Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Writing Is a Mild Happiness

Not enough attention is paid in and out of the classroom to the emotional experiences (let alone physicalthat's for another day, another post) of people as they write. Emotional states are the single most powerful incentive for people to consistently continue to write, especially when they're no longer students. Writing-related emotions are more powerful than deadlines or even ambition.

Teachers often talk about writing as a matter of struggle, of working hard and of encountering the difficult. Of course, writing has all of these qualities, but how gentle is one's slope up that difficulty? What's the angle on your mental treadmill?

No more potent an incentive to return consistently to the writing desk exists than when writing is a mild happiness. This emotion is key to building discipline as a writer.

Avoiding extremes, binges, ups and downs, and manic relations to the ability to write. Don't celebrate anything about writing ability, and don't mourn anything either. In his marvelous but unfortunately under-discussed book, How Writers Journey to Comfort and Fluency: A Psychological Adventure, Robert Boice describes the importance of making motivation to write "more internal"; in fact, growing this internal motivation should be one of the goals of a writer
as much a project as completing a book or even "writing everyday." Boice turns our attention to the emotional states we experience when writing and specifically asks us to seek a calm approach, a "mild happiness."

Crazy deadlines, all-nighters, adrenalin-pumping procrastination, and writing binges may bring a temporary burst of writing high, but the writer will shortly suffer a let-down: emotional, cognitive, and physical. It's like relying on too much Red Bull: feels good in the short-term but will only cause problems, tiredness, and dependency in the long-term. Some people struggle to avoid states of hypergraphia (being unable to stop writing)as the neurologist Alice Flaherty so well documents in The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block, and the Creative Brain.Other people induce this state in themselves--when it never had to be an option.

That common technique of waiting until last minute to start a project only seems beneficial. As Peter Elbow has pointed out, this method helps to kick a tricky audience out of your head because you simply can't afford to ponder them: it's "do or die" time. In a paradoxical way, waiting until last minute increases mindfulness because it allows the writer to focus on themselves while composing
and not some distant audience. However, this method is unreliable (it won't always work and then you're stuck with an incomplete task or failure). Waiting until last minute also does damage by forever linking the act of writing with anxiety, sleep deprivation, and immobility: it makes writing become an unnatural and energy-expensive act, too separate from the normal give and take of everyday moments.

On the other hand, mild happiness resembles the state of equanimity which Sharon Salzberg has described as the ability to allow things to be as they are by putting large space around events and observations. Equanimity is about our stance on external events--how we relate and respond to them
whereas maitri refers more to how we relate to internal developments arising inside ourselves.

As applied to writing, equanimity means watching each moment during the writing experience and allowing it to be what it is. It means not overly valuing the ability to write. It means accepting a productive session as much as accepting a session in which you typed nothing. It means that when time's up on your writing sessionyou need to get to work or your kids are starting to leap out of their bunk bedsyou just move on with ease. You know you've got other interesting things to do with your day. If you don't work with external constraints, set the limits on your writing session simply for the purpose of practicing that mild stance.


Happiness in writing comes then as a result of that equanimitybecause it means we are practicing acceptance, being gracious and generous toward ourselves (and we all know how harsh writers can be on themselves). It means that every writing moment can be a low-stakes moment: exploratory, safe, private, secluded. We are happy that we can be so kind to ourselves. With this perspective, there is absolutely no reason to feel uneasy about writing and no reason to dread it.

Basically, a writer needs motivation to continue and that involves accumulating positive associations with writing. This is far from a trivial matter: so much about writing seems linked with unpleasantness.

Early on in graduate school at the University of Iowa, I forced myself to spend hours each summer day meditating on the single image of a still-life. It was so painful that part of my brain literally started to twitch. The consequence? Did I get any writing done that summer? When September rolled around, I "discovered" several typed poems I had no memory of actually writing. Apparently, the experience was so painful that I'd blocked the actual writing entirely out of my consciousness. A few years later, I worshipped Martha Graham and pushed myself through strenuous acts of deprivation in order to finish poems. None of this was as sustaining to my writing life as the gentle and accepting approach of mindful writing.

So the question a writer needs to ask if he or she is struggling with writing is this: What would it take to bring pleasure into writing for me? No matter the answer... now matter how seemingly trivial and possibly even child-like, it's your answer. For instance: I could use crayons. I could write for only minutes right now and then go for a walk. I could copy the same passage over and over. I could freewrite about something that's troubling me rather than working on my article.

Pleasurable experience needs to be built into the curriculum whether in the classroom or in the self-teaching of your study (if you are no longer a student). Mild happiness is a learning outcome as valuable as "improve critical thinking skills" or "understand the social dimensions of written communication" or any of the bulleted statements found on syllabi. 

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