Plant a Seed: Directed Contemplative Writing

by Janet Grace Riehl

Do you want to go deeper into your work? Do you want to listen in on your creative mind that often slides by unnoticed?  Directed contemplative writing plants a seed and coaxes it to grow.

 In free writing we write as fast as we can without making corrections in an effort to get around the critic, and travel beyond the intellect. In directed contemplative writing the need for speed is replaced by placing the mind.
You may already use some of these steps, but using them all together and in sequence can produce revelatory writing that may surprise you.

1. Create a comfortable, cozy, and safe environment
Writing is inherently risky. Through writing we come to know ourselves and allow ourselves to be known. This is scary and against all that we’ve been taught. To hush and hold these fears we must learn what makes us feel safe and allows us to be our own cozy companion?

I feel safe wearing fuzzy socks with a soft blanket draped around my shoulders. My writing cave is quiet suffused with low light. But perhaps you feel most comfortable in a coffee shop surrounded by people and piped-in music. To each her own.

We become our own cozy companions when we find and listen to an encouraging supportive voice within us that is curious rather than combative.

2. Choose a seed thought. Keep it simple. This sets your intension for your session. What do you want to explore?

3. Journey. Go to the place where your seed thought is most alive for you. This may be a real physical place, an emotional space, or frame of mind.

4. Write the seed thought at the top of the page. Now go. Write either fast or slow. You may wish to pause to listen for the words forming. Follow this guidance.

 6. Scan. What do you know about this seed thought? Follow it like a thread through a maze. Take your time.

5. Seed thought as touchstone. If you start to wind down or lose energy, go back to the seed thought. Write it again if you need to regain stride. Rhythm and recurrence often emerge. These can make your writing stronger. Don’t be afraid of repetition.

6. Go for sense image and the life inside the object, place, or feeling.Hold an image or sensation to transport your reader to the scene you’re writing.

7. Keep the flow going. When you feel that you’ve come to a natural stopping place, then stop.

8. Read the piece out loud to learn what you’ve discovered.

9.  Rest then read. Let the piece rest. Let yourself rest. Then read the piece out loud. Is there anything you need to add? What would you like to do with this piece? You may wish to keep it private, or use it as part of an ongoing project.

Directive contemplative writing practice keeps us in touch with ourselves and our work. It allows for intimacy and dialogue between our body, thoughts, and emotions. Contemplative writing prepares the ground, plants the seed, then waters and cultivates it until it’s time for harvest. In January 2011 Creative Catalyst launches a series on harvesting our work.


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6 responses to “Plant a Seed: Directed Contemplative Writing

  1. This is a wonderful posting Janet. Something deep inside began to shout “yes, yes, and yes” as I read through your guidelines. Your words and wisdom made me realise that I ‘know’, with a deep ‘womb-knowing’, when my words are emerging from the dark recesses within within, because I can feel the physical sensations which accompany the truths, my truths, my stories, that are spilling on to the page.
    Your final guideline to rest, then read is a valuable lesson I would do well to take note of! My biggest fault, apart from lack of discipline, is impetuousness! [Actually combine the two and it’s no wonder I get so little done!! Well that, and constant interruptions fro little ones… 🙂 ]

  2. Janet, this is really good stuff. While I write books for a living (I think that’s called being an “author”), I long for the days early in my writing career when writing was about personal discovery and I didn’t necessarily write with a publishing deadline. I’ve always admired how, in your writing, you’ve always stayed close to your own inner truths, so that language continues to be this–what should I call it?–“inner prospecting tool” that serves you and your readers in finding one’s personal treasure. Remember Joe Campbell’s story about the farmer who is plowing his field and when his plow snags on something, he stops his horse (it’s before tractors, obviously) and goes to free the plow share. He finds that it has caught in an iron ring, fastened to something. He digs around and reveals a huge chest buried under the soil. He lifts the lid and it is filled with treasure. Campbell ends this little allegory with: “Where you stumble, there your treasure is.” The kind of writing exercise you describe here, and so much of what you and your father both write is like plowing the field and finding those iron rings–and those hidden treasures. That’s such a deeply satisfying and exciting adventure for any writer. This one inspires me to take more time to re-learn the private powers of language. Thanks, Janet.

  3. We can thank Janet for her direction toward self-discipline, a requirement for creators. If you want to write, then write. No one is forcing you into a life in the arts, are they? The true artist will always find a way.

    Excuses are not only ‘boring’, they are the death knell for the would be creator.

    Here’s an apt quote from my book, An Artist Empowered that is also relevant for writers and poets:

    Whining has relatives, bored and excuses to name two. If you are bored, then you are boring. Excuses. I can’t paint because the light isn’t right; I can’t paint with people watching me; I don’t have a studio; I don’t have a studio that’s big enough; I don’t have the right color oils; I can’t write at night; I can’t compose in the morning; and all the ‘I cannots’ and ‘do nots’ in the universe are impotent bits of self-justification that keep the whiner a prisoner from entering the land called ‘can do’.

    Count and keep a log of how many negative thoughts you have in a single day; the number and their cumulative effect will startle you into a greater awareness of your own complicity.

  4. Janet, I love your reference to your “writing cave” and the need to settle into someplace that feels “safe.” My recent blog post, “Honor Your Creativity with a Creative Altar” ( touches on the same theme – the importance of “setting the scene” so that our inner-selves, that often shy aspect of the creative personality, feel at ease venturing forth into the world. Thank you.

    Page Lambert
    Life is an Adventure – Write it! Live it! Love it!

  5. Dear Edith,
    Boy, do I understand impetuousness! You have your own discipline as you interweave your love of writing with your love of family.

    Dear Hal,
    Thanks for the reminder “Where you stumble, there your treasure it.” The phrase “inner prospecting tool” is a good reminder for mining our material as it appears–either outwardly or inwardly.

    Dear Eden,
    Thanks for your illustration of how excuses slow us up and stop our creative life. I’m sure we could all throw lots of these into the all-consuming fire of desire without action.

    Dear Paige,
    Yes…the writing cave and all that graces it forms the safe container for our work.

    Thanks to you all for commenting!


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