In the Bleak Midwinter

Rachel Mann bookKeeping on the Christina Rossetti theme from my last post, I’ve been re-reading a wonderful book by Rachel Mann, an Anglican priest in my nearest city (Manchester, UK).

It’s a book of Advent devotionals using more than 30 of Rossetti’s poems. But they’re not really devotionals – not as I’ve been used to them anyway. Instead they’re more of an appreciation of the poetry of Christina Rossetti, and the part her strong faith played in their creation.

Having read through the book during last Advent I’m now working my way through again, and enjoying the insights Rachel provides, as well as the poems themselves.

I hadn’t read a huge amount of Rossetti before this book introduced me to such a wonderful selection of her poems. But now she’s a comfort and companion during this most extraordinary of Lents.

You can order Rachel’s book here, and of course through that there Amazon. Don’t be put off by the Advent-y-ness of it – it repays dipping in or reading through at any time of the year.


Poetry exchange

20200326_131209This week I’ve been taking part in a poetry exchange, which has been a wonderful way of keeping spirits up during our lockdown here in the UK.

Here is the one I chose to circulate:

Winter Rain by Christina Rossetti

Every valley drinks,
Every dell and hollow:
Where the kind rain sinks and sinks,
Green of Spring will follow.

Yet a lapse of weeks
Buds will burst their edges,
Strip their wool-coats, glue-coats, streaks,
In the woods and hedges;

Weave a bower of love
For birds to meet each other,
Weave a canopy above
Nest and egg and mother.

But for fattening rain
We should have no flowers,
Never a bud or leaf again
But for soaking showers;

Never a mated bird
In the rocking tree-tops,
Never indeed a flock or herd
To graze upon the lea-crops.

Lambs so woolly white,
Sheep the sun-bright leas on,
They could have no grass to bite
But for rain in season.

We should find no moss
In the shadiest places,
Find no waving meadow-grass
Pied with broad-eyed daisies;

But miles of barren sand,
With never a son or daughter,
Not a lily on the land,
Or lily on the water.

Advent with Merton

Poetry on Merton

I’m excited to let you know that three of my poems have appeared in the Advent issue of the Merton Journal.

It’s a real honour for me as I’ve been reading the Journal for years and Thomas Merton himself for decades.

I first came across Thomas Merton’s writing in a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye where I picked up one of his diaries for what seemed like an extravagant sum of £5, especially for a new-to-me writer. But, leaning against the floor-to-ceiling shelves of the shop I had lost track of time reading the honest words of someone whose doubts echoed mine.

That was the start of a decades-long relationship with Merton. My collection of his books now takes up two bookshelves. I am still missing some. I prefer to grow the collection organically, and even my husband has been trained to keep an eye out for Merton’s books as we mooch around second hand bookstores or browse random collections at charity shops.

One exception to that has been Merton’s poetry. I hadn’t really read much of his poetry until I was introduced to it by my writing mentor Matthew Lippman. Matthew set me some poems of his to as a starting point – a platform to bounce off – in my own writing. And I enjoyed them so much I bought the doorstop of his collected poems brand spanking new.

Merton continues to inspire me in his writing. In fact I have this photo above on my desk to encourage me. He stands there, smirking, at all the reasons I am about to come up with for not writing. And reminds me of his disciplined schedule and prolific output.

No excuses, he seems to say, get on and write! But first – God.

Yes. May I be like Merton in both respects.

Hanging baskets and the art of editing

Cascading surfiniaI keep a pair of scissors by my front door. Not because we live in a dodgy neighbourhood, but because they are the perfect tool when my writing has ground to a halt.

When I’ve reached the point where I’m groping for words or inspiration I walk downstairs, pick up the scissors and step out the front door. There I have two tubs and a hanging basket full off annuals, including beautiful cascades of surfinia.

I work round each tub quietly, mindfully, focussing all my attention on snipping off each dead or fading flower, giving the new blooms plenty of space to flourish. It reminds me of the editing and proof-reading process — trimming back extraneous words, chopping sub-clauses, giving phrases room to breathe. Does that sentence work? Could that be written more succinctly?

After a few minutes of mindful pruning my brain starts to unknot itself. The fog begins to lift. Words and phrases spark across my mind, and I realise it’s time to put the scissors down, close the door on the world and head back to my desk.

Writing through grief

My mum-in-law died a few days ago. And since then my urge to write as never been stronger. Clients have been surprised to receive work from me at such a time of grieving, but tapping away on the keyboard has brought me real solace. I wondered at first whether it is because writing is life-affirming, the chance to create/give birth to something. But I think more that this last week has helped me realise what’s important in my life. And that’s writing.

What I’ve also learned is that writing isn’t messing around on social media losing time listening to others and clicking on random links. It’s not posting to tell people how wonderful I am. No, it’s writing.

It’s not the ins and outs of running a business where you spend more time typing information into your accounts software than words on a page. No, it’s writing.

So, with this new-found impetus it’s goodbye to scanning the newspaper, LinkedIn or my email accounts (I have four!) before I settle down to work. Mornings will be for writing first, and the rest can wait (yes, I’ll let you know how that works out in reality…)

5 apps for distraction-free writing

Sometimes my butterfly brain frightens me. Easily disturbed it flutters from writing to LinkedIn to Twitter to writing, to googling something utterly random that’s popped into my head. Most days I despair of myself!

So, on the basis of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ I’ve been looking for ways to remove my most common distractions  – social media and the internet – and help me write more mindfully.

Here are the top five apps I found in my search:

1. Anti-social

Anti-social lets you allow your computer to block access to those sites you find most distracting. So, if you want to spend the next hour writing just turn on Anti-Social and schedule it for one hour. Simple. It costs $15 (around 9.50) and is available for Mac and Windows.

2. Write or Die

This app, for Windows and Mac, adopts a carrot and stick approach (it used to be all stick, but now recognises the importance of a little encouragement!). It costs $20 (around £13) and has several modes to choose from each time you sit down to write:

Reward mode
In reward mode you can adjust how frequently the program rewards you. Set a word count goal and tweak the incentive frequency slider to increase or decrease the frequency of rewards. You can also select photos as custom reward images – a perfect opportunity to use all those cute cat pictures you’ve been hoarding!

Stimulus mode
Stimulus mode provides a neutral, positive stimulus to keep you writing. When you stop writing, the nice environment goes away. You can choose from a variety of sounds and backgrounds to inspire you.

Consequence mode
Decide on your writing period and word goal. If you stop writing before you reach both of them there will be consequences. In Kamikaze mode, for example, if you stop writing your words become systematically disemvoweled (as painful as it sounds)!

3. SelfControl

This free application for Macs only blocks you from accessing the websites that distract you the most for the time period you choose. But beware, until that timer expires you won’t be able to access those sites — even if you restart your computer or delete the application.

4. PenandPaper

No, this isn’t really an app. It’s a tool. Sometimes, to get into the writing flow and stay there, we need to mix it up a bit. If your brain sees your laptop or Mac and automatically thinks “yay Facebook!”, then turning your laptop off and reverting to old school writing implements can be just the incentive you need to stay focussed. As a writer you’re probably rarely found without a pen and paper, so why not whip them out for some long-form writing, rather than just jotting down ideas?

5. OmmWriter

This is the app I have plumped for. It offers a lovely blank page for you to add character after character, carefully and mindfully, or rapidly with a blast of creativity.

You get to customise it in a few ways to suit you, eg the size of the text, tippy-tap keyboard noise and chill-out music. In fact the music is so nice sometimes I leave it playing while I’m pottering around the office doing admin.

Unlike the other options I’ve outlined above it doesn’t prevent you from visiting any websites. And that’s not a bad thing as sometimes we writers need access to all sorts of sites for research and fact-checking. Instead, the beauty and simplicity of the page quickly removes all other temptations from your mind until all you are left with is the purity of black characters appearing one after another. For me, OmmWriter allows me to inhabit another space – to go to my online writer’s room – where all that matters is the creation of words, and the demands of email, updates and blogs fall away.

It’s available for Mac, Windows and iPad and the suggested donation is a minimum of $5.11 (around £3.30).

So, that’s my top 5. What tools do you most favour to help you write more mindfully?

Disrupt to progress

In my office I have a print of Thich Nhat HanhThich nhat hanh, the Zen monk who has done much to bring mindfulness to the West. The same photo is the image on my desktop. In the picture he is holding a bowl on the tip of the fingers of his left hand, and the mallet ready to strike it (or invite it to sound, as he would say). His entire body is focussed completely on the place where the mallet will meet the bowl. It is a perfect example of mindfulness.

Every time I click an icon on my desktop, or slide my eyes away from the flickering pixels, I see Thay’s image, and it reminds me of how I would like to conduct my working life. Well, all my life come to that.

My other half works for a law firm where one of their mottos is ‘disrupt to progress’. And for me the images I have of Thay act like that. Glimpsing his image jolts me out of whatever stress/fantasy/story of the past I am immersed in, and brings me back to now – the click-clack of the keyboard; the appearance of the characters one after the other; moment by moment.

And I remember to breathe…

What do you use to ‘disrupt to progress’?

On not writing mindfully

It’s 9 O’Clock on Monday morning and already I’m gazing out of the window at the beautiful day outside. My laptop is open, ready for me to start work for the next client. My notes from my interview are laid out before me. And my mind is anywhere but in this room.

I have to wonder whether my mindfulness is actually worth anything more to me than 10 minutes meditation a couple of times a day.

Does it translate into the rest of my life?

I read about a lot of authors who seemed to be absolutely oblivious to any surroundings when they write. My husband (who is not a writer) goes totally into the zone when he is working. So much so that I have to take his face in my hand and turn it towards me when I want his attention. This is admirable, though means he misses out on a lot of cups of coffee when I am brewing up, as I am not prepared to walk from my office to his and personally ask the question with eye contact.

I would like to think that I, too, am focussed. But in reality I am a scatterbrain.

Do you remember that expression from childhoood? From memory it was applied to a kid who was a bit all over the place – who could never be trusted to come home from school carrying all the uniform they set off with, never mind homework as well.

But I think scatterbrained is a great description of how most of us operate these days. It’s like we have brains that face north, east, south and west all at the same time, gathering intelligence, testing theories, absorbing information. Or we’re like Janus – the god of the New Year – facing both forward and back at the same time. But not here. Not right here, right now.

This blog is about trying to apply the mindfulness skills I have to my work as a writer.

I have been very careful to add the word “trying” into that last sentence. Even though I have been practising mindfulness meditation for a year now I still struggle to apply the principle and practice ‘off the mat’. But I want to change. I want to change now, right now. And every moment that follows.

This is my journey…