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.