Sunday, June 22, 2014

Knob of Knowing

It's that moment when you're about to enter familiar territory through a regular door, but all of an existential sudden, the knob in your hand is an alien object, not to mention the foreign quality of your own hand.

That moment of unfamiliarity can happen to writers in a variety of ways. There are the little gaps such as when you can't recall a word or when its spelling looks suddenly odd on the screen.

Then there's the state of unknowing that spreads farther: when the blank is larger than the space a few temporarily absent syllables could fill. As with much about the process movement of writing instruction from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the tenet that "writing is discovery" approaches mindfulness. I often paraphrase Robert Frost, I write to know what I didn't know I knew, to my writing students to train them away from thesis-driven ways of writing in their creative work. Behind the idea of writing as discovery seems to a basic desire to stay interested and stay interesting: the basic notion goes like this, "If the writer is bored, the writing will be boring. If the writer is surprised, that energy will be passed onto the reader." The impetus toward not knowing can also come from a desire to sustain Invention--the experience of generating new material without regarding future readers' needs for clarity or explanation.

The stakes feel higher though than just keeping amused when it comes to knowing and unknowing.

In a recent article in the magazine Bomb, the artist Paul Chan is quoted as saying "Sometimes when I make work, there is a moment when what I want to make and what I make it with, fuse in such a way that the piece begins, against my intention, to take on a form of its own. It is as if I am no longer the prime mover. At this point what is in front of me becomes as strange to me as I am essentially to myself. This is the point I am always trying to reach."

Paying attention to what is paradoxically can lead to silence and to blanks. To nothing. This pre-verbal state is part of present awareness: it occurs before a word arises in the mind for an experience, before the experience can be labeled, judged, and freighted with association.

In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Suzuki describes mindful breathing in a way that suggests a swinging door onto blankness and unknowing: "When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say 'inner world' or 'outer world,' but actually there is one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, 'I breathe,' the 'I' is extra. There is no you to say 'I'...What we call 'I' is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no 'I," no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door."

We need a phrase in English that's the equivalent to "blacking out" (meaning that a person has fainted or lost consciousness). It would be a phrase for the gap in consciousness, this blank moment of breathing in, breathing out. Unfortunately, "white-out" currently refers to dabs of white paint applied to erase errors.

Writers need to strengthen their ability with the pre-verbal. It's like developing one muscle group by working with an opposite muscle group. The pre-verbal can be a powerful contrast to the rushing-in of inner talk. Absence makes Presence. The pre-verbal is different too from silence in the ordinary sense: silence is filled with the script of internal conversation. The pre-verbal is not a social silence; it's a non-human, non-ego silence. It can't be taken for granted and instead needs to be fostered through careful training. Perhaps the moment of non-knowing is the apex of a writing class, but how to explain to others that the highest goal of a writing class is to notice when language is not occurring, not being used? Learning how to not-know may be one of the few times in which actual formal seated meditation is the best method for mindful writing. I can't think of a better method for perceiving those blanks than meditation.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Repost: Already Perfect

This is a repost of a 2012 entry.

"So to be a human being is to be a Buddha. Buddha nature is just another name for human nature, our true human nature. Thus even though you do not do anything, you are actually doing something. You are expressing yourself. You are expressing your true nature."
—Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

What would it be like—what arises in your thoughts—if I said that what you are as a writer isalready wonderful, already Buddha? If your writing was “perfect as it is,” right now?

What would it be like to write if there was no need to change anything about you as a writer?

In part, this is a question about our discursive thinking—or how we self-talk about our writing ability and our current writing projects.

Many people maintain potent preconceptions about their writing ability, and the idea that they are already perfect writers can be startling to them.

Basically, the notion that they are perfect writers heightens their self-talk. The notion makes their normal discursive thinking about their writing more obvious: all-caps and on a billboard rather than naturalized as a background murmur.

Few of us know what is like to cease trying to change ourselves as writers.

We carry around a burden of a wish that we were different. It can be refreshing to suddenly be in accord with the Present as opposed to, well, always being in opposition to it.

Dropping that constant push to be other-than-yourself-as-a-writer provides a whole different type of energy about the act of writing. It's a knapsack made of stone that you may have carried around for years without even noticing it.

This is also an exercise in developing maitri or an acceptance of ourselves and what arises in our inner states.

What would it be like—what would arise 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” right now?

Jot down observations:

What images pass over your mind when I say this?
Breathe into these images. Follow them. What do you notice?
What emotions are you feeling when I say this?
What color is one of those emotions?
Breathe into this emotion. Follow it. What do you notice?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

"Contract" Project: One Way to Help Students Understand Audience Proximity

Message to Teachers: This assignment asks students to make several decisions about their rhetorical situation beforehand—and provides students with more agency than a typical task. Approximately half the group will approach me after the first in-class writing session and (timidly) request permission to "change their Contract." They want to change some combination of subject, audience, feedback, and evaluation (or sometimes all four categories). Students spend 2-3 class meetings writing the text they establish in the Contract, so it's also typical for quite a few students to approach me again after the second class writing session and request yet another change in contract.

This request is PRECISELY what I'm hoping for--I want students to ask to change the contract, although I pretend to grant their request with reluctance.

What I am after is to help students, through the act of writing, gain a sense of the text as an intrapersonal conversation, as a possible private conversation away from the teacher (students don’t need to show me their text but rather only their Process Note, see below). I want students to take control of the proximity of audience during the invention phase. As they explore content which they have fully designated, students interact with their writing intrapersonally, making decisions about audience, feedback, and evaluation which reflect their relationship to the text.


Instructions:  This writing project will be done in two class meetings.  Note that you can write any type of writing for any type of audience.  I suggest using this project as an opportunity to write something that you’d really value: a piece of writing that would make you proud to advance or an idea you’d enjoy sustaining.

Before our next class meeting, read over the below contract, complete it, and email it to me.

I ____________________________ [YOUR NAME] will be writing about the topic of

___________________________________________________________ for the Contract Project.  The genre or type of writing this project will take the form of will be  ________

__________________________________ [GENRE].  I understand that I can write in any genre and that it need not be a conventional school-based genre.  The audience for the piece will be  _________________________________ [AUDIENCE FOR THIS PIECE]. I understand I can designate any audience including individuals outside of the class, that I have the option of selecting no audience, and that the professor need not read your document. In terms of feedback for this piece, I understand that I can request any type of feedback, including but not limited to the following: Not Sharing, Sharing But Getting No Feedback Whatsoever, Getting Only Positive Feedback, Getting Feedback on Specific Questions I Ask my Audience About the Text, to Completely Open Unlimited Feedback.  My designated audience, _____________________

__________________________, [NAME(S) OF YOUR AUDIENCE MEMBER(S)] will provide the following feedback: ______________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________.

In terms of evaluation, I understand that I can select any type of evaluation, including but not limited to the following: No Evaluation; Evaluation Based on Rubric (Designed by You)—provide rubric; Evaluation Based on Rubric (Designed by Other Party)—provide rubric; Letter Grade; Check System Grade; A Predetermined Final Grade of ____.  I understand that I must give the piece to my designated audience before turning in the Process Note for this Project. In sum, I understand that I can write about any topic, in any form, for any audience, and for any type of feedback and evaluation as I designate but that I must give the piece to my audience before turning in the Process Note for this Project.   


Process Note

The audience for this project is the one you designate in the above contract.  You’ll want to give the writing you do for this project to that audience (no matter who it is—unless you’re doing strictly private writing) before completing the Process Note. I will only be evaluating your Process Note. 

For the Process Note, write 2 double spaced pages which will be graded on the basis of the thoroughness and care you take in exploring the following:

·         What were the different moments in the experience?  Possibly zoom in on one moment and describe in depth.

·         How does this project relate to our class discussions of the writing process?

·         Draw connections between the Contract Project with the prior projects from the semester as well as with course readings, course writings, and course discussions.

·         Use terminology from the course and discuss particular readings.  (The more connections you draw to course readings and terminologies, the stronger the Process Note.)

·         Draw comparisons—hypothetical or actual—to other things and activities to make your point.

·         Lastly and most importantly, identify and explain at least one insight about writing that could be reached from the Contract Project.


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