Sunday, October 20, 2013

Draw Your Writing

I know that I am mindfully writing when I find myself watching my words form drawing by drawing. Each word takes on a visual appearance. The lines, arabesques, grill work, movement do not vanish in service of meaning but are instead visible.

I can tell my emotional state and the degree to which I was mindful from the way my handwriting looks in an old notebook. If my handwriting is big and Matisse-like, I can guess that my emotional-cognitive state was one of reception and joy-at-writing. If tiny and precise as footnote, I was being careful and analytical.

I am not alone: I think many people have observed a correlation between their mood and personal context at the time of writing and the way their handwriting looks. How could it be otherwise?

The act of writing, as Keith Hjortshoj in Understanding Writing Blocks has observed, is a physical act--a "psychophysical process." I love what Hjortshoj says about this when he's talking about blocked academic writers: "Because scholars tend to view writing primarily as a mental activity, they are often inattentive to what they are actually doing, and where, and for how long. They want to tell me what they have been reading and thinking, or thinking about doing, or thinking about writing, or thinking about their difficulties... All of this is interesting, but I also want to know where their bodies have been moving."
It is important to watch letters and words form in our handwriting--to draw our writing--because then we start to slow down. We slow down enough to notice. Notice what? Our breathing and pulse. Because this use of language is slightly asynchronous with the speed and fluency of our inner conversation (meaning that we form words slower than we say them to ourselves, in our heads), a certain watchfulness happens which is a form of mindfulness.
Watching your words form like this is similar to mindful walking or mindful eating. It's the joining of awareness with activity and brings a sense of heightened calm. It's a good state to be in to find ideas and words.
Additionally, this sort of watchfulness enhances something that normally happens whenever we see a word. Seeing our words triggers hearing those words. The sound of words become more stretched out with the slower pace of our handwriting. Vowels sing, consonants clop, land on the floor, and tie ideas together. Moreover, the more we hear our words, the more likely we will be connected to our intrapersonal or internal dialog which is so essential to writing with fluency and ease.
Finally, because we are writing more slowly, we are more focused on the moment. We are less likely to think about audience or the future of our writing. We are less likely to feel anxious or to falter because we don't typically associate "drawing our words" with the type of production sought by teachers, bosses, or editors.
Practice drawing your words--including noticing the shadows of the pen, the hand, the fingers. See the letters as lines containing sound, emerging from the tiny opening at the tip of the pen.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Writing Can Happen By Chance

One of the best ways to make contact with the Present moment for the purposes of writing is deciding to operate on chance.
Letting external factors decide how and what one writes is great practice in abandoning ego and stopping the false attempt at control. (Trying to control outcome is one of the greatest traps a struggling writer faces. This attempt at control typically takes the form of trying to be perfect on-the-spot, as though an audience were physically present as we write: basically, editing as we compose. As I have argued in other posts, virtually the only thing we can control as we write is our relation to the Present moment--how mindful we are of the circumstances of writing.)
Working with chance can be done on the phrase level and also on the larger structural level.
It can be used for practice--for developing the "muscle" of acceptance, the one which mindfully observes what arises in the moment, embraces constant change in our writing condition, and quiets the constant urge to judge and sort our written production.
Operating by chance as a writer can also open up whole new angles of vision, critical thinking, and imagination.
Chance can also be used to find whole new texts to write.
Here are two exercises I have done with my students.
Exercise in Chance #1:
This one can be used to develop intrapersonal voice--specifically, a voice tinged with metaphor and the blending of the senses. It's a good one for creative writing.
Make a list of 25 or so one-word abstractions on the right side of a page or screen. By "abstraction," I mean words such as "optimism," "faith," "patriotism," "fear"--things which can't be directly experienced through the senses. Concepts.
Then make a second list of 25 adjectives on the left side of the page or screen. Try for as varied adjectives as possible: "scrambled," "hairy," "aquamarine," "repentant," and so forth.
Then randomly (without looking or predetermining) poke your finger at both columns and start writing down the pairs you obtain: "scrambled fear," etc.
Spend a few minutes freewriting or developing a poem around your favorite Adjective-Abstraction combination.
Exercise in Chance #2:
This one is good for larger macro structure matters. It should be used on a document in progress.
In a large envelope, put 25 or so phrases for various structural acts concerning writing. For instance: "Use a long sentence," "Define a term," "Write a paragraph based around an image," or "Use repetition in some way in your next 5 sentences."
As you write or even revise a longer draft, pull phrases from the envelope and, of course, follow whatever the phrases ask.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Repost of Keith Hjortshoj's "What Are You Actually Doing" Guest Post

[This guest post is so marvelous--and has attracted quite a few viewers--so I'm reposting it here.]

Kevin Dooley

What are you actually doing?

I am grateful that Keith Hjortshoj has given his thoughts to this blog. Keith's book,Overcoming Writing Blocks,has been seminal to my understanding of writing blocks and very insightful for my students. Dr. Hjortshoj is the John S. Knight Director of Writing in the Majors at Cornell University. He has published in Asian and Islamic studies in addition to Composition and Rhetoric.

When I tell people that I teach writing as movement (or as “embodied movement”), I hope they won’t ask me what I mean, exactly. They rarely do. Perhaps that’s because the idea pleases them (they often smile when I say it) and rings true. We all want writing to feel more like dancing. Or perhaps the statement seems, in an oxymoronic way, vaguely obvious. When we write, after all, we are doing something, not just with our brains and our fingers but with our whole selves in space and time. And when people talk about this activity they use the language of movement. They say they got somewhere, that the project is moving along, or (if it isn’t) that they’re stuck, blocked, or running into trouble: not moving. They say that writing itself flows or is choppy, like moving water, or that it’s graceful or awkward. Writing can skitter across the page or plod along in dreary iambs, like a tired donkey. In fact it’s difficult to talk about real writing (as opposed to abstract plans for writing) without reference to motion.

If asked what I mean, I could just say that, honestly enough, and most people would be satisfied.

But I’m not, because the answers to the further questions they might have asked get very complicated, and I’m still in the process of figuring them out. What is moving, exactly?

In some ways it’s the writer; in other ways it’s the writing, the language itself. And although these kinds of movement, of people and of texts, are related, they aren’t the same. Through coordinated movement of the embodied mind (self), sentences and passages move along the page and resonate, for readers, with qualities of a living voice now detached from the writer (who is doing something else). But we can’t reduce either of these dimensions of writing to the other. And when writers and their writing run into trouble, these distinctions become important. Saying “Just do it!” rarely solves the problem.

An example will help to explain why.

A graduate student who met with me every week, while working on his dissertation, typically arrived with less than a page of handwritten draft that set off in an interesting direction but ended abruptly. When I asked Carl why he stopped, he said that he got “stuck,” uncertain or confused, and really felt he needed to do further reading before he could continue. But then his ideas changed, he started a new page, stopped again, reverted to reading and thinking . . .

On one level, the problem seems fairly simple. Becoming fainthearted, Carl made the common academic blunder of confusing actually writing with reading and thinking about writing—two very, different but also embodied activities that felt safer. So I could have explained that confusion each week and said, again,“Don’t stop writing!”

But these explanations didn’t help, and one day I asked Carl to tell me exactly what happened at the moment he stopped, because I noticed that his handwriting gradually deteriorated and trailed off. He said, “The pen falls out of my hand.” As his doubts about what he was saying accumulated, he explained, his hand became increasingly cramped until he couldn’t hold the pen, and this physical inability to continue told him he had to stop writing and read, both to rest his hand and to collect his thoughts: to restore the physical and mental composure necessary for composing. Just keep writing? He couldn’t. (Carl wrote with pen, I should mention, because typing was even more paralyzing.)

Dualistic thinking will now tempt us to conclude that what we thought was a psychological (cognitive or emotional) problem was really a physical one, such as “carpal tunnel syndrome.” Time for the writing teacher to recommend physical therapy?
Not if the therapy is confined to a wrist brace or a set of exercises. Carl’s hand was connected to the rest of him, including his mind. When his fingers tightened on the pen, this effort to coordinate language and thought—to fabricate the kind of writing he felt unworthy to produce—gripped his entire being. As his hand began to cramp, the fluency of his thought and his writing deteriorated as well. Which was the cause and which was the effect? It’s impossible to say, and pointless to try, because these dimensions of the self are inseparable.

But this doesn’t mean the problem is hopeless. With awareness that writing (like everything else we do) is psychophysical movement, we can address the problem from either direction, through release. “When I’m falling,” Willem de Kooning said, “I’m doing alright. . .I’m really slipping, most of the time, into that glimpse. I’m like a slipping glimpser.” Like painting and walking, writing is falling into empty space, with trust in a mysteriously familiar ability realized in motion. Like walking, writing always results, in the moment, from release, not from control. Preparing to take a step, getting your limbs in the right position, thinking about the right way to take this risk, is not walking. Release your mind, release your limbs, and you move. It doesn’t matter which way you release first.

What about that risk, and the need for preparation? For the purpose of writing, there’s nothing wrong with preparation—with reading, or with thinking about what you want to say. But preparing to write is not writing and doesn’t necessarily lead to writing, any more than preparing to walk will get you anywhere. And in the moment, there is no risk in writing. This is why William Stafford called writing “one of the great, free human activities.” While you are writing, no one else is actually reading, or judging, what you say, so you are free to say anything. It really is like dancing, at home alone, with the curtains drawn, when you can release your body, release your mind, and move. When you release, mindful of this freedom, you can just dance. When you release (not before) you can “Just write!”

How does writing itself move, beyond us? That’s another complicated puzzle and topic, perhaps, or another post.