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Old Soul, Beginner’s Mind: Recapturing Joy for Writers

I shall be telling this with a sigh,

Somewhere ages and ages hence

Robert Frost, ‘The Road Not Taken’

There is a fierce heartache known only to the writer who is not writing. Grief sits heavy on my chest, kicking at my ribs with steel-toed boots.

No one cares.

Maybe you’re familiar with this all-too-resilient passenger? Grumbling away; clinging to life through all the countless pep talks, the reams of sage advice from wise writerly friends. Piercing your gut with its sharp little teeth.

What’s the point?

Where once you were a writer, now you’re a chew toy. It’s been this way for months.

You’ll never get it right.

Early in We Become Shadows, my hero, Charlie, is ensnared by a malevolent entity known as the Deathless. I think plenty of us carry our own Deathless around inside our hearts.

Always the first to chastise ourselves for the smallest mistake.

Treating ourselves worse than we would a complete stranger.

Tripping ourselves up when we’re only trying our best.

Whisper, sneer or scream, we know better than the cruellest bully the words that are sure to truly hurt. These days, my Deathless is loud and vicious. How about yours?

I don’t know about you, but I’m about ready to deny this invader residency inside my head.

Throughout the blazing days and sweat-drenched nights of the endless Tokyo summer, I’ve sat hunched over my desk, journalling through the shadows. Together with Charlie sprawled alongside me, we’ve brawled and tussled with a constant onslaught of self-doubt.

I’m supposed to be writing about a wanderer who returns changed. A voyager who’s found what he struggled after for so long. A survivor who traverses his pain and comes back stronger.

But how on earth am I meant to know what that feels like?

That’s not me.

Before my eyes, I see Charlie’s mischievous smirk. Brow cocked, he makes his move.

‘Guess you’d better go find out then, right?’

Shoshin, or beginner’s mind, is a concept the revered Buddhist monk Shunryu Suzuki explores in his seminal work Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Encompassing an attitude of eager curiosity, beginner’s mind emphasises an open willingness to learn by exploring, and a purposeful setting aside of former preconceptions in order to make meaningful progress.

I think this concept dovetails quite nicely with discovery drafting, and recapturing the joy of writing without the burden of comparisons, perceived inadequacy, or perfectionism. Here’s my interpretation, dear writer, and I hope it awakens some joy for you.

1. Your bully is a liar. Tell it to shut up, punch it in the face, and get some real friends.

Our brains filter reality through the perception of our past experiences. If you are prone to seeing things in black and white, or in absolutes, you might find it helpful to gently unpick the thorns buried in the heart of your creative soul.

When it comes to your writing life, do any of these assumptions sound familiar?

No one who can barely string two sentences together could ever be a real writer.

I always give up at the end of Act II, so I’ll never finish anything I write.

If I was any good at this writing malarkey, I wouldn’t find it so hard.

Outside of writing, I’m getting better at checking in with my husband when I have a sense that the past is fogging up the present. Each time I cautiously seek clarity – naming my emotions and asking for what I need – I receive gentle reassurance, and we both experience a strengthening bond.

Sometimes I imagine what it might be like to wake up tomorrow, only to discover all these nasty voices have disappeared. Gone. Forever. But without them – for better or worse – I wouldn’t quite be me.

While educating myself about how hard my brain works to protect me from constant perceived threat, and the reasons it believes these reactions necessary, I’m slowly learning to bring compassionate witness to these thoughts.

What might it look like if we tried bringing the same gentle care to our writing?

2. Imagine yourself as a child on the first day of writing school.

If you’ll bear with me, let’s do a little visualisation. You’re a small child, maybe four or five. Maybe this is your first time at writing school, or maybe you’ve already been for a little visit. Either way, you feel good. Somehow, you know this is where you belong.

You cross the threshold and know you’re welcome. Your teacher is so kind. Your classroom is warm and inviting. There’s plenty of space for everyone. Maybe you’re the first one to arrive, or maybe there are some other kids playing a comfortable distance from you. You find a place to sit at a table or on the carpet, ready to learn.

As you stretch out to explore, you find all the tools you need, right at your fingertips. Maybe that includes lined notebooks; a rainbow of coloured pencils; comfy headphones to listen to music; glossy magazines opening gateways into new worlds of your imagination; encyclopaedias so heavy they hurt when you rest them on your legs; an endless dress-up box of costumes.

You feel safe. You don’t need to prove yourself to anyone. You will always be wanted.

You feel secure. You don’t have to be the best. There’s a place here for you.

You feel engaged. You’re ready to try things out and see what happens. You can’t fail.

You feel curious. You want to ask questions and learn more. You have so much capacity for growth.

No matter your age, and no matter what’s happened in your life until this moment, the little creative light in you always has a seat at the table or a corner of the carpet at writing school.

Hopefully, that light was sheltered and protected by the adults around you, but maybe instead it was humiliated and crushed.

If you can, set aside some of the baggage of your life’s harsh experiences and return to a welcoming, peaceful sanctuary, whatever that looks like for you.

Awaken the child whose imagination knew no bounds. That’s your precious gift, and whether you keep your work private or share it with the whole world, it deserves to have the chance to shine.

3. You’ve dreamt up worlds, so why not pause for a moment to explore and enjoy?

When it comes to your writing, are you always in a hurry? Perhaps you anticipate rushing to type up 1667 words each day of November for NaNoWriMo, constantly under pressure not to let that line graph dip below a margin of acceptable progress.

Or do you look around and see your peers publishing multiple books a year, wondering why you’re still stuck editing that same manuscript month after month?

The three-headed hydra of More, Better, Faster is impossible to satisfy, so instead I’m trying to consciously slow down and find joy in the progress of rediscovering my creative world. It’s my safe place, my sacred space, and I intend to treat it with all the care it deserves.

(‘Pull the tyrants from their thrones,’ comes the snide voice of the Deathless.)

Comparison is a thief – not only of joy, but of your own fierce creativity. Which wolf will you feed?

4. Writer, heal thyself.

Do you remember the kind teacher from our visualisation of writing school? Well, I’ll let you in on a secret. That supportive, nurturing adult is … you!

Pay attention to your immediate reaction to these words. Do you feel a sense of pleasant surprise? Deep understanding? Did you scoff as your eyebrows shot up your forehead? Does the idea that you can protect, inspire, or fan the flames of your creativity right now, today, leave you feeling empowered, fearful, strangely sad, or perhaps even bitter and disgusted?

There’s no right or wrong answer, by the way. I would simply encourage you to take a moment to consider your emotional response to this concept. Maybe journal a little about your feelings, or any memories that may have been shaken loose.

Our emotions are the key to navigating our internal landscape, and speaking personally I know my map-reading skills aren’t the greatest. But this journey might just be the most important of your life.

Writer, why do you long so deeply for recognition? Who do you wish more than anything to read your words, witness your pain, and see your heart?

Is there a little child hidden somewhere deep within? You may have been carrying them with you for many years, and if so, they may have been patiently waiting for a moment of your time and attention. If you listen carefully, what do they say? What do they need from you right now?

You are the only one who can give yourself what you need.

We are the ones who save ourselves.

5. (There will be an answer) Let it be

No matter how dark my thoughts turn, I have never once doubted that Charlie’s story is one worth telling. Now it’s up to me to write a book worth reading.

Morning Star Rising will be the final book in the Bloodwitch trilogy. Without fail, I find the first draft tends to be the hardest part of the creative process. While writing the first two books in the series, I held so much contempt for my first drafts (and, by extension, my most vulnerable creative self) that I purposefully reframed the first draft as the heart draft.

Now, I like to think of the first draft as an unborn baby. No expectant parent would speak to their growing baby the way many of us do to our first drafts. Each time I sit down to write, I intend to take a moment to respect how my heart draft will grow. I simply don’t know what this story is going to be, and that’s a reason to feel excited.

Who knows where our words will lead? Nothing is ever set in stone. All I know is that writing is central to my healing, and that nothing in the world brings me more joy.

Even when the tears flow. Even when it hurts. Even when I feel alone.

No matter what, I have to keep fighting.

I have to write, because I am a writer.

Let us go then, you and I.

Let’s go, Charlie.

All the way back to the beginning.

By this, and only this, have we existed.

I’m glad I get to walk this path with you.

(With apologies to T. S. Eliot)

Meet Lily Rooke

Lily Rooke (they/them) is the author of The Dying Light and We Become Shadows, which make up two thirds of the LGBTQ+ dark fantasy Bloodwitch trilogy, soon to be completed with Morning Star Rising. (Check out the soundtracks on Spotify for some writing inspiration!) Lily lives and writes in Tokyo, Japan, and writes about neurodivergence and queer identities. Typically anxious and surrounded by half-finished mugs of herbal tea, they love reading, watching anime, and experiencing the world from a safe distance. You'll find their books on Amazon and Goodreads, and you can get to know them better by connecting on Instagram.

Instagram: lilyrookeauthor

Twitter: lilyrookeauthor

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