Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Like Steering Clouds: Freewriting and Mindfulness

Freewriting is arguably the single most important strategy for mindful writing. It carries benefits to both mindfulness and writing because it heightens awareness as well as reduces obstacles to writing. Most people rarely have the opportunity to see their own raw intrapersonal communication on the page since the bulk of written experience has an audience.

Freewriting can be defined as nonstop writing done without concern for grammatical convention or the comprehension of another reader. Because it reduces pauses and hesitations, freewriting avoids thinking about organization with all the future-orientated planning involved in any act of organizing and instead seeks to "simply" record the present. What type of present? The present life of the mind, consciousness in the moment. To learn more about freewriting, an excellent start would be the chapter in Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers or the edited collection Nothing Starts With N.

Mindful writing means sensing one's intrapersonal dialog. (Recall how we discussed in an earlier post Carl Rogers' notion that breakage in communication with others happens after breaks in talks with the self.) Freewriting leads to mindful writing because it makes our internal talk visible: we see and reread our own inner talk. 

This translation of inner talk to written text affects it: slows it down and steers it. Physical elements are introduced--the motions of handwriting or typing as well as the sight of the words on page or screen. For the first time, we have a transcript of our inner language with all its fragments, images, full sentences, changes in pitch, and fillers.

Suddenly, a pair of interlocutors are in the room: you, the person who is writing, and the text. Reading your inner talk (even if you throw away the freewrite without looking back, the slower pace from forming the letters makes you more a spectator to your words) triggers your alertness, engagement, and reflection. Inner talk doesn't then just sneak past us (mindlessness). The connotations and secretive persuasions of our inner words can't sweet talk us into the habitual or reactionary.

Unlike seated meditation, however, the awareness brought to us by a freewrite comes with the opportunity to steer it, to gently pursue areas of interest, to pin down a few clouds. Freewriting isn't entirely about awareness; it is an applied art for the purposes of writing. Unlike seated meditation, freewriting encourages us to interact and use our passing consciousness.

In this way, freewriting is a training ground for mindfulness. At the same time, it's highly pragmatic and an applied skill. Freewriting affirms the transience of the moment but in doing so allows the cognitive state of the writer to mirror the boundless possibility that stands outside our prescribed limitations. Not confined to a single thesis or its explication, you can gather an abundance of ideas and sensations. Select the most outstanding of these passing phrases, set it on the ground, and then repeat, seeing what freewriting can be evoked by it.  Freewriting may seem impressionistic, but it's a method for building monuments.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Push-Pull with the Voices of Other Writers

 You know you're developing an internal voice for writing when you find yourself avoiding or approaching other authors on the basis of how they'll affect your own voice during a writing session.

I'm reading an author right now with whom I've got a push-pull relationship. Her voice and in turn her ethos or stance can become too influential on some days, like a fascinating but strong-willed companion. But I have also become strong willed so it's a balancing act, deciding when to use her work to jump-start my day and when she is crowding me out. I need a sensor for that impact.

Sometimes picking up a particular writer serves to "jump start" my writing day. Just a few sentences or lines, and my own writing voice gets fired up and ready to work. Invention begins as a desire to join the conversation started by the other writer. It really doesn't matter what the author is writing about: more style/approach and less content/subject/genre.

It's frequently helpful and even inspiring to get a draft done that way, imitating and picking up on another writer's voice. You can always go back and change your style at a later moment, a later draft. From this method, you may see new angles and find material. Adopting a voice can produce an interesting base coat and challenge a writer to think differently (aka "critical thinking"). Sometimes though I need to enforce a complete break from another writer's strong voice early on. It's all about assessing and accepting what's really happening.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Knob of Knowing

It's that moment when you're about to enter familiar territory through a regular door, but all of an existential sudden, the knob in your hand is an alien object, not to mention the foreign quality of your own hand.

That moment of unfamiliarity can happen to writers in a variety of ways. There are the little gaps such as when you can't recall a word or when its spelling looks suddenly odd on the screen.

Then there's the state of unknowing that spreads farther: when the blank is larger than the space a few temporarily absent syllables could fill. As with much about the process movement of writing instruction from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the tenet that "writing is discovery" approaches mindfulness. I often paraphrase Robert Frost, I write to know what I didn't know I knew, to my writing students to train them away from thesis-driven ways of writing in their creative work. Behind the idea of writing as discovery seems to a basic desire to stay interested and stay interesting: the basic notion goes like this, "If the writer is bored, the writing will be boring. If the writer is surprised, that energy will be passed onto the reader." The impetus toward not knowing can also come from a desire to sustain Invention--the experience of generating new material without regarding future readers' needs for clarity or explanation.

The stakes feel higher though than just keeping amused when it comes to knowing and unknowing.

In a recent article in the magazine Bomb, the artist Paul Chan is quoted as saying "Sometimes when I make work, there is a moment when what I want to make and what I make it with, fuse in such a way that the piece begins, against my intention, to take on a form of its own. It is as if I am no longer the prime mover. At this point what is in front of me becomes as strange to me as I am essentially to myself. This is the point I am always trying to reach."

Paying attention to what is paradoxically can lead to silence and to blanks. To nothing. This pre-verbal state is part of present awareness: it occurs before a word arises in the mind for an experience, before the experience can be labeled, judged, and freighted with association.

In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Suzuki describes mindful breathing in a way that suggests a swinging door onto blankness and unknowing: "When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say 'inner world' or 'outer world,' but actually there is one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, 'I breathe,' the 'I' is extra. There is no you to say 'I'...What we call 'I' is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no 'I," no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door."

We need a phrase in English that's the equivalent to "blacking out" (meaning that a person has fainted or lost consciousness). It would be a phrase for the gap in consciousness, this blank moment of breathing in, breathing out. Unfortunately, "white-out" currently refers to dabs of white paint applied to erase errors.

Writers need to strengthen their ability with the pre-verbal. It's like developing one muscle group by working with an opposite muscle group. The pre-verbal can be a powerful contrast to the rushing-in of inner talk. Absence makes Presence. The pre-verbal is different too from silence in the ordinary sense: silence is filled with the script of internal conversation. The pre-verbal is not a social silence; it's a non-human, non-ego silence. It can't be taken for granted and instead needs to be fostered through careful training. Perhaps the moment of non-knowing is the apex of a writing class, but how to explain to others that the highest goal of a writing class is to notice when language is not occurring, not being used? Learning how to not-know may be one of the few times in which actual formal seated meditation is the best method for mindful writing. I can't think of a better method for perceiving those blanks than meditation.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Repost: Already Perfect

This is a repost of a 2012 entry.

"So to be a human being is to be a Buddha. Buddha nature is just another name for human nature, our true human nature. Thus even though you do not do anything, you are actually doing something. You are expressing yourself. You are expressing your true nature."
—Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

What would it be like—what arises in your thoughts—if I said that what you are as a writer isalready wonderful, already Buddha? If your writing was “perfect as it is,” right now?

What would it be like to write if there was no need to change anything about you as a writer?

In part, this is a question about our discursive thinking—or how we self-talk about our writing ability and our current writing projects.

Many people maintain potent preconceptions about their writing ability, and the idea that they are already perfect writers can be startling to them.

Basically, the notion that they are perfect writers heightens their self-talk. The notion makes their normal discursive thinking about their writing more obvious: all-caps and on a billboard rather than naturalized as a background murmur.

Few of us know what is like to cease trying to change ourselves as writers.

We carry around a burden of a wish that we were different. It can be refreshing to suddenly be in accord with the Present as opposed to, well, always being in opposition to it.

Dropping that constant push to be other-than-yourself-as-a-writer provides a whole different type of energy about the act of writing. It's a knapsack made of stone that you may have carried around for years without even noticing it.

This is also an exercise in developing maitri or an acceptance of ourselves and what arises in our inner states.

What would it be like—what would arise in your thoughts right now—if what you are as a writer is already wonderful, already Buddha? If your writing was “perfect as it is” right now?

Jot down observations:

What images pass over your mind when I say this?
Breathe into these images. Follow them. What do you notice?
What emotions are you feeling when I say this?
What color is one of those emotions?
Breathe into this emotion. Follow it. What do you notice?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

"Contract" Project: One Way to Help Students Understand Audience Proximity

Message to Teachers: This assignment asks students to make several decisions about their rhetorical situation beforehand—and provides students with more agency than a typical task. Approximately half the group will approach me after the first in-class writing session and (timidly) request permission to "change their Contract." They want to change some combination of subject, audience, feedback, and evaluation (or sometimes all four categories). Students spend 2-3 class meetings writing the text they establish in the Contract, so it's also typical for quite a few students to approach me again after the second class writing session and request yet another change in contract.

This request is PRECISELY what I'm hoping for--I want students to ask to change the contract, although I pretend to grant their request with reluctance.

What I am after is to help students, through the act of writing, gain a sense of the text as an intrapersonal conversation, as a possible private conversation away from the teacher (students don’t need to show me their text but rather only their Process Note, see below). I want students to take control of the proximity of audience during the invention phase. As they explore content which they have fully designated, students interact with their writing intrapersonally, making decisions about audience, feedback, and evaluation which reflect their relationship to the text.


Instructions:  This writing project will be done in two class meetings.  Note that you can write any type of writing for any type of audience.  I suggest using this project as an opportunity to write something that you’d really value: a piece of writing that would make you proud to advance or an idea you’d enjoy sustaining.

Before our next class meeting, read over the below contract, complete it, and email it to me.

I ____________________________ [YOUR NAME] will be writing about the topic of

___________________________________________________________ for the Contract Project.  The genre or type of writing this project will take the form of will be  ________

__________________________________ [GENRE].  I understand that I can write in any genre and that it need not be a conventional school-based genre.  The audience for the piece will be  _________________________________ [AUDIENCE FOR THIS PIECE]. I understand I can designate any audience including individuals outside of the class, that I have the option of selecting no audience, and that the professor need not read your document. In terms of feedback for this piece, I understand that I can request any type of feedback, including but not limited to the following: Not Sharing, Sharing But Getting No Feedback Whatsoever, Getting Only Positive Feedback, Getting Feedback on Specific Questions I Ask my Audience About the Text, to Completely Open Unlimited Feedback.  My designated audience, _____________________

__________________________, [NAME(S) OF YOUR AUDIENCE MEMBER(S)] will provide the following feedback: ______________________________________________________ __________________________________________________________________________.

In terms of evaluation, I understand that I can select any type of evaluation, including but not limited to the following: No Evaluation; Evaluation Based on Rubric (Designed by You)—provide rubric; Evaluation Based on Rubric (Designed by Other Party)—provide rubric; Letter Grade; Check System Grade; A Predetermined Final Grade of ____.  I understand that I must give the piece to my designated audience before turning in the Process Note for this Project. In sum, I understand that I can write about any topic, in any form, for any audience, and for any type of feedback and evaluation as I designate but that I must give the piece to my audience before turning in the Process Note for this Project.   


Process Note

The audience for this project is the one you designate in the above contract.  You’ll want to give the writing you do for this project to that audience (no matter who it is—unless you’re doing strictly private writing) before completing the Process Note. I will only be evaluating your Process Note. 

For the Process Note, write 2 double spaced pages which will be graded on the basis of the thoroughness and care you take in exploring the following:

·         What were the different moments in the experience?  Possibly zoom in on one moment and describe in depth.

·         How does this project relate to our class discussions of the writing process?

·         Draw connections between the Contract Project with the prior projects from the semester as well as with course readings, course writings, and course discussions.

·         Use terminology from the course and discuss particular readings.  (The more connections you draw to course readings and terminologies, the stronger the Process Note.)

·         Draw comparisons—hypothetical or actual—to other things and activities to make your point.

·         Lastly and most importantly, identify and explain at least one insight about writing that could be reached from the Contract Project.


* image provided by pocketables.com

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Fundamental Privacy of Writing

This post  is a modified reprint of an article written at the request of the editor of EDvance for North Shore Community College.

The Privacy of Writing

It may be tempting to think that developmental writers need more of us (us = writing teachers)—more of our attention, our direction, our evaluation.

What these students really need is more experience with intrapersonal communication or writing to the self, and the intrapersonal requires us to step aside, requires our exclusion. We need to teach students to draw the privacy screen between us and them more often.

Some conversations about writer’s block presume a baseline of ability in order for a block to occur. We may think that developmental writers can’t suffer from writing blocks because they lack fundamental writing abilities in the first place—in order to have blocks, an individual must have abilities to be blocked.
In contrast, I believe that everyone experiences writing blocks in the neutral sense of changes in the state of fluency; these changes can take the form of Don Murray’s “necessary delays” or Keith Hjortshoj’s “microloops” in which we tend to recursively prewrite, compose, revise, and edit unless we are freewriting.

Any writer or student, no matter the stage in education or career, is at least somewhat interested in fluency—or the speed and ease with which words can be produced. Fluency is the desirable working state of the writer. A so-called developmental student may not think they're entitled to fluency--believing that they have too many other writing issues.

If we accept that all of us have a writing process made complicated by stops and gaps, backtracking and reading over, the converse must be true: that a great unifier is fluency, that all of us are capable of passages of fluency. For blocks to exist, for delays and detours to happen in the writing process, a baseline ability to consistently use words with oneself must also be the case. Rather than what blocks us, I am interested in how all of us exist when we are writing in a state of flow.

Fluency is an unlikely achievement if there is a break-down in the writer’s intrapersonal or inward communication.

The primacy of self-communication was made clear in the context of psychological counseling in Carl Rogers’ seminal 1951 essay, “Communication: Its Blocking and Its Facilitation” in which Rogers proposed that a person cannot communicate optimally with others if she is not in communication with the self. To help these struggling individuals, one should listen to them without evaluation, to “listen with understanding” in order to guide them first toward a more cohesive self-communication which then can manifest in more effective communication with others.
By and large, everyone needs to be trained to access the intrapersonal when writing because most of us have written for teachers for the bulk of our composing lives. This is certainly the case with current students (though more and more adolescents are voluntarily writing, sans assignment, for the Internet).
Students are not free to converse with themselves because they believe they are conversing with teachers—even when the teacher is decidedly not in their dorm rooms at 11 PM, perched on their institution-supplied desk and giving advice. In the setting of psychological counseling, the client can rely on the therapist to establish a non-evaluative environment conducive to the intrapersonal; this is standard practice in therapy, but it is not completely the case in writing education.

With writing instruction this set-up needs to still be explicitly implemented as part of the teacher’s pedagogy since the intrapersonal and private writing often receives short shrift in academia.

For example, Peter Elbow (whose work has long advocated private writing) in “Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience,” has pointed to this deficiency of the intrapersonal in standard writing education: “many writing teachers seem to think that students can get along without the private writing serious writers find so crucial."

James Moffett and Janet Emig attributed the cause of poor student writing to a failure to enter into inner dialog and suggest that formal education fails to teach students methods to do so. Similarly, Linda Flower argued that writer-based prose (or text which makes minimal concessions to an eventual reader and which resembles inner speech) represents a major functional stage in composing and therefore should be taught.

The benefits of intrapersonal for students are manifold. For one, the intrapersonal is a place to be authentic, to use what Elbow calls “real voice” in a type of communication with the self that provides wholeness.

The intrapersonal is also an opportunity to truly test out ideas, to do some real drafting and exploration, without concern for standards or limitations--what's called "low-stakes" or "informal" writing and is important for "writing-to-learn."
In addition to being a safe environment for invention, the intrapersonal is a site of abundance due to its constant change. It is the nature of our inner dialog to be constantly in flux such that what seems a bad idea in one moment will surely change in another moment as a new idea, image, or heard phrase arises.
Additionally, by paying attention to the intrapersonal, a student can gain a more accurate sense of the negative self-talk he or she engages in about his or her ability. Internal conversation or rhetoric often helps us persuade ourselves before persuading others (Nienkamp)—including about writing ability.
Finally, the intrapersonal is hardly a milquetoast activity and instead fosters great activation of self in the student-writer—or what we commonly call engagement. In discussing the creative state of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi points out how “the optimal experience involves a very active role for the self” which is different from self-consciousness that keeps stumbling over the ego. When students to write privately and for themselves, they start to notice how often their writing has been for teachers, and the act of writing for teachers is no longer naturalized; as Elbow says, this provides students with “a bit more space for choice and agency."
Logically, teaching the intrapersonal fits with long-term educational purposes. We are not a factor in the rest of their lives—but their selves are a persistent factor in the rhetorical situation of writing.

Ways to implement intrapersonal lessons in our classes include asking students to do more freewriting—especially private freewriting—disposable writing, and even meditation. Helping students to understand when an audience is hampering their writing and taking measures to gain distance from intimidating audiences is also crucial, as Elbow has so artfully detailed.
Along those lines, I developed a writing assignment for my Basic Writing course: the “Contract Project.” The next post will feature this activity.


Works Cited

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

Elbow, Peter. “Closing My Eyes as I Speak: An Argument for Ignoring Audience.” Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 93-112.

---. “In Defense of Private Writing: Consequences for Theory and Research.” Everyone Can Write: Essays Toward a Hopeful Theory of Writing and Teaching Writing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 257-280.

---. Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Emig, Janet. “The Uses of the Unconscious in Composing.” College Composition and Communication 15 (1964): 6-11.

Flower, Linda. “Writer-Based Prose: A Cognitive Basis for Problems in Writing.” College English 41.1 (Sept. 1979): 19-37.

Hjortshoj, Keith. Understanding Writing Blocks. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Murray, Donald M. “The Essential Delay: When Writer’s Block Isn’t.” When a Writer Can’t Write: Studies in Writer’s Block and Other Composing-Process Problems. Ed. Mike Rose. New York: Guilford Press, 1985. 219-26.

Moffett, James. “Writing, Inner Speech, and Meditation.”College English 44.3 (1982): 231-46.

Nienkamp, Jean. Internal Rhetorics: Toward a History and Theory of Self-Persuasion. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2001.

Rogers, Carl. “Communication: Its Blocking and Its Facilitation.” Current Issues & Enduring Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking and Argument. Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau. 5th Edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s.
*image: hoax-slayer.com

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Way to Acclimate to the Unconscious

One activity to provoke the unconscious to rise to the surface involves looking through your older notebooks and writing journals. ("Older" could mean a notebook from five years ago or one from last week.)

Flip through the pages casually, with no serious intention, no preconceived notion of outcome or benefit.

As you're reading your own pages, jot down any alternative phrases or word choices which come to mind. Emphasis here is on "any": avoid judging what surfaces.

For instance, this morning I was reading through one of my writing notebooks and for the phrase "Organizing thought" I heard the alternative "origins of thought." With a different colored pen, I jotted down the second phrase--complete with its absence of caps: the exact way it appeared to me.

Right now, it looks like a hum-drum change, but who knows? More often than not, these second versions become the seeds for a piece later down the line.

When language changes its sound, it's like following the shadow of sound, the trail of ellipsis that follows many words (our own and those of others). Words are like musical notes in that they have the potential to vibrate for several moments after utterance. Behind pronunciation lies connotation; behind connotation lies the unconscious.

Searching for what's inside that elliptical shadow, that vibration of pronunciation, is a way to find the material of the unconscious. This strategy can be used in any genre and even during scholarly pursuits. For the operations of every writer's mind involve games of chance and walks down hallways built around indeterminacy. Even a thesis statement has a potential maze behind it.

One side benefit of trying this activity is that it acclimates us to the unconscious. First, it allows us to coexist with what might seem "strange" thinking. Second, it helps build our capacities as writers to accept material which arises in the moment.

* Image provided by