Saturday, July 11, 2020

Writing, No Writing: Cultivating Emptiness of Page and Screen, Part One

The cursor is blinking away. The illuminated rectangle of the new document opened on the laptop looks like a vacant lot on a hot afternoon, page 1 of 1, no word count in sight. A faint hum is coming from your computer; the device is waiting for you to make the first move, anything other than staring out the window or constructing piles of paperclips. 

For a split second, even the most proficient of writers might wonder if this isn’t a sign of forthcoming troubles—possibly even a full-blown writing block. What if writing doesn’t happen this time?

Over the next few blog posts, I want to make a case for cultivating blankness, not avoiding or fearing it, by turning to The Heart Sutra for its instruction on the non-dualistic interplay of form and formlessness. It’s pretty common that we misperceive verbal emptiness, missing out on important writing resources and sometimes self-diagnosing verbal emptiness as a sign of our deficiency as writers. 

Normally, not-writing is rejected experience. Dread of the empty page is a near universal experience: it doesn’t matter if we’re a professional author with ten books, an employee struggling through an end-of-the-year performance report, or a person trying to come up with a toast for our best friend’s wedding. For some writers I’ve met in my teaching practice, this dread becomes so debilitating as to altogether prevent them from satisfying experiences with their own writing.

Most of us overly value the popcorn sound of typing or any sign of productivity, so developing comfort with blanks takes practice. We only begin to feel secure once language makes an appearance on the screen and the word count climbs, each new sentence rescuing us from our plight of possible failure, transporting us farther away from this face-off with nothingness. We grasp after words, clinging to every phrase we produce until second guessing and self-critique washes over us and we’re back to facing sūnyatā, or verbal emptiness. 

Traditional schooling has also told us that blank moments are to be avoided. Well-meaning teachers and writing coaches usually offer prompts that springboard a writer from no-writing into writing. The problem is that this still sends the message that there’s something to fear about nonwriting—a message we carry around with us for the rest of our writing lives.

 By engaging in this dualistic thinking in which non-writing is avoided, we’re perpetuating our suffering as writers, if we understand this suffering as resisting what’s happening in present time as we write. Conversely, with mindful writing, it takes perception (mindfulness) of what’s really happening as we write (the present) to acknowledge change (impermanence) and be released from writing problems (entering into prolific, content writing experiences). If we are biased toward product and outcome, we are disregarding the experience of the moment—for instance, verbal emptiness—and increase our own struggle as writers.

The Heart Sutra offers an alternative approach to those occasions of verbal emptiness or sūnyatā  that frequently happen as we start a new piece—but can also surface in the middle of a project, making it hard for us to continue. The Buddhist mutuality of form and formlessness reassures writers that a wordless stretch will turn over to words. The moment starts off as verbally empty and turns wordy (and back again). Ultimately, the concept of emptiness in The Heart Sutra dissolves binaries of writing ability/inability and increases our confidence. The paradox of emptiness is that nonwriting is included in every instance of writing, and writing is included in every instance of nonwriting.


The Heart Sutra offers a better approach to those incidents of verbal emptiness than the model traditional education usually provides. Avalokitesvara’s instruction to Sariputra on prajñãpāramitā through egolessness was “Form is emptiness, emptiness is not different from form, neither is form different from emptiness, indeed, emptiness is form.” 

In Avalokitesvara’s reply, this pivot between form on the one hand and emptiness on the other becomes a swing dance involving two partners around the single word “is.” The rotation between form and formlessness has implications for writing, for the nonverbal and verbal. The teaching can help us cultivate a healthy relationship to blankness by first fixing our errors in evaluation (how we cling to the verbal and reject the nonverbal) and then adjusting our sense of timing (our assumptions about when the verbal should occur).

The most powerful word in “Form is emptiness, emptiness is not different from form, neither is form different from emptiness, indeed, emptiness is form” is that deceptively humble “is.” This tiny word points to how both writing and no-writing are present—are adjacent experiences. 

The situation is like turning a corner: by the time we reach the second half of the equation, “Formless is form,” form, or writing, is visible. Secondly, this pivot word suggests that both writing and no-writing are equivalent: a fundamental notion because it reduces false evaluation of experience, clutching and striving: mental formations which lead to writing-related suffering.

In the sutra, “form” refers to both the physical aspects of the world as well as skandha of feeling, perception, consciousness, and impulses. By “form” in writing, I mean material that results from mental formations and that falls on a spectrum of the inchoate (nonverbal, sensed ideas without verbal accompaniment) to the word-by-word tracking of internal discourse not organized for others (freewriting, brainstorming, private writing) to genre-specific, highly revised texts, and back again. A single letter in Garamond font is an instance of form; a well-formed paragraph, the use of description, and a haiku are also instances of form. Form doesn’t differentiate on the basis of perceived usefulness or quality or on size. A fragment is as legitimate a form as a complete sentence or a book.

The Buddhist mutuality of form and formlessness evident in the praj󠆿nāpāramitā of The Heart Sutra reassures writers that a wordless stretch will turn over to words. The moment often commences as verbally empty and ends discursively. With an inhalation, each moment of present awareness for writing starts off as a razed, non-conceptual space usually wiped clear of mental formation. It’s dunked in verbal emptiness. This moment may or may not turn verbal—it usually does, given our human propensity for inner discursivity, our monkey mind. The air entering our nostrils may start off nonconceptual, but by the time the accordion of our rib cage expands, our inner talk or what Buddhists call "monkey mind" has usually commenced.  

Ultimately, this concept of emptiness dissolves binaries of writing ability/inability and increases our confidence that writing will happen. The emptiness of the present moment is active, emergent; it is the surface upon which words and images arise and disappear in the impermanent nature of all entities. The paradox is that nonwriting is included in every moment of writing, and writing is included in every moment of nonwriting.

 [To be continued] 

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