Putting pen to paper

pen to paperJust before sitting down to write this post, I sat quietly in order to re-connect with my experience on ‘writing retreat’. It has been 10 days since I returned home from Normandy. The space between the return and writing this blog has been intentional – a period of ‘incubation’; letting my ideas and experience in Normandy coalesce and mingle with life back home. Returning to work, the Easter weekend…normality.

As we travelled home on the ferry, I felt satisfied and I felt inspired. The 10 days away enabled my two aspirations and intentions to be met: firstly, did I really have a book that I wanted to write in me? And secondly, what would that book look like? I came back with “yes” and a table of contents drafted out. Ten days later, that still pleases me. A friend and colleague commented “well, that’s the hard bit done”. I’m sure that there will be many challenges along the way as I truly put pen to paper and flesh out that skeleton of a TOC…but I could resonate with what he said. Very often during the writing retreat I thought of a few people I know who make a living in publishing and wondered how on earth they do it.

The experience wasn’t as painful as my last writing experience in Normandy: the writing up of my Masters research turned me inside out. I had sleepless nights and when I did sleep my dreamworld acted out what was not available to me in waking hours. I felt consumed and repeatedly “flummoxed” by it all. It was only in reading Romanyshyn’s work on the “wounded researcher” that gave me perspective – the research was REsearch, finding something AGAIN within me, something already known to my unconscious but was as yet out of reach. I didn’t pick the topic, “it” picked me. Maybe it was having been through that process 3 years ago that I was more able to trust and not push this time around. Even though I didn’t get anything down on paper for 2 days I didn’t panic – I simply meditated more, went for walks, and drank coffee overlooking the beautiful Norman landscape.


As I pondered the first question I had set myself I knew that I didn’t want to write an academic text; to set myself up as an expert and exclaim “this is how you do therapy”. Rather I wanted to tell my story; I wanted to share MY experience of being a psychotherapist trained in a traditional modality who then came to see the worth in integrating the Buddhist foundation of my life – its psychology, its philosophy, and its practices. Writing a book from “the bottom up” and not head down. Buddhist teachings speak to this as the difference between wisdom and knowledge. There are many people out there who KNOW more about Buddhism and more about psychotherapy than I do (or ever will, probably). What I can offer is a personal take, an autobiographical take on weaving the two wisdom traditions together. The Buddha himself referred to something similar: instead of taking his words by blind faith, he encouraged people to testing the validyt of his teachings through experience. If they did not match up, disregard them. I will offer this book in the same way: this is my experience, a generated wisdom if you like…but certainly not THE truth or THE only way.

I mentioned in my last post that my first step was to sit and consider how I have changed since meeting the Dharma and meditation some 10 years ago. On Day 1 in Normandy, I did write a list: but it was neither chronological nor linear. I Eightfold pathcame to see how hard it would be to write a book in discrete sections – because all of my experiences interlink, each learning built on the next, each fed forward as well as back. Take the Buddha’s teaching on the Eightfold Path – we don’t practice the first and move on to the second. We come to experience that Right View not only begins the path but is its culmination too; ground AND fruition…and from there we round again. The is often why the path is depicted as a circle; we never end, we keep repeating, going deeper with our understanding each time. It occurred to me that the best format for a book on my experience would need to be interactive, 3D, or a flowchart (or all 3!) knowing that wasn’t possible. BUT, it did lead me to mind-mapping my experiences. And from that mapping, structure began to appear.

The process that followed became a dance between space and form; the chaos of ideas, the structure for communication. I know this dance of the feminine and masculine well – although its taken a while to see the value of both having been a scientist who privileged theory over experience for most of my adult life. I have come to learn HOW I learn, how I formulate ideas – and again, this is why I value the dharma so much. Buddha and his lists often get a bad press (2 wings, 3 poisons, 4 noble truths….five gold rings: sorry, I couldn’t resist!), but on my path to date, I have appreciated the dharma: concepts that act like coat-pegs, allowing me to hang my experience on. The table of contents has 10 such pegs on which I will overlay the major experiences I want to share (autobiographical vignettes), explain (concepts from the dharma), integrate (how this informs my therapeutic approach), and illustrate (using clinical case examples). And so, the second question I had set myself was addressed.

My partner was also using this time for her own writing project; being alongside one another as we wrestled* with the life of the writer was very supportive. As we approached the end of the retreat time, she explained to me that setting out a schedule for how her book was to be completed to meet the publisher’s deadlines would help her transitioning home and ensure the book wouldn’t stall. Her task is slightly different to mine in that she is an editor and needs to gather material from others (as well as write her own chapters for the book); but I did see value in doing the same – for me, knowing HOW the book could be “blogged” felt important to similarly avoid stalling. Again, an example of how structure facilitates my process – this time in gaining confidence and trust. It was back in January 2018 that the inspiration to follow Nina Amir’s approach struck. Her book travelled with me to Normandy, and I re-opened it again as I contemplated the ‘how’ of this project.
– What is the length of a typical non-fiction book?
– How many chapters and what word count per chapter?
– If each chapter has sub-sections, how long would they need to be in order to be a blog-post?
– How would I break down my chapters in to sub-sections?
– Given the length of the book, the words for a typical blog post of mine – how long is it going to take?

starting blocksBack of an envelope calculations suggest this is a 2 year long process…at least. I know I want to write each week, but I also know life happens (I’m a Buddhist after all!). Some weeks I hope to write more than one 700 word sub-section; others no writing might happen. So, here we go. I’m excited about what lies ahead. I still have yet to decide when that green flag drops and I can declare “we’re off!” With one more academic term to complete, there is a natural space of the summer months on the horizon.

Finally, and very importantly I want (and need) YOUR help. I know that around 80 people read this blog each week. I would love for you to become my co-editors. I’m still working out how to facilitate this (without getting overloaded by robots and spam). If you are interested, do drop me a line – you can reach me through my contact form. I’d especially like to hear from you if you are a trainee therapist – it became very apparent to me as I planned this project on retreat that I have a 3-fold motivation for this book: as Buddhist, as therapist and as educator.


*And, it has to be said, “luxuriated in” too.

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