Monday, November 30, 2015

Mindful Writing Fairy Tale

Once day, it's like the sea pulling away from all contact with the shore. Everyone (all the writers of the world) stops submitting to contests, stops sending out so much work, stops writing with an eye toward publication until they         stop altogether. A few months pass, everyone (all the literary journals of the world) receives fewer and fewer submissions, their Submittable services and email boxes less and less full until, one day, nothing             stop altogether. But the writers continue writing. The writers are not stopping. They're writing by themselves at desks with single lamps late into the night, or they're writing on phones during long commutes, retreating with their writing. The woman is listening for the symbol in her voice. The man is watching for the symbol in his voice. Then the same retreat happens with school writing, less and less of it, fewer assignments, fewer essays, fewer projects and exercises.The sound of a sea retreating, clattering over word pebbles, taking their phrases over pebbles, making them smooth. Less and less is read. Less and less is graded. Feedback is at a decrescendo. The desks of writers and of classrooms stand in the middle of a happy listening silence.

* image provided by voicesofyouth

Monday, October 12, 2015

Door Closed, Door Open & the Discipline of Privacy

 "Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open."
                                     --Stephen King

The door to the study closes; the door to the study opens. Writing and rewriting is two-part, like breathing. Breathing in, I write by and for myself; breathing out, I may reshape my writing for others. The act of writing takes a combination of discipline and privacy. First, a person who is writing needs to assume her right to write which is the same as one's right to privately write and keep the audience out. Part of discipline means shutting the door. All of us must learn strategies to keep the temptations and strictures of audience at bay. Then consider the ideal working conditions behind that closed door--the second part of the discipline of privacy. This means developing a regular practice of writing that feels low-stakes, as normal as breathing. Nothing special. Happens often. No or few preconceptions about product or outcome. Just as it's the writer's responsibility to shut the door and claim his privacy, he also needs to make sure that what happens inside the room maintains that privacy. No one else will build that working environment for the writer: he must do so himself. A writer will shut that bright door more and more often--what others would call "discipline"--because of the happiness which occurs behind the closed door.

* image provided by ingredientsoflove

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