Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sutra on Preconception


            Thus I have heard. At one time, the Writer appeared in the hallway outside the administrative offices at the University of MFA Program, and a great many disciples were miraculously assembled, having paid conference and retreat fees and taken time off from work. The Writer knowing of the mental agitations going on in the minds of those assembled (like the surface of the ocean stirred into waves by the passing winds), and his great heart moved by compassion, smiled and said, We have spoken about the prolonging of invention, and now we must speak about the prolonging of emptiness. We have discussed the prolonging invention, but before invention comes emptiness.

Experience arises from emptiness,

and emptiness arises from experience (Suzuki).

From whence does language arise? Because language arises, because it is not always present, because it changes from word to word, there is something else, something always present, and that something is emptiness. Just as there are gaps between typed words, so too is there a gap between the moment before writing and the moment of writing.
            All writing is thus preverbal. All writing is built on emptiness, and emptiness is preverbal. We say “preverbal” and not “nonverbal” because the presumption is that language will rush in, that intrapersonal talk is definite, that it is only a matter of time (a few moments) before the blankness ends and fills with the conversation of our consciousness. But emptiness is also nonverbal in that it is freedom from all obligation, all mental formulations, all perception, including the obligation to write, including mental formulations about the act of writing, including perceived images and words that create the content of writing.
            There are different kinds of unknowing, oh bhikku, but they must be differentiated from mindless unknowing which is a blank or erasure that replaces the present moment versus the other kinds of unknowing that we discuss, for they are the contents of the present moment mindfully perceived. Mindlessness is a kind of pollution on pure mind. 
             There is the unknowing of unfamiliarity, the disorientation that makes the routine suddenly remarkable, that lets us perceive the uniqueness of that which we have thought of as a copy or repetition. This unfamiliarity is usually on the small scale: not recognizing a word, a word of routine suddenly looks strange, its spelling odd. 
             There is the unknowing of the fragmentary, that which occurs between the floes in our internal voice. Not knowing where one’s mind will next jump, the coming up of ideas entails leaping over wide expanses of unknowing. 
              There is the unknowing of the duration or how long it will take to complete a writing project, not knowing whether it can be completed in a few days or weeks or will take years or decades before the writer has a complete picture of the idea. 
               There is the unknowing of the unconscious, that which will take wide swipes at one’s awareness, the erasure of what has been only a moment before provided by the present, the abduction of a new thought greeted only seconds before it is pulled like a seal by a killer whale into the cold depths of unknowing. The unknowing of the unconscious pulls too at the writer, making her drowsy, making the writer nap, those siren calls to join it in a deep white sleep. 
               Preconception is a form of false knowing. It is an overstocking of the present moment with contents not found in the present moment. Preconceptions are the Ego’s attempt to control the vastness of the possible moment. They are false starts on the moment. They are a gamble on the moment: rather than reside in the non-verbal to consult the possible, we prefer to fill the moment with guesses. We replace possibility with a smaller, shorter, diminished content. We shackle ourselves to a premature commitment. Because of impermanence, the ever-shifting moment offers more manifold possibilities than a seemingly static preconception. We substitute one type of unknowing, that of emptiness, with another type of unknowing, that of preconception, a far lesser grade, oh bhikkuni. 
             For what can be known outside of the present moment, oh disciples? For what action occurs outside of the present? Even the action of knowing occurs in the present moment.
             There are preconceptions of alphabet, there are preconceptions of syntax and grammar, of vocabulary as well as how to hold a pen or pencil, form letters or type. A notion about how many pages or word count would make a successful writing session is a preconception. Preconceptions of the content you think you should or will write, preconceptions of the amount you should or will write, preconceptions about the genre you should or will write. Preconception too is the notion that to write is a positive thing as well as to write nothing is a negative phenomena. Preconception of how long it will take to complete a text, preconception that a text will ever advance or be finished or even read by others. You can not know in advance how long you will sit under the gnarled tree. Preconceptions of structure, organization. Preconception of what is mindfulness and what is mindlessness. Preconceptions of skill, knowledge, and training. Preconception of how many pages you will write today or the next day. There are preconception of process, of where one is in the writing process, ones that lead to misperception of one’s actual actions in the moment (See Keith Hjortshoj).
            Practice approaching one’s writing with a blank mind, free of preconception. Gradually decide which pre-existent abilities, content, or approaches can be returned to the mind. When you study Buddhism, you should have a general house cleaning of your mind. You must take everything out of your room and clean it thoroughly. If it is necessary, you may bring everything back in again. You may want many things, so one by one you can bring them back. But if they are not necessary, there is no need to keep them (Suzuki). Reel back in your literacy, your ability to write in the language, to follow grammatical rules. You may find you want to return a certain character or approach to voice or way of engaging in the writing process. Bring them back into the moment of your writing but do so mindfully, with awareness of their presence and impact.

*Material borrowed from Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, as well as Goddard's The Buddhist Bible.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Thus I Have Heard

 I'll be posting excerpts from a longer project on mindful writing under posts titled "Thus I Have Heard." Your feedback and observations are welcome.

                    Thus I have heard. At one time, the Writer gathered an assembly of a thousand bloggers, a thousand poets, a thousand short story writers, a thousand screen play writers, a thousand authors of scholarly books, a thousand writers of magazine columns, a thousand troubadours, a thousand students who repeatedly failed required college composition, lined before him like single-spaced rows of mountains.
            They were gathered on rented folding chairs in the shared knowledge that a person’s ability to write is always present. A literate individual can write at any moment, in any place, using any type of utensil, paper and pen, magic markers, typing into a keyboard, or speaking into a voice recognition program, or to their smart phone.  And yet one doesn’t have to look far to find people who admit, often with great pain, that they are unable to write—students who can’t turn assignments in on time and who dread writing courses, book-less colleagues who worry about tenure, acquaintances who twist themselves into knots because of a New Year’s resolution to write a novel. Even the teachers of stuck writers are often themselves stuck. Scratch an academic, a theorist well known for talking about writing as a process once said, and chances are you’ll find a struggling writer.
                  One person arose from her seat and approaching the Writer asked, What is the suffering of writing and what is the cessation of that suffering? And the Writer said, the suffering of writing is caused by the failure to take advantage of the vacancy of the present moment, by acting as though the reader is physically present, by not paying attention to the present moment, and by contemplating a fictional audience and a fictional text instead of the actuality before one. Dear disciples, many people treat occasions of writing as occasions of public speaking. Thus they fail to take advantage of the emptiness of the moment and instead populate it with the shadowy figures of an anticipated audience. The suffering of writing is caused by overlooking the present for a strictly fictional future; it is a future that contains a hypothetical reader and a hypothetical finished final draft. The opposite of the suffering of writing is therefore possible when one notices the present moment to gain the privacy of writing and to take charge of the proximity of audience in one’s head. We notice the present, oh writers, to gain this freedom from the future but also to contact our internal talk, internal rhetoric, or intrapersonal dialog. We survey our internal to see how we are discussing our writing abilities with ourselves as well as to find potential content for the piece we seek to write.

What are the Four Noble Truths of Writing?

Your ability to write is always present.


The present moment contains all that you need in order to write.


Writing difficulties occur because of a lack of awareness of the present moment. In order to write, you need to practice mindful awareness of the present moment. Mindlessness is the standard or default position; a mindful writing practice can not be “allowed to happen” or passively arise. Mindlessness needs to be actively countered. An individual’s success or lack of success in writing can be traced back to that person’s relation to the present moment. 

In order to write without struggle, develop a practice that heightens your engagement with the present moment through the Sevenfold Path:
1.      Right Understanding
2.      Right Discipline
3.      Right Effort 
4.      Right Attentiveness
5.      Right Invention
6.      Right Acceptance
7.      Right Listening and Feedback

Upon hearing the Writer’s word, several disciples immediately Tweeted the discourse. 

* image provided by

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Thus I Have Heard

Do not clutch at writing outcome for to do so is to embrace an explosive, rabid, backstabbing, and ravenous pet, combination of pit bull and piranha. This creature will shred the shirt you are wearing. It will leave you in pain. It will show others the foolishness of your choices and the vanity of your ego. It is said that this creature once existed peaceably in mythic lands, running after written products, final drafts, and publications, causing no harm until one of us embraced it. And then this creature of outcome caused havoc with livestock and the ability of nearly adolescent children to focus in school.
                                                          Far wiser is it to watch the minnows of the moment pass and pass in the river of process.

* Image provided by britishlibrary.typepad

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Montaigne Method: Keeping Revision Fresh

This post is based on Thomas Newkirk's research on Montaigne in The Art of Slow Reading and his 2005 Rhetoric Review article, "Montaigne's Revisions." Staci Fleury and I co-authored an article forthcoming in the Journal of Teaching Writing in which we applied Montaigne's revision method to Staci's high school English classes. Here I'm talking about the rest of us--writers not necessarily in a classroom.

If you struggle to revise, chances are your audience-in-the-head dynamic is off. If you find revision to be more chore than exploration, you're probably (at least for this particular writing task) acting as though a purely hypothetical reader resides in the present moment with you. Scrutiny of your intrapersonal dialog or self-talk will show signs that you think this reader actually in the room. You're overlooking that fundamental vacancy of the moment of writing and operating as though revision was the same as public speaking.

To help energize revision, find a way to regain the privacy of writing, even at this seemingly late stage in the writing process. In other words, if you find yourself in this state, try to return to the initial working conditions of invention, the opening moments.

No matter how much time has passed since the start of the writing project--no matter how much time remains until the project deadline--return yourself to the mindset of the beginning.

Staci Fleury and I describe how revision is "Janus-faced," meaning that revision can mean looking back to the beginning (a generative and reflective time) or it can look ahead to editing and proofreading (a time for carefully considering the needs of audience).

A writer should be able to push his or her text closer to the beginning at any moment, right up until the very final minutes. Presumably, someone could return to invention five minutes before pushing the Send button on an email to a publisher.

Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century essayist, spent a lifetime adding material in the expansive margins of his often already published texts. The versions of his essays typically seen by twenty-first century readers are distillations of additions separated by years and decades: many present moments instead of just one.

We can adopt Montaigne's practice. Obtain very large sheets of paper (or tape together four sheets of standard typing paper). Tape a page of your draft to the center of this "parchment." Allow yourself 20-30 minutes to revise just this page by only adding material. These additions could be details, phrases, sentences, whole paragraphs, ideas, internal reflection, rebuttal, definition, tangents, examples, questions--essentially, anything that is new material. Try to also add onto your additions by rereading your notations and listening for what arises from them.

The only thing that is not permitted with the Montaigne method of revising is the elimination of content: trimming is valuable but occurs at another time. For now, just add and simultaneously watch your own attitude toward adding. After a lifetime of over-consideration of audience, some people find it difficult to resist deleting their work. Backspacing has been as prevalent in their practice as forward movement. Just take stock of your internal reactions to pure addition.

After 20 or 30 minutes, repeat: tape another page of the draft to another "parchment."

By bringing revision closer to invention, you're making the revision more of a low-stakes task. You're giving yourself the time and space to invent material with all the playfulness, blundering, rich ambiguity, and insight that special phase can hold.

* Image from mediumaevumtumblr.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Don't "Do" Drafts (Mostly)

Teachers assign drafts; I assign drafts; students write drafts; I've a dozen of my students' drafts on my laptop screen right now; professional writers finish supposed drafts. At the same time, in my own writing practice I don't "do" drafts. Well, for the most part. 

Once again, I see a schism between how I teach writing (how most of us teach writing) and the actual way I proceed with my own writing. 

We are far better off these days, of course, for all the important practices provided by the process theorists beginning in the early 1970's and 1980's. Process theorists really helped make writing a human activity. Before process theory--with its emphasis on pre-writing, drafting, feedback, and revising--people were put in an odd bind. Since their student years, they had been told that writing was a mysterious, mostly unteachable act; at the same time, high-stakes writing was expected of them and carried consequences for their grades and success. 

What I'm discovering, though, is that the experiences I live through as a professional writer do not synchronize with the experiences students gain in a writing class. 

Instead of discrete drafts, for most of my work, the progress from inception to final version is far less delineated. Moment by moment a text underway changes without clearly naming its stage of development. 

What connects one writing session to the next and gives a text its presence is not the official announcement of a draft but instead an ongoing discussion with myself about process. In my creative writing and scholarly notebooks, I consistently include discussions of how I am feeling about the text, how I physically feel, details about my surroundings, questions, observations on how the text might connect to other projects, goals and wishes.

Self-discussions about your writing need to be nurtured as much as any other part of your writing.

It's important to keep that intrapersonal dialog running. It is respectful of your ongoing experience of writing, not denying or burying aspects. Secondly, it returns your attention to the present moment of writing, providing healthful isolation from audience and giving access to your intrapersonal dialog for content. 

I value those process entries as much as I value jottings about content or passages which are actually typed up. If I find myself only making process observations, I don't judge the session as any less productive as one in which I actually complete a poem or article. My notebooks are full of content that doesn't directly pertain to a task at hand and that doesn't directly yield publication. 

Which brings me to another classroom technique, one I regularly use: the process note. 

Process notes are discrete accounts of the steps involved in completing a task, including discussion of invention, drafting, and feedback. They're fabulous for fostering novices' meta-cognition; they make conscious certain choices that were made along the way of completing a text. Process notes can be assigned at any point in the completion of a document, and they can be graded or ungraded. Paradoxically, this use of process notes makes process more product- than process-oriented. Next semester (or maybe even next week--I am eager to try this out), I will ask students to keep a private process journal along the way rather than turning in unified process paragraph at the end. 

Drafts are really a performance for others. They represent that moment in which you are ready to share your work with a writing friend, colleague, teacher. A draft means that you've tidied up your intrapersonal dialog for the purposes of inviting them in, giving them the chair of at least a modicum of organization and sense to sit down in and be comfortable. 

So a draft could be redefined as the moment when your self-conversation has shifted to a conversation with others. In their turn toward the external and interpersonal communication, drafts are invaluable, but the idea of a draft should never be allowed to paint its boundary lines around the expansiveness of internal production.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Simplest Definition of Invention Ever

Is it possible that invention can be defined almost entirely as about finding the right relationship to audience? That it comes down to locating our most beneficial proximity to audience? And this includes the self as audience: tuning into the frequency of our intrapersonal dialog? 

Can invention for writing be that streamlined?
I'm starting to think so.

Invention, one of the five canons of classical Greco-Roman rhetoric, is widely known as the starting point to a writing task. It's the set of moments when we come up with ideas, material, approaches. For me, it's when I prop a mental plank up the side of my desk and start climbing.

Most people agree that starting a piece of writing can be one of the most challenging moments in a writing process.

In fact, writing experts may feel a little squeamish to actually teach moments of invention. It seems too nebulous, and perhaps its notion that a teacher can enter a student's thought process seems too intrusive and personal. 

In her chapter in Perspectives on Rhetorical Invention, Janet Lauder has described that reluctance in Writing Studies to address invention: "a number of earlier emphases in scholarship on invention have either disappeared or been marginalized: the relationship between invention and the writing process, the heuristic function of invention as a kind of thinking that stimulates knew knowledge, invention as an art or strategic practice, [and] the importance of classroom attention to invention."

For many writers, invention resembles hibernation. Little seems to be happening. Maybe the writer is staring off into the woods, going on long walks, vacuuming. 

Don Murray, in "The Essential Delay," described five reasons writers undergo a waiting period during invention. Murray thought the writers wait until they have sufficient information, insight, voice, and need. If a writer accepts what's occurring during this period of latency, the anxiety of not-starting is manageable. Students, of course, usually don't benefit from this extended period of non-verbal reflection and operate under multiple simultaneous deadlines. 

I'm thinking that what's happening during those moments of hibernation (or strain) falls entirely under the act of adjusting one's dynamic with audience-in-the-head. 

This means noticing the types of fictional Audience Characters one has installed in one's thinking. This means noticing the conversations we're carrying on in our minds with that Audience Character. Or Characters--they're frequently composites. [See the post from January 2014, "Make a Caricature of a Tricky Audience."] This means being aware of our own embodied or physical situations while we write--watching our breathing, posture, energy levels. [See the post, "Yoga for Hands," or Sondra Perl's book Felt Sense.] And that means noticing the present moment of writing: the fundamental vacancy of your actual writing circumstance in which no reader from the future (editor, teacher, critic, reader) is actually seeing your work. [See How-To Tip #1: Kicking Out the Reader-in-the-Head from August 2012.]

When I say above "most beneficial relationship to audience," I'm not necessarily talking about easy street. Sometimes a challenging audience-in-the-head is precisely what our writing needs in the moment. So this audience dynamic inside Invention is context-specific and will change depending on the genre, writing task, audience, and physical circumstances of your life.

 * Image from

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Repost of Flux

Pink Sherbert Photography
Our real environment—one of of constant change—works for us as writers, not against us.

One of the main tasks of mindful writing involves accepting changes in your writing experience along the way.

Nothing stays the same. Mindful writing is built upon the premise of groundlessness. Everything is in flux; everything is impermanent: even writing ability, even writing blocks.
Your feelings about your writing are constantly changing in subtle or not so subtle ways.
Instead of becoming locked into a death grip with one type of feeling about your writing—whether it’s a pessimistic or optimistic view—let that feeling happen without judgment and fear and just watch how the feeling fluctuates.
If we hold on to a particular view of our writing, we eventually suffer. Suffering in the Buddhist sense is caused by not admitting impermanence. For writers, that suffering takes the form of what we call a "writer's block." (I define "writer's block" as an inattention to the Present moment and specifically a lack of acceptance of the impermanence of the Present moment.)
I find that my perception of my own writing varies tremendously.
On some days, I am filled with bouyancy and confidence that what I am writing is worthwhile. Just the next day, I may find myself thinking, “What right do I have to be writing about this topic? What do I know?” I may really like a piece I've just finished and a week later have doubts. Or I may be excited at the prospect of a long weekend to do more writing but then only find myself distracted by plans with my family once I'm actually sitting at my desk.
Trying to replicate a positive writing experience will only last so long as well. Writers are notorious for their superstitions and repetitive working habits: these are strategies to gain some (false) semblance of control over impermanence.
Throughout my writing career, I have found that any gimic I cling to eventually leaves me high & dry upon a beach of blank thought.
In contrast, if I train myself to return to the Present in those times and watch it with acceptance, I invariably find myself in a better day of writing. It may take a few days or even a week, but the next change (one I welcome or would select) does happen.
Many scholars on writing (Peter Elbow, Linda Flower and John Hayes, Keith Hjortshoj, Don Murray, Sondra Perl, Mike Rose just to name a few) have emphasized the recursivity of the writing experience. That is, they have usefully drawn our attention to the time line of writing, pointing out how people engaged in composing a text regularly "loop" around through the different parts of writing--inventing, drafting, rewriting, editing, etc. Broadly speaking, scholars have argued against a linear view of the writing process.
What I am suggesting is a finer grained notion of the time involved in the act of writing. Micro-beats instead of macro-beats. We should pay attention to changes not just in large phases of the writing process (for instance, how a writer might return to drafting after a stretch of editing) but also look at the moment by moment changes. Our real environment—one of of constant change—works for us as writers, not against us.