You have to dive in deep if you want to write a life

All Winter things have been growing, quietly and hidden from view; small things — delicate yet strong, and intensely beautiful. It’s the long cold season after Christmas. Light is trickling back into the days little by little. Skies are grey, there’s frost in the mornings, yet once again snowdrops and crocuses appear before any other sign of Spring is underway.

Life is precious and fragile. When we meet a newborn baby the response can be overwhelming. The absolute vulnerability and dependence is matched only by the fierce power of new life. When I see the first snowdrops each year there is a similar awe that such flimsy plants with their bowed bell-heads and javelin-leaves have managed to spear the hard, cold earth with the force of unstoppable life.

But it’s also the case that these aren’t the same snowdrops that I saw last year. Those have long since disappeared, every atom of them gone back into the earth to become something else. A good friend of mine is currently face to face with the reality of mortality in her family. The grace and bravery is as strong and awe-inspiring as the reality is heart-rending. Life is precious and fragile.

The impulse of life is irresistibly urgent, but it can take a long time to germinate. A baby is in the womb for nine months, a bulb grows beneath the earth through the Winter. The growth is off-stage and deep. The bursting forth comes only after a secret life of change and growth and struggle.

And the moment of birth is, of course, one where pain and joy collide. The result is tender and sweet, yet with the steely purpose of survival. Whether we’re looking at a newborn infant or an exquisite clump of snowdrops.

This is also how writing happens. There are times when we think nothing is happening, when the germination is slow and hidden. And this secret life can be full of turmoil and doubt and change. And then we are in flow again and the prose is supple and the poetry dances and life floods every word.

Turning towards the light

In the Christian liturgical calendar, this time commemorates the presentation of the baby Jesus in the Temple, a thanksgiving for birth, also known as Candlemas as traditionally candles are blessed to bring light through the rest of the year.

In the Celtic calendar, this time is New Year. Known as Imbolc (or as Gŵyl Fair y Canhwyllau in Wales) it is a time of early spring, of protection and fertility, of blessing objects and wells and of feasting.

It’s a slow turning back to longer, lighter days. And sometimes our writing creeps just as 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. And, if we are to have any hope of diving deep into our creative cores and coming up with the green shoots, then, to paraphrase Mary Oliver, we have to give our creativity power and time.

There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.

How do we give our creativity power? How do we give our one precious life power in the face of an enormous universe in which we seem so small?

We have to shift the balance. In the words of Thoreau, we have to front the essential facts.

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…

But what are the essential facts?

The theological concept of the apophatic way is the idea that some things, like God, are easier to define by saying what they are not. We develop a picture from the negative space.

The essential facts are more graspable than notions of divinity, but thinking about what they don’t include is a good starting point. What is essential to life that is dear, will not accept resignation and aims to suck the marrow out, is not likely to include:

  • being so reactive that you let others’ demands control your time
  • being ‘too busy’ to eat well, sleep enough, take a walk or read a book
  • settling for mediocrity
  • colluding with the mindless consumerism that is sleep-walking our world into disaster
  • accepting the pessimistic political rhetoric of ‘there is no alternative’
  • obsessive phone checking or answering emails as they arrive all through the day

In book, Essentialism, Greg McKeown suggests we look for,

the disciplined pursuit of less

and adds

you cannot overestimate the unimportance of practically everything.

He points out that life is finite and we may be able to do anything, but not everything. McKeown’s approach begins with defining the essence. Like Thoreau he wants to front the essential facts and to this you need to:

What is it that is most important to you right now and why? Dig deep, find the reasons in yourself and make choices. What is it that matters to you most?

2. Redefine power

The Japanese concept of kaizen is a fascinating one. It developed as a way of making change to organisations and workplaces, but the thinking is useful for individuals. It involves tiny, incremental steps for constant and continuous improvement.

There are days when it’s all we can do to write in our journal, that we made the bed today or smiled at someone. McKeown talks of:

small and simple wins in areas that are essential

These increments build up. Why? To quote McKeown:

Because a small, concrete win creates momentum and affirms our faith in our further success.

This isn’t big, showy success or the power of coercion and force.

Giving our writing power and time is not simply about carving out the odd hour to actually sit down and write, but is a way of touching eternity, connecting with all of life. Yet even as we touch eternity we know that no matter how persistent and indomitable life itself might be, each of us is transitory. We have a short time to wrestle soul-powerful, immortal meaning from the impermanent and ephemeral.

Snowdrops and the crocuses do this simply by appearing, green blade followed by delicate flowers. Stars do it by blazing their light long after they have vanished. Too often we humans do it by leaving footprints of destruction, but it does not have to be so. A legacy of story, myths that next generations can find sustenance in, poetry that persists, an extraordinary line in a journal that brings illumination to one other person, are all possible. None of it will last forever, but even the briefest touch of eternity is glorious.

3. Give your time to your passion

Whatever you love, whatever your craft or art, give it time. You should always be pushing your learning and your boundaries in that area, whether it’s writing or being a loving partner.

We can’t all go to the woods to live deliberate lives, but we can shape our time. We can advocate for our priorities so that they are not marginalised by the onslaught of the world’s busyness and noise.

To do this requires some time to think. Picasso tells us:

Without great solitude no serious work is possible

Even if you can’t escape to the woods for a year, at least carve yourself some thinking time. It might be a week away or a daily practice of ten minutes journaling, but give yourself time to focus and during this time:

  • Make yourself unavailable. Whether it’s closing a door or getting away for a month, the results can be profound.
  • Disrupt your life — it might not be a cabin in the woods, but change your environment whenever you can.
  • Have time each day without technology — especially when you first wake because emails and notifications aren’t the most important thing when you are in that amazing state between sleep and waking.
  • Read, as much as you can — poetry, fiction, essays, history, philosophy. Read great tomes and 4 minute articles. Read as much as possible without screens.
  • Journal. I’ve kept a consistent journal for the last 25 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.
  • Play. McKeown defines this as as anything we do for the sheer pleasure of of it. Play and imagination not only relieve stress, but are vital to creativity. In the words of Einstein:

When I examine myself and my methods of thought, I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.

  • Sleep — deliberate lives need nourishment.

In short, have a routine that supports your direction and gives the biggest share of your time to the person and the writer you want to become.

4. Live now

Reflecting on the past and planning the future can help us to shape who we want to be and how we want to live, but the most vital thing is to be present to the now.

At any one time, think about what is the most important thing to be doing in that moment and give it your full attention. Time isn’t only about how long we live, but about how deeply we live; the quality of the time we have is everything.

The present moment, the ability to be attentive and present NOW is both a quality that we cultivate in the sense of a skill that we hone and practice and a gift that we give. Simone Weil says 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 my environment, when I’m stressed, overwhelmed with non-creative work (those emails that make demands but are not real conversations, or the distractions of a too-fast world), preoccupied with small things and have not given time to journalling and the occasional period of silence and solitude. My thoughts get ragged and my behaviour gets cranky.

On the other hand, when I’m doing yoga daily, journalling, taking walks, making time for slow meals, then I listen. 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 in making a pot of coffee or stirring berries into porridge.

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 or anxieties about things that aren’t important or that I can have no effect on.

Writing about her late partner, the photographer Molly Malone Cook, Mary Oliver says:

An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter. Such openness and empathy M. had in abundance, and gave away freely… M. instilled in me this deeper level of looking and working, of seeing through the heavenly visibles to the heavenly invisibles.

We all know that the world is a mess. We look at politicians and can only wish that the asylum was being run by the lunatics — surely that would be so much better? Apparently by 2050 there will be more plastic in the sea than fish. We are living in the midst of the Holocene (or sixth) mass extinction, this one largely caused by human activity.

War continues in Afghanistan, Syria and the Yemen, with more than 10,000 deaths from armed violence in each of these places in the past year. Meanwhile conflicts in Somalia, Nigeria and Iraq, drug wars in Mexico, insurgency in Boko Haram, ethnic violence in Southern Sudan and Northern Mali claim thousands of lives each year.

While consumerism is a frenzy for some, global poverty persists. Over 3 million children die each year from causes related to malnutrition and more than 10% of the world’s population live in extreme poverty (as defined by the World Bank), including 13 million people in North America.

And it’s not just statistics. How many of us know someone, perhaps someone very close, who is dangerously ill? How many of us have lost someone close in the last year, five years? The light is returning and yet we are as fragile as the green blades that last a week, a couple of weeks and then they wilt and are gone.

And yet, we make our marks, with words, with love. This is hope. This is why we write.

5. Live with intention

In a fast-paced world it’s so easy to let most of what we do become a reaction to something. Instead we can learn to live with intention, becoming pro-active instead of reactive.

When I have a week at work where demands come thick and fast or problems arise that take me away from the work I’ve planned, I’m ragged and exhausted by Friday. When I have a plan for the week that includes leeway, so that unforeseen events don’t throw out the whole timetable, I reach Friday feeling in control. I’m more satisfied even if I’ve actually worked longer hours or put in more energy.

For my work, each week I time block, adjusting for unforeseen events or variations in timing that arise as real life unfolds. If I don’t plan my time, others will define it for me.

For my personal quests this is even more important. I journal, morning and evening every day, do major journaling exercises monthly and at the end of each year.

To front your essential facts, you need to have space to reflect.

Giving our creativity power and time is a radical act in a world that values the ‘shallow’ and the ‘fast’. Look at any click-bait-style blog and you will see how they play on our fears of missing out, of not being rich enough, attractive enough or productive enough. But 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 is a life’s work, always 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,

6. Learn when to say no

The generosity of attention and of living now, as wholly present as we can humany manage, is an extraordinary and powerful aspriation. But being generous isn’t the same as thinking you have to do everything that’s asked of you. Nor does it mean you have to take every opportunity that comes along.

A lot of life goes on simply maintaining being in the world: we work, we cook, we do laundry. But for the rest, if we refuse the distractions and inessentials, we have power and time. In that space, do the things that align with your passion and quests, the things that mean more to you than anything else, with the people you love.

In short

Our essential facts vary, but each of us needs to front the essential facts so that we do not come to the end of life only to discover that we have not lived. 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?

Call to become your story

Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life as well as a fantastic special offer for my new suite of online mini-retreats, Diving Deeply into Your Story. While you’re there, download my free course, Giving yourself time to become a different story.

If you would like to explore becoming your story further, the first in a series of mini-courses to inspire, encourage and support your writing through the seasons of 2019, Diving Deeply into Your Story, has just begun with a 4-day intensive online journaling retreat: Writing the green blade.

Written by

Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @

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