Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Conceptual Metaphors for the Writing Experience

What sorts of metaphors or imagery about writing are you carrying around in your head?

As I've said on previous posts, it's important to consult your intrapersonal or inner dialog in order to write with ease, trust, and fluency. (See the post, "How to Make Contact with Your Inner Dialog" from September 2012, for instance.)

Part of noticing that intrapersonal conversation involves finding out how we talk to ourselves about our writing. So we turn to the intrapersonal to find content but also to find our opinions about the writing process, audience, and our writing ability. Chances are very good that those intrapersonal opinions are having a great deal of influence on a person's writing experience--and ability. It's important then to be mindful of those views we're carrying around because they have a tendency to operate unseen and unheard.

One of the best ways to become mindful of these internal commentaries is to conduct a search for any conceptual metaphors or images pertaining to writing.

Conceptual metaphors organize our everyday functioning: they organize our perceptions and actions. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By put it: conceptual metaphors (also called cognitive metaphors) are "pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action,"

More than just a metaphor in a single sentence or line of poetry, conceptual metaphors are large conglomerates of thought. As Philip Eubanks describes them, they are "metaphor expressions [that] recruit larger metaphoric concepts." An easy example is the conceptual metaphor in English that "Time is Money." Behind this three-word metaphoric phrase is an influential belief of common assumption; it has the potential to change what you do in the next hour or how you go about the rest of your adult life.

Or your adult writing life.

Let's turn to a few common words for different aspects or moments in the writing process.

While each of these is not a metaphoric phrase per se, they each contain an image or association, in part because of their connotative language:


We regularly use these terms to talk about writing, yet each of them carries around usually unrecognized assumptions and views about what it means to write.

Draft: breezy, temporary, fleeting, insubstantial, invisible (notice only its effects). As one of my graduate students also said--draft, as in pulling a draft beer (a volume, abundance, a small sample from a much larger supply).

So those could be connotations of "draft," but what might be the effect of those connotations?

(One way to figure this out is to come up with alternatives or synonyms for a word. A synonym for "draft" would be "stage." How is "stage" different in what it suggests than "draft"? By finding alternatives, you can better notice the original language.)

Well, for one, if we carry around the idea of an early stage of a composition as fleeting, this could correspond nicely with the sense of impermanence, if we are of the Buddhist mindset. That breeziness or invisibility, however, could make early writing seem hard to catch--and increase the difficulty of starting out on a piece. Then again, if draft is like pulling from a keg, this suggests a big inner supply.

Each of the words on that list (and many others) can be explored. Please tell us what you think. What are the connotations of those ordinary words about writing? What sorts of imagery do they contain for you? After you find an image or connotation for one of the words, ask yourself, "What could be the impact on my writing experience of that image or connotation?" Send along your comments below.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Loving-Kindness Meditation for Writers

Mr. Littlehand

This meditation is an adaptation of metta or loving-kindness meditation. It's a variation of the loving-kindness meditation for non-writers described by Sharon Salzberg: a fundamentally imaginative practice leading to empathy and compassion for ourselves and others.

In my Overcoming Writing Blocks courses, this writerly loving-kindness meditation is one of my favorite activities, right beside showing students mindful eating and walking.

Writer's Loving-Kindness can be helpful in our interactions with audience. Recall from previous posts that we've discussed how all writing is at least initially private writing and how we've stressed the importance of recognizing our fundamental solitude while writing. The audience, to paraphrase Walter Ong, is fictional; what's real is the Present moment. (See earlier posts "The 3 Paradoxes of Mindful Writing" and "How-To Tip #1: Kicking Out the Reader-in-the-Head.")

What better way to take advantage of the vacancy of the writer's Present moment, what better way to make use of our imaginative inclination, than to use those capacities to develop a more reflective, more nuanced relationship to potentially tricky audiences or what Peter Elbow calls dangerous audiences? (Note, though, that Writer's Loving-Kindness meditation is also intended for more benign audience relationships.)

Here are the steps:

Sit in a meditation posture on the floor or in a chair. Begin watching your breathing. Breathing in, think to yourself, "Here." Breathing out, think to yourself, "Now." Do this for several minutes.

1. Think of someone who has been supportive of your writing either in the past or in your current work. On the In Breath, visualize something which would bring this supportive individual tremendous happiness. Try to think of something relating to this individual's writing, reading, or maybe even teaching life. On the Out Breath, visualize this individual receiving or this item (or experiencing this happy event, if it's an event like a literary prize). Continue for several minutes to think of this person in this fashion while watching your breathing.

2. Turn to yourself. What would make you happy in terms of your writing life? On the In Breath, visualize this item or event. On the Out Breath, visualize yourself receiving this item or experiencing this event. Continue for several minutes to think of yourself in this fashion while watching your breathing.

3. Turn to a neutral--someone who is not central to your writing life but plays a role. You might not even know this person's name. For instance, in the past, I've visualized an editor at one of the literary journals to which I submit my work. (I've never met him.) Follow the same steps as above for the In and Out Breath, focusing this time on this person.

4. Turn to a dangerous audience--someone from your past or current writing experience who has tripped up your writing, wittingly or unwittingly. Follow the steps for this person.

5. Turn to any writing group or class you are involved in. For instance, when I'm using this meditation in my Overcoming Writing Blocks class, we contemplate the whole class (students and teacher alike). You could also pick the members of a coffee shop writing group you belong to or the crowd who attends a neighborhood reading series, for instance. Follow the steps for this group.

6. Lastly, turn to the writers of your genre--all the people who compose the type of writing you do (poetry, short fiction, etc.). Follow the steps for this group. Wish them well.

From doing the Writer's Loving-Kindness Meditation, you might notice a softening of your outlook toward difficult judges of your work. You might also gain a sense of their perspective--the reason why they might have acted toward your work as they did. Most of all, this meditation provides a different sensation of audience. Instead of fighting with audiences in our head or even kicking them out in order to use our actual solitude, we can greet that audience and those fellow writers with calm and generosity.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Movie Screen of the Mind

Rosa Menkman

Everything is mind-made.

--Ayya Khema
Each of us has an entire movie production going on inside our heads, the volume turned down so that no one hears the script. Think of the present moment as what’s being shown on that screen, including the screen.
When I was in my early thirties, I was suffering from an extended period of not being able to write--as well (not coincidentally) as from a period of personal sorrow.
One summer morning, I realized that I was the one making my own moods and feelings. Lying in tangled sheets, I saw my mind as a big empty movie screen, the sort you’d find at a drive-in theater, a white rectangle, upon which images and sounds were projected. The surprise, however, was that I was the projector. I suddenly understood that no one else was responsible for how I was feeling at any moment and that I was the speaker of the dialog in my own head. The people from my life who were in my thoughts were not actually in the room (just as the audience for most writing is also not in the room). I was the script writer and actor, making up the dialog and performing the parts of myself and of the other characters. 

For a split second, that movie screen of the mind stayed white and empty, and I had an experience of what Buddhist practitioners such as Pema Chodron call our innate joy. Behind everything—behind all the negative, excited, fluctuating thoughts and feelings of each moment of our lives, there is a screen of joy. 
Mindful writing means being aware of the movie as well as the screen it's being displayed on. It's as Bhante Gunaratana describes in Mindfulness in Plain English: “There is a difference between being aware of a thought and thinking a thought.That difference is very subtle. It is primarily a matter of feeling or texture. A thought you are simply aware of with bare attention feels light in texture; there is a sense of distance between that thought and the awareness viewing it.  It arises lightly like a bubble, and it passes away without necessarily giving rise to the next thought in that chain. Normal conscious thought is much heavier in texture. It is ponderous, commanding, and compulsive. It sucks you in and grabs control of consciousness. By its very nature it is obsessional, and it leads straight to the next thought in the chain, with apparently no gap between them.” 

Being a mindful person, however, is fundamentally different than being a mindful writer.

In practicing everyday mindfulness, a person tries to perceive the thoughts as they arise--negative, positive, or any gradation in between--and not follow them around the corner like a puppy dog, not be reactive. Sure, a mindful person has negative or provocative thoughts: they don't just react as often to that procession of ideas or images, and they consistently return to that large blank joyous screen.

A mindful writer also stays aware of arising thoughts--but with the intention of following one into an absorbed state of writing in which the conditions of the present moment are largely forgotten and words can appear on the page.

That is, a writer uses mindfulness as a gateway into what is largely an unmindful existence.

This experience of writing a lot, of being oblivious to the passage of time, of being inspired, is temporary, a phase we inevitable exit.

The mindful writer, though, upon exiting writing returns to mindfulness, to breathing, the constant joy of the present moment, a joy that involves change. (Part of that change is the change in one's writing ability: it has tapered off, mutated, fizzled, dead-ended--for the time being.)

The mindful writer celebrates the blank white screen along with the frequent oblivion of producing words. While other writers are afraid of those gaps--dreading the blank moment and using gimmicks to keep writing ability close--trying to avoid the present moment in order to prolong oblivion--the mindful writer welcomes the blank screen without reservation, without fear, without judgement. (A great discussion of accepting temporary inability to write is Donald Murray's "The Essential Delay.") The mindful writer is never afraid of those gaps, and if afraid, studies that fear itself as though it were an award-winning movie.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

5-Day Retreat on Mindful Writing and Writing Blocks: July 22-26, 2013

SUMMER INSTITUTE, July 22-26, Salem State University
ENL 833: Overcoming Writing Blocks
Alexandria Peary, MFA, MFA, PhD
Spend a week in historic Salem, Massachusetts, meditate and write in a calm and supportive environment, and pick up some life-long writing strategies. This five-day course focuses on the writing process in order to understand and address writing blocks. Participants learn strategies and practice hands-on techniques to increase fluency and ease in academic, personal, or workplace writing. By exploring process theory--specifically, its concepts of freewriting, private writing, audience, feedback, and revision--problems such as anxiety, procrastination, and failure can be alleviated. We also explore various embodied rhetorical practices related to a sound writing process: chief among those is mindfulness practice. Buddhist mindfulness practice, with its heightened awareness on the self and its intrapersonal dialog, naturally complements process pedagogy. Participants will practice mindful eating, listening, talking, and walking as well as standard seated meditation. We discuss concepts such as equanimity, groundlessness, and impermanence in order to develop a mindful writing practice.

Go to for information on how to sign up. Feel free to contact me at if you have further questions.