Mindfulness and creative writing

If you didn’t make it to January’s 26 Trade Secrets workshop, all is not lost. Fiona Thompson was there to hear Vanessa King and Elise Valmorbida’s words of wisdom. Now, she thoughtfully shares the advice and tips she’s gleaned for mindful writing.

The latest 26 Trade Secrets workshop on Mindfulness and Creative Writing was serendipitous. It happened towards the end of January, so was well-timed to dovetail with all those resolutions to stay calm, focused and positive in the new year. This was a practical, inspiring evening that delivered a host of useful exercises to fuel my personal and professional writing practice.

Vanessa King and Elise Valmorbida were the dynamic duo at the helm of the session, which took place at the Free Word Centre in London’s Farringdon.

Vanessa is the author of 10 Keys to Happier Living and is on the board of Action for Happiness. Every month, this non-profit shares a calendar that highlights daily tips on how to generate a little more joy in your life. In January, suggestions included ‘Name three things you’re looking forward to this year’ and ‘Do something positive for a good cause’. Frankly, it’s addictive.

Elise is a copywriter and author who teaches creative writing at Arvon and Central Saint Martins. Her latest novel, The Madonna of the Mountains, will be published by Faber in April 2018.

Battling your inner judge and over-active brain

As many who write for a living will acknowledge, it’s easy for our brains to run away with us. It’s hard to pay attention to the task in hand if we’re constantly being interrupted by concerns about the past, worries about the future or an inner judge who’s heckling us about the quality of our work.

Vanessa described how mindfulness can act as an antidote to the frantic hamster-scrabble of the typical brain, helping us to focus our mind and free our imagination.

According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the professor who pioneered mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness means “paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”. Vanessa added: “Mindfulness can give us control over the way we pay attention. And the most important word in that definition is ‘non-judgmentally’.”

Three ways to use mindfulness in creative writing

After a few minutes of meditation, Elise and Vanessa took us through a variety of exercises designed to help us hone our ability to pay attention without judgement.

Here are some of the ideas they shared during the workshop.

  1. Explore ideas without a destination

“Sometimes burdening an activity with purpose is destructive,” said Elise. “Think about exploring instead. Appreciate the process and go with it, without having an end goal in mind.”

This ties in with the ‘zen writing’ technique taught in Natalie Goldberg’s seminal book, Writing down the Bones. Set a timer for ten minutes, start with a writing prompt, and just keep writing without stopping, editing or revising. You’ll be surprised at what your mind can produce if you just get out of its way.

  1. Open up to theta memory

When you’re deeply relaxed or on the borders of sleep, your brain waves slow to a theta state where you’re conscious but your critical mind (that pesky inner judge) is off duty. This creates the perfect state for new ideas to arise unselfconsciously. It’s worth keeping a notebook by your bed to capture any precious fleeting ideas before they disappear forever.

  1. Pay attention to the world around you

“Noticing is really important,” said Elise. “The more you notice authentically, the better your writing will be. Empathy is a good first principle for any kind of creative writing. If you can imagine your way into other people’s motivation, you can start to understand it and transfer that insight into your writing.”

Or, as Mary Oliver puts it in her wonderful poem, Sometimes.

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Vanessa and Elise are currently writing a book on mindfulness and creative writing together. After this session, I definitely want a copy when it comes out.


Fiona Thompson is a board member of 26. She runs her own writing consultancy, Wordspring, working with clients including Nokia, the Paris Opera House, Help Musicians UK and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. This year, she is President of the Writing for Design jury at the D&AD awards.

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