The importance of choosing your word(s)

As a writer, I’ve always loved to collect words. The ones that ring with a unique sound, tingle the tip of your tongue, make you smile as they form. I’ve also learnt the power of affirmations during challenging yoga practice, intention setting to bring focus whilst building my portfolio career; the right words create a special kind of magic for goals, new habits, ambitions and future achievements.

These spells are so important but until last year, I hadn’t really considered how I could use them to look ahead after such a difficult couple of years.

For 2021, I chose the word ‘novel’. I decided on this because I wanted to “finish” writing my novel, and I wanted the year to be full of new things. It must be noted now, deciding on your word for next year won’t always work in the way that you think it should.

I’ve already made the joke enough times that I’m sick of it, but for quite a while it felt that the only new thing I experienced was broken bones. I’ve managed to break my wrist and fracture my ankle in the last 7 months, and it’s not something I’d like to repeat. However, if I take the bigger picture view, there has been a lot about this year that has been novel.

I’ve worked with people who have been kind, and generous, and understanding. Who have helped me find my feet whilst they’re still finding theirs, in a business that does exactly that for so many. If you don’t know The Portfolio Collective, and you want a career that’s built to suit you – check it out. Being understood, supported, directed when needed, celebrated no matter what, was incredibly novel.

Understanding how resilient I am, where the limitations are and how boundaries can help me, has also been novel – especially given that I’ve tried to keep working as much as possible whilst dealing with physical pain, isolation/limitations, and the knock-on both had to my mental health.

The novel hasn’t been completely forgotten either. I started working with creativity coach, Paul Macauley in the autumn and with his help I’ve started to see the wood for the trees. I’d made some progress myself, helped by conversations with incredible writers I get to call friends but I didn’t actually get to the writing. Now the writing has started, albeit slowly. Whilst I continue to work on forming new habits, making the most of the fallow time of winter, I have been challenged to write for just two minutes a day on the novel. Mostly it’s musing on ideas but I’m half way through the challenge and spending more time in addition to these tiny blocks every day.

So, how to choose a word for 2022?

When I heard about this process in 2020, it was a combination of two sources that I found invaluable. Firstly, Susannah Conway provides a free workbook to ‘Find Your Word’ – read the accompanying article to see how her words have guided her and been more useful that New Year’s resolutions!

Once I had my word for 2021, I wanted to ensure I wouldn’t forget it. Stacey from Darwin & Grey creates beautiful hand-painted banners, and this will be the third year she has created them. Her post on choosing is so wonderful, I had to copy it here:

My Word: Fearless, 2022 ✨ What’s yours?

Forget setting any resolutions this year. Nine times out of ten, we ditch them a month in anyways! Instead choose a word, just a single word to take with you into 2022.

Give it some thought, opt for one that can be your focal point, a simplified anchor to use as something to help you recenter when you find yourself feeling a little overwhelmed or lost.

My word of the year is Fearless. I was toying with all kinds of bold, enthusiastic and positive words to do with starting new chapters and growing up and realised more so than anything, next year is my year to just bloody go for it so Fearless fits the bill perfectly!

Stacey Gray – Darwin & Gray

If you’d like to have your own banner created, you can order up until 2nd January 2022.

This year, I’ve got another source to help me choose my word. Saori at Mogami 最上 Wellness generously shares her Japanese roots to empower individuals to achieve a sustainable wellness life, and her recent posts on Japanese calligraphy (shodo 書道) and Kaki-zome (書き初め) have led me to think on how I can create my own physical manifestation of my 2022 word.

Kaki-zome (書き初め) is one of the most important traditions in Japanese calligraphy – and translates to “first writing (of the year)”. The yearly intention is set during this tradition by choosing to write a character (ji・字) piece. Saori is running an intention setting event on 15th January if you’d like to learn more.

My word for 2022 is going to be “meraki”. It’s Greek, and encompasses more than English words like, love, soul, devotion, embodiment, essence, can do. It’s what’s been missing from my work, particularly my writing, and it’s what makes my writing in particular “good”. I’m all the better for showing up, sharing my experiences, and learning from them, and this is what I need more of next year.

This gorgeous embroidered art is by Natalie Gaynor and I’m so glad this word found me via her this year!

If you’re still searching for your own word, do take a look at the workbook that Susannah has generously supplied again, and in the meantime, here’s some inspiration from Keeley Shaw!

A story that took flight

The following comes with a proviso, or a few.

Firstly, there are going to be spoilers in this so if you haven’t seen The Aeronauts as yet, please come back once you have – I really would love to hear what you think of the film or indeed other films that have inspired you and your writing.

Secondly, I am an inconsistent reviewer. This is mostly because of time (there’s always a more pressing deadline for me to write), or mindset (why-would-anyone-want-to-read-what-I-have-to-say-itis).

Thirdly, I’m not a film critic. I generally leave that up to my brothers who would have much more intelligent (or at least long-winded) things to say no doubt.

But with all that in mind, I realised that it wouldn’t work as a very long twitter thread (often how I share my thoughts about various things that have inspired or fired me up) so instead, the thoughts are going to get put down here.

Neither of us rushed out of our seats, instead we let the credits roll before starting to discuss the experience of the story we’d just been a part of. We came out of the cinema into freezing fog that felt so otherworldly and yet so close to what we had just watched that it gave the right atmosphere to keep up our conversation all the way home. We often talk about the films we see on the way home, but this felt different somehow.

Having recently plotted out my novel, to try and find my way through the story I wanted to tell vs what came out in a few drafts many moons ago, the awareness of the typical story structure was very present in my mind. The joys of being a writer and a critical reader. It tends to mean that I can see where a film or a TV drama is going too, which can spoil the experience somewhat when you’re looking for some kind of escape. The Aeronauts didn’t leave me feeling like that.

Instead I felt taken by the hand, invited into the basket of the balloon to explore with them. I loved how it started in the middle, stepped back for what felt like the briefest of moments to explain how they got there, before continuing. This isn’t a new thing, or something I haven’t seen or read before, but it worked so beautifully.

I loved that it wasn’t a love story. That there were human drivers for the characters, but that wasn’t the end goal. There wasn’t a magic wand for the grief both main characters felt – her for her husband, him for his father, both for not being heard or understood by those around them. Everything was waiting for them when they landed again, but in the time that they rose to the extraordinary height and back down again it was just them.

I didn’t know how it was going to end, and that was a thing of beauty in itself. There were no huge pointers, no over explanation, no over-the-top twist. It unfolded, yet it was no where near as straightforward or plain as that sounds. I breathed a sigh of relief when they landed, I let go of my wife’s hand which was pretty much crushed out of fear for their not getting to earth again, but I didn’t foresee it. It could have gone either way right up until they both were standing (just).

The balance between the two characters was extraordinary. That they were able to save one another (although, let’s face it, Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones) did a lot of the hard work). That the writers, the film makers/ directors/ producers, the actors, gave enough space for the words they did say and those they didn’t. In a novel or a short story, that space is often more present than in films especially mainstream feature-length, yet it was so important. It felt like we were watching an two-hander play, the intimacy was so immediate – most likely because of the confinements of the balloon itself.

Most of all, that feeling has lasted. Long enough for me to stay up and immediately write this. Long enough that I know I’ll wake up tomorrow thinking about this story. Long enough to think some more research about aeronauts is required because I want to know more. Long enough to understand how I want to write a story as good as the one that we were just part of.

A place to retreat to

This is not a review I want to write. You’re going to find out my secret and then I’ll have to share. I’m terrible at sharing.

To be totally honest with you, with myself, I share ‘me’ too much. So much so that it leaves very little time for ‘me’. Urgh. Just writing that sentence makes me cringe.

However, it’s true. I needed an escape. Not a complete run for the hills (my wife needed to escape too) but to be away. I saw someone recommend Catherine McNamara’s writing retreats in Italy. Cat and I met long ago at The Word Factory, and she’s often said we should go out there.

The thing was, she runs writing retreats. I wanted to go away to write, but I also wanted to go away to think, to read, to have enough head space for possibilities. Also, my wife doesn’t write (she tells people that. Actually she’s a damn good poet but she keeps it on the quiet). So would it be fair?

She went along with my plan, when Cat said of course she could do a retreat for the two of us. Because that’s what Cat can do – make it fit for you. The writer who stayed a week or so before us had spent her week mostly holed up in a choice of inside and outside spaces working. But Cat gave her the space to unplug too, to discuss work and life and the universe over beautiful meals and excellent drinks. I imagine anyway, because that’s we did, a lot.

We also got guided tours of two cities that are now firmly in our hearts. I read almost three books (probably the same I managed in the first half of the the year) and took the time to discuss them at length. I thought a lot, but not the worrying thoughts that plague the day-to-day about work and family and life on the whole. I thought about my writing, what was working and wasn’t. I even talked about it, which I hadn’t felt able to for a while because my focus has been on the work that can pay now, rather than hopefully later. I thought and talked about that work too, and how it’s going to play out in the second half of my first year as a freelancer.

We slept in, we stayed up late, we got up early, we crashed out. Whatever worked on that day. The only ‘order’ was ours to decide.

I run retreats, much shorter, one day retreats for Writers’ HQ writers. I know the power of saying – “don’t worry, whatever you do today is yours to do. You don’t have to do the washing up, and you don’t have to think about what’s going on at home, you just need to be in the room writing.” I watch writers leave with big grins and new ideas. I forgot what that feels like myself. Until Cat gave us that, or maybe just the space for it. New ideas, hope, and relaxed grins.

I’m going back, next time, as a writer writing rather than a writer in need of a break. I’m going back to sit in the sun-warm outbuilding to write more of the next draft of my novel where Cat wrote her first. I’m going back to continue to reform ideas when the head space is lacking. I’m going back to be in great company and to be looked after in the way I hope I look after my writers (if only for a day and not a week!). I’m going back because I promised Voss (the pup) I’d kick the ball some more.

I didn’t want to share, because I know that Cat’s weeks get booked up. There’s some availability left in late August/September I believe, and if you fancy being part of a taught group then Cat will be running a tutored retreat with Tom Vowler in September (which I’m gutted to miss). She’s taking bookings for 2020 too if you like to plan ahead.

You can find all the info about the retreat on Cat’s website, as well as more about her award-winning writing. Just leave me a week, eh?