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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
#3 Start Where You Are
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
·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.
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.
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
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).
The Ability to Write
is Always Present: Mindfulness Theory for Creative Writing Studies
Transcript of talk given at Great Writing Conference, June 23, 2018
late 1990s, I lived as a graduate student in a tenement building that was
falling to pieces. Green shingles serving as cheap siding fell out like teeth.
Pieces of the slate roof struck porch and bicycles like urns in an Edwin Gorey
cartoon. On lethargic afternoons, I tried to write to the accompaniment of
drills from the neighborhood auto repair shop.
I’d often felt I was hostage to
a massive problem. In school for creative writing, I wasn’t producing enough,
and I had no idea how I would survive in the writing world. The years ticked
by, my twenties, then my early thirties, whole seasons spent over a vintage
typewriter or an electric typewriter, later a laptop, with nothing to show for
it but a few magazine publications and a book case of journals and notebooks.
Fast forward to 2018. I’ve changed from an isolated writer with highly cramped
drafts, someone who spent seasons at her desk with little to show for it, to
who I am now, a writer who is at peace with her writing and publishes multiple
pieces in several genres each year. Writing isn’t a strain but a daily joy.
I am deeply indebted to the moment because it’s the present moment and a
practice of mindful writing that’s brought me to this place. Every moment can
be a prolific moment.
other activity, writing occurs during a present moment—not in the past, not
last year, not in the future, not tomorrow. I have never written tomorrow. You
have never written tomorrow. Your students have never written tomorrow. As the Vietnamese
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “We have an appointment with life in
the present moment. If we miss the present moment, we miss our appointment with
life.” Or as Janis Joplin crooned, “Tomorrow never comes.”
If we overlook the
present, we forfeit significant writing resources in exchange for some pretty
questionable ones that increase our stress and apprehension. It’s a poor
bargain. The trouble is that dwelling on the future of our writing leaves us
preparing for impact, locked in a defensive mode, anxiously reaching after
already finished polished documents and comparing ourselves with more skilled,
future-based and nonexistent versions of ourselves.
Mindfulness offers a
different a perspective on creative writing instruction by highlighting present
time in the rhetorical situation and the writing process. Writing becomes a strikingly different experience if we
think of writing as part of a discrete Now. Let’s think for a moment about the
writing moment: when we are at our desks, how often are we aware of what’s
happening right now? Why are we usually not aware of the present as we write?
And what might be different about our writing experiences if we shifted from
what’s usually future-based and mindless thinking to focusing on the arising
moment for the purposes of writing? I think we’d happily find that every moment
can become an inventive moment due to the establishment of a calm,
non-evaluative, and observant outlook that promotes receptivity to new ideas.
Mindfulness is the
observation of ever-changing phenomena as they occur in real time using a
detached and non-evaluative outlook. Jon Kabat-Zinn famously described
mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the
present moment, and nonjudgmentally,” and Ruth Baer as “taking an accepting, non-judgmental,
non-reactive or non-avoidant stance toward observed experience.” Ellen Langer made
a powerful case in The Power of Mindful
Learning for the ways in which mindfulness increases openness of
perception, ability to recognize variances and possibilities, and decreases
learned helplessness, a condition in which learners misperceive their resources
Typically, most creative writing students
give disproportionate consideration to the future and past as they write.
It’s also the case that our current process and rhetorical pedagogies for
creative writing are renting space in the future—they act out of a future
orientation. A prime example of that future orientation is the way in which
writing scholars handle audience by
telling writers to fashion non-existent readers—made-up people who basically appear
as tricky genie from the bottle of an assignment while students write.
Moreover, with a mindless or future orientation, the affective responses we
engender in students can tend toward apprehension, defensiveness, worry, and
doubt. These negative responses can accrue and cause long-term writing
disability. In fact, the problem is that we routinely teach a mindlessness
perspective on writing—and we routinely set students up for a mindless approach
to the writing they might do for the rest of their lives. With mindful
composing, the act of writing is located inside an ever-shifting context of a
If we change our temporal orientation for writing and instead settle
into the Now, a fresh new set of rhetorical factors step into the foreground,
and these devices can help individuals become more productive and calm writers,
improving both outcome and mindset. Mindful writing factors are intrapersonal
voice, impermanence, preverbal emptiness, and affective responses to the
occasion of writing—ones that normally go unobserved in traditional
instruction. By learning to manage these mindful writing factors, students can
change their writing experiences, bolstering their confidence, fluency, and
even interest. Omitting the present moment will lead to suffering and writing
blocks; awareness of the present moment will lead to a more optimal and
sustainable relationship with creative writing for the long-term.
present awareness for creative writing needs to be explicitly taught because
mindlessness—not mindfulness—is our default position. The typical human
attention span for the present was estimated in the 1880s by Wilhlem Wundt to
be between five and twelve seconds. In Principles
of Psychology, William James claimed that the average experience of the
present moment was limited to a dozen seconds or less. Humans demonstrate
proclivity toward avoiding the present: we can’t sustain a now focus without
departing into “monkey mind” or inner discursivity concerned with evaluation,
the past, or the future.
Mindful writing theory also neatly dovetails into
currently established process and rhetorical approaches to writing instruction.
That’s because those mindful rhetorical factors compliment traditional ones of
audience, purpose, and constraint and also because mindfulness enhances traces
of present awareness already found in a process approach.
In the next few minutes, I want to make a case for why creative
writing scholars and instructors should pay more attention to the present
moment in theory and pedagogy, asking, What
are those important writing resources that go unused if we’re heedless of the
present? How can a creative writing curriculum help students become more aware
of the present and these writing resources?
Every time a student sits down to write, two texts happen nearly
simultaneously. One comes with a font and a page appearance; it’s the one
that’s revised and distributed, uses sentences and paragraphs. It can be
spellchecked and reread. It’s interpersonal.
The second operates invisibly, often outside even the writer’s notice. It’s
intrapersonal, and it’s the first
instance of words on the creative scene.
The shaping influence of this internal
talk on subsequent drafts should not be underestimated. All writing, no matter
the genre, all writing begins as
intrapersonal communication despite how we usually dwell on the interpersonal
future, looking for the readers or publications of upcoming moments while overlooking
the language immediately in front of us. The intrapersonal consistently fills
up most writing moments. In fact, a practitioner of mindfulness will tell you
that it’s nearly impossible to avoid this babble. The Buddhist notion of
“monkey mind” picturesquely captures our non-stop tendency to sort and evaluate
experiences in our heads.
There are three things to note about this monkey mind when it comes to
First, it’s a reliable source of ongoing, ever-changing content.
There are no blank moments if we can train students to observe the moment for
this constant production of words with a non-evaluative, non-sorting outlook. Prolific
writing doesn’t require anything extraordinary beyond the ability to remain as accepting
as possible. Secondly, the intrapersonal is not entirely a benefit to a writer—especially
if allowed to pass unobserved—because in addition to providing possible
content, it’s a trouble maker. It generates preconceptions and other writing
liabilities. As the language of the moment, the intrapersonal is both highly
persuasive and ongoing, and it will persuade us, often without our conscious
recognition, of certain outcomes about the piece of writing at hand or about
our writing ability and qualifications—either specific to the task or in
general. Third, a view toward intrapersonal rhetoric helps us understand the
chimerical nature ofour so-called
readers, those imaginary beings writers project into their working hours,
beings that are in fact constructions of self-talk.
[Examples of exercises to
help students notice the intrapersonal: Mind Lists, freewrites to net
preconceived thinking about their writing, Caricature of an Audience.]
is always arising in our writing minds due to ongoing impermanence and the
radical contingency of the moment—this means ideas are arising as well as
sensations from the writing body. Fragments, phrases, full sentences appear in
the flotsam of consciousness due to the persistence of intrapersonal talk.
shifting present summons awareness of physical sensations related to writing
embodiment (posture, typing, sensations of jewelry or shoes on the feet, the
feeling of the ballpoint pen held by a trio of fingers); awareness of the scene
of writing (room or landscape, time of day, season, household sounds, drip-drop
of melting snow); awareness of intertextuality (words in hard copy books,
digital texts, on phones, in recalled conversations); as well as awareness of
affective formations or our emotions about the act of writing (alertness,
The sheer bulk of transient material encourages
students to accept flaws, dullness, repetition, lack of clarity, and cliché and
gives practice in low-stakes, informal writing. Because mental formations are
transient and continuously arising, the material must be a bit disposable
writing: a writer simply can’t hold onto it all, and this provides practice in
detachment. Furthermore, concerns a student might feel about potential errors
are alleviated by awareness that content is fleeting—wait a few seconds and
something else come along.
[Examples of exercises to
help students notice impermanence: Yoga for Hands, freewriting, 25 Variations
Mindful writing means managing the paradoxical co-existence of the
nonverbal and the verbal in each moment. Each moment in the string of thousands
that comprises a writing experience, no matter how far along the moment falls
in the advancement of a draft, is an empty (preverbal, nonverbal) event. For
one, the nonverbal initiates every single writing moment. The observed moment
starts off as non-discursive and often ends with language. A fresh present
moment opens with awareness directed on the expansion of the lungs, the air
pushing against the ribs, the temperature of air as it moves past the nostrils
and then shifts to bits of words or voice, half an image, or the tail-end of a
sentence of intrapersonal rhetoric. As a result, prewriting is dunked in
non-writing and so is middle-stage drafting, and so is a final proofreading
decision. Secondly, we perceive the instant when formlessness turns over to
form, when out of observed emptiness emerges a phrase, and back again, or when
form turns over to formlessness.
Many writing students fail to observe emptiness and miss out on an
important resource for generating writing. Probably just as many students avoid
the non-verbal and construe those times of not writing as a sign of a writing
block. Normally, not-writing is rejected experience.
The study of form and
formlessness, in contrast, reassures students that a wordless stretch will turn over to words
because of the nature of impermanence—if we can sit with that wordlessness and
cease avoiding or mislabeling it. Put simply, the paradox of emptiness is that
nonwriting is included in every instance of writing, and writing is included in
every instance of nonwriting. A mindfulness perspective can also overturn
dualistic thinking that too easily obstructs writing. To overvalue one genre or
stage of writing over another and perhaps especially to overvalue form over
formlessness is to risk writing suffering since a writer is craving a
particular product and overlooking his or her present writing situation.
[Examples of exercises to help students
notice emptiness: Sand mandala (disposable writing), Save Nothing Day, momentwriting,
Corpse Pose for Revision.]
The occasion of writing often arouses a host of feelings, some
unpleasant (apprehension, doubt, frustration, embarrassment, resentment), and
some pleasant (pride, contentment, self-respect, thrill). People are steeped in
their own emotions about needing to write. Mindfulness plays an integral role
in the development of a calm mind for writing so we can stop our kneejerk
reactions to the manipulative stories told to us by our intrapersonal voice. By
adopting Shunryu Suzuki’s categories of mind
waves and mind weeds from his
classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, we
gain a better sense of our writing-related emotions.
Mind waves and mind weeds are mental formations that momentarily
disturb the calmness of the mind without existing separate from the mind. First
mind waves. Resembling a wordless pulse or sensation, a ripple across the
surface of emptiness, mind waves usually remain nonverbal because they’re very
brief—the passing urge to switch the position of one’s legs, fleeting
irritation at a noise, quick registering of an aftertaste.
On the other hand, mind
weeds are more three dimensional than mind waves because they come accompanied
by inner language and last longer. Mind weeds can provoke a writer to off-road
from the moment and follow an alluring storyline about what’s happening—a
daydream that lasts for a minute or a fantasy conversation with a reader who is
not around. Both mind waves and mind weeds represent opportunities to engage
with formlessness, resist binaries, and reach an expansive mind.
Students should not be bothered bytheir mind waves or weeds, since waves and weeds will dissipate. These
formations are natural, inevitable, and not worthy of evaluation, just as we
wouldn’t try to isolate a passing wave from its pond or feel critical of the
pond for including waves. Writers should sit with difficult writing-related
emotions, watching the emotions almost like a fire in a fireplace for their
fluctuations in energy and imagery, without being kidnapped by the emotional
Essentially, this practice entails noticing an emotion without
judgment while simultaneously remaining aware of our present circumstances.
This discipline also means teaching writers to not cling—not even to positive
feelings about writing—because peak emotional experiences such as pride or
excitement warrant mindful monitoring to curtail preconception and storyline.
The goal of mindfully working with writing-related emotions is to build a
long-standing state of satisfaction, calm, a transferrable self-appreciation—a
Buddha smile for writing.
[Examples of exercises to help students
notice their writing-related emotions: The Fireplace, Already Perfect
Meditation, Stone Backpack of Perfectionism]
Let me be
clear about this point: most of us are functional mindless writers.
Paragraphs, chapters, poems, freewrites, novels, screenplays,
short stories, memoir, cover letters, and so on have been composed out of near-
to fully mindless states. For generations, countless pieces of creative writing
have been composed with not a single millisecond of present awareness. No doubt
creative writing courses have been passed and books published out of states of
What I am saying here is that this mindlessness has occurred not
without the high cost of many writers’ self-confidence, self-efficacy, and
enjoyment as well as the loss of possibility. It certainly hampered my ability
for a long while during and after my creative writing education. As imaginative
writers, we are in the business of creating illusions and developing a vision
of what is not actually present, this I also acknowledge.
problem, however, is that the capacity of the intrapersonal to float us along
is finite, and we will be summoned back to our awareness of the moment, of
where we are, of what we are doing, of the fact that we want or need to write.
Possibly, we will be beached upon our longing for a return of that state of
seamless, oblivious productivity. It is at that moment that individuals most
require mindfulness because by returning our attention to the present we will
almost immediately be able to submerge ourselves in that intrapersonal rhetoric
and flux—to find mindlessness writing. With awareness of the writing moment, every
moment can be a prolific moment.
I'll be giving a talk on mindful writing for creative writers at Great Writing: The International Creative Writing Conference, this Saturday, June 23, at Imperial College in London. If you're attending the conference, it'd be great to meet you.
My new book, Prolific Moment: Theory and Practice of Mindfulness for Writing, is available & out in the world. This book advances many of the ideas on this blog by developing a theory and practice based on Buddhist texts on mindfulness and composition-rhetoric theory.