The Ability to Write is Always Present: Mindfulness Theory for Creative Writing Studies
Transcript of talk given at Great Writing Conference, June 23, 2018
In the late 1990s, I lived as a graduate student in a tenement building that was falling to pieces. Green shingles serving as cheap siding fell out like teeth. Pieces of the slate roof struck porch and bicycles like urns in an Edwin Gorey cartoon. On lethargic afternoons, I tried to write to the accompaniment of drills from the neighborhood auto repair shop.
I’d often felt I was hostage to a massive problem. In school for creative writing, I wasn’t producing enough, and I had no idea how I would survive in the writing world. The years ticked by, my twenties, then my early thirties, whole seasons spent over a vintage typewriter or an electric typewriter, later a laptop, with nothing to show for it but a few magazine publications and a book case of journals and notebooks.
Fast forward to 2018. I’ve changed from an isolated writer with highly cramped drafts, someone who spent seasons at her desk with little to show for it, to who I am now, a writer who is at peace with her writing and publishes multiple pieces in several genres each year. Writing isn’t a strain but a daily joy. I am deeply indebted to the moment because it’s the present moment and a practice of mindful writing that’s brought me to this place. Every moment can be a prolific moment.
Like any other activity, writing occurs during a present moment—not in the past, not last year, not in the future, not tomorrow. I have never written tomorrow. You have never written tomorrow. Your students have never written tomorrow. As the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “We have an appointment with life in the present moment. If we miss the present moment, we miss our appointment with life.” Or as Janis Joplin crooned, “Tomorrow never comes.”
If we overlook the present, we forfeit significant writing resources in exchange for some pretty questionable ones that increase our stress and apprehension. It’s a poor bargain. The trouble is that dwelling on the future of our writing leaves us preparing for impact, locked in a defensive mode, anxiously reaching after already finished polished documents and comparing ourselves with more skilled, future-based and nonexistent versions of ourselves.
Mindfulness offers a different a perspective on creative writing instruction by highlighting present time in the rhetorical situation and the writing process. Writing becomes a strikingly different experience if we think of writing as part of a discrete Now. Let’s think for a moment about the writing moment: when we are at our desks, how often are we aware of what’s happening right now? Why are we usually not aware of the present as we write? And what might be different about our writing experiences if we shifted from what’s usually future-based and mindless thinking to focusing on the arising moment for the purposes of writing? I think we’d happily find that every moment can become an inventive moment due to the establishment of a calm, non-evaluative, and observant outlook that promotes receptivity to new ideas.
Mindfulness is the observation of ever-changing phenomena as they occur in real time using a detached and non-evaluative outlook. Jon Kabat-Zinn famously described mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally,” and Ruth Baer as “taking an accepting, non-judgmental, non-reactive or non-avoidant stance toward observed experience.” Ellen Langer made a powerful case in The Power of Mindful Learning for the ways in which mindfulness increases openness of perception, ability to recognize variances and possibilities, and decreases learned helplessness, a condition in which learners misperceive their resources as limited.
Typically, most creative writing students give disproportionate consideration to the future and past as they write. It’s also the case that our current process and rhetorical pedagogies for creative writing are renting space in the future—they act out of a future orientation. A prime example of that future orientation is the way in which writing scholars handle audience by telling writers to fashion non-existent readers—made-up people who basically appear as tricky genie from the bottle of an assignment while students write.
Moreover, with a mindless or future orientation, the affective responses we engender in students can tend toward apprehension, defensiveness, worry, and doubt. These negative responses can accrue and cause long-term writing disability. In fact, the problem is that we routinely teach a mindlessness perspective on writing—and we routinely set students up for a mindless approach to the writing they might do for the rest of their lives. With mindful composing, the act of writing is located inside an ever-shifting context of a present moment.
If we change our temporal orientation for writing and instead settle into the Now, a fresh new set of rhetorical factors step into the foreground, and these devices can help individuals become more productive and calm writers, improving both outcome and mindset. Mindful writing factors are intrapersonal voice, impermanence, preverbal emptiness, and affective responses to the occasion of writing—ones that normally go unobserved in traditional instruction. By learning to manage these mindful writing factors, students can change their writing experiences, bolstering their confidence, fluency, and even interest. Omitting the present moment will lead to suffering and writing blocks; awareness of the present moment will lead to a more optimal and sustainable relationship with creative writing for the long-term.
This present awareness for creative writing needs to be explicitly taught because mindlessness—not mindfulness—is our default position. The typical human attention span for the present was estimated in the 1880s by Wilhlem Wundt to be between five and twelve seconds. In Principles of Psychology, William James claimed that the average experience of the present moment was limited to a dozen seconds or less. Humans demonstrate proclivity toward avoiding the present: we can’t sustain a now focus without departing into “monkey mind” or inner discursivity concerned with evaluation, the past, or the future.
Mindful writing theory also neatly dovetails into currently established process and rhetorical approaches to writing instruction. That’s because those mindful rhetorical factors compliment traditional ones of audience, purpose, and constraint and also because mindfulness enhances traces of present awareness already found in a process approach.
In the next few minutes, I want to make a case for why creative writing scholars and instructors should pay more attention to the present moment in theory and pedagogy, asking, What are those important writing resources that go unused if we’re heedless of the present? How can a creative writing curriculum help students become more aware of the present and these writing resources?
Every time a student sits down to write, two texts happen nearly simultaneously. One comes with a font and a page appearance; it’s the one that’s revised and distributed, uses sentences and paragraphs. It can be spellchecked and reread. It’s interpersonal. The second operates invisibly, often outside even the writer’s notice. It’s intrapersonal, and it’s the first instance of words on the creative scene.
The shaping influence of this internal talk on subsequent drafts should not be underestimated. All writing, no matter the genre, all writing begins as intrapersonal communication despite how we usually dwell on the interpersonal future, looking for the readers or publications of upcoming moments while overlooking the language immediately in front of us. The intrapersonal consistently fills up most writing moments. In fact, a practitioner of mindfulness will tell you that it’s nearly impossible to avoid this babble. The Buddhist notion of “monkey mind” picturesquely captures our non-stop tendency to sort and evaluate experiences in our heads.
There are three things to note about this monkey mind when it comes to our writing.
First, it’s a reliable source of ongoing, ever-changing content. There are no blank moments if we can train students to observe the moment for this constant production of words with a non-evaluative, non-sorting outlook. Prolific writing doesn’t require anything extraordinary beyond the ability to remain as accepting as possible. Secondly, the intrapersonal is not entirely a benefit to a writer—especially if allowed to pass unobserved—because in addition to providing possible content, it’s a trouble maker. It generates preconceptions and other writing liabilities. As the language of the moment, the intrapersonal is both highly persuasive and ongoing, and it will persuade us, often without our conscious recognition, of certain outcomes about the piece of writing at hand or about our writing ability and qualifications—either specific to the task or in general. Third, a view toward intrapersonal rhetoric helps us understand the chimerical nature of our so-called readers, those imaginary beings writers project into their working hours, beings that are in fact constructions of self-talk.
[Examples of exercises to help students notice the intrapersonal: Mind Lists, freewrites to net preconceived thinking about their writing, Caricature of an Audience.]
Something is always arising in our writing minds due to ongoing impermanence and the radical contingency of the moment—this means ideas are arising as well as sensations from the writing body. Fragments, phrases, full sentences appear in the flotsam of consciousness due to the persistence of intrapersonal talk.
The shifting present summons awareness of physical sensations related to writing embodiment (posture, typing, sensations of jewelry or shoes on the feet, the feeling of the ballpoint pen held by a trio of fingers); awareness of the scene of writing (room or landscape, time of day, season, household sounds, drip-drop of melting snow); awareness of intertextuality (words in hard copy books, digital texts, on phones, in recalled conversations); as well as awareness of affective formations or our emotions about the act of writing (alertness, discouragement, confidence).
The sheer bulk of transient material encourages students to accept flaws, dullness, repetition, lack of clarity, and cliché and gives practice in low-stakes, informal writing. Because mental formations are transient and continuously arising, the material must be a bit disposable writing: a writer simply can’t hold onto it all, and this provides practice in detachment. Furthermore, concerns a student might feel about potential errors are alleviated by awareness that content is fleeting—wait a few seconds and something else come along.
[Examples of exercises to help students notice impermanence: Yoga for Hands, freewriting, 25 Variations on Genre.]
Mindful writing means managing the paradoxical co-existence of the nonverbal and the verbal in each moment. Each moment in the string of thousands that comprises a writing experience, no matter how far along the moment falls in the advancement of a draft, is an empty (preverbal, nonverbal) event. For one, the nonverbal initiates every single writing moment. The observed moment starts off as non-discursive and often ends with language. A fresh present moment opens with awareness directed on the expansion of the lungs, the air pushing against the ribs, the temperature of air as it moves past the nostrils and then shifts to bits of words or voice, half an image, or the tail-end of a sentence of intrapersonal rhetoric. As a result, prewriting is dunked in non-writing and so is middle-stage drafting, and so is a final proofreading decision. Secondly, we perceive the instant when formlessness turns over to form, when out of observed emptiness emerges a phrase, and back again, or when form turns over to formlessness.
Many writing students fail to observe emptiness and miss out on an important resource for generating writing. Probably just as many students avoid the non-verbal and construe those times of not writing as a sign of a writing block. Normally, not-writing is rejected experience.
The study of form and formlessness, in contrast, reassures students that a wordless stretch will turn over to words because of the nature of impermanence—if we can sit with that wordlessness and cease avoiding or mislabeling it. Put simply, the paradox of emptiness is that nonwriting is included in every instance of writing, and writing is included in every instance of nonwriting. A mindfulness perspective can also overturn dualistic thinking that too easily obstructs writing. To overvalue one genre or stage of writing over another and perhaps especially to overvalue form over formlessness is to risk writing suffering since a writer is craving a particular product and overlooking his or her present writing situation.
[Examples of exercises to help students notice emptiness: Sand mandala (disposable writing), Save Nothing Day, momentwriting, Corpse Pose for Revision.]
Mind Waves, Mind Weeds
The occasion of writing often arouses a host of feelings, some unpleasant (apprehension, doubt, frustration, embarrassment, resentment), and some pleasant (pride, contentment, self-respect, thrill). People are steeped in their own emotions about needing to write. Mindfulness plays an integral role in the development of a calm mind for writing so we can stop our kneejerk reactions to the manipulative stories told to us by our intrapersonal voice. By adopting Shunryu Suzuki’s categories of mind waves and mind weeds from his classic Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, we gain a better sense of our writing-related emotions.
Mind waves and mind weeds are mental formations that momentarily disturb the calmness of the mind without existing separate from the mind. First mind waves. Resembling a wordless pulse or sensation, a ripple across the surface of emptiness, mind waves usually remain nonverbal because they’re very brief—the passing urge to switch the position of one’s legs, fleeting irritation at a noise, quick registering of an aftertaste.
On the other hand, mind weeds are more three dimensional than mind waves because they come accompanied by inner language and last longer. Mind weeds can provoke a writer to off-road from the moment and follow an alluring storyline about what’s happening—a daydream that lasts for a minute or a fantasy conversation with a reader who is not around. Both mind waves and mind weeds represent opportunities to engage with formlessness, resist binaries, and reach an expansive mind.
Students should not be bothered by their mind waves or weeds, since waves and weeds will dissipate. These formations are natural, inevitable, and not worthy of evaluation, just as we wouldn’t try to isolate a passing wave from its pond or feel critical of the pond for including waves. Writers should sit with difficult writing-related emotions, watching the emotions almost like a fire in a fireplace for their fluctuations in energy and imagery, without being kidnapped by the emotional storylines.
Essentially, this practice entails noticing an emotion without judgment while simultaneously remaining aware of our present circumstances. This discipline also means teaching writers to not cling—not even to positive feelings about writing—because peak emotional experiences such as pride or excitement warrant mindful monitoring to curtail preconception and storyline. The goal of mindfully working with writing-related emotions is to build a long-standing state of satisfaction, calm, a transferrable self-appreciation—a Buddha smile for writing.
[Examples of exercises to help students notice their writing-related emotions: The Fireplace, Already Perfect Meditation, Stone Backpack of Perfectionism]
Let me be clear about this point: most of us are functional mindless writers.
Paragraphs, chapters, poems, freewrites, novels, screenplays, short stories, memoir, cover letters, and so on have been composed out of near- to fully mindless states. For generations, countless pieces of creative writing have been composed with not a single millisecond of present awareness. No doubt creative writing courses have been passed and books published out of states of mindlessness.
What I am saying here is that this mindlessness has occurred not without the high cost of many writers’ self-confidence, self-efficacy, and enjoyment as well as the loss of possibility. It certainly hampered my ability for a long while during and after my creative writing education. As imaginative writers, we are in the business of creating illusions and developing a vision of what is not actually present, this I also acknowledge.
The problem, however, is that the capacity of the intrapersonal to float us along is finite, and we will be summoned back to our awareness of the moment, of where we are, of what we are doing, of the fact that we want or need to write. Possibly, we will be beached upon our longing for a return of that state of seamless, oblivious productivity. It is at that moment that individuals most require mindfulness because by returning our attention to the present we will almost immediately be able to submerge ourselves in that intrapersonal rhetoric and flux—to find mindlessness writing. With awareness of the writing moment, every moment can be a prolific moment.