Reflections On Writing
Sep 15 2021
In January 2021, I received a 'Developing Your Creative Practice' (DYCP) grant from Arts Council England, to pay for support, inspiration and time to focus on my writing practice. Having come to the end of this project, here's some reflections about what I've learned.
The Mindful Play Handbook – The Background
Wanting to find ways to share my Mindful Play practice with the world, I've been intermittently working on a handbook of Mindful Play since 2014. The book is part textbook, part memoir, part self-help book and part guide book for group leaders (some may say that's too many parts and they might be right, it could be that I'm writing four different books!).
I've been squeezing my writing in around all my many teaching, directing and facilitation projects for the last seven years. This grant (my first successful Arts Council grant in over a decade) was to allow me time and space to make writing my main focus. It would also enable me to bring in support in the form of playful collaborators and stimulating input from fellow facilitators. The plan was to pull together all my bits of writing and develop them into something I might present to a publisher.
My intentions were (1.) to find a better relationship with my writing (this may surprise you as I write all these blogs all the time, but yes, I have struggled with writing throughout my life because I am either (a.) dyslexic or (b.) thick – I never got tested, just in case it's the latter.) and (2.) to find a more playful tone, through exploring body-based and nature-connected approaches to writing.
To kick off the process, I'd planned to start with a writing retreat at the Arvon writers' retreat centre, up in the rugged, rural North of England. But Covid had other ideas! As the UK went back into lockdown, I sought out alternative external support. I signed up to online courses with Zen Clown, Mosche Cohen (The Inner Clown), Playful Somatic Instructor, Rachel Blackman (Meditations for Soothing and Softening) and Spiritual Imp, Martin Aylward (Dimensions of Not Knowing). Inspired by these teachings, I found ways to integrate bodywork, mindfulness and play into my daily writing schedule.
Learning What I Can Do To Support My Writing
I kept a daily log of my writing process, charting the highs, lows and learnings of each day. Through trial, error and reflection, I discovered what helps me sustain my writing practice:
I thrive within a strict writing schedule.
I need a clear list of missions, with permission to undertake them in any way that tickles my fancy in the moment– post-it notes, flip chart and felt tips, talking out loud, journalling or sitting at a computer.
I bloody love deadlines!
I made sure I scheduled in meditation, movement and outside time throughout the day, every day, this helped me stay centred and shake myself out of unhelpful states of mind.
I took many mini-breaks throughout the days to tune into my body, listen to its wisdom and attend to its needs. When I'm connected with my body, my writing is more authentic and I am able to reach my intuition more easily.
I brought in trusted collaborators who could meet me in the mess of the work (8 playful facilitators to test out the exercises and one kind reader). As an extravert who thrives on connection, I really needed collaborators in the process with me! It took some work to convince my inner critic that this wasn't cheating (he has an outdated idea about writers needing to suffer in solitude and misery...).
I wrote a blog about Cultivating The Conditions For Creativity if you'd like to see what else I discovered.
To overcome doubt, fear and writers' block throughout this project (which there was a lot of), I've been developing and refining a technique of fooling / internal dialoguing on the page. This involves tuning into the internal voices at play (eg the Inner Critic, Vulnerability and Compassion) and writing a live script of their conversations, giving them space to work out what's causing the difficultly and come up with solutions. You can see a snippet of this process here.
This internal dialoguing technique was vastly improved when I introduced the voice of the Project Manager into the mix. She's a bit of a no-nonsense ball-breaker who helps to balance out the gentle acceptance of Compassion. Don't get me wrong, Compassion is useful in many ways, but not particularly dynamic in relationship with the Critic it seems. The Project Manager brings spread sheets and gantt charts and deadlines and blue sky solutions to the table. We've discovered that my Inner Critic needs to be met with both the softness of Compassion and the dynamism of The Project Manager in order to relinquish control. He can then leave me alone and get on with writing his own book (“All The Ways That Holly Is A Stupid Dickhead”), which I can tell you is a pretty tiresome read, but I can see he's in process and I respect him for that.
Playmates in The Process
In February, to try out some of the exercises from my book, I invited a focus group of 8 playful facilitators to meet on Zoom once a week for four weeks. Through meditation, play and discussion, we explored the main themes of my book; Play, Flow, Spontaneity and Connection. These sessions shaped and fuelled my writing. Each week I had a few days to plan a session, before presenting it in whatever form it was in. Did I mention I love deadlines? The group jumped into the activities with their hearts wide open.
Because writing was very much in the ether, I found myself integrating more creative writing into The Mindful Play sessions, which led to the participants writing an incredible collection of poetry. They gave me permission to publish their poetry on this here blog.
After each session the participants would send me their considered feedback, which helped me to tweak the session plans and write them up with a view for other people to use. The questions the group asked me on the feedback form inspired a whole new chapter, called “Advice for Group Leaders.” I have a sneaking suspicion that this IS the book and all the stuff I've been slaving over for the last 7 years was merely the warm up, ha ha!
An Unscheduled Break
In March and April, I had to take a break from writing to take care of myself after personal tragedy struck. I spent time in nature, exploring surrender as the key to accessing creativity, grief and beauty. Of course, I wrote a blog all about that.
My First Ever Reader!
I came back to the writing in May, with the support of my first ever reader, Bee Golding. I was originally supposed to have four readers, but the idea of having all those eyes on my embryonic work caused a massive writer's block at the beginning of my project. After some dialoguing with my inner voices, we (me and my inner voices) chose to collaborate with just one reader who we know and trust. Bee is my Radministrator and Poet-In-Residence as well as being an editor and a writer in her own right.
The plan was for me to work on a chapter a week, then send it over to Bee to read and try out the exercises. Then she'd send me the annotated chapter back in the post and we'd meet on Zoom to discuss her feedback. I'd have my sweet sweet deadlines (yay!) and a friend in the process with me (whoopee!).
Of course life is never as neat as I'd like it to be! Bee and I quickly fell out of sync with each other and I was marooned in a sea of my own words. This is an overly dramatic description, signifying my enormous need for connection within my creative process! Thankfully, I am lucky to know a lot of writers, so I sought out their support in the form of unsolicited wingeing, moaning and huffing about my stupid book. When they told me about their peculiar relationships with writing (writers really are particularly eccentric), I felt like I was in a gang, which spurred me on to keep going.
When Bee and I finally caught up with each other, her feedback was astute, clear, kind and encouraging. She sent me “well done” stickers with every chapter.
The Mindful Play Inquiry
In June, I decided to run the Mindful Play sessions again online. I wasn't expecting them to work so well online, but the glowing focus group feedback in February encouraged me to develop them further, rebranding them to The Mindful Play Inquiry, shuffling some exercises around and adding an extra session up front, exploring the theme of 'Resilience.' This was to help the group prepare for the depth of inquiry to follow. I ran the new series of 5 sessions on Zoom for a group of 12 people from around the globe. This kept me connected with the subject matter and helped me keep going with the writing.
Another Unscheduled Break
In July, more personal tragedy meant I needed to take more time off from my writing. I spent more time in nature and wrote more about surrender which seems to be becoming the theme of my year.
A Garden Writing Retreat
In August, for the final part of my DYCP project, I attended a garden writing retreat at Bee's house. Bee had received her own DYCP grant to explore her poetry and decided to open up her garden to fellow writers for a week, as part of it. We met every morning for a cup of tea and a check in – each stating our intentions for the day. We then “bagsied” our own writing spots in various sheds, gazebos or at outdoor tables (Bee made a map of all the spots so we didn't get lost). We did whatever we needed to do until lunch, then we shared food and stories, laughter and tears before heading back to our spots for the afternoon. At 5pm we met to celebrate our achievements, with enthusiastic peels of hand bells, “ding ding ding!”
While the other writers came and went, giving themselves and each other permission to read, wander in the park and take naps in tents, I sat in a small blue potting shed (pictured at the top of this blog, known as The Plotting Shed) and put myself through some sort of military book-writing bootcamp. I was on a mission to GET WRITING DONE! And I did. I got to the end of the book!
What Did I Get Out Of The Project?
Unfortunately, the book isn't at a point where I am ready to approach publishers. I still need to do one more draft, but I've learned so much about my writing process, I feel like I've got everything I need to get there.
Discovering the conditions that support my writing has improved my tone and brought me a new level of confidence in my skills as a writer. This will enable me to carry on working on the book, keep on blogging and will maybe even open doors to writing for other online and print publications (oooh that makes me feel a bit funny inside to say out loud, but I like it).
The two unscheduled breaks meant that the project took longer than initially planned (it was supposed to finish in May) but I think my writing benefitted from the space. This year's tragedies have brought a deeper understanding of the power of surrender, which feels key to making my writing practice sustainable. I'm understanding more and more that creativity needs a balance effort and surrender and I'm grateful for the opportunities to learn about this in an embodied way.
I now have a carefully constructed and fully road-tested series of 5 online Mindful Play workshops, which I can offer again through my own networks or as a guest facilitator elsewhere.
I have already found ways of sharing the supportive nature-inspiration, body-based practices and internal dialoguing technique with other writers and artists. I will continue to share these practices informally and formally, perhaps devising a new workshop just for writers...
It was incredibly useful to have this extensive time to interrogate my facilitation practice. It helped me to get clearer about what I instinctively do and ponder on why I do it. This has strengthened my facilitation practice and increased my confidence in talking about the theory underpinning my work. This is already helping me be more eloquent in media interviews, podcasts and panel discussions, all of which are useful ways of reaching new audiences.
This project has directly led me to designing my first 3-month facilitator training course for autumn 2021, called The Well-Held Space. My dream is to develop this course into a longer, accredited training. I am chuffed to bits to be taking my first steps towards that.
I have plotted in time to keep writing the book and once I've completed another draft, I will approach publishers. I feel like I have something to offer that will be useful to other people and I'm committed to keep going!
I'm so grateful to Arts Council England for funding this time, to my playful collaborators Dominique, Aisha, Chez, Ed, Zoe, Jules, Naomi and Angela for jumping in with me, to big-hearted eagle-eyed Bee for all that you are and all that you give, to all the other other writers that I've shared the pain and pleasure of writing with, to all the inspiring facilitators that have sparked my joy and wonderment, to my clinical supervisor, Tone for supporting with the workshop design and to all my friends and family for cheering me on.
Click here to read about how I overcame my first bout of writer's block
Click here for top tips for curating the conditions for creativity.
Click here for reflections and poems from February's Mindful Play lab.
Click here to read about what I discovered about the role of surrender in creativity, grief and opening to beauty.
Click here to find out what nature taught me about how to surrender.