Friday, July 24, 2015

Facing the Preverbal

The act of writing is actually preceded by a blankness, a set of empty moments, in which nothing is already known.

I'd like to make a case for seeing the prewriting phase as a preverbal moment and a vote for facing emptiness, the nonverbal, that absence of words that occurs before writing starts to appear.

In process pedagogy, prewriting usually refers to the notes, freewriting, brainstorming, and research a writer might do before starting a first draft. Don Murray described prewriting as "everything that takes place before the first draft"; D. Gordon Rohman defined prewriting as the "point where the 'writing idea' is ready for the words and page." What I'd like to talk about is how prewriting (pre--as in what comes before writing) is nonverbal, and all those other activities are already writing.

The act of writing is actually preceded by a blankness, a set of empty moments, in which nothing is already known. It is a pre-pre process and the wordlessness that is necessary for the verbal. It's the big mind described by Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. The terrain of prewriting is like a Yves Tanguy painting: at first, a sense of a place without details, as though all detail had been razed. It's the hunting grounds, home court, and head quarters of the unconscious. Then as you contemplate this emptiness hints and form and wisps of voice begin to appear.

Prewriting refers to the contemplation of the emptiness before language rushes in; a preverbal state of writing is expansive with no decisions yet made about style, content, or possibly genre. It’s Emily Dickinson’s dwelling in Possibility. It's what happens before the "commitment" of writing, to use Don Murray's wise name for a piece of writing. People have different terms too for that observation of emptiness. James Moffett (an incredibly interesting and currently under-read composition scholar) called it "suspending inner speech." I’ll call this emptiness of prewriting formlessness.

The benefits of formlessness include fewer preconceptions about how and what one should write (or what one is good at writing), leading to a wider horizon. By staying with formlessness, especially if you are a student or professional writer with a declared genre, you can discover far more than an idea for a single story, poem, play, etc. 

The mindful writer avoids preconceptions of genre, process, content, and audience. All writing is thus preverbal. All writing is built on emptiness, and that emptiness is preverbal.

A mindful writer is alert to this blankness. He or she perches before the brink of unknowing as though patiently ice-fishing in an all-white tundra. It means sitting before one’s own silence and one’s non-writing. The writer knows that the blank contains everything needed to write, that the vast emptiness teems with possibilities.

This non-knowing needs to be fostered through discipline. A supreme goal of a writing class should be silence and the absence of language. (So let's hear it for a new learning outcome for a syllabus: not doing any writing.) Learning how to not-know may be best practiced through formal seated meditation: to approach each moment with a blank mind, observe the breath. Our breathing is the metronome on the present. 

Facing the preverbal isn't always easy. Silence can bring out a writer's fears (i.e.: horror that maybe you'll never write/write well again). And one can't predicate how long this phase will go on. School does not prepare writers well for this experience of no-writing. As a result, some writers misconstrue the silence of the preverbal as an indicator of their deficiency and either struggle in a state of doubt or give up altogether. In fact, this gap in writers' training could be the main culprit behind people's writing blocks after they graduate from MFA and PhD programs.

It's important to look closely and patiently at the preverbal because it's in that terrain that a writer hears his or her intrapersonal voice, that dialectic of call and response, that internal inquiry which lets a piece of writing begin. I'd like to mention four low-stakes invention activities (tasks which use informal and, better yet, private writing) which can help engage the preverbal: 
* freewriting (the foundation of so much)
* Peter Elbow’s Open-Ended Method from Writing with Power
* Sondra Perl’s Felt Sense Method from Felt Sense
* and my own Yoga for Hands (see this blog).

* "I Await You" or "I Am Waiting for You," Yves Tanguy painting, 1934

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

An Editor Decided If Gladiator Lived or Died

In Rome last summer, while on a tour of the Colosseum, I learned from our guide that in ancient Rome, a person called an "editor" decided if a fallen gladiator would live or die. Basically, this person, not the emperor, would give the thumbs up or down to indicate whether the winning gladiator should spare or take the fallen gladiator's life. 

All week we'd seen actors playing gladiators, men dressed in gauzy red loin cloths and bristly helmets, bare chests exposed (or in the case of one out-of-shape actor, a plastic chest plate to give him 6-pack abs), smoking an e-cigarette, talking on cell phones, leaning shields against small carry-on suitcases the same red as the costume.

When the guide told us of this role for the "editor," my thoughts moved even farther from gladiators, actual or not, to writers. I couldn't stop grinning because for writers submitting work for publication or student writers submitting for a grade, it can feel like a "life or death" decision. At last, the true source of an editor's power...

As I've stayed longer in my writing career, I've been enjoying high-quality interactions with editors. They frequently offer a different perspective on a finished text. Sometimes it's a change of wording, usually the elimination of words, sometimes moving around whole paragraphs. I've been enjoying the email interchanges as we negotiate over the piece, their desired version and my own vision of the text.

I've also grown to know a few journal or press editors in recent years and have watched how hard they work on other people's writing. I've been impressed by the dedication of the graduate-student editors at my university's journal, Soundings East, and the serious consideration behind their "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" verdicts. I like what William Stafford said on this topic--the way he frames the publishing dynamic in so trusting a fashion: "An editor is a friend who helps keep a writer from publishing what should not be published."

At the same time, I often think back on a pin a student I knew wore on his T-shirts in junior high: "Kill Them All and Let God Decide." A disturbing pin on multiple levels, certainly, but somehow in my thinking it has become the mantra, "Write It All and Let Them (Editors) Decide." I often turn to this saying while in the midst of a complicated writing project. It's a firm reminder that my job is to separate the composing process from the editing process for a good stretch of the work. It's my job to experience the creation of the text and let other people do what they will with the eventual final text. While I can make structural, stylistic, or content choices which persuade a future reader, it's truly beyond my control (or any writer's) to dictate their decisions about the text's fate. Leave that job to someone else.

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

“If one wanted certain truths to be able to go on living, did they not have to be said over and over again? After all, things remain in existence only thanks to the effort made by a few people to recreate them day after day.”

--- Marcel Bénabou

“I am not the first author of the narrative titled ‘The Library of Babel.’”

            -- 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

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Repost of Loving Kindness Meditation for Writers

This meditation is an adaptation of metta or loving-kindness meditation. It's a variation of the loving-kindness meditation for non-writers described by Sharon Salzberg: a fundamentally imaginative practice leading to empathy and compassion for ourselves and others.

In my Overcoming Writing Blocks courses, this writerly loving-kindness meditation is one of my favorite activities, right beside showing students mindful eating and walking.

Writer's Loving-Kindness can be helpful in our interactions with audience. Recall from previous posts that we've discussed how all writing is at least initially private writing and how we've stressed the importance of recognizing our fundamental solitude while writing. The audience, to paraphrase Walter Ong, is fictional; what's real is the Present moment. (See earlier posts "The 3 Paradoxes of Mindful Writing" and "How-To Tip #1: Kicking Out the Reader-in-the-Head.")

What better way to take advantage of the vacancy of the writer's Present moment, what better way to make use of our imaginative inclination, than to use those capacities to develop a more reflective, more nuanced relationship to potentially tricky audiences or what Peter Elbow calls dangerous audiences? (Note, though, that Writer's Loving-Kindness meditation is also intended for more benign audience relationships.)

Here are the steps:

Sit in a meditation posture on the floor or in a chair. Begin watching your breathing. Breathing in, think to yourself, "Here." Breathing out, think to yourself, "Now." Do this for several minutes.

1. Think of someone who has been supportive of your writing either in the past or in your current work. On the In Breath, visualize something which would bring this supportive individual tremendous happiness. Try to think of something relating to this individual's writing, reading, or maybe even teaching life. On the Out Breath, visualize this individual receiving or this item (or experiencing this happy event, if it's an event like a literary prize). Continue for several minutes to think of this person in this fashion while watching your breathing.

2. Turn to yourself. What would make you happy in terms of your writing life? On the In Breath, visualize this item or event. On the Out Breath, visualize yourself receiving this item or experiencing this event. Continue for several minutes to think of yourself in this fashion while watching your breathing.

3. Turn to a neutral--someone who is not central to your writing life but plays a role. You might not even know this person's name. For instance, in the past, I've visualized an editor at one of the literary journals to which I submit my work. (I've never met him.) Follow the same steps as above for the In and Out Breath, focusing this time on this person.

4. Turn to a dangerous audience--someone from your past or current writing experience who has tripped up your writing, wittingly or unwittingly. Follow the steps for this person.

5. Turn to any writing group or class you are involved in. For instance, when I'm using this meditation in my Overcoming Writing Blocks class, we contemplate the whole class (students and teacher alike). You could also pick the members of a coffee shop writing group you belong to or the crowd who attends a neighborhood reading series, for instance. Follow the steps for this group.

6. Lastly, turn to the writers of your genre--all the people who compose the type of writing you do (poetry, short fiction, etc.). Follow the steps for this group. Wish them well.

From doing the Writer's Loving-Kindness Meditation, you might notice a softening of your outlook toward difficult judges of your work. You might also gain a sense of their perspective--the reason why they might have acted toward your work as they did. Most of all, this meditation provides a different sensation of audience. Instead of fighting with audiences in our head or even kicking them out in order to use our actual solitude, we can greet that audience and those fellow writers with calm and generosity.

Image from

Sunday, May 31, 2015

It's a Good Idea to Have Multiple Writing Projects Going at Once

If I think I must write one book, all the problems of how this book should be and how it should not be block me and keep me from going forward. If, on the contrary, I think that I am writing a library, I feel suddenly lightened: I know that whatever I write will be integrated, contradicted, balanced, amplified, buried by the hundreds of volumes that remain for me to write." --Italo Calvino

There are lots of good reasons why you should operate on the principal of multiplicity--multiple writing projects, projects at several phases of completion or incompletion, multiple genres. Maybe especially multiple genres. Try to balance many writing projects at once.

-multiple phases: you've got at hand notes toward one project, a handwritten rough draft, a freewrite, a middle draft, a document that recently received feedback, and another document that is at the proofreading and final phase. In no particular order of value: the notes are not less valuable than the nearly completed piece.

-multiple genres: you've got at hand a poem draft, a piece of creative nonfiction, a journal entry, an email in-progress, a draft of a scholarly article, part of a book proposal, etc. In no particular order of ability: you don't judge one genre as less valuable because you are less of an expert in it.

Why it's helpful? Because multiplicity mirrors the constant flux of our internal talk. The calmest and probably most productive writer is the type of person who follows flux, so it makes sense to establish working conditions that both foster and mirror flux.You'll want to cultivate an appreciation for impermanence as much as possible in your writing practice. Providing yourself multiple opportunities for writing (i.e.: keeping many genres and phases on stock) allows your mind to embrace change.

Writing in more than one phase is helpful because it's a way to take charge of the proximity of audience in your thinking. At certain moments, you may want to keep that audience very close to you in your thoughts (i.e.: an advanced draft or editing). At other moments, you may want your privacy from other people; you may want to write by yourself, without concern for what others might eventually think of your work.

Writing in more than one genre is helpful because if you are anxious about Task A, you can consult strategies and dispositions you developed to finish Task B, from another genre. You can tap into a previous positive writing experience. Specifically, you can borrow the positive audience dynamic inside another genre if your current thoughts about audience are an obstacle. A genre like poetry, for instance, carries no (or at least minimal) commercial expectation which can be liberating for writing prose. A transactional genre like an end-of-the-year report can be helpful in developing a rebuttal for a scholarly article.

Start each writing session by turning to your mind and asking, "What is it I'm interested in working on right now?" And accept whatever reply your mind provides.

Someone might say that keeping so many types of writing on-going feels too scattered. You shouldn't feel scattered if you stay true to the changing moment as a writer. What you'll have is a single focus: on the moment. In other words, to be focused in the moment means staying focused on the moment. Each moment is a full subject by itself--is a still-life--is a thesis statement. Drafts and project phases are particular moments you're already invested in. They're earmarked places in a moment. Like a candle or sounded bell in meditation.

* Image provided by Flickr

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Does Writing Have a Future?

Does Writing Have a Future?

It’s hard to say. I’m inclined to say that it does not have a future; that is, whatever you may be working on right now does not exist in a future moment. Instead, writing (as with anything else) only exists in a series of present moments. You don't write later: you write now. A text isn't read later; it's read right now. I wrote this blog post in one series of present moments, and you're reading it in another series of present moments.

Thus the notion that writing is a type of communication that persists into the future should be reconsidered.

I'm suggesting a radical groundlessness for writing: that writing is never done outside the present moment.

It’s tricky to make this claim because what makes writing normally seem worthwhile is its very promise of an impact or connection to the future. The benefits of writing seem to occur in the future. They’re like promises or payment for our efforts—we tolerate the isolation, uncertainty, and other challenges of working on a text because of its long-term consequences. Writing contracts out the future because it says it will put us in touch with others, allowing us to express. Writing may also indicate a future for our efforts by suggesting that we have a responsibility to others, that we may persuade, inform, or help readers. Saying there’s no future for writing will threaten some people by depriving them of the long-term fruits of their efforts, and it will vex others who insist that writing is a moral activity, one with consequences.

Nevertheless, it’s as Janis Joplin crooned, “Tomorrow never comes.”

We only entertain conceptions of the future. Thoughts about the future stock each present moment of consciousness, along with thoughts about the past and evaluations (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral). But are conceptions of the future synonymous with an actual future moment? What we predict will not align 100% with actuality. It’s only a best guess—a guess that’s usually founded on some pretty questionable motives and reasons. Our subjectivity provide us with all sorts of distortions of ourselves and of others.

On the other hand, denying that I have future responsibilities is rash.

For instance, if I don’t buy groceries at 2 o’clock, my choice will have a definite impact on the future well-being of my children, who need me to take steps right now (shop for food) that have bearing on the future (their supper). The Buddhists believed in consequences—just think of karma. If all beings are interconnected, if we are not to invest too much independence around single things, then so too are different moments connected, and a present circumstance is affected by a past one. The act of writing is also a compilation of past and future responses from other people, and when we write, our efforts are often colored with the desire to meet future audience expectations or squelch past criticism.

In the end, I maintain that it’s vastly more helpful to most writers much of the time to act as though their writing does not have a future. Most of us have spent the majority of our time as writers off the present, thinking of elsewhere and imagining future responses to work that we haven’t finished—or even begun.

Developing a writing practice that is present-oriented can help us treat writing as low-stakes, as generative, as a source of fascination, as a form of self-respect, as a means for contentment and tranquility. The present does not have deadlines, rubrics, or formatting expectations. The present is fundamentally a private moment, a temporary experience to which we’re all entitled. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Corpse Pose (or Relaxation Pose) for Writing

When we reach the point where we can't create because we're too preoccupied with our worries, too caught up in hopes for a particular outcome, or facing roadblock, we need to restore ourselves to a more open, inventive position. The Corpse Pose for Writing (or Relaxation Pose) is a method for reducing anxiety around a piece of writing. It's a way to give ourselves a fresh start.

Clear your desk or writing area of any signs of the project (including pens, pencils, Post-Its, notebooks, review letters, feedback). 

Divide the draft into 5-7 parts. Each part, no matter the genre, should not exceed 250-500 words. The pieces should be of a length that you can read with ease in a minute. Dividing the work in this way may mean you need to select from a much longer document, so select sections which are particularly troublesome for you. Do include your current opening or introduction.

Place each part on separate screens or print out onto separate pieces of paper. Move in reverse order, putting the chunk closest to the end of the document (the feet) on the first screen or sheet of paper, followed by a subsequent passage on the next screen, until the very last screen or page of paper holds the opening (the head) of this document.

Watching your in and out breath, turn your attention to the "feet" of the document--only the feet. Put all of your attention on this section: reread it. Scan it up and down for any sort of tension that arises. Where are you frustrated, irritated, worried, or any other emotion? Don't try to fight off these emotions: simply observe them with a detached mind. Scan also for any images, associations, and new ideas that arise from your mindfully watching the feet of the document. After a few minutes, release this part of the document. Release the feet: let it sink back down onto the floor (if a sheet or paper) or into the computer (close the screen). Let go of everything concerning that section.

Watching your in and out breath, turn your attention now to the "calves and thighs" of the document--only this section. Put all of your attention on this section: reread it. Scan it up and down for any sort of tension that arises. Where are you frustrated, irritated, worried, or any other emotion? Again, don't try to fight off these emotions: simply observe them with a detached mind. Scan also for any images, associations, and new ideas that arise from your mindfully watching the legs of the document. After a few minutes, release this part of the document. Release the legs: let them sink back down onto the floor (if a sheet or paper) or into the computer (close the screen). Let go of everything concerning that section.

Move now to the "pelvic area" and "belly" of the document. Repeat the same steps as above. Then let go of everything concerning those sections.

Move to the "torso" or "chest" area of the document. Repeat the same steps and then let go of everything concerning that section.

Move to the "arms" and "hands" of the document. Repeat the steps and then let go of everything concerning those sections. 

Move to the "shoulders" and "neck" of the document. Repeat the steps and then let go of everything concerning those sections.

Move to the "face" of the document, observing even the finest strain of mental-musculature tension. Because this is the face, it is what the world sees most about our writing: it is the most noticeable part of our document. The beginning of the document thus can contain the most complicated of stresses, built up over time. Repeat the steps and then let go.

Last of all, move to the "crown" of the document, the space above the first section, perhaps where a title lies or might reside one day. By now the rest of the document is relaxed. You are probably relaxed. Spend a few moments in this state. If it is possible, have a writing companion ask you a question about your document or writing experience. In this relaxed state, so close to the floor, so close to the unconscious, you may find insights and ideas not possible with a strained, tight mind. 

Variation: try each of these steps as a freewrite.

(If you liked this post, try "Yoga for Hands" from 9/11/2012: it's another embodied writing technique.)

* image from