Saturday, December 28, 2013

Bullsheet: A Type of Deep Revision









 
Over the past few years of teaching, I have handed out a sheet similar to the image to the left to initiate a discussion of what I call "deep revision." (The handout was given to me many xeroxed years ago by a fellow MFA student, Herman Fong.)

I tell students with prior Western art history knowledge to sit still for a moment while those students who have no idea that the artist is Picasso bat back & forth the questions: "Which is the first draft bull? Which the final version? What would be possible equivalencies for a writing process?"

I tell my writing students that I'm less interested in the reality (i.e.: the final bull is at the bottom of the middle column) and more interested in their perceptions about what it takes to revise, to reach such a radical change in an artist's perceptions. This work, I say, was from a point in this painter's career in which he had reached notoriety, but he was not satisfied with remaining in place.

Re-vision. The importance to get down on one's knees as an artist and rethink one's entire approach. What I call my "Martha Graham" moments--thinking of how the legendarily hardworking dancer spent years crouched on a hard wooden floor trying to work through her aesthetic. It's the willingness to put everything on the table, to be able to relinquish any component of a piece, no matter how hard it was achieved or what others have already said of it. Perhaps even your "signature" gesture as an artist.

What does it take to do a type of deep revision? It can entail identifying a structural question in one's text and meditating on it fiercely, with perhaps fewer or no provisions for self-expression or personal emotion. To identify a structural element and take it much deeper, yards deeper than one would normally go. It means taking on deep issues such as:

* one's subjectivity (are you willing, for instance, to change your whole outlook--indeed, your personality? the way you proceed with life? the way you look at the world?)

* one's relation to truth and fact

* one's writerly "crutches," habits, and support systems

* a single formal element (figurative language or even the use of prepositions) and making it the dominant organizing feature

* the logical progression of one's meaning: deductive? inductive?

* the moral framework of one's meaning: a different sort of implication

Change like this is right around the corner. It's in the frame of the next moment. But it's certainly not easily achieved. It takes a radical groundlessness, a freedom from preconceived notions about one's work, about oneself.

It is easy to fool oneself or others. For instance, this Bull seems like it could be done. It seems like a sufficient amount of revision face time has been put in:

 

No one else would probably know what you know: that your work is not yet done. I've sent out
Bulls like this one to literary journals or to writer friends under the guise of a finished product, knowing full well that my work remained before me.

To end up with the last Bull, the get-it-right Bull, the one the writer knows is the final product, that is one of the biggest rewards of this writing life:


Friday, December 20, 2013

Repost of Stop Dualistic Thinking, Become Prolific


[I'm reposting this piece because it feels important to mindful writing.]



Simply stop thinking dualistically about writing and sit back and observe what happens.


Contrary to usual belief, wanting to write is not good, beneficial, or commendable. Wanting to write does not hold a positive or negative impact on others or on oneself. Furthermore, writing everyday with terrific discipline, is neither positive nor negative, and finishing or publishing a text is also neither a positive or negative experience.

Much energy is expended in trying to coerce ourselves or others to write because we perceive the W word as an accomplishment. We grasp the goal of writing.

It is often presumed that wanting to write is a positive quality in a person. We tend to think that it’s good when students, for instance, want to write their assignments or, seemingly better still, want to write on their own, independent of any homework. We say, “good, this student likes writing,” if we are a teacher or their parent. It’s considered good when we ourselves feel willing to complete a piece of writing within a deadline. It’s perceived as positive when others embark upon a project of any genre.

We tend to admire or envy that willingness to write in another person as though that willingness all by itself were valiant.

When we praise another person’s writing ability, in general, we are actually chasing after one of two qualities, either self-expression or self-discipline. In the case of self-expression, we operate as though there exists inside each person’s life an experience or emotion that can only be released through writing. For ourselves, we may feel deeply frustrated while trying to release that uniqueness because we believe that writing about our experience is our sole chance. This scenario sets most of us up for the false belief that the ability to self-express is only possible for a few either extremely hard-working or talented individuals. Not us.

It would be cruel if only a select few individuals were capable of the satisfaction of self-expression. This notion is both limiting and false, since all of us born with healthy bodies do possess as a common denominator the ability to use language on an everyday basis.

On an everyday basis, most of us speak and write, and we are all fluent—not jammed—users of words. In some Buddhist traditions, everything and everyone has a Buddha-nature, or the opportunity for enlightenment. Revered Zen monks used to call each other derogatory names such as “old rice bag” to remind themselves that enlightenment is this universal ability, not just something in high-ranking religious officials. Likewise, each of us is completely capable of creating “verbal gold”—phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and whole texts—which make us feel proud and assured.

When we praise the self-discipline of a successful writer, we are causing as much harm to ourselves as creative spirits as when praising self-expression. To admire discipline in the abstract is to remove writing from the present moment and—by extension—to further eliminate any chance that one will be writing at any time soon.

You may have encountered a stranger at a dinner party who says, “Oh, I have tons of great ideas for books I could write, but I just lack the self-discipline.” Individuals who admire self-discipline in another are less likely to be really driven by a desire to write than the person who admires self-expression. These I-wish individuals are likely hoping that discipline could be grafted onto other areas of their lives, such as dieting or paying off debt

When writing is liberated from our systems of judgment and the binary thought pattern of good/bad, we are also liberated. We are free to either write or not write, thereby opening ourselves to the countless possibilities for human activity.

It’s okay to clean that floor instead of writing. It’s okay to go play with your son and then do the work you’ve brought home from the office. Writing is just one activity of hundreds.

Poet William Stafford said that lowering one’s standards will help a writer do the text. Take that advice a step in a new direction and cut back on your notion that even trying to write is a good attempt. Lower your standards that far. What’s funny is how achieving this non-dualistic thinking often allows people to start writing and keep at a project.

Simply stop the dualistic thinking about writing, and sit back and observe what happens. See that these binary categories about writing are absolutely meaningless. Not only are they meaningless, but in the end they will prevent you from writing as often as you want.

You need to trust that it ultimately does not matter whether you finish that novel, memoir, poetry collection, volume of literary theory, historical documentary [insert your genre here] because writing is neither positive nor negative. If you feel anxious at the idea in the previous sentence, inwardly you still cling to the dualistic notion that writing is a positive occurrence and that not writing is a negative occurrence in your life.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

On Not Being in Charge

Asking how much longer on this writing project, when will it be done, how many more lines, how many more stanzas, how many more paragraphs or pages, how many more sources, is a fundamentally inappropriate or ungracious question. It's one I found myself asking the other day about a poem like a child pestering, "Are we there yet?" And as of this morning, I'm still being reprimanded for asking it.

In "The Essential Delay" and "Write Before Writing" Don Murray identified five reasons why someone might delay writing (waiting for information, insight, order, voice, and need). Murray's diagnosis about delay is extremely useful for helping people not conflate these rich forms of waiting with writing block.

What strikes me about Murray's waiting, however, is that once a writer becomes aware of the helpful nature of waiting--and stops resisting or mislabeling it--the problem evaporates. In other words, once a writer becomes mindful of the nature of that waiting, the writer appreciates it as an organic stage in composing. Murray's delay is oriented toward the writer: you notice what's actually going on and you're automatically reward with some relief. But I'm talking about yet another type of required patience: you notice what's happening with your writing and you still have to wait, perhaps wordlessly.

It's one more lesson I have to learn about writing. One more thing writing has to teach me about mindfulness. Not only do I not control outcome, I do not control duration around that piece of writing. "You've got to be kidding. You mean there's more?" reveals how I am secretly slanted toward final product, the gloss of completion, the external reward side of writing.

My Other Half, the part of my internal dialog that causes my writing to happen, well, it may go off a long way and for a long time into the unconscious to fetch an answer, the next passage, an image, and resurface only after what seems like an interminably long time.

It's particularly funny when you are the person who decided to write the piece: it isn't a work- or school-provided task. No one asked you or perhaps even expects you to finish this piece. In fact, you were the one who came up with the concept, set up the perimeters, who decided the hour and day to embark and return to the project. You seem to be in charge--but that's far from the case.

Speaking of schooling, of this dimension of composition, I am once again struck by the fact that this patience, this not-being-in-charge is not something regularly (ever?) taught in schools. It's not really school-compatible. How could it be? Perhaps it is a lesson only professional writers or self-willed writers know. I know for sure it is a lesson I need to be periodically retaught. No worries: writing will make sure I'm taught.

Of course, it is only natural to desire for a break, for release from the uncomfortably intense intimacy of writing a piece. What it asks of me is that I stay patient, that I wait for it to be done. That I not try to control outcome or duration, that I embrace groundlessness.

Everything changes, and one factor in writing ability that will change and that will remain beyond our control is the duration of a writing project. How Long can not be predetermined.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

It Takes MindLESSness to Reach MindFULness


It is the nature of writing to be mindless either because of the dominance of the unconscious, of 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 all of its altered 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 is a highly 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 is 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 is 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 is 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.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Draw Your Writing

I know that I am mindfully writing when I find myself watching my words form drawing by drawing. Each word takes on a visual appearance. The lines, arabesques, grill work, movement do not vanish in service of meaning but are instead visible.

I can tell my emotional state and the degree to which I was mindful from the way my handwriting looks in an old notebook. If my handwriting is big and Matisse-like, I can guess that my emotional-cognitive state was one of reception and joy-at-writing. If tiny and precise as footnote, I was being careful and analytical.

I am not alone: I think many people have observed a correlation between their mood and personal context at the time of writing and the way their handwriting looks. How could it be otherwise?

The act of writing, as Keith Hjortshoj in Understanding Writing Blocks has observed, is a physical act--a "psychophysical process." I love what Hjortshoj says about this when he's talking about blocked academic writers: "Because scholars tend to view writing primarily as a mental activity, they are often inattentive to what they are actually doing, and where, and for how long. They want to tell me what they have been reading and thinking, or thinking about doing, or thinking about writing, or thinking about their difficulties... All of this is interesting, but I also want to know where their bodies have been moving."
 
It is important to watch letters and words form in our handwriting--to draw our writing--because then we start to slow down. We slow down enough to notice. Notice what? Our breathing and pulse. Because this use of language is slightly asynchronous with the speed and fluency of our inner conversation (meaning that we form words slower than we say them to ourselves, in our heads), a certain watchfulness happens which is a form of mindfulness.
 
Watching your words form like this is similar to mindful walking or mindful eating. It's the joining of awareness with activity and brings a sense of heightened calm. It's a good state to be in to find ideas and words.
 
Additionally, this sort of watchfulness enhances something that normally happens whenever we see a word. Seeing our words triggers hearing those words. The sound of words become more stretched out with the slower pace of our handwriting. Vowels sing, consonants clop, land on the floor, and tie ideas together. Moreover, the more we hear our words, the more likely we will be connected to our intrapersonal or internal dialog which is so essential to writing with fluency and ease.
 
Finally, because we are writing more slowly, we are more focused on the moment. We are less likely to think about audience or the future of our writing. We are less likely to feel anxious or to falter because we don't typically associate "drawing our words" with the type of production sought by teachers, bosses, or editors.
 
Practice drawing your words--including noticing the shadows of the pen, the hand, the fingers. See the letters as lines containing sound, emerging from the tiny opening at the tip of the pen.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Writing Can Happen By Chance

One of the best ways to make contact with the Present moment for the purposes of writing is deciding to operate on chance.
 
Letting external factors decide how and what one writes is great practice in abandoning ego and stopping the false attempt at control. (Trying to control outcome is one of the greatest traps a struggling writer faces. This attempt at control typically takes the form of trying to be perfect on-the-spot, as though an audience were physically present as we write: basically, editing as we compose. As I have argued in other posts, virtually the only thing we can control as we write is our relation to the Present moment--how mindful we are of the circumstances of writing.)
 
Working with chance can be done on the phrase level and also on the larger structural level.
 
It can be used for practice--for developing the "muscle" of acceptance, the one which mindfully observes what arises in the moment, embraces constant change in our writing condition, and quiets the constant urge to judge and sort our written production.
 
Operating by chance as a writer can also open up whole new angles of vision, critical thinking, and imagination.
 
Chance can also be used to find whole new texts to write.
 
Here are two exercises I have done with my students.
 
Exercise in Chance #1:
 
This one can be used to develop intrapersonal voice--specifically, a voice tinged with metaphor and the blending of the senses. It's a good one for creative writing.
 
Make a list of 25 or so one-word abstractions on the right side of a page or screen. By "abstraction," I mean words such as "optimism," "faith," "patriotism," "fear"--things which can't be directly experienced through the senses. Concepts.
 
Then make a second list of 25 adjectives on the left side of the page or screen. Try for as varied adjectives as possible: "scrambled," "hairy," "aquamarine," "repentant," and so forth.
 
Then randomly (without looking or predetermining) poke your finger at both columns and start writing down the pairs you obtain: "scrambled fear," etc.
 
Spend a few minutes freewriting or developing a poem around your favorite Adjective-Abstraction combination.
 
Exercise in Chance #2:
 
This one is good for larger macro structure matters. It should be used on a document in progress.
 
In a large envelope, put 25 or so phrases for various structural acts concerning writing. For instance: "Use a long sentence," "Define a term," "Write a paragraph based around an image," or "Use repetition in some way in your next 5 sentences."
 
As you write or even revise a longer draft, pull phrases from the envelope and, of course, follow whatever the phrases ask.
 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Repost of Keith Hjortshoj's "What Are You Actually Doing" Guest Post

[This guest post is so marvelous--and has attracted quite a few viewers--so I'm reposting it here.]

Kevin Dooley

What are you actually doing?


I am grateful that Keith Hjortshoj has given his thoughts to this blog. Keith's book,Overcoming Writing Blocks,has been seminal to my understanding of writing blocks and very insightful for my students. Dr. Hjortshoj is the John S. Knight Director of Writing in the Majors at Cornell University. He has published in Asian and Islamic studies in addition to Composition and Rhetoric.



When I tell people that I teach writing as movement (or as “embodied movement”), I hope they won’t ask me what I mean, exactly. They rarely do. Perhaps that’s because the idea pleases them (they often smile when I say it) and rings true. We all want writing to feel more like dancing. Or perhaps the statement seems, in an oxymoronic way, vaguely obvious. When we write, after all, we are doing something, not just with our brains and our fingers but with our whole selves in space and time. And when people talk about this activity they use the language of movement. They say they got somewhere, that the project is moving along, or (if it isn’t) that they’re stuck, blocked, or running into trouble: not moving. They say that writing itself flows or is choppy, like moving water, or that it’s graceful or awkward. Writing can skitter across the page or plod along in dreary iambs, like a tired donkey. In fact it’s difficult to talk about real writing (as opposed to abstract plans for writing) without reference to motion.

If asked what I mean, I could just say that, honestly enough, and most people would be satisfied.

But I’m not, because the answers to the further questions they might have asked get very complicated, and I’m still in the process of figuring them out. What is moving, exactly?

In some ways it’s the writer; in other ways it’s the writing, the language itself. And although these kinds of movement, of people and of texts, are related, they aren’t the same. Through coordinated movement of the embodied mind (self), sentences and passages move along the page and resonate, for readers, with qualities of a living voice now detached from the writer (who is doing something else). But we can’t reduce either of these dimensions of writing to the other. And when writers and their writing run into trouble, these distinctions become important. Saying “Just do it!” rarely solves the problem.

An example will help to explain why.

A graduate student who met with me every week, while working on his dissertation, typically arrived with less than a page of handwritten draft that set off in an interesting direction but ended abruptly. When I asked Carl why he stopped, he said that he got “stuck,” uncertain or confused, and really felt he needed to do further reading before he could continue. But then his ideas changed, he started a new page, stopped again, reverted to reading and thinking . . .

On one level, the problem seems fairly simple. Becoming fainthearted, Carl made the common academic blunder of confusing actually writing with reading and thinking about writing—two very, different but also embodied activities that felt safer. So I could have explained that confusion each week and said, again,“Don’t stop writing!”

But these explanations didn’t help, and one day I asked Carl to tell me exactly what happened at the moment he stopped, because I noticed that his handwriting gradually deteriorated and trailed off. He said, “The pen falls out of my hand.” As his doubts about what he was saying accumulated, he explained, his hand became increasingly cramped until he couldn’t hold the pen, and this physical inability to continue told him he had to stop writing and read, both to rest his hand and to collect his thoughts: to restore the physical and mental composure necessary for composing. Just keep writing? He couldn’t. (Carl wrote with pen, I should mention, because typing was even more paralyzing.)

Dualistic thinking will now tempt us to conclude that what we thought was a psychological (cognitive or emotional) problem was really a physical one, such as “carpal tunnel syndrome.” Time for the writing teacher to recommend physical therapy?
Not if the therapy is confined to a wrist brace or a set of exercises. Carl’s hand was connected to the rest of him, including his mind. When his fingers tightened on the pen, this effort to coordinate language and thought—to fabricate the kind of writing he felt unworthy to produce—gripped his entire being. As his hand began to cramp, the fluency of his thought and his writing deteriorated as well. Which was the cause and which was the effect? It’s impossible to say, and pointless to try, because these dimensions of the self are inseparable.

But this doesn’t mean the problem is hopeless. With awareness that writing (like everything else we do) is psychophysical movement, we can address the problem from either direction, through release. “When I’m falling,” Willem de Kooning said, “I’m doing alright. . .I’m really slipping, most of the time, into that glimpse. I’m like a slipping glimpser.” Like painting and walking, writing is falling into empty space, with trust in a mysteriously familiar ability realized in motion. Like walking, writing always results, in the moment, from release, not from control. Preparing to take a step, getting your limbs in the right position, thinking about the right way to take this risk, is not walking. Release your mind, release your limbs, and you move. It doesn’t matter which way you release first.

What about that risk, and the need for preparation? For the purpose of writing, there’s nothing wrong with preparation—with reading, or with thinking about what you want to say. But preparing to write is not writing and doesn’t necessarily lead to writing, any more than preparing to walk will get you anywhere. And in the moment, there is no risk in writing. This is why William Stafford called writing “one of the great, free human activities.” While you are writing, no one else is actually reading, or judging, what you say, so you are free to say anything. It really is like dancing, at home alone, with the curtains drawn, when you can release your body, release your mind, and move. When you release, mindful of this freedom, you can just dance. When you release (not before) you can “Just write!”


How does writing itself move, beyond us? That’s another complicated puzzle and topic, perhaps, or another post.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

What Totally Untrained Artists Might Have to Show Us About Writing Blocks



Henry Darger
"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." --- Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, 1999


 
The unschooled sometimes seem like the lucky ones. So-called "naive artists" like Henry Darger, Henri Rousseau, Howard Finster, and Grandma Moses, just to name a few in the visual arts category, have the chutzpah to create without degree granted, grant awarded, or sanction.
 
Their work seems the epitome of Writing Without Teachers. It is like one long and glorious private writing--creativity done for and by the self with Interested Parties looking on after the fact, uninvited. People might flock to museum shows of naive art, dig out credit cards for expensive purchases, or write scholarly treatises on a naive artist, but that was never the intention of the naive artist.
 
In terms of taking control of the proximity of audience (pushing the audience far away in one's head if it's a bothersome audience, bringing the audience closer if intimacy is needed), unschooled artists seem to be the real masters of taking charge. They've kicked out the teacher entirely by never entering the proximity of a classroom (whether because they're too young--are still a child; because they opted out of formal training; or because they lacked access to that training).

I remember the disdain on a painter friend's face when she saw a naive painting I'd purchased, hanging in my living room. It was a scene painted on a bureau drawer of a family going on a hike inside some mountains, a grinning airplane bumping into a greenish sun-- looked like a child had drawn it.
 
The unschooled frustrate the schooled. The unschooled seem to think they can create outside the immense framework of Art and Writing, the ones created by specialists. The unschooled do not drag around Tradition. Instead, they go straight to the source: to the unbridled joy of creating that many others only long to be able to experience again (since it withdrew from life with the end of childhood).

In Brenda Ueland's classic 1938 treatise, If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence, and Spirit, children figure prominently as artists.

Ueland sets up a contrast between the unfettered abilities of children and the limited imagination of those who have experienced school instruction. As Rob Pope has suggested, much twentieth-century research on creativity has attempted to discern whether creativity is an ordinary or unique capacity, and this research has often selected young children for its subject. Young children are deemed suitable test cases for creativity research because of children’s motivation to create, “more therapeutic rather than assessment-driven,” and because of children’s level of exposure to teachers’criticism.

In one instance, Ueland agrees to pose for a portrait for three days for children who had no training. Ueland finds the children’s creative process and the results of their work to be “remarkable—all different, astonishing in their own way because the creative impulse was working innocently, not egotistically or to please someone, an instructor, say, who three in the anxious questions: is it art? has it balance? design?" The children operated out of intrinsic, non-school motivations: “If they had worked that hard for school it probably would have killed them. They were working for nothing but fun, for that glorious inner excitement. It was the creative power working in them." Ueland asks us to think about the children’s play we have witnessed, suggesting that creativity is really an ordinary rather than specialized event.

Hughes Mearns in his 1929 Creative Power cast the situation in a more startling light: "Blessed are the poor in English for they shall see with their own eyes." 

As a writing teacher, I certainly believe teaching can lead to great benefits and creativity. I do also think, however, that sometimes we need to step away from our training. For me what is most striking about the unschooled is the way in which their intrapersonal dialog is cleaner, like mountain air.

Unlike most people when creating, these individuals don't have artistic standards or the language of formal study floating around in their inner talk. Their work can be in much greater contact with the instinctual, and their motive and purpose are different than someone who is part of the system. The teacher also will not figure as an imaginary audience in the intrapersonal dialog of the unschooled. Perhaps Donald Bartholomae is a bit right in "Inventing the University": once we're schooled, we're always schooled, always in part writing for a teacher.

No matter the stack of degrees behind our name, sometimes we need to find a place where we can remain a perpetual beginner.

We can pick up the habits of the unschooled by practicing in a genre that we have had no formal training in. We can use materials (crayons, markers) associated with children to do a draft. We can fill the pages of our writing notebook, no matter the genre of our work, with drawings--with childlike renditions of our ideas, including drawings of academic thesis statements and scholarly book proposals.

I once met a law professor who mentioned as an aside to me at a meeting that he spent his weekends working on spy novels--one book-length manuscript after the next. (When someone learns of my profession, I usually get comments about how much people hate writing or are "bad" at grammar--so this was a relief.)

When he talked about his writing life, his body language was filled with much joy. It was like watching a kid talking about playing with his new birthday toys. Not a trace of anxiety or worry. Here was someone deeply trained in one profession (law) but who found joy in something he'd never taken official classes in (creative writing). When I asked him if he ever intended to publish these manuscripts, he said that he had no intention of showing anyone the work. And I think that was the secret of his joy, the center of his training.


Monday, August 26, 2013

Keep Talking to Yourself

Self-talk can serve as a type of writing prompt or heuristic. Instead of hoping to immediately arrive at some sort of valley of golden content, talk yourself through to the journey to new material. You might be surprised by how wise and compassionate of a guide you can become for yourself. Imaginative and intelligent work leans on such scaffolding.

In previous posts, I have talked about the need to turn to intrapersonal or internal dialog for content for writing. What I am discussing in this post is turning to that intrapersonal communication to find an inner teacher or guide: someone who "assigns" structure, who is general of the Next Step.
 
People who write fluently or with ease tend toward process thinking and meta language--both of which could also called "awareness" or "mindfulness" in their own right.

Sometimes we need to stay a little more mindful of the production: we need to hear ourselves ask questions. Questions are the girders of the text we're building. We need to see the Instructions. Just as when a teacher gives you prompts to write (I do this often in the classroom), these commands release you from the total responsibility of coming up with the text. Someone else is handing you the next step; you just listen and "follow directions," writing down whatever arises in response to their suggestion.

In my notebooks, I am constantly asking myself, "What's next?" "What does the poem/article/paragraph want to do next?" (Sondra Perl uses a similar strategy in her book on Felt Sense.)

Writing becomes a sort of command performance, in a good way. A certain liberty is possible: you can throw caution to the wind. After all, these are not your ideas. If the text isn't high quality, that's not completely your fault. And so forth. The responsibility to create a great piece is leveraged a bit onto this other party, this teacher, this guide.

This release from total responsibility for the outcome of writing is in part the allure of formal poetry. Sonnets and their ilk provide a structure; the poet's job is to respond to that structure. In a sense, poems written in form are a heightened act of listening, of call and response.

In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Suzuki speaks of the balance between control and openness. "To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him."

While writing, we do this by assigning ourselves prompts while we write. We ask ourselves helpful, generous questions; more importantly, we remain able to hear ourselves asking those questions so we can respond. Finally, we must be able to accept the response, whatever it is. Don't sort or judge it.

As you write, keep a notebook or screen handy where you can do process notes about the act of writing. In those process notes, ask yourself questions about the text you're working on. Do this regularly, every 20 minutes.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Exits into the Now: The Value of Meta Writing


zoompf.com

 
When the subject of one's writing is writing, it brings everything closer to the present moment because what one is doing in the moment is writing. Like driving a car, most of us tend to not perceive what we're actually doing when we write. Writing about one's immediate writing experience = writing about the present. It's an easy way, therefore, to heighten mindfulness and probably reduce writing anxiety.

Let the subject, at least in part, be the present moment, and because you are writing in that moment, the subject becomes writing.

Invariably, this leads to low-stakes writing or perhaps private writing because you won't likely be showing this piece to a reader-critic: unless you opt to enclose your present experience as a writer inside the amber of publication.

When I was younger and pretty much stuck in a prolonged block, I gravitated toward poets who mentioned the act of writing within their work. For instance, Octavio Paz's lines half-way down in his great long poem, "The river":

In mid-poem a great helplessness overtakes me, everything abandons me,

there is no one beside me, not even those eyes that gaze from behind me at what I write,

no one behind or in front of me, the pen mutinies, there is neither beginning

                                         nor end nor even a wall to leap,

the poem is a deserted esplanade.

These meta moments inside texts helped by basically exiling future critical audiences and high-stakes situations from the moment. (At the end of my second MFA program and in desperate search of a full-time teaching job, I also used Post-Its with the single word "Buddha" or "Present" as exits into the Now--though I did not formally meditate at the time. I didn't own a laptop and would go to the basement of a university computer lab to type up my resume and cover letters, sticking these Post-Its onto the borrowed monitor.) In my most isolated stretches as a writer, I turned to metalanguage in my poems as a way to finally break free of audience-in-the-head and write; later on, the increased awareness of the present afforded by including metalanguage allowed me to feel the abundance of possibility and relationship that is writing.

In my writing journals, nowadays I include notes about process right alongside ideas and phrases for poems and essays. If I am working on scholarly writing, I jot down the date and time, some details about my writing area, (ideally, screened-in back porch as in right now, the rain mumbling, the eggplant half-fruit, half-blossom), and my private feelings about the project at hand. During any given writing session, I value those process jottings as much as I value the ideas or phrases. It's all writing--no sorting or categories needed.

"Yoga for Hands" is one way to turn to the experience of actually writing as subject material. (See post from 9/11/2012.) Another way to practice meta-mindfulness is to do a 7-10 minute freewrite on any topic (you chose) but every 2 or 3 sentences pause and, in parenthesis, pull yourself back to the Now. Write about the Now. Include details about the space you're writing in, sensory information from that space, the smell or appearance of ink, the sound of your typing, the heat given off by the keyboard, etc. Then return to what's outside the parenthesis, to the topic of your freewrite. Repeat.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Stone Backpack of Perfectionism

Many of us carry around a stone backpack when we write: we unwittingly lug around a heavy load of our own preconceptions about our writing ability. This backpack isn't filled with stones per se but is actually made entirely of mind-generated rock: zippers, pockets, and straps.

That is, we approach a new writing moment with pre-formed ideas as to how the writing will turn out and what the experience will be like because we--and not some external critic, editor, or teacher--have already graded our performance. We assume we know our own writing capabilities--that we can predict what will happen in the next moment.
 
We are loading down the moment.
 
Even if what we're doing is presumably private writing or even disposable writing, chances are good that our intrapersonal talk involves a constant pressure to improve, a restlessness with our writing. A deep-rooted dissatisfaction.
 
(Not all this predetermined thought, of course, is necessarily "negative": we might be carrying around what seem like highly positive, generous views of our ability. But I'll save for this a later post since the brunt of our predetermined thought, I'm wagering, tends toward the critical for most of us.)
 
What follows is an activity I use with my undergraduate and graduate students to call a temporary halt to that need to "improve" as a writer.
 
Get yourself a blank screen or sheet of paper.
 
What would it be like—what would happen 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” now? 
 
Jot down anything which arises in your mind in response to this notion of already-perfect. (Keep returning to the questions and keep seeing what arises in terms of:

* What sorts of images pass over your mind? Breathe into these images.  Follow them.  What do you notice?

* What sorts of emotion are you feeling?

* What color is one of those emotions?

* Breathe into this emotion.  Follow it. What do you notice?

See if you can gain a sense--even for a few seconds--of what it would feel like to stop wanting to change who you are as a writer. See if you feel the load lighten. See what it might be like to have a more expansive sense of the Present moment of writing. And when you return to the need-to-be-better thinking, notice yourself slipping back on the straps of the stone backpack.

Monday, July 29, 2013

20 Versions: One Way to Train in Impermanence

 
Picture of Don Murray
Legendary writing professor Don Murray once proposed that we think of 1,000 rewrites for a piece of our writing.  Instead of 1,000, come up with 20 versions of a text you’re writing, thinking of changes in style, content, and even genre. * SD indicates a revision that keeps the piece the same type of document or genre.
 
Here's how it looked when I tried out this exercise:
 
Original document:

  1. Scholarly article on history of figurative language and creative writing
 


Its Transformations:
 
1.  article for trade journal (professional writers) on same topic
  1. an interview (of contemporary creative writers) on topic for a trade journal
  2. incorporate an interview section (of creative writers) in the scholarly article SD
  3. humorous piece on how academia limits creativity of faculty
  4. poem that has the simile as its topic (figurative language)
  5. a talk at a conference for creative writers
  6. a talk at a conference for historians of rhetoric
  7. add a personal or autobiographical section  SD
  8. blog posting (for educators or for poets)
  9. statement on professional web page
  10. incorporate into a teaching philosophy statement document
  11. incorporate actual 19th century student creative writings as examples SD
  12. incorporate lectures on figuration from 19th century Harvard professors SD
  13. turn into full-length scholarly book
  14. turn into a cartoon or illustration for something
  15. turn into a PowerPoint for faculty
  16. article about poetic license as it occurs today
  17. same article as #17 for Humanities faculty only
  18. personal essay that starts with a simile and metaphor about this topic in my writing and teaching life
  19. a freewrite on same topic
This method promotes impermanence by keeping the genre of one's writing open. You don't have rigid preconceptions about genre, for one thing. In turn, by allowing the genre to even stay in-flux, you are making good use of the absence of audience during the writing moment (because genre is connected to particular audience expectations). You're taking control of the audience-in-the-head. For me, this method resulted in a poem (included at end of my second book, Lid to the Shadow, as well as a scholarly article in College Composition and Communication.)

 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Day Five of Institute on Overcoming Writing Blocks




Day Five of Institute

Curriculum covered today:
Revision as Invention
Giving Feedback Mindfully
Receiving Feedback Mindfully
Loving-Kindness Meditation
Keith Hjortshoj, Understanding Writing Blocks


Exercises:
Freewrite on Giving Feedback with Mindfulness
Freewrite on Receiving Feedback with Mindfulness
Student Praxis Presentations
Loving-Kindness Meditation for Writers (See June post)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Day Four of Institute on Overcoming Writing Blocks




Day Four of Institute

Curriculum covered today:
Prolonging Invention
Revision and Impermanence
Mindful Listening and Feedback
Types of Feedback
Chance & Indeterminacy for Writing
Invention as Revision
Donald Murray, "Internal Revision"
                            Thomas Newkirk, "Montaigne's Revisions"
                             Thich Nhat Hanh, "Right Speech"
                             Sharon Salzberg, Loving-Kindness

Exercises:
Mindful Listening
Bullsheet
Murray's 20 Versions
Videos of the Reader's Mind
Montaigne Method of Revision


* I'll be posting after each day of the 5-Day Institute on mindful writing. Stay tuned for Day Five, the last day of the Institute..

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Day Three of Institute on Overcoming Writing Blocks



AlicePopkorn
Day Three of Institute

Curriculum covered today:
Low- and High-Stakes Writing Tasks
Voice-in-Writing
Intrapersonal Rhetoric
Invention
Embodied Rhetorics
Peter Elbow, "High and Low-Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing"
Don Murray, "The Essential Delay"
                             Sondra Perl, Felt Sense

Exercises:
Meditation on Groundlessness and Writing
Yoga for Hands (See post from September 2012)
Portrait of Intrapersonal Voice
Felt Sense

* I'll be posting after each day of the 5-Day Institute on mindful writing. Stay tuned for Day Four.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Day Two of Institute on Overcoming Writing Blocks



AlicePopkorn
Day Two of Institute

Curriculum covered today:
Freewriting as Mindfulness Practice
Intrapersonal Dialog
Groundlessness and Writing
Disposable Writing
Shunryu Suzuki, "Control"
Peter Elbow, Writing With Power
Mike Rose, "Rigid Rules, Inflexible Plans"
Carl Rogers, "Communication: Its Blocking & Its Facilitation"

Activity:
Today we were fortunate to be visited by three members of the House Sangha of Salem and Marblehead. They guided us through seated and walking meditation and discussed their mindfulness practices. Quite a sight: a line of barefoot people watching their breathing as they moved slowly down a long academic hallway!

Exercises:

Build-a-Poem
Freewrite: Your Writing is Already Buddha, Already Perfect
Disposable Writing

* I'll be posting after each day of the 5-Day Institute on mindful writing. Stay tuned for Day Three.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Day One of Institute on Overcoming Writing Blockis



AlicePopkorn
 
Day One of Institute
Curriculum covered today:

Audience as proximity
Awareness of impact of audience on our writing
The fundamental privacy of writing
Materials and Audience Relation
Peter Elbow, Writing With Power
Keith Hjortshoj, Understanding Writing Blocks


Exercises:

Caricature of a Tricky Audience
Seated Meditation
Freewrite about the Sensory Experience of Writing
Mindful Eating and Description
Images of Writing Blocks
Writing Mantra

* I'll be posting after each day of the 5-Day Institute on mindful writing. Stay tuned for Day Two.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Conceptual Metaphors and Images (For Writing Blocks) Contributed by Other Writers


Here are some conceptual metaphors & images for writing blocks I've received from other writers. Send yours along by commenting to this post. Indicate whether you want your name displayed or whether you prefer to stay anonymous.

My metaphor for writer's block is using a GPS where it keeps searching for the satellites, but it can't figure out where you are. It just keeps searching and searching, and eventually you either give up on it, or you find your way, but while it is searching, it is a feeling of hopelessness and frustration just like writer's block for me. My metaphor for writing when it "works" is trotting on a horse. I lose track of time and feel totally focused on the up and down and the sounds and smells and totally absorbed in the moment. Writing when it flows is totally like that for me. --Shirley P. 
 
Writer's block feels like I'm clawing my eyes out with jagged fingernails. --J.L. Powers (www.jlpowers.net)

Being at the bottom of a monolith with endless stairs.
                                --Audrey, graduate student in Overcoming Writing Blocks course

I was sixteen. It was snowing heavily, over a foot on the ground. I had left the admissions office of Amherst College, where I’d had a bland interview. I was to meet my father at the town library. He had told me directions, but I took a wrong turn and, as Springsteen says, “I just kept going.”

The snow kept falling, off and on, and the wind blew through the gaps in my overcoat and my buttoned wool suit. Finally, I knew I had gone wrong, so I turned, and turned again, and I found myself on a long stretch with few houses. Ahead of me was the University of Massachusetts football stadium. A flicker of memory: a warm autumn day, the bright colors of the field and the uniforms, the concrete bleachers like giant steps, each row coming above my waist. Before a childhood in Illinois and adolescence in Western Connecticut, I had spent my first five years of my life in this college town as my father finished graduate school.

It got colder. My thin socks were soaked with melted snow that found its way into my dress shoes. I turned again, some side street lined with small houses and bare trees. Off to my left I could see where I thought I wanted to go; something told me it was the way back downtown, where the library had to be, where at least there would be stores at which I could ask directions.

It had been over an hour. The library was only five minutes from the Admissions Office. Where was I?

Ahead of me, I couldn’t see a way to turn left, so I left the street and set off down a driveway, then walked through a snowy backyard and leapt over a half-frozen brook.

As truly as I remember, the moment I stepped over the brook it hit me—my own past. I was in a small lawn in the back of a student housing complex—Lincoln Apartments—where I had lived those first years of my life. I had flashes of playing ball on this lawn when there was grass, not snow. I followed a map in my mind around one building and there it was: my earliest home! That back wall, where I’d bounced a ball and learned to catch; the second floor railing from which my father dropped a coconut. It split at the foot of our apartment’s porch, white chunks in the sun. And there, from the porch, I saw the parking lot where I had learned to ride a bike.

I didn’t knock at my old door. I had come far enough.

It took another 45 minutes to find the library and my worried father. I told him my story, where I’d been, what I’d found. I couldn’t explain the mystery of it--why I’d chosen that backyard at that time—and I couldn’t make clear the wonder of it, the way that step across the brook brought a lost world back to me. It couldn’t mean to him what it meant to me: wandering in the snow, dressed in, of all things, a suit, lost, uncomfortable, and then, leaving the road and cutting through someone’s backyard and stepping into something at the core of me.  --J.D. Scrimgeour

 
I think of writing as a thoughtful expression of various ideas, questions and themes joined together in one carefully engineered structure, in which all the parts do not necessarily compliment one another, but all assist in the work 'becoming' through a combination of their supportive, compressive and passive properties. Supportive parts represent reason, which gives the structure strength and integrity. Compressive parts are the questions I am asking or trying to answer; they are what I deeply examine or wrestle with. Passive parts are grammatical and syntactical elements that provide clarity.

For me this process is like constructing a skyscraper. I am the uncertain and self-conscious engineer, guided by a loose blue print of creative compulsion. Using ideas as the materials and emotion as the fuel, I build, and many times disassemble, until I’ve reached a summit, where, in full view, I feel accepting, if not satisfied, with the overall structure.
--Carolyn Strain, graduate student at Salem State University