Finding my writer’s voice

I’ve been writing ever since I was old enough to hold a pen. I remember sitting on a red plastic chair at school, my small hands clutching a felt tip pen and the scent of wax crayons and pencil shavings filling the air. Swinging my legs back and forth, I’d happily spend my ‘free play time’ after finishing my work lost in the creation of tales of adventure in far away places.

When I was nine years old I was lucky enough to have an amazing teacher take over my class. Mr O was the youngest teacher in the school at the time, then aged 28, and was passionate about reading, art and poetry.

One grey day in autumn term Mr O brought in brightly coloured boxes full of children’s picture books. Every Friday we could take one book home with us to read for the week. Coming from a household where books were expensive luxuries, I remember the sheer joy I felt, knowing I could discover a new story every week.

Not only did Mr O encourage my reading but he was the first person to recognise my interest and talent for drawing and writing. My mum was suprised to hear this at parents’ evening; no one in the family had any artistic talents or interests.

Looking back, my writing voice was at its strongest at this very young age. I’d write with no thought to an audience, I wrote for the joy of writing.

I spent the next few years writing stories, reading and writing poetry, drawing and reading vorociously. As a teenager I still wrote but somewhere between the ages of 16 and 22 I drifted away from hobbies and towards nights out with friends and strangers instead.

A few years later I began to write again. I had some publishing successes, with my pieces appearing in magazines. I wasn’t taking my writing seriously and my output was quite low but somehow I achieved success along the way.

And then anxiety hit my writing. I wrote a piece, something different to my usual stories, and shared it with someone who wrote successfully in this area. They commented that my writing was very good, technically, and easy to read but that somewhere my personality had been lost.

I cried. I’d thought the piece was ok, I’d worked hard on it. I slammed my laptop shut and had gone to bed annoyed and a little disheartened. The next day I’d woken up with the kind of clarity that only exists in my early wakenings.

So I’d tried something and it hadn’t worked out as I’d thought. So what? Maybe I’d tried too hard. Maybe I hadn’t tried enough. Whatever, I’d missed the mark on this occasion. On this occasion only – this did not diminish my previous writing experiences.

Being a thinker, I mulled this over for the next day or two and realised what I’d done wrong with that piece. I’d written the piece with this person in mind, knowing they were going to give me feedback. I’d tailored it for someone else. I’d been self-concious. I had abandoned my own voice.

Abandoning my own voice was something I’d done before, out of necessity to survive. Having suffered at the mouths of bullies in my teenage years, I’d learned that it was better to blend in. To camouflage. To never draw attention to myself.

This meant not putting my hand up in class even when I knew the answer and no one else did. It meant avoiding the teacher’s eyes when she asked for an opinion on the book we’d read for our homework – knowing full well I’d written pages on and pages on the text.

For many years I did everything to avoid calling attention to myself. It was almost like living a lie. I was hiding myself because of what I thought other people wanted me to be. I never had the right words or the right clothes or the right friends, so why bother being me when this was so obviously wrong?

And when I embark on something new or different, this is the being I revert to, almost automatically sometimes. And this is what had happened when I wrote and shared that piece of writing.

There’s nothing like cold hard realisation that you’re repeating a mistake from the past to make you sit up and listen. I re-wrote the piece and sent it away for feedback. The feedback was more positive this time and proved to me that what I wanted to say mattered. My opinions were just as valid as any one else’s. My voice was unique and it was important to recognise and nurture it.

There is great freedom in being who you truly are and I’m reminded of the quote: ‘Be who you were meant ot be and you will set the world on fire.’ (Anon).

Tips for finding your writer’s voice:

  1. Try ‘free writing’. This is where you write at least a page, whatever comes into your head, and you don’t re-read or edit the pages. Just let the words flow. If this is difficult, it’s fine to write ‘I don’t know what to write’ over and over until the words are released. And they will be released, eventually.
  2. Keep a journal. It doesn’t matter if you write only a few lines once a day, once a week, or whatever suits you. Writing down our observations and thoughts are when we display our true un-edited selves.
  3. Experiment with genre and style. You may be a seasoned blogger but have you ever tried fiction? Maybe you love to write a diary and want to share your words on a blog. Just try different things and know that every perceived step backwards is a step towards learning more about you as a writer.
  4. Use memory as writing prompts. Think about your first day at school, or perhaps the first time you went to work. Your favourite holiday memory is also a good place to begin. Try to recall these memories using all five senses.
  5. Know that you are unique and that your experiences and the way you view the world is personal only to you. Use that in your writing. There is no one else who can write like you.

The Nurturing Life: Houseplants and Mental Health

I often think that you make discoveries just when you need them most. Words fall into your lap at a time that’s right for you. A time when they are the only words that will help you. These are the words that resonate with your soul. Words that speak to you long after they leave your lips.

Some years ago I was aimlessly flicking through a magazine, waiting for the hands on the clock to turn and wondering how I would move forward in my life.

I came across a short column all about new research that showed that looking after houseplants helped with low mood. I sat up a little straighter in my chair and read on. Nursing home patients that had been given a plant to look after had shown a marked improvement in their mood than those without a plant.

At that time my mood was definitely low and days were characterised by the black cloud above my head. The smallest of tasks seemed overwhelming and days stagnated into weeks.

My low mood told me that I was not capable, that everything was beyond my reach. Despite the lack of confidencein my abilities, I let the question swirl into the air: could I give this plant lark a try? I decided that a plant was a small thing and that I could manage that. Pleased I’d made a positive decision, I felt buoyed and searched the internet for the hardiest houseplants.

Some days later I brought home from the supermarket a small Kalanchoe plant that had cost only two pounds. The plant was not much larger than a boiled egg. It had tight glossy green leaves and a single bud. Cradling the new life in my hands, I placed the plant onto my bedroom windowsill so that I’d see it first thing in the morning and last thing at night.

Over the weeks, the plant afforded me a little responsibility. Silly though it may sound, I knew that the plant needed me.

Asking for no more than a sunny position and a little water, the plant began to flourish. I observed the taller stem and marvelled at the new leaves. I’d spend time checking the plant’s water levels, grinning like a loon at the openiing of one of the buds – bright cerise starbursts of wonder.

Despite my problems, I had to ensure the plant was watered so that it could continue to flourish. Day after day. And I was rewarded with flowers and a sense of achievement. I think it’s the same for those with pets; they force you to get up in spite of a low mood.

Within a year the plant had grown to six times its original size. Gently, alongside the slow budding of the plant, the roots of confidence began to push through the dank low mood that had plagued me for months. Taking root, this confidence breathed life back into my weary mind and I began to gain strength.

I learned that plants take time. Nature will not be rushed. She does not worry or try too hard, yet things that need to happen, happen. There was something comforting in that. Something about trusting in the process.

These days my living room is full of houseplants. Spider Plants trail the length of the deep windowsill in the living room, Peace Lillies stand tall on small tables and a miniature rose gifted to me by a friend provides sweet perfume when in flower. Parlsey and Lemon Basil fight for attention on my kitchen windowsill, next to a Christmas Cactus and a Venus Fly Trap. Even the bathroom houses plants; the small aloe plant flourishes in the humid environment and the ferns enjoy the shade.

My love for plants extends out into my south-facing back yard. Bees hover round fragrant Lavendar and butterflies alight from the colurful Cosmos, while Nemesia provides a honey scent as I brush past to hang out the washing on a sunny day.

In our technological and connected world, it’s easy to underestimate the power of the natural world on our wellbeing. But for those who have experienced the joy in cultivating new life, of nurturing plants, the natural world is a source of wonder, nourishment and gratitude. It is not an afterthought but a necessity for mindful living.

My advice for choosing a houseplant

Pick a hardy species:

  • Ferns love shaded areas.
  • Spider plants are happy in most places but like a little indirect sunlight.
  • Peace lillies will flower in indirect sunlight.
  • Cactus plants or aloe plants are very hardy and require minimal water.

A Pocket Full of Mindfulness

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you will have heard of mindfulness. Perhaps you’ve tried mindfulness and are aware of its benefits but struggle to make it a practice, part of your everday life. Or is mindfulness just another thing to add to your to-do list?

If this sounds like you then I can relate.

Meditation first

A few years ago I was studying for an MA and working part-time whilst also applying for jobs. My nerves were frayed and my body was tired. Empty. Wrung out. My mind however, was busy. Frenetic. Calm had long abandoned my mind and anxiety had taken control.

I tried everything. Long walks, lavendar spray on my pillows, yoga. You name it, I tried it. While there was short-term relief, most of the time the flames of anxiety were merely dampened.

Then I discovered a guided meditation by Nita Saini. What followed in those 20 minutes was nothing short of a revelation. I know, big words. Somehow, with my mind suspended, my only focus the honeyed voice in my ears, I relaxed for the first time in a year.

By following a guided meditation I was able to trick my mind into believing that I was doing something. Before that time, I equated relaxing with doing nothing. And I’ve never been good at doing nothing. My anxiety made it impossible for me to do nothing. Silence was something to be feared.

Amazingly, following the guided meditation was enough to allow my mind to finally relax.

One part of the meditation asked me to imagine a warm golden liquid gliding down from the top of my head, down my neck and shoulders. Radiating warmth and healing with each drop. Holding this gentle image in my mind, my body began to relax and loosen. The first time I’d truly felt in a long time.

If you’ve struggled with stress or anxiety, you’ll know the effect these conditions have on your body. So wired and in a heightened state of stress, you feel numb to other emotions. By focusing on the present moment my body was able to engage with my mind as it should.

At the end of the meditaiton it’s no exaggeration to say that I felt as though I’d emerged from a deep sleep. A satisfying rest.

Over the next few months I came back to the gudied meditation. Knowing I had something in my arsenal to help sooth my anxiety was a relief but also kind of awesome.

The power of the mind. I began to understand that if negative thoughts could cloud my life, then more balanced thoughts could soothe my mind.

Mindfulness for the everyday

I read books on meditation, tried a meditation app and then discovered mindfulness. On those days when I didn’t have time to sit and meditate, I used mindfulness instead.

Mindfulness is brilliant because it’s portable. Wherever you go, it goes too. Let me tell you how I made mindfulness part of my everyday life and how you can too.

My favourite mindfulness exercises

Before you begin

Your mind WILL wander when you try mindfulness. This is normal. Every time this happens (and it will happen a lot), just bring your mind back to the present. The more you notice your mind wandering, the more your awareness takes hold. Usually we’re unaware of our mind wandering from topic to topic. And when you notice it has wandered, this is mindfulness at work.

Remember to gently coax you wandering mind back to the present moment. Don’t berate yourself or tell yourself that you have failed. Just keep going. Over time your mind will wander less and less.

The Shower

This one is the first mindfulness exercise I tried. It’s very simple. Everyone needs to shower or take a bath at some point.

How does the water feel? Stand beneath the shower and bring your mind to the torrent of water and how it feels as it flows over your head. Really focus on how the water feels. Work from the top of your head right to your toes. How does it feel as it moves down your shoulders? As it hits your shins? Focus on how the water feels for about five minutes.

Next really look at the water. Take five more minutes to look at how the water makes tracks over your arms, how it arcs a spray when it makes contact with your shoulders. Are the droplets bigger on your hands than on your arms? Look at the patterns the water makes on your skin. Does the water move faster down your shoulders or over your arms? Imagine this is the first time you’ve seen water.

Listen to the water. take 3 minutes or so to listen to how the water feels when it makes contact with your head, your arms, your chest, your legs, etc.

Continue with your normal showering routine. Slowly bring your mind back to your surroundings and carry on with your day!

Strength training

Say whaaaat? I hear you cry. Strength training (weights) and mindfulness? Bear with me.

For me, strength training is so enjoyable because it’s a form on mindfulness. I often zone out when lifting weights and my mind feels relaxed and open, its only focus the number of reps and lifting the weights.

If you’ve never worked with dumbells before, I recommend checking out a few YouTube videos or asking for guidance at the gym to work on your form. If you’re used to working with dumbells then you might want ot try the following mindfulness exercise.

Select your weights. You’re going to follow your usual strength routine but this time, you’re going to focus on how the movements feel.

With each lift, focus on how the weight feels in your hand. Do this for however many sets you usually do.

With the next set, focus on how your muscles feel with each lift and relax.

Repeat as many times as you wish.

Always bring your mind back to the weights whenever your mind begins to wander.

The trip to the dentist

Seriously, is there nothing mindfulness can’t help with? Another great thing about mindfulness is how flexible it is. And no one has to know you’re doing it because it’s invisible!

I’ve always dreaded going to the dentist. After a bad experience in my teens, a knot of anxiety now accompanies me with each visit, even for a simple check up. I’ve learned to get through it by focusing on my breathing, however, when I’ve had treatment I’ve had to use a different strategy and that’s where mindfulness comes in.

You can use this mindfulness exercise whenever you have to go somewhere that makes you anxious. Whether it’s travelling by public transport, a visit to the doctor’s, this exercise is worth a try. When I first tried it, the 10 minutes before my appointment flew by.

Take 5 minutes for this exercise Bring your attention to whatever it is you’re sitting on. Is it a chair? A bench? Does it feel comfortable? Is the chair hard or soft? Examine how the chair feels as the backs of your legs makes contact with the chair.

Next, study something in front of you. Another chair or seat, perhaps. What is it made of? Really look at the fabric. Is there a pattern to it? Is it smooth or frayed? What colours can you see? What else do you notice about the seat / chair? What is it made of, can you guess? Imagine you’re seeing it for the first time. Repeat this for as long as you need to.

Let me know how you get on. Perhaps you have another great mindfulness exercise that you’d like to share. Let me know!

Connection

On the evening of the Summer Solstice I found myself standing before the tall iron gates to what looked like a secret garden. Beyond the concrete threshold I imagined trees, flowers and perhaps an ancient crumbling house full of long-buried secrets. My imagination often runs away with me in this way.

As the warm air tousled with my hair, I felt my shoulders drop a little and I forced myself to focus on the present moment. Sunlight cast dappled shadows on the soft earth beneath a canopy of trees. Trees spiralled upwards, arms outstretched, seeking the sun, seeking life.

Standing before the hidden woodland I hoped to find everything I loved about the world; connection. Connection with others, with mother nature and with my creativity. I was ready to embrace all that’s special about the summer solstice; reflection, gratitude and growth.

After a refreshing drink of homemade botanical water, the group of summer solstice seekers sat in a circle on the woodland floor, eyes shining with expectation. Soon enough we began our yoga session on what was the International Day of Yoga. There’s something meditative in in itself about yoga. Bending to the will of the caramel-toned voice, words commanding the body, gently coaxing the stresses of the day out and into the air. Being guided through a series of poses, thinking suspended, the body just fluid movements and the breath. There’s something freeing in the act of offering the body, connecting the mind with the body and harnessing the energy of the natural world. For someone who is very often stuck in their own head, this was an incredibly relaxing yoga session.

With limbs suitably loosened, we were guided through the steps to make our own willow crown, complete with woodland detritus. Sitting beneath the safety of the trees with a group of strangers, very quickly I felt my soul unburden as I discussed things I hadn’t shared with anyone outside of my close family. Very quickly I felt that I was among friends.

Soon we were asked to write something in response to our surroundings and were urged to follow our instincts. I felt a need to explore the woodland. My eyes fell upon a plant, whose stems were naked and had once held delicate sprays of tiny white flowers. The shape of its waning form reminded me of the four seasons. I let my instinct take over. Too often I overthink things, especially when it comes to writing. I wonder if they’d like that phrase? Will anyone read this? Is that the right word? It was freeing to let my mind flow and to trust that my instinct would drive the pen forward.

This is what I wrote:

Summon the seasons with one stem

There is all of life on this here stem.

Tiny spring growths have nourished forth,

Outstretched spines cradle creamy white flowers

bright as the rays of the sun.

Plump pods house next year’s life,

Skeletal tendrils cast delicate silouettes in the crisp moonlight.

With creativity unbidden, ideas flowed freely from my pen. Without the usual overactive mental commentary, my subconscious was able to run with its instincts.

By the end of the session my mind was brimming with ideas, my body was nourished from the wonderful food and my soul was imbued with the energy of the sun.

Our last task was to create an intention for ourselves for the coming months. Something that would guide and motivate us through the remainder of the year. My intention centered on the connection between our actions and our journey through life and how one is dependent on the other. After an evening full of connection, I now know that I have the ability to summon the strength of this special Summer Solstice whenever I need it.

The three faces of silence

What is your relationship with silence? Is silence something that you avoid or that you seek to fill? Do you revel in the morning’s gentle hush before the onslaught of the working week has chance to seep into your bones?

Day to day, my relationship with silence is ever-changing and moves in waves, often depending on my mood. There have been other periods in my life when silence has shown a different face. During my childhood silence was an unwelcomed guest in my family home. Then, as I entered my twenties, silence took on a different form; like a spectre it stalked my nightmares as my struggle to balance university studies, a part-time job and home life dissintegrated into illness. It’s only after I emerged from the stress-fuelled brain fog that I began to examine my relationship with silence and learn to sit alongside it, even if I had not yet begun to like it.

The moods

I can’t remember when I became aware of my dad’s use of silence as a weapon but my body still houses the memory of how his silent days affected my young life. The memories linger in the clench of my jaw when I sleep, when my subconcious breaks through the protective wall I built around myself in wakefulness.

I remember one day as a small child, when I’d set off across the living room, toddling up to my dad as fast as my unsteady legs would carry me. With arms outstretched and my My Little Pony (the original 80’s version) t-shirt riding up over my plump arms, I’d waited, face upturned. There was no reaction from my dad to even suggest that I was in the room. Next I recall my mum ushering me into the garden and pointing at the pansies with petals like faces and smiling at how our cat looked like a statue curled up fast asleep on the lawn.

Days would pass by and the wedge between a happy home life and my dad seemed to expand. Nobody told me to avoid him but the after school routine seemed to speed up when he was in one of his ‘moods’. Mum would make tea a little earlier, help with my homework in between peering through the blinds of the front window and checking her watch. By the time dad arrived home from work – sometimes after 7pm – I’d be upstairs and ready for bed. As I grew up, my unformed mind interpreted Dad’s silence and absence as a rejection, I suppose, one I buried beneath my studies, determined to achieve and one day escape the silent days.

The silence is so loud

Once I left the family home and began to spread my adult wings, I felt lighter. I filled my days with my studies, over-planning and over-reading so as to keep up with the others in my class. My studies never came easy to me. I couldn’t slack off all term and then stay up the night before an exam with only a pot of coffee to fuel my revision and then breeze through with an A*. Only my friend Jo managed to do that and to this day I don’t know how she managed it! I studied for 12 hours a day sometimes – five hours if I had work that day too. Things took a nose-dive when I added job searching into my already frantic days. The worry about securing a job was real, especially since the banks had not long crashed.

Most of my class mates were from middle-class backgrounds and had plans to return to the family home if they couldn’t secure a job before graduation. For some, securing work would mean securing their very first job. I’d been working since I was 16 and didn’t have the safety net of the bank of mum and dad. It won’t come as a suprise to learn that I fell ill during final term.

In a nutshell I was exhausted. Mind and body threw hints my way in the form of infections and lingering bugs. I didn’t listen, choosing to work through the illnesses and still I worried about getting a job. I remember one day, dropping my laptop and bursting into loud bubbling tears for almost an hour. I couldn’t finish my essay. I couldn’t afford a new laptop. Everything was ruined.

Silence descended and I was forced to stop. When had silence become so loud? It grated on my frayed nerves. I couldn’t sit still. I had to drown out the silence. In the end I borrowed my sister’s old portable CD player (my ipod had given up the ghost long ago) and grabbed a few CDs from her, just to drown out the silence. This is something I laugh about now, how crazy I must’ve seemed to her – also, how retro are these references to obsolescent tech?

Peace in silence

Somehow time passed by and yes, I found a job – I was offered two actually – and I began to distance myself from the frenetic hours of studying.

About a month after I’d handed in my dissertation, I realised that I still felt quite poorly. I knew that my whirling thoughts and need for constant distraction was not normal. So I did what I always do when faced with a problem – I began to research it! Websites, books, magazines – I scoured them for solutions to the stress I was feeling. Let me tell you, I was willing to try anything. And that’s how me and my friend Lea ended up buying a yoga mat each and following a yoga DVD in her living room that hot summer. It’s also the reason why we took up cross stitching and crochet (her, anyway). Yes, I know – I was willing to try anything.

These new hobbies helped a little but I wasn’t fully invested, I’ll be honest. I did however, enjoy the free guided meditation I discovered in a magazine one day. I was sceptical to begin with. No one in my circle of friends did meditation and this was before Instagram, you have to remember.

The short meditation was a revelation. For the first time in months I could tolerate sitting in silence because the meditation meant that I was still doing something. I felt rested, as though I’d had a nap. It was unexpected and if I’m honest, a relief! Relief because I’d finally come to terms with the silence and because I now had a sure-fire way to help quieten my mind when it got too loud.

I still meditate these days. It’s not always formal, sit down meditation. Sometimes it’s a walking meditation, other times it’s a variation on mindfulness where I’ll force myself to notice every movement as I wash the dishes after dinner. That’s the great thing about meditation, it’s portable!

I’ve come to realise that silence isn’t static. It’s not one way of being. More often it is experienced by our own interpretations. And that’s ok.

Log out to tune in

I fell into the technology trap again recently. Reader, I regressed. Lured by the sweeping tide of the Brexit saga, my phone demanded my attention with every BBC News update and every WhatsApp group message. Every high-pitched notification sent my stomach into a spiral. What’s happened now? I’d wonder, as my fingers flew over the screen and a cold creeping dread settled in my gut.

Slowly the little pockets of quiet in my day disappeared. The magic of waking up early and lingering over breakfast, letting my mind wander on the commute to work, people watching in a beer garden as the evening sun sank below the trees leaving pink streaks and marshmallow clouds in its wake. Once again technology had me in its grip and I’d tuned out of real life.

Over a year ago, I was grappling with the pretty baffling symptoms of an undiagnosed health condition. Brain-fogged days dissolved into fitful nights where worries lurked in the shadows of my dreams.  My mind and body were gripped by fatigue.

My friend Jen came to the rescue, suggesting a day out to the seaside. It was to be a vintage day out to Llandudno, and she’d planned the works: ice creams on the pier, a trip to the amusement arcades and fish and chips on the Prom. The old Pier bustled with holidaymakers with pink shoulders and tan lines, women in short shorts and men wearing socks with sandals.  A man dressed in a pirate outfit with a bird of prey perched on his shoulder strutted passed the stalls selling donuts and buckets and spades.

As I leant against the wrought iron railings with an ice cream in one hand, and my phone in the other, I realised I hadn’t taken one photograph or looked out to sea since we’d arrived. Instead my mind had been a merry-go-round of recurring worries and Twitter feeds, Gmail and WhatsApp groups. I wasn’t taking a break at all. Trying to maintain my online life as well as my real life was evidently unrealistic at this time.

I gave my phone to Jen for the rest of the day and forced myself to tune in to my surroundings, to jump off the merry-go-round. I let myself breathe in the scents of summer: sun cream and candyfloss.  I watched the burning orb in the cloudless sky cast dappled light through the trees. I strolled along the Prom that shimmered in the hazy midday sun and ate fish and chips and dodged the dive-bombing seagulls. 

On the journey home I downsized my online life. And I know that I can do it again now.

Here are some quick tips for when you need to take a technology break.

Review your social media – mute, unfollow, disengage

Take a look at your social media accounts. Are most of your interactions positive or negative or a mix of both? Ask yourself if another argument with someone you don’t know is the best use of your time? If your timeline is a barrage of negativity that makes your hackles rise every time you log in, then it’s time to weed through your followers.

Your time is precious – say yes to people

Who hasn’t logged in to Twitter with the intention of checking their feed and replying to a few DMs, only to realise that two hours have passed? Most of those trips down the Twitter rabbit hole are a waste of your time.  Remember, when we say yes to one thing, we are saying no to another. Say yes to catching up with friends, going for a walk, or discovering a new restaurant instead.

Go for a walk – your mental health will thank you for it

Last year I took on Country Walking Magazine’s ‘Walk 1,000 miles in 2018’ challenge and let me tell you, fresh air and a change of scene had a magical effect on my mood. It doesn’t matter how far or how fast you walk, what’s important is that you move forwards.

Set phone boundaries especially before bed

I used to be useless at this but these days, come bedtime, you won’t find my phone next to my bed – only a few possessions occupy that sacred space: my current read and a notebook and pen.

Small changes like these can help you regain space to notice the little things that make you happy.  To tune in to your present. For a while you’ll have major FOMO but this will dissipate. You’ll be spending more time with family and friends, having better quality sleep, powering through your to-do list, taking the dog for another walk, finding ten minutes’ peace for a relaxing bath or maybe allowing yourself to do nothing at all! 

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