Every November since 1999 hundreds of thousands of people have committed to writing a whole novel in just one month as part of NaNoWriMo. Last year 325,142 people participated in National Novel Writing Month in a global celebration of creativity, determination and sheer hard work.
This year, maybe you’re one of them. It’s day 5, day 11, day 24 – you’ve written 6000 words, you’ve written 23000, you’re getting close to 50,000. Amazing. Well done! The only thing is that your brilliant writing mind has been working so hard that it’s flagging, or perhaps you’ve gone into overdrive and now it won’t stop even when you want it to. Or perhaps your body – remember that? – has been sitting crammed in front of your laptop for so long that when you get up you can’t feel your knees or anything else for that matter. This is what sometimes happens to me on particularly long and exhilarating writing sprees. It can happen to all of us when we’re chasing a story, but there are some simple mindfulness practices we can use to help us write more sustainably and with more self-care. These are my favourites.
One – A mindful check-in
We have a body not just a mind, and a clear, focused writing mind needs a relaxed, healthy body to keep it going. So firstly, we can bring more awareness to the body whilst we’re writing, taking a mindful pause to check-in briefly now and then and see what’s happening. Are our eyes sore? Have we blinked in the last 20 minutes? How’s our back feeling, is it a bit stiff? Are we tired and need a break? Are we hungry? Is there tension or stiffness in our shoulders, arms, wrists or hands? If we don’t know the answers to these – or we’re regularly ignoring the signals our bodies and brains are giving us, then how can we expect to sustain our writing over a whole month or longer? These are the basic elements of mindful writing self-care and we need to learn to be gentle with our bodies and minds and give them what they need, rather than just keep on writing.
Two – Mindful walking
At the end of a chapter, or at some other obvious break in your story, make time for some mindful walking. Get up and move slowly around the room for a few minutes. Better still, if you can, go outside and get some fresh air. As a writer I know how hard it is to stop when you’re in the flow, but as a mindfulness teacher I know how essential it is – and the truth is your story isn’t going anywhere, it’ll be there when you return, as will your creative drive, I promise. Indeed new research shows that by going for a walk, and occupying part of our brain with this simple task, we actually allow the rest of our brain to whir away in the background, coming up with creative solutions – to gnarly plot points, for instance.
As we walk, we mindfully notice the physical sensations of our feet on the ground and the uprightness of our spine. We notice how our body shifts from side to side to accommodate each slow step. Paying attention to our breath, we follow an in-breath all the way in, noticing how the ribs, stomach and chest expand to accommodate this. And then we enjoy the feeling of release on the out breath, noticing how the different parts of the torso move to let the air out. Not only does this practice of moving and breathing mindfully help our bodies, but it helps our minds too, bringing more oxygen to the brain and releasing it into the blood stream. Brain cells need oxygen. Stories need brain cells.
Wherever we are we can also look around us slowly and with real attention, at the sky, the trees, the roofs of houses, tuning into the feel of the wind on our faces and the sounds we can hear – these sensory experience also serve to root us in our bodies and allow our minds to rest for a little while.
Three – Mindfully counting the breath
This return to the body, tuning in to the physical sensations of walking and breathing helps to get us out of our heads and balance body and mind. If we’re finding it hard to switch off the story and go to sleep or relax, or if we’re getting tired and unfocused with brain-fog, then we probably need more of this so that the whirl of thinking starts to calm down a little and we can rest. However sometimes when our minds are really buzzing, we might need something more, and this is when mindfully counting the breath can be helpful, especially just before we go to bed.
When we mindfully count the breath we start by bringing our attention to the sensations of the breath in the abdomen and just after we’ve breathed out we count “1” softly and gently in our heads. And then we breathe in. And just after the next out-breath, we count “2.” And then we breathe in. And we continue doing this up to 10. And when we get to 10, we return to 1 and start counting up again. Our main focus in this mindfulness practice is the breath and on noticing how it feels to breathe, we just use the counting as a way of marking the experience of breathing but don’t focus too strongly on the numbers.
Initially our minds may be all over the place when we do this – and we might not get to “2” before – ping – a distracting thought jumps in. But that’s fine, it’s bound to happen in fact, so we just accept this calmly, with a little self-compassion for our poor old overactive minds, and then we start counting at “1” again. Even the intention to do this will help quieten things down so that we come out of the realm of ideas and stories and back into the present moment. One. Two. Three. And so on. For five minutes. (Set a little reminder on your phone.)
Then, for another five minutes, we count just before the in-breath, like this: “1” – breathe in, breath out. “2” – breathe in, breathe out. And so on, up to 10, and then back to 1 again. Varying where we count gives the mind a little more to focus on, and helps us sustain this useful mindfulness practice for longer, which means we can sustain ourselves through the long haul of NaNoWriMo even better and more mindfully too.