Writing for Mindfulness
‘In a dark time’, the poet Theodore Roethke wrote, ‘the eye begins to see.’ In this global crisis, one possible way of seeing the world – the landscapes of our inner life, as well as the events unfolding around us – is by writing about it. There is something about the cognitive process of translating thoughts, experience and ideas onto the page that allows us to make sense of them. Through writing, things shift: memories might surface, thoughts take on form; insights become clearer.
Writing offers a way of coming to terms with the challenges, struggles and fears — and, perhaps for some, the unexpected gifts — of the current lockdown. But where to start, especially if you don’t consider yourself to be a ‘writer’?
- Let go of the pressure to produce
For some, the loss of our usual social activities means we might have gained time. While we might feel pressure not to waste it, not everything we do in the lockdown needs to be an accomplishment. We can take the time to do something simply for itself. Writing doesn’t necessarily mean starting work on that novel we’ve always wanted to write (though if you want to do this, good on you!). We can use the time to write out of curiosity, for the pleasure of expression, to alleviate boredom, or from a desire to understand. It’s the process that is key.
In her ground-breaking book, The Artist’s Way, writer and creative mentor Julia Cameron advocates writing with pen or pencil and paper, connecting with the act of the hand moving across the page. This kind of stream-of-consciousness writing is very freeing. ‘Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid, or too weird to be included’, Cameron writes. If you’re worried about where to start, focusing on your senses is an excellent way in. Just write what you immediately notice — the quality of light coming in through the window, for example, or the sounds of the household or the street outside.
Then you do this, you’re writing for yourself, not for an audience. It’s a deep dive into self-discovery. There shouldn’t be any criticism or judgement. Spelling and punctuation don’t matter. There is no way you can get it ‘wrong.’
- Build a habit
Hopefully, this kind of writing will be enjoyable rather than exerting another pressure. Without getting too rigid about it, there can be something powerful about building a regular practice: like yoga or meditation or regular exercise, it can provide an anchor point.
Cameron recommends doing something she calls ‘morning pages’ — three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing — each day. Find yourself a notebook or a folder for loose-leaf paper. Find a good time to write (despite being called ‘morning pages’ you can do this writing any time in the day, though there is an advantage to doing it in the morning, when there is less distraction from the ‘thinking brain’). You might squeeze it in in the morning, before the kids wake up. You might do it between the end of a morning at your desk, before going out for a walk or a run. It doesn’t matter how much you produce. Loosen up. Have fun with it.
Another tool for expression is freewriting. It’s linked to the stream-of-consciousness method (same ‘rules’ apply – keep the hand moving, no criticism, don’t think, no need to ‘get it right’) but starts with a specific prompt or focus. I use this method a lot when I teach creative writing. It’s a brilliant warm up, and a creative meditation in its own right. I give students a starting prompt and a set amount of time in which to write (this is a brilliant trick for silencing the critical mind).
The starting prompt might be a single word (open a dictionary or other book at random and start from there), the start of a sentence, a fragment of a poem, a piece of music or an image (Pinterest or Google Images can provide good material). Set a timer. I’d suggest five minutes in the first instance, building to ten or fifteen as you get more comfortable. If you’re interested in exploring this method further, it’s worth checking out Natalie Goldberg’s books Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, both of which provide inspiration and practical exercises.
There’s an inherent mindfulness in the process of writing. It allows us an awareness of our own presence that can shore up resilience to adapt to our circumstances in times of difficulty. Writing is a form of deep listening. Ultimately, it’s a way of putting us more in touch with the experience — however joyful, confusing or painful — of being human.