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

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