Friday, October 7, 2016

3 Qualities of the Present Moment That Help Writing: #2 Is It's Endlessly Discursive

Image result for thinking
The present moment is curated by an internal voice. 

This internal talk is a procession of phrases, images, emotions, prompts, fragments, overheard language, self-generated judgments about writing ability, Vygotskian inner speech, William Jamesian stream of consciousness, sensations, after-images, anticipations of audience, and crystallizations of past writing performances, as well as moments made blank by the unconscious. 

We may not be aware most of the time of the ongoing chat, despite how it steers our actions and outlook, unless we are trying to develop our present awareness. 

With the language-covered present, hundreds of moments pass carrying innumerable phrases, concepts, images, and traces of voice, like a series of boxcars covered in interesting graffiti. 

This internal talk serves a critical role in writing, perhaps especially so during invention. Through intrapersonal rhetoric, a writer frames his or her writing ability, addresses audience, and participates in inquiry that leads to creative-rhetorical discoveries and content. Writers can scan this internal talk to locate potentially interesting content as well as pinpoint assumptions they may be dragging into the writing occasion.

The important point is how this internal talk is low-stakes, messy, disordered, and readily available. Writers are constantly generating text due to the nearly unavoidable discursivity of the human mind. Having “nothing to say” or “feeling at a loss for words” or any writing block is really a condition of mindlessness: a lack of awareness of what’s really happening in the present moment. 

* image from

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

3 Qualities of the Present Moment That Help Writing: #1 is Impermanence

I'm happy to say that Southern Illinois University Press has given me a contract for a book of theory and pedagogy on mindful writing. I'll be posting some thoughts from that book project on this blog as the book manuscript unfolds.

If noticed, the present moment displays three qualities important to writing: it is impermanent, discursive, and embodied. I'll discuss the first in this post and the other two in upcoming posts.

Impermanence and Writing

In the Buddhist view, “All formations are transient (anicca)... Form is transient, feeling is transient, perception is transient, mental formations are transient, consciousness is transient." No moment completely resembles the next due to this continuous changeover. Individuals suffer because of a faulty relationship to impermanence. They try to deny or control impermanence to retain pleasantries and ward off inevitable fading and decline. 

The typical ways in which writers mistakenly resisting impermanence are by maintaining rigid composing rules; overemphasizing product, coveting the finished text and disregarding the messier state of drafts; and maintaining a static perception of their own ability as writers. 

For writers, perceiving continuous change provides access to abundant content. It also makes it possible for writers to shift how they perceive their overall writing ability as well as ability specific to the task at hand. 

The present moment provides a content based on transience, meaning that what emerges (language, image, physical sensation, emotion, etc.) is fleeting as well as ongoing. Something is always arising; what is observed in one instance fades and is replaced by something else. The present moment is endlessly inventive.

The present moment because of its endless fluctuation is fundamentally a low-stakes task. That is, observing impermanence can position writing as a low-stakes, informal writing task and make exploration more possible.Writing feels less risky or daunting.

A view toward transience reduces premature editing since the constantly changing present doesn’t lend itself to polishing or correcting. There isn’t time for both fully observing transience and revising. 

The stance of non-evaluation that comes from the observation of the present can result in a healthy detachment, separating process from product.  

Finally, the radical contingency of the present moment--the way it's constantly changing--emphasizes context over generalizability. To observe the present is to observe the ever-changing situation in which one writes.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Article Mentioning Yoga for Hands in Journal of Creative Writing Studies

For anyone interested in my Yoga for Hands, I describe it at length as one of four teaching methods in a new article, "The Terrain of Prewriting," just published in Volume 2 of the Journal of Creative Writing Studies (an exciting new journal that publishes research examining the teaching, practice, theory, and history of creative writing).

Here's the link:

Here's the abstract for the article:


In this article, I make a case for increased instruction in prewriting and specifically the preverbal as a more effective instruction in the process of creative writing than afforded by mainly exercise- or workshop-based teaching. Prewriting is the moment in which the writer faces the preverbal in order to begin writing: it is an expansive mindset containing few preconceptions about style, content, or genre. To successfully engage the preverbal, creative writing students work at a distance from audience expectations through activities which are low-stakes, informal, and occasionally private. The article describes four invention heuristics which foster the preverbal: freewriting, Peter Elbow’s Open-Ended method, Sondra Perl’s Felt Sense method, and Yoga for Hands. The benefits of this prewriting-based invention in the creative writing classroom are multifold. Such invention strategies help students generate ideas for new pieces; foster awareness of the creative process; and help reduce writing anxiety in the short- and long-term. In fact, prewriting can serve as a bellwether for the quality of a person’s overall writing process—and writing education.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Do Not Clutch at Outcome

Do not clutch at writing outcome for to do so is to embrace an explosive, rabid, backstabbing, and ravenous pet, combination of pit bull and piranha. This creature will shred the shirt you are wearing. It will leave you in pain. It will show others the foolishness of your choices and the vanity of your ego. It is said that this creature once existed peaceably in mythic lands, running after written products, final drafts, and publications, causing no harm until one of us embraced it. And then this creature of outcome caused havoc with livestock and the ability of nearly adolescent children to focus in school.
                                                          Far wiser is it to watch the minnows of the moment pass and pass in the river of process.

* Image provided by britishlibrary.typepad

Repost of Sutra on Preconception


            Thus I have heard. At one time, the Writer appeared in the hallway outside the administrative offices at the University of MFA Program, and a great many disciples were miraculously assembled, having paid conference and retreat fees and taken time off from work. The Writer knowing of the mental agitations going on in the minds of those assembled (like the surface of the ocean stirred into waves by the passing winds), and his great heart moved by compassion, smiled and said, We have spoken about the prolonging of invention, and now we must speak about the prolonging of emptiness. We have discussed the prolonging invention, but before invention comes emptiness.

Experience arises from emptiness,

and emptiness arises from experience (Suzuki).

From whence does language arise? Because language arises, because it is not always present, because it changes from word to word, there is something else, something always present, and that something is emptiness. Just as there are gaps between typed words, so too is there a gap between the moment before writing and the moment of writing.
            All writing is thus preverbal. All writing is built on emptiness, and emptiness is preverbal. We say “preverbal” and not “nonverbal” because the presumption is that language will rush in, that intrapersonal talk is definite, that it is only a matter of time (a few moments) before the blankness ends and fills with the conversation of our consciousness. But emptiness is also nonverbal in that it is freedom from all obligation, all mental formulations, all perception, including the obligation to write, including mental formulations about the act of writing, including perceived images and words that create the content of writing.
            There are different kinds of unknowing, oh bhikku, but they must be differentiated from mindless unknowing which is a blank or erasure that replaces the present moment versus the other kinds of unknowing that we discuss, for they are the contents of the present moment mindfully perceived. Mindlessness is a kind of pollution on pure mind. 
             There is the unknowing of unfamiliarity, the disorientation that makes the routine suddenly remarkable, that lets us perceive the uniqueness of that which we have thought of as a copy or repetition. This unfamiliarity is usually on the small scale: not recognizing a word, a word of routine suddenly looks strange, its spelling odd. 
             There is the unknowing of the fragmentary, that which occurs between the floes in our internal voice. Not knowing where one’s mind will next jump, the coming up of ideas entails leaping over wide expanses of unknowing. 
              There is the unknowing of the duration or how long it will take to complete a writing project, not knowing whether it can be completed in a few days or weeks or will take years or decades before the writer has a complete picture of the idea. 
               There is the unknowing of the unconscious, that which will take wide swipes at one’s awareness, the erasure of what has been only a moment before provided by the present, the abduction of a new thought greeted only seconds before it is pulled like a seal by a killer whale into the cold depths of unknowing. The unknowing of the unconscious pulls too at the writer, making her drowsy, making the writer nap, those siren calls to join it in a deep white sleep. 
               Preconception is a form of false knowing. It is an overstocking of the present moment with contents not found in the present moment. Preconceptions are the Ego’s attempt to control the vastness of the possible moment. They are false starts on the moment. They are a gamble on the moment: rather than reside in the non-verbal to consult the possible, we prefer to fill the moment with guesses. We replace possibility with a smaller, shorter, diminished content. We shackle ourselves to a premature commitment. Because of impermanence, the ever-shifting moment offers more manifold possibilities than a seemingly static preconception. We substitute one type of unknowing, that of emptiness, with another type of unknowing, that of preconception, a far lesser grade, oh bhikkuni. 
             For what can be known outside of the present moment, oh disciples? For what action occurs outside of the present? Even the action of knowing occurs in the present moment.
             There are preconceptions of alphabet, there are preconceptions of syntax and grammar, of vocabulary as well as how to hold a pen or pencil, form letters or type. A notion about how many pages or word count would make a successful writing session is a preconception. Preconceptions of the content you think you should or will write, preconceptions of the amount you should or will write, preconceptions about the genre you should or will write. Preconception too is the notion that to write is a positive thing as well as to write nothing is a negative phenomena. Preconception of how long it will take to complete a text, preconception that a text will ever advance or be finished or even read by others. You can not know in advance how long you will sit under the gnarled tree. Preconceptions of structure, organization. Preconception of what is mindfulness and what is mindlessness. Preconceptions of skill, knowledge, and training. Preconception of how many pages you will write today or the next day. There are preconception of process, of where one is in the writing process, ones that lead to misperception of one’s actual actions in the moment (See Keith Hjortshoj).
            Practice approaching one’s writing with a blank mind, free of preconception. Gradually decide which pre-existent abilities, content, or approaches can be returned to the mind. When you study Buddhism, you should have a general house cleaning of your mind. You must take everything out of your room and clean it thoroughly. If it is necessary, you may bring everything back in again. You may want many things, so one by one you can bring them back. But if they are not necessary, there is no need to keep them (Suzuki). Reel back in your literacy, your ability to write in the language, to follow grammatical rules. You may find you want to return a certain character or approach to voice or way of engaging in the writing process. Bring them back into the moment of your writing but do so mindfully, with awareness of their presence and impact.

*Material borrowed from Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, as well as Goddard's The Buddhist Bible. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Hymn of Binaries, Mantra for Equanimity

Hymn of Binaries, Mantra for Equanimity

If you seek something for your writing, allow yourself to be pulled in the opposite direction. Don’t resist tides.
            So if you seek completion, let yourself be pulled toward the fragmentary, the dissolving, pixels scattering on the horizon, like water receding from stones, like an ellipsis being pulled in, an acknowledgement withdrawn, a closeness evaporating.
            If you seek acclaim or acceptance for your writing, let yourself be tugged toward obscurity, let yourself be imprinted with the forks of absent sand pipers.
            If you want to write a lot and often, go toward writing nothing, away from the shore and toward that black & white horizon with the numbered cloud.
            If you want to write in X genre or on X project, let yourself be dragged toward Y.
            If you crave privacy from audience, let yourself be pulled toward full exposure, to immediate performance, and vice versa, if you sorely want to write for an audience, let yourself write for no one.
            If you seek to be fully conscious while writing, let yourself be dragged under by the unconscious.
            If you wish to forget everything that you have written, remember everything that you have written until the landscape is fifteen or fifty oceans thick.
            If you seek to be original, repeat everything twice, three times, for an entire page until the wide-ruled, double-laned sea is covered with the same shapes.
            If you want to continue your writing session, let yourself stop writing for the day.
            If you wish to understand push-pull, let yourself sail along on the hyphen between those two words.
            If you want to be without goals and ambitions, let yourself be loaded with the cargo of those items by the dozens, in car-sized crates, let your ship the size of three football fields be filled with trinkets and non-necessities.
            If you prefer to write prose, write poetry. If you prefer to write nonfiction, write fiction.
            If you want to spend not so much time at the writing desk, let yourself spend days at a time at the writing desk.
            If you seek to write free of disturbances, place yourself in a setting in which you will be constantly spoken to.
            If you hope to reach destinations of surprise and discovery through your writing, let yourself land on the plateau of nothing new, where the mohawked sun occasionally rests its chin.
            And vice versa, reversing the process.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Lag Time Around a Bit of Writing: Easy Mindful Writing Trick

Here's a very simple way to observe mindfulness happening while writing: make use of the lag time between having a thought and recording a thought.

1. Record precisely (same wording, same punctuation) a phrase or sentence that comes to you. Watch the bit of writing arrive and then either hand write or type slowly, watching yourself record it.

2. Notice all the sensations of writing the bit of language down: the movement of your typing fingers, the pen gripped, the palms face-planting on the warm laptop surface. Notice your breathing, of course.

3. Record the bit of writing precisely as it arrived despite alterations that will almost immediately appear in your mind and on the surface of your breathing. You'll probably hear qualifications, edits, versions, second thoughts, and follow-up notions. They are happening because your intrapersonal or internal voice has been engaged and is reacting.

4. After you've completely written down the bit of writing as it originally appeared, jot down the other reverberations, but don't edit any of the material.

5. To record a phrase or thought exactly as it originally appears means honoring the moment.

6. This activity is a "perfect storm" of mindful writing. It can make you more aware of the present moment and also of the next moment and (because we are writers) all the content that both situations provide.

7. Another outcome from doing this activity is that all-important separation of creating from editing.

8. Yet another is that you're practicing acceptance (a form of writing grace) by continuing to faithfully record a thought which by now has been amended or added to.

9. This activity is very simple and takes a few seconds. It provides a compact experience of mindful writing.

10. Repeat, not worrying about cohesion (not yet).