Thursday, July 16, 2020

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

Part Two of Previous Post


On another level, The Heart Sutra tells us that the blank page is not ever really blank. That blankness is a construct—one that comes from our misguided sorting of wording into what’s desirable (we can use it in our document) and useless (it won’t serve the goal of advancing this particular document).

If this sorting mechanism is eliminated, we notice that an empty page or screen is actually surrounded by signs of our interconnection and communication—the nameless people who designed, manufactured, transported, and sold the screen or notebook page, the No. 2 pencil in the hand, the ballpoint pen. I look at the opaque black plastic framing my laptop, and I should see the presence of others and know that it took their language usage to get the computer made. Other words also occur all around my screen—File, Home, Insert, Design, Layout, References, Mailings, Review, View, English (United States), Page 2 of 5, “Tell me what you want to do” and the header “Article for Buddhadharma.”

An egoless approach to write does not differentiate between “found” language of others and language generated by the self. 

Developing a meditation practice which reflects on the interbeing behind our writing tools can make the blank screen less static, less autonomous, and immediately help us begin viewing our writing task as part of a dependent arising. We can adapt Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditation on a sheet of paper in which mindful inspection reveals the trees and rain clouds that made the paper possible. We gain a sense of the interconnected emptiness we operate in as writers.

            Not only are we surrounded by all sorts of language as we write, but that opening sentence we’re seeking as we stare at the empty screen is probably already present. It’s temporarily camouflaged in blankness, covered over for now by the white-out of the unconscious. Blanks are loaded with possibility: inside an empty moment is a turn of phrase that will give you momentum. Other fragments are ready to step forward—tidbits of voice, language and thought recalled, an image that shimmers in possibility. 

            If you turn to that emptiness rather than avoiding it, writing will manifest on the page or screen. It’s all there. It’s just that with emptiness, since all is undifferentiated and interconnected, nothing yet emerges as discrete and visible. 

I’m partial to the view of Edo Shonin and his colleagues that we substitute “fullness” for “emptiness” and that we see emptiness as an occasion for a joy that comes from interconnection. In The Heart Sutra’s notion of sūnyatā, a mutuality of form and formlessness is evident, or an emptiness in which it is said that all things, not just the human ego, lack independent existence. Sūnyatā is not the annihilation of existence but rather the repudiation of a particular kind of existence (independent and permanent), replaced in a Buddhist perspective with an interconnected and continuously changing one. 

The nonverbal means something very different through a Buddhist lens. Emptiness teems with presence, just as non-writing overflows with writing.

            In the binary-dissolving spirit of the Heart Sutra, it’s important to note with equanimity not only how much language encompasses us—if we’re not selective or discriminating—but also how much emptiness surrounds us. The task for mindful writers is to learn to observe without evaluation both verbal and blank occasions. 

            Empty moments abound, including the gap between words and between letters. Those nonverbal moments are as frequent as verbal moments in the writing experience—probably far more prevalent. Word count: 3,000. Gap count: 10,000. In actuality, whenever we write, we make contact with countless moments in which we are not writing.  



The writing process is often depicted as a sequence through which language moves from formlessness to ever-increasing form, from the multiple and divergent possibilities of early drafts to a stabilized final version likely intended for readers. 

This line of thinking is biased toward bigger amounts of form: writing products are price tagged as more valuable the greater their removal from verbal emptiness. On top of that, certain types of writing are seen as possessing more accumulated form; for example, a poem has more form (and therefore more value) than a less organized freewrite or private writing—an anxiety that originates in our unease with verbal emptiness.

Conventional, mindless understanding of the timing of writing also divvies up the writing process into discrete stages: prewriting, writing, rewriting, editing. The phases are cast as predictable to the point that writing theorists have on occasion quantified the amount of time each takes: 85% for prewriting, 1% for the first draft, and 14% for rewriting, in one approach.

 We often specially demarcate the starting area of our writing experiences, marking its boundary with special yellow tape. That’s how we usually learn about writing in school. 

This arrangement puts tremendous pressure on certain (initial) moments in our writing experiences. Those who write while mindfully aware of their physical and emotional states note an acceleration of their pulse, spikes in adrenalin, and shallow breathing when contemplating how to start a new piece of writing. We fixate on a document’s introduction, for instance, roping it off with preconceptions and self-imposed writing rules that warp those moments into a high-stakes performance, when a more continuous view of emptiness wouldn’t bother with such designations. 

A view that embraces verbal emptiness is a view toward the fleeting, with the moment as its unit, so writing time is ongoing, not discrete starts and ends. As stated in The Heart Sutra, “all things having the nature of emptiness have no beginning and no ending.”

Operating with this false time line, writers tend to compartmentalize verbal emptiness as mainly occurring when we start a piece of writing—during the prewriting phase—when in actuality emptiness surrounds us, even at late-stage editing phases, due to the radical groundlessness of present experience. The actual switch-over is frequent and momentary; anything written is the immediate neighbor of emptiness. For example, the thirty seconds or so around the time I pressed “publish" for this post contained traces of the nonverbal. Changeover between formlessness and form happens on a moment-by-moment basis rather than in macro phases like “prewriting” and “rewriting.”

For struggling writers, any delay in starting is perceived as a problem, as though we think we’re in charge of the timetable for writing and can predict or dictate the arrival of words. This thinking is hubristic and perpetuates mindlessness because it means we are loading up the next moment with our preconceptions. 

Experienced writers know that non-activity is part of the writing process, while novices often mislabel it as a weakness. Experienced and prolific writers learn to trust these moments of delay and emptiness, accepting those stretches of staring off into space or decisions to vacuum the downstairs instead of write, for reasons that a mindfulness perspective can illuminate. 

Don Murray once proposed that writers encounter five natural delays as they wait for voice, insight, organization, purpose, and information. As Murray says, “The writer has to accept the writer’s own ridiculousness of working by not working” and that “accepting the doing nothing that is essential for writing” is key to the development of a piece.

What makes writers doubt themselves? It’s often due to a misunderstanding of the timing of writing. 

In past summers, as director of my university's first-year writing program, I reviewed over a thousand writing samples from incoming college students, essays in which students make a case for taking either a non-required developmental writing course or the required course. 

The vast majority who pick the lower level course attribute their decision to the time it takes for them to start an assignment. Their high school teacher distributed the prompt, the student didn’t know what to write until a day later, and so the student concludes that delay is a defect in their writing ability.

 I was flabbergasted by younger writers’ stringent expectation that they should be able to immediately start writing—even their teachers would need time to mull over a new project—and by the extent to which nonverbal experiences of writing are rejected. We should be concerned when any writer (including ourselves) expects continuous and automatic verbal production. 

We actually need stretches of non-writing for the purposes of writing.

To be continued.

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