I’ve just returned from an icy walk in the forest. The puddles that formed in the torrential rains of January were hard with ice and around some of them slabs of ice like thick glass were strewn. the light was low and watery, the refelections on the river quivering with pale beauty. Well into the afternoon, whole fields beyone the trees were still white with frost. The sound of water was everywhere, but otherwise the forest was quiet and the trees are still bare, And yet, all Winter things have been growing, incubating deep in the earth — delicate strong, and exquisite.
Turning towards the light
We are in the season after Imbolc (or Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau in Wales), the season of turning towards the light. It is the first hint ot it Spring, a slow turning back to longer, days. and I’m waiting for the first snowdrops to appear. Meanwhile cleavers is beginning to flourish and young nettles are greening. the impulse of life irresistibly urgent. Even if there is not much above ground yet, life is geminating.
This is also how writing happens. There are times when we think its more dead than dormant, when the germination is slow and hidden. And this secret life can be full of turmoil and doubt and change, as much as any human pregnancy. And then, suddenly, the surface opens and we are in flow. The prose is supple and the poetry dances and life floods every word.
Sometimes our writing creeps slowly from pen or fingers, inching towards fertility and the blessing of a rich flow of words and images. If you have anything like my lack of patience you may find yourself wanting to (figuratively) pull up the bulbs to see how the growth is coming along before the shoots begin to show. But of course, that only stunts the growth or kills it entirely.
It’s so easy to subvert the creative flow with impatience and internal doubts, or by overwhelming ourselves with unrealistic expectations so that whatever we create never feels ‘enough’. When we get to feeling like this we often need to look in another direction. Let the subconscious mull over the words while we go for a walk or cook a meal or scrub a bathroom. It can be difficult to trust that the process is working away beneath the surface. But it is.
What we attend to
And if we can’t pull it up from way beneath the surface of consciousness to take a look, there are still creative things we can do. We can keep tending to our story. We can keep going out into nature with all our senses open. We can keep showing up for our writing, no matter how stuck it might feel. And we can give it power and time by what we attend to. This is what Thoreau understood when he wrote:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…
It’s so easy for attention to be diverted by a million on one things. It’s so easy to be so reactive that we let others’ demands control our time or we tell ourselves that we are ‘too busy’ to eat well, sleep enough, take a walk or read a book. And in a world of overwhelmingly horrific news it’s also easy to believe we can have no impact, that nothing we write will matter anyway.
It’s true that life is finite and that we have limited power and influence, but that is still enough. When we focus on what matters to us, when we hone in on what feels true to us, what we are passionate about, we have impact—whether this is small or large, it matters.
What do you truly care about? How will it enter your writing? For me the answers would be the power of story and the power of herbs—each as agents of transformation and healing. The fact that we won’t all have the same answer is a cause for celebration—between us our agency, however small it seems, can make a difference.
There is nothing wrong with small, as the Japanese concept of kaizen demonstrates. It developed as a way of making change to organisations and workplaces, but is also helpful for individuals. It involves tiny, incremental steps for constant and continuous improvement. On days when things feel hard, a couple of lines written in your journal, making the bed, smiling at a stranger are all small steps in the right direction. Increments build up.
And this is as true in our writing as it is in life. Giving our writing power and time is not only about taking the odd hour to sit down and write, it is also a way of touching the numinous of life, and of connecting with all of life.
You might be able to take a whole week of writing solitude, or you may have a daily practice of ten minutes journaling, but whatever feels right within your context, defend that time. Turn off apps and phones and emails, surround yourself with writing that nourishes you, take time to daydream and imagine and journal. I’ve kept a consistent journal for almost the last 30 years. Day to day I often think not much is happening, but when I look back, I see all kinds of shifts in perception that made a difference.
Writing into the present moment
The journal is my place for reflecting on the past and planning the future. It helps me to dream and to shape who I want to be and how I want to live. But it is also a space that pulls me into the present moment. Time isn’t only about how long we live, but about how deeply we live; the quality of the time we have is everything.
Over and over, my journal is a place where I renew my ability to be attentive and present, to be attentive to the story I want to write and the story I want to live, to be attentive to the people I love and to the concerns of the fragile earth we live on. Simone Weil puts it like this:
Attention is the purest form of generosity and absolute attention is prayer.
I am least attentive to those I love, to my writing and passions, to the land I live on and the suffering in the world, when I’m stressed, or overwhelmed, when I get mired in non-creative work (those emails that make demands but are not real conversations, the busy-work that doesn’t do anything…) or distracted by a too-fast world telling me to consume more and more. It’s then that my thoughts get ragged and my mood falls.
But when I’m walking daily, journalling, making time for slow meals, then I find myself able to attend to what matters. I listen not just to the surface words, but to the emotions of others. I listen to the wind and rain. I notice objects that are small and beautiful or take delight. I’m able to read about the horrific things happening in the world without becoming overwhelmed, instead looking for small ways in which I can show any kind of solidarity without thinking I have solutions.
When I’m attentive, I unbend. I don’t carry myself so stiffly. And the physical relaxation shows in my actions. I start to embody the creativity and generosity I want to live when I slow down and become more present rather than being elsewhere in my head, full of distractions oo live with intention,r anxieties about things that aren’t important or that I can have no effect on.
We have to be porous to the world for our attention to matter. Yet we also have to know our limits and our boundaries. My journal is where I explore these edges and paradoxes. We all know that the world is a mess. And yet, we make our marks, with words, with love. This is hope in action. This is living with intention. And for me it begins in journalling. To live deliberately, even without retreating to a cabin in the woods, you need space to reflect.
Giving our creativity power and time is a radical act in a world that values the ‘shallow’ and the ‘fast’. Becoming a different story, becoming the writer we want to be and the person we want to be in order to be that writer, isn’t an instant makeover scheme. It’s a life’s work, always a work in progress. Like the natural world, it has seasons and it takes the time it takes.
As we emerge from winter and as the daylight lengthens, it’s a good time to be hopeful and creative, to give our writing time and power, but there’s no rush. The shoots emerge incrementally. Each moment is precious and to be savoured. Each moment contains an eternity,
In the words of poet Mary Oliver in her poem ‘The Summer Day’:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Here’s to attending to the story that transforms us.
Photogrpahs; Ti Triskele garden by Adam Craig
I’m currently offering two courses that help with this process of transformation.
Tending Your Story is a year-long journalling course delivered in monthly sections. It contains over 60 units and more than 100 journalling prompts diving deep into your own story to nurture and transform your journey. I’m offering it free to everyone who takes a paid subscription to my Substack newsletter (the course is worth £200 and the subscription is £50) and you can find my Substack page here