Thursday, February 13, 2014

Repost of Another Day, Another Fail

This concept is crucial to mindful writing practice, so I've decided to repost it.

Taped to the lid of my laptop is a Post-It which says “Another Day, Another Fail.” I imagine that someone seeing this Post-It, someone who knows I am a writer, might find this overly pessimistic. Why point to failure? Shouldn’t you be warding it off?
Instead of pessimistic, “Another Day, Another Fail”feels joyous to me—a real celebration of the potential of any given moment. It’s an acknowledgement of groundlessness or the constant change of experience and that nothing is permanent—including success or failure at writing.
States of success and failure are not long-term--are not expansive--are not vast parking lots covered over by universal asphalt. Instead, they're fleeting: they flit from moment to moment. Inside a patch of success are elements which are non-successful, and vice versa. The trick is to mindfully notice this fluctuation and to accept it knowing that the constant change brings possibility.
During a lunch break in my scholarly rewriting on the back porch last summer, I overheard a scientist on National Public Radio talking about how for many, many days he would go to his lab, run the experiment, only to have it fail. “Another day, another fail,” he evenly stated. Of course, he kept going, and eventually he did obtain interesting results and something did develop, but it wasn’t guaranteed.
“Another Day, Another Fail” is an equalizer. It puts the same weight on “day” as it does on “fail.” Each moment arises fresh, anew. A moment passes: it contains failure. So what? Another moment arrives. It’s the avoidance of predetermined thought. I try to avoid predicting or evaluating the outcome of a writing session before it begins. If I don’t write a single word, so be it. If I write a ton, so be it.

In “Toward a Phenomenology of Freewriting,” Peter Elbow points to this need to let go of outcome: “In our culture, mastery and control are deeply built into our model of writing. From freewriting I learn how writing can, in contrast, involve passivity, an experience of nonstriving, unclenching, letting go, or opening myself up.”
To work without expectation, that is the discipline of mindful writing. Or more precisely, to work without any expectation concerning outcome or product (here is an obvious alignment between mindfulness and process pedagogy for all you writing theorists out there).
Actually, one expectation does stand fast: that one keeps trying—that one has a writing discipline. Along the same lines, Mike Rose, in his wonderful early article, “Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans, and the Stifling of Language,” describes how “unstuck” students were the ones who maintained fluid rules for writing—except for the rule that they would keep trying.

This mindset of openness to the experience prevents suffering in the Buddhist sense of clinging to what is pleasant (a good writing session, an acceptance notification, praise). For me, staying open to the moment is its own reward, is a source of energy, causes a good day for writing. To stay open to the moment is a form of acceptance that can be just as gratifying (well, almost…I admit it, I admit it) as an acceptance note from an editor.

What sort of invention strategy based on groundlessness and acceptance could you imagine for your own writing? What would that writing session look like?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Summoning and Banishing Your Audience Ghosts

I was searching for a way to make the impact of those invisible audiences-in-our-head tangible to first-year writing students, and the other day I found a strategy that I think might have worked.

The important notions that audience is a matter of proximity and that most audience is made-up can easily be lost on students. Too abstract. Students can have a hard time perceiving the fundamental and blessed vacancy of the present moment for the purposes of writing. They need tangible proof of the impact of those imaginary creatures, those self-generated conversations that can slow down writing or cause anxiety. They need that proof in order to start taking steps to avail themselves of the vacant openness of the present (steps like opting to freewrite, switch audience-in-the-head, do messy drafts).

So I asked my students to do 3 separate freewrites in class over the space of 30 minutes.

First Freewrite:  This one was written to a prompt I put on the board. Students were told to freewrite for 5 minutes and that the freewrite would be partially shared: they would be asked to paraphrase an idea or sentence and say it to us afterwards.

Second Freewrite:  This time, students were told that we would write to the same prompt but that after 5 minutes, I would randomly select 2-3 students to read aloud their entire freewrite to the group. So this freewrite fell into the category of shared and focused (given a topic).

Third Freewrite:  This time, I told students they would start their homework in class (I showed them the exercise assignment sheet) in a disposable freewrite. They wouldn't be able to keep the screen or sheet of paper from their freewrite. After 5 minutes, everyone would be required to crumble the freewrite into either a virtual or 3-d recycling bin.

What Happened:  While I freewrote with the students, I also noticed what was going on with them in terms of their posture, body language, and affect. During the Second Freewrite, a call & response of sighs went around the classroom--though the students didn't seem aware that they were sighing. I also noticed with my own disposable freewrite that I leaned much closer to my notebook, that my handwriting became bigger, that I drove the pen down onto the paper with greater emphasis.

When we discussed the experience of the 3 freewrites as a group (I didn't in fact make anyone paraphrase or involuntarily share), students noted differences in the quantity and quality of the content of the freewrites.

They talked about how the Second Freewrite elicited far fewer words: they had tangible proof on the page or screen that an imaginary audience had slowed down their writing. They spoke of being more cautious, of plotting out matters of word choice and organization, of editing while composing.

Students found the highest number of new ideas in the Third Freewrite and said that those ideas were not just more numerous but also of greater interest to them. I felt the same way: the best ideas I'd had all day were definitely lying around on my sheet of paper. Some resented having to dispose of this freewrite (I said they didn't have to).

The Third Freewrite seemed to suggest that ideal circumstances for invention call for this sort of privacy: a low-stakes task environment in which even the self isn't an audience for its writing. That writing is disposable, fleeting, part of the moment. Because the student wouldn't be keeping a copy of the disposable freewrite, even the student's self wasn't a (long-term) audience for the text.

We always have the opportunity to step into a circle of privacy with our writing. It's a privacy in which we kick out considerations of what others may think in the future, kick out any consequence to our words, any judgement. An activity like these three freewrites helps show how often our imaginary, evoked audiences interfere with the possibilities of an open and vacant present moment for writing.

If you find yourself stuck or slowing down on a writing task, consider doing these Three Freewrites. Freewrite about your project knowing you'll paraphrase a passage to a friend or on Facebook or Twitter. Then freewrite thinking you'll be showing the entirety to a reader. Then do a disposable freewrite. See if you don't summon your audience ghosts--and see if you don't send them off to give yourself a break.