Thursday and yesterday I attended several programs here at the University of Massachusetts Medical School's 8th Annual International Scientific Conference for Clinicians, Researchers and Educators, this year titled "Investigating and Integrating Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society." I hope to tell you about several of them, and will start with one I found to be personally timely and relevant.
The program "Mindful Writing: A University Course in Learning to Write with Comfort and Presence" was taught by Dr. Donna Strickland (with whom I was fortunate to talk at dinner last night). At the workshop, she told attendees about a college class she teaches at University of Missouri.
She began by telling us that she came to teach the course because of suffering. She explained that there is suffering in writing, and she had experienced it firsthand. Strickland was writing a book that she had come to "hate." It was an academic book and she had even taken a semester off to finish the writing. Each morning she would sit down to write and everyday she experienced aversion. She said. "I can't tell you how much I hated it."
She had always been praised for her writing—and she was a college English teacher! What was going on?
She learned the answer to that question and found her way through the aversion when she discovered two things: the Insight Dialogue process, and a book. She says she had her "own ah-ha moment."
The book was How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency: A Psychological Adventure by Robert Boice. He explains that there are several causes for suffering in writing:
- Work aversion
- Writing apprehension (this was the only cause on the list that Strickland did not experience)
- Rigid rules (e.g., "If I don't have three hours to write than what is the point?" or "I have to have a good first line before I write")
Go to the book link above, click on "Click to Look Inside," and then search on "aversion" to see Boice's explanations of the listed causes.
For Strickland, attending the Insight Dialogue retreat and reading the Boice book were "like a miracle." Not only did her attitude towards writing change, but teaching no longer made her nervous. She decided to create a course based on what she had learned.
Her "Mindful Writing" course includes:
- Formal mindfulness practices
- Yoga or yoga-like exercises (because we write with our bodies but do not honor that)
- Insight Dialogue instruction (which includes the actions and attitudes of "pause, relax, and open")
- Boice's steps.
Examples of Boice's steps:
- Wait - This is not passive waiting but active engagement with writing materials, whether they be pen and paper or computer; the "wait" step helps to instill patience, one of the qualities of mindfulness.
- Begin before fully ready - This step is based on Involvement Theory: Learning and success depend upon involvement.
- Enhance bodily comfort by stopping every 10 minutes to monitor comfort, stretch, and take deep breaths.
- Practice regular writing to instill reliable motivation - Her students do BDS's (Brief Daily Sessions of writing of 15 minutes everyday; Boice recommends that even professional writers write no more than four hours per day and advises that writing not interfere with exercise, social life, etc.
- Stop - This step keeps you from binging; learning to stop is the ultimate exercise in patience.
In the Question & Answer period, Strickland responded to a question by saying that it it not impossible to engage in binge writing and get readable product, but that it is not sustainable to do so.
In another response, this one about "heavy planning" (planning the writing in your head before you actually begin writing), she said "the brain is not a good storage place" so do the 15 minutes and get your plans on paper and out of your brain.
I thought Dr. Strickland made many excellent points, and hope that some of them resonate with you. (E-mail Dr. Strickland.)
Good news! On my Wednesday flight to Boston, I finished that writing task I blogged about disliking (or, in Boice's terms, that writing task for which I was having "aversion"). If ever I find myself in that situation again, I think this workshop and reading Boice's book will be of great assistance. Thanks, Donna.