mindful with others: Other people are living in the now with you. Put away the distractions and focus on the person you’re with or the people who share your space. Not just because it will help you write better dialogue or create more authentic characters—but also because you don’t want to be a jerk.
  4. Be mindful with yourself: What is distracting you? How do you feel about what you’ve written so far? What are you uncomfortable with? What scares you about what comes next? Can you power through this paragraph or do you need to take a break? Checking in with yourself and your feelings can help you overcome writing obstacles and achieve new insights. Fatigue, frustration, and anxiety can lead to writer’s block, so be alert to when a walk or a sandwich are in order.
  5. Use all your senses: This element of mindfulness practice is fun, although it requires a lot of attention. When you’re engaged in mindful practice—whether you are eating an orange, going for a walk, or folding laundry—it’s an opportunity to enhance your vocabulary and make your writing come alive. Focus on the smell of the orange, the sound of the early-morning birdsong, the texture of those towels. Bring that depth and richness of sensation into your writing.
  6. Unplug from devices: This is always a good idea, and goes along with the practice of doing one thing at a time. Allow yourself to focus on the task of writing itself. Don’t get caught in a social media spiral, or lose the thread of your story by cleaning out your inbox. Use your writing time to write. You can always check your feeds on a break.
  7. Let go of judgment: This element of mindfulness requires you to free yourself from your inner editor/critic/English teacher/asshole, and just let your words flow. Don’t criticize or question your writing as you go. Don’t shrink from a scene that is uncomfortable or painful. Don’t go back and rework a comma or reconsider a snippet of dialogue—just write and see where it takes you. Being mindful when you’re writing means to accept and be grateful for your words and your work.

Mindfulness may have been criticized as just another productivity hack or money-making trend or something that has been co-opted from its more spiritual roots. But practiced with consistency and intent, mindfulness might just make you a better writer.

Maria

Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer on Unsplash.

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Spilling the Tea

Okay, it’s crunch time people. We’re at T minus 19 four one hour until the next RW meeting and yours truly is zero for two on the action items she committed to at our gathering last month. They were pretty simple – more pages for the mystery novel I am currently writing and a new blog post. The worst part is I’ve been on holiday from work for the past two weeks and still, have a sum total of bupkis to show for myself.

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Which brings me back to crunch time. If I can get this blog post published within the next 19 four hour I’ve got a chance to break even on those action items and hopefully feel a little less like a flop when I walk into our RW meeting.

To get the writing juices flowing I always find it helpful to first whine about my situation. Thankfully, my significant other (SO), who was on the receiving end of my I’ve-missed-my-RW-deadlines-what-is-wrong-with-me sob story, had some good advice.

“Just be honest,” he said. “Write a blog post and just be honest about why you haven’t been writing.”

The truth huh? That sounds about as good of a topic as any to blog about, so, here it goes. The honest truth, the real reason I have failed to produce some writing the last few weeks is that I just didn’t feel like it.

You know what I did feel like doing?

Organizing – In the last two weeks I have upended, purged and organized almost every room, junk drawer and closet in our house and it feels frickin’ fantastic.

Hanging out – The advent of high school in September for my oldest son is serving as a very stark reminder that time is passing all too swiftly and these days as a family of four inhabiting the same living space won’t last forever. Ice cream run? Yep. Daily tennis games against the wall at the schoolyard in 90 degree heat? You bet. I want to take it all in.

Watching TV – I think it’s fair to say the last few days have provided me with a sound understanding of Netflix Canada’s current inventory (Ibiza anyone?), the opportunity to catch up on some old favourites (The Affair, The Americans) and a chance to dive into some new series I keep reading about (Succession).

Reading – To balance out the TV. My library “hold” number for Something in the Water came up just in time for my vacation. Perfect summer reading – it did not disappoint.

Walking and podcast listening – My favourite early morning pastime to get a start on the day and feel like I am learning some interesting stuff. Some of my favourites for listening at the moment include: Terrible, Thanks for Asking, Making Obama, and Criminal.

And there you have it. How I spent my summer vacation.

Looking over this list, it occurs to me that these activities are all my self care go-to’s in times when I’m not feeling like myself – on the days when I’m feeling a little blue or stuck. And actually (I’m having an ah-ha moment), this is probably what my SO meant when he said to “just be honest” about why I haven’t been writing.

The truth is I didn’t feel much like writing the last few weeks because I haven’t been feeling like myself. Nothing specific I can put my finger on but there you have it.

Capture

The good news? I think I’m on my way to hitting my reset button: I’ve had the last couple of weeks to do the things that help me to feel better; tonight at our RW meeting I’ll get a second chance to commit to some new actions and more pages; and, if I can publish this post in the next hour I will have gotten back to some writing! Halfway there.

 

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Your writers’ retreat guide

quote calligraphy under cup of lemon tea

Photo by Studio 7042 on Pexels.com

For weeks, I had been counting down the days and hours to my trip down the QEW in my black Yaris, to Niagara-on-the-Lake, mounting over Lake Ontario on the Skyway bridge thankful the winds weren’t threatening and the bridge was open. I passed the usual industrial parks on my right and the Stoney Creek Furniture warehouse from where I dream to one day afford a couch. Eventually, the stores changed and I saw Magnotta Winery and signs for Niagara wine tours. I turned onto highway 55, past Trius Winery, Pillitteri Estates, Stratus Vineyard. Oh yes. I was close and I knew a glass RELAX Riesling awaited me. I envisioned the blue bottle catching the sun from the window and my shoulders relaxed. I looked at my computer bag on the passenger seat. The first printed shitty first draft of my play slept there. She’d been beckoning me to get out and run amok with her – soon, my sweet. Very soon. And then I pictured the two smart, fun women and cheerleaders I was about to spend my long weekend with, who I’m sure already had a glass in their hands. I grinned. Life was as it should be. I was ready to let go of the usual daily stuff and dive into another writing retreat. We’ve got a number under our belt now and the system is honed. I knew a great, productive weekend awaited.

So let me give you a guide to a great retreat and share some key principles we live by:

  1. Start with good snacks, food and drink. This one has never been a problem for the Restless Writers. We usually have a signature cocktail each retreat, WAAAY too many Pringles and a fridge that is still too packed by the last day. We’re slowly learning realistic quantities of food to bring, but at least we know we’ll be well fed. We are also budget and time conscious. So we share meal prep (each taking charge of one) and rarely go out because it’s expensive and takes away valuable writing time. Go with what works for you, but whether you go Skip the Dishes, potluck, or venture out for meals, plan it ahead of time, so you’re all on board.
  2. Bring your comfies. This means moccasins for me, fuzzy slippers for Sharon, an electric blanket for Beckie, and Prosecco for Maria – for that girl, comfort is defined by a glass of the bubbly in her hands, no matter the hour! Ego is left at the door for RW and you’ll find no fashion shows at our retreats.
  3. Have a kick off and write down your goals. We like starting our retreats by having an activity to shift our minds into creative mode. Keep it simple and consider a writing exercise or guided meditation, or something to open your mind and help release fears and blockages. We also always discuss and write down our goals for the weekend. It forces us to focus in and remember this isn’t just a girls’ weekend away. We’ve got work to do and we’re here to help each other get there. Writing it down makes us accountable to each other.
  4. Have your materials ready.  Bring your favourite pen, lap desks, sticky notes, markers, cue cards, extension cords, earphones, whatever you need to be productive. For us, these are precious weekends, so we don’t want to waste them not having what we need to get busy.FullSizeR001(1)
  5. Don’t over plan or over schedule. We’ve sometimes done this in the past: had a strict agenda detailing every hour, invited a yoga instructor to run a class for us, booked a few wine tours. We’ve relaxed a lot over the years and try and let each retreat flow as it needs to, which leads me to…
  6. Respect each other’s needs and be honest. Everyone’s creative process is different, and as a group you need to both recognize that and respect it. At the same time, each person needs to feel safe to be honest with what that means for them. The writing is about you in the end. So speak up for what you need, and give space to others at the same time. As an example, this past retreat, I felt in my zone and was happy in my pajamas indoors all day. Sharon needed to get herself outside and walking. We know we don’t have to do everything as a group. We are our own guides in our work and we appreciate that in each other.
  7. Be kind to yourself. The purpose of a retreat is to give you time and space for your writing project. Give yourself the freedom to explore. Let go of judgment. Don’t worry if you’re “doing it right,” nor compare what you’re doing with the others in the group. They’re slogging it out in their own way. And if you don’t meet your goal at the end, consider that maybe you set the wrong goal, or if you’re frustrated, figure out if you spent your time the way you wanted to, or were more focused on mixing drinks for everyone, procrastinating. Either way, take stock and learn from it. It’s all good.
  8. Do a postmortem. We’ve gotten better at our retreats because just before we leave, we go for coffee and do a final check in. Did we like where we stayed? Was the space good? Did we like our kick-off meeting exercise? What do we need to bring next time that we forgot? Was the price right and the time of year good? Do we want to have a more formal agenda? Take notes and learn each time how your group ticks.

As I reflect back on our last retreat, I guess the last lesson is: Be ready for anything. I mean anything. Because just when you think you’ve gotten used to being down from the usual four to three because one of you is across the country, that fourth girl just might shock the shit out of you and show up at your doorstep!

You just never know what a retreat will bring. Have fun and happy writing!FullSizeR

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Dispatch from out west

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Last fall, I said good-bye to the hours-long commute, fast-food chains, and crowded shopping malls of southern Ontario, and hello to the small-town living, majestic mountain views, and independent spirit of the BC interior.

I also had to say good-bye to my Restless friends. Or at least good-bye to our in-person meetings filled with food, wine, and conversation. I was sad to go, but also excited about my new adventure.

Four months in, and I am still settling into my new home. I miss my friends and my family every day, but I am also making connections with people in my new community and trying to contribute to the Restless Writers from afar.

Making it work

As Sharon said in her previous post, Restless Across the Miles, long distance relationships take work. But keeping those ties strong is important, so we are making the effort. We have cobbled together a system that works for us. We rely on different kinds of communications technology to keep us connected–from email and texting, to Google Duo and FaceTime. That, and our ongoing dedication to helping each other become better writers, is keeping the spark alive.

It’s not always perfect. The last time I joined a meeting with FaceTime, Beckie said it was a bit like being joined by a robot, with my disembodied face peering from the iPad duct-taped to my customary spot at the table. I have missed the odd joke because of a technical glitch. I have to keep my devices charging or our connection will cut out mid-critique. I definitely miss toasting my friends with prosecco in person, and my virtual attendance means none of Sharon’s baked goods for me. (Insert crying emoji here.)

A change will do you good

But there is also a positive side to me being the Restless Writer who has gone walk-about. I like to think that my long-distance perspective helps to bring new thinking to everyone’s writing. I know it has brought something new to my own. A change can jar you out of your typical habits or patterns of thought, and bring something new to your craft.

A physical move expands your horizons both literally and figuratively—which can ultimately make you a better writer. For me, I am learning to be sensitive to the things that make different regions distinct—and that’s the kind of thing that can give my writing colour and authenticity.

Regional vocabulary is one example. Skookum. Bougie. A skiff of snow. Kootenay time. I am learning new words and phrases that I could use to make dialogue featuring a local character ring true. Place names are also foreign to me—but I am starting to understand when someone talks about “the Valley” or “the Junction.”

The things that people do for fun are new to me too. On any given day, you can make a quick visit to the hot springs, take in a quirky burlesque show in town, or play in legendary powder at a local ski resort.

The natural environment is completely different out here. Growing up on the shores of Lake Ontario meant that I took some things for granted—the morning sun rising slowly and brilliantly over the still water; the gentle rise and fall as you follow the road over the Escarpment; the “lake-effect snow” that makes Ontario highways so treacherous.

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Here, my surroundings continue to surprise me. Like how the mountains look ever-more surreal as I try to follow their smoky march north. How the falling snow gets back-lit by the halo of a street-light. How precisely the river reflects back the treeline. How the snow berm on the mountain pass can tower metres over cars driving through. How the sunshine seems to reach the bottom of the valley for only a few hours a day, and only a few days of the week. Did I mention all the snow?

Small-town BC is very different from suburban Ontario. For example, where once I could shop in happy anonymity at one of the big supercentres in the GTA, here I can’t walk a block without running into three people I know. “Business casual” means something very different out here—Blundstone boots, down jackets, and toques are all included in what is appropriate in the workplace.

There’s a grit to people here. Independent spirit and a yearning for solitude, yes. But also true caring and engagement, a sense that we are all in this together. I am learning more about my new community—and appreciating it more—every day.

Disruption and making it new

Disrupt it all

My job as a writer is to take note of the people around me. Not just what they wear or how they talk, but the things they care about and what makes them tick. I want to know what brought them to this place, and what keeps them here. What makes this community thrive? And what secrets does it hold? Anything that jolts you into looking at the world with fresh eyes can help you do this.

You probably don’t have to make a 3,000-kilometre move to disrupt your way of thinking, but hey, I like to go all-in.

I can use my fresh perspective to capture what makes this place so distinct, to think differently about the people and the world around me, and to ultimately tell a great story. Hopefully I can bring a bit of that “make it new” insight to the Restless Writers too.

With warm wishes from out west,

Maria

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#HappyEverything

It’s 2018. Screw resolutions. Especially the expected and traditional ones.

Instead, let’s view the new year as a fresh start, a way to share in the spirit of renewal with friends and family. There is something exhilarating about a new year. It can represent new opportunities and new stabs to improve ouGOTOMTGRWrselves and to be better towards others.

Looking back, 2017 was an eventful year for the Restless Writers. Probably the most jarring was that one of us moved across the country (like, super far away). After the initial shock (that it really happened), we swiftly figured out Google’s Duo App to be able to keep our monthly get-together inclusive. This resulted in duct-taping our writing pal (and phone) to the back of a wooden chair. Phew, still a foursome.

We celebrated weddings. A first (just babes at barely 30). And a second (a duo rocking 80). Both teary (for reasons unique), yet happy and joyful like a wedding ought to be. The message here—love like there is no tomorrow. Let’s all live this one in 2018.

We attended funerals. We mourned friends and loved ones. And continue to do so.

We also made stuff. Cool stuff, like nachos in a Bundt pan (thank you, Pinterest). Healthy stuff, like kale and quinoa salad. Sad stuff, like flower arrangements and picture boards. Comfort stuff, like chocolate chip cookies and gooey brie puff pastry. Festive stuff, like trees made from plastic spoons and paper stars made from an old dictionary.

RW stuff

We performed stuff. Personal stuff. Fearlessly, among friends. And discovered the “central moment of powerful truth.”

We wrote stuff too. Poems. Chapters. Resumes. Sympathy cards. Obits.

We received more rejection emails. Some encouraging, some downright icy.

Oh! How can I forget about a fun first for us—we planned a one-day writing retreat. Soon to be an annual event!

And as usual, we continued to talk business plans, value proposition, refining our brand, “setting up shop,” craft markets, Etsy, Amazon Handmade, and loads of other creative pursuits because, let’s face it girls, we will never quit our daydreams. Not ever.

On that note, may this new year give you the opportunity to renew, to love, and to follow your daydreams.

Happy New Year. Happy Everything!

daydream

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Restless Across the Miles

“I just wanted to let you know that I miss you. I’m running around today but I’ll try to call you tonight.”

That’s an actual email from a former beau. We met in our last year of university and upon graduation, found ourselves in a long distance relationship when he headed home to the west coast and I stayed in Ontario. We made it work for a year with visits every few months and regular phone calls until a brunette in his post graduate program caught his eye. Laura or Linda, what was her name? It definitely started with an “L” – not that I’m still peeved about it or anything 20 years later.

After we broke up, I lost 10 pounds in two weeks, unemployed and sequestered in my parents’ basement for large spans of time as the upstairs hardwood floors were being refinished. The sadness and varnish fumes overwhelmed me in equal parts and right then and there I knew I’d never be party to another long distance relationship.

Until now.

The Restless Writers are going long distance! That’s right, our fearless Maria has headed west for some big adventures. While we couldn’t be happier for her, there’s no escaping that the move brings with it some changes for our small RW family.Screen Shot 2017-11-30 at 11.34.53 PM

The sound of the ‘clink’ from our congratulatory prosecco glasses had barely faded before each of us began rhyming off the pieces we’d have to work out. Meetings. Retreats. The general merriment and ease that comes from meeting together once a month for more than five years – what would happen to all of that?

The truth is, we don’t know. BUT. That is not stopping us from diving in to find out.

Based on my experience with the above mentioned long-distance love, I feel like I have some good insights that might be helpful as we embark on this journey.

Embrace technology – Unlike 1996, when I relied on a fax machine (a fax machine people!) to send letters back and forth to my paramour, 2017 is looking A LOT brighter when it comes to options for bridging the distance. We’ll be connecting virtually for our meetings and would like to use something that is reliable, easy to use and free. After looking at a few options, we are going with Google’s Duo app – the FaceTime of the Android world. We have downloaded it to our mobile devices, tested it and we’re ready to go.

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Mind the time change – While we’re settling in for an evening of nibbles and pages in the Eastern Standard time zone, Maria will just be coming off her lunchtime nap. And by the time evening reaches Maria, the RWs will be heading for bed (except for Beckie, she’s a night owl). Sometimes, being a few hours apart can make it feel like there is just never a good time to connect. To help, we’ve kept our first virtual meet up to our regular start time but we may have to play around with this as we go.

Communication is key – This virtual RW thing is new for all of us and there are bound to be some stops and starts. My hope is that if we can be open and honest about what is working and what isn’t, we’ll be able to find our way through.

Be wary if Maria mentions a new friend whose name starts with “L” – Unlike my former beau and the arrival of terrible Linda or Laura, we are excited for Maria to make new friends. And wouldn’t it be cool if some of those friends were writerly types. Maybe we could even Brady-Bunch it and have a big meet up.

There’s lots to be sorted out but we’re on our way. Our first meeting since the move is in a few days so we’ll be sure to report back to share how it’s going.

If any of you have experience with being a part of a long distance writing group we’d love to hear how you coordinate along with any other ideas you might have for us as we begin this new chapter. See what I did there? 🙂

Stay tuned…

 

 

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Get thee to Stratford for writing inspiration and instruction this fall

Bridge over Avon River, Stratford, Ontario by Ken Lund

The Restless Writers are suckers for writing retreats and conferences, so we are super stoked to help spread the word about exciting opportunities this fall for writers to hear from award-winning authors and dig deeper into their own projects.

Attend all or part of a writers’ festival

If you haven’t made plans yet to attend the Stratford Writers Festival, what the heck are you doing with your life? It’s happening October 20-22, 2017, in Stratford, Ontario.

This year’s line-up includes events and sessions with authors including Heather O’Neill, Scaachi Koul, Kerry Clare, Jennifer Robson, Glenn Dixon, Eden Robinson and Terry Fallis. The venues are all in downtown Stratford, so expect to be inspired not just by the special guests but also by the surroundings.

Visit the Stratford Writers Festival website for all the details or buy your tickets today.

Sign up for a writing retreat

If—woe betide!—you can’t make the festival but still want to gain inspiration and instruction for your own writing, check out the Write Now Retreats taking place on October 23-25 and October 30-November 1.

The Write Now Retreats are open to writers at any stage in their work. Whether you’re still at the idea stage or you have the words “The End” in sight, you will benefit from these intimate and insightful sessions.

There are four different retreats available for registration:

  • Writing Technique and Creativity Retreat with Kim Echlin, October 23-25
  • Memoir Writing Retreat with Alison Wearing, October 23-25
  • Finesse Your Next Draft Writing Retreat with Farzana Doctor, October 30-November 1
  • How to Write a Cookbook Retreat with Theresa Albert, October 30-November 1

The retreats provide instruction from award-winning authors who also teach regularly, access to one-on-one coaching with the instructor, creativity techniques to keep up the momentum on your projects, support from fellow writers, time to write, and world-class accommodations in downtown Stratford.

There is a comprehensive list of FAQs on the Write Now Retreat website where you can learn more.

I’ve got my eye on the retreat with Kim Echlin. Which one speaks to you and your goals? Check out the website for all the details, and register soon—there are only a limited number of spots.

Go the DIY route

If you don’t have the time or resources to attend these structured writing events, take a tip from the Restless Writers and plan your own one-day retreat. Wherever you are in your writing or your life, you can make space to pursue your creative goals.

Happy writing!

Maria

Photo: Bridge over Avon River, Stratford, Ontario, by Ken Lund, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

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