So often I see writing advice along the lines of “try to write for fifteen minutes each day.” Fifteen minutes?! I can barely write a haiku in fifteen minutes. Leaving alone the fact that any commitment as flippant as “fifteen minutes each day” is bound to get bumped in favour of other priorities, it is not, in my experience, possible to have satisfactorily brilliant writing without accompanying torturous obsession.

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We live in a non-linear world full of countless interconnections and complexities. There is overlap. There are gray areas. There are exceptions. There are deeply rooted issues and finely made distinctions. And we, as writers, ask ourselves to look at this convoluted mess and produce provocative, astute work. How do we create a flowing, sensical, accessible, funny, interesting narrative exploring such chaos? Creative, original writing cannot and should not be so undervalued as for it to become a reasonable expectation that it be produced in the minutes between the end of dinner and the start of a favourite television show. It can and does only come out of many, many hours of dedicated, involved labour.

I am passionate on this issue not because I think it is a bad idea to try to write for fifteen minutes each day, but because I believe there is a link between impractical, unrealistic writing advice and the perpetual belittling of writing in our culture. Writing is often seen not as a practiced, useful, difficult skill but as something that anyone could do if they just put aside the time to do it. There is nothing further from the truth.

There is a reason why so many great artists, novelists, academics, and poets ended up struggling with mental illness, had difficulty with relationships, and lived in perpetual poverty. Passionate creation does not fit nicely within a balanced lifestyle. It is not something that you can expect to sit down, complete, and then leave when your shift is done. It is a demanding experience that can bring such extreme highs and lows that it can sometimes feel as if you are living on a different plane of existence. It can keep you up all night and then evade you for the entirety of your scheduled work day. Thoughts may arrive so urgently they drive away such staples of regular human existence as showering, eating, and catching the bus on time.

It is imperative that we, as a culture, recognize the difficulty intrinsic in producing good writing. Without a collective understanding of writing as a turbulent experience, it is only reasonable to expect writers everywhere to feel there is something wrong with them if they do not function within their scheduled 35-hour work week. We also risk ignorance of one of the experience’s greatest benefits: that nothing will challenge you so much as your own writing. We, as writers, must remember that to experience difficulty in our craft is not to be failing but rather the opposite. We only succeed by struggling.

In Theravadan Buddhism, there’s a form of meditation wherein practitioners allow thoughts to enter their minds and dwell there free of judgement. The thought – no matter how potentially upsetting or disturbing – may be calmly turned over, investigated, and conversed with. It may go, or it may stay – either way, the thought is not understood as threatening. It is a part of the learning process.

It is amazing how effective this style of meditation is for untangling webs of anxiety and processing complex emotional issues. Removing the cloud of judgement, and all the fear that accompanies it, allows for the freedom necessary to properly work through difficult issues.

Maybe it should be unsurprising, then, that writing often has the same effect.

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I have found myself, countless times, writing about feelings I didn’t know I had. Thoughts I didn’t know I thought. I have watched, in semi-disembodied disbelief, as my hands seemed to work on their own accord, giving shape to my unconscious.

It is an unsettling experience to sit down intending to write about a specific thing and instead find yourself scribbling unstoppably about things you’ve never thought about. There’s a strange conflict, where your conscious brain struggles to take back control but your bodily unconscious – perhaps because of the writing muscle’s refusal to leave a sentence unfinished, perhaps because your conscious brain is so mesmerized by the novelty of what it is reading – remains in control.

It is a special thing. We so often try to ignore our unconscious. But in the face of a pen that doesn’t judge and a blank sheet of paper, we can engage with ourselves. Our truths can come spilling out and we can read them back.

There is more to the human experience than reason and restraint. Writing has always allowed people to create new worlds; discovering them is not always just for the reader.


rachaelRachael Heffernan recently completed a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. In the course of her academic career, she has received the Harrison Prize in Religion and The Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship. During her undergraduate degree, Rachael was published twice in The Codex: Bishop University’s Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Classics, and Liberal Arts for her work on Hittite divination and magic and philosophy of religion. Rachael has also had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel, and has spoken at a conference on Secularism at the University of Alberta on the Christian nature of contemporary Western healthcare. Her wide-ranging interests in scholarship are complemented by her eclectic extra-curricular interests: she is a personal safety instructor and lifelong martial artist who has been recognized for her leadership with a Nepean Community Sports Hero Award. She is an enthusiastic reader, writer, and learner of all things, a tireless athlete, and a passionate teacher.

We are constantly engaged with technology, and, sometimes, it can be difficult to justify buying or bringing a notebook when we know that we can just type our work on our laptop, phone, or tablet. Technology affords us many great luxuries, but especially in the initial, frenzied, creative stages of writing, it can be best to go back to basics and pull out a pen and paper. The artistic freedom that a blank page affords can be liberating. While I may find myself frozen and frustrated before a computer screen, there is a special joy that accompanies writing with pen and paper. Below, I have compiled a list of my favourite reasons for going back to basics when I write.

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Automatic illustrations. Drawing, doodling, scribbling: whatever you call it, being able to add artwork instantly to whatever piece of writing you are working on can help to keep your creative juices flowing. Doodling can help you come up with new ideas, see things in different ways, and can even alleviate anxiety. For readers, illustrations (no matter how crude) can catch the eye, add to the tone, increase dimensionality, and make the piece feel more personal. Difficult to accomplish on the computer, but so automatic with a pen in hand, doodling has some major upsides for creative minds of all varieties.

Change the shape of words. Sometimes words need to be big, or zigzagged, or adorned with curlicues. They may need to be in seven different colours, or dripping with slime, or be spread out all over the page. Maybe you want to insert a word that requires a different alphabet, like Arabic or Ukrainian, right in the middle of your English poem. Something that can be difficult and frustrating to accomplish on the computer can become a fun and invigorating project on paper. Easily being able to make your words look how you want helps to maintain the flow of creativity and can lead to greater satisfaction at the end of your work period.

Spell however you want! Trying to write a short story from the perspective of a child? Are you looking to stretch out or compress words in the song you’re writing? Have you coined a new term? Are you perpetually distracted by your spelling mistakes when all you want is to quickly get an idea down? It can be infuriating to have to go back again and again to change what autocorrect has “fixed” for you, or try to continue on bravely writing amongst the many red underlined words in your document. Writing on paper will never pose this problem.

Format the words on the page easily and quickly. Whether you want words in all four corners of the page but nowhere in between, or spaced out like bricks, or placed in the shape of a dress, writing on paper will always allow you this luxury with the least amount of fuss.

Piece together pieces of different drafts. Have you ever found yourself writing draft after draft of the same idea, sentence, or poem? Well, there’s no easy backspace or delete function when you’re working with paper, and, if you’re like me, even if something was crossed out in a crazed bout of frustration, I can usually still read it. After I have written all my drafts, I can take all the pieces of my brainstorming, take the best from each, and weave them together. On a computer, my ideas are so easily deleted; on paper, they remain traceable.


rachaelRachael Heffernan has recently completed a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. In the course of her academic career, she has received the Harrison Prize in Religion and The Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship. During her undergraduate degree, Rachael was published twice in The Codex: Bishop University’s Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Classics, and Liberal Arts for her work on Hittite divination and magic and philosophy of religion. Rachael has also had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel, and has spoken at a conference on Secularism at the University of Alberta on the Christian nature of contemporary Western healthcare. Her wide-ranging interests in scholarship are complemented by her eclectic extra-curricular interests: she is a personal safety instructor and lifelong martial artist who has been recognized for her leadership with a Nepean Community Sports Hero Award. She is an enthusiastic reader, writer, and learner of all things, a tireless athlete, and a passionate teacher.

Welcome to the first installment of Writing Wednesdays – a biweekly column with writer and researcher for The Drawing Board, Rachael Heffernan.

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At the outset of writing my thesis, I sat down with my advisor with a pile of questions. Unfortunately, though I had over a hundred pages of reading notes, I had not yet written anything myself.

My advisor was not impressed. “You must write.” He said. “Writing is a kind of learning, you know.”

I did not know. I had always thought of writing as something that you did once you had figured out what you wanted to say. Sure, you may fill in little holes here and there as you go, but writing was, I thought, the step you took after you had learned about the things you wanted to write about.

That understanding came out of my (well-founded) anxiety of disorganization. If I wrote without a plan, or without sufficient material stockpiled, I couldn’t write for very long before I had to stop writing. I would pull out books and articles to help me, and pretty soon I was surrounded by various journals, loose leaf paper, and Word documents, all full of bits of research, ideas, brainstorming, outlines, and even the occasional well-formed and articulated thought. Inevitably, my rumbling tummy or a nearing appointment would draw me away from my wild research tornado. Upon returning to that project, maybe hours, maybe days later, I would find sheets of paper crumpled or lost, forget which journal I had written what in, search endlessly for the obscure Word document I had titled in my academic frenzy, and ultimately feel lost and discombobulated amongst the disconnected threads of consciousness strewn around my workspace.

Under the pressure of meeting deadlines, I did not understand the chaos that was my writing process as contributing to my learning; I saw it as a hindrance to my academic success.

It was not. As much as I may have many lessons to learn vis a vis organization, I now understand (thanks to the guidance of my advisor) how important the craziness of that initial writing phase is. It is active. It is inspired. It is energetic. And no matter how many sheets of loose leaf paper I may have lost, at least I was excited. Being lit up in that way can never be recreated by reading, or by debating, or by presenting. Those have their own types of elation. But fighting to find the exact right words for the idea you have had just now, or having new ideas even as you are writing your other new ideas down, or finding that you cannot write fast enough to keep up with all you want to say – these are the rewards that await us when we put words to page.

We are not stenographers, nor copyists – we will never be able to sit down and write all that is in our heads with no edits or second thought. Writing is messy, and tumultuous, and raucous, and unsystematic – but if we can allow ourselves to take joy in the pandemonium and appreciate it for its contribution to our learning, it can shift from a stressor to an adventure.


rachaelRachael Heffernan has recently completed a Master’s Degree in Religious Studies at the University of Alberta. In the course of her academic career, she has received the Harrison Prize in Religion and The Queen Elizabeth II Graduate Scholarship. During her undergraduate degree, Rachael was published twice in The Codex: Bishop University’s Journal of Philosophy, Religion, Classics, and Liberal Arts for her work on Hittite divination and magic and philosophy of religion. Rachael has also had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig in Israel, and has spoken at a conference on Secularism at the University of Alberta on the Christian nature of contemporary Western healthcare. Her wide-ranging interests in scholarship are complemented by her eclectic extra-curricular interests: she is a personal safety instructor and lifelong martial artist who has been recognized for her leadership with a Nepean Community Sports Hero Award. She is an enthusiastic reader, writer, and learner of all things, a tireless athlete, and a passionate teacher.

The Drawing Board is pleased to announce that our very own writer and researcher, Liz Hill, has been awarded the Field Law Leilani Muir Graduate Research Scholarship for her work in History. The award is funded by Field Law via the Edmonton Community Foundation and the Calgary Foundation in honour of the legal victory won by Leilani Muir and victims of sterilization. It is awarded to a graduate student in Sociology, Psychology, or History and Classics who demonstrates research promise. Preference is given to students whose research interests are related to the areas of human rights, persons with disabilities, or social well-being. Join us in celebrating Liz’s success!

lizLiz’s thesis research deals with the subjects of madness and leprosy in the late Middle Ages. Entitled “Roots of Persecution: Madness and Leprosy in the late Middle Ages,” Liz’s thesis addresses the conceptual underpinnings of persecution by comparing medieval intellectual and moral understandings of madness and leprosy to the social treatment of lepers and mad people in the twelfth through fifteenth centuries. She focuses in particular on the collective social identity and treatment of the leper in contrast to the individualized identities and treatment of mad people, and how that difference explains the periodic persecutory violence to which lepers were subjected, but not mad people.

As writers, we can often get stuck in a routine with our writing that can feel a bit dusty after a while. At its worst, this can cause us to stagnate and falter with our writing, or even set it aside for other pursuits. Writing takes persistent and consistent effort to produce worthwhile results, but that doesn’t mean the process by which you get there has to be boring.

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Many writers have different methods for keeping things fresh, regardless of the genre. Some writers like to use prompting exercises. These are usually one sentence assignments like “Write about the smell of your childhood neighbour’s house” or “Write about the first time you were disappointed in your parents” and from something fairly straightforward and simple, entire short stories or even books can evolve. These exercises get the creative juices flowing and nowhere is this truer than when prompts are combined with free writing. Free writing means that you aren’t thinking of things as a project or an essay. You’re just writing for the sake of writing without pressure to produce something even of quality or value at the end. This sense of freedom often gives writers the confidence they need to get started, and once they do, great things happen!

That being said, it’s not a trick of the mind, necessarily. It’s not a matter of making yourself think that there’s no pressure to accomplish something with your writing, but in the end you still have a lingering hope that something tangible will come  from it. Rather, this exercise is purely for the joy of writing as a transformative process, in and of itself.

I often link free writing (which I, sadly, have very little time for these days!) and meditation because I see the outcomes of both processes to be very similar, and below are few of the reasons why.

They are both good for you. Meditation has been medically linked to lowered stress and anxiety levels as well as decreased risks of major illnesses like depression and heart disease. Free writing allows you the freedom to express yourself and let go of things that are holding you back emotionally. In fact, therapists will often recommend free writing simply for the release it allows you and the mental health benefits that can come from that.

They both focus the mind and keep you present. When you are meditating on something, or even meditating on the clearing of the mind to bring it to the present moment, you are focused. Focus takes concentration and discipline, especially these days in the world of fast-paced technology and split-second attention spans. Free writing can offer a similar kind of focus, particularly if you set a time limit for the free writing. Set yourself a ten minute alarm for writing on a particular subject or whatever comes to mind and stay committed to the writing and only the writing until that alarm goes off. More times than not, you’ll get so invested in your work, the alarm will likely come as a forgotten surprise.

With both, you have to be aware of all the senses. For anyone who has just started meditation practice formally or informally, one thing can be said for sure: meditating certainly has the uncanny ability to make you aware of all facets of your surroundings from your itchy nose to the ache in your back, from the smell of the room you’re sitting in to the sounds outside your window. You become acutely aware of the world around you and your body within that world. With free writing and any writing in general, an awareness of the senses is critical. The best kinds of writing don’t tell us what is happening, they show us what is happening by making us feel, touch, taste, smell, hear and see things through our written words. The best writers are those that are in touch with these senses and know how to express them on the page.

Sometimes, they are painful. Meditation isn’t all fun and oms. There are serious challenges in terms of physical and mental endurance that need to be overcome through careful, calculated practice of keeping the mind aware and still. Writing can be similar in that it forces a kind of discipline that can be uncomfortable at first but pays off in the end. Also, not all meditation or writing sessions will be considered “successful” by you – and they don’t have to be successful… Failing and trying again are both their own forms of success.

They both help you evolve. Whether you are meditating of free writing, both tasks help you to learn a lot about yourself, particularly how fluid you are as an individual. A lot of people think that writing is about crystallizing a moment or a character in time, but in actuality, it’s more of a snapshot of an ever-changing scene or individual. In a similar way, meditation helps you hone in on the present moment because this is where attachments fall away. It is only in past and future memories that we hold onto rigid conceptions of ourselves and our identities. By breaking through and being present with ourselves and our pens on the page, we can capture some of the sense of our own movement and can grow because of it, becoming gentler with ourselves as we pass through time in perpetual motion.

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