Friday, March 9, 2018

Does a Breath Have a Genre?

The next time you're at your desk thinking you should work on such-and-such piece, ask yourself, Does my next breath come with a genre? Does it come packaged with the label of Short Story or Screenplay or Sonnet? 

Writers should practice not knowing which genre they're about to write. 

Not knowing genre joins other important forms of not-knowing for mindful writing: not knowing the point of re-entry in a draft (but knowing already which piece one wants to work on); not knowing which piece one will work on (but knowing the genre of that piece); and not knowing if one will actually produce any words at all during a writing session. These types of not-knowing are needed to engage verbal emptiness--the space/time in which formless turns over to form and vice versa. At the most basic level, these forms of not-knowing are also necessary to remaining perceptive of the present while writing.

Notice that I say practice not predicting genre. Don't get me wrong: maintaining a focus is important. We need to narrow our intrapersonal to finish pieces. With a mindful writing practice, however, we allow ourselves numerous opportunities for the opposite of narrowing: a radical openness to the moment.

What we're trying to do is maximize possibility and reduce preconceptions, especially what Ellen Langer called premature cognitive commitments. In Mindfulness, Langer writes about how "mindlessness, as it diminishes our self-image, narrows our choices, and weds us to single-minded attitudes, has a lot to do with this wasted potential."

To increase our creative variables and contexts, it's preferable that we approach each present writing moment with mental windshield wipers that clear away all. Then we listen for whatever intrapersonal bits and phrases arise in that moment. By setting up a mind clear of assumptions, we are likely to hear a greater range of the intrapersonal in that call and response between our writing selves and the next moment. To remain longer in that state of openness, we try to not label this new intrapersonal material by genre (on top of trying of course not to evaluate or critique it).

Without present awareness, genre is a major form of preconception and nonproductive mindlessness.

Picking genre too early forecloses on possibility by exponentially and very quickly reducing structural and content options. Preconceptions freight the writing moment with faulty assumptions and limiting self-talk. Second only to the preconceptions about our writing ability that most of us tell ourselves while writing is our preconception about our genre.

During invention, there's no real need for 100% commitment then & there to the contexts & people affiliated with certain genre. Those people are not physically present while you write. Those contexts are not your context while you write. Our #1 allegiance during invention should be to observing the ever-changing present moment.

This is especially true of professional writers and students in school for creative writing. Graduate writing programs usually ask graduate students to declare their genre and sometimes undergraduate programs do as well. Genre for writers is a like a pearl: grit of past experience (a writing class taken in college, a passing compliment, a book read as a teenager) accumulated layers and layers of actions to make us "a poet" or "a novelist," and so forth. Actually, a series of moments accumulated and hardened into what now seems timeless, just how it is, the personal status quo.

Image from

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Prolific Moment (Book on Mindful Writing) Listed at Amazon

My forthcoming book, Prolific Moment: Theory and Practice Of Mindfulness for Writing, is listed now at Amazon:

I'm grateful for Deb Schillbach's cover image.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Mindful Writing Koan

Ability to write, inability to write: same pen. What has changed?

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

New Book on Mindful Writing Published by Routledge August/September 2018

I'm pleased to say that I've finished Prolific Moment: Theory and Practice of Mindfulness for Writing and that it will be published by Routledge in August or September 2018. Below is info on the book.

Blurb from Publisher:

Prolific Moment: Theory and Practice of Mindfulness for Writing foregrounds the present in all activities of composing, offering a new perspective on the rhetorical situation and the writing process. A focus on the present casts light on standard writing componentsaudience, invention, and revisionwhile bringing forth often overlooked nuances of the writing experienceintrapersonal rhetoric, the preverbal, and preconception. Much is lost with a misplaced present moment because students forfeit rewarding writing experiences for stress, frustration, boredom, fear, and shortchanged invention. Writing becomes a much different experience if students think of it more consistently as part of a discrete now. This pedagogy of mindful writing can alleviate the suffering of writing blocks that comes from mindless, future-oriented rhetorics. Peary examines mindfulness as a metacognitive practice and turns to foundational Buddhist concepts of no-self, emptiness, impermanence, and detachment for methods for observing the moment in the writing classroom. This volume is a fantastic resource for future and current instructors and scholars of composition, rhetoric, and writing studies.  


Preface: Hymn of Binaries, Mantra for Equanimity:  Wooden Sculpture
Chapter One: Present Moment, Writing Moment
Chapter Two: The Monkey Mind of Intrapersonal Rhetoric
Chapter Three: The Verbal Emptiness of Mindful Invention 
Chapter Four: Mind Waves, Mind Weeds, Preconceptions 
Chapter Five: Their Ability To Write Is Always Present: A Disciplinary Context for Mindfulness

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Alleviating the Writing Suffering of Others

Those of us who teach and who seek to reduce the cycle of suffering in writing instruction are on the path to becoming bodhisattva of writing.

Bodhisattva of writing 1.) acknowledge the suffering caused by mainstream writing education from future-oriented rhetoric and assignments; 2.)  realign each occasion of writing instruction and each writing experience so that each occurs in a present moment; and 3.) accept the uncertainty that comes from ways of teaching that do not pursue fixed outcomes and polished pieces of writing.

 Bodhisattva of writing willingly swap the traditional certainties of future-oriented thinking for impermanence and interconnection.

 Bodhisattva of writing know that the intrapersonal comes with many messes and imperfections but still seek out the intrapersonal, no longer kowtowing to hypothetical audiences of the hypothetical future.

 Bodhisattva of writing welcome not being in control and are happy to teach preverbal, prewriting, the fragmentary, nonverbal, and even no-writing.

 Bodhisattva of writing make these changes in their teaching because they know that writing calm and equanimity are infinitely more valuable learning outcomes than getting students to accomplish a perfect rhetorical analysis essay.

Most importantly, bodhisattva of writing turn to themselves to see the ways in which they suffer as writers. If we do not address how we suffer with our own writing, how we engage in mindlessness as writers, we will pass suffering on to our students, our friends, and our family.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Mara and the Buddha, Audience Phantoms and the Writer

The challenges presented by how writers talk to themselves while writing are symbolized in the legend of the Buddha after he resolved to sit meditating under a bodhi tree until he obtained enlightenment.
On the third successive night, Gautama was taunted by the demon Māra who was determined to keep him in the cycle of craving with “the last lash of Ego." 
Riding in on an elephant, Māra first assaulted him with nine storms and then unsuccessfully with lust, thirst, and discontent, personified as the demon’s attractive daughters. Guatama was undeterred from his meditation. 
Māra’s next strategy was to directly confront Guatama and “ask him by what right he sat there beneath the tree." This vexation corresponds with a frequent struggle faced by writers to view themselves as having the authority to write.
How Guatama choses to react to Māra is important because he viewed her with non-violent loving-kindness rather than condescension, in part because he recognized that Māra was a projection of himself, a manifestation of his thinking. Guatama responds by touching the ground with his right hand—a gesture routinely depicted on statues of the Buddha—which then causes Māra to fall off his elephant and his armies of distractions to flee.
An analogous gesture for writers is a placing of a “hand” on their immediate writing circumstance, claiming the cognitive-physical space for their own, banishing audience ghosts, and recognizing the discursive straying power of their own internal talk.

The most consequential illusion manufactured by internal talk is that an audience is present during the activity of writing and has immediate access to a writer’s words as they’re produced. It’s as simple as believing that writers occupy the same space at the same time as readers.
In actuality, any audience noted during a present rhetorical situation is a construction of the writer’s intrapersonal rhetoric: an amalgamation of the writer’s thoughts about the past and best guesses about an interpersonal future.
Intrapersonal rhetoric is the self-to-self interior discourse that assigns a position inside the writing situation to an interlocutor self or a chimeric reader—often both as the experience fluctuates. Usually, much of intrapersonal rhetoric is devoted to maintaining this illusion.
For whatever reason, probably our education, we don’t imagine a reader in our workspace who welcomes a draft from us, who Christmas Carol-like visits us from the future (or the past) to counsel us about a maturing text.
Instead, the imaginary reader presumes access to a polished text: part of the haziness of audience comes from the flickering between two visualized scenes, one in which a reader appears in the writer’s work space expecting a polished piece regardless of its location in a writing process and the other in which the writer’s text acts as the writer’s emissary and goes forward, without the writer, to the reader’s future space.
The problem of course is that the text has yet to be finished—it also is an imaginary entity—and no matter how much time remains for us to complete the task, the impression is that a deadline has already passed. We also continuously denude our actual context for best guesses, conjecture, wishes, and hopes, giving up information we could have gained from the present rhetorical situation, a poor exchange.

Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford, 1998.
Lopez, Donald S. The Story of Buddhism: A Concise guide to Its History & Teachings. Harper, 2001.
Trungpa, Chögyam. Meditation in Action. Shambhala, 1970.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Momentwriting: A Mindful Alternative to Freewriting

To be increasingly mindful as we write, we might need a new exercise to complement freewriting.

Without a doubt, freewriting is invaluable in helping writers capture their internal language on the page or screen. Usually, it's one of the few times in a mainstream writing education in which students are encouraged to see their natural ongoing inner verbal production as a legitimate form of writing. Freewriting does wonderful work in helping writers practice acceptance of flaws and redundancy.

Momentwriting, however, is possibly a more complete depiction of the present moment. In momentwriting, writers are attuned to their literal situation. The device fosters mindfulness because it does not ask the writer to omit any part of the present writing moment.

Momentwriting does not prescreen the moment in the way that freewriting does. Instead, it invites new wording as well as nonverbal experiences. The preconception that we are to keep up a non-stop writing pace is dropped.

Unlike freewriting, momentwriting doesn’t goad the hands to keep up with a certain handwriting or typing rate but rather lets the pace happen in accord with intrapersonal talk and emerging mental formations. There are moments in which the person is not producing words while remaining attentive, through the breath, to the writing moment.

Instead of a forced verbal march that pushes past blank moments, momentwriting includes blanks as factors in a writing situation that are worth recording: the shriek of a blue jay, the after taste of coffee, a sudden wave of wordless energy, a wordless image, a passage in which mainly the breath is noticed, attention to a gesture made while typing.

What does unite the experience of momentwriting is not the push to keep writing but instead an ongoing awareness of the breath. A person doing a momentwriting may very well stop writing down words for minutes at a time, but throughout that time, he or she is observing inhalation and exhalation.

Momentwriting allows people to track impulses and instincts, the inchoate and nonconceptual, and to honor them as part of their writing experience.

Writers use visual elements to record the no conceptual parts of a momentwrite (blanks are depicted through tabs or brackets; parenthesis or italics is used for material typically omitted from a freewrite, such as a tension in one’s shoulder or a scratchy sleeve).

In the below momentwriting, I’ve used brackets to indicate a lull where I’ve left the writing and backslash to indicate when I was aware of a physical sensation related to the posture and effort of typing without putting the sensation to words (on other occasions, words did arise for a physical sensation):
Reason why my impulse is to change pens mid-stream during a writing session—moving from Mont Blanc to Bic ballpoint to magic marker to dollar store mechanical pencil, from black to blue to pink to green—is to reflect (and capture) demarcate changes in time  [               ] that it is a new moment, that the phrase or idea is on a distinct flow in that intrapersonal babble passage. This tea tastes nice. An attempt to not be unified not hold writing together at this early stage of invention. /////  To do so suggests undue precautions taken for considerations given to an unknown and future audience. And that means departing from moment. ///// For a long time, I have wondered though without doubting or challenging or correcting it why I have this inclination. In a passage like this one where I don’t change pens—I’m pounding the keys too hard—state of flow “inspiration,” glued together with more continuation through voice, sense of non-stop moment, this tempo of getting it all down, that shoulder is hurting. Sometimes change in pen though a form of evaluation (did I forget to answer that email from M.) to highlight potential excellence—so to evaluate, remind myself of what to (later) pursue.
Like freewriting, it should navigate from the left to right margin: this preserves the intrapersonal rhetoric as a text, endowing it with the semblance of a more formalized piece of writing.  

A message reinforced by momentwriting is that all of a writer’s internal experience is acceptable: freewriting went to considerable lengths to send this message of acceptance, but momentwriting is possibly a more radical form of writing self-acceptance.

 * image from alchemyindesign