M. Amos Clifford
ownI'm about two years into my next book project. I've written at least 100,000 words now. Mostly on my computer, mostly in coffee houses. But a few months ago I changed my approach to writing, and recently modified my approach even more.
I was becoming very frustrated with the effort to "find my voice," a challenge most authors know well. It had not been an issue when I wrote "Your Guide to Forest Bathing." Perhaps because I had a total of three weeks to write it, the language flowed easily. But this time around I'm hampered by a sense of the importance of my work. It's truly a curse to think that what you are doing is important; it burdens the work and sucks much of the joy out of it. In addition, this fiction of importance makes me want to get it right. So I've spend countless days pouring through writers going back centuries, to check and double check that I've correctly understood the ideas that orbit and support my own central thesis. And of course, this process of study---which has actually taken me all the way to Zurich for a seminar at the C.G. Jung Institute, obfuscates as much as it clarifies.
Somewhere on my hard drive are at least eight false starts. Each one has some good content, and perhaps I will publish excerpts in this blog. But none of them hit the mark exactly.
In frustration, one day I left my computer at home and took a notebook and pen to the cafe. It was a revelation. Writing by hand immediately connected me with a voice that felt authentic. It put me into a different sense of flow. Each day I wrote an essay that ranged from 4 to 25 hand written pages. In the past, when I traveled I was not able to stay with a writing regimen. But because I am writing by hand this has changed also. I've filled up several notebooks while travelling in the U.S. and abroad. On a recent training tour of Europe that involved a 42 day visit of eight different countries I completely filled up one notebook and started another.
It was toward the end of that tour that I made the second change. I had the opportunity to meet Stephan Harding, who is a co-founder of Schumacher College in Totnes, England. I've visited Totnes several times now to lead forest therapy guide trainings and facilitate immersions. Earlier in the same tour I had been in Slovenia where two graduates of Schumacher College were among our guide trainee group. One of them facilitated the introduction to Stephan.
When I met Stephan he invited me to jump into his car and go to a birthday party for his mentor. We had a fabulous talk along the way, that continued at the party. I'll likely tell at least one more story (besides this) about that conversation, in another post. But relevant to this one, I mentioned to Stephan, author-to-author, how I was finding it helpful to write by hand. He asked if I was using a fountain pen. I was not; he recommended that I try it. So as soon as I had the chance, I purchased a fountain pen, and applied it to my next essay.
I don't imagine I'll ever look back. There is a sensuous enjoyment to using a fountain pen that is quite wonderful. The essays flow more easily, perhaps because of the tactile sense of the ink flowing through the nib and onto the paper. It is an experience that is entirely congruent with forest therapy, where we emphasize noticing what our bodies and senses are experiencing, and finding simple pleasures where they appear. Using a fountain pen is a simple pleasure. It is also relational; I now have several pens, and each one has its own personality. I know when I pick up a pen something of how I will experience it, and how that might affect my writing.
An upshot of this is that I have come to include in my list of emergent qualities of forest therapy practice, along with tenderness and a heightened sense of what I call "power-and-beauty," the quality of "pen snobbery." By this I mean the tendency to take pleasure in the small details of life, to notice when something feels good and to increasingly choose implements and furniture and paper and just about every thing else based on an assessment of aesthetic contribution to life.
Stephan has a fabulous book called "The Animate Earth." I hope you will read it. He is an amazing scientist and teacher. I look forward to more time with him next time I'm in Totnes.
Amos, there are certain key phrases in your writing that hit home with me. Of course, the whole idea of pen snobbery is quite entertaining, having traveled with you and your set of pens these past months, popping in and out of little shops the world over looking for-yet another-perfect pen. The way it feels in your hand, the way the ink flows.. the color, etc. have been part of oh, so many important conversations.
The search to find your voice:
We all experience this. It seems finding just the space and situation is key. I have to say, when you find yours, Amos, we are all grateful. As with any author, it is a brave thing. We have to put away ego, but tap into a confidence that what we say will matter to someone other than just ourselves. To do the writing just for us seems to be a challenge, even though that is exactly who we need to talk to...or an audience that will be an honest mirror to us. I have been attempting just this for many, many years, fighting against the voices in my head that tell me that "no one cares what you have to say", "your experience is not valid unless backed by other's theories and ideas", "you are just a simple girl from the Midwest...what do you know?". The voices I hear are stored from other's voices as well as my own. Bravery and shear stubbornness are vital to my speaking from my own experience, vocally or on paper.
The pressure to get it right:
Isn't this the worst? It is paralyzing. I have learned from you and from this practice of forest therapy that to get it right is not the point, though. Intention really does matter. We can guide and teach effectively if our hearts are open and we are courageous enough to be authentic, showing our messy bits and all. My personal experience with this has taught me that if I overthink things, I will not act. If I will just act, my heart will guide me to where I need to go in my words and actions. The bonus here is that our living in authenticity gives permission to others to live in theirs as well. The world sincerely needs our true selves.
The noticing of sensuous enjoyment and simple pleasures:
Remember the book you told me to read named Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips? It was life-changing for me. My draw to the practice of forest therapy made more sense with every page. My love for gardening, baking-especially yeasted breads, eating all different kinds of foods, needlework, sewing with high quality cottons and other fabrics, and spending a lifetime with little children-their soft hands and faces, made more sense with every page. I never called it pleasure. I knew I enjoyed it but the why eluded me. The simple things are what we can breathe in every moment. There has been a lot of pretty intense grief in my life this past year. Because of that, the touch of the soft Kentucky bluegrass, the stability of the large granite stones, the smoothness of the birch bark, and the embrace of the warm sand have been my loyal companions. So much gratitude.
The noticing of Power-and-beauty:
This noticing is such a joy-enhancing experience. All the colors and flavors of these qualities lived through people and the other beings of the earth make this life incredibly meaningful and rewarding as well as interesting. Living in our power and beauty seems ideal, then seems challenging and unsustainable, but then finally can settle into a space of peace and contentment with what is present. I am valuable. I am loved. I am needed in the world. I am enough.. even when today is just a day in my pajamas, with my tea and a soak in the bathtub, dealing with tears of grief and feelings of loss. It is today's version of my attempt to reach deeply into my own power and beauty.