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.

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