On Writing

Would you like to write a book? I sometimes get asked for tips on this so I thought I’d blog a few thoughts for you. The finding a publisher part is not so hard once you have a good manuscript ready, and sometimes not even that much – a good outline will sometimes be enough to get a foot in the door. So let’s focus on the idea and how to get going. I’ll share with you what has worked for me, and hopefully that will help. I’ll also recommend some good books that have writing tips and exercises that can help you to break through creative blocks.

Know you are enough

The first blockage for many of us is believing in ourselves. We think “who am I to write a book?” but seriously, who are you not to? What you have to say and share is just as valuable as anyone else. Others might know more, or have different experiences, but they will never have your own experiences. Speak as yourself. You might like to do some research, certainly, but every book doesn’t need to be an encyclopedia. Start with what you know now and find a way to believe that it can be enough. If you are writing a non-fiction and don’t feel you are an expert, that’s ok – write as a curious beginner on a journey of personal discovery. If you are writing a novel and are not sure you have dialogue worked out yet – just start; you will learn so much through just doing it. Make your daily affirmation “I am enough”.

Commit to five minutes

Choose how often you want to write. It might be daily, weekly or perhaps, like me, you just do it once all the other tasks are at a certain level of completion. Then, even if you don’t feel like writing for a long time, commit to writing something for five minutes. You might decide to work on your project, or you might like to try a writing exercise. These exercises are always worthwhile and never a waste of time because they teach us to spread our writing skill and try new things. Then, set a timer and write for five minutes. That might be enough, however if you’re like me, it’s quite likely that in doing that five minutes you will start to feel more motivated to write more. So, commit to five minutes and see where it takes you.

Choose your topic

My best advise on this is to keep it fairly simple and stick to what you know best. What is your own personal expertise? What do you have the most experience in that you would like to share? If you want to write a fantasy novel about horses, do you know enough about horses to do so? What do you know well? What can you describe in detail? What can you explain or demonstrate to others? Or, if there is something you want to write about that you don’t know about yet, what is your plan to research it – writing you plan for research could be a good place to start in itself – but when it comes to the writing, start with what you know best and work from there.

Who are you talking to?

Working out what we want to write is very important, but so is who we are talking about it to. Particularly in non-fiction, but this can be relevant in fiction too. In non-fiction we consider who our audience is, what they already know, and what we would like them to learn through reading the book. That might include hearing about our experiences and stories as well as sharing facts and information. In non-fiction it could be deciding if your first person narrative is a journal, a letter or a story told in conversation, or perhaps it’s a third person in a formal style, or a poetic descriptive voice. Work out not only what you want to say, but who you are saying it to, and how you want to say it. If you’re not sure, exercises to practice these forms and sytles can be really helpful. You might also consider writing in a number of different styles. In my books I like to switch between sharing information in a fairly formal style, and sharing personal stories in a style that seems almost like fiction. In my first book, Australian Druidry, many of these parts were fiction, though based on real experiences.

Structure

When I realised how to do this it changed everything for me and made writing so much easier. Once you have the big idea in mind for what your book is about, summarise it into a short question, like an essay question. So, for Australian Druidry, my question was “How can we adapt Druidry as a nature-based spiritual practice to the Australian landscape?” and my question for Belonging to the Earth was “How is the nature spirituality community responding to the climate crisis?” Luckily for me, the question for Belonging to the Earth was actually given to me by my publisher as it was a part of a series of books called Earth Spirit that all address this question in different ways. You might find your question is easy to work out, or it might take a few tries. Open a document and write it out in as many ways as you can, then narrow it down to what is most important. Make it no more than one short sentence.

Once you have that, you can start working out how you are going to approach the question. I do this by creating a contents list for the book. The titles of the contents list will probably change as you write the chapters, but at this point they can stand for the topics of each chapter. Then, under each of these headings, you can expand on each idea and how you will approach it. You can even write an essay question for each chapter. This way you begin seeing the whole of the text right from the beginning, and writing becomes a matter of expanding on each part. You might find some chapters need to be split into a number of topics or subheadings. If you have a word processing program, make use of the heading styles and the navigation pane so that you can find chapters easily and see the whole document at once.

Catching Awen

So, you have your idea, you have your structure laid out and you are committing to that five minutes a day. Now you need to be ready to catch Awen when it passes through. You might be on a walk, in the shower, in the supermarket, or driving your car when it happens – these are such common times, but really it can happen anytime. Awen (a Welsh word that literally means “sacred breath” which is used in Druidry to refer to the creative spirit or flow states of inspiration) happens upon us when we least expect it and we need to make sure we catch it before it flows off somewhere else! So carry a notebook, or use the notes app on your phone to jot down ideas when they come to you. You can also use the voice recorder if that suits you better. Try to catch the idea while its fresh in your mind. Having a writing schedule can help us, but often creativity is unpredictable and we need to be ready to catch it when we can.

Let it settle

Once you have your text at a stage you are fairly satisfied with. Perhaps you’ve reach a good word count or feel you have filled out as many chapters as are needed to answer that first question, it’s time to edit. But if you can, I would suggest letting it settle before you do. Just don’t look at it for a few days. For me it is usually a few weeks. I find it hard to edit as the text is too jumbled in my mind. It helps me to leave it for a while and then come back to it fresh. I see it in new ways and my edits help it to become clearer as I am reading it more like someone who is new to the text.  

Get it proofread

Don’t expect your publisher to do much in this sense. Get others to check it for you. Choose people with different outlooks or skills who will notice different things. Some might notice spelling or punctuation mistakes, some might point out political or philosophical problems, others might be more aware of clarity or sentence length, some might be good at fact checking. Of course, you should be editing for all of these yourself first, but fresh eyes on the text will help you to iron out any problems you have missed and make the text as readable as possible.

Publishing

I went with a publishing house rather than self-publishing. I know a lot of people self-publish these days, and you might find that is for you, but for myself, I enjoy not having to do all the distribution and promotion of the books. It’s also great to be in a publishing house with other authors who share ideas and work on projects together. I am with Moon Books. I don’t get paid upfront. I get paid royalties as a book sells and I can buy wholesale copies to sell myself at a good price. We have an author forum on Facebook and it’s a great community.

Manuscripts can be sent to publishers via their websites, but they don’t always need to be perfect! It’s possible if you have it finished, they might still want you to change some things anyway and you have to be ready for that too, which can mean editing all over again. When I applied with my first manuscript for Australian Druidry, I didn’t even have a title. I had written about 15000 words as a kind of skeleton structure for something about nature spirituality in Australia but I hadn’t worked out who my audience was. I didn’t know if it should be about Druidry, or Paganism, or nature spirituality more generally. They helped me to find my audience and gave me a word count to aim for in expanding it. I took about a year to get it finished after that. There are so many ways to get there. Talking to a publisher once you have an idea is really great. Just give it a go, and as Elizabeth Gilbert says in her wonderful book “Big Magic”, “if they say ‘no’, you say ‘next’”.

My favourite block breakers

There are so many ways to break a blockage. An important one is waiting and not beating yourself up. Just do something else for awhile. When the time is right, it will happen. Aside from that, I like the following:

  • Meditate for 10 minutes. Just sit still and shut your eyes. You will be astounded at how many ideas come at your when you are trying to meditate! Work with it, not against it. When they come, start writing.
  • Journal a lot. I have been keeping a journal since I was 12. I love them. I write in them often. They are for no-one else. I talk about what is happening in my day, what I want to do, what I am struggling with etc. It helps me to clear my mind of chatter.
  • Go for a walk, preferably in nature or through a park. Take a little notebook or your phone to record things – but maybe put it on airplane mode so you don’t get lost in the infinite scroll.
  • Go to a class at your community college on writing. Being around others who are also writers in itself is inspiring and motivating. The class doesn’t even have to be exactly what you are writing about. A shift of topic can be refreshing to your creativity.
  • Buy some books on writing that have exercises to try. Use these in your five minute sessions. See below.
  • Write a blog! It’s a nice way to practice sharing short pieces of writing and they don’t have to be perfect.

References and resources

I don’t have a lot of these kinds of books and other resources. Do check out what is out there. At a writing group I used to attend we often used story prompt cards by Caitin and John Matthews. I’m sure there are more of this kind of thing out there!

The Little Red Writing Book by Mark Tredinnick – This has lots of writing exercises. Mark is a wonderful writer with a beautiful poetic, friendly style. This is a great choice if you want some activities to try in your five minute sessions.

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert – She wrote ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ too. This one is mainly about finding the confidence to believe in yourself as a writer and breakthrough those blockages. It’s beautifully written and wonderfully inspiring.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron – This is a classic. It’s a bit dated in some of its language, but the core ideas there are really worthwhile. The exercises ask a lot of questions that help you to break through blockages and find what you really want to do with your art. It encourages daily journaling, walking and taking yourself out on an artist date among many questions about your hopes, dreams and desires.

Get writing

I hope you enjoyed this little blog! Thanks to Alex who I met at the NFF for inspiring me to write this one. I hope you all have a wonderful time exploring your creativity through writing. Do you have five minutes now? Go on, write something 😊

If you would like to read Australian Druidry or Belonging to the Earth, they can be purchased via my jewelry website Forest Spirit Jewelry.

Belonging to the Earth

Nature Spirituality in a Changing world.

By Julie Brett

With contributions from Jo Clancy, Kristoffer Hughes, David King, Bruce and Patricia Shillingsworth, and Peter Williams.

My new book title, Belonging to the Earth: Nature Spirituality in a Changing World has been written with wonderful contributions from First Nations community leaders that I have met as I’ve explored how our nature-based spiritual communities are responding to the threat of climate crisis. They are friends who inspire me and have helped me to understand how we can all do better living in this beautiful world, with respect for the Earth, for Indigenous traditions, and with wonder at the magic of her beauty and the art that comes to us from her. The book has five interview chapters that they have helped me with, and also includes stories of rituals, trips I have taken to learn about caring for the land, and local community actions. I’ve explored the many ways we have been processing natural disasters like drought, fire, flood and the COVID-19 pandemic in our own ways, and how our connection to the Earth is an integral part of the healing journey.

The book begins with a wonderful foreword written by Professor Carole Cusack of Sydney University. She was an important teacher there for me when I did my BA in Studies in Religion. She helped me to learn about Paganism from an academic perspective. I am so pleased to have her kind, understanding and inspiring words introduce the book.

I wrote the book while living in Dharug and Gundungurra Country, in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. Country I acknowledge as Aboriginal land, and I pay my respects to the Elders past and present and extend that respect to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people reading this article, or reading the book.

Living in Katoomba has been significant in the ways in which the stories of the book have formed, with much of it taking place locally. There were also trips around the country to Queensland, the Central West of NSW and to South Australia. In 2019 I went to learn about the Darling River, which is also known as the Baaka and the Parwon in local languages of the Central West of NSW, and how communities there were suffering not only due to drought, but also because of poor water and land management. The Yaama Ngunna Baaka tour of 2019 introduced me to Aboriginal culture in those places as we travelled between the towns of Walgett, Brewarrina, Bourke, Wilcannia, and the Menindee Lakes. At each place we heard Elders speak about important issues, and learned about the Dreaming and Songlines in corroboree where stories, songs and dances were shared. Everyone was welcomed and urged that we all look after country together. It was a life changing experience and one that led to so much more learning.

The Yaama Ngunna Baaka (Welcome everyone to the Rivers) Tour 2019.

I was so moved by this experience and felt that it would be wonderful to share it with my Druidry community, and with others in the nature spirituality community, but as I was only new myself to some of this information, and it was important to include information directly from the people from whom I had learned it, I decided to do so through interviews with those involved. The text includes five interviews. Each one showing a facet of the stories of our shared love of the Earth and of the incredible importance of First Nations people and Indigenous cultures as the world as a whole is finding the balance it needs to support future generations.

I spoke with Uncle Peter Williams, a Ngemba man from the Brewarrina area, who also lives in Katoomba. He shares with us his story of rediscovering his culture through learning the dances and songs from his Elders, and how he became a part of the corroborees along the rivers that led to the Yaama Ngunna Baaka tour. He also speaks to us about arriving well, and how the first Europeans to come to Australia did not understand how to engage with Aboriginal culture. He suggests that the stories are there to be learned and that we can all be a part of that learning. He also speaks of his dreams to open a cultural learning center where everyone can come to learn together.

The Yaama Ngunna Baaka tour was put together by Uncle Bruce Shillingsworth, a Budjiti and Muruwarri man, along with various community groups, activist groups and political groups who supported it. I spoke with Uncle Bruce and his wife Aunty Trish, (Patricia Shillingsworth) an Uralaroi woman, about how it came about and what changes they would like to see as a result of these kinds of actions. They share with us the importance of protocol for everyone to understand, in each part of the world, we need to look to our First Nations leaders for guidance, and for permission. They explained the need for this to come from a place of friendship and unity, welcoming everyone in to learn about traditional culture. Their work in activism and community engagement is astounding, and ever present is kindness and love, friendship and care in what they do.  

David King is from the local Gundungurra community and plays an important role at Garguree, The Gully here in Katoomba. He shares with us how it is an important place for the Aboriginal community in their history when the Burragorang Valley was flooded to make way for the Warragamba Dam in 1948. The Aboriginal community there was displaced but found refuge in The Gully. A racetrack development threatened the community there again shortly afterwards in 1957, but eventually it was returned in 2002 and it is now officially an Aboriginal place. Many local people meet there monthly to help with rehabilitation of the native environment in a swampcare project and it is wonderful to see. David shares this story and the importance of protecting the valley from any further damage due to proposals for raising the dam wall.

Jo Clancy is a Wirradjuri woman who teaches dance classes in Wentworth Falls, not far from Katoomba. I have been taking classes with her on and off for a few years. I love how she combines contemporary dance, stretching and strength training with traditional Aboriginal Dance. Some of her classes are just for the Aboriginal community, and others are for everyone. She tells us why she shares dance with the community, and how her traditional dances come from inspiration within the land. She shares a beautiful story of how she created a dance for dyagula, the lyrebird.

I also interview Kristoffer Hughes, of the Anglesey Druid Order in Wales to give a Frist Nations perspective of Britain as a native Welsh person. He shares stories of how the land itself speaks and inspires us, and how stories are held in places, with the mythological landscape coming alive as those stories are told. The similarities with Australian First Nations cultures are inspiring and point to the importance of keeping the traditions of story, song, dance, as ways of maintaining connection with the magic of the land wherever we are in the world. It’s so important that we look to the First Nations cultures of every place to help us all understand how to live in balance.

These interviews and conversations are such an important part of the book, but they are not it’s entirely. I also take time in the book to explore important concepts that I think all Australians should understand about Aboriginal culture when conducting rituals in these lands. The importance of giving an Acknowledgement of Country at the start of our rituals, or inviting local Traditional Owners to give a Welcome to Country at larger events is significant. I also talk about “doing better” – knowing that many non-Indigenous people are in a process of learning, and that its hard to get things perfect straight away, but the point is to live and learn and make changes as we learn more.

Our altar at The Earth Gorsedd – a ritual for the Earth – in Adelaide 2019.

The interviews make up a third of the book, but are so important and I am so grateful to be able to include them that I wanted to focus on them in this blog. I will speak about other parts of the book in more detail in blogs to come. The other parts of the book explore the importance of ritual for healing the Earth and healing ourselves, as well as the power of story, dance, poetry and song in all cultures and places, and for all people. I take you on walks to speak with nature, into rituals for the seasons and for the Earth, around the wheel of the year, and into the power of poetry and story. When we are struck with the pain of bushfire destruction, when the pandemic keeps us apart, when we want to acknowledge the hurts of the world – ritual and art can be powerful healing and transformative actions. The state of the Earth reflects our own state. When she is hurting, so too are we. Addressing this can bring the solidarity and energy needed to continue the fight for the Earth that is so necessary right now. As we acknowledge the wounds, we come together to heal them. When we acknowledge how the land around us is affecting our being, and we hers; when we sing and dance those feelings; it helps us to make a difference within each of us that spreads out into the world. It gives us the resolve to stand together and stand up for her, because we are all in this together.

I have so much gratitude to those who have made contributions to the book. May these stories of hope and healing help us all to see how we magical it is that we belong to the Earth. Each of the interviews was also recorded and will feature as an episode of my podcast Forest Spirituality with Julie Brett in 2022. Find it on your favourite podcast app or here.

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You can pre-order a copy of Belonging to the Earth: Nature Spirituality in a Changing World now here. A percentage of the profits goes towards the contributors and their projects.

We will be having a book launch in Katoomba in February 2022. More details soon.

I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the Dharug and Gundungurra people on whose Country this article and this book were written, and the Ngemba, Budjiti, Muruwari, Uralaroi and Wirradjuri people whose lands I have also mentioned. I pay my respects to the Elders past and present, and to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people who might read these words. Sovereignty was never ceded. The many Countries of the place we call Australia always were and always will be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land.

Doing Better

“Doing better” is a phrase I have been using a lot recently. Over the last few months and years, it has become increasingly important to me to understand how Druidry works in terms of our relationship with Indigenous traditions. As an Australian Druid this means learning about Aboriginal culture and the expectations there are for us as people on stolen, unceded land to act with respect at take time to find out more about the first nations cultures of the lands that we call home. This is a long learning journey for non-Aboriginal Australians and it will take time and effort for us to come to a position where we are really doing right by Aboriginal people. There’s a lot to learn and to unlearn but in the process. I know I make mistakes and stumble along as I learn to do better, but if we keep that as the goal – to always be trying to do better, we will make a difference.

Since I returned from the UK in 2008 I have made learning about Aboriginal culture an important part of how I approach Australian Druidry. I included a small chapter of my book Australian Druidry about honouring Indigenous wisdom. I did not go into a great amount of detail about this at the time for a couple of reasons – for one, I think we should be learning from Aboriginal people about this subject, and two, I was really only at the beginning of my journey of learning and still needed a great deal of guidance myself.

Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I recognise many people in Druidry can be Aboriginal or have Aboriginal heritage. I have met many who either identify as Aboriginal or who are interested in finding out more about a lost part of their Aboriginal family heritage, often through the trials of the stolen generations. I don’t want to erase your experience from Druidry by speaking from my own non-Aboriginal perspective. I see you. But I also know that the majority of Druids in Australia are non-Aboriginal and have a lot to learn about Aboriginal culture, and here I am mainly speaking to that perspective.

In the book chapter I covered fairly minimal ground and I made some mistakes that would seem glaringly obvious to me now. I suggested we include an acknowledgement or welcome to country in our rituals, but I didn’t explain the difference between these two terms. A “welcome to country”, can only be given by a Traditional Owner of the country we are on, whereas an “Acknowledgement of Country” can be given by anyone. I also suggested we include this part of the ritual during the welcome to the ancestors of the land. I now understand the importance of making it the very first art of the ritual, before anything else is said. This is an example of what we say in our gatherings in Katoomba now:

“We stand today on Dharug and Gundungarra land. Land that was never ceded. We acknowledge the Dharug and Gundungarra people as the traditional owners of the land and recognise their deep and abiding connection to the land, the waters and the skies; to the plants, animals, landforms, sacred sites and seasons. We acknowledge the sadness and suffering that has occurred here and express our sincere hope for reconciliation, for healing, and for the continued strength of the Dharug and Gundungarra people. We ay our resects to the Elders past and present, and extend that respect to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.”

In the last few years, it has become common practice in most Druidry circles in Australia to include an acknowledgment of country like this at the beginning of our rituals. Know the name of the country you are on. Make giving an acknowledgement of Country a priority in your rituals, and we will all be doing a bit better. If you are interested in learning more about the difference between an Acknowledgement of Country and a Welcome to Country, or would like to find out how to contact a Traditional Owner to perform a Welcome to Country for your community event, the following link provides good information:

https://www.indigenous.gov.au/contact-us/welcome_acknowledgement-country

Taking time to learn about our local Indigenous community and how we can give a heartfelt acknowledgement of country in our rituals is of course just one way that we can do better. To learn more, I encourage you to learn about the history and community where you live. One of the best ways to do this is to support your local land council or Aboriginal community centre and the events that they put on to help the wider community learn about Aboriginal culture. Turn up. Listen for what is important to them and through that, learn about the places, people and history, the pain and suffering in battles or loss of connection to land, the families of the area and their stories, the strength of culture to continue and survive, and how we can all continue to try to do better with this every day.

Water for Stonehenge

As I walked towards Stonehenge this time, I held in my hand something unassuming, but very special to me because of its meaning and where it had come from. A small bottle of water. It was cool in my warm hand, as I walked up the path, surrounded by many other tourists, with my son holding my other hand and my husband walking behind us. We had gotten off the plane from Sydney via Bangkok mere hours earlier and were quite tired from the jet lag, but simultaneously really happy to be there. My son was excited as there was a kids TV show that he had seen it on, and he also loves to look at museums. My husband had never been and was quite surprised at how big it was. For me, it was about returning to fullfil a promise.

stonehenge julie 18The last time I’d set foot near this incredible site, I was there for a winter solstice Gorsedd gathering that my teacher Morgan Rhys Adams had invited me to. There had been about a hundred people in attendance. I had only started learning about Druidry with Morgan that year and it had really captured my heart. I had learned so much after months of working with some core concepts, and was feeling ready to return to Australia with that knowledge to begin my project of understanding the Australian landscape better.

The Gorsedd gathering involved recognition of the season, a play acting out a part of the story of Arthur, an initiation of Bards which I was able to receive, and an eisteddfod of other performances. In that space I decided to state my intention to take what I’d learned back to Australia. So, in front of that big group of people I expressed my deep gratitude to Druidry and to that community for what I’d learned there, and I made a promise to take what I’d learned to Australia and explore how it could help us there. It was that promise I felt I was returning with fulfilled.

The water in my hand wasn’t just any old water. It was water that had played an ddung altarimportant role at the first Druids Down Under National Gathering, held in March this year in Sydney. People practicing Druidry through many different pathways came together to celebrate what it means to us to walk this path in our Australian context. We symbolised this in our ritual practice over the weekend. A significant part of the ritual was the waters of the cauldron. Each of us was asked to bring a small bottle of water from our own land – either the tap water we drink that is a part of who we are physically, or water from a sacred natural place for us. In ritual we each added into the cauldron the waters of our land representing our coming together from so many different places. During the main ritual we blessed the water with our invocations and welcomes to the ancestors, the nature spirits, and the shining ones, we danced and sang our Awen, chanting and toning harmonies together to bring a blessing to our offerings. The water was later put into many small bottles for us to take home again as a symbol of our community. This was the water I held in my hand.

water stonehenge 18

I walked around the pathway and found a nice spot on the grass to sit for a while, remembering that promise made in the stones ten years ago; remembering returning to Australia and starting to find others, discussing Druidry and how it could be adapted for Australia, developing an Australian wheel of the year, and learning about Australian plant and animal symbolism, as well as exploring the concepts of elements, local spirits and sacred sites in our antipodean context; I remembered the many discussions online and in person with so many inspiring people who worked together to create a vision for what our community could be and worked towards creating it; remembering all the connections made that led to our first national gathering; and remembering the wonderful experience of the gathering itself, that was the product of the efforts of so many individuals in the community, giving with generosity and joy. My heart felt so full sitting there on the grass, clutching this little bottle of water and looking at these ancient stones.

I poured some into my hand, and placed my hand on the soft grass, dotted with daisies. I breathed in the place and felt a sense of completion, encouraged to keep going, and to just be filled with the joy of it all. Feeling that the promise had come full circle. I’d returned and had done what I’d set out to do. I wondered if there would be a next task, but all I felt was joy and a contentedness to simply continue. I have so much gratitude for this journey. For those who helped me in England, to the sacred sites and the ancestors, and to everyone who has been a part of the journey in Australia. What a wonderful thing we have created together. I felt as though you were all with me there in the symbol of that water bottle. We are here. Australian Druidry is a wonderful community of people and I am so proud to have played a part in helping us come together.