Friday, December 21, 2012


Pink Sherbert Photography

Our real environment—one of of constant change—works for us as writers, not against us.

One of the main tasks of mindful writing involves accepting changes in your writing experience along the way.

Nothing stays the same. Mindful writing is built upon the premise of groundlessness. Everything is in flux; everything is impermanent: even writing ability, even writing blocks.

Your feelings about your writing are constantly changing in subtle or not so subtle ways.

Instead of becoming locked into a death grip with one type of feeling about your writing—whether it’s a pessimistic or optimisitic view—let that feeling happen without judgment and fear and just watch how the feeling fluctuates.

If we hold on to a particular view of our writing, we will eventually suffer. Suffering in the Buddhist sense is caused by not admitting impermanence. For writers, that suffering takes the form of what we call a "writer's block." (I define "writer's block" as an inattention to the Present moment and specifically a lack of acceptance of the impermanence of the Present moment.)

I find that my perception of my own writing varies tremendously.

On some days, I am filled with bouyancy and confidence that what I am writing is worthwhile. Just the next day, I may find myself thinking, “What right do I have to be writing about this topic? What do I know?” I may really like a piece I've just finished and a week later have doubts. Or I may be excited at the prospect of a long weekend to do more writing but then only find myself distracted by plans with my family once I'm actually sitting at my desk.

Trying to replicate a positive writing experience will only last so long as well. Writers are notorious for their superstitions and repetitive working habits: these are strategies to gain some (false) semblance of control over impermanence.

Throughout my writing career, I have found that any gimic I cling to eventually leaves me high & dry upon a beach of blank thought.

In contrast, if I train myself to return to the Present in those times and watch it with acceptance, I invariably find myself in a better day of writing. It may take a few days or even a week, but the next change (one I welcome or would select) does happen.

Many scholars on writing (Peter Elbow, Linda Flower and John Hayes, Keith Hjortshoj, Don Murray, Sondra Perl, Mike Rose just to name a few) have emphasized the recursivity of the writing experience. That is, they have usefully drawn our attention to the time line of writing, pointing out how people engaged in composing a text regularly "loop" around through the different parts of writing--inventing, drafting, rewriting, editing, etc. Broadly speaking, scholars have argued against a linear view of the writing process.

What I am suggesting is a finer grained notion of the time involved in the act of writing. Micro-beats instead of macro-beats. We should pay attention to changes not just in large phases of the writing process (for instance, how a writer might return to drafting after a stretch of editing) but also look at the moment by moment changes.

Our real environment—one of of constant change—works for us as writers, not against us.


Friday, December 7, 2012

Already Perfect

zigazou 76

"So to be a human being is to be a Buddha. Buddha nature is just another name for human nature, our true human nature. Thus even though you do not do anything, you are actually doing something. You are expressing yourself. You are expressing your true nature."
          —Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

What would it be like—what arises in your thoughts—if I said that what you are as a writer is already wonderful, already Buddha? If your writing was “perfect as it is,” right now? 

What would it be like to write if there was no need to change anything about you as a writer?

In part, this is a question about our discursive thinking—or how we self-talk about our writing ability and our current writing projects.

Many people maintain potent preconceptions about their writing ability, and the idea that they are already perfect writers can be startling to them.

Basically, the notion that they are perfect writers heightens their self-talk. The notion makes their normal discursive thinking about their writing more obvious: all-caps and on a billboard rather than naturalized as a background murmur.

Few of us know what is like to cease trying to change ourselves as writers.

We carry around a burden of a wish that we were different. It can be refreshing to suddenly be in accord with the Present as opposed to, well, always being in opposition to it.

Dropping that constant push to be other-than-yourself-as-a-writer provides a whole different type of energy about the act of writing. It's a knapsack made of stone that you may have carried around for years without even noticing it.

This is also an exercise in developing maitri or an acceptance of ourselves and what arises in our inner states.

Again: What would it be like—what would arise in your thoughts right now—if what you are as a writer is already wonderful, already Buddha? If your writing was “perfect as it is” right now?

Jot down observations:

What images pass over your mind when I say this?
Breathe into these images. Follow them. What do you notice?
What emotions are you feeling when I say this?
What color is one of those emotions?
Breathe into this emotion. Follow it. What do you notice?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Looming Genre Cliff: A Reflection

Ben 124

The Looming Genre Cliff

This morning, I'm starting a brand-new writing project—one that's in a different genre than my usual—and I’m experiencing all sorts of emotional turbulence. It’s helping me remember what it is like to have a writing block. Puts me in touch with what others who are facing writing blocks—what they might be feeling.
The fear. The sense of standing at the edge of a glass wave that's also a sort of cliff.
This fear of the unknown is compounded by all sorts of predetermined thoughts I might hold about that new not-yet-written piece: daydreams of outcome, reactions of as-of-yet non-existent audiences. I’m even anticipating my own pleasure at the contemplation of a final version of this writing project.
Those are the (mostly) pleasant thoughts.
Then there’s the fact that my pulse is elevated and my breathing constricted.
I’m anxious. This situation heightens the inner conversation I am having about my writing ability and writing quality. What normally hums non-stop behind the scenes at inaudible levels is now vibrating and in bold letters.
Any noise (someone coughing in the household, the branch of heavy black footsteps overhead) is a spike in irritation because it makes me more aware of standing on this precipice between writing and not-writing. Also, those disturbances increase the volume of my inner talk about my current writing situation.
But, hey, I’ve recently been looking for something to shake me out of my lassitude with poetry. I’m done writing 95% of my next book. No longer invested in the invention phase for the manuscript, my energies had tilted toward editing and sculpting it for readers. I can’t dwell any longer in the creating phase for this book; it’s almost as though I’m being forced out of its space.
Well, starting a new genre and a new project has definitely taken the lethargy out of me (Evidence A: rapid pulse staring at screen).
I think this is happening to me because I've got a nice routine established.  By having a morning poetry practice (which I probably do 360 days out of the year), I've established a comfortable way to re-engage my inner voice each day for the purposes of this type of writing. The pens and notebook I use, the coffee I make, the sequence of events that gets me to my writing desk fifteen minutes after waking up.
With this new genre, I'm mainly noticing my discomfort, but I appreciate this situation. I’m not going to push this discomfort away. Instead, I’ll stand at the edge of this genre cliff and observe, watching my breath, and observe.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Pop Culture Geek

Build-A-Poem Workshop

[To become aware of our discursive thinking around the act of writing, we do a“Build-a-Poem” activity through a series of steps and discuss each stage of the experience.]

Many of us are not aware of the messages with which we bombard ourselves when we’re writing. We’re not aware of how much we try to predetermine our writing experience and outcome.

Discursive thinking refers here to the self-talk we engage in: that constant sorting of experience into good, bad, neutral. It’s a type of inner talk or inner rhetoric that carries tremendous influence, as Jean Nienkamp among others has pointed out. We frequently persuade ourselves through our self-talk without realizing it.

What follows is an activity I’ve used with students and when giving talks to help people become more aware of their own discursive thinking around the act of writing. (I've left quite a bit of page space between each step; try not to scroll ahead beyond the asterisk until you've jotted down the current line.)

Step One: After opening a blank screen or finding a scrap of paper and pen, take a moment to get comfortable. Observe your breathing. In. Out. In. Out.


So you’re about to write a poem. Right now. Within the next 3 minutes.

Step Two: For a minute jot down your reactions to what I just said—to the fact that you’re about to write a poem: any reactions.

I purposefully selected poetry because most people have strong reactions to this genre. (I've heard grown people groan at the prospect of a poem.) The idea of an upcoming experience with poetry arouses a whole gamut of emotions and associations from the past.

The reactions you wrote down constitute your discursive thought about this upcoming act of writing.

Step Three: Watching your breathing, come up with a line for each of the prompts I’ll give you. Write down whatever comes to mind, not worrying about quality or audience. Try not to read ahead to upcoming prompts—just spend 30 seconds on each and move on. Each prompt provides the next line.

First line: Think of an emotion you’ve recently felt and compare it to an object in nature using either a metaphor or a simile.


Second line: Describe that natural object using one of the senses.


Third line: Use a list (you decide what goes in the list).


Fourth line: Zoom-in real close to the natural object and describe something microscopically.


Fifth line: Something in the background to this natural object is pointing to another emotion you experience. What is it?


Sixth line: What’s the weather or climate around this natural object?


Seventh line: Something lies within a few feet of this object. It’s an item you haven’t seen since your childhood. What is it?


Eighth line: Use a simile (you decide what goes in the simile).


Ninth line: There’s a shadow lying on the ground. It belongs to a person you wish you could speak to again. What’s interesting about the shadow?


Tenth line: Something is about to change in the setting around this natural object. What is it?

Read through your poem.
(Feel free to share your poem by commenting to this post or email it to me. I'd love to read it.)
You wrote this poem in a short span of time. You had no concept of this poem ten minutes ago, and the poem has been relatively unaffected by predetermined thinking. It arose in the moment. It is emblematic of all that can arise in each moment. Did you think you could write a poem like this? Who knows what your next idea or sentence will look like? Take a moment to jot down the thoughts which are passing through your mind right now about writing.



Sunday, November 11, 2012

An Experiment with Post-Its and Other Materials

[This post continues conversations about the material dimensions of writing from my October posts.]

Building the Pile:

An exercise I’ve done with students in my writer’s block course involves asking them to bring several different types of paper and writing implements to class.
These materials are heaped on a table.
The heap should include a real variety of paper—be sure to include“marred” paper such as crumbled sheets from the recycling bin--as well as cardboard, fancy paper, a rejection note, the backs of envelopes, newspaper, and, of course, Post-Its. Any type of paper will do. Likewise, the heap should contain a range of writing implements—Magic Markers, crayons, mechanical pencils, cheap pens, fountain pens, red pens, green pens, stubby carpenter pencils, pens you hate to use, pens you love to use.
(I once used this exercise with students who were Industrial Design and Architecture majors, and they contributed an interesting assortment of graph paper and precision drawing pens.)
It’s helpful to do this with other people because an element of chance is introduced. They bring in writing materials that you have to deal with: ones you don’t pick or predetermine.
Next, freewrite for at least 15-20 minutes, picking up new types of paper when one is filled and switching pens and pencils every few minutes.

What Can Happen:
Look out for the moment in which the physical conditions of writing (those variegated materials) make you start to see your writing. When I say "see," I mean literally seeing the writing as an object coming into existence a few inches from your eyes.
Then look out for the moment in which that seeing of your writing brings a certain calm, a certain grounded and whole feeling. It's the feeling of being mindful, of being clicked into place into the Present moment.
You become a watcher—an audience for your own production of words. (You are in essence mindful, watching the words arise and change.) Everything slows down. There’s a sense of calm, peace, even a state of grace when watching one’s writing.

Why This Works:
I have noticed that when I am writing and it’s going well, when I come up with ideas that interest me, I often switch materials (using, for instance, a different colored pen). My handwriting also often changes—big rounded letters that to me are like drawing more than writing become compact and tiny in a sort of sneak attack, an ambush toward a finished document.
Other people might change the appearance of their writing by suddenly using ALL CAPS when they've found an idea.

What's happening in either case is that a person's relation to their words has changed. Rather than treating the material conditions of writing as invisible, the person changes those conditions (typeface, color of pen) to be in-sync with their changed relationship to words. The physical realities of writing in the moment are called upon to express what's going on in that moment.

The FULL SENSORY EXPERIENCE OF WRITING is important (something that I'll discuss in a later post). We should hear and see our writing while it happens.

The point for now is that writing with sundry materials (heap of paper types and pens) basically simulates the experience of finding an idea and wanting the physical language to reflect the fact that we have found something good.
Writing with mixed materials also heightens our awareness of the present circumstances of writing. We can't help but notice more the act of writing in the moment as our pen pressure and color changes and as the paper type forces us to notice how its texture is different than the previous type.

As a result, our attention is drawn to the moment and away from monkey-mind thoughts about the future (such as about imaginary audiences). The effect is similar to drawing one's attention for the first time all day to one's breathing: suddenly, we are Here and Now, and so are our ideas.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Ode to the Post-It



Those little rooms of paper—stacked inside a miniature pastel high-rise on our desks—are a chance to exit a writing block.

Here are a few important characteristics of this humble office stationery which can help with the process of writing.

·        We associate Post-Its with a particular context for writing: notes to the self (or informal writing, low-stakes writing) which are usually action-oriented (reminders, lists, To-Dos).

·        We also associate Post-Its with disposable writing. Once whatever written on them is accomplished, we crumple and toss them in the recycling bin.

·        Post-Its have an unusual audience dynamic. They’re typically private writing (not meant for another reader or evaluation) but yet they are frequently displayed in a public place—say, on the wall above a desk or on the outside of a personal scheduler.

Consequence # 1:

The to-do list dimension makes whatever we’re writing a bit more transactional. In other words, with writing done on Post-Its, the sense is that it is referring to something that has to happen in the world. Like a grocery list or a reminder of a dental appointment, the content on a Post-It suggests a matter-of-fact action.

When writing resembles more an action than abstraction, it becomes a gesture one has to do, a gesture that doesn’t require much heavy thinking. Writing becomes more of the “just-do-it” mentality of freewriting…less precious.

Consequence #2:

To write a document on Post-Its (I’m talking about the standard size, not the micro or pad-sized ones) means to be constantly interrupted as your voice/writing moves from square to square.

This can feel a bit like leaping over hurdles, but paradoxically, one result is that you may have more of an athletic sense of your intrapersonal voice. It feels more present, more eager to continue, to press on.
The gesture of “filling in another page”—albeit a micro page—also carries satisfaction, helping to create a positive association and self-confidence about writing. And the more positive associations about writing you are able to gather, the more motivation you will have to write.

Consequence #3:

Post-Its increase the physicality of writing. In other words, the confinement of writing on the small squares writing forces you to notice your materials more than you might normally.

This can draw your attention to the present moment and away from imaginary audiences. The heightened sense of the present moment of writing may seem annoying at first. Lean into that sensation of annoyance and observe it. After a few moments, it too will likely fade and change, and the attention to the present can give you greater access to your inner dialog for writing.

Consequence #4:

Of all these points, it’s the way Post-It writing seems disposable—and how it automatically takes on the sheen of low-stakes work—that may help the most.

The association of Post-Its with disposable or low-stakes writing reduces expectations and predetermined thought about ability and outcome.
It can shift your audience dynamic such that you feel less responsible to a (possibly strict) audience or judge.

The fact that the Post-It genre typically involves notes to the self reinforces the idea of your writing as intrapersonal dialog, as self-talk. As a result, no matter what you’re writing, the text takes on the appearance of freewriting.

You could be writing a highly formal document or exploring a complex idea that’s intended (eventually) for the most critical of audiences, but on a Post-It, this writing begins first and fore mostly for you, your eyes. You’re talking to yourself, no matter the topic.

In this regard, the humble Post-It is the stationery of the intrapersonal, the call to you, the note that says, Write about it.



Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Writing Materials and the Present Moment

Rocpoc, Flickr Commons
In the next series of postings, I will be discussing the material conditions of writing and the importance of staying present to the physical realities of writing.  Several of those upcoming posts will focus on the marvels of the Post-It note.

In Understanding Writing Blocks, Keith Hjortshoj offers an example of the importance of the material side of writing. It’s an example I frequently tell my students.

Hjortshoj describes a student, Paul, who is struggling to complete college courses because he can’t turn in written assignments. It’s not because Paul is unintelligent or unmotivated. When Paul was in grade school, his father, a professional writer, insisted on reading and critiquing all of Paul’s assignments before they were turned in to a teacher.

According to Hjortshoj, “by the time he graduated from high school Paul dreaded writing anything because he knew he would have to show it to his father and knew it would be terrible.”

Speed forward to college. Paul was failing his college courses because he couldn’t finish even a paragraph without feeling like it was flawed.

One day, Paul is at last able to turn in an essay.

The night before, he’s snarled up in his usual anxieties about writing, tossing out paragraphs, when he realizes he’s run out of fresh paper and has to use crumpled sheets from his waste bin.

Paul is able to complete the essay by using ruined paper—and he continues to do so in his other courses by turning in final drafts composed on physically imperfect sheets of paper—ones with “some little flaw—a dot of ink maybe, or a little tear” on it.

What’s going on here?

In Paul’s case, by interacting with the physical objects involved in writing (the sheets of paper), he is able to deal with an imaginary audience (his father, the Critic), one not really in his Present moment. When he stains or tears the paper, Paul is making contact with an aspect of the Present moment (the paper) and recognizing that an aspect of the Past (his father) is not actually in the room.

The physical aspects of writing serve two important functions toward mindful writing.

#1: Those physical aspects—our typing hands, the pen we use, the notebook or journal we select—are all bells calling us to the Present moment and to the language and ideas passing through our minds in the now.

They help us see what is really present as well as what is not present (an audience). Remember, most of the time, we are alone when we write and any audience is a construction of our internal dialog.

#2: The material aspects of writing also have the potential to adjust our intrapersonal voice—our internal conversation.

That is, certain materials suggest a certain relationship to ourselves and to audience.

Writing a draft of an article, for instance, solely on Post-Its sets us up for one type of relationship to ourselves and to audience.  Post-Its are a forum for informal, note-like writing. We associate Post-Its with low-stakes writing, tasks not expecting perfection or audience.

Writing a book draft with crayons or Magic Markers sets us up for another type of relationship to our words and to audience. Crayons and Magic Markers carry the connotation of the child-like, the free and imaginative, and they help kick out any high-stakes professional audience because I certainly won’t be showing my crayon writings to an editor.

The physical side of writing can also hinder us. Think of the person who wants to start a novel and purchases a fancy journal. I feel immediately worried for this person’s writing ability. This leather-bound journal with the expensive paper is practically soaked in critique: it’s expecting perfect words from the get-go. 

So what's inside your sheet of paper?

Have your writing materials ever brought you to the Present moment as you write? Do tell: please post a comment.








Saturday, September 29, 2012

How to Make Contact with Your Inner Dialog



To become a more mindful,
more productive writer, you need to get in touch with your intrapersonal communication—that inner “babble” in which you are constantly talking to yourself. (Don’t worry: we all talk to ourselves.)

That inner talk is where you can find ideas for writing as well as the energy to continue writing projects.

Of course, meditation helps us with this. Meditation is all about noticing how in our constant self-talk we are sorting our experience (into good, bad, and indifferent) in the misguided but all-too-human attempt to make life comfortable for us.

Some of my writing students, however, say they are unable to notice when their minds depart from the present moment. They say they can’t notice their monkey minds. They have no idea what mindfulness feels like.

To help those students, I devised the following exercise. I hope it might be of some use to you. The first 10 steps are the set-up for the exercise.

1.      Go to a quiet location.

2.      Put a piece of paper and a pen or pencil beside you.

3.      Sit gently upright, hands resting either palms-up or palms-down on your knees.

4.      Scan your body for its feelings: where are you tense?

5.      With eyes gently focused on a spot a few feet away, begin watching your breathing.

6.      Notice the sensation of the breath entering and leaving your nose.

7.      Notice the sensation of the rise and fall of your torso.

8.      Breathing in, think to yourself, “Here.”

9.      Breathing out, think to yourself, “Now.”

10.  Continue to put your attention on your breathing.

Whenever you notice that your mind has wandered from watching your breath, briefly turn to your piece of paper. Jot down one of the following:

ü  FUTURE (for a distracting thought about the future moment after this meditation session)

ü  PAST (for a distracting thought about a time before this meditation session)

ü  EVALUATION (for any thought that judges your present circumstance—for instance, whether you are pleased, irritated, or bored with the Now)

Do this notation fairly quickly. Don’t make a big deal of it. After you note “future,” “past” or “evaluation,” return to watching your breathing.

The next time you find that you’re no longer watching your breathing, return to the piece of paper and again record one of those three words.

After 5-10 minutes, if you’re like the rest of us, your sheet is probably one long list of distractions.

Did you notice, however, a difference in experience? Did the moments in which you were blindly daydreaming suddenly stand apart from another set—ones in which you were more aware?

If so, you may be well on your way to tasting mindfulness. Maybe more importantly, what you succeeded in doing is shaking hands with your own inner conversation.

Next time, watch that conversation and ask it a question about your writing. A good start might be, “What would I like to write down, right now, in this moment?” Or, “What do you have to say to me about  Idea X?”







Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Yoga for Hands

More often than not, thinking about the fingers as they type would probably do a stuck writer far more good than thinking about audience.

This is an exercise to draw attention to the Present moment and to be able to mindfully write.

Start with a brief seated meditation. With a gently tall posture, hands on your knees, breathing in, think to yourself, “Here.”  Breathing out, think to yourself, “Now.” When your mind wanders away from attention to the breath, guide it back.

Then move your hands to your keyboard and begin to freewrite. Freewriting means non-stop, non-judgmental writing intended for no audience but yourself. You could write about whatever is on your mind, or you could freewrite about a quote. I’ll pass you a quote now: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many options, in the expert’s, few” (Suzuki).

While you freewrite, continue to watch your breathing. Breathing in, “Here.” Breathing out, “Now.”

Keep freewriting but now turn your attention to the sensation of your finger pads touching the keys. Change the topic of your freewrite to describing that sensation. Do this for a minute. Then turn your attention to the sounds of typing, describing those sounds in your freewrite.

Keep typing. This time, notice how your bones are moving inside the typing fingers. Watch their complex activity.  Feel their movement. What would you compare this movement to?

Extend your attention now to your palm and the back of your hands as you type. Describe the sensations in the freewrite.

Then move to your wrists and lower arms.  Describe their sensations in the freewrite.

Move your attention—all the while watching your breath—to your torso and legs. Then to your shoulders and neck. Then to your face. Describe what you notice: how is the writing impacting that part of your body? What muscular sensations, changes in temperature, tensions, and so forth are present?

Continue to observe your breathing but now turn to your writing project for the day. You may find yourself calmer, more present-minded, and most importantly, more aware of your own inner dialog than when you started the yoga-for-hands.

Try these steps on another occasion—only switching to handwriting. The use of a pen or pencil will generate a whole different awareness of the present moment of writing.
(If you liked this post, try out "Corpse Pose for Writing" from 3/9/2015. It's another embodied writing technique.)