Monthly Archives: June 2013

Books that will change your life: “Writing Down the Bones – Freeing the Writer Within”

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Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg is one book I can honestly credit for helping me start this blog.

Packed with advice for new writers, it inspired me to write from the heart, and its simple but powerful lessons are still with me today.

The book

The book is a collection of very short essays on writing, which the author wrote during her years of teaching creative writing to children and adults of all sorts of backgrounds. It is pleasantly informal and non-theoretical – each chapter is illustrated by stories from her own lifeor students she’s come across.

Subjects range from how to chose a good pen and paper, to how to write something new every day, or look at things differently to find inspiration everywhere. Chapters have charming titles like “Writing is not a McDonald’s hamburger” or “A large field to wander in”. The tone is poetic, intimate and often funny, so that you end up learning a great deal without even trying.

The big idea

What makes the difference between this book and many others on writing, is that the author is a dedicated student of zen. She approaches writing like a meditation, and as well as telling you what or how to write, her focus is very much on your state of mind as you are writing.

Like Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Wayshe encourages you to free-write every day as a practice, writing whatever comes to your head without stopping to re-read or correct anything, to help you find your flow. This teaches you to write before you have any chance to think, and it is a powerful method to help you distinguish between what comes from your head and what comes from your heart. It teaches you to “watch the thinker” within you and realise when you say something meaningful, and when you are just waffling on.

Why it will change your life 

One of the challenges we face as new writers is finding our own voice – overthinking and self-criticizing are common pitfalls, and as a beginner you are likely to get discouraged when you see how far you have to go to get as good as your favourite writer. Many of us might also worry that what we want to say is not what we should be saying. We edit as we go, and as a result what we see on the page is often a watered-down version of what we meant to write.

By learning to write down the “bones” – the strong ideas that come from your heart and will remain the solid foundations for your stories (even when you do go to editing stage) you become more creative and more free. You become able to say what you really want to say deep down. This makes you a happier person, but also it makes your writing much more powerful and convincing.

This book is worth a read not only if you want to improve your writing, but also if you are curious to explore your creativity, as well as excellent meditation methods that don’t involve sitting still on a cushion until your bum hurts.

Do what you want, not what you feel like

P1050115 low resFollowing the instant enlightenment provided by last week’s “fuck it therapy”, my days were brightened even more this week by another poignant truth, courtesy of glaswegian coach Ali Campbellsuccessful people do what they WANT, not what they FEEL LIKE.

The reason this resonated so much with me is that I‘m one of those (you might say annoying) people who are very much into feelings – not only my own, but everyone else’s too. On the upside, this means I am usually atune to other people’s needs, which makes me considerate and empathetic. On the downside of course, I tend to do things according to whether I feel like doing them or not, so more often that I care to admit I find myself checking my private email at work, watching TV instead of doing chores, or eating biscuits instead of dieting. 

Which would be fine if I made a point of enjoying those more restful activities – and I often do – but too often they leave me with an unpleasant mix of guilt for being lazy and shame at my lack of willpower. My Mum summed it up best when I was little: “shake off your laziness and go do something.”

That’s when this new mantra comes in handy. By reminding myself to do what I want, not what I feel like, I get a double-kick up the proverbial backside:

1. It reminds me that the end goal (being great at my job, having a lovely house, being able to button my trousers) is actually something I aspire to, not something anyone else is forcing upon me. It makes me feel grow-up and capable – plus by the same token it gives me permission to discards other things I don’t want.

2.  It also reminds me that by taking the lazy option, the only person I’m letting down is myself… which is not a very nice prospect.

Empowering, uh?

This is not to say that you should never rest, or watch telly, or take a break from work. But it’s basically a gentle reminder that you’re in charge of your own life, and whatever choice you make throughout the day will affect the end result. So instead of bemoaning having to do chores like I often do, I should rejoice that they are a way to my end goal, and enjoy the process that leads me to it.

Incidentally, this has also helped me understand why wise people say you should know what your values are. Perhaps you crave truth, or authenticity, or beauty or calm? I used to think it was just an abstract thing, but I’m begining to see that if you truly WANT any of these things, the choice is yours at any minute between them and the lazy option.

I know what you’re thinking… simple, but by no means easy.

F**k it therapy

P1050362 low resIn almost everything in life, I tend to think simple is best. Think of the amazing food combinations involving two ingredients only: bread+butter, pasta+olive oil, tomato+basil, wine+cheese, prawn+mayonnaise, and I am sure you could add plenty to the list. (In fact if you can, please do share with me in the comments so I can have a try. I am not greedy, I’m food-curious).

Anyway, I’ve recently come across the excellent “F**k It” book by John C Parkin, which reminded me of this awsome “simple is best” theory. The idea behind the book is both deceptively simple and supremely powerful. So powerful in fact, that it’s already begun to change my life before I’ve even read it. I only heard the author present it in a talk at the Hay House Summit the day before yesterday, and I’m already a convert.

The F**k it philosophy is not about being rude (although that’s fun too!), it’s about realising that sometimes we worry too much about trivial stuff, and that we do have the power to stop it. From minor annoyances to bigger decisions, stress and overthinking can affect our lives in major ways, and especially for those of us prone to analysis paralysis (you know who you are), it’s all too easy wasting precious time fretting what if this or that and losing our wellbeing over it. We get scared, we get grumpy, we get stuck, we lose sleep. Even for people who don’t consider themselves particularly neurotic, the pace of our modern lives means there is usually room for some degree of relaxation.

All you need to do to apply the f**k it philosophy is this: whenever you catch yourself worrying out of proportion about anything, just say “Fuck it” and move on. Just this. You can start small, and you can start now. I started yesterday by paying attention to some of the basic overthinking that goes on in my average working day (because such an exciting life I lead):

I should really hurry, I will be 5 min late for this meeting, people will think I’m unreliable >> Fuck it, I’ll take my time, no one will even notice 5 minutes delay

Shouldn’t I try to wear something smarter to the office, I look like I’m dressed to go to the beach and I look stupid >> Fuck it, it’s the sunniest day of the year and I’ll bloody well wear gold sandals if I like it

I really fancy going home on time but all my colleagues are putting in several hours overtime everyday >> Fuck it, it’s their choice and I’ll work better tomorrow if I’ve had a rest

And so just like that, I was able to reclaim little bits of happiness which would otherwise have escaped me had I not said “fuck it”. Such is the power of it.

This simple technique cuts short the overthinking and invites us to action. It allows us to let go and move on. It boosts our self confidence. It reminds us that it’s okay to do what we like, once in a while.

It is not about being selfish, or becoming mean to people, or ignoring the important things in our lives. It’s about freeing more time and energy to focus on what truly matters, by not wasting it on things that don’t.

It’s about silencing the voices in our head that like to criticise everything you do. It’s about knowing that you do enough, you are enough. 

Like I said, it’s powerful stuff. So is anything bugging you right now? Say “fuck it” and begin to taste freedom.

 

We are one

P1050280 low resPerhaps like other Westerners who are drawn to buddhist meditation for non-religious purposes (wellbeing, stress-busting, generally coping with modern life), I have a bit of a dilemna. Not being a buddhist myself, I feel there is only so much I can take in from the otherwise excellent meditation classes I have attended. The techniques themselves are great – much is focused on breathing, visualising, and feelings of kindness which are common to all human beings. The teachers are welcoming, patient and non-judgemental. But some of the concepts I just don’t get. Apart from the fact that I feel a bit of a fraud chanting in Sanskrit (which some of the classes include) without understanding a word, there are things that don’t make sense to my rational, European brain.

While some of the precepts are fairly universal (non-harming, loving-kindness), I particularly struggle with the idea that we are one, that no-one and nothing in the universe exists in separation from anything else. To me it sounds like saying “me” or “you” or any other living thing/ dead thing/ object are intimately related, and I cannot really say I get it. I wouldn’t argue whether it right or wrong as a concept – I just can’t work my head around it. In my mind, “I” am not “you”, and neither of us are the same as this chair, be it as it may that we are made of the same energy/ atoms/ elements, and however much I like both of you.

And still. If we look around us, the world is full of chances to see that everything is connected, in a way that even I can understand. As I sit at home writing this article and eating a delicious slice of chocolate cake I bough on the market, I try to think of everyone and everything that existed before this moment that made it possible for me to eat this cake. The Portuguese baker who runs the market stall. The ingredients and their provenance. The chocolate, the eggs, the milk. The cocoa beans, the cocoa tree and the people who planted them. The chicken, the cows, the farmers who tend to them. The grass the cows feed on. The rain that makes it grow, the clouds. The plate the cake is on, the spoon I eat it with, the people who designed and made them both. Our ancestors who invented eating from plates and spoons (somebody had to). The person who first had the idea to eat a cocoa bean. The person who first had the idea to bake it.

I begin to feel dizzy with the million connections and people and days and amounts of knowledge that enabled me to sit here and eat this cake. I realise this is not only true of this cake, but the computer I use, the chair I sit on, the clothes I wear. Everything in the house and outside of the house. Everything that comes from nature and everything that is man made. Everything I can see and everything I cannot see. Everything that is in your life, and everyone else’s. Everything connected to our parents, and their parents before them.

I feel grateful to everyone who put in so much effort. I feel humbled and small, and in awe of a world that provides us with so much. The milk, the grass, the cocoa beans. The people.

I feel grateful and I feel connected. I feel the energy of such a perfect system and I feel blessed to be part of it.

I begin to feel with my heart what my head won’t understand. Without the shadow of a doubt, we are one.