Friday, August 29, 2014

As Simple as Changing Pens

It can be as simple as changing pens.

You want to be mindful as you write and reduce your obstacles? Change pens.

A moment ago, this idea came crystal-clear. I've known for awhile to trust the childlike use of different writing implements in the act of composing.

I've been telling my students (especially in theory courses on writing blocks) that drafts written with several implements automatically insert distance between writer and eventual audience. It's a quick & easy way to gain a little mindfulness on our readers.

Typically, we don't turn in final drafts written with two or more pens, so changing the material aspects of our writing (i.e.: the ink that's physically used to physically construct the pieces) gains us time & space from critics. (Especially the case if we use "inappropriate" utensils like crayons or magic markers or pastel inks.) So I've said this for awhile--known this for awhile.

What I just realized, though, is that changing pens mid-stream, moving from a Mont Blanc to a Bic ballpoint to a pen found on a sidewalk, from black to blue to brown ink, reflects changes in time. Changing pens says that it's a new writing moment, that the phrase or idea in the different ink is on a distinct floe in that passing intrapersonal word river. It means then that you are attuned to the moment, and in that moment, all is possible with words.

Changing pens also implies an attempt to not be unified, not hold things together, not be coherent. To hold yourself together, to hold your writing together, at early stages of invention indicates you are taking undue precautions for a future audience (and that means you have departed from the actual moment). Recall that on most occasions our eventual reader does not inhabit the same space & time that we do as we write & that we should take full advantage of that absence.

However, in a passage like the one you've just read, I did not change my original pen in my blog notebook (where I draft blog posts). A state of flow, usually described as inspiration, glues together such writing with more continuation of internal voice. Thus it's a sense of a non-stop moment, a Tempo, of "getting it all down before it slips from your mind." What I've noticed, though, about that state of flow is that I will change pens to highlight ideas I deem to be strong, to remind myself to pursue them later. So at that moment, I am letting in evaluation (i.e.: sorting some of my sentences on quality).

In that way, I am purposefully situating that bit of writing in another moment of time: one in which I revise. I am prodding that particular phrase into a future time. So in the end I have naturally gravitated toward recognizing the different moments which produce text--continuing to use something as basic as a change of pen to suggest a change in time.

So in my draft of this blog post, the above was written with my Mont Blanc in black ink and then this passage was written with a Pilot B&P blue ballpoint: It's about how changing materials parallels changes in moments--and recognition / acceptance of that change (called "groundlessness" in Buddhism) reduces the suffering of writers.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Call for Guest Bloggers for Post on Yoga for Hands

The post from September 2012, "Yoga For Hands," is an oft-visited one from this blog. So I'm curious to hear about your experience using the method.

If interested, send an account of up to 500 words in English (cut & paste into the body of the email) by September 10 to Please indicate whether you wish to have your name included on the post if it's selected. (Anonymous passages are fine.)

I'm curious to hear about the following areas:

How did the method work for you in that particular moment? Why did you turn to it? What sorts of writing arose from "Yoga for Hands"? (Feel free to provide brief excerpts.) Have you used "Yoga for Hands" more than once?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Repost of Your Ability to Write is Always Present

A person’s ability to write is always present.  If a literate individual is conscious and breathing, this person can write at any moment, in any place, whether through paper and pen, magic markers, typing into a keyboard, or speaking into a voice recognition program, or some other primitive to advanced technology. 

And yet one doesn’t have to look far to find people who admit, often with pain, that they are unable to write—students who can’t turn assignments in on time and who profess to hate writing courses, book-less colleagues who worry about tenure, friends who twist themselves into knots trying to deal with a New Year’s resolution to write a novel.  What’s going on? 

Sure, one can form letters and words, the skeptic might say, and there’s nothing stopping one from writing random words, nonsense, trite, or even copying the words of others.  It’s obvious that a freewrite or a person’s to-do list wouldn’t cut mustard with a prestigious journal.  One could just copy the same word a hundred times like a doodle in a grade school notebook.  Following the words in one’s mind like an ant wandering over a counter top won’t result in a book contract—or would it? 

One can go through the mechanical motions of forming words, but is that writing, and more importantly, is that good writing?

Ah, there’s the rub.  In that question, one can find the entire situation of writing.

Inside the square of each moment is an Eden of words. Each moment is abundant with language called discursive thinking, “monkey mind,” or intrapersonal dialog. In point of fact, we are incessantly using language with ourselves.  (Freewriting, a strategy of non-stop writing, offers a type of screen shot of that discursive mind at work: with the caveat that freewriting as a mechanism promotes as well as captures that discursivity. See post from July 2014 on this topic.)

The person who wants to write with ease and fluency needs to do things: first, he or she must notice that discursivity and, second, he or she must fully accept, at least initially, what is found there.  Issues of goodness must be entirely put aside until a later stage in the writing process.  Exactly how late is dependent upon the individual and also varies within the same individual according to the particular writing task.

If we agree that any of us could start writing something right this very moment—the flotsam of phrases in our heads, a grocery list, the first sentence of a tricky email, the words “present moment” or even our own name over and over—logically, we would have to ask why people ever experience writer’s block.  As we have stated, the quickest retort will be that everyone can record the words in one’s head, but that doesn’t guarantee a person will come up with good, applicable ideas.  After all, when people try to write, they seek to either generate new ideas or address a particular writing task and rhetorical situation. 

So what I would point out is that our typical response to the notion that one’s ability to write is always present shows that what we are engaged in is an argument of quality—that we are implicitly engaged in defining “writing” as producing quality: an assumption that warrants closer examination.  For as soon as we are concerned with the quality of our texts-in-production, we have initiated another cognitive engine: that of evaluation. 

Picture a sliding scale with “quantity” posted on the left side and “quality” on the far right.  As one pushes the bar of one’s thinking over to the quality side, one has also pushed oneself closer to evaluation.  Yet who exactly is evaluating one’s words as one writes them?  This chimera—this red-pen holding apparition—cannot be explained away as one’s audience.

If, on the other hand, one pulls that bar over from quality to quantity, something happens to one’s experience of writing.  That is, if how we define what it means to write is more an argument of quantity rather than quality, the bar is moved closer to the self and farther away from the audience.  This relationship between self and the number of words we produce—namely, that the more words we produce, the likely closer we are to ourselves and less close we stand to any audience—reflects the natural verbal abundance in all of us. 

In order to produce abundant writing in a short time, one needs to be attuned to the flow of intrapersonal conversation, that ongoing river in our heads in every waking moment, a flow of language that becomes intensified when formalized by a recording of it.  Pushing the bar closer to the self is a move that can capture natural discursive thinking. 

Two welcome developments occur when one notices the language-covered present moment. 

Quality ideas inevitably happen because of the impermanence of each moment: hundreds of moments will pass before one’s inspection carrying countless phrases, concepts, images, and ideas, like a boxcar decorated with fascinating graffiti.  Certainly, much insignificant material will transpire, but the sheer quantity of our discursive thoughts, the sheer amount of fluctuation in our thinking inevitably turns up something of worth when tracked with the mind’s eye. 

With discipline (defined as the ability to sit still and watch the passing of one’s discursive thought), a good idea, a bona fide keeper, will eventually come along if one is attentive and receptive. 

The second development for the writer is that he notices, perhaps for the first time, the marvelous vacancy of the moment of writing. 

For the most part, one can trace an individual’s success or lack of success in writing back to that person’s relation to the present moment. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Blog Tour on the Writing Process

I was sipping espresso in my family's dank Airbnb in Florence, Italy, a few weeks ago, when the fabulous poet & professor Laura Mullen's interesting proposal flashed onto my cell phone screen--to join this chain of writers blogging about their writing process. When I was in college, Laura left an indelible impression of the poet's potential with her vitality, voice-in-writing, laminated fish-pin ties, & license plate OUTRE (no coincidence my cars have been Hondas), and her many books continue to wow. I am honored to speak after her in this Blog Tour on the Writing Process.

What are you working on?

It's early August 2014. As usual, I have multiple projects going on at once (by which I mean different genres, different audiences, different stages of completion, different topics). One strategy to maintain mindfulness is always keeping at hand dozens of projects in order to mirror the multiplicity of topic and style which can be found inside intrapersonal (or internal) dialog. When I look into myself for that flow of language, I find multi-colored floes of phrases and images, and if I wait a few minutes, something of interest will usually pass by.

So this mid-morning and afternoon, I hope to put the finishing touches on an advanced piece of longer creative nonfiction about the country store in central Maine, my parents' business throughout my childhood and adolescence. Earlier in the morning, I worked on poems for my new book manuscript, adding phrases and considerations to around five of them in my notebooks.

My fourth book of poems is at its midway point; recent travels have given me the mental nutrition to continue. I try to stay fallow between books (a trick I adopted from James Tate); Control Bird Alt Delete had just been published in March by the University of Iowa Press, but I couldn't help myself last winter-spring and started the Next One. By June, though, I sensed I was becoming anemic. After traveling, I am excited by the direction I see for the manuscript. Unlike other times in my writing career (I spend most summers on my screened-in porch working on scholarly articles, research, or book proposals), I am downplaying academic work in favor of creative. In the past two and a half years, I have published or am about to publish eight scholarly articles as well as one co-edited scholarly book (the forthcoming Creative Writing Pedagogies for the 21st Century, available June 2015). It's been a good run, but it's time to shift some of that energy onto poems and creative nonfiction.

How does your work differ from others' work in the same genre?

I'm not entirely at ease answering this question; it's like an exam question that points toward fog, at least in my mind. I don't tend to think in comparisons. I would say that my overall writing differs because I embrace a couple of genres and also the creative and scholarly camps. I might say that I am invested in the emphatic, in almost a naive artist's playfulness, in imagery and synesthesia, and in the grafting of beings through unexpected combinations, pathos. Like most poets, I enjoy the way in which the state of metaphor allows me to see things I normally wouldn't. In interactivity with the reader. Probably most of all in installing shadows behind words in order to make the words as objects visible to the reader.

Mindfulness plays a part in my poetry writing though not in topic. I don't use the Present moment as a subject matter--at least for now--but mindfulness shows up in my stance toward the act of writing the genre. Specifically, it means I celebrate the Vacancy of the Present Moment (no audience, no critic, no teacher, no family member in physical sight), that I find Joy in that I can enjoy the sensations provided by the Other Language that is poetry.

Why do you write what you do?

I follow my Pleasures when I write, phrase by phrase. Writing is truly (and this is also the case with scholarly writing) the main moment in my living in which I ask myself, "What would I enjoy doing now and now and now and now?" I usually can block out audience taxation; thus, I can't stop writing. My family will attest to this condition; I got up early to write every single day during our recent month in Italy for the sheer pleasure of it.

How does your writing process work?

This is of course a topic I've been tracking continuously in this mindful writing blog and also in a few other places. My process works moment-to-moment. It respects the contents of the Present Moment. It works hard on acceptance, on embracing intransience and groundlessness: writing feels like a state of grace. It walks straight into Possibility even if that means walking into an altogether razed and isolated situation. What might look like a blank page of block to another person is for me simply the openness between the swinging door of knowing and not knowing.

My writing process asks hard questions about aesthetics, structure, and purpose, but also allows for moments of perceiving the "found material" drifting around inside my inner dialog (so less will and ego). It follows the pulse of instincts on the phrase level, trusting what I hear from my intrapersonal dialog even in the editorial phases (when I bring audience and their expectations and criticism closer in my consideration). It uses the breath as its metronome.

Next Up. I'm tossing the ball to two outstanding women writers, Lynn Carthage and January Gill O'Neil.

Lynn Carthage is a novelist living in Sacramento, California, near where the Gold Rush launched. Under her real name, she was a Bram Stoker Award finalist. Born in Vermont, Lynn has lived in Maine, Ireland, and Arizona. She reads voraciously, loves anything French, gets “itchy feet” to travel on a regular basis, and finds peace in the woods, in meadows, in nature. She has always been fascinated by how history allows us to imagine how people of the past lived and breathed and felt. HAUNTED is her first young adult novel, and will be followed by the next two books in the Arnaud Legacy trilogy. Her blog is available at:

January Gill O'Neil is the author of Misery Islands (fall 2014) and Underlife (2009), both published by CavanKerry Press. She is the executive director of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival and an assistant professor of English at Salem State University. Here is a link to her blog Poet Mom:

Rebounding off Bad Writing

To start a new piece of writing, I sometimes pick up a book by an author I'm not particularly wild about. Nothing drastically wrong (it's not actually "bad") with this writer (the individual is acclaimed), but I don't care for certain structural choices of this writer, choices which leave cracks all across the text. I've held these views about X. for quite awhile, so my hold on the rope of my opinion is pretty secure, my opinions seemingly stable. 

I sit on the porch and slowly start reading from X.'s book until my own phrases begin to rise from the cracks and fault lines I perceive in the passage. Some of my phrases are in reaction to the author while other phrases are actually influenced (and sound like) her. It's like I am imitating mannerisms of a person I normally find off-putting; I can't help myself all of a sudden. These are phrases I will want to walk right past, to deny as fast as possible.

But this is great practice in mindful writing in a few regards. First, it helps me let go of a fixed idea I could be holding of a project: predetermined notions are particularly problematic in those initial stages of Invention.

It's practice in tolerating writing that I produce that I don't find interesting or good. In this way, it helps develop equanimity, accepting my words with hushed judgement.

It's also practice in dropping the ego, in not "looking good" (even if at the moment of writing the only person I might be showing off to is myself--no one else in the room). It's like sitting on a bench next to a Gucci-clad younger woman when you're wearing the same over-washed hiking pants of the previous thirty days of your trip.

Finally, this exercise amplifies by contrast: amid the blemished, dented, trite, or misworded piles this book by X. has evoked in me, there will arise a phrase that I do find interesting. When this happens, the new phrase will shine all that more vividly, my welcome at seeing it is all that more pronounced. I'm off running. And sometimes, sometimes, I carry a little bit of that other writer with me, a few of his or her cracks, and am even grateful for the change in my appearance.

Image: graphics-berkeley-edu

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.