I’ve been earning my living from words for the last 30 years. I’m the author of over 20 non-fiction books and have worked for pretty well all the national newspapers and a wide swathe of magazines. Yet still, I often feel like a fraud and of late words have turned nasty on me. I sit at my desk with dread and the novel I started three years ago is gathering dust bunnies in a dark corner of my laptop. My inner critic tells me I’m crap and I nod vigorously, totally agreeing.
So when Julia McCutchen invited me to attend her Conscious Writing retreat in Glastonbury, I was intrigued. Julia worked in mainstream publishing for many years before stepping into mentoring people in the creative process. Now she’s written a book, Conscious Writing (HayHouse) and runs retreats that aim to help people discover their true voices. Could she help me rediscover my writing mojo? Could a long weekend’s retreat free up my imagination and bolster my confidence so I could crack on with a book that’s very precious to my heart?
‘Conscious Writing is a journey of self-realization and self-expression,’ says Julia. ‘It allows people to realize their true nature, access their authentic voice, and to write – and express their calling in the world – consciously and creatively.’
She insists the process is suitable for everyone – from those who have never written a word right through to experienced authors who are ready to shift their work onto the next level. But, most intriguingly, she says that the conscious writing process can help us find out more about our real selves.
19 of us gather in the meeting room at the Abbey Retreat House in Glastonbury. It’s an inspiring setting, with clear views of the ancient abbey ruins beyond a sweeping lawn. We introduce ourselves, some shyly, some with confidence. We’re a mixed bunch for sure – a few published authors; many who are working on their first books; a fair few with no writing experience at all. Some are hoping to write fiction, some non-fiction; a few want to express themselves with blogging; one isn’t sure she even wants to write.
‘We have to let go and allow ourselves to be seen for who we truly are,’ says Julia. ‘This is a safe and sacred space – allow yourself to be real, to be vulnerable, to be authentic; allow yourself to be supported.’ She invites us to come into the centre of the circle, one by one, and tie a purple ribbon around the wooden frame surrounding the central candle. ‘I commit to trust,’ we say in turn. It’s a commitment to trusting each other, ourselves and the creative process itself: a small symbolic yet potent gesture.
If you want a nuts and bolts ‘how to’ workshop, this isn’t for you. You won’t be taught how to structure your book, how to create characters, how to write punchy dialogue. What you will be taught are techniques for getting out of your own way, so you can drop the self-sabotaging parts of the self that whisper, ‘Oh, you can’t write’ or ‘What’s the point, nobody will listen.’
We learn simple energy exercises and meditation that prepare the way for writing. Then Julia guides us through a beautiful visualisation – The Path to the Conscious Writing Sanctuary. I find myself dropping into a deep hypnotic state, almost able to feel the sand under my feet, the warm sun on my face. ‘In a moment, in the physical world, you will open your eyes, pick up your writing tools and begin to write,’ she says. We quietly get up and scatter around the building and grounds. I curl up in a window seat and find, to my surprise, that my pen is moving across the paper almost by itself. There’s a sudden, unexpected and hugely welcome clarity about the structure of the book, and some very surprising insights into my formerly elusive characters.
There’s a gentle rhythm to the days – a good mix of guided sessions and free time for writing, walking and exploring, or simply resting and relaxing. Sometimes we work alone, sometimes in pairs, sometimes in small groups. If you think it sounds scary, it isn’t – honestly. Everyone is supportive and (unlike most writing courses and workshops) there’s absolutely no pressure to perform.
Time becomes fluid. On the last morning it feels as if I have been here forever, as if the weekend has stretched into another dimension. As we close our circle, we take back the purple ribbons and I tie mine around my wrist as a reminder to trust myself, my own process, my own writing. The dust has definitely been blown away from my book.
Julia’s tips for Conscious Writing
1. Develop presence. Mindfulness and awareness are crucial to Conscious Writing. Julia teaches energy exercises and meditations to prepare the mind for writing. ‘When you’re caught in the monkey mind chatter, it blocks you from reaching a true space of authenticity,’ she says. Her book gives a good programme but, equally you could develop your own practice. Yoga, meditation, mindfulness, qi gong are all good ways to bring yourself into the moment.
2. Bring body, mind, heart and soul into alignment. ‘You need to bring your whole self to the writing process,’ says Julia. ‘When everything is aligned, a deep space of truth opens within us. It’s like coming home.’ If you get stuck with your writing, try moving your body – go for a walk, dance around the room, do some yoga, stretch.
3. Be authentic. Drop all your ideas of the way you should be writing and write from the heart. ‘It’s a crowded marketplace,’ says Julia, ‘Readers will pick up on the energy in your writing – it’s vital that you’re you.’ Conscious Writing invites you to be the authority in your life – to have the courage to be seen for who you truly are. Ask yourself ‘What makes my heart sing?’ Apply this to your ideas for writing.
4. Develop your intuition. Set aside some time to close your eyes, relax your body, deepen your breath and turn your attention to listening consciously. See what emerges. Listen to what people are saying – truly listen – they may have an important message for you.
5. Give yourself space and time. Don’t race the process. Find space in your schedule to allow yourself to muse, wonder, write. Learn how to say ‘no’ says Julia. ‘Be clear about your boundaries. Carve out time and schedule opportunities for each stage of the Conscious Writing process – they need to be reserved as sacred.’
6. Move into connection. We are all connected and goal of the Conscious Writer is to write for others as much as for ourselves. ‘We blend the individual narrative with the universal story for the greater good of all as we inhabit the oneness of which we are an integral part,’ says Julia.
7. Enlist support. Writing is a solitary process and having contact with fellow writers can be a huge boon. Find a writing buddy or join a writing group. The Association of Conscious & Creative Writers (www.iaccw.com) is a good place to start.
For more information on Julia McCutchen’s work and her Conscious Writing retreats see www.JuliaMcCutchen.com