Monday, September 28, 2015

Repost of It Takes MindLESSness to Reach MindFULness

It's the nature of writing to be mindless because of the dominance of the unconscious (ideas that do not want to be discovered by the conscious mind) or because of our pursuit of the state of “flow” or inspiration (with its subjective relation to the passing of time).

But what happens in flow?

The monkey mind, our discursive thinking, has drawn us in so sufficiently that we are carried along by its images and the sound of our intrapersonal conversation. We forget where we are; it as is though we are watching a fully absorbing movie, a movie of the mind. 

It's a pleasurable state, this state of distraction, this condition of union with our inner talk. Our union is so seamless that we are no longer aware of our inner talk, of its presence, its tonalities. One idea after another draws us along happily on its verbal floe, a warm passage of energy, thought and the pleasure of creativity, a stretch of freedom from our anxiety or doubts about writing.

If we are fortunate, this transport goes on for minutes if not hours or days, and we keep writing. We seek this absorption into our intrapersonal communication. We seek oblivion to what is actually happening: we seek to be dominated by our self-talk, a dominance that is typically called “inspiration.” It's a happy, happy sound, this rattling of the letters on the keyboard. 

However, this state is limited; the ability of our intrapersonal talk to float us along is finite, and we will be called back to our awareness of the moment, of where we are, of what we are doing, of the fact that we want to write. Possibly we will be beached upon our longing for that state of flow and oblivion.

In truth if we were completely mindful individuals we might never write a sentence. This is because writing calls for a degree, a large swath, of mindlessness. 

But it's that moment when we are forced back to land, cast ashore on reality, separate from our inspired state, that we perhaps most need mindfulness—with all of its capacity for acceptance of impermanence and its capacity for non-dualistic thinking.

It's through mindfulness, through drawing our attention to the moment and to our intrapersonal talk, to being aware of what we are saying inside and at the same time being aware of our context, that we will again and perhaps almost immediately be able to submerge ourselves into that flow—to find mindlessness. And so the cycle continues.

But for stuck individuals, this cycle is not allowed to happen, this move between mindfulness, mindlessness, and back to mindfulness and so forth. Stuck or anxious writers are unable to find a place in that cycle—and it is a cycle, a constant gyration between Able To and Not Writing—a permanent instability. 

The paradox is that without mindfulness we can never be fully mindless, never be the writer we optimally might become.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Presentation on Mindful Writing at New Hampshire Poetry Festival

I'll be presenting on mindful writing at the New Hampshire Poetry Festival, September 19, 2015.

Here's the description of the session: 

Mindful writing is a powerful technique to improve both the overall quality of our writing experience and our poetic production. Mindfulness techniques help poets become more aware of the present moment and bring three powerful benefits to the act of writing. The first benefit of mindfulness is noticing the vacancy of the moment: the true privacy a poet has from any eventual audience. The second benefit includes noticing our self-talk and the types of preconceptions and judgments we carry about our own writing ability. The third benefit of mindfulness involves noticing that self-talk in order to find new content for poems. Mindfulness shows us how a non-stop river of inner talk passes through each moment: a river rich in imagery, phrasing, and ideas. Mindfulness also teaches us about the constant fluctuation of experience such that no state of writing (difficulty or success) is permanent: the reward of this fluctuation is an abundance of possibility. In this presentation, I will explain the tenets of mindful writing and provide participants with hands-on experience with mindful writing techniques, including Yoga for Hands and a mindful eating activity to enhance poetic description. Participants will be guided toward a visceral—not abstract—experience of mindfulness and of the joys of the present moment.

Information on New Hampshire Poetry Festival:

This fall, the Granite State celebrates its strong poetry tradition with the inaugural New Hampshire Poetry Festival. Organized by The Poetry Society of New Hampshire and The New Hampshire Institute of Art, the event takes place Saturday, September 19, 2015, 8am-8pm at the New Hampshire Institute of Art in Manchester, NH.  The conference features readings, panels, and workshops by some of the country’s best-known poets and scholars including a headliner reading by former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Simic.

The NH Poetry Fest brings together a broad community including poets winning prestigious awards including the Pulitzer and Pushcart Prizes; Guggenheim, MacDowell Colony, Cave Canem and National Endowment of the Arts Fellows; heads of literary organizations; professors; well-known editors, and students of poetry at multiple levels. 

Gibson’s Bookstore from Concord, NH, will sell speakers’ books onsite. Participants also have the opportunity to talk with exhibiting publishers and educators including Hobblebush Books, Tupelo Press, Zephyr Press, New Hampshire Institute of Art, The Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College and New England College MFA Creative Writing Program. 

For more information or to register, please visit: find us on Facebook ( or Twitter (@NHPoetryFest).    

Saturday, August 22, 2015

This Can't Be Said Often Enough about the Preverbal

Behind me as I type this sentence is a bookcase the bottom three feet of which are filled with journals of various sizes and colors, artist sketch notebooks, composition notebooks, big folios, fancier journals, covering about twelve years. 

In the past, I'd often thought I was not writing, and I struggled; it felt painful. During those times, I mostly wrote notes toward poems in those journals or sat thinking at my desk. Now I see that what was mostly happening was a prolonged phase of prewriting, a necessary dormancy for the purposes of developing my current writing.

This is what can't be emphasized often enough about prewriting and the preverbal: it's necessary, natural, as important as writing/revising/finishing/publishing. If a writer doesn't recognize this importance, there's a chance he or she will give up or harshly judge themselves.

When I said this in my July 24 post, "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 applies to any person trying to write, regardless if they identify as a writer.

Over the summer, I've had the opportunity in my professional context to read over a 1,000 essays by new university students. Time and again, I was struck by their bald admissions, tinged with frustration and worry, of how frequently they felt they were unable to write well because of a single incident, single genre, single teacher. (They usually picked the most pernicious of genres--graduation speeches, standardized testing essays, or college entrance essays--as the determinant of their abilities.) I also heard them talk about how long it takes them to start an assignment and how they believed the amount of time they remained in the preverbal was an indicator that there was something wrong with their writing ability. Something about school made them think they needed to go from zero to 65, from first hearing of an assignment to finding the approach for that assignment, in a way that professional writers often don't ask of themselves. It wasn't impatience I noted in the students but instead real concern.

We need to talk more about what occurs in prewriting.  We don't address the preverbal, leaving students to think that silence, pauses, dormancy, is their unique problem. Really, writing education is tilted toward product, outcome, the final draft, no matter how much our theory says otherwise. No matter what most writers think they believe, ultimately it's the end result that's given the most value. The message is that you're supposed to dash in and out of the preverbal and spend very little time in that spot. What's the risk of staying in the preverbal a bit longer?

* image from theconsciousprocess

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Preverbal as a Form of Private Writing

Private writing is not as odd as it may seem. Writers throughout time have kept a private reserve of writing, material not shown to others, possibly a journal, early drafts, or notes.The preverbal is just an enhanced version of that privacy: it is impossible to show one's preverbal work to a reader, a sign that there are indeed moments in the writing process which do not concern audience, which are solely intrapersonal expression. To try to show your preverbal efforts would be like trying to show someone all the breathing you've done in the past twenty minutes or trying to show the elusive laugh track of your unconscious. If the preverbal (which is like an erased scene) is watched, within moments the phrases of others and of your unconscious flit past like flocks of birds made from dotted lines, along with snippets of overheard ideas and strings of voice. Soon, lines in the mind appear. (You don't have to be a poet to hear lines.) Soon, your writing begins, writing which may or may not be seen by others, but the preverbal, the preverbal is indeed your space.

* image provided by

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

            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