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Creating balance through writing and nature

As a writing coach who works with academics, one of the stumbling blocks my clients come up against at a certain point in their career is what I call “path block.” This usually happens, ironically, after a big success: finishing the dissertation, getting a new job, or having a book published.

I understand this block and I have experienced it myself. Nature even gave me a literal experience of this block one day many years ago when I was walking in the woods behind my house and the briars and brambles around me stopped me in my tracks. I thought to myself, “It would be so much easier if I had a path.” I looked down and there on the ground was a hawk feather. I picked it up and realized I must make my own path.

Allow me to share with you how I have taught my clients to transform this insight into action that propels them forward.

The first step comes through understanding that all the natural elements around you– the stones and mountains and grasses and trees and creeks– are not “things.” They are not opposed to “culture.” Instead, they have helped co-create culture and they hold the stories of culture.  They even hold biological knowledge that pre-dates the human.

Look out your window at whatever is around you right now.  Do you know the history of the tree closest to you? Do you what was there before the time of humans?  For me, my back yard, which is now over a hundred miles from the Atlantic Ocean, was once the edge between the land and the sea.  Knowing this allows me to imagine a time, perhaps as a result of global warming, when it might be the coastline again.  This knowledge changes my relationship to what is there.  The land is no longer a timeless thing but rather a changing and temporary subject.

In short, it is alive.

Just as you are.

This next step is to conceptualize our creating, not as something we do by “using” nature and “applying” natural principles, but as something we do with nature. This kind of collaboration means opening to nature as an equal partner in our human practices and learning from nature as a teacher.

Go out to a place where you can sit with an element in nature surrounded by human culture.  Look for nature in unlikely places, no matter how small– it could be a tree beside a busy city street, a creek running under a bridge, or the hedge that divides your yard from your neighbor’s.

Once there, sit and listen.


Pay attention.

Be present.

We make many choices in our lives based on chance, history, inheritance, and contingency.  These are choices that are largely determined by circumstances out of our control, and they have consequences for our individual and collective futures.

This is where my clients are when they come up against a “path block.” Most of their choices have been largely determined for them up to this point, and now they must decide for themselves which path to take next.

When we realize the path is up to us, and we accept the freedom that is inherently ours, it is as if a parallel path opens for us, one that is both higher and deeper than the daily path we have been walking.  It is a path that every living thing on earth also walks, and it is eternal, endless, and universal. From this higher perspective of freedom, we can begin to make new choices more easily.

Take some time to discover this higher, deeper path for yourself by journaling in response to the following questions:

Where do you want to be at the end of your life?

What would you want to know that you have accomplished?

Is there a place you’ve always wanted to visit?

Is there something you’ve always wanted to do?

What is missing from your life right now?

What would it mean to have lived a good life?

What can you do to make a step toward that good life?

What first step do you need to take for yourself?

When my clients have done this exercise, they have discovered the freedom that comes from claiming one’s own path in academic life. They have made decisions that opened them to doing the deeper work that they always wanted to do but held themselves back from because it took them in a new direction.

To visualize this for yourself, you may want to listen to the audio recording of my guided visualization from my forthcoming book, Earth Joy Writing.

And I’d love to hear how you are clearing your path for your greatest work. Leave a comment below and let me know how connecting with nature and journaling are helping you understand how much freedom you really have and where you are going on your own path.

Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D., is a writing coach who specializes in working with women academics. Her 13th book, Earth Joy Writing, will be released this year on Earth Day. Learn more about her work at her website

The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Text and Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.