Friday, November 9, 2018

Award Winning Student Essay Using Mindful Writing Techniques


Allison Gage is a sophomore at Salem State University and recipient of the 2018 First-Year Writing Award. Allison wrote "The Stone Backpack of Anxiety" in a first-year writing course she took with me in the fall semester of 2017. In this essay, Allison explores the impact of audience in the head and affective responses to needing to write.

The Stone Backpack of Anxiety
Allison Gage

Sitting down to start a piece of writing is a time I dread the most in life. Trying to figure out how to start is as if I’m wearing a backpack, and someone is standing behind me, holding it. I try to turn around to see who is holding me back, but I can’t see anyone behind me. Yet every time I try to walk or run away that person just pulls me right back with what seems like the force of one hundred men: this gives me the sense that I have nowhere to go.
 I become so nervous, believing I will never be able to move on because this person will never let go. What will I do? My next class starts in thirty minutes, and if he doesn’t release me, I’ll miss my class. My palms start to sweat, my body starts to quiver, and I’m becoming anxious. I don’t know what to do. Finally, he releases me after I try to break from his grip for what feels like years.
Realizing I still have time to get to my class, I run as fast as I can to Meier Hall to try to make it on time. Once I arrive the door is still open, but no one is there. Now that I think of it, I haven’t seen anyone anywhere. No one is in the halls, or in the surrounding rooms. The whole building seems like a ghost town, symbolizing how lost I feel when I try to start a piece of writing. I slowly start to walk down the hall, but as I do I notice the hallway in front of me is shrinking incrementally in size. 
As I walk further, I feel myself start to shrink smaller and smaller to fit through this hallway, yet the backpack on my body stays the same size. This size difference secretly represents the heaviness I feel when I start a piece and how it feels like it could crush me. The backpack begins to increase in size so much that it weighs me down, causing me to no longer be able to carry it. The walls are quickly closing in, and darkness is taking over my mind. 
Suddenly, I hear a very faint voice in the background, but I can’t really make out what it’s saying until I finally hear it say, Turn back and take a right. I twirl around fast as lighting with my backpack barely staying on my back and start to walk away. I feel myself start to grow back to normal size and my backpack fits comfortably on my body once again. When I take the right, I come to a staircase that seems to extend on forever. I start my journey down the staircase, but I notice that every step I take my back pack gets heavier and heavier, as if someone is adding a stone every time I descend a stair. These stones are smooth round pieces of quartz, which feel so heavy on my back, but the voice in the background tells me to keep descending the stairs. 
I quickly recognize this voice as the reader inside my head who is always present when I am writing. I thought at first that he was here to help me, but as I make my way down the stairs, I realize he wants nothing but to hurt me. Every step I take, his is one of those stones in my bag, adding weight, and the stones represent every instance I procrastinate with my writing. He does everything in his power to slow me down and make it almost impossible for me to move or do anything.
I start to see the bottom of the staircase and the exit sign illuminated above the doorway, but the weight of this backpack feels like I’m carrying seventeen cinderblocks. It gets to the point where I can no longer continue with this bag on my back, but the bag will not come off. This instance represents a time in my writing where no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t understand the prompt. I stand where I am for a minute and just breath. 
I tell myself, “This is all in my head” and “There is no real reader here, Allie, it’s only you.” Instantly, my backpack feels as if I had only feathers in it, like it was almost floating in the air, and I couldn’t feel it at all. Without hesitation, I sprint down the remaining stairs and busted through the door. The sensation of finally standing outside again and feeling the breeze on my skin was indescribable. I could breath again. Although no one was visible for miles, I choose not to focus on that solitude due to the overwhelming amount of work I still need to finish.
 I start to walk back to the dorm thinking I can finally start all my work. As I step closer to the building, I see this large group of people crowded together. 
As I get closer, I notice that these are people I know, but they are all random people. I see my fifth-grade teacher who was one of the first people to make me hate writing. I tense up a bit until I see an old face that I have never seen before but is so familiar to me. I quickly realize that it is my sixth-grade pen pal from London, with whom I used to send letters back and forth with for almost a year. Spotting her face in the crowd made everything okay because our conversations were fun and interesting; she never criticized my writing or writing styles. She represents the good audience in my head and gives me confidence to write. 
I see many other writing teachers I’ve had over the past years; I see many family members and friends; I see the scorers of my MCAS essays and my SAT responses. These people specifically represent my bad audience, my stress and anxiety: they are some of the people I never wanted to see again in my life.
Seemingly every person who has ever viewed my writing is standing in this large crowd in front of me. Once I finally approach the group, all the murmuring voices stop, and they collectively turn and look right at me. 
Before I have anytime to say anything, they start to talk to me, each person mentioning a different memory they have of my writing. You can hear my fifth grade teacher say, “You’re never going to learn how to truly spell or write. You couldn’t even do it in fifth grade.”  I hear my pen pal say, “I always loved your letters because you always had so much to say.”  You can hear my writing teacher from eighth grade admonish, “I always saw so much potential in you, but you’ll never grow to fulfill that full potential.” And so many other whispers and screams both positive and negative from teachers, family, friends.  
I can feel myself start to sweat, my pace of breathing increases to the point where I can’t even breathe at all. These different voices coming into my head at one time is way too much for me to handle in this moment. The situation represents all the ideas I have in my head when I start a piece of writing and how all the ideas I have cause me to feel overwhelmed because I never know which idea is best. I start to run for the door of my building, but as I take my first step someone grabs ahold of my backpack, yet again restricting me. 
If I knew this was how my day would proceed, I would have never left my bed. I want nothing more than to just be back in bed. I’m trying my hardest to get out of this trap, but my feet are cemented to the ground. At this point I am praying to God that I can exit the situation because I feel like I am suffocating. As if God himself came down to Earth and told these people to leave me alone, my back pack returned to normal position, and my feet were free and able to move again. I have finally found my topic for my assignment: now it’s time to start working on this assignment.
Without looking back, I dash off for my room, stepping onto the elevator and taking the largest breath ever; it feels so good to be able to breathe. I arrive at my dorm room; I open the door, and I see myself lying in bed sleeping, my leg half way off the bed and drool covering my pillow. I am honestly taken aback by this sight. I run over to myself and try to wake me up.
 I’m shaking myself and screaming as loud as I can, but nothing I do will wake me up. I am so confused as to why I am in my bed still. I decide to forget about the other me and try to start all my work I must do. I go to take my backpack off my back to become more comfortable and start my work, but my bag is stuck to my back. I try so hard to pull it off, but it’s as if it’s permanently glued to my body.  
Nothing I do will remove this bag from my back. I am so frustrated that I take the scissors out of my desk and try to cut the bag off my body. As soon as I make the first cut to the bag, I feel excruciating pain and see blood start to drip from my side, signifying the pain I feel when I start to write. I’m not confident in my writing so I never think my work is truly good, so it causes a lot of self-doubt in my writing. My backpack has formed to my body and become part of me. How could this even happen?
I can feel myself starting to panic. Tears rush into my eyes to the point where I can’t see anything, and the whole room goes black. I open my eyes and realize I’m in my bed with my books and papers scattered all over the place. No other version of myself with me in the room. My bed is drenched, and I have no idea why. I look at my phone and the time says 3:04 am. I had fallen asleep when I tried to write my English paper that’s due in five hours and dreamed the most anxious experience in my life. 
It scares me at how real this dream felt, but then it dawns on me that this is how I truly felt every time I have to start a new piece of writing. I slip out of bed and collect all my papers and books and set myself up at my desk. I take my laptop out and try to yet again start my essay, but this time I don’t feel so anxious. So many ideas start to pore onto the page and I am writing better than ever. It’s almost like that dream released all the anxiety I’ve ever felt towards writing because writing comes so naturally. That dream helped me overcome the writing block I usually encounter while starting a piece of writing. If only I could have had this dream earlier in life, writing could have been so much more relaxing.




Thursday, November 1, 2018

Corpse or Relaxation Pose for Revision (Used in Class Today: Worked Well)

[I used this method again in my first-year writing courses, and it seemed to engage the students.]



Corpse (Or Relaxation) Pose for Revision


If we reach the point where we can't write because we're too preoccupied, caught up in hopes for a particular outcome or facing a roadblock, we can restore ourselves to a more open, inventive position. The Corpse Pose for Writing (or Relaxation Pose) is a method for reducing anxiety around revision. It gives us a fresh start and makes any phase of writing, no matter how late in the process, resemble the earliest phases of invention like brainstorming and early drafting.


STEPS

Clear your desk or writing area of any signs of the project (including pens, pencils, Post-Its, notebooks, review letters, feedback). 

Divide the draft into its paragraphs.

Place each paragraph on separate screens or print out onto separate pieces of paper. Move in reverse order, putting the chunk closest to the end of the draft (the feet) on the first screen or sheet of paper, followed by a subsequent paragraph on the next screen, until the very last screen or page of paper holds the opening (the head) of this draft.

Watching your in and out breath, turn your attention to the "feet" of the draft--only the feet. 

Put all of your attention on this section: reread it. Scan it up and down for any sort of tension that arises. Where are you frustrated, irritated, worried, or any other emotion? Don't try to fight off these emotions: simply observe them with a detached mind. Scan also for images, associations, and new ideas that arise from your mindfully watching the feet of the draft. Capture your thoughts in a 1-2 minute freewrite.

After a few minutes, release this part of the draft. Release the feet: let it sink back down onto the floor (if a sheet or paper) or into the computer (close the screen). Let go of everything concerning that section.

Watching your in and out breath, turn your attention now to the "calves and thighs" of the draft--only this section.

Put all of your attention on this section: reread it. Scan it up and down for any sort of tension that arises. Where are you frustrated, irritated, worried, or any other emotion? Again, don't try to fight off these emotions: simply observe them with a detached mind. Scan also for images, associations, and new ideas that arise from your mindfully watching the legs of the draft. Capture your thoughts in a 1-2 minute freewrite.

After a few minutes, release this part of the draft. Release the legs: let them sink back down onto the floor (if a sheet or paper) or into the computer (close the screen). Let go of everything concerning that section.

Move now to the "pelvic area" and "belly" of the draft. Repeat the same steps as above. Then let go of everything concerning those sections. Capture your thoughts in a 1-2 minute freewrite.

Move to the "torso" or "chest" area of the draft. Repeat the same steps and then let go of everything concerning that section. Capture your thoughts in a 1-2 minute freewrite.

Move to the "arms" and "hands" of the draft. Repeat the steps and then let go of everything concerning those sections. Capture your thoughts in a 1-2 minute freewrite.

Move to the "shoulders" and "neck" of the draft. Repeat the steps and then let go of everything concerning those sections. Capture your thoughts in a 1-2 minute freewrite.

Move to the "face" of the draft, observing even the finest strain of mental-musculature tension. Because this is the face, it is what the world sees most about our writing: it is the most noticeable part of our draft. The beginning of the draft thus can contain the most complicated of stresses, built up over time. Repeat the steps and then let go. Capture your thoughts in a 1-2 minute freewrite.

Last of all, move to the "crown" of the draft, the space above the first section, where a title lies or might reside one day. Capture your thoughts in a 1-2 minute freewrite.

By now the rest of the draft is relaxed. You are probably relaxed. Spend a few moments in this state. If possible, have a writing companion or friend immediately ask you a question about your draft or writing experience. In this relaxed state, so close to the floor, so close to the unconscious, you may find insights and ideas not possible with a strained, tight mind. 






Saturday, October 13, 2018

Presentation on Mindful Writing at New England Association of Teachers of English Conference



Below is a description of the workshop on mindful writing I'll be presenting at the New England Association of Teachers of English Conference, October 19, 2018.


For more information on this conference, go to 

 Their Ability to Write is Always Present: Mindful Writing in the Classroom

Workshop Description 

A Buddhist mindfulness perspective can change how we think and feel about writing, reducing the anxiousness experienced around writing that comes from future-oriented thinking, and building a sense of wellness and balance. Much is lost with a misplaced present moment because students forfeit rewarding writing experience for stress, frustration, boredom, fear, and shortchanged creativity. In college writing courses, mindful writing highlights the present during writing and casts a new light on conventional notions of audience, invention, and revision while bringing forth overlooked parts of writing experience like internal talk, the nonverbal, and preconception. Every moment can become a prolific moment.

In this presentation, I first explain why people can become stuck in their writing by failing to notice their actual location in the present and instead mindlessly think of the future. I explain the causes of students’ struggle with writing from a mindfulness perspective: what mindfulness reveals about the causes of difficulty and disengagement. I provide participants with a five-minute hands-on activity that demonstrates the difference mindful perception can bring to their writing. 
Next, I discuss the benefits of sticking with the present moment while writing and how a present-focused model can increase writing ease, enjoyment, calm, and well-being. Mindful awareness not only casts new light on conventional notions, chief among them audience, but it also brings forward the usually overlooked resources of internal talk and impermanence. I show examples of practical approaches to mindful writing that dovetail into traditional college writing curricula about the writing process and rhetoric. 
Mindfulness in writing instruction need not be overly complex: teaching students a few simple ways to observe the moment during writing can make an immediate difference.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Point of Now: Guest Blog Post at North American Review




To read the rest of this post, go to 

North American Review

The Point of Now


I’ve been recently asked if it’s possible to reconcile the work of the imagination with mindfulness. After all, mindfulness means observing the actual, not the imaginary, in real time with as much of an accepting, non-evaluative stance as possible. That actuality could mean perceiving changes in the flow of our internal talk, changes in our physical state as we write, or changes in our emotional condition, again, as we write.
This question feels particularly salient for creative writers who unlike scholarly or first-year composition writers, for example, devote their time at the desk to evoking scenes of elsewhere and the hypothetical interactions of non-existent populations. The imagination equals what could have happened or what could happen, but it’s not what’s happening right now. It’s a positing of believable possibility, the elaboration of alternatives. It’s adorned, what-if-ed, glittery, exaggerated, darkened, or pulled into different shapes...


Sunday, August 26, 2018

Mom, Can You Help Me with My Essay: A Mindful Way For Parents To Help

In the glow of the kitchen table lamp, as though interrogated by officers of procrastination, your son or daughter sits slumped. The table is covered with the detritus of an evening of frustration—crumpled paper, a plate from a snack enjoyed hours ago, marked-up handouts and the grading rubric. 

Your child is stuck on repeat: “I don’t know what to say” and “I don’t know what the teacher wants.” From upstairs, the sounds of other household members brushing their teeth and preparing for bed, the happy murmur of siblings untormented by an essay. 

It would be so easy to helicopter in rescue sentences that start, “how about saying this here?,” but you refuse to write the piece for them. You just wish you knew how to make this process smoother.

Short of plagiarism, your child may be willing to do anything to exit this predicament, yet it’s precisely right now that your son or daughter needs to finish this homework.

The reason your child is suffering through this assignment is that they’ve been trained to miss out on the present moment in order to prepare for a future moment when their work is critiqued and graded. Mindlessness, as Harvard professor Ellen J. Langer has documented, hurts learning. It’s harmful to critical thinking and the ability to perceive alternatives to move beyond rigid views. 
I believe that mindlessness (future- or past-oriented thinking that overlooks what’s happening now, in real time) is specifically consequential to learning how to write. Writing becomes an entirely different experience if children focus on what’s happening in the moment.

The main pipeline for this mindlessness instruction is a bit of routine advice. Students are constantly told to “consider their audience,” which really means visualizing a person in the future. After absorbing this traditional advice, your child unconsciously invites the teacher (their biggest audience) into your home. Ms. D from sixth period or Mr. K from Language Arts are not sitting on their couches binge watching Netflix: they’re in your kitchen.

The student hasn’t had time to compose that polished draft—it’s strictly a hypothetical object in the future—so what this teacher-reader “sees” is your child at their most vulnerably imperfect time—in the rough draft stage.

To avoid disappointing this teacher-reader, children delete and correct in-progress writing. Often it’s preferable to not write anything because that’s seemingly the most foolproof way to avert negative feedback.

#1 Settle into the Moment

The most important step is to help your child settle into the moment and steer attention away from that writing future. It’s a sort of mental CPR you need to perform on your child. Pick and choose from the other measures explained in this article, but this part is fundamental.

The best way for your child to more aware is to reengage with the body by observing the breath for 1-2 minutes. Breathing in, here, breathing out, now. The physical benefits of mindful breathing are the slowing of the pulse and the petering out of adrenalin. 
As young writers redirect their mind to follow the breath, self-talk downshifts from that stressful racing of I can’t write I have no idea what to write I am in big trouble
Breathing is a free and readily available method to switch perceptions of the time of writing—no special equipment required. 

In my classroom, I’m partial to what I call “yoga for hands,” directing students to focus on the sensations of typing (wrist bones, musculature, pistons of the fingers). It’s impossible to obsess on a tricky audience and simultaneously stay aware of your hands.

#2: Take Charge of Reader Proximity

To evict future-based imaginary readers, switch writing materials. Notebooks and pens install the teacher in the back of kids’ heads. To gain breathing room, avoid writing materials associated with final products.

Instead of a Word document or clean notebook, gather Crayons, magic markers, Post-Its, a coloring book, food stained paper from the recycling bin, a grocery bag—materials not normally shown to teachers. This automatically marks the writing as “private”—buys your child distance from critics. For instance, I write poems in the early hours of the morning with a $1 composition notebook and a pink magic marker precisely because I will never ever show an editor that copy.

#3 Start Where You Are

Young writers often make the mistake of believing they must start from the literal beginning of a document (title, first sentence, introduction). They’ll stare at the screen forever. The student erroneously equates the timing of reading (in English, we read from the top left corner to bottom right corner, rinse and repeat) with the timing of writing (as we write, we move all around a document). 
Any final document is actually covered with the ant tracks of time—what looks like the opening sentence to us might have been the final touch before submission to a publisher.

Instead of waiting for perfection, help your child start anywhere. A mindful and more prolific approach to writing means accepting whatever the moment offers in terms of material. Ask your child where he already has something to say and start freewriting about that spot—it doesn’t matter if it’s in the dead center of the research project.

#4 Go for Quantity over Quality

Help your child mute her tendency toward correct writing in favor of lots of writing. Between the two of you, agree that she’ll complete a number of rapid freewrites of a reasonable word count, for instance 100 to 300 words. Quality doesn’t matter—fillers, repetition, poor grammar, incomplete sentences are all fine for now.

Withhold rewriting, edits, and proofreading for later, even if only for the last fifteen minutes. When your child is deeply stuck, the focus should be on creating a full, messy first draft. It's much easier to operate from a position of abundance than scarcity.

You can improve your child’s writing experience through mindfulness—as long as you keep two principles in mind. First, you should write with your child. Reach for scrap paper or the back of a bill and write alongside him. Write about anything—scribble pajamas and novel in bed pajamas a dozen times—as long as you’re seen writing. This sends an important message that while you won’t be writing their essay, you’re engaged in writing.

Second, abstain from any criticism whatsoever—not a single misspelling, comma-gone-wild, or out-of-place sentence. Your kid is struggling because she’s crouched in a mental huddle, anticipating corrections on content and grammar. For her to access the present moment, it’s important that she writes as freely as possible from anticipated correction.

 It might be tempting to tweak your child’s writing once it starts flowing—don’t. It’ll only do more harm than good. Take a breath—I bow to you—because if you’ve followed even a few of these steps, you’ve already done a world of short- and long-term good for your child writer.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Keep Nothing Day: A Celebration of Disposable Writing





We have Write-a-Novel-Month, we have poem-a-day initiatives. Try Save Nothing Day, a session in which you delete or 
 discard whatever you've written. 

Write your own sand mandala. Do not keep notes toward what you have written. Do not save drafts. Do not memorize phrases to keep for later. Do not tuck them discretely under a folder or notebook when no one is looking. Instead when time is up for your writing session, press delete, drag the item to e-recycling bin or crumple the sheet of paper into an actual waste bin. Using a paper shredder might be a better option for it keeps at bay the temptation of retrieval.

Write your own sand mandala—writing that gets blown away. Reach beautiful insights, find colorful structural strategies, realize new points and segue, create whole stretches in an aesthetic approach—and then erase.

Often another breed of deletion becomes dominant in a writer’s process: a deletion that causes more harm than good, that anticipates a future audience and is defensive. (Hitting the backspace bar as often as moving forward, mixing editing with creating.)

The deletion of disposable writing is different because it's a deletion of product, not process. We follow the moment, we enjoy the motion of writing, and at the end we relinquish product, unattached to outcome.

Who should join the tradition of those who Keep Nothing?
·         Those who are stuck in their writing and find everything they have written to be precious.
·         Those who need to think everything through before writing, who need to be perfect as a defense against anticipated criticism.
·         Those who daydream about product and outcome, about how the end result will personally benefit them, change their status, improve their lot with others or with themselves.
·         Those who will not allow words to be in their natural state and those who will not allow writing to be ordinary and prosaic in its constant generation.
·         Those who worship writing.
·         Those who wait for regeneration of their writing, either of their overall ability or a specific project.
·         Those who place their own standards and motives before the motion of writing.
·         Those who don’t see writing as a movement occurring in time but instead as an object, static, like a trophy.

The benefits of disposable writing are the lowering of standards and the practicing of detachment. For the practitioner, there is trust in this letting go: one trusts the abundance of impermanence, knowing that just as good writing arose in this moment, it will arise again in another moment.

What does one write when keeping nothing? 

Write as one would normally write or write as one would not normally write, but at the end, delete.

Write with an audience in mind or write with no audience in mind, and at the end, shred. 

Give oneself a focus, genre, approach, or do not give oneself a focus, genre, or approach and instead freewrite, and at the end, crumble. 

Write the next step in a draft on a particular project or begin something new. 

The content, stage, and genre don't matter—decide those on your own—but in the end, delete. 

Many find the disposable method most useful and least intimidating if done with freewriting or with the earliest stages of invention. A person of advanced training in the mindfulness of writing will practice disposable writing at advanced and more polished phases and with genre of increasing distinction.

You may decide to retain your creation, but don’t allow yourself this exemption too often because the lessons of disposable writing and the benefits of acknowledging impermanence will fade away. 

Finally, it's possible to keep your writing and at the same time maintain the disposable mindset: this requires a sincere dedication to impermanence while you write, a true tracking of the passing moments. It's possible to cheat the recycling bin, but the person who does so must have a strong mindful writing practice. It's is too easy to become ensnared in attachment.

Write your own sand mandala—words that get blown away.

1  A quota means focusing on doing, which is good because that is a focus on process, but at the same time these sort of initiatives dangle the charm of a particular genre (I wrote a novel; I wrote a sonnet today), and therefore harden patterns of attachment (I wrote a whole novel; I wrote an actual sonnet today).