Monday, August 26, 2013

Keep Talking to Yourself

Self-talk can serve as a type of writing prompt or heuristic. Instead of hoping to immediately arrive at some sort of valley of golden content, talk yourself through to the journey to new material. You might be surprised by how wise and compassionate of a guide you can become for yourself. Imaginative and intelligent work leans on such scaffolding.

In previous posts, I have talked about the need to turn to intrapersonal or internal dialog for content for writing. What I am discussing in this post is turning to that intrapersonal communication to find an inner teacher or guide: someone who "assigns" structure, who is general of the Next Step.
People who write fluently or with ease tend toward process thinking and meta language--both of which could also called "awareness" or "mindfulness" in their own right.

Sometimes we need to stay a little more mindful of the production: we need to hear ourselves ask questions. Questions are the girders of the text we're building. We need to see the Instructions. Just as when a teacher gives you prompts to write (I do this often in the classroom), these commands release you from the total responsibility of coming up with the text. Someone else is handing you the next step; you just listen and "follow directions," writing down whatever arises in response to their suggestion.

In my notebooks, I am constantly asking myself, "What's next?" "What does the poem/article/paragraph want to do next?" (Sondra Perl uses a similar strategy in her book on Felt Sense.)

Writing becomes a sort of command performance, in a good way. A certain liberty is possible: you can throw caution to the wind. After all, these are not your ideas. If the text isn't high quality, that's not completely your fault. And so forth. The responsibility to create a great piece is leveraged a bit onto this other party, this teacher, this guide.

This release from total responsibility for the outcome of writing is in part the allure of formal poetry. Sonnets and their ilk provide a structure; the poet's job is to respond to that structure. In a sense, poems written in form are a heightened act of listening, of call and response.

In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Suzuki speaks of the balance between control and openness. "To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him."

While writing, we do this by assigning ourselves prompts while we write. We ask ourselves helpful, generous questions; more importantly, we remain able to hear ourselves asking those questions so we can respond. Finally, we must be able to accept the response, whatever it is. Don't sort or judge it.

As you write, keep a notebook or screen handy where you can do process notes about the act of writing. In those process notes, ask yourself questions about the text you're working on. Do this regularly, every 20 minutes.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Exits into the Now: The Value of Meta Writing

When the subject of one's writing is writing, it brings everything closer to the present moment because what one is doing in the moment is writing. Like driving a car, most of us tend to not perceive what we're actually doing when we write. Writing about one's immediate writing experience = writing about the present. It's an easy way, therefore, to heighten mindfulness and probably reduce writing anxiety.

Let the subject, at least in part, be the present moment, and because you are writing in that moment, the subject becomes writing.

Invariably, this leads to low-stakes writing or perhaps private writing because you won't likely be showing this piece to a reader-critic: unless you opt to enclose your present experience as a writer inside the amber of publication.

When I was younger and pretty much stuck in a prolonged block, I gravitated toward poets who mentioned the act of writing within their work. For instance, Octavio Paz's lines half-way down in his great long poem, "The river":

In mid-poem a great helplessness overtakes me, everything abandons me,

there is no one beside me, not even those eyes that gaze from behind me at what I write,

no one behind or in front of me, the pen mutinies, there is neither beginning

                                         nor end nor even a wall to leap,

the poem is a deserted esplanade.

These meta moments inside texts helped by basically exiling future critical audiences and high-stakes situations from the moment. (At the end of my second MFA program and in desperate search of a full-time teaching job, I also used Post-Its with the single word "Buddha" or "Present" as exits into the Now--though I did not formally meditate at the time. I didn't own a laptop and would go to the basement of a university computer lab to type up my resume and cover letters, sticking these Post-Its onto the borrowed monitor.) In my most isolated stretches as a writer, I turned to metalanguage in my poems as a way to finally break free of audience-in-the-head and write; later on, the increased awareness of the present afforded by including metalanguage allowed me to feel the abundance of possibility and relationship that is writing.

In my writing journals, nowadays I include notes about process right alongside ideas and phrases for poems and essays. If I am working on scholarly writing, I jot down the date and time, some details about my writing area, (ideally, screened-in back porch as in right now, the rain mumbling, the eggplant half-fruit, half-blossom), and my private feelings about the project at hand. During any given writing session, I value those process jottings as much as I value the ideas or phrases. It's all writing--no sorting or categories needed.

"Yoga for Hands" is one way to turn to the experience of actually writing as subject material. (See post from 9/11/2012.) Another way to practice meta-mindfulness is to do a 7-10 minute freewrite on any topic (you chose) but every 2 or 3 sentences pause and, in parenthesis, pull yourself back to the Now. Write about the Now. Include details about the space you're writing in, sensory information from that space, the smell or appearance of ink, the sound of your typing, the heat given off by the keyboard, etc. Then return to what's outside the parenthesis, to the topic of your freewrite. Repeat.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Stone Backpack of Perfectionism

Many of us carry around a stone backpack when we write: we unwittingly lug around a heavy load of our own preconceptions about our writing ability. This backpack isn't filled with stones per se but is actually made entirely of mind-generated rock: zippers, pockets, and straps.

That is, we approach a new writing moment with pre-formed ideas as to how the writing will turn out and what the experience will be like because we--and not some external critic, editor, or teacher--have already graded our performance. We assume we know our own writing capabilities--that we can predict what will happen in the next moment.
We are loading down the moment.
Even if what we're doing is presumably private writing or even disposable writing, chances are good that our intrapersonal talk involves a constant pressure to improve, a restlessness with our writing. A deep-rooted dissatisfaction.
(Not all this predetermined thought, of course, is necessarily "negative": we might be carrying around what seem like highly positive, generous views of our ability. But I'll save for this a later post since the brunt of our predetermined thought, I'm wagering, tends toward the critical for most of us.)
What follows is an activity I use with my undergraduate and graduate students to call a temporary halt to that need to "improve" as a writer.
Get yourself a blank screen or sheet of paper.
What would it be like—what would happen 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” now? 
Jot down anything which arises in your mind in response to this notion of already-perfect. (Keep returning to the questions and keep seeing what arises in terms of:

* What sorts of images pass over your mind? Breathe into these images.  Follow them.  What do you notice?

* What sorts of emotion are you feeling?

* What color is one of those emotions?

* Breathe into this emotion.  Follow it. What do you notice?

See if you can gain a sense--even for a few seconds--of what it would feel like to stop wanting to change who you are as a writer. See if you feel the load lighten. See what it might be like to have a more expansive sense of the Present moment of writing. And when you return to the need-to-be-better thinking, notice yourself slipping back on the straps of the stone backpack.