Saturday, December 27, 2014

Right Attentiveness

This post discusses one part of the Sevenfold Path of mindful writing.

What now is Right Attentiveness, oh disciples?

            The only way that leads to the attainment of a calm writing mind, to mindful ability to write, to a consistent and joyous practice of writing is through the fundamentals of attentiveness.
            And to what is the mindful writer attentive?
            A person is attentive to her breath and to the moment, and because she wants to write, wants to understand and perceive language, she is attentive to the possibility of language, to the ways that language can arise in the moment.
            The mindful writer is attentive to the language occurring inside the present moment.
            And what is inattentiveness for writers? To what is the unmindful writer inattentive?
            Forgetting to observe the in breath, forgetting to observe the out breath, forgetting to observe the moment, the unmindful writer becomes absorbed by thoughts of the past and thoughts of the future.
            These movies of the mind rarely have anything to offer to our writing. They are illusions that trick the mind into watching them full-screen without any awareness of what we are doing. If about writing, these story lines about the past or future are usually commentaries on our writing abilities or mirages of reception in which an as-of-yet-unwritten text by us is read by as-of-yet-not-present audiences in an as-of-yet-nonexistent place and time.  
            And how is the mindful writer attentive? How does language arise in the present moment?
            The mindful writer puts her mind on the in breath and on the out breath. The mindful writer notes the physical sensations of breathing, the billows of breathing, the three-part inhalation, the pastel temperatures of the breath, the ascent of rib cage and torso, the rise of the belly, the mellowing of the face, the push of the breath to the peninsula of the body, to the fingers and toes, beyond the knees. If the mind wanders off the breath, the writer places it gently back. This is the practice to develop baseline awareness.
            And how is the mindful writer attentive? How does language arise in the present moment?
            This one-pointed attention on breathing is difficult. It is very hard to make breathing the subject of each moment. So the mind departs from the moment to make movies of the mind but also to generate language. This mind-generated language rides on top of the crest of the watched breath. This mind-generated language is a verbal banner above the watched breath. This mind-generated language is seen at the bottom of the watched breath. This mind-generated language appears like an italicized thread through the center of the watched breath. It is a like a scribble on the screen of each moment.
            The mindful writer can wait for language to arise in response to the large emptiness of the moment. Free of context, such words are often enigmatic, metaphoric, the impulses of the unconscious. It is as though they are large fish drawn to the surface, attracted by the nutrition of mindfulness. Such words and fragments emerge in contradistinction to the moment, as a response to the call of awareness.
            Or the mindful writer can steer her discursive thought, training the mind to generate words by asking a question, tossing the question into the waves of breathing. These can be questions about the content of a piece, questions about the structure of a piece, questions about an image, about a single word, about a comparison, about a contrast, about a narrative, about a metaphor, about a simile, about a line of dialog, about a topic sentence, about a thesis, about a supporting sentence, about a question, about a rebuttal, about an assumption, about a definition, about a noun, about a verb, about an adjective, about an adverb, about a subject, about a predicate, about an object, about punctuation, about a list, about a fragment, about a long passage, about a short passage, about a stanza, about a paragraph, about a line, about a sentence. The mindful writer watching her in-breath asks the question of the moment, and the mindful writer watching her out-breath waits for the answer from the moment.
            This is Basic Writing. These are the basics of writing.
            When these fundamentals are forgotten, when these fundamentals are misplaced, when these fundamentals are perhaps never taught, the act of writing becomes covered with vines of theory and vines of pedagogy, ever more complex, and the individual who wants to write becomes further and further away from the present moment and from the joys and tranquility of writing. The individual who wants to write becomes entangled in theories and tied down by worry and doubt.
            And how is mindfulness different from mindful writing?
            The mindful person does not seek out language, does not fish in her discursivity, is not attached to thought or words, does not sort or respond to inner words but lets go of the words like a fish caught in a catch n’ release. A mindful writer does fish in her discursivity and does respond to inner words. But a mindful writer also maintains detachment, oh learners, recording the phrases but suspending judgment.
            Stock your voice, oh disciples, as you would an ornamental fish pond, with the phrases of others.
            And it is here that the venerable Dariputta, a twenty-something contemporary poet with several awards from literary journals, stood shifting his robes and interrupted, saying, “I read Ashton Joberry each morning. He puts my unconscious on spin cycle.”
            And the Writer nodded, saying, “Yes, that is good. Find a writer who puts your unconscious on spin cycle.”

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sutra on Preconception


            Thus I have heard. At one time, the Writer appeared in the hallway outside the administrative offices at the University of MFA Program, and a great many disciples were miraculously assembled, having paid conference and retreat fees and taken time off from work. The Writer knowing of the mental agitations going on in the minds of those assembled (like the surface of the ocean stirred into waves by the passing winds), and his great heart moved by compassion, smiled and said, We have spoken about the prolonging of invention, and now we must speak about the prolonging of emptiness. We have discussed the prolonging invention, but before invention comes emptiness.

Experience arises from emptiness,

and emptiness arises from experience (Suzuki).

From whence does language arise? Because language arises, because it is not always present, because it changes from word to word, there is something else, something always present, and that something is emptiness. Just as there are gaps between typed words, so too is there a gap between the moment before writing and the moment of writing.
            All writing is thus preverbal. All writing is built on emptiness, and emptiness is preverbal. We say “preverbal” and not “nonverbal” because the presumption is that language will rush in, that intrapersonal talk is definite, that it is only a matter of time (a few moments) before the blankness ends and fills with the conversation of our consciousness. But emptiness is also nonverbal in that it is freedom from all obligation, all mental formulations, all perception, including the obligation to write, including mental formulations about the act of writing, including perceived images and words that create the content of writing.
            There are different kinds of unknowing, oh bhikku, but they must be differentiated from mindless unknowing which is a blank or erasure that replaces the present moment versus the other kinds of unknowing that we discuss, for they are the contents of the present moment mindfully perceived. Mindlessness is a kind of pollution on pure mind. 
             There is the unknowing of unfamiliarity, the disorientation that makes the routine suddenly remarkable, that lets us perceive the uniqueness of that which we have thought of as a copy or repetition. This unfamiliarity is usually on the small scale: not recognizing a word, a word of routine suddenly looks strange, its spelling odd. 
             There is the unknowing of the fragmentary, that which occurs between the floes in our internal voice. Not knowing where one’s mind will next jump, the coming up of ideas entails leaping over wide expanses of unknowing. 
              There is the unknowing of the duration or how long it will take to complete a writing project, not knowing whether it can be completed in a few days or weeks or will take years or decades before the writer has a complete picture of the idea. 
               There is the unknowing of the unconscious, that which will take wide swipes at one’s awareness, the erasure of what has been only a moment before provided by the present, the abduction of a new thought greeted only seconds before it is pulled like a seal by a killer whale into the cold depths of unknowing. The unknowing of the unconscious pulls too at the writer, making her drowsy, making the writer nap, those siren calls to join it in a deep white sleep. 
               Preconception is a form of false knowing. It is an overstocking of the present moment with contents not found in the present moment. Preconceptions are the Ego’s attempt to control the vastness of the possible moment. They are false starts on the moment. They are a gamble on the moment: rather than reside in the non-verbal to consult the possible, we prefer to fill the moment with guesses. We replace possibility with a smaller, shorter, diminished content. We shackle ourselves to a premature commitment. Because of impermanence, the ever-shifting moment offers more manifold possibilities than a seemingly static preconception. We substitute one type of unknowing, that of emptiness, with another type of unknowing, that of preconception, a far lesser grade, oh bhikkuni. 
             For what can be known outside of the present moment, oh disciples? For what action occurs outside of the present? Even the action of knowing occurs in the present moment.
             There are preconceptions of alphabet, there are preconceptions of syntax and grammar, of vocabulary as well as how to hold a pen or pencil, form letters or type. A notion about how many pages or word count would make a successful writing session is a preconception. Preconceptions of the content you think you should or will write, preconceptions of the amount you should or will write, preconceptions about the genre you should or will write. Preconception too is the notion that to write is a positive thing as well as to write nothing is a negative phenomena. Preconception of how long it will take to complete a text, preconception that a text will ever advance or be finished or even read by others. You can not know in advance how long you will sit under the gnarled tree. Preconceptions of structure, organization. Preconception of what is mindfulness and what is mindlessness. Preconceptions of skill, knowledge, and training. Preconception of how many pages you will write today or the next day. There are preconception of process, of where one is in the writing process, ones that lead to misperception of one’s actual actions in the moment (See Keith Hjortshoj).
            Practice approaching one’s writing with a blank mind, free of preconception. Gradually decide which pre-existent abilities, content, or approaches can be returned to the mind. When you study Buddhism, you should have a general house cleaning of your mind. You must take everything out of your room and clean it thoroughly. If it is necessary, you may bring everything back in again. You may want many things, so one by one you can bring them back. But if they are not necessary, there is no need to keep them (Suzuki). Reel back in your literacy, your ability to write in the language, to follow grammatical rules. You may find you want to return a certain character or approach to voice or way of engaging in the writing process. Bring them back into the moment of your writing but do so mindfully, with awareness of their presence and impact.

*Material borrowed from Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, as well as Goddard's The Buddhist Bible.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Thus I Have Heard

 I'll be posting excerpts from a longer project on mindful writing under posts titled "Thus I Have Heard." Your feedback and observations are welcome.

                    Thus I have heard. At one time, the Writer gathered an assembly of a thousand bloggers, a thousand poets, a thousand short story writers, a thousand screen play writers, a thousand authors of scholarly books, a thousand writers of magazine columns, a thousand troubadours, a thousand students who repeatedly failed required college composition, lined before him like single-spaced rows of mountains.
            They were gathered on rented folding chairs in the shared knowledge that a person’s ability to write is always present. A literate individual can write at any moment, in any place, using any type of utensil, paper and pen, magic markers, typing into a keyboard, or speaking into a voice recognition program, or to their smart phone.  And yet one doesn’t have to look far to find people who admit, often with great pain, that they are unable to write—students who can’t turn assignments in on time and who dread writing courses, book-less colleagues who worry about tenure, acquaintances who twist themselves into knots because of a New Year’s resolution to write a novel. Even the teachers of stuck writers are often themselves stuck. Scratch an academic, a theorist well known for talking about writing as a process once said, and chances are you’ll find a struggling writer.
                  One person arose from her seat and approaching the Writer asked, What is the suffering of writing and what is the cessation of that suffering? And the Writer said, the suffering of writing is caused by the failure to take advantage of the vacancy of the present moment, by acting as though the reader is physically present, by not paying attention to the present moment, and by contemplating a fictional audience and a fictional text instead of the actuality before one. Dear disciples, many people treat occasions of writing as occasions of public speaking. Thus they fail to take advantage of the emptiness of the moment and instead populate it with the shadowy figures of an anticipated audience. The suffering of writing is caused by overlooking the present for a strictly fictional future; it is a future that contains a hypothetical reader and a hypothetical finished final draft. The opposite of the suffering of writing is therefore possible when one notices the present moment to gain the privacy of writing and to take charge of the proximity of audience in one’s head. We notice the present, oh writers, to gain this freedom from the future but also to contact our internal talk, internal rhetoric, or intrapersonal dialog. We survey our internal to see how we are discussing our writing abilities with ourselves as well as to find potential content for the piece we seek to write.

What are the Four Noble Truths of Writing?

Your ability to write is always present.


The present moment contains all that you need in order to write.


Writing difficulties occur because of a lack of awareness of the present moment. In order to write, you need to practice mindful awareness of the present moment. Mindlessness is the standard or default position; a mindful writing practice can not be “allowed to happen” or passively arise. Mindlessness needs to be actively countered. An individual’s success or lack of success in writing can be traced back to that person’s relation to the present moment. 

In order to write without struggle, develop a practice that heightens your engagement with the present moment through the Sevenfold Path:
1.      Right Understanding
2.      Right Discipline
3.      Right Effort 
4.      Right Attentiveness
5.      Right Invention
6.      Right Acceptance
7.      Right Listening and Feedback

Upon hearing the Writer’s word, several disciples immediately Tweeted the discourse. 

* image provided by

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thus I Have Heard

Do not clutch at writing outcome for to do so is to embrace an explosive, rabid, backstabbing, and ravenous pet, combination of pit bull and piranha. This creature will shred the shirt you are wearing. It will leave you in pain. It will show others the foolishness of your choices and the vanity of your ego. It is said that this creature once existed peaceably in mythic lands, running after written products, final drafts, and publications, causing no harm until one of us embraced it. And then this creature of outcome caused havoc with livestock and the ability of nearly adolescent children to focus in school.
                                                          Far wiser is it to watch the minnows of the moment pass and pass in the river of process.

* Image provided by britishlibrary.typepad

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Montaigne Method: Keeping Revision Fresh

This post is based on Thomas Newkirk's research on Montaigne in The Art of Slow Reading and his 2005 Rhetoric Review article, "Montaigne's Revisions." Staci Fleury and I co-authored an article forthcoming in the Journal of Teaching Writing in which we applied Montaigne's revision method to Staci's high school English classes. Here I'm talking about the rest of us--writers not necessarily in a classroom.

If you struggle to revise, chances are your audience-in-the-head dynamic is off. If you find revision to be more chore than exploration, you're probably (at least for this particular writing task) acting as though a purely hypothetical reader resides in the present moment with you. Scrutiny of your intrapersonal dialog or self-talk will show signs that you think this reader actually in the room. You're overlooking that fundamental vacancy of the moment of writing and operating as though revision was the same as public speaking.

To help energize revision, find a way to regain the privacy of writing, even at this seemingly late stage in the writing process. In other words, if you find yourself in this state, try to return to the initial working conditions of invention, the opening moments.

No matter how much time has passed since the start of the writing project--no matter how much time remains until the project deadline--return yourself to the mindset of the beginning.

Staci Fleury and I describe how revision is "Janus-faced," meaning that revision can mean looking back to the beginning (a generative and reflective time) or it can look ahead to editing and proofreading (a time for carefully considering the needs of audience).

A writer should be able to push his or her text closer to the beginning at any moment, right up until the very final minutes. Presumably, someone could return to invention five minutes before pushing the Send button on an email to a publisher.

Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century essayist, spent a lifetime adding material in the expansive margins of his often already published texts. The versions of his essays typically seen by twenty-first century readers are distillations of additions separated by years and decades: many present moments instead of just one.

We can adopt Montaigne's practice. Obtain very large sheets of paper (or tape together four sheets of standard typing paper). Tape a page of your draft to the center of this "parchment." Allow yourself 20-30 minutes to revise just this page by only adding material. These additions could be details, phrases, sentences, whole paragraphs, ideas, internal reflection, rebuttal, definition, tangents, examples, questions--essentially, anything that is new material. Try to also add onto your additions by rereading your notations and listening for what arises from them.

The only thing that is not permitted with the Montaigne method of revising is the elimination of content: trimming is valuable but occurs at another time. For now, just add and simultaneously watch your own attitude toward adding. After a lifetime of over-consideration of audience, some people find it difficult to resist deleting their work. Backspacing has been as prevalent in their practice as forward movement. Just take stock of your internal reactions to pure addition.

After 20 or 30 minutes, repeat: tape another page of the draft to another "parchment."

By bringing revision closer to invention, you're making the revision more of a low-stakes task. You're giving yourself the time and space to invent material with all the playfulness, blundering, rich ambiguity, and insight that special phase can hold.

* Image from mediumaevumtumblr.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Don't "Do" Drafts (Mostly)

Teachers assign drafts; I assign drafts; students write drafts; I've a dozen of my students' drafts on my laptop screen right now; professional writers finish supposed drafts. At the same time, in my own writing practice I don't "do" drafts. Well, for the most part. 

Once again, I see a schism between how I teach writing (how most of us teach writing) and the actual way I proceed with my own writing. 

We are far better off these days, of course, for all the important practices provided by the process theorists beginning in the early 1970's and 1980's. Process theorists really helped make writing a human activity. Before process theory--with its emphasis on pre-writing, drafting, feedback, and revising--people were put in an odd bind. Since their student years, they had been told that writing was a mysterious, mostly unteachable act; at the same time, high-stakes writing was expected of them and carried consequences for their grades and success. 

What I'm discovering, though, is that the experiences I live through as a professional writer do not synchronize with the experiences students gain in a writing class. 

Instead of discrete drafts, for most of my work, the progress from inception to final version is far less delineated. Moment by moment a text underway changes without clearly naming its stage of development. 

What connects one writing session to the next and gives a text its presence is not the official announcement of a draft but instead an ongoing discussion with myself about process. In my creative writing and scholarly notebooks, I consistently include discussions of how I am feeling about the text, how I physically feel, details about my surroundings, questions, observations on how the text might connect to other projects, goals and wishes.

Self-discussions about your writing need to be nurtured as much as any other part of your writing.

It's important to keep that intrapersonal dialog running. It is respectful of your ongoing experience of writing, not denying or burying aspects. Secondly, it returns your attention to the present moment of writing, providing healthful isolation from audience and giving access to your intrapersonal dialog for content. 

I value those process entries as much as I value jottings about content or passages which are actually typed up. If I find myself only making process observations, I don't judge the session as any less productive as one in which I actually complete a poem or article. My notebooks are full of content that doesn't directly pertain to a task at hand and that doesn't directly yield publication. 

Which brings me to another classroom technique, one I regularly use: the process note. 

Process notes are discrete accounts of the steps involved in completing a task, including discussion of invention, drafting, and feedback. They're fabulous for fostering novices' meta-cognition; they make conscious certain choices that were made along the way of completing a text. Process notes can be assigned at any point in the completion of a document, and they can be graded or ungraded. Paradoxically, this use of process notes makes process more product- than process-oriented. Next semester (or maybe even next week--I am eager to try this out), I will ask students to keep a private process journal along the way rather than turning in unified process paragraph at the end. 

Drafts are really a performance for others. They represent that moment in which you are ready to share your work with a writing friend, colleague, teacher. A draft means that you've tidied up your intrapersonal dialog for the purposes of inviting them in, giving them the chair of at least a modicum of organization and sense to sit down in and be comfortable. 

So a draft could be redefined as the moment when your self-conversation has shifted to a conversation with others. In their turn toward the external and interpersonal communication, drafts are invaluable, but the idea of a draft should never be allowed to paint its boundary lines around the expansiveness of internal production.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Simplest Definition of Invention Ever

Is it possible that invention can be defined almost entirely as about finding the right relationship to audience? That it comes down to locating our most beneficial proximity to audience? And this includes the self as audience: tuning into the frequency of our intrapersonal dialog? 

Can invention for writing be that streamlined?
I'm starting to think so.

Invention, one of the five canons of classical Greco-Roman rhetoric, is widely known as the starting point to a writing task. It's the set of moments when we come up with ideas, material, approaches. For me, it's when I prop a mental plank up the side of my desk and start climbing.

Most people agree that starting a piece of writing can be one of the most challenging moments in a writing process.

In fact, writing experts may feel a little squeamish to actually teach moments of invention. It seems too nebulous, and perhaps its notion that a teacher can enter a student's thought process seems too intrusive and personal. 

In her chapter in Perspectives on Rhetorical Invention, Janet Lauder has described that reluctance in Writing Studies to address invention: "a number of earlier emphases in scholarship on invention have either disappeared or been marginalized: the relationship between invention and the writing process, the heuristic function of invention as a kind of thinking that stimulates knew knowledge, invention as an art or strategic practice, [and] the importance of classroom attention to invention."

For many writers, invention resembles hibernation. Little seems to be happening. Maybe the writer is staring off into the woods, going on long walks, vacuuming. 

Don Murray, in "The Essential Delay," described five reasons writers undergo a waiting period during invention. Murray thought the writers wait until they have sufficient information, insight, voice, and need. If a writer accepts what's occurring during this period of latency, the anxiety of not-starting is manageable. Students, of course, usually don't benefit from this extended period of non-verbal reflection and operate under multiple simultaneous deadlines. 

I'm thinking that what's happening during those moments of hibernation (or strain) falls entirely under the act of adjusting one's dynamic with audience-in-the-head. 

This means noticing the types of fictional Audience Characters one has installed in one's thinking. This means noticing the conversations we're carrying on in our minds with that Audience Character. Or Characters--they're frequently composites. [See the post from January 2014, "Make a Caricature of a Tricky Audience."] This means being aware of our own embodied or physical situations while we write--watching our breathing, posture, energy levels. [See the post, "Yoga for Hands," or Sondra Perl's book Felt Sense.] And that means noticing the present moment of writing: the fundamental vacancy of your actual writing circumstance in which no reader from the future (editor, teacher, critic, reader) is actually seeing your work. [See How-To Tip #1: Kicking Out the Reader-in-the-Head from August 2012.]

When I say above "most beneficial relationship to audience," I'm not necessarily talking about easy street. Sometimes a challenging audience-in-the-head is precisely what our writing needs in the moment. So this audience dynamic inside Invention is context-specific and will change depending on the genre, writing task, audience, and physical circumstances of your life.

 * Image from

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Repost of Flux

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 optimistic 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 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.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Repost of 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.

Friday, August 29, 2014

As Simple as Changing Pens

It can be as simple as changing pens.

You want to be mindful as you write and reduce your obstacles? Change pens.

A moment ago, this idea came crystal-clear. I've known for awhile to trust the childlike use of different writing implements in the act of composing.

I've been telling my students (especially in theory courses on writing blocks) that drafts written with several implements automatically insert distance between writer and eventual audience. It's a quick & easy way to gain a little mindfulness on our readers.

Typically, we don't turn in final drafts written with two or more pens, so changing the material aspects of our writing (i.e.: the ink that's physically used to physically construct the pieces) gains us time & space from critics. (Especially the case if we use "inappropriate" utensils like crayons or magic markers or pastel inks.) So I've said this for awhile--known this for awhile.

What I just realized, though, is that changing pens mid-stream, moving from a Mont Blanc to a Bic ballpoint to a pen found on a sidewalk, from black to blue to brown ink, reflects changes in time. Changing pens says that it's a new writing moment, that the phrase or idea in the different ink is on a distinct floe in that passing intrapersonal word river. It means then that you are attuned to the moment, and in that moment, all is possible with words.

Changing pens also implies an attempt to not be unified, not hold things together, not be coherent. To hold yourself together, to hold your writing together, at early stages of invention indicates you are taking undue precautions for a future audience (and that means you have departed from the actual moment). Recall that on most occasions our eventual reader does not inhabit the same space & time that we do as we write & that we should take full advantage of that absence.

However, in a passage like the one you've just read, I did not change my original pen in my blog notebook (where I draft blog posts). A state of flow, usually described as inspiration, glues together such writing with more continuation of internal voice. Thus it's a sense of a non-stop moment, a Tempo, of "getting it all down before it slips from your mind." What I've noticed, though, about that state of flow is that I will change pens to highlight ideas I deem to be strong, to remind myself to pursue them later. So at that moment, I am letting in evaluation (i.e.: sorting some of my sentences on quality).

In that way, I am purposefully situating that bit of writing in another moment of time: one in which I revise. I am prodding that particular phrase into a future time. So in the end I have naturally gravitated toward recognizing the different moments which produce text--continuing to use something as basic as a change of pen to suggest a change in time.

So in my draft of this blog post, the above was written with my Mont Blanc in black ink and then this passage was written with a Pilot B&P blue ballpoint: It's about how changing materials parallels changes in moments--and recognition / acceptance of that change (called "groundlessness" in Buddhism) reduces the suffering of writers.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Repost of Your Ability to Write is Always Present

A person’s ability to write is always present.  If a literate individual is conscious and breathing, this person can write at any moment, in any place, whether through paper and pen, magic markers, typing into a keyboard, or speaking into a voice recognition program, or some other primitive to advanced technology. 

And yet one doesn’t have to look far to find people who admit, often with pain, that they are unable to write—students who can’t turn assignments in on time and who profess to hate writing courses, book-less colleagues who worry about tenure, friends who twist themselves into knots trying to deal with a New Year’s resolution to write a novel.  What’s going on? 

Sure, one can form letters and words, the skeptic might say, and there’s nothing stopping one from writing random words, nonsense, trite, or even copying the words of others.  It’s obvious that a freewrite or a person’s to-do list wouldn’t cut mustard with a prestigious journal.  One could just copy the same word a hundred times like a doodle in a grade school notebook.  Following the words in one’s mind like an ant wandering over a counter top won’t result in a book contract—or would it? 

One can go through the mechanical motions of forming words, but is that writing, and more importantly, is that good writing?

Ah, there’s the rub.  In that question, one can find the entire situation of writing.

Inside the square of each moment is an Eden of words. Each moment is abundant with language called discursive thinking, “monkey mind,” or intrapersonal dialog. In point of fact, we are incessantly using language with ourselves.  (Freewriting, a strategy of non-stop writing, offers a type of screen shot of that discursive mind at work: with the caveat that freewriting as a mechanism promotes as well as captures that discursivity. See post from July 2014 on this topic.)

The person who wants to write with ease and fluency needs to do things: first, he or she must notice that discursivity and, second, he or she must fully accept, at least initially, what is found there.  Issues of goodness must be entirely put aside until a later stage in the writing process.  Exactly how late is dependent upon the individual and also varies within the same individual according to the particular writing task.

If we agree that any of us could start writing something right this very moment—the flotsam of phrases in our heads, a grocery list, the first sentence of a tricky email, the words “present moment” or even our own name over and over—logically, we would have to ask why people ever experience writer’s block.  As we have stated, the quickest retort will be that everyone can record the words in one’s head, but that doesn’t guarantee a person will come up with good, applicable ideas.  After all, when people try to write, they seek to either generate new ideas or address a particular writing task and rhetorical situation. 

So what I would point out is that our typical response to the notion that one’s ability to write is always present shows that what we are engaged in is an argument of quality—that we are implicitly engaged in defining “writing” as producing quality: an assumption that warrants closer examination.  For as soon as we are concerned with the quality of our texts-in-production, we have initiated another cognitive engine: that of evaluation. 

Picture a sliding scale with “quantity” posted on the left side and “quality” on the far right.  As one pushes the bar of one’s thinking over to the quality side, one has also pushed oneself closer to evaluation.  Yet who exactly is evaluating one’s words as one writes them?  This chimera—this red-pen holding apparition—cannot be explained away as one’s audience.

If, on the other hand, one pulls that bar over from quality to quantity, something happens to one’s experience of writing.  That is, if how we define what it means to write is more an argument of quantity rather than quality, the bar is moved closer to the self and farther away from the audience.  This relationship between self and the number of words we produce—namely, that the more words we produce, the likely closer we are to ourselves and less close we stand to any audience—reflects the natural verbal abundance in all of us. 

In order to produce abundant writing in a short time, one needs to be attuned to the flow of intrapersonal conversation, that ongoing river in our heads in every waking moment, a flow of language that becomes intensified when formalized by a recording of it.  Pushing the bar closer to the self is a move that can capture natural discursive thinking. 

Two welcome developments occur when one notices the language-covered present moment. 

Quality ideas inevitably happen because of the impermanence of each moment: hundreds of moments will pass before one’s inspection carrying countless phrases, concepts, images, and ideas, like a boxcar decorated with fascinating graffiti.  Certainly, much insignificant material will transpire, but the sheer quantity of our discursive thoughts, the sheer amount of fluctuation in our thinking inevitably turns up something of worth when tracked with the mind’s eye. 

With discipline (defined as the ability to sit still and watch the passing of one’s discursive thought), a good idea, a bona fide keeper, will eventually come along if one is attentive and receptive. 

The second development for the writer is that he notices, perhaps for the first time, the marvelous vacancy of the moment of writing. 

For the most part, one can trace an individual’s success or lack of success in writing back to that person’s relation to the present moment. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Blog Tour on the Writing Process

I was sipping espresso in my family's dank Airbnb in Florence, Italy, a few weeks ago, when the fabulous poet & professor Laura Mullen's interesting proposal flashed onto my cell phone screen--to join this chain of writers blogging about their writing process. When I was in college, Laura left an indelible impression of the poet's potential with her vitality, voice-in-writing, laminated fish-pin ties, & license plate OUTRE (no coincidence my cars have been Hondas), and her many books continue to wow. I am honored to speak after her in this Blog Tour on the Writing Process.

What are you working on?

It's early August 2014. As usual, I have multiple projects going on at once (by which I mean different genres, different audiences, different stages of completion, different topics). One strategy to maintain mindfulness is always keeping at hand dozens of projects in order to mirror the multiplicity of topic and style which can be found inside intrapersonal (or internal) dialog. When I look into myself for that flow of language, I find multi-colored floes of phrases and images, and if I wait a few minutes, something of interest will usually pass by.

So this mid-morning and afternoon, I hope to put the finishing touches on an advanced piece of longer creative nonfiction about the country store in central Maine, my parents' business throughout my childhood and adolescence. Earlier in the morning, I worked on poems for my new book manuscript, adding phrases and considerations to around five of them in my notebooks.

My fourth book of poems is at its midway point; recent travels have given me the mental nutrition to continue. I try to stay fallow between books (a trick I adopted from James Tate); Control Bird Alt Delete had just been published in March by the University of Iowa Press, but I couldn't help myself last winter-spring and started the Next One. By June, though, I sensed I was becoming anemic. After traveling, I am excited by the direction I see for the manuscript. Unlike other times in my writing career (I spend most summers on my screened-in porch working on scholarly articles, research, or book proposals), I am downplaying academic work in favor of creative. In the past two and a half years, I have published or am about to publish eight scholarly articles as well as one co-edited scholarly book (the forthcoming Creative Writing Pedagogies for the 21st Century, available June 2015). It's been a good run, but it's time to shift some of that energy onto poems and creative nonfiction.

How does your work differ from others' work in the same genre?

I'm not entirely at ease answering this question; it's like an exam question that points toward fog, at least in my mind. I don't tend to think in comparisons. I would say that my overall writing differs because I embrace a couple of genres and also the creative and scholarly camps. I might say that I am invested in the emphatic, in almost a naive artist's playfulness, in imagery and synesthesia, and in the grafting of beings through unexpected combinations, pathos. Like most poets, I enjoy the way in which the state of metaphor allows me to see things I normally wouldn't. In interactivity with the reader. Probably most of all in installing shadows behind words in order to make the words as objects visible to the reader.

Mindfulness plays a part in my poetry writing though not in topic. I don't use the Present moment as a subject matter--at least for now--but mindfulness shows up in my stance toward the act of writing the genre. Specifically, it means I celebrate the Vacancy of the Present Moment (no audience, no critic, no teacher, no family member in physical sight), that I find Joy in that I can enjoy the sensations provided by the Other Language that is poetry.

Why do you write what you do?

I follow my Pleasures when I write, phrase by phrase. Writing is truly (and this is also the case with scholarly writing) the main moment in my living in which I ask myself, "What would I enjoy doing now and now and now and now?" I usually can block out audience taxation; thus, I can't stop writing. My family will attest to this condition; I got up early to write every single day during our recent month in Italy for the sheer pleasure of it.

How does your writing process work?

This is of course a topic I've been tracking continuously in this mindful writing blog and also in a few other places. My process works moment-to-moment. It respects the contents of the Present Moment. It works hard on acceptance, on embracing intransience and groundlessness: writing feels like a state of grace. It walks straight into Possibility even if that means walking into an altogether razed and isolated situation. What might look like a blank page of block to another person is for me simply the openness between the swinging door of knowing and not knowing.

My writing process asks hard questions about aesthetics, structure, and purpose, but also allows for moments of perceiving the "found material" drifting around inside my inner dialog (so less will and ego). It follows the pulse of instincts on the phrase level, trusting what I hear from my intrapersonal dialog even in the editorial phases (when I bring audience and their expectations and criticism closer in my consideration). It uses the breath as its metronome.

Next Up. I'm tossing the ball to two outstanding women writers, Lynn Carthage and January Gill O'Neil.

Lynn Carthage is a novelist living in Sacramento, California, near where the Gold Rush launched. Under her real name, she was a Bram Stoker Award finalist. Born in Vermont, Lynn has lived in Maine, Ireland, and Arizona. She reads voraciously, loves anything French, gets “itchy feet” to travel on a regular basis, and finds peace in the woods, in meadows, in nature. She has always been fascinated by how history allows us to imagine how people of the past lived and breathed and felt. HAUNTED is her first young adult novel, and will be followed by the next two books in the Arnaud Legacy trilogy. Her blog is available at:

January Gill O'Neil is the author of Misery Islands (fall 2014) and Underlife (2009), both published by CavanKerry Press. She is the executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival and an assistant professor of English at Salem State University. Here is a link to her blog Poet Mom:

Rebounding off Bad Writing

To start a new piece of writing, I sometimes pick up a book by an author I'm not particularly wild about. Nothing drastically wrong (it's not actually "bad") with this writer (the individual is acclaimed), but I don't care for certain structural choices of this writer, choices which leave cracks all across the text. I've held these views about X. for quite awhile, so my hold on the rope of my opinion is pretty secure, my opinions seemingly stable. 

I sit on the porch and slowly start reading from X.'s book until my own phrases begin to rise from the cracks and fault lines I perceive in the passage. Some of my phrases are in reaction to the author while other phrases are actually influenced (and sound like) her. It's like I am imitating mannerisms of a person I normally find off-putting; I can't help myself all of a sudden. These are phrases I will want to walk right past, to deny as fast as possible.

But this is great practice in mindful writing in a few regards. First, it helps me let go of a fixed idea I could be holding of a project: predetermined notions are particularly problematic in those initial stages of Invention.

It's practice in tolerating writing that I produce that I don't find interesting or good. In this way, it helps develop equanimity, accepting my words with hushed judgement.

It's also practice in dropping the ego, in not "looking good" (even if at the moment of writing the only person I might be showing off to is myself--no one else in the room). It's like sitting on a bench next to a Gucci-clad younger woman when you're wearing the same over-washed hiking pants of the previous thirty days of your trip.

Finally, this exercise amplifies by contrast: amid the blemished, dented, trite, or misworded piles this book by X. has evoked in me, there will arise a phrase that I do find interesting. When this happens, the new phrase will shine all that more vividly, my welcome at seeing it is all that more pronounced. I'm off running. And sometimes, sometimes, I carry a little bit of that other writer with me, a few of his or her cracks, and am even grateful for the change in my appearance.

Image: graphics-berkeley-edu

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Like Steering Clouds: Freewriting and Mindfulness

Freewriting is arguably the single most important strategy for mindful writing. It carries benefits to both mindfulness and writing because it heightens awareness as well as reduces obstacles to writing. Most people rarely have the opportunity to see their own raw intrapersonal communication on the page since the bulk of written experience has an audience.

Freewriting can be defined as nonstop writing done without concern for grammatical convention or the comprehension of another reader. Because it reduces pauses and hesitations, freewriting avoids thinking about organization with all the future-orientated planning involved in any act of organizing and instead seeks to "simply" record the present. What type of present? The present life of the mind, consciousness in the moment. To learn more about freewriting, an excellent start would be the chapter in Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers or the edited collection Nothing Starts With N.

Mindful writing means sensing one's intrapersonal dialog. (Recall how we discussed in an earlier post Carl Rogers' notion that breakage in communication with others happens after breaks in talks with the self.) Freewriting leads to mindful writing because it makes our internal talk visible: we see and reread our own inner talk. 

This translation of inner talk to written text affects it: slows it down and steers it. Physical elements are introduced--the motions of handwriting or typing as well as the sight of the words on page or screen. For the first time, we have a transcript of our inner language with all its fragments, images, full sentences, changes in pitch, and fillers.

Suddenly, a pair of interlocutors are in the room: you, the person who is writing, and the text. Reading your inner talk (even if you throw away the freewrite without looking back, the slower pace from forming the letters makes you more a spectator to your words) triggers your alertness, engagement, and reflection. Inner talk doesn't then just sneak past us (mindlessness). The connotations and secretive persuasions of our inner words can't sweet talk us into the habitual or reactionary.

Unlike seated meditation, however, the awareness brought to us by a freewrite comes with the opportunity to steer it, to gently pursue areas of interest, to pin down a few clouds. Freewriting isn't entirely about awareness; it is an applied art for the purposes of writing. Unlike seated meditation, freewriting encourages us to interact and use our passing consciousness.

In this way, freewriting is a training ground for mindfulness. At the same time, it's highly pragmatic and an applied skill. Freewriting affirms the transience of the moment but in doing so allows the cognitive state of the writer to mirror the boundless possibility that stands outside our prescribed limitations. Not confined to a single thesis or its explication, you can gather an abundance of ideas and sensations. Select the most outstanding of these passing phrases, set it on the ground, and then repeat, seeing what freewriting can be evoked by it.  Freewriting may seem impressionistic, but it's a method for building monuments.