Mindful Details: Paying Attention to the World Around You

How many times do you find yourself in a waiting room, on a bus, sitting outside a restaurant waiting for the rest of your party . . . and to pass the time, you pull out your phone. You might be thinking it’s the perfect opportunity to catch up on social media or to shoot off some emails you’ve been procrastinating on. Maybe you’re playing a game or reading an e-book.

We all do this. I know I’m guilty of it. Actually, I shouldn’t use the word “guilty” here, because I, for one, see nothing wrong with this. I’m not here to shake my fist in the air and shout to the world that electronic devices are destroying human interaction, yada yada yada. (I actually believe they’ve brought people closer together in some ways, but that’s another post for another blog).

Nope, I’m not going to chastise anyone for playing a game of Candy Crush while sitting at the bus stop. I might, however, be so bold as to say that frittering away the “boring” moments of life on our phones is wasting an opportunity to improve our writing skills. When was the last time you kept your phone in your pocket and just sat, observing and experiencing the world around you? When was the last time you were fully mindful of your surroundings? When did you pay attention–really pay attention to the people passing by?

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While at an art museum this last weekend, my friend, who’d recently moved into the town in which I was visiting her, was asking the woman at the front desk if she had any recommendations of other things to do in the area. They talked for a long time, and I sort of let myself fall off to the background. At first, I busied myself taking pictures of the cool architecture in the lobby, then posting the pics onto Instagram. But eventually, as the two continued to chat, I became fascinated by the way the woman’s heavy jewelry clacked with every movement she made. And she moved a lot. She was animated, talking with her hands. I watched for a while, wondering how it didn’t bother her, deciding it would certainly bother me. And then . . . it occurred to me that I could use this for one of my characters. I excused myself, pulled out my phone again, opened up a note app, and wrote the description down.

The next time you have the opportunity to people watch, take it. See if you can find at least one unique detail about a person, whether it’s a distinctive article of clothing that hints at their personality, the way they carry themselves, what their voice sounds like, what they smell like (if they’re close enough)–and write it down. (One caveat: don’t be obvious about it. You never know how someone might react. I take no responsibility for any black eyes.)

Don’t stop with people. Be mindful of scenery too. Of the feel of a room when you enter it for the first time. Of the sounds of wildlife outside your window bright and early in the morning. Don’t push these observations to the background as you go about your day. Keep your eyes, ears, and nose open and really take it all in. Then write it down. Even if you don’t have a place for a particular observation in your current project, it’s good practice anyway.

One more thing: don’t focus only on the strange and/or unique. Focus on the mundane as well. Some of the best writing I’ve read has been able to transport me into a scene via one or two simple sensory details of something as plain as the sticky feel of over-waxed wood beneath fingertips, or the citrus scent and fizz of bubbles in a sink full of soapy dishes. You can feel that wood yourself now, can’t you? Because we’ve all felt it at one time or another. You can smell that dish soap and hear that faint crackle of foam, and now, you’re in the scene. These are mindful details. And the more often you take the time out to pay attention to the world around you, the more often these details will seep into your writing, making it so much stronger.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

 

Focus

I have a slight (okay, huge) problem with staying focused on tasks that I don’t want to do. Sometimes it’s because I find a task boring–like housework. Or it’s repetitive, or I don’t see the point, or . . . I love it, and I find it interesting, and I want to do it, buuuuuuuut it’s hard.

Writing, you guys. Writing is hard. I love writing, but it’s hard. So hard. It is, I might even  go so far as to say, quite difficult.

Whenever I get stuck for words, or I’m not quite sure how I want to go about writing the next scene, that’s it, my brain’s like “this is HARD,” and I’m off clicking on social media, checking my texts, getting up to grab a snack I don’t need, etc. But I’ve been trying a few things to help with this problem, and I thought I’d share them with you in case you have a similar issue.

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1. Meditation

Meditation is basically just training your brain to focus, and you don’t have to do it for very long each day. I’ve been using an app called Headspace to help me out. It does require a subscription to be able to use all of it, but the Take-Ten (10 minute) beginner/training sessions are free. There are also other apps out there–a quick search in your app store will bring up many. But you don’t even need an app for the basics. Just find a quiet, comfortable spot (sitting, preferably, so you don’t get too relaxed and fall asleep) and focus on your breathing. Count your breaths in your head, if that helps. And whenever you notice that your mind is wandering (and it will), just gently acknowledge that and bring it back to focus on your breaths again. I try to do this before I sit down to write, and it really helps a lot.

2. Physical Activity

Again, it doesn’t take much. A brisk walk or some yoga, or even just dropping to the floor and doing a few pushups can help get the blood flowing to your brain and increase your ability to concentrate. I will often do some stretches or pushups between writing sprints.

3. Less Caffeine

Wait . . . WHAT?!

Yes, I know. I’m a writer. Don’t writer’s practically bleed caffeine? I used to, but I just can’t do it anymore. Too much caffeine sends my brain into hyper drive, and makes it more difficult for me to reign it in. I do need some in the morning, however, to jumpstart my day. so I’ve started making my morning cup with one scoop of caffeinated grounds, and one scoop of decaf. That combo is perfect for me. You might need to do some adjusting to figure out the right balance for you.

4. Set up a Permanent Writing Space

. . . and be consistent about writing there. I’ve had a writing desk set up for quite a while, actually, but the couch is so comfy, you know? And so, until recently, I rarely ever wrote at my desk, preferring my laptop, a cozy blanket, and my sofa. It’s no wonder writing often made me sleepy. As soon as I lost focus, I’d often opt for a nap (and no, this has nothing to do with the reduction in caffeine–couches just make me want to nap no matter what, so don’t even go there.) Not only that, but the living room is where we watch TV and play games, and mine’s connected to an open kitchen where I can see all the dishes that are piling up, not to mention mail and papers and . . . you see what I’m getting at? It’s distracting because it’s associated with many different things, and they’re all competing for my attention.  My writing desk, however, is tucked away in this weird little nook in the hallway that the builders thought needed to be there for some reason, and it’s away from the chaos of the rest of the house. Everything on and around my desk reminds me either of my writing, or the things that have inspired my writing (like my T.A.R.D.I.S. and my Mulder and Scully Pop figurines.) If I consistently choose to write at my desk, my brain will associate that spot with writing only. And so far, it’s working really well.

So those are the main things that have helped me focus and stay on task as a writer. I hope you find them helpful too, and if you happen to have any other tips, I’d love it if you’d share them in the comments.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

How Your (Other) Career Can Make You a Better Writer

Full-time writer.

Ever since I was a teenager, I have entertained dreams of this concept. Now I am well into my *cough* forties and not a full-time writer, though I personally know a few of these magical creatures. I have another career that demands quite a bit of my time, and I’m perfectly aware that I’m not as prolific as a writer as I could be. I used to battle over this notion, working on my WIPs in the wee hours of the morning until I was stressed and exhausted and a grouchy monster with no possible relief in sight for said grouchiness. This ultimately led to burnout, and on top of that, unhappiness with my inability to better balance my time between my author career (which I love with a passion) and my Associate Professor career (which I also love with a passion). We writers always hear the advice to make writing a priority, and I wholeheartedly agree. BUT  I admit that I sometimes wonder if I can mentally/ emotionally/ physically sustain both careers. (Note that I’m in the middle of finals week as I write this and I feel mentally/ emotionally/ physically exhausted.)  I also have a family that always comes first. And I have important friendships and other interests and even a need to eat now and then and my health to take care of and other matters of life and ALL THE THINGS. *hyperventilates*

But I digress. This post is about career choices — though for me, there really is no choice. I love and need my life as Associate Professor, and I love and need my author life, and so I choose both. But here’s the amazing thing that I figured out rather late in the game (this year). Until recently, I had largely been viewing these two careers as separate and not synergistic. Now I’ve come to realize that I’m a better professor because I’m an author. Likewise, I know that I’m a better author if I embrace my career as a Professor. (I should probably mention here that I’m not an Associate Professor of English or Creative Writing. I’m an Associate Professor of Biology.)

If you aren’t a full-time writer but are working two careers, whether it be Author first and Other second or vice versa, here are some ways you could benefit from embracing both:

  1. Character inspiration: This is not to say that you should necessarily write your boss as a villain (No matter how tempting that may be, this would invalidate that important disclaimer about your characters being fictional and how any resemblance of them to real people is a coincidence). BUT we can’t help that IRL people do serve as character inspirations. Maybe your coworker has a quirky or annoying thing that she does that your character borrows for her own. Maybe your directory of colleagues (or class list – hehe) serves as a potential list for new character names. Writers create real characters by borrowing bits of real people. A former colleague and I used to joke that someday we would write a comic strip about university life because of all of the drama and characters we work with. This hasn’t happened, but I’ve had lots of idea fodder because of my working environment, which I’ll talk about more in #2. But before I get to that, I need to emphasize that one of the most important things that helps us as writers (and human beings in general) is EMPATHY. In working with my students and others, I try to take the time to understand them as people. This helps ME as a person and yes, as a writer.careful_or_youll_end_up_in_my_novel_round_sticker-rae60fc169aa946faa3d08ee493ce1893_v9waf_8byvr_324
  2. Career-based inspiration. As real people serve as character inspiration, your knowledge base and working environment may be a source of inspiration as well. The specifics of this one are obviously dependent on your particular career. John Grisham is probably one of the best-known examples of an attorney who used his background to write his legal thrillers. One of my childhood favorites, Agatha Christie, worked for several years in a pharmacy, which gave her knowledge of drugs (and how they could be used for murder). My YA characters have been known to take science courses, and my inside knowledge of college life makes for a relatable college life for my NA characters. Your particular area of expertise can also help to improve authenticity and be used for elements of world building, no matter how big or small. (BTW, I really love this post by Amanda Rawson Hill on contemporary world building). agatha
  3. Integration. Every day that you write, you become a better writer. (If you don’t believe me, blow off the dust from one of your earliest works and read it.) If you truly enjoy both of your careers as I do, you can seize opportunities within your job to become a better writer. By this, I don’t mean by writing during lunch breaks or while waiting for a copy job to finish (though you could), but by seizing opportunities to do the things that help you become a better writer. Again, this does depend on your career type. A career in floor retail doesn’t afford much opportunity to integrate writing (but imagine the possibilities for #1). Neither does flying helicopters (but imagine the possibilities for #2.) Proofreading reports or legal briefs may help you become better at killing your darlings. Those sales pitches or job presentations may help you become better at pitching your stories. I used to think I had to keep Author life and Professor life completely segregated, but the possibilities for integration keep expanding. For instance, I’ve made great strides to instill the love of reading and the value of scientific AND general literacy in my students. My talented friend and colleague Tasha Seegmiller and I coauthored a scientific paper this year on how to effectively use fiction to promote scientific literacy in biology classes. My other talented friend and colleague (Assistant Professor of Chemistry; see how doable this is?), Elaine Vickers and I were recently accepted as faculty at the 2017 LDStorymakers Conference for our class, Getting It Right: Science in Fiction. These accomplishments are part of my author life AND my professor life, and TBH, I probably would have never dreamed of doing either of these specific things as part of my job if I hadn’t become an author. Also, in grading mountains of scientific papers (finals week – gah!), have become a better editor of my students’ written works (much to their dismay  when they find so much markup on their papers #sorrynotsorry). In my classes, they’re doing scientific and not creative writing, but I still feel it’s my professional duty to teach my biology students about the superiority of active voice over passive voice and why spelling matters (e.g., you know, because the words, “assess” and “asses” have completely different meanings.) But also lessons about why attention to all details is important (a lesson from editing and publishing) and why it’s important to make sure they take care of themselves as people (a lesson from writer life in general).

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In sum, for those of you who, like me, are not full-time writers at this point in time (and maybe never will be), don’t feel like you haven’t “made it” as a writer. Take stock in your entire world and appreciate opportunities for inspiration and whenever possible, integration. There is really something to be said about having the best of both worlds. 🙂

Do you have a career in addition to your writing career? What are some ways in which you’ve managed to have the best of both worlds?

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helen2Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both paranormal and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the Mythology trilogy (MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL), and contemporary romances LOSING ENOUGH and SCARS RUN DEEP (coming soon). As an Associate Professor of Biology, she tries to instill good writing practices and a love of reading into her students. You can find out more about her writing life at www.helenboswell.com and her professor life at helenboswell.wordpress.com.

 

 

The Flame in My Head: How Sensory Awareness Helps With Writing

There’s exactly one month left of my summer break *cue violins,* and I’ve been trying very hard to be mindful of my everyday experiences and with my writing. I’ve had fair to moderate success with this. Last spring, I attended a lecture on the art of mindful learning (in a nutshell, this is a way to be more engaged with one’s surroundings and experiences) and from that I began thinking about how to apply this to writing. But with summer break, kids, day trips, and all of the constant activities, being mindful has been more of a challenge than I anticipated. However, I have come away with certain (small) accomplishments, or at least some things I now know need to be my focal points. In particular, being aware of my own sensory experiences has been extremely helpful. Here are some of the take-home points from my rather bumpy journey thus far:
Seeking Quiet (or Dark Slide) Moments. This summer, I spent numerous afternoons with my kids at our local aquatic center, and WOW. Talk about overstimulation. Crowds, echoing, screaming, splashing, whistles blowing, and loud, loud, LOUD. After several weeks, my youngest son asked if I would go down the large tube slide, and as he was being brave about it, I said sure, trudged up the six flights, and went down the slide. The journey down that slide was less than a minute long, but it was less than a minute of darkness and quiet and solitude that was extreme in comparison to that world just outside that slide. In those fifty-or-so seconds, I had a minor story epiphany. I went down the slide about 6 more times that day to firm up the story idea in my head before I went home and wrote it down. And I always go down the slide now, and sometimes I get another story idea. (Methinks the slide is magical.)
Recognizing the Overstimulated Version of You. When I’m overstimulated, I get this crackly pressure behind my eyes that scatters my thoughts and inhibits my creativity. I call this feeling the “flame in my head.”  Maybe it’s my reaction to the collective emotions that often run rampant on social media. Maybe it’s because I’ve had an overwhelming or stressful day for other reasons. Whatever the reason, and whenever possible, I try to unplug from the source of this overstimulation (e.g., turning off the internet or hiding out in my room for twenty minutes or going out for a smoothie or going down that wonderfully dark tube slide). This is not to say that I don’t find equal value in venturing out into that busy, crazy world and keeping up on happenings. Sometimes I’ll even peruse social media (FB more likely than Twitter) and stumble across an article that inspires me for writing-related purposes. Perhaps I’ll find an image that serves as character inspiration or a post that reminds me of a character’s struggle, and then I’m eternally grateful for finding it. Like anything, it’s all about attempting balance — seeking out stimulation or inspiration without getting too much. 
Capturing Emotions of the Moment. I’ve started paying more attention to how interactions make me feel. This is actually a thought that came about in part by a conversation about kids (and how hard it is to raise them) that I had with my awesome CP Megan Paasch a while back. Babies express themselves by smiling, cooing, and crying, but learning how to express your feelings in words is a learned practice. When my sons get their feelings hurt, I now try to get them to explain in words how the other person made them feel. I’ve experimented with this too, trying to describe my own emotions from simple things like seeing an old friend for the first time in a long time, or my feelings after I have an awkward encounter with someone (it happens a lot). This practice has been helpful for me in expressing those same feelings for my characters. This is just an example of something I wrote on the fly based on one of those awkward moments:
She skips into the coffeeshop wearing a flowing green dress, her presence much larger than her five-foot-two. Eager brown eyes sweep through the crowded sitting area, and a grin flashes on her face as she waves at me. Do I know her? I chance it, lifting my hand and waving back, only to watch her walk past me and hug the person behind me. If I adjust my headphones immediately, maybe no one will notice the burn creeping into my cheeks. But a momentary lull in conversation is like a spotlight shining down on me, and I wish I could sink into the floor.
Being mindful about your own needs and your emotions takes practice, but I’ve found this venture to be worthwhile for writing-related purposes. It also comes in handy for overall emotional health, or when you need to quash the flame in your head.

How do you cope with overstimulation? What are ways you can work on being mindful? 
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Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH and SCARS RUN DEEP (coming soon). You can find out more about her at www.helenboswell.com.

Mindful Writing: A Lesson from the Art of Mindful Learning

As part of my academic life, I recently attended a wonderful presentation about “Mindful Learning.” My initial expectation was that this would be another talk about how to teach, primarily centered on pedagogy and research methods. But as the speaker began his discussion, I was delighted. What he spoke about had great significance to teaching, but also on how to live your life. And yes, on how to write.

In writing, mindfulness is key.

If you’re interested in a full discourse on mindful learning, the presenter gave us some great resources about the topic, including the highly recommended book called Mindful Learning by Drs. Craig Hassed and Richard Chambers. As a sampling, here are three of the bigger points that I took away from his presentation on mindful learning:

Mindful learning is a way to increase attention to and engagement with our surroundings.  Maybe it’s simply by paying attention to the scenery during your drive into work or to the feel of the steam on your face when you take that first sip of tea in the morning. By using our full senses to engage with our surroundings, we immerse ourselves in the experience, and those experiences become much more memorable.

Mindful learning can greatly reduce stress by blocking out stimuli that competes for our attention. In today’s socialized structure, our attentions are drawn to many competing activities that draw from our focus. Developing personal strategies for managing those stimuli and potential sources of distraction is essential.

Mindful learning is a way to get past surface understanding and ultimately achieve deep understanding. True mindfulness means going beyond what you “need to know.” Being able to make connections and apply what you know to real-world situations requires experience, exposure, and practice. Above all, keep practicing!

As the presenter went on, he asked us whether anyone could think of ways in which we already apply mindfulness in our lives. Ooh, Me Me! I immediately thought of all of the connections to writing, but I did not actually raise my hand and jump up and down in my seat, as I wanted to sit and reflect upon these things some more. I did approach the presenter after his talk to share my thoughts, and he enthusiastically agreed that writing allows for an excellent chance to be mindful.

My thoughts about mindfulness and writing.

Mindful writing is a way to increase awareness and engagement with your storyWriting mindfully means allowing yourself to sink deeply into a character’s mind so that you truly understand their needs, hopes, fears, and motivations. To do your characters justice, you must tap into their voices and tell their story in a way that makes your reader care. I’ve personally found that meditation exercises or engaging in a directed visualization exercise for writers can help access various aspects of my story, whether it be for world-building, characterization, dialogue, or plotting. 

Mindful writing can greatly reduce pressure by blocking out stimuli that competes for our attention.   Mindfulness requires focus. What’s that, you say? Avoiding distraction is impossible due to the many demands which may or may not involve writing with children underfoot or writing while on-the-go? Take baby steps, my friends. Maybe blocking out stimuli may start turning off your Wi-fi or stepping away from social media. Or if that’s too frightening of a prospect, limiting yourself to a time period at the end of the day to catch up on your social networks. Or making sure you have your headphones to connect to your characters via a writing playlist. Or escaping to a cabin in the mountains. (Hey, anything is possible, right? Writing retreats are wonderful. Here’s a post on how to plan a dreamy one.)

Mindful writing is a way to get past surface understanding and ultimately achieve deep understanding with your craft. Gaining a deeper understanding of the writing process means seeking new ways to immerse yourself in the craft. A good critique group can teach you how to critically and constructively evaluate writing (and I have learned much about writing by reading the stories produced by my talented group). Reading just the right book about craft can light the fire under you if you happen to be low in motivation or inspiration. Attending writing conferences can expose you to new techniques, experiences, and opportunities to interact with other writers. ABOVE ALL, KEEP WRITING!

What are the ways that you have been mindful with your writing?
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Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both urban fantasy and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of YA urban fantasies MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL, and NA contemporary romance LOSING ENOUGH. You can find out more about her at www.helenboswell.com.