Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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January 16, 2012

Envisioning the Writer’s Ideal Life With Vision Boards and Mandalas

by Louella Nelson

There's no time like January to dream the so-called "impossible dream" and get organized for the year.

We use all kinds of tricks to maneuver ourselves into a better us, a more orderly us, a more fulfilled us.  We lie to ourselves and say we’ll get this or that done and don’t do it.

  • We’re going to diet and lose 30 pounds.
  • We’ll get dive-certified; take that trip to Thailand; then we’ll get over to Tuscany and see the clear light all those painters raved about in the Renaissance.
  • For sure we’ll write two books, find an agent, get The New York Times to write reviews for us, blog till our fingers are numb, and launch that writing career.  (Or, in my case, re-launch it.)

But how???

Perhaps the answer lies in community.  What is more giving, stimulating, and supportive than a writing community?

Prior to writing, Deborah Gaal was an entrepreneur, corporate executive, and Hudson Institute-trained coach focused on guiding emerging leaders to develop visioning, purpose, and organizational culture. She is currently writing her second novel.

Writer Deborah Gaal hosted a splendid Vision Board-building seminar last Sunday night for 10 of my student writers.  We examined six adult passions—Personal Mastery, Achievement, Intimacy, Play and Creativity, Search for Meaning, and the last, Compassion and Contribution.

Our goal was to select three of these passions to focus on as positive outcomes for our energies.  Deb took these passions and their definitions from the work of Frederick Hudson and Pamela McLean in LifeLaunch: A Passionate Guide to the Rest of Your Life.  Mind you, it wasn’t easy to narrow the field to three categories.  But Deb had some tricks up her sleeve to help us.

Just as I assert to writers that all stories and characters reside in your subconscious and need only be drawn out through auto-writing, meditation, or long showers—Deb’s introductory remarks reassured us we already knew The Plan for our lives-to-come.

She guided us in a brief meditation in which we accessed our subconscious and gave confidence to our dreams.  If that sounds a little woo-woo, it is—but it's an effective way to unlock ideas.  I often suggest that writers tell themselves three to five nights in a row before sleep that they know exactly what to write about, how to fix a character, where to go next in plot, and so on.  Deb did something very similar.

Here’s a paraphrase of the process:  Essentially, eyes closed, imagine yourself in a beautiful, peaceful place; breathe there for a bit; wander down a path and see your spirit-guide (an ancient savvy version of you) waiting for you; ask for what you want, what you wish to know, and then gently ease yourself back to the conscious world.

After the meditation, Deb urged us to either use a special deck of cards, Planning on Purpose Card Deck, to get more ideas about our passions and goals and then categorize them into the three key passions; or go directly to magazines and cut out pictures that represent the three areas.  A last option was to draw a mandala (a Sanskrit word that means "circle") and fill in the pie-wedges of the circle with our passions or goals.


Minutes later, a whole gang of us were snipping images and words from a collection of magazines we'd brought along and pasting them onto large foam-core boards—our Vision Boards—or drawing a mandala.

The action unfolds

It was interesting to see the work styles of some ten writers.  Four or five of us worked at the table and gabbed; others found spots on the floor throughout the downstairs of Debby’s beautiful home.

Each of us got something different:

  • Fiona covered an entire 20”x30” board with words but there was an organized madness to the layout.
  • Bev kept at her board until the very very end, nearly four hours later, and ended up with concrete ideas and three distinct areas of focus (which was the goal!)
  • A few of us had a cup of tea and a chat to relax our overtaxed brains.
  • Cynthia had the most amazing luck finding outstanding pictures that captured freedom and joy and a kind of splendor (example: photo of a gorgeous woman, eyes closed, head thrown back, arms reaching up to a cascade of water from a fountain, the water and the woman golden because backlit by the sun).
  • Alison drew a colorful sun-mandala and I got to read some of the sensitive, beautiful things she put on it.

Initially I used the deck of cards and came up with a list of values, or things important to me:  being visionary, making a difference, more recognition, career satisfaction, a positive retirement, staying healthy, more freedom for me, playing/playful, simplify, sex (three letters that say so much!), sexuality, and committed to a significant other. Reviewing the list, Deb pointed out that I was heavy on Achievement (no big surprise there).

← Goal-mapping, an alternate-style vision board using images and deadlines.  See “Resources” below.

Here is how she helped me organize my list of values: “Being visionary and making a difference should fall under Compassion and Contribution,” she advised.  “Recognition, career satisfaction, and positive retirement sound like Achievement.  Health, freedom, simplify—these seem like Personal Mastery, and playing is Play and Creativity.”

Because I can only choose three passions to develop, I move “being playful” into Personal Mastery.  Sex, sexuality, and commitment to a significant other normally fall into the Intimacy category.  But I’m limited to three categories.  So I put these into Personal Mastery too.  The categories are flexible and I’m taking advantage of that!

In addition to “values” and “passions,” I have “goals.”  Where do those fit into the visioning process?  Deb listened to me articulate some of my goals, commenting, “Re-releasing your published novels, writing and selling the writing text, and tripling your outreach to writing students are action steps for Achievement.”

The action steps are to be written on Post-It Notes or directly on the Vision Board.  For example, near Star Maker, a phrase I pasted on my Vision Board, I need to place a Post-It that says, “Triple my outreach to writing students.”  I could also post “Write and sell my writing text” near Star Maker, because when students read the text, they’ll be on their way to becoming a writing star.  This is how goals intersect with values and passions.

The climax

As easy and enjoyable as it was at first, I struggled with the imagery part of the process.  I simply could not find images (other than a lovely home on the beach) to represent my ambitions.  In fairness, the magazine collection was heavy on beauty and lifestyle.

As mentioned, I did find the one stark phrase that captures my goals for the writers I mentor:  Star Maker.

Most astonishing, however, was that my half-finished board ended up full of images of the natural world.  I admit that I relate there most strongly.  So I must need to “fill the well” in nature, right?  Vacation!!!

But no.  Deb said we are visioning to draw other things to us that we want but haven’t yet attained. So my board is not finished.  It has huge open spaces, and only a fraction of the messages I put on the board are Achievement oriented.

Debby gave me hope, though.  She recommends I find images on the Internet; that I look at Forbes or other biz journals; and of course, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Poets & Writers, the UK’s Writing Magazine, and the U.S.’s bible for the industry, Publisher’s Weekly, will offer words and images that make sense to me.  (An aside: check out PW’s articles on self-publishing.)

The denouement

Several of the writers praised the seminar.  “Deb opened up to us about her own vision-board and the things she had learned from the project,” says Alison.  “For me this was the most valuable part of the whole experience—I was getting some insight into the personal journey of a fellow writer and friend I really admire.  Such an inspiring moment.”

Fiona wrote this morning that the time she put into her Vision Board has already paid her back.  She had placed on her board a piece of a brochure for a screenwriting seminar that was sold out.  “But I was still dreaming of going,” she writes, “and I found out today I’m in!”

Lest readers think the Vision Board is strictly for business goals, Fiona clarifies a personal goal well-met:  “I cut out a picture of a globe/passport/jet with the words "family vacation," "discover the world," and "great travel" glued on top. Today I booked a trip for Easter Break, first toLondon, then by train to Glasgow, Scotland, to see my Granny and show my kids the motherland! I have been trying to do this for ages!”

I loved the sense of community among the writers—one slipping a magazine image across the table to me and saying, “Can you use this?”  Another murmuring encouragement to me and then articulating her dreams for publication.  And always, Deb’s subtle support, her calm guidance, her ability to cut through confusing lists and drop them into categories that didn’t seem obvious to the writer.

My “scene goal,” if you will, was to put together a Vision Board that clarified my goals and priorities and gave me direction for 2012.  That’s only partially how things turned out.  Today, for instance, because of my work with Debby, I sent off four of my novels to be scanned and translated into PDF files, eventually to be launched in online bookstores.  In large part, however, my board reflects my inner-most passion:  nature.

In my home-office at the moment is a Vision Board filled with natural images—beaches, stones, sea shells, horses tossing their manes and traveling through fields of yellow deer weed.

I had to think about this outcome.  Although I strive for achievement in writing and teaching, my soul is all about the natural world, which knows nothing about money, career, goals, Achievement, or even visions.  Instead it is wild, chaotic, sublime, serene, unpredictable, subtle, endlessly replicated, endlessly unique, cruel, hungry, changing....

For me, it’s an ongoing process, this business of “visioning” my future.  Meanwhile, I remind myself that a thing nature does not have is regret.  Carpe diem.


As I was writing this blog post, I discovered that, in fall 2011, Roger Parker posted a fascinating article A.K.A. blog, “Using an Author’s Mandala Chart to Write & Publish a Book,” which, obviously, helps authors find their way to publication.  He adapted a “flexible focus” mandala developed by Active Garage, which carries syndicated content and hosts guest bloggers.

You can get “Planning on Purpose” cards from Hudson Institute  inSanta Barbara.  The organization focuses on “Life Renewal, Coaching and Leadership Development.”  800-582-4401

See also Brian Mayne’s “Goal Mapping” site.  It’s fabulous—so organized and helpful.  http://www.liftinternational.com/Goal_Map_templates.pdf

Materials List:

√ A foam-core board from an office supply store that measures whatever size you want to display in your writing area (most of us used a 20”x30” size);

√ scissors or an Exacto knife
√ post-its
√ pencil or marking pen
√ glue stick

√ Other creative tools as you wish:  sparkle-glue, theme stickers, sheets of colored or patterned paper to place behind images—whatever makes the board come alive.

Achieving Your Vision Step-by-Step

How fun would it be to gather your writing partners or best friends, some great eats, and your materials and host your own vision seminar?

To recap what you can do at home, here are the steps:

  1. Gather your materials, including a well-rounded selection of magazines if you plan to do a Vision Board rather than the Mandala.
  2. Find a calm meditation/work area and put all your materials in easy reach.
  3. Do a brief meditation, such as the one I mention in The Stage is Set above, to calm and focus your mind.
  4. Using the cards or simply brainstorming, make a list of your passions and goals; organize  them under only three of the six adult passions listed in paragraph three of my blog.
  5. Then either draw a Mandala or cut out pictures and words to make a Vision Board.
  6. Think about the action steps you’ll need to take to make your passions come to pass.  Use a marker or sticky notes to list these steps and include them in your design.
  7. Place your passions and steps where you see them daily.
  8. While you do the action steps, watch the magic happen.

About the Author:

A former president of Orange County RWA (California) and coordinator of a past RWA national conference, Louella Nelson is the author of five romance novels (Days of Fire, Mail-Order Mate, and others), short stories, a novella, as well as award-winning trade magazine editorial features, articles, and technical reports.

A professional writers' mentor, Lou has conducted successful author promotions and has been a guest on radio and television talk shows; she has led writing retreats and taught writing courses at the University of California, Irvine Extension (current); Orange Coast College (current); California State University, Fullerton Extension; and Learning Tree University. Many of her students are agented, published, and award-winners.

Lou received the 2010 UC Irvine Extension Distinguished Instructor Award. She is at work on a textbook for writers and is currently re-releasing her novels and writing short stories.  Follow Lou on Twitter @LouellaNelson or visit her blog.

0 comments on “Envisioning the Writer’s Ideal Life With Vision Boards and Mandalas”

  1. My word! This is exactly what I've been struggling with. I truly was caught up in this process of finding a way to juggle "life" and "writing" and "family in my own life. Thank you so much for this post and for your generosity in suggesting we use such a process with our fellow writers. I am thinking I may plan on doing this soon as a workshop at one of my writing groups. Thanks again. I know I will be making my own vision board and learning my true passions for my writing success.

  2. Thank you Lou, for your wisdom and amazing life path!! I did use a board for this exercise, but that was for sales marketing. I have a good writer friend who has a "story" board for her WIP. These days I use my research to capture bits and pieces of what I want to learn, find images that suit those goals, use pictures in my note files for a story, post on a small board images that represent goals. This month I am using images of other published writer's book covers, research articles on queries and devote two hours a day to using those to reach my goal for this year ... agent/publish.

    1. Such a great idea, using book covers to motivate you to finish and get sold. Wow, you could run one of these seminars with all the steps you already take. Thanks for sharing.

  3. This is awesome material, Lou. I've used collaging for books and loved it. The idea of a Vision Board for personal and writing goals really appeals to me. Thank you for all the wonderful information and links! 🙂

    1. You're so welcome, Sheila. My friends at WritersInTheStorm talked me into writing a blog for them/you, and I pondered what to write about for days. And then, when I enjoyed Debra Gaal's seminar so much, I thought, hey, other writers would love it too.

    1. YOU are wonderful for making me do this! And the way you put it, "crafty critique weekend retreat," it sounds so cozy n fun!
      Made the deadline yesterday for OCC/RWA's short story anthology submissions, so we'll see how it all turns out....

  4. Thanks, Lou, for a fascinating article. Accessing the treasure house within us is truly our goal as writers. You've given us some concrete real-world steps to do just that! Bravo!

    1. Oh-oh! If you get stuck in a "crafty" project, writers won't learn to write, and that would be a loss to our culture!

      Your two articles on writing action are the best I've read. For those who didn't see Tiffany's amazing insights for writers of action scenes, check out these links:
      Crais: http://haleywhitehall.com/2011/08/writing-action-meets-fist/
      Coben: http://writersinthestorm.wordpress.com/2011/09/23/there-is-more-to-writing-action-than-meets-the-fist-2/#comment-1770

      I heard there was a third in the series but I haven't seen it. Let me know if it's posted.
      Looking forward to meeting you one of these days! Thanks for the post.

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