During a school visit, have you ever been talking about your writing process and a great top tip for writing... and then found yourself thinking “what a great idea! I should do that.” ? And you realise that you’ve not actually done it (or that your writing process has strayed away from what you’re describing) recently…
Maybe I’m the only one, but I suspect not. And the time around World Book Day, usually the busiest time of the year for author visits, is a good time to listen carefully to what you’re saying to others and making sure that you practise what you preach.
I am currently going into one school for two days a week over a five-week period, where amongst other things, I am practising and discussing mindfulness with the children and how mindfulness can help us in our everyday lives and when we are writing. Jess Mikhail (who illustrated Two Brothers and a Chocolate Factory) is doing the same with illustration.
I'm lucky enough to be working on a mindfulness and writing/art project with Jess Mikhail, after having worked with her on Two Brothers and a Chocolate Factory: The Remarkable Story of Richard and George Cadbury, above.
I have practised mindfulness, on and off, over the last twenty five years, and it’s been extremely useful, but I hadn’t used it much over the past ten years and not deliberately when writing.
One of the things we’ve focused on a lot in the school is making mistakes and taking risks and trying to encourage children to embrace their mistakes and feel better about making them. If you’re afraid to get things wrong, you’re unlikely to take risks in your work (or life) because of the fear of failing at something. So we’ve been using mindfulness to try and feel better about getting things wrong.
There’s a great clip for children from Kung Fu Panda that deals simply with trying to remain present. It might feel a bit corny to an adult but it’s quite easy to grasp and the children pick it up pretty easily:
Clip from Kung Fu Panda (directed by Mark Osborne and John Stevenson)
And one way of feeling ready to take risks and make mistakes is by being in the present –and not worrying about the past (how you felt when you made mistakes before) or the future (what might people think of you if you do something that’s wrong?).
So I’ve shown them my very messy, rough plans for my stories –on messy paper, where I’m not censoring my ideas but getting everything I’m thinking down onto paper before I try and actively shape it. And I talk about how it not being in a beautiful notebook makes it easier for me not to worry about messing up something that’s clean and fresh and beautiful.
Scrappy planning for a picture book of mine, which I share with surprised (and amused/horrified) children.
I’ve given them each a lovely clean sheet of blank A4 paper and then got them to scrumple it up, jump on it, rip it and then use it so it feels less like something that it would feel bad to make a mistake on. And then we’ve made deliberate mistakes on the page –it can be surprisingly hard to write your name wrong, but we do, and then we write sentences where the structure is clearly wrong –and then talk about how we feel about doing it.
Children writing their own names wrong and coming up with sentences that are grammatically wrong, on scrumpled up and jumped on paper...
And they love the book, Beautiful Oops, by Barney Saltzberg, which celebrates the mistakes we makes and shows us how to make the most of them
Beautiful Oops, by Barney Saltzberg
So I hope we’re now at the point where the children are feeling more inclined to take risks and make mistakes in their writing and art throughout the rest of the project –and beyond.
But am I practising what I preach?
Well, in terms of being messy and writing on big scrappy paper and not censoring my thoughts as I’m planning, then yes. That’s definitely how I work. And taking risks? Every time I show my work to anyone –whether it’s my agent, my editor or another writer, I’m taking a risk. All authors do it -so yes, again. But in terms of being mindful and trying to be present as much as possible, especially when writing?
I’ve tried. Since we arranged the project many months ago and whilst I’ve been thinking about the project, I have tried to be practise mindfulness with my writing more often. With my most recent story, I actually tried a different way of writing the first draft of the manuscript –with mindfulness very much in mind.
I am writing a picture book on a very sensitive subject. It’s a story about a girl whose older brother gets sick and then dies. There are all sorts of expectations about the book and I do feel a real responsibility to get it right as the people who will read it will be very vulnerable. Whilst I was researching the book, interviewing bereaved parents and doing creative work (for their own books) with bereaved and pre-bereaved siblings, and with young people with life-limiting conditions, I made no notes for my story at all. But I immersed myself in what I was doing and tried to be as ‘present’ as I could be. When it came to writing the first draft, I did make a scrappy mind map one morning (between 6 and 7 am, when I can focus best, without distraction)
and then the following morning, I wrote my story. But the story felt fragile and I’d deliberately not thought about it too much. I wanted to be as focused as I could without distraction so I tried something new:
I wrote it in the dark.
I had to have just enough light so that I could see that I wasn’t writing lines directly on top of other lines, but I only even glanced down at the unreadable page when I’d got to the end of each line, just to be sure there was some space between the lines:
Written in the dark (at what turns out to be a not very horizontal angle)
And the results?
In terms of focusing on the present, and reducing distractions (as we’re trying to encourage the children to do), I was much better able
To focus: I don’t visualise things so in the dark, I don’t have any images or colour and I can’t be distracted by seeing any objects around me
To keep going: I couldn’t read what I’d written so I wasn’t immediately being distracted from my task of keeping on writing by being tempted to edit words or phrases that I’d just written
Not to worry about mistakes: because I couldn’t see them!
I can find myself easily distracted when writing but practising mindfulness and being able to focus like this actually worked really well for me. And interestingly, the story written this way has needed far less editing than a lot of my stories.
School visits are valuable in many ways, but this school project has been helpful in an unexpected way: because of the particular project I’ve really had to go away and practise what I preach. And for me, at least, it’s worked.
Have you tried any unusual ways of writing –as an experiment, or so you can focus properly? Or have you tried other things to help you focus? And how have school visits helped you as an author? Please leave a comment, below.