Radical Incrementalism for our Writing?

Radical incrementalism – a principle embraced by psychology professor Robert Boice. He studied the writing habits of fellow academics, and discovered that the most productive of them made writing a smaller part of their daily routine than others. That is, thewriting notebook Writing for Wellbeingy accepted that they may not produce much on any individual day, but by approaching their writing in small bits, they found it much easier to keep doing it daily. Apparently their daily writing sessions might be as short as 10 minutes, and never more than 4 hours. And they always took weekends off!


Now of course we may already have our own writing routines which work for us (and weekends may be our best time for writing!), but this can be a valuable approach, especially if you are working on a large piece of work which seems a bit daunting.


Critically, an important aspect of radial incrementalism is the willingness to stop when your allotted daily time is up. This helps eliminate the feelings of not being productive enough and cultivates patience in not being finished. Apparently, the result is that you can return to the project again and again over a period of time, feeling fresh and always ready to work. It’s a great way to eliminate procrastination and also helps us give up the idea of finding an ‘ideal time’ for writing work. Moreover, it develops a writing habit that can be sustained for a lifetime.


Perhaps it’s worth a try?


[source of information, Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks, pp. 181-82]

You Really are Remarkable

Saw a Facebook post today in which someone was practicing telling herself ‘I am remarkable’ by listing the things she does for others.
But is that what being remarkable really is? It’s so easy to fall into the trap of listing accomplishments as a means to bolster our self-esteem, whether these are done for others or for ourselves. Indeed, this can really help as a quick fix when we need a boost. But it can also cause some less helpful issues.


We can start to think that it is our accomplishments which define us as human beings. This can so easily lead to the perception that we must keep doing more, that if we aren’t achieving something then we don’t really count. Sometimes, we begin to feel that we must never say no to people, fearing that may appear selfish (how dare we put our own needs first?). We feel we must be ever more productive. Very often, it can lead to the intense need to fit more and more into our days, leaving us little time to pause and reflect, or do things for personal refreshment.


Sometimes it happens that we are prevented from accomplishing what we think we should be doing – whether through exhaustion, or emotional and mental health issues, or grief, or other outside circumstances (like a pandemic!). If our sense of self-esteem depends on our achievements, then we’ll quickly find ourselves feeling lost. We may also begin to feel undeserving, particularly of receiving support from others.


Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting we should not have goals, as having something to work towards is nourishing and exciting. I’m definitely not suggesting we shouldn’t do kindnesses for others, as this is always a part of our shared humanity. But we are truly remarkable because of who we are inside ourselves, because of our character and personality which have been formed through a lifetime of experiences. It’s in our whole attitude to life and the world, in our capacity for joy and love, for both giving and receiving. Who we genuinely are spills out to affect others and the world around us in thoughts and deeds, but it also affects us in treating ourselves kindly and loving ourselves no matter what.
So really, I’m encouraging a more holistic view of ‘being remarkable’ – with the emphasis on being.

Transient Light of Dreams

I had the good fortune some months ago to visit the forest at Cong, in County Mayo, Ireland. It truly seems a magical place, with giant redwoods, hanging moss, and a deep atmosphere of peace.spider web 2

As I walked, I saw in one tree a myriad of spiderwebs. Because it had just rained that morning, there were drops of moisture caught on the strands. Now, with the rain over, the shafts of sunlight pierced gaps in the leaf canopy to light up the glistening webs, showing the delicate beauty of each strong strand. At the centre of each was a small motionless spider, legs curled in, as if it were a small bead in the webbing. One web in particular was a perfect circle, and reminded me of a Native American dreamcatcher with its bead in the middle. I gazed at it for a while, then turned to look again at the moss-festooned forest.


A few minutes later I turned back … and there were no spider webs. The angle of the sun had changed ever so slightly, but just enough that its light no longer touched the webs. No matter how hard I looked, and knowing where I had seen them, it was as if they had never been there at all.

I walked away, thankful that I had been there in the few blessed moments when the transient light of dreams could be seen in a few delicate strands.

Elemental Joy

Oh my, the rain! I dashed from the ferry terminal to my car through lashing rain which, against the laws of physics, seemed to be beating against me from all directions at once. I was grateful for my waterproof jacket, but in just a short distance my shoes and trousers were soaked and were now steaming thanks to the car’s heater which I’d turned up full blast. I was feeling a bit grumpy about this turn in the weather and my general state of dampness. Then I saw a family hurrying along the pavement towards their own car, the parents with pinched looks on their faces as water streamed down their cheeks and eyelashes. All they could think about, like me a few moments earlier, was getting into the shelter of the vehicle as quickly as possible. Except for the child – a little one about 3 years old, I suppose. Sporting a wee pair of wellies, he was deliberately splashing each footstep into puddles, and raising his face to the wild rain with a look of sheer unalloyed joy. For us adults, the weather was simply a cause for annoyance and stress, but for this child it was a great chance to have an elemental experience of something beyond ordinary life, to find happiness in the wildness of it all.child in rain

How is it, as adults, we so often attach how we feel to trying to make things more comfortable and not at all inconvenient in any way? So often we attempt to insulate ourselves from anything wild or elemental. Of course, children like comfort as well, and heaven knows kids have opinions about how things should be! But so often you won’t find them worrying much about getting wet, or dirty, or a little scuffed up – in fact, they often find that these things are where all the fun is. Would I have dropped a feeling of stress from my body and spirit if I had, instead, laughed during my passage through the rain and lifted my face to this precious life-giving water? After all, I would be dry again in a bit – but perhaps I had neglected to allow a few moments of real joy into my life.

It’s raining again right now. I think I might just go for a walk.

Castles of the Imagination

IMG_0511On a recent trip to Northumberland, I saw a great many castles. A lot of these castles are now, of course, beautiful historic ruins with wonderful, and somewhat mysterious atmospheres (at least, more mysterious if you eschew English Heritage’s audioguides!). While we know a lot about the use of these castles, it is also fun to let your creativity run free and imagine what these castles were like when all the walls and interiors were intact and people lived their daily lives within them.

But I also saw other castles of the imagination – some splendid sand castles on the beach at Alnmouth. Perhaps the architect of these formidable structures had just been to see one of the castles up the coast – Warkworth or Dunstanburgh – and was inspired to create their own version. This just goes to show that, where imagination is concerned, you can start great or small, and there are endless possibilities.IMG_0536

Puts me in mind of Anne of Green Gables (that feisty heroine of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novels) who said, ‘Isn’t it splendid to think of all the things there are to find out about? It just makes me feel glad to be alive – it’s such an interesting world. It wouldn’t be half so interesting if we know all about everything, would it?’

So whether you visit castles of stone, construct them of sand, or build castles in the air through your writing – just keep on imagining!

New Perceptions

I’ve discovered that hawks, and many other birds, have 4 different receptor-sensitivities in their eyes, unlike humans who only have 3: red, green and blue. That means we can see these 3 colours, as well as combinations of them: yellow, orange, and purple. But hawks can Hawk, Harris'ssee more colours than we can, including the ultraviolet spectrum. So it seems that there exist more colours than we can perceive. Yet we go through life thinking that there are only a certain number of colours, because that’s all we can see, that’s all we have experienced.

That’s a bit of a metaphor for how we often live our lives. We think we perceive the world as it really is, but we are actually bounded by what we already know and by habitual thoughts which tell us that things are a certain way and no other. Yet hawks show us that this is not true – when we look at anything, we are only seeing a part of it. We’re missing colours which we have no way of even imagining. And so it is with any experience – if we insist on translating everything through our knowledge of past events and holding to the same thought patterns we’ve always had, we miss out on so much.

While there is be no way we can see our world as a hawk sees it, there are surely other ways in which we can broaden our perception. Could we not look at our life with fresh eyes, and see things a bit differently? A new year is coming, and I’m setting it as my goal to go do something absolutely new in 2019 which is quite outside of my usual experience. Something that will generate new thoughts and ideas, and challenge me in ways I’ve not done before. Effectively, I’m determined to bring new and amazing colour into my life.

No Wrong Path

There’s no wrong path – there are an infinite number of brilliant opportunities (large and small), and every path teaches us what we need to know, if wetwo roads in wood let it. Today as exam results roll out across the UK we encourage young people to understand that it’s not all about numbers and grades. There are so many wonderful ways to have great experiences, so many types of work to try. For young people, maybe it’s about going straight to university, maybe they don’t know what kind of career they want yet, maybe they want to go out to work for a while to see what that brings. A person can always change their mind later – so many people have a lot of changes in careers and life. It’s all about what’s best for you. And this doesn’t just apply to young people awaiting exam results. Everyone can make life changes, anyone can choose new paths at any time and any age. We can all keep learning and keep on growing.
Me – I left school in Canada a year before the end of high school! I chose instead a hugely interesting job in an art gallery, later becoming curator. Along with this, I opened my own bookstore. When I was 27 I started to university as a part-time mature student, just to take some interesting courses. I became so interested in Medieval History that I started full-time, and got a BA and an MA in CanYYS me at door 1ada, then finally a PhD at University of Cambridge at age 40. And where has that taken me? Everywhere! I teach wonderful Writing for Wellbeing, I work as a self-employed editor and indexer of academic books, I’ve written for art and history encyclopedias, I’ve published a couple of academic books, I’ve taught Latin and Global Heritage at universities, I’ve led guided history walks in Robin Hood’s Bay, I’ve taught Laughter Yoga, I’ve worked for the National Trust, I do holistic social media. And that’s just what I do and have done for a living – there’s so much else to life besides. Like last year I did conservation work with giant leatherback sea turtles in Costa Rica. Opportunities abound – if we decide to look for them and take them. Carpe diem! Seize the day! And don’t let anyone tell me they are too young – or too old. #NoWrongPath

Writer in Residence Dilston Physic Garden

I have lovely news! I’ve just been appointed ‘Writer in Wellbeing in Residence’ at Dilston Physic Garden near Corbridge. I’ve been leading Writing for Wellbeing 100_3133workshops there for some years, and it is wonderful to have a closer association with this wonderful place and the dedicated people who make it happen. The Physic Garden is truly a magical spot which gives inspiration to our writing in the workshops, and leaves visitors with feelings of calm and peace. It is a place filled with medicinal herbs, gorgeous flowers, beautiful trees, astoundingly creative sculptures, and the charming Herbology House where we do our workshops. They have a full program of amazing workshops about plants and all types of wellbeing – including Writing for Wellbeing. Do take time to visit the Garden if you can – or come to one of my workshops there!

9 dilston_physic_garden

You can read more about my appointment as Writer in Residence here, including one of my poems inspired by the beautiful colours in the Garden: http://dilstonphysicgarden.com/writer-in-residence/

And here’s where to find lots more info about the Garden: http://dilstonphysicgarden.com/


Greatest Childhood Gift

When I was a child, I had an uncle who wasn’t all that good at talking a lot, but he was just what I needed – because he listened to me. He listened to me tell him about the books I was reading, my young dreams, and whatever else was on my mind. He used to respond with a drawn-out ‘Oh, yes’, which made me feel like I was a terribly importanindext person.

I don’t think he had had much of a chance to read many ‘children’s books’ when he was a child, educated in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Saskatchewan in Canada. But he gave me two of my most treasured books I had as a child.

One was Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T.S. Eliot, the beautiful old hardcover version (not that inadequate little paperback they peddle now). It had the most vibrant illustrations (with the charming attribution on the cover ‘Nicholas Bentley drew the pictures’). I read those poems over and over with great joy and deep satisfaction that a topic as important as cats was getting its due. The other volume was The Big Green Book by Robert Graves, quite a naughty tale about a child getting magical powers. The illustrations this time were by the great Maurice Sendak.

I had no idea at the time that T.S. Eliot and Robert Graves were two giants of modern literature, and when I grew f4c06bf0f819add3e60c6ee82b1381bd--maurice-sendak-superstitionolder I encountered their adult books with surprise – ‘Oh, did they write something else?’. I realized later that it was my uncle’s way of introducing me to the masters, and he had given me more than just the gift of a couple of children’s books. T.S. Eliot’s poems, particularly, have since become guideposts on my journey through life.

I still have both copies of those books he gave me, with his inscription to me in the front. He died nearly 20 years ago, but I still feel my love for him every time I open them. And I remember my uncle who gave me the greatest gift of all – his attention.

[Written on International Children’s Book Day 2018]

Poetry Really Can Heal

When my Mom was in her 70s, she had a stroke which affected the speech centre of her brain. Not only did she have difficulty in speaking and in finding the right words, she also found herself completely unable to read. The words were just black marks on a white page with no meaning. The doctors said there was nothing to be done about it. But while she was in hospital, we were chatting with the woman in the next bed, who quoted a few lines of poetry applying to what we were talking about. My Mom perked up immediately and said, ‘I know that poem’. This gave me an idea.

The next dadaffodilsy I came in to the hospital with an anthology of poems – old poems, the kind my mother would have read and learned when she was in school. I opened the volume to Wordsworth’s poem ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’. Mom looked at the page and said she couldn’t read it. ‘But you know this one’, I said, and as I started reading it aloud, I pointed my finger to each of the words. My mother started to speak the lines with me, reciting from her memory. It seems that the area of the brain which stored her memory of poems was different than the speech centre which had been damaged by her stroke. And then the magic happened. Suddenly she began to be able to relate the words she was speaking to the words my finger pointed at on the page. The incomprehensible black marks started to make sense again, and formed into written words in her mind. She could read the poem.

That moment was a breakthrough. After practicing by reading more poems, in time she was able to read the newspaper, other books, and do her favorite crossword puzzles again. She could even beat me playing Scrabble. Her speech also improved to the point that most people didn’t know she had any issues with it.

This memory came back to me today on World Poetry Day. That’s why I use poetry in some of my Writing for Wellbeing workshops – because poetry really can heal us in all sorts of ways.