Friday, August 31, 2012

Stop Dualistic Thinking, Become Prolific


Simply stop thinking dualistically about writing and sit back and observe what happens. 

            Contrary to usual belief, wanting to write is not good, beneficial, or commendable. Wanting to write does not hold a positive or negative impact on others or on oneself.  Furthermore, writing everyday with terrific discipline, is neither positive nor negative, and finishing or publishing a text is also neither a positive or negative experience.

            Much energy is expended in trying to coerce ourselves or others to write because we perceive the W word as an accomplishment.  We grasp the goal of writing.   

            It is often presumed that wanting to write is a positive quality in a person. We tend to think that it’s good when students, for instance, want to write their assignments or, seemingly better still, want to write on their own, independent of any homework.  We say, “good, this student likes writing,” if we are a teacher or their parent.  It’s considered good when we ourselves feel willing to complete a piece of writing within a deadline.  It’s perceived as positive when others embark upon a project of any genre.

             We tend to admire or envy that willingness to write in another person as though that willingness all by itself were valiant.

When we praise another person’s writing ability, in general, we are actually chasing after one of two qualities, either self-expression or self-discipline.  In the case of self-expression, we operate as though there exists inside each person’s life an experience or emotion that can only be released through writing.  For ourselves, we may feel deeply frustrated while trying to release that uniqueness because we believe that writing about our experience is our sole chance.  This scenario sets most of us up for the false belief that the ability to self-express is only possible for a few either extremely hard-working or talented individuals.  Not us.

            It would be cruel if only a select few individuals were capable of the satisfaction of self-expression.  This notion is both limiting and false, since all of us born with healthy bodies do possess as a common denominator the ability to use language on an everyday basis. 

            On an everyday basis, most of us speak and write, and we are all fluent—not jammed—users of words.  In some Buddhist traditions, everything and everyone has a Buddha-nature, or the opportunity for enlightenment.  Revered Zen monks used to call each other derogatory names such as “old rice bag” to remind themselves that enlightenment is this universal ability, not just something in high-ranking religious officials.  Likewise, each of us is completely capable of creating “verbal gold”—phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and whole texts—which make us feel proud and assured.

            When we praise the self-discipline of a successful writer, we are causing as much harm to ourselves as creative spirits as when praising self-expression.  To admire discipline in the abstract is to remove writing from the present moment and—by extension—to further eliminate any chance that one will be writing at any time soon.

            You may have encountered a stranger at a dinner party who says, “Oh, I have tons of great ideas for books I could write, but I just lack the self-discipline.”  Individuals who admire self-discipline in another are less likely to be really driven by a desire to write than the person who admires self-expression.  These I-wish individuals are likely hoping that discipline could be grafted onto other areas of their lives, such as dieting or paying off debt.

            When writing is liberated from our systems of judgment and the binary thought pattern of good/bad, we are also liberated.  We are free to either write or not write, thereby opening ourselves to the countless possibilities for human activity. 

            It’s okay to bake those chocolate brownies instead of writing.  It’s okay to go play with your son and then do the work you’ve brought home from the office.  Writing is just one activity of hundreds.  

            Poet William Stafford said that lowering one’s standards will help a writer do the text.  Take that advice a step in a new direction and cut back on your notion that even trying to write is a good attempt.  Lower your standards that far.  What’s funny is how achieving this non-dualistic thinking often allows people to start writing and keep at a project.

            Simply stop the dualistic thinking about writing, and sit back and observe what happens.  See that these binary categories about writing are absolutely meaningless.  Not only are they meaningless, but in the end they will prevent you from writing as often as you want.

            Trust me, it absolutely does not matter whether you finish that novel, memoir, poetry collection, volume of literary theory, historical documentary [insert your genre here] because writing is neither positive nor negative.  If you feel anxious at the idea in the previous sentence, inwardly you still cling to the dualistic notion that writing is a positive occurrence and that not writing is a negative occurrence in your life.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Guided Meditation on Writing #1

(This post is the first which will offer techniques for drawing your attention to the Present moment in order to write.)

Breathing in, I notice that I am breathing in.  Say this silently to yourself as you’re inhaling. Notice the physical sensations of breathing: the expansion of your chest, movement of your ribs, the different sizes and shapes of breaths, the sensations from breathing felt in other parts of your body.

Breathing out, I notice that I am breathing out.  Say this silently to yourself as your exhaling. Again, notice the physical sensations of breathing and how they are slightly different each time. No moment is the same.

Draw your attention to the Present moment through your breathing.

Breathing in, I notice that I am breathing in.

Breathing out, I notice that I am breathing out.

Follow this practice for a few minutes. If catch yourself not watching your breathing but instead thinking of other matters, gently return your attention to the breath.

Then start to incorporate awareness of other parts of your Present moment all the while watching your breathing.  Notice the sounds in the room or outside the room. Notice the physical sensations of the rest of your body.
Breathing in, I notice that I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I notice that I am breathing out.
Begin to expand your awareness—all the while watching your breathing—to the details around you which indicate that you are about to write. For instance, gaze at the surface of the desk or at the folds in your clothing (if you’re using a laptop) and notice them.  See what thoughts arise—do not judge what arises—and gently return to noticing your breath and the object. Look at the pens or paper lying on the desk and notice them. Look at your notebooks, your lamp, your Post-Its—whatever relates to the act of writing—and notice.
Breathing in, I notice that I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I notice that I am breathing out.

Turn your mind now to writing. What’s in your mind? Begin writing it down—without judging it—and continue to watch your breath, asking the same question. Do this for three minutes.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The 3 Paradoxes of Mindful Writing

The act of writing is built on several paradoxes.

Paradox #1:  To communicate with others, we often have to forget about or overlook other people.  In other words, to eventually communicate with others, we first communicate with ourselves. 
Carl Rogers said something similar in “Communication: Its Blocking and Its Facilitation” when he said that a person’s problems communicating with others result from her problems communicating with herself.  In mindful writing, this means that as soon as an individual pushes that bar too far to the audience side in an effort to meet others’ expectations or standards, she is less able to have intrapersonal communication (or communication with the self).  Intact intrapersonal communication is required for interpersonal communication (or communication with others).  This means that monkey mind--discursive thinking--is required for writing that is eventually shown to others.  While we might think we are having problems writing to Mr./Ms./Professor Difficult Audience, we are actually having problems communicating with ourselves.
Paradox #2:  Writing is largely known as a cognitive or thinking act when it is actually a physical action in which bodily sensations and the physical attributes of the objects used are crucial to prolific writing.
 While several scholars and popular authors have connected the work of writing to meditation or breathing techniques, largely in an effort to relax or ground the would-be write, only a handful of scholars have correlated one’s physical presence to the invention of written material. 
Sondra Perl’s theory of felt sense, based on the work of Eugene Gendlin, directs attention to noticing how knowledge arises in the body—how ideas are bodily intuitions.  In discussing the writing process, Keith Hjortshoj suggests that the process is not simply a set of cerebral phases (brainstorming, drafting, revising) but that “movements within the writing process” are also physical movements:  “Like almost everything else that we do, writing is both mental and physical.  And if these dimensions of the self in the world are not coordinated, writing will not happen.” 
More often than not, thinking about one’s fingers as they type would probably do a writer far more good than thinking about any made-up reader.
Paradox #3:  In order to optimally succeed with writing, one’s primary allegiance must be to the present moment, not to the text.  One needs to stay mindful, no matter what is happening during one’s session at the computer. 
Everything is transitory and impermanent, and suffering comes from resisting that reality.  Even one’s best ability to write—during a long lucky streak—is in actuality in flux.  If one bends closer to look, that happy ability or inspiration also fluctuates, wavers, and differs in texture and character in each moment, like a flame. 
Groundlessness means staying in full awareness of the fact that everything is constantly changing including matters pertaining to writing.  The good news about impermanence is that a writer’s block, however impervious it may appear, is actually in fluctuation and temporary, part of a moment.  As Suzuki says in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, “When the Buddha comes, you will welcome him.  When the devil comes, you will welcome him.” 
Change serves rather than hinders writing. In academic circles, this would mean that the rhetorical canon of invention can be redefined as being observant of that change. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

How-To Tip #1: Kicking Out the Reader-in-the-Head

I can look around the room on the first day of a semester and get a pretty good sense of who is deeply unhappy to be in Comp I or Comp II. What I notice is how many students are not actually perceiving me in my recently laundered Ann Taylor suit but who are instead staring at a stack of teachers immediately behind me. They’re all the teachers and critics from their past.  
The quick overview of the syllabus and the fly-by past upcoming writing assignments ratchets these students’ tension levels deadline by deadline, date by date, and the voices and gestures of those teachers-behind-me get louder, more dramatic, and occasionally, I’m sure, obscene.  

For some students, no matter what I do or say, I won't actually be present the entire course. Instead, their seventh-grade English teacher who liked to give part of exam questions in Old English is in the room. Or the one who crossed out whole lines of their poems in red ink. Or the professor who told them during office hours that told them their writing gave them a headache to read.
For most of us, teachers have been our primary readers throughout our lives because we don’t share our writing with other types of people and also because most of our writing is initiated by teachers and their assignments.  They’ve become our main association with writing.

Though it’s not always teachers that people are carrying around—could be a parent, maybe one who looked over your shoulder as you wrote every high school essay, or an unhelpful friend, jealous colleague or spouse, or a disorganized boss who couldn’t clearly explain what he wanted and so sent you into a tailspin of drafts and rewrites.

When most of us write, a similar thing happens. We start writing to imaginary people.

We’re usually completely alone but yet we think that our Reader is sitting right in front of us, capable of reading our words as soon as we type them…or even of hearing our thoughts! These Readers don’t delay with giving us their feedback—doesn’t take them weeks to return a mid-term paper. No, they give us their input on-the-spot, judging our fetal thesis statement, the last four nouns we used, the length of our sentences, whether we breathe through our mouths or our nostrils, our understanding of the chapter reading, and the next ten papers we’ll write in the future. We think or scribble something down, and it’s like a factory assembly line—it travels a few inches to the right for delivery to the Reader on her stool for her immediate critique.

We don’t see what’s actually going on in our present moment.

The teacher is not your audience.  The teacher may be your eventual audience, but there’s a big difference between the two. If I am your teacher, for instance, I am not (and may I add, Thank God) perched on your university-provided dorm room desk, my legs crossed, sipping at my Starbucks iced coffee, watching you and the posters which are already slipping off the cinder block walls. The Reader in your head is also not your audience.

I don’t care how nasty this Reader was (and we’ve all had them). I don’t care if she actually sacrificed hamsters for their blood to fill her enormous red-inked fountain pens or if she rejected your manuscript from her prestigious journal by putting it through a shredder and sending it back to you in your self-addressed stamped envelope.

I also don’t care how well you know this eventual audience, this person you’re supposedly writing for. Barring an extremely rare exam-like occasion in which the recipient of your words literally watches as you write and awaits your words two seconds after they’re born, you are completely and totally alone.

Any ideas you have of your Reader’s response are 100% in your head and of your own making.

People often think they’re not very creative, but yet when they sit down to write, they make up whole scenarios and plot lines complete with dialog and action in order to talk to that imaginary Reader. Most people, no matter what they’re trying to write, no matter if it’s as hum-drum as a memo or as seemingly uncreative as a five-paragraph essay, are actually great screen play writers.

Some theorists have said that audience is evoked, invoked, or is always fictional. Mindful writing proposes that in fact audience is always at least in some part—and especially at the beginning of writing something—imaginary. Mindfulness helps us see what’s really present—and because imaginary audience isn’t really there, we are reminded of difference between speaking and writing and are able to use our solitude to our advantage.

A friend of mine told me this anecdote about a guy whose car gets stuck in a snow bank on a wintry night in Montreal. 

The guy is stuck by himself beside the road in the middle of immense cold fields with only one house in sight way off in the distance. All the lights are on in the house, so the man decides to approach the house to see if someone can give him a hand (this is before cell phones). As he’s trudging, he begins to think of the future, of what might occur in the next thirty minutes. He sees himself knocking on the door of the house. He imagines a warm vestibule, dry jackets hanging on hooks, shoes and boots in a row. But what if no one answers? What if no one’s home? What sort of fool leaves all the lights on in their house if they’re not home, he thinks and frowns a bit. He keeps trudging. He rubs his cold hands together to warm them. What if he knocks on the door and the person just closes the door in his face? Well, he is a stranger after all.  But then again, what sort of person (insert expletives) would not find out what’s wrong on a night like this? And so forth. By the time he actually arrives at the house and the door is opened, he yells, “Why don’t you take your stupid shovel then and shove it!”

How do you tell if you’ve got audience-in-the-head?  Well, it’s a safe bet that if you’re doing any writing, you’ve got audience-in-the-head syndrome. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s part of that endless babble or “discursive thinking” that runs through our heads all the time, unless we’re on a meditation cushion.

Writing anything actually enhances the sound of people talking because for one you probably are hearing your own voice say the words as you type them, you may even feel your tongue moving a bit in your mouth as though you are speaking.

When we write, however, we tend to anticipate our readers’ reactions and this impacts us in the moment of writing. We make different choices, letting our imaginary conversations affect—or even stop—our immediate writing.

If you’ve been hesitating to write, putting it off, suffering from a block, or even finding yourself slowing down a bit in your usual production, turn your mind toward your mind. Who have you been thinking about in the past few minutes? What sorts of bits and fragments of people (because the Reader is never a whole person but a prop, a playing-card image that we briefly sustain with our imagination) have appeared in front of your thoughts? Whose face, however abstract, has appeared on your computer screen?
Here’s an exercise I use with my students and for my own writing to help put a finger on the reader-in-the-head and start seeing these phantoms who haunt our writing.

It asks you to make a caricature like the type you see done at the mall or at fairgrounds. The point, as with any good caricature, is to exaggerate certain features and in doing so, you can’t help but notice the imaginary nature of your Reader.

Write this as a loose paragraph or freewrite. Store it someplace and it pull it out when you find yourself hesitating as you write. You might want to also to do a separate caricature for different occasions of writing.

1.       Think of an occasion recently where you had to write something.

2.      You start to visualize someone having a judgment or opinion about this piece of writing you’re about to start.

3.      This person appears in your room.

4.      What does his or her face look like? Make their head very large, like a caricature.  Then describe their body as very tiny.  Make their clothing absurd—maybe too small.
5.      Exaggerate some ugly feature on their face.

6.      The person starts to say something to you about your writing.  What’s the first sentence the person says?

7.      The person has an ulterior motive for what he or she is saying.  What is it?

8.      Something strange happens to the next sentence the person says.  Distort some part of it.  Make it ludicrous, unreasonable.  What is it?

9.      The person gets frustrated.  What do he or she do next?

10.  Let another sentence come from the person’s mouth.  Have it also go out of his or her control.

11.  Add a few details about the person’s facial expressions as he or she loses more and more control over the situation.

12.  Put this person in some sort of container.1 What sort?  Describe.

13.  Something ugly or icky is also at the bottom of the container: what is it?

14.  Now what are you going to do with the container?

1  Litter boxes, old beer bottles and Tupperware with spoiled blue cheese are particularly good ones but I’ve also heard of people using medical boxes full of syringes and shipping crates headed to Singapore. Ann Lamott also recommends visualizing these inner critics as mice, putting each mouse in a jar, and turning down a volume-control button on the jar.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Poem I Just Finished on Mindfulness

Here's a poem I took to the final stage this morning: it's on mindfulness and how watching one's thoughts (how they always stray from the present moment) can lead to surreal visualizations. It's the sort of thing my students experience when we practice mindful eating: all of a sudden, eating a segment of an orange or a cracker becomes almost psychedelic. The orange sparkles with complexity: the ordinary cracker becomes a serrated desert.

Incidence of Meditation Hallucinogenous with Site-Specific Factors

The up down, up and down of one’s thoughts

dark green, gray-green, and white columns

are splices of different times and places

that a woman horsebacks through

on a carousel and across the way

sprayed-on laughter comes from a canister

labeled Autumn in New England

as one wades ankle-deep in water gone bright pink

through a patchwork of thyme and cilantro.

The lake is stagnant with statements,

a swizzle stick rusting flamingo leaning at one end.

One’s order is up, aji de gallina set out on a tray

beneath the striped awning of a cloud

and like rubble from a graph fallen from the sky

the parts of a week are strewn in front of you

as well as a 3-column hedge in several places

like in a steeplechase, and the high navy Tower

of thoughts about the Future always rising,

and the stubborn taupe stubble of the past

which seen from the side become

the scent of words in the woods,

hundreds of colored puddles—

“woodsy,” “fandango pink,” “polynesian purple”

—that quiver, then shoot up as geysers

at 2,000 words a minute as in a state-sponsored display

of craft and artistry right before a state-sponsored display

of athleticism and technology:

the woods is a holder for a giant woman

wearing a plaid shirt & a hibiscus blossom behind her ear

in an advertisement for teeth whitening

that’s about to dissolve into a series of boxes

computer-generated, like utility boxes in a landscape,

tossing herself back into a laugh

a gondola coming out of her mouth, MEN WORKING IN ROAD,

in the way in which sunset gets inserted behind trees

behind the bristle-brushes of those cell-phone towers.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Your Ability to Write is Always Present: Part One


A person’s ability to write is always present.  If a literate individual is conscious and breathing, this person can write at any moment, in any place, whether through paper and pen, magic markers, typing into a keyboard, or speaking into a voice recognition program, or some other primitive to advanced technology. 
And yet one doesn’t have to look far to find people who admit, often with great pain, that they are unable to write—students who can’t turn assignments in on time and who profess to hate writing courses, book-less colleagues who worry about tenure, friends who twist themselves into knots trying to deal with a New Year’s resolution to write a novel.  What’s going on? 
Sure, one can form letters and words, the skeptic might say, and there’s nothing stopping one from writing random words, nonsense, trite, or even copying the words of others.  It’s obvious that a freewrite or a person’s to-do list wouldn’t cut mustard with a prestigious journal.  One could just copy the same word a hundred times like a doodle in a grade school notebook.  Following the words in one’s mind like an ant wandering over a counter top won’t result in a book contract—or would it? 
One can go through the mechanical motions of forming words, but is that writing, and more importantly, is that good writing?

Ah, there’s the rub.  In that question, one can find the entire situation of writing.
Inside the square of each moment is an Eden of words.  Each moment is a moment abundant with language called discursive thinking, “monkey mind,” or intrapersonal dialog.  In point of fact, we are incessantly using language with ourselves.   (Freewriting, a strategy of non-stop writing, offers a type of screen shot of that discursive mind at work: with the caveat that freewriting as a mechanism promotes as well as captures that discursivity.)
The person who wants to write with ease and fluency needs to do things: first, he or she must notice that discursivity and, second, he or she must fully accept, at least initially, what is found there.  Issues of goodness must be entirely put aside until a later stage in the writing process.  Exactly how late is dependent upon the individual and also varies within the same individual according to the particular writing task.

If we agree that any of us could start writing something right this very moment—the flotsam of phrases in our heads, a grocery list, the first sentence of a tricky email, the words “present moment” or even our own name over and over—logically, we would have to ask why people ever experience writer’s block.  As we have stated, the quickest retort will be that everyone can record the words in one’s head, but that doesn’t guarantee a person will come up with good, applicable ideas.  After all, when people try to write, they seek to either generate new ideas or address a particular writing task and rhetorical situation. 

So what I would point out is that our typical response to the notion that one’s ability to write is always present shows that what we are engaged in is an argument of quality—that we are implicitly engaged in defining “writing” as producing quality: an assumption that warrants closer examination.  For as soon as we are concerned with the quality of our texts-in-production, we have initiated another cognitive engine: that of evaluation. 

Picture a sliding scale with “quantity” posted on the left side and “quality” on the far right.  As one pushes the bar of one’s thinking over to the quality side, one has also pushed oneself closer to evaluation.  Yet who exactly is evaluating one’s words as one writes them?  This chimera—this red-pen holding apparition—cannot be explained away as one’s audience.

If, on the other hand, one pulls that bar over from quality to quantity, something happens to one’s experience of writing.  That is, if how we define what it means to write is more an argument of quantity rather than quality, the bar is moved closer to the self and farther away from the audience.  This relationship between self and the number of words we produce—namely, that the more words we produce, the likely closer we are to ourselves and less close we stand to any audience—reflects the natural verbal abundance in all of us. 

In order to produce abundant writing in a short time, one needs to be attuned to the flow of intrapersonal conversation, that ongoing river in our heads in every waking moment, a flow of language that becomes intensified when formalized by a recording of it.  Pushing the bar closer to the self is a move that can capture natural discursive thinking. 

Two welcome developments occur when one notices the language-covered present moment. 
Quality ideas inevitably happen because of the impermanence of each moment: hundreds of moments will pass before one’s inspection carrying countless phrases, concepts, images, and ideas, like a boxcar decorated with fascinating graffiti.  Certainly, much insignificant material will transpire, but the sheer quantity of our discursive thoughts, the sheer amount of fluctuation in our thinking inevitably turns up something of worth when tracked with the mind’s eye. 

With discipline (defined as the ability to sit still and watch the passing of one’s discursive thought), a good idea, a bona fide keeper, will eventually come along if one is attentive and receptive. 

The second development for the writer is that he notices, perhaps for the first time, the delicious vacancy of the moment of writing. 

For the most part, one can trace an individual’s success or lack of success in writing back to that person’s relation to the present moment.