After 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Photo by Jonathan Pielmayer on Unsplash.