There are moments when every writer needs help. CM Hamilton shares three specific meditations that will help any writer get their creative juices flowing and develop greater focus.
Did you know that you can use writing as a meditation technique?
Writing meditations are prompts that help you use the focused process of deliberate writing to encourage creativity and mindful concentration.
What is Meditation?
Very simply, meditation is the practice of focus, loss of focus, and return to focus. Traditionally this means focusing on one thing like the breath, a mantra, sensations, sound, or a repetitive activity, and then going through the process of focus, loss of focus, and return to focus.
When meditating, your mind will wander to all manner of random thought. This is frustrating, but it is very normal. Meditation is an exercise to become aware when you have lost focus and to practice returning to the object of your focus.
The only way to get better is to practice. And practice. Just like getting better at the piano and learning a new language.
Exercising and strengthening this ability to focus and return to focus is beneficial to almost everyone, but particularly if you are a writer with word count objectives and book completion goals where you need frequent, long periods of focus.
What Are Writing Meditations?
Writing meditations are short, 5- to 20-minute focused writing sessions that encourage creativity through mindful, diligent concentration. They help you to reflect on important tasks or decisions and to think about things from unique perspectives.
Research has shown that writing exercises can have significant health benefits and increase productivity. You too can get these benefits by incorporating them into your own daily writing process. It can also help to break through and defeat writer’s block.
How do you “do” writing meditations?
Select a “meditation” or writing prompt. Find a place where you are unlikely to be disturbed. Sit in a comfortable position and set a timer for 5–20 minutes. Spend up to a minute settling and preparing, then take a few deep breaths and begin to write.
To get the best results from writing meditations and journaling:
- Don’t worry about grammar or spelling, just get thoughts into words on a page
- Be open, honest and authentic with the knowledge that no one else is going to read it
- Write by hand in cursive or short-hand if possible, although typing fast into a word processor can work as well (if you avoid editing)
- Write a lot – as much as you can in the available time.
Remember that for writing meditations, you are training yourself to focus on a writing task, accepting that you may lose focus, and then returning to focus.
In addition to the meditative benefits of exercising your ability to focus, a side benefit will be creating output, clarifying your thinking and being reflective and productive.
Writing Meditation #1: 10 Bad Ideas
Set a timer for 5–15 minutes. At the top of the page write “10 bad ideas for [x]”; then proceed to write a list of at least ten ideas about today’s topic.
The reason to title it “bad ideas” is that you don’t want to labor over each idea and whether it is good or not. They are supposed to be bad ideas so they can be unformed or badly formed. Change the list every day.
Amongst the list of bad ideas, there are often some incredibly good ideas. This is a great exercise for creativity and exercising the mind.
For instance, the 10 bad ideas could be about:
- how to show more gratitude
- book titles or chapter names for an unwritten story
- a to-do list of next steps to complete a major project you are working on
- career changes you could make
- simple physical exercises you could do today
- gift ideas for an upcoming event or holiday
- healthy breakfast foods
- small things you could do that could make a positive impact this week
- ways to respond to a difficult person
- who and how could you help in a small way today
- a few ideas of how you could spend your time better or more meaningfully.
Lists often lead to new lists. For example, one day might be a list of 10 projects you want to work on. The next day will be 10 ideas for how to start one of those projects. The next day will be 10 ideas for people you could ask to help with this project. The next day will be 10 ideas of things you could accomplish today related to that project, etc, etc.
Your mind will wander, and when you realize that you are thinking about anything other than your list of bad ideas, return your focus to the writing meditation. Continue until the timer goes off.
Writing Meditation #2: Life as a Three-Act Play
Set a timer for 10–20 minutes. At the top of the page write “My Life as a Three-Act Play”, then “Fade In”. Proceed to write an outline in three acts, using yourself as the main character and your life (or this year) as the story with some goals, setbacks, and a few fictional elements.
This exercise can be used to explore a big decision, a relationship, an adventure or upcoming move, including what obstacles you might encounter and how characters react. Use a three-act structure template that you are familiar with, or you can find many examples online. See one example in the diagram below.
Typically, the first act will establish the main characters, their relationships, and the world they live in. A dynamic incident occurs that confronts the main character, whose attempts to deal with this incident lead to a second and more dramatic situation (known as the first turning point). Life will never be the same again for the protagonist, which raises a dramatic question.
In the second act, “rising action” depicts the protagonist's attempt to resolve the problem initiated by the first turning point, only to find themselves in ever worsening situations. The protagonist must learn new skills and arrive at a higher sense of awareness of who they are and what they are capable of in order to deal with their predicament and with the help of other characters.
The third act features the resolution of the story and includes a climax where the main tensions of the story are brought to their most intense point and the dramatic question is answered. The protagonist and other characters are left with a new sense of who they really are.
Your mind will wander, and when you realise that you are thinking about anything other than your personal three-act story, return your focus to the writing meditation. Continue until the timer goes off.
Writing Meditation #3: Letter to an Ancestor
Set a timer for 10–20 minutes. At the top of the page write “Letter to [Ancestor]”. This letter could be addressed to a grandparent or great-grandparent, or even someone from many generations back who you have never met. Write them a letter about your life and current situation.
The letter could take many forms, for instance:
A personal introduction of who you are, your current life situation, goals and aspirations.
A chronological family history since their time.
An expression of gratitude for shared genetics, personality traits, characteristics, heirlooms, or for hardships and challenges they faced or other things which you may be proud of or thankful for.
This writing meditation also works well as a daily or regular journal entry, where instead of “Dear diary/journal” you would address it to a distant relative.
Your mind will wander, and when you realize that you are thinking about anything other than the letter to an ancestor, return your focus to the writing meditation. Continue until the timer goes off.
Final Thoughts, And More Writing Meditations
Many of history’s greatest minds spent countless hours writing things that were never meant to be seen by anyone. Scientists like Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, politicians like Benjamin Franklin and Winston Churchill, artists like Leonardo Da Vinci and Ernest Hemingway, and historical figures like Marcus Aurelius and Abraham Lincoln all spent considerable time writing to no one but themselves.
They understood that the deliberate practice of writing had significant benefits to their creativity, self-awareness, memory, productivity, and well-being.
What do you think of the idea of approaching writing as a meditation technique? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
CM Hamilton has been collecting meditation techniques and practising meditation for more than 20 years. He has spent most of his life in England and Texas, and currently lives in London where he goes to the theatre less often than he should. He has written three books, Meditations: 50 Meditation Techniques and Meditations for Sleep, as well as Writing Meditations.
The writing prompts described in Writing Meditations – 36 Prompts to Inspire Meditative Writing, include simple instructions for creating lists, generating creative ideas and solutions, making plans, and for reflection and personal improvement.
Writing meditation prompts described in the book include: 10 Bad Ideas, Stream of Consciousness, Time Capsule, Gratitude Journal, Proust Questionnaire, Limerick, Letter from a Space Ship, Decision Tree, Stoic Virtues, Mind Map, New Year's Resolutions, Worry About It Later, Elevator Pitch, Predictive Journaling, and many more.
With much interest, I have read your blog entry about the writing meditation which made me dive into writing. It’s very good exercise. I’m not sure whether it makes me more creative, but I just write what comes to my mind. The only thing I don’t understand in your post is, why you use the term “bad ideas” and not “good ideas?”
I can’t say I read all your blog posts, but whenever I read it, I find it very stimulating.
Joanna Penn says
I’ll leave this to CM to answer, as this is a guest article 🙂
Clay Hamilton says
Hi Margaret! The reason to title it “bad ideas” is that you don’t want to labor over each idea and whether it is good or not, you just want to get words on a page and exercise your creativity by focusing your mind and making a long list.
If you were writing ideas for book titles and the first idea was “The Long Road” you might get stuck wondering if that was a “good” title or not. Is it too simple or already been used? Is it descriptive enough, boring, lacks creativity, fits the narrative, too Jack Kerouac-y, too Cormac McCarthy-y, too Robert Frost-y? You could spend 20 minutes trying to figure out if The Long Road was a good title, or even what “good” is.
But if you are just writing bad ideas for titles you can create 10 or 20 or 30 easily: The Long Road. The Narrowing Road. Bumps in the Road. The Road Less Travelled. Silk Road. The Road She Travelled. The Road, The Road. The Long Winding Road. The Long, Winding Road. The Wide Road. The Path to the Road. Long Way Down the Road. The Long Road Back. The Road Also. Song of the Open Road. Finding the Road. Finding the Path. Down the Path. Back Roads. The Road to Here. Off Road. A Way Down the Road. Summer Road. On the Long Road…
Creating idea after idea, even bad ideas, can be a difficult but fun form of deliberate writing to encourage creativity and mindful concentration. And somewhere in your list there will probably be some good ideas! I hope this helps.
Brian John Flanagan says
Thanks for your insights and suggestions — you write beautifully!
Jack Gritzel says
Hello this wasn’t all that useful to me because I needed to write and use meditation and some of the directions were unclear which made me stress, maybe you can describe stuff more. Like describing bad ideas more because that is what started me getting stressed, overall I think this was a somewhat good/bad idea; bad because we have other way to meditate and I don’t think this was 100% necessary. Good because it was a good thought.
I was doing this activity every day for past 5 years without realizing it was called writing meditation. Somedays, I’m able to get clarity on my ideas and somedays are not so effective. But, I believe the habit of writing meditation is one I look forward to everyday and It helps give me sense of accomplishment.