Why connect with the blank page?

A blank page can be comforting and calming or plain intimidating and inhibiting. It has the capacity to absorb or expose everything from your anxieties and your sorrows, your fears and your worries, to your joys and your amusements. Its capacity is infinite. It can be a non-judgmental friend, a confidante, a buddy, a casual acquaintance or brutally honest critique…it can be anything you want it to be. Some find it therapeutic to pour their anxieties onto a blank page. Your secrets are safe on this page, if that’s what you desire. The lure of the blank page is seductive…yet we let fear dampen our impulse to connect and liberate us from the shackles of the mind. And it prevents us from getting started.

What is mindfulness writing?

How does it kick start your writing? How does it release your creative energy? How does it bring you closer to your inner self? How does it bring out your authentic voice?

Mindfulness,according to Jon Kabat Zinn, the founder and director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Preventive and Behavioral Medicine, means:

“paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality. It wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. If we are not fully present for many of those moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives but also fail to realize the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth and transformation.”

The regular practice of mindfulness orientates us to be fully present in the ‘now’. It can kick start, improve or deepen our writing. When we are not fully present, we may fail to see the moment for what it is as we are blocked by baggage from the past or expectations and speculations of the future. We may miss the early morning dew that catches the rays of the sun and illuminates the bush in all its splendour. We miss the opportunity to translate precious moments into words, phrases and sentences that can make for compelling stories seen through lenses that are uniquely ours. According to Jon Kabat Zinn:

“A diminished awareness of the present moment inevitably creates other problems for us as well through our unconscious and automatic actions and behaviors, often driven by deep seated fears and insecurities.”

When we are not fully present in the ‘now’, the inner critique looms larger than life preventing us from getting started. Confessions on a blank page or behind closed curtains may not be easy because we are brutal and unforgiving of ourselves. Mindfulness practice gets you to look at yourself with compassion. If you can’t love yourself how can you expect to love others and give of yourself generously to others.

Cultivating and nurturing with intentionality the way we live from day to day can make a difference to the way we perceive ourselves and handle the problems we have at the present moment. Jon Kabat Zinn stresses:

“This moment is all we really have to work with.”

Unless we learn to appreciate the gift of this moment…of being fully alive…

“These problems tend to build over time if they are not attended to and can eventually leave us feeling stuck and out of touch. Over time, we may lose confidence in our ability to redirect our energies in ways that would lead to greater satisfaction and happiness, perhaps even to greater health.”

We can see how being fully present in the moment can ignite our writing with authentic ways of seeing that we seek as writers.

Writing Mindfully…Alone or in a Group? – Writing Alone

My earliest memories of writing poems was always alone. It was the early 80s, I was fresh out of university. I saw myself as a brooding poet full of angst waiting to unleash her emotions in verse. I always wrote alone. It had something to do with the way I perceived writers and writing then. I looked at the way Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake and many of the Romantic writers wrote. I believed poetry was the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…tak(ing) its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” What I found most appealing was the writer “recollecting in tranquility”, in meditative silence, surrounded only by rolling hills, daffodil fields and luminous lakes placid and calm, before writing.

So, I wrote. It was a solitary exercise. I poured my thoughts onto the blank page. I re-read my pieces and would spend days re-reading and re-working my poems. After a year, I was the proud mother of more than thirty poems. I did not for a moment consider getting a response from family, friends or even my colleagues who were literature teachers. Why? Today I realise, it was because of the fear of rejection. It is easier to write and re-write without subjecting your art to public scrutiny. There is no right or wrong, correct or incorrect…they may love it or not but ‘REJECTION’ was a hugely disturbing thought. Strangely, it was easier to send my anthology to a publisher. I did. After months of silence, I called them to enquire if they had received the poems that I had mailed. “Yes, we received them! But, nobody reads poems anymore. We are sorry but we won’t be publishing them.” Two days later, I received the official letter by mail. It was the same story but in black and white. It was a big blow to my ego. I stopped writing!

Writing together…with others

Twenty five years later, in 2013, I was posted to the English Language Institute of Singapore (ELIS) as a Master Teacher or Teacher Educator. As part of a move to cultivate and nurture great teachers of writing in Singapore schools, ELIS set up the Singapore Writing Institute (SWI) in the same year. The vision, mission and principles behind the teaching of writing were inspired by the National Writing Project (NWP) in the United States. I was fortunate to be one of the pioneer members of the SWI organizing committee. We organized and facilitated Writing Retreats for about fifteen to twenty teacher leaders thereafter, every year. This endeavour was meant to build a community of teachers of writing interested in honing their teaching skills to get students to enjoy writing their own stories, in a distinguishably authentic voice. For me, it was an amazing journey. I was totally committed to the course because I believed in it.

In my first year at ELIS, I joined the SWI Writing Retreat as a participant. We had an inspiring facilitator from one of the NWP sites in the United States. During the two week retreat, I wrote together with the teacher leaders and facilitator. We shared our writing, and so did the facilitator who wrote with us. One of the beliefs, fundamental to NWP was that teachers of writing had to themselves write. They had to experience the joys, fears and struggles of a writer to have a deeper understanding of what writing entailed. Protocols were also put in place to create a safe environment for writing. We needed to be fully present during the discussions and sharing sessions. Many of the activities were not just cognitive but social. It involved not just writing but interacting with other writers, and responding to each other’s writing before re-writing first drafts.

It was the first time, I wrote and shared my first draft with people I hardly knew. I felt vulnerable sharing my first draft, written quickly and freely without worrying about grammar, spelling or punctuation. But, I was not alone. You needed to embrace your vulnerability. It required trust, the most important ingredient to build a community. But, it also developed tolerance for imperfection, and motivation to improve the first draft in stages. It shifted many of our beliefs about writing. For many of us in the teaching fraternity, teaching writing was synonymous to assigning writing. Teacher comes to class. Teacher writes question on the board. Teacher announces, “You have an hour to complete your writing”. Teacher collects the assignments at the end of the hour. Teacher corrects, comments and gives a grade before handing them back to the students.

Writing is meant to be a process. At the Writing Retreat, we indulged each other with our responses. It opened the writer’s eyes to how a reader would view the writing, still in its infancy. We made improvements to our writing tirelessly until we were happy to abandon our writing. I enjoyed the process immensely.

It dawned on me that though poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge would have sought their own private solitary spaces to write, they did share their initial writing with their friends who would then indulge the writer with their responses. Even in the classical age, many writers wrote for the literati and received praise or rejection from their counterparts first before publishing their work. Writing as a social activity, in a community of writers, can provide immeasurable satisfaction and joy.Responses from peers can be full of surprise and offer writers gems of ideas to help move the writing forward. It keeps the writer interested in making revisions to their writing for longer periods of time.

Writing Mindfully in a group is known to have clear benefits.

  • It provides you with the impetus to calm your restless mind and meditate, as the session is guided by a teacher, and dictated by time and space. On your own, the meandering mind may take you to the kitchen or the comfort of the bed. Alone, it becomes easier for you to give up this challenging pursuit because you are accountable to none. So, being in a group may allow for the start of good habits until you find your own rhythm.
  • It provides you with opportunities to connect and interact with people like you who have responded to the call of adventure to meditate and write.
  • It provides you with an audience for your writing in a safe non-judgmental environment. You have opportunities to share your first writing and feel the vulnerability that every writer experiences as you anticipate a response with bated breath. It builds courage and resilience that you will need as you grow as a writer.
  • Last but not least, when even one person in the group reaches a deep meditative state, it tends to permeate the space and hold it at a higher level causing everyone to enjoy the peace and calm, much needed for writing.

As a teacher of writing for many years, I’ve seen how the practice of Mindfulness even in the simple attention to the breath for a few minutes before writing can have wonderful outcomes.

When fear of judgment or rejection threatens to blind and throttle the creative impulse to write, it is better to join a group. As they say, you will find safety in numbers, connecting with likeminded individuals equally vulnerable and eager to beat the inner critique.

So, don’t wait: join a group or create one, and be part of a transformative experience! It will help you express your stories in your own deep authentic voice, in a safe and compassionate environment.

Shalini Damodaran is passionate about writing and coaching others to write. She was a teacher educator, specialised in the teaching of writing at the English Language Institute of Singapore.
Shalini Damodaran is passionate about writing and coaching others to write. She was a teacher educator, specialised in the teaching of writing at the English Language Institute of Singapore.
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