Friday, December 18, 2015

Article, "The Role of Mindfulness in Kairos," published in Rhetoric Review

The Role of Mindfulness in Kairos

I am very pleased that my article, "The Role of Mindfulness in Kairos," is in the current issue of Rhetoric Review:

Here's the abstract:


The natural inclination of writers is toward mindlessness or inattention to the present moment despite the benefits understanding the present can bring to writing. Although temporal consciousness is apparent in notions of writing as a process or of writing as situated in a rhetorical context, these ideas largely overlook the present. Buddhist Mindfulness can help with the development of kairotic or present-moment specific practice by including impermanence in the rhetorical context, by emphasizing real time in composing, and by providing access to intrapersonal rhetoric. Increased understanding of the temporal factors of writing calls for an Eastern-mind progymnasmata in rhetorical praxis.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Mindful Writing Fairy Tale

Once day, it's like the sea pulling away from all contact with the shore. Everyone (all the writers of the world) stops submitting to contests, stops sending out so much work, stops writing with an eye toward publication until they         stop altogether. A few months pass, everyone (all the literary journals of the world) receives fewer and fewer submissions, their Submittable services and email boxes less and less full until, one day, nothing             stop altogether. But the writers continue writing. The writers are not stopping. They're writing by themselves at desks with single lamps late into the night, or they're writing on phones during long commutes, retreating with their writing. The woman is listening for the symbol in her voice. The man is watching for the symbol in his voice. Then the same retreat happens with school writing, less and less of it, fewer assignments, fewer essays, fewer projects and exercises.The sound of a sea retreating, clattering over word pebbles, taking their phrases over pebbles, making them smooth. Less and less is read. Less and less is graded. Feedback is at a decrescendo. Students are listening for the symbol of their voice. The desks of writers and of classrooms stand in the middle of a happy listening silence.

* image provided by voicesofyouth

Monday, October 12, 2015

Door Closed, Door Open & the Discipline of Privacy

 "Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open."
                                     --Stephen King

The door to the study closes; the door to the study opens. Writing and rewriting is two-part, like breathing. Breathing in, I write by and for myself; breathing out, I may reshape my writing for others. The act of writing takes a combination of discipline and privacy. First, a person who is writing needs to assume her right to write which is the same as one's right to privately write and keep the audience out. Part of discipline means shutting the door. All of us must learn strategies to keep the temptations and strictures of audience at bay. Then consider the ideal working conditions behind that closed door--the second part of the discipline of privacy. This means developing a regular practice of writing that feels low-stakes, as normal as breathing. Nothing special. Happens often. No or few preconceptions about product or outcome. Just as it's the writer's responsibility to shut the door and claim his privacy, he also needs to make sure that what happens inside the room maintains that privacy. No one else will build that working environment for the writer: he must do so himself. A writer will shut that bright door more and more often--what others would call "discipline"--because of the happiness which occurs behind the closed door.

* image provided by ingredientsoflove

Monday, September 28, 2015

Repost of It Takes MindLESSness to Reach MindFULness

It's the nature of writing to be mindless because of the dominance of the unconscious (ideas that do not want to be discovered by the conscious mind) or because of our pursuit of the state of “flow” or inspiration (with its subjective relation to the passing of time).

But what happens in flow?

The monkey mind, our discursive thinking, has drawn us in so sufficiently that we are carried along by its images and the sound of our intrapersonal conversation. We forget where we are; it as is though we are watching a fully absorbing movie, a movie of the mind. 

It's a pleasurable state, this state of distraction, this condition of union with our inner talk. Our union is so seamless that we are no longer aware of our inner talk, of its presence, its tonalities. One idea after another draws us along happily on its verbal floe, a warm passage of energy, thought and the pleasure of creativity, a stretch of freedom from our anxiety or doubts about writing.

If we are fortunate, this transport goes on for minutes if not hours or days, and we keep writing. We seek this absorption into our intrapersonal communication. We seek oblivion to what is actually happening: we seek to be dominated by our self-talk, a dominance that is typically called “inspiration.” It's a happy, happy sound, this rattling of the letters on the keyboard. 

However, this state is limited; the ability of our intrapersonal talk to float us along is finite, and we will be called back to our awareness of the moment, of where we are, of what we are doing, of the fact that we want to write. Possibly we will be beached upon our longing for that state of flow and oblivion.

In truth if we were completely mindful individuals we might never write a sentence. This is because writing calls for a degree, a large swath, of mindlessness. 

But it's that moment when we are forced back to land, cast ashore on reality, separate from our inspired state, that we perhaps most need mindfulness—with all of its capacity for acceptance of impermanence and its capacity for non-dualistic thinking.

It's through mindfulness, through drawing our attention to the moment and to our intrapersonal talk, to being aware of what we are saying inside and at the same time being aware of our context, that we will again and perhaps almost immediately be able to submerge ourselves into that flow—to find mindlessness. And so the cycle continues.

But for stuck individuals, this cycle is not allowed to happen, this move between mindfulness, mindlessness, and back to mindfulness and so forth. Stuck or anxious writers are unable to find a place in that cycle—and it is a cycle, a constant gyration between Able To and Not Writing—a permanent instability. 

The paradox is that without mindfulness we can never be fully mindless, never be the writer we optimally might become.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Presentation on Mindful Writing at New Hampshire Poetry Festival

I'll be presenting on mindful writing at the New Hampshire Poetry Festival, September 19, 2015.

Here's the description of the session: 

Mindful writing is a powerful technique to improve both the overall quality of our writing experience and our poetic production. Mindfulness techniques help poets become more aware of the present moment and bring three powerful benefits to the act of writing. The first benefit of mindfulness is noticing the vacancy of the moment: the true privacy a poet has from any eventual audience. The second benefit includes noticing our self-talk and the types of preconceptions and judgments we carry about our own writing ability. The third benefit of mindfulness involves noticing that self-talk in order to find new content for poems. Mindfulness shows us how a non-stop river of inner talk passes through each moment: a river rich in imagery, phrasing, and ideas. Mindfulness also teaches us about the constant fluctuation of experience such that no state of writing (difficulty or success) is permanent: the reward of this fluctuation is an abundance of possibility. In this presentation, I will explain the tenets of mindful writing and provide participants with hands-on experience with mindful writing techniques, including Yoga for Hands and a mindful eating activity to enhance poetic description. Participants will be guided toward a visceral—not abstract—experience of mindfulness and of the joys of the present moment.

Information on New Hampshire Poetry Festival:

This fall, the Granite State celebrates its strong poetry tradition with the inaugural New Hampshire Poetry Festival. Organized by The Poetry Society of New Hampshire and The New Hampshire Institute of Art, the event takes place Saturday, September 19, 2015, 8am-8pm at the New Hampshire Institute of Art in Manchester, NH.  The conference features readings, panels, and workshops by some of the country’s best-known poets and scholars including a headliner reading by former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Simic.

The NH Poetry Fest brings together a broad community including poets winning prestigious awards including the Pulitzer and Pushcart Prizes; Guggenheim, MacDowell Colony, Cave Canem and National Endowment of the Arts Fellows; heads of literary organizations; professors; well-known editors, and students of poetry at multiple levels. 

Gibson’s Bookstore from Concord, NH, will sell speakers’ books onsite. Participants also have the opportunity to talk with exhibiting publishers and educators including Hobblebush Books, Tupelo Press, Zephyr Press, New Hampshire Institute of Art, The Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College and New England College MFA Creative Writing Program. 

For more information or to register, please visit: find us on Facebook ( or Twitter (@NHPoetryFest).    

Saturday, August 22, 2015

This Can't Be Said Often Enough about the Preverbal

Behind me as I type this sentence is a bookcase the bottom three feet of which are filled with journals of various sizes and colors, artist sketch notebooks, composition notebooks, big folios, fancier journals, covering about twelve years. 

In the past, I'd often thought I was not writing, and I struggled; it felt painful. During those times, I mostly wrote notes toward poems in those journals or sat thinking at my desk. Now I see that what was mostly happening was a prolonged phase of prewriting, a necessary dormancy for the purposes of developing my current writing.

This is what can't be emphasized often enough about prewriting and the preverbal: it's necessary, natural, as important as writing/revising/finishing/publishing. If a writer doesn't recognize this importance, there's a chance he or she will give up or harshly judge themselves.

When I said this in my July 24 post, "As a result, some writers misconstrue the silence of the preverbal as an indicator of their deficiency and either struggle in a state of doubt or give up altogether. In fact, this gap in writers' training could be the main culprit behind people's writing blocks after they graduate from MFA and PhD programs," it applies to any person trying to write, regardless if they identify as a writer.

Over the summer, I've had the opportunity in my professional context to read over a 1,000 essays by new university students. Time and again, I was struck by their bald admissions, tinged with frustration and worry, of how frequently they felt they were unable to write well because of a single incident, single genre, single teacher. (They usually picked the most pernicious of genres--graduation speeches, standardized testing essays, or college entrance essays--as the determinant of their abilities.) I also heard them talk about how long it takes them to start an assignment and how they believed the amount of time they remained in the preverbal was an indicator that there was something wrong with their writing ability. Something about school made them think they needed to go from zero to 65, from first hearing of an assignment to finding the approach for that assignment, in a way that professional writers often don't ask of themselves. It wasn't impatience I noted in the students but instead real concern.

We need to talk more about what occurs in prewriting.  We don't address the preverbal, leaving students to think that silence, pauses, dormancy, is their unique problem. Really, writing education is tilted toward product, outcome, the final draft, no matter how much our theory says otherwise. No matter what most writers think they believe, ultimately it's the end result that's given the most value. The message is that you're supposed to dash in and out of the preverbal and spend very little time in that spot. What's the risk of staying in the preverbal a bit longer?

* image from theconsciousprocess

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Preverbal as a Form of Private Writing

Private writing is not as odd as it may seem. Writers throughout time have kept a private reserve of writing, material not shown to others, possibly a journal, early drafts, or notes.The preverbal is just an enhanced version of that privacy: it is impossible to show one's preverbal work to a reader, a sign that there are indeed moments in the writing process which do not concern audience, which are solely intrapersonal expression. To try to show your preverbal efforts would be like trying to show someone all the breathing you've done in the past twenty minutes or trying to show the elusive laugh track of your unconscious. If the preverbal (which is like an erased scene) is watched, within moments the phrases of others and of your unconscious flit past like flocks of birds made from dotted lines, along with snippets of overheard ideas and strings of voice. Soon, lines in the mind appear. (You don't have to be a poet to hear lines.) Soon, your writing begins, writing which may or may not be seen by others, but the preverbal, the preverbal is indeed your space.

* image provided by

Friday, July 24, 2015

Facing the Preverbal

The act of writing is actually preceded by a blankness, a set of empty moments, in which nothing is already known.

I'd like to make a case for seeing the prewriting phase as a preverbal moment and a vote for facing emptiness, the nonverbal, that absence of words that occurs before writing starts to appear.

In process pedagogy, prewriting usually refers to the notes, freewriting, brainstorming, and research a writer might do before starting a first draft. Don Murray described prewriting as "everything that takes place before the first draft"; D. Gordon Rohman defined prewriting as the "point where the 'writing idea' is ready for the words and page." What I'd like to talk about is how prewriting (pre--as in what comes before writing) is nonverbal, and all those other activities are already writing.

The act of writing is actually preceded by a blankness, a set of empty moments, in which nothing is already known. It is a pre-pre process and the wordlessness that is necessary for the verbal. It's the big mind described by Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. The terrain of prewriting is like a Yves Tanguy painting: at first, a sense of a place without details, as though all detail had been razed. It's the hunting grounds, home court, and head quarters of the unconscious. Then as you contemplate this emptiness hints and form and wisps of voice begin to appear.

Prewriting refers to the contemplation of the emptiness before language rushes in; a preverbal state of writing is expansive with no decisions yet made about style, content, or possibly genre. It’s Emily Dickinson’s dwelling in Possibility. It's what happens before the "commitment" of writing, to use Don Murray's wise name for a piece of writing. People have different terms too for that observation of emptiness. James Moffett (an incredibly interesting and currently under-read composition scholar) called it "suspending inner speech." I’ll call this emptiness of prewriting formlessness.

The benefits of formlessness include fewer preconceptions about how and what one should write (or what one is good at writing), leading to a wider horizon. By staying with formlessness, especially if you are a student or professional writer with a declared genre, you can discover far more than an idea for a single story, poem, play, etc. 

The mindful writer avoids preconceptions of genre, process, content, and audience. All writing is thus preverbal. All writing is built on emptiness, and that emptiness is preverbal.

A mindful writer is alert to this blankness. He or she perches before the brink of unknowing as though patiently ice-fishing in an all-white tundra. It means sitting before one’s own silence and one’s non-writing. The writer knows that the blank contains everything needed to write, that the vast emptiness teems with possibilities.

This non-knowing needs to be fostered through discipline. A supreme goal of a writing class should be silence and the absence of language. (So let's hear it for a new learning outcome for a syllabus: not doing any writing.) Learning how to not-know may be best practiced through formal seated meditation: to approach each moment with a blank mind, observe the breath. Our breathing is the metronome on the present. 

Facing the preverbal isn't always easy. Silence can bring out a writer's fears (i.e.: horror that maybe you'll never write/write well again). And one can't predicate how long this phase will go on. School does not prepare writers well for this experience of no-writing. As a result, some writers misconstrue the silence of the preverbal as an indicator of their deficiency and either struggle in a state of doubt or give up altogether. In fact, this gap in writers' training could be the main culprit behind people's writing blocks after they graduate from MFA and PhD programs.

It's important to look closely and patiently at the preverbal because it's in that terrain that a writer hears his or her intrapersonal voice, that dialectic of call and response, that internal inquiry which lets a piece of writing begin. I'd like to mention four low-stakes invention activities (tasks which use informal and, better yet, private writing) which can help engage the preverbal: 
* freewriting (the foundation of so much)
* Peter Elbow’s Open-Ended Method from Writing with Power
* Sondra Perl’s Felt Sense Method from Felt Sense
* and my own Yoga for Hands (see this blog).

* "I Await You" or "I Am Waiting for You," Yves Tanguy painting, 1934

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

An Editor Decided If Gladiator Lived or Died

In Rome last summer, while on a tour of the Colosseum, I learned from our guide that in ancient Rome, a person called an "editor" decided if a fallen gladiator would live or die. Basically, this person, not the emperor, would give the thumbs up or down to indicate whether the winning gladiator should spare or take the fallen gladiator's life. 

All week we'd seen actors playing gladiators, men dressed in gauzy red loin cloths and bristly helmets, bare chests exposed (or in the case of one out-of-shape actor, a plastic chest plate to give him 6-pack abs), smoking an e-cigarette, talking on cell phones, leaning shields against small carry-on suitcases the same red as the costume.

When the guide told us of this role for the "editor," my thoughts moved even farther from gladiators, actual or not, to writers. I couldn't stop grinning because for writers submitting work for publication or student writers submitting for a grade, it can feel like a "life or death" decision. At last, the true source of an editor's power...

As I've stayed longer in my writing career, I've been enjoying high-quality interactions with editors. They frequently offer a different perspective on a finished text. Sometimes it's a change of wording, usually the elimination of words, sometimes moving around whole paragraphs. I've been enjoying the email interchanges as we negotiate over the piece, their desired version and my own vision of the text.

I've also grown to know a few journal or press editors in recent years and have watched how hard they work on other people's writing. I've been impressed by the dedication of the graduate-student editors at my university's journal, Soundings East, and the serious consideration behind their "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" verdicts. I like what William Stafford said on this topic--the way he frames the publishing dynamic in so trusting a fashion: "An editor is a friend who helps keep a writer from publishing what should not be published."

At the same time, I often think back on a pin a student I knew wore on his T-shirts in junior high: "Kill Them All and Let God Decide." A disturbing pin on multiple levels, certainly, but somehow in my thinking it has become the mantra, "Write It All and Let Them (Editors) Decide." I often turn to this saying while in the midst of a complicated writing project. It's a firm reminder that my job is to separate the composing process from the editing process for a good stretch of the work. It's my job to experience the creation of the text and let other people do what they will with the eventual final text. While I can make structural, stylistic, or content choices which persuade a future reader, it's truly beyond my control (or any writer's) to dictate their decisions about the text's fate. Leave that job to someone else.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Introduction to Book on Mindful Writing

What follows is a draft of the Introduction to a book-length manuscript on mindful writing that I'm working on this summer. The book itself combines imaginative writing with theories on composition from classical and contemporary writing / rhetorical theory. Drafts of other chapters/chapter sections appear on this blog under the "Thus I Have Heard" post label.

Translator’s Note

“The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure it to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a résumé, a commentary.”

            -- Jorge Luis Borges

            What is described in these pages is a type of applied mindfulness that has benefited many people in their endeavors to write. It could benefit many more writers. Through the ancient dharma of the Middle Path, individuals can find insight and relief from long-standing worries, pressures, and unease that sometimes arise around writing activity and can deepen their practice. Although difficult to precisely date, several distinguished scholars including D.F. Goldberg and Muri Sami have placed the text sometime between the publication of Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers and the rise of standardized state testing. This work, translated from the imagination into English for the first time, consists of the earliest known treatise on mindful writing, “The Extinction of the Suffering of Writing and the Four Noble Truths,” as well as the classic “Explication of the Eight-Fold Path.” The edition also offers a selection of interpretations and secondary texts on the subject of mindful writing. While it is the translator’s duty to avoid undue mingling with the content of a document, my experience engaging with the dharma has been too powerful to omit. If the reader permit, by speaking of my own experiences, I might accurately portray the assistance mindfulness can give to others who write.

            In the late 1990s, I lived as a graduate student in a tenement that was endlessly peeling on the outside and inside—catalpa trees outside my second-floor rented room pinged seed pods and dripped sticky oils on cars; green shingles serving as cheap siding fell out one by one like teeth; pieces of the slate roof on the adjacent building skied downward to strike porch and bicycles like urns and gargoyles in an Edwin Gorey cartoon. On a lethargic July afternoon, I was trying to write to the accompaniment of drills from the neighborhood auto repair shop. As I turned in my swivel chair away from the desk, a hole the size of a human head appeared in the wall behind a humble book shelf of plain boards set atop cinder blocks. It is of no real note though others have so-noted that this hole was partially blocked by a 1950s paperback edition of the ecstatic visions of St. Theresa and the unwieldy The Red Book by Jung. The wall surface had broken to show different eras of wallpaper and tones of paint—some matte or glossy, others landlord-white or primary—from years and years of students who’d written theses, dissertations, or manuscripts before me in this same rented room.

            With each passing moment, the treatise leaned farther out of the hole, ready to plummet onto the electric heating register. In my hands, it was printed on yellowed papyrus but at the same time the cover managed to suggest a shiny quality like the most recent rack of bestsellers. The pages were covered in primitive figures and feathered with Post-Its. It seemed large as a folio and at the same time pocket-sized and personal. As I turned through the first pages, I saw that it was composed in a language, although obscure, I had the fortune (or misfortune) of learning for my doctoral exams. It was unlike the French or Italian I could have studied: a strange language, not exactly one ever overheard and not a language a person would likely speak, but instead a language acquired through years of experiences in writing in difficult circumstances and for tricky audiences.  

            As I translated, I noticed a beneficial influence of the document on my own writing. I had gravitated toward Buddha’s influence instinctively during the years of my training as a writer. One of the few items I brought in my suitcase to Iowa City was a how-to book on meditation taken from my parents’ bookshelf over the TV. My first night alone in the hotel I used techniques in the book. Later I’d keep a Post-It with “Buddha” or “Present Moment” on the monitor in the university computer lab, and it helped me continue writing.

            I’d often felt I was hostage to a massive problem. In school for creative writing, I received little guidance on the difficulties of writing. Every now and then, I’d catch a glimpse of another writer’s process. I’d overhear how a certain award-winning teacher underwent a dry stretch between books or how a poet was in the practice of letting his work go fallow for a year after finishing a manuscript. Subsequently, while giving and receiving feedback with the expectation of revision was part of the workshop classroom, the first half of the writing process, invention and all its complexities, was left in the dark. No one talked about ways to generate and continue writing or how to manage audience proximity. I hadn’t heard of Peter Elbow, Writing Without Teachers, or the whole process movement in writing instruction. No one explained that what might look like a writing block could actually be a necessary delay or the natural functioning of the unconscious. Perhaps the burden of their own writing difficulties made it impalpable for the teachers to take on the worries of their students.

            Between 1992 and 1999 and 1999-2005, (MFA years and then years prior to PhD program), my experience with writing consisted of many dim hours at a thrift-store desk trying to write, illuminated by break-through times in which I was able to ramp up my discipline to where a fiercely get-it-right outlook resulted in new, stronger pieces. At twenty two, I hadn’t been ready for the pressurized environment of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A writer needs to start at a certain level to finish their training completely in graduate school; otherwise, the writer should be prepared for uncertainty, incompletion, trailing off, lingering questions, dead ends. Later, as I approached my thirties, the need to find a way to support myself and the desire to find a life partner became swiftly mounting pressures so that every hour spent at the desk felt high-stakes, meaning it had better yield results in the face of these other pressing issues. I didn’t understand that if a person can make contact with her intrapersonal voice, she is almost always alright as a writer. Much later would I understand that to be fluent means switching to low-stakes tasks or informal writing to stay in constant contact with the internal writing voice. 
         The truth is that I’d always had discipline when it came to writing, willingly turning over my hours to the desk. But writing was only productive either through an impalpable and untenable regiment modeled on the dancer Martha Graham’s work style or at writing’s whim when new approaches and ideas came as a surprise and were not something I could control or replicate. By discipline, I mean a severe strictness, rising at 3:30 or 4 AM to write and restricting my diet which couldn’t be sustained, and I’d find myself back to seemingly producing nothing, wishing I could force myself again into the harsh regiment. I didn’t even own a bed and slept on a flop-out mattress stored in the closet. My practice was built on a false discipline.

            The whole time I was filling pages and pages of writing journals which, because not intended for an audience, I didn’t consider real writing. My unconscious would frequently take charge. I’d discover a drawer of fairly decent new poems at the end of the summer that I honestly couldn’t recall writing. The writing spirit, whatever made it first seem in earlier life a playful, imaginative, and necessary act, continued despite my categorizations and plans. It protected my writing from the damages of my ego. Sometimes it would take over my conscious self, and I’d write rapidly, feeling inspired. The stop-gaps I’d installed to prevent my internal voice from actually flowing would be suddenly overwhelmed to capacity. I remember explaining to a teacher how I’d felt while writing one break-through poem, and he shrugged and said to take those rare moments when they are handed to you. Such advice suggests that type of writing experience (scribbling it down before it’s lost or slips from mind) is a gift and not the symptom, as I would now call it, that something is awry with one’s overall way of writing. Since becoming a practitioner of mindful writing, writing is no longer a strain promising at best diminished returns for the effort. Writing is a positive and productive experience and is now a daily need.

            The central contention of Thus I Have Heard is that our understanding of the time involved in writing skids to a stop startlingly short of arguably the most fundamental part of the sequence: the present moment. Yet the present moment is the time and place from which all writing springs, and to bypass the present is to forfeit the textual richness of the moment and risk facing obstacles to composing resulting from that omission. A present-focused thinking brings three powerful benefits to the act of writing. The first benefit is noticing the vacancy of the moment: the actual privacy a writer has from any eventual audience because of separation in space and time. The second benefit includes noticing intrapersonal rhetoric (self-talk) and the preconceptions many people lug around about their own writing ability and the genre or task at hand. The third benefit of mindfulness involves observing that self-talk in order to find new content. That is, mindfulness shows how a non-stop river of inner talk passes through each moment: a river rich in imagery, phrases, and ideas.

            In translating the manuscript, I rewrote what I heard, picking a format to which an emerging academic would be naturally accustomed—a collection of selected writings or a textbook. Thus behind the fictional nature of this work are the ideas of thinkers not necessarily associated with story-telling: Aristotle, Socrates, Plato, Peter Elbow, Carl Rogers, Michel de Montaigne, Carl Jung, Jean Nienkamp, Walter Ong, David Bohm, Mina Shaughnessy, Mike Rose, Keith Hjortshoj, Robert Boice, William Stafford, Thich Nhat Hanh, Hughes Mearns, Janet Emig, Thomas Newkirk, Donald Murray, Lisa Ede, Andrea Lunsford, Lloyd Bitzer, Marcel Bénabou, Brenda Ueland, Shunryu Suzuki, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Stephen Kerr, Ellen J. Langer, and Richard Shusterman, to name a few. Readers interested in the theoretical and pedagogical foundation of Thus I Have Heard can turn to the Notes section of the manuscript where I provide annotations. Otherwise, these underpinnings will not appear in the body of the book. 

            After testing the dharma on groups of undergraduate and graduate students, I began to imagine retorts and responses, alternative ways of thinking about the topic, and contemporary interpretations of the original dharma came to mind. In the compilation are also works of poems and fiction which have been written over the ages in the tradition of mindfulness by members of  the Write Nothing Sect, the practitioners of mindful eating and description, the ascetics who freewrite twenty hours a day in mountain caves, and the practitioners of embodied writing for whom writing is entirely a physical activity.

            A few observations about the chapters  and selections. “Thus I Have Heard” appears to have been written sometime between Socrates’ debate with Crito and the establishment of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the 1930s. The recovery of this manuscript has taken many twists and turns. In the late 1960s when the Writer was visiting the United States per the invitation of the Present Moment Society , the original manuscript became lost, shortly after the Writer attended the landmark Dartmouth Conference. A year or so later, the Writer had moved to New York City and was moonlighting as a secretary in a major publishing house along with many other women also completing MA and PhD degrees, usually in the fields of literature. A proof of Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers arrived at the Writer’s cubicle after it was passed around between secretaries who were all delighted with Elbow’s concept of freewriting. The Writer joined the secretaries around the water cooler and in the break room to talk about freewriting and practice it themselves. The Writer was delighted by the concept of freewriting and audience proximity and devoted the next quarter century to silent contemplation of its connections to internal conversation and awareness of the moment. Many readers before you have noted the heterogeneous nature of the Writer and the circumstances mentioned in this document. As the notable critic Nina Sandsworth-Ipswich has said, it is almost a “revolving door of identity, time, space, gender, hour, a veritable slide show of indeterminacy.”  The Writer is a multi-identity personage who speaks before audiences of writers in a strange sort of writers’ retreat.  The Writer is no single person and at the same time the combination of all wise writing teachers who have ever been. Many details in the piece revolve and offer the reader a variety from which to select in order to speak to more than one subjectivity and from more than a single time or place.

            I bow in gratitude to the dharma for it has let me become who I wanted to be.

Naples, Italy

August 8, 2015

                                                                                                — Alexandria Peary

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Repost of Loving Kindness Meditation for Writers

This meditation is an adaptation of metta or loving-kindness meditation. It's a variation of the loving-kindness meditation for non-writers described by Sharon Salzberg: a fundamentally imaginative practice leading to empathy and compassion for ourselves and others.

In my Overcoming Writing Blocks courses, this writerly loving-kindness meditation is one of my favorite activities, right beside showing students mindful eating and walking.

Writer's Loving-Kindness can be helpful in our interactions with audience. Recall from previous posts that we've discussed how all writing is at least initially private writing and how we've stressed the importance of recognizing our fundamental solitude while writing. The audience, to paraphrase Walter Ong, is fictional; what's real is the Present moment. (See earlier posts "The 3 Paradoxes of Mindful Writing" and "How-To Tip #1: Kicking Out the Reader-in-the-Head.")

What better way to take advantage of the vacancy of the writer's Present moment, what better way to make use of our imaginative inclination, than to use those capacities to develop a more reflective, more nuanced relationship to potentially tricky audiences or what Peter Elbow calls dangerous audiences? (Note, though, that Writer's Loving-Kindness meditation is also intended for more benign audience relationships.)

Here are the steps:

Sit in a meditation posture on the floor or in a chair. Begin watching your breathing. Breathing in, think to yourself, "Here." Breathing out, think to yourself, "Now." Do this for several minutes.

1. Think of someone who has been supportive of your writing either in the past or in your current work. On the In Breath, visualize something which would bring this supportive individual tremendous happiness. Try to think of something relating to this individual's writing, reading, or maybe even teaching life. On the Out Breath, visualize this individual receiving or this item (or experiencing this happy event, if it's an event like a literary prize). Continue for several minutes to think of this person in this fashion while watching your breathing.

2. Turn to yourself. What would make you happy in terms of your writing life? On the In Breath, visualize this item or event. On the Out Breath, visualize yourself receiving this item or experiencing this event. Continue for several minutes to think of yourself in this fashion while watching your breathing.

3. Turn to a neutral--someone who is not central to your writing life but plays a role. You might not even know this person's name. For instance, in the past, I've visualized an editor at one of the literary journals to which I submit my work. (I've never met him.) Follow the same steps as above for the In and Out Breath, focusing this time on this person.

4. Turn to a dangerous audience--someone from your past or current writing experience who has tripped up your writing, wittingly or unwittingly. Follow the steps for this person.

5. Turn to any writing group or class you are involved in. For instance, when I'm using this meditation in my Overcoming Writing Blocks class, we contemplate the whole class (students and teacher alike). You could also pick the members of a coffee shop writing group you belong to or the crowd who attends a neighborhood reading series, for instance. Follow the steps for this group.

6. Lastly, turn to the writers of your genre--all the people who compose the type of writing you do (poetry, short fiction, etc.). Follow the steps for this group. Wish them well.

From doing the Writer's Loving-Kindness Meditation, you might notice a softening of your outlook toward difficult judges of your work. You might also gain a sense of their perspective--the reason why they might have acted toward your work as they did. Most of all, this meditation provides a different sensation of audience. Instead of fighting with audiences in our head or even kicking them out in order to use our actual solitude, we can greet that audience and those fellow writers with calm and generosity.

Image from

Sunday, May 31, 2015

It's a Good Idea to Have Multiple Writing Projects Going at Once

If I think I must write one book, all the problems of how this book should be and how it should not be block me and keep me from going forward. If, on the contrary, I think that I am writing a library, I feel suddenly lightened: I know that whatever I write will be integrated, contradicted, balanced, amplified, buried by the hundreds of volumes that remain for me to write." --Italo Calvino

There are lots of good reasons why you should operate on the principal of multiplicity--multiple writing projects, projects at several phases of completion or incompletion, multiple genres. Maybe especially multiple genres. Try to balance many writing projects at once.

-multiple phases: you've got at hand notes toward one project, a handwritten rough draft, a freewrite, a middle draft, a document that recently received feedback, and another document that is at the proofreading and final phase. In no particular order of value: the notes are not less valuable than the nearly completed piece.

-multiple genres: you've got at hand a poem draft, a piece of creative nonfiction, a journal entry, an email in-progress, a draft of a scholarly article, part of a book proposal, etc. In no particular order of ability: you don't judge one genre as less valuable because you are less of an expert in it.

Why it's helpful? Because multiplicity mirrors the constant flux of our internal talk. The calmest and probably most productive writer is the type of person who follows flux, so it makes sense to establish working conditions that both foster and mirror flux.You'll want to cultivate an appreciation for impermanence as much as possible in your writing practice. Providing yourself multiple opportunities for writing (i.e.: keeping many genres and phases on stock) allows your mind to embrace change.

Writing in more than one phase is helpful because it's a way to take charge of the proximity of audience in your thinking. At certain moments, you may want to keep that audience very close to you in your thoughts (i.e.: an advanced draft or editing). At other moments, you may want your privacy from other people; you may want to write by yourself, without concern for what others might eventually think of your work.

Writing in more than one genre is helpful because if you are anxious about Task A, you can consult strategies and dispositions you developed to finish Task B, from another genre. You can tap into a previous positive writing experience. Specifically, you can borrow the positive audience dynamic inside another genre if your current thoughts about audience are an obstacle. A genre like poetry, for instance, carries no (or at least minimal) commercial expectation which can be liberating for writing prose. A transactional genre like an end-of-the-year report can be helpful in developing a rebuttal for a scholarly article.

Start each writing session by turning to your mind and asking, "What is it I'm interested in working on right now?" And accept whatever reply your mind provides.

Someone might say that keeping so many types of writing on-going feels too scattered. You shouldn't feel scattered if you stay true to the changing moment as a writer. What you'll have is a single focus: on the moment. In other words, to be focused in the moment means staying focused on the moment. Each moment is a full subject by itself--is a still-life--is a thesis statement. Drafts and project phases are particular moments you're already invested in. They're earmarked places in a moment. Like a candle or sounded bell in meditation.

* Image provided by Flickr

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Does Writing Have a Future?

Does Writing Have a Future?

It’s hard to say. I’m inclined to say that it does not have a future; that is, whatever you may be working on right now does not exist in a future moment. Instead, writing (as with anything else) only exists in a series of present moments. You don't write later: you write now. A text isn't read later; it's read right now. I wrote this blog post in one series of present moments, and you're reading it in another series of present moments.

Thus the notion that writing is a type of communication that persists into the future should be reconsidered.

I'm suggesting a radical groundlessness for writing: that writing is never done outside the present moment.

It’s tricky to make this claim because what makes writing normally seem worthwhile is its very promise of an impact or connection to the future. The benefits of writing seem to occur in the future. They’re like promises or payment for our efforts—we tolerate the isolation, uncertainty, and other challenges of working on a text because of its long-term consequences. Writing contracts out the future because it says it will put us in touch with others, allowing us to express. Writing may also indicate a future for our efforts by suggesting that we have a responsibility to others, that we may persuade, inform, or help readers. Saying there’s no future for writing will threaten some people by depriving them of the long-term fruits of their efforts, and it will vex others who insist that writing is a moral activity, one with consequences.

Nevertheless, it’s as Janis Joplin crooned, “Tomorrow never comes.”

We only entertain conceptions of the future. Thoughts about the future stock each present moment of consciousness, along with thoughts about the past and evaluations (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral). But are conceptions of the future synonymous with an actual future moment? What we predict will not align 100% with actuality. It’s only a best guess—a guess that’s usually founded on some pretty questionable motives and reasons. Our subjectivity provide us with all sorts of distortions of ourselves and of others.

On the other hand, denying that I have future responsibilities is rash.

For instance, if I don’t buy groceries at 2 o’clock, my choice will have a definite impact on the future well-being of my children, who need me to take steps right now (shop for food) that have bearing on the future (their supper). The Buddhists believed in consequences—just think of karma. If all beings are interconnected, if we are not to invest too much independence around single things, then so too are different moments connected, and a present circumstance is affected by a past one. The act of writing is also a compilation of past and future responses from other people, and when we write, our efforts are often colored with the desire to meet future audience expectations or squelch past criticism.

In the end, I maintain that it’s vastly more helpful to most writers much of the time to act as though their writing does not have a future. Most of us have spent the majority of our time as writers off the present, thinking of elsewhere and imagining future responses to work that we haven’t finished—or even begun.

Developing a writing practice that is present-oriented can help us treat writing as low-stakes, as generative, as a source of fascination, as a form of self-respect, as a means for contentment and tranquility. The present does not have deadlines, rubrics, or formatting expectations. The present is fundamentally a private moment, a temporary experience to which we’re all entitled. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Corpse Pose (or Relaxation Pose) for Writing

When we reach the point where we can't create because we're too preoccupied with our worries, too caught up in hopes for a particular outcome, or facing roadblock, we need to restore ourselves to a more open, inventive position. The Corpse Pose for Writing (or Relaxation Pose) is a method for reducing anxiety around a piece of writing. It's a way to give ourselves a fresh start.

Clear your desk or writing area of any signs of the project (including pens, pencils, Post-Its, notebooks, review letters, feedback). 

Divide the draft into 5-7 parts. Each part, no matter the genre, should not exceed 250-500 words. The pieces should be of a length that you can read with ease in a minute. Dividing the work in this way may mean you need to select from a much longer document, so select sections which are particularly troublesome for you. Do include your current opening or introduction.

Place each part on separate screens or print out onto separate pieces of paper. Move in reverse order, putting the chunk closest to the end of the document (the feet) on the first screen or sheet of paper, followed by a subsequent passage on the next screen, until the very last screen or page of paper holds the opening (the head) of this document.

Watching your in and out breath, turn your attention to the "feet" of the document--only the feet. Put all of your attention on this section: reread it. Scan it up and down for any sort of tension that arises. Where are you frustrated, irritated, worried, or any other emotion? Don't try to fight off these emotions: simply observe them with a detached mind. Scan also for any images, associations, and new ideas that arise from your mindfully watching the feet of the document. After a few minutes, release this part of the document. Release the feet: let it sink back down onto the floor (if a sheet or paper) or into the computer (close the screen). Let go of everything concerning that section.

Watching your in and out breath, turn your attention now to the "calves and thighs" of the document--only this section. Put all of your attention on this section: reread it. Scan it up and down for any sort of tension that arises. Where are you frustrated, irritated, worried, or any other emotion? Again, don't try to fight off these emotions: simply observe them with a detached mind. Scan also for any images, associations, and new ideas that arise from your mindfully watching the legs of the document. After a few minutes, release this part of the document. Release the legs: let them sink back down onto the floor (if a sheet or paper) or into the computer (close the screen). Let go of everything concerning that section.

Move now to the "pelvic area" and "belly" of the document. Repeat the same steps as above. Then let go of everything concerning those sections.

Move to the "torso" or "chest" area of the document. Repeat the same steps and then let go of everything concerning that section.

Move to the "arms" and "hands" of the document. Repeat the steps and then let go of everything concerning those sections. 

Move to the "shoulders" and "neck" of the document. Repeat the steps and then let go of everything concerning those sections.

Move to the "face" of the document, observing even the finest strain of mental-musculature tension. Because this is the face, it is what the world sees most about our writing: it is the most noticeable part of our document. The beginning of the document thus can contain the most complicated of stresses, built up over time. Repeat the steps and then let go.

Last of all, move to the "crown" of the document, the space above the first section, perhaps where a title lies or might reside one day. By now the rest of the document is relaxed. You are probably relaxed. Spend a few moments in this state. If it is possible, have a writing companion ask you a question about your document or writing experience. In this relaxed state, so close to the floor, so close to the unconscious, you may find insights and ideas not possible with a strained, tight mind. 

Variation: try each of these steps as a freewrite.

(If you liked this post, try "Yoga for Hands" from 9/11/2012: it's another embodied writing technique.)

* image from

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Keep Nothing Day

We have Write-a-Novel-Month, we have poem-a-day initiatives.1 Try Save Nothing Day, a session in which you delete or 
 discard whatever it is you have written. Write your own sand mandala. Do not keep notes toward what you have written. Do not save drafts. Do not memorize passages to keep for later. Do not tuck them discretely under a folder or notebook when no one is looking. Instead when time is up for your writing session, press delete, drag the item to e-recycling bin or crumple the sheet of paper into an actual waste bin. Using a paper shredder might be a better option for it keeps at bay the temptation of retrieval.

Write your own sand mandala—art that gets blown away. Reach beautiful insights, find colorful structural strategies, realize new points and segue, create whole stretches in an aesthetic approach—and then erase. This deletion is a different type of deletion from the norm for it is not the back stepping, not the hitting of the backspace bar as one writes, it is not the false mixing of composing with editing, of generating with pruning, of writing with proofreading. Typically, there is much deletion as part of a writer’s process, deletion that causes more harm than good, that overlooks the absence of the audience in the present, that anticipates a future audience and is defensive toward it. The deletion of disposable writing is different for it is a deletion of product, not process. We follow the moment, we enjoy the motion of writing, and at the end we relinquish product, unattached to outcome.

Who should join the tradition of those who Keep Nothing?
·         Those who are stuck in their writing and find everything they have written to be precious.
·         Those who need to think everything through before writing, who need to be perfect as a defense against anticipated criticism.
·         Those who spend time daydreaming about product and outcome, of how the end result of writing will personally benefit them, change their status, improve their lot with others or with themselves.
·         Those who will not allow words to be in their natural state and those who will not allow writing to be ordinary and prosaic in its constant generation.
·         Those who worship writing.
·         Those who wait for regeneration of their writing, either of their overall ability or a specific project.
·         Those who place their own standards and motives before the motion of writing.
·         Those who don’t see writing as a movement occurring in time but instead as an object, static, like a trophy or an expensive knick knack.

The benefits of disposable writing are the lowering of standards the practicing of detachment. For the practitioner, there is trust in this letting go: one trusts the abundance of impermanence, knowing that just as good writing arose in this moment, it will arise again in another moment.

What does one write when keeping nothing? Write as one would normally write or write as one would not normally write, but at the end, delete. Write with an audience in mind or write with no audience in mind, and at the end, shred. Give oneself a focus, genre, approach, or do not give oneself a focus, genre, or approach and instead freewrite, and at the end, crumble. Write the next step in a draft on a particular project or begin something new. The content, stage, and genre do not matter—as with any writing session, decide those on your own—but at the end, delete. Many find the disposable method most useful and least intimidating if done with freewriting or with the earliest stages of invention. A person of advanced training in the mindfulness of writing will practice disposable writing at advanced and more polished phases and with genre of increasing distinction.

You can of course decide to retain something you’ve created, but don’t allow yourself this trump card too often for the lessons of disposable writing then will retreat and the benefits of acknowledging impermanence will fade away. It is possible to keep your writing and at the same time maintain the disposable mindset: this requires a sincere dedication to impermanence while you write, a true tracking of the passing moments. It is possible then to cheat the recycling bin, keep the results of your honoring of importance, but the person who does so must have a strong mindful writing practice. For it is too easy to become ensnared in attachment.

Write your own sand mandala—art that gets blown away.

1  A quota means focusing on doing, which is good because that is a focus on process, but at the same time these sort of initiatives dangle the charm of a particular genre (I wrote a novel; I wrote a sonnet today), and therefore harden patterns of attachment (I wrote a whole novel; I wrote an actual sonnet today).

* image from