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The discipline of writing

I’ve just spent the past ten months writing a Buddhist response to the Climate and Ecological Emergency. It’s my second book, the first being I’ll Meet You There: a practical guide to empathy, mindfulness and communication (read the first chapter and order the paperback and e-book here). Here I’d like to reflect on the practice of writing.

As the developmental editor wrote to me, “Many people think that they have a good idea for a book, but far fewer get this far. It takes following through on your original inspiration with persistence, so you are well on the way.”

I find writing a book is a real discipline, in the sense of self-discipline. I have settled into writing in the mornings, and getting on with the rest of my life in the afternoons and evenings. This way, writing becomes sustainable, burnout becomes less likely. In my twenties, I used to spend weeks or months trying to write full time. However, it was just too intense. At times I feared for my mental and emotional well-being.

Now I’m in my fifties, and I’m more emotionally stable. However, I still need a consistent process. I’ve found that I’m productive for 2-3 hours in the mornings. It’s quality, not quantity that counts. If I stop at lunch, I still have some energy in the tank for tomorrow’s work. The time in the afternoon, evening and overnight also gives me a chance to reflect on what I’ve written and make amendments.

The image I have of writing is that of using an old-fashioned spinning wheel. Over the long term, it’s pacing and consistency that wins out over a sudden burst of speed or flash of inspiration – though of course, you need these as well!

Something else that really helps me is to have an overview of the book, visible from where I write. Nowadays I have two boards, one listing the chapter titles and contents, the other for the current chapter. I use post-its, as I can keep rewriting them and moving them around until I’m satisfied with the arrangement and order.

One thing that sustained me during the eleven years it took to write my first book was the hope that writing another would be easier. I can now say, with great relief, that this is accurate. It’s taken me about 18 months to get to this point with book number two, and it will be just over two years by the time it hits the streets.

Looking back, I’m not surprised that my first book took me so long. There are so many skills you need to develop in order to write a book. It’s like building a house with very little help and your bare hands. You may be a good bricklayer, but do you know how to create an architect’s sketch (and change it mid-build!), and source the building materials (time, energy, interest)?

And finally, do you know how to receive feedback from editors and respond to it? This involves being open to hearing other people’s opinions and looking at your work with a ‘critical’ eye. Editors usually have a point; at the very least they have an idea of what they want to publish. The question is, can you do something creative with the feedback?

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