Last June, I attended a writing program in New York City. Everything about it was great: the workshops, the lectures, the walking through the Village to get to class.
Then came the seminar on meditation.
The Writing & Meditation seminar was led by a monk who opened the seminar with a silent meditation. After a few minutes, the miniature Allison inside my head started clawing at my skull to try to make the torture stop. Give me a task! I could hear her screaming. I hate this!
I don’t remember whether we sat there for five minutes or ten, but it felt like an hour. An agonizing hour. An agonizing, awful hour. And that was the last time I tried meditation for a while.
Almost on a whim, last month I gave it another try. This time, I went with a guided meditation, which made all the difference. After meditating (almost) daily for almost three weeks, I understand why the writing program included a seminar on meditation. It didn’t work for me then, but now I get it. In a short time, meditation has taught me so much about writing.
I use an app called Headspace. Here’s how Headspace defines meditation:
“Meditation is the simple exercise to familiarize oneself with the qualities of mindfulness. It is a way of providing the optimum conditions for training the mind to be calmer, clearer and kinder.”
How often do you feel frantic, confused, and hard on yourself when you’re writing? I know I do all the time. Yet I write better when I am calm, clear and kind.
Here are a few things meditation has taught me about writing.
Take it one word at a time
Meditation is about engaging with the moment that is happening right now. It means stilling our thoughts, which inevitably take us either to the past or the future.
In the same way, the process of writing is about the next word, and then the next. Everything else is noise.
In Bird by Bird, her very entertaining book on writing, Anne Lamott writes about the panic that hits her when she faces a big writing project. She writes:
“I go back, trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.
“It reminds me that all I have to do is write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown….”
Set yourself short assignments rather than big ones. Think of the next paragraph, or the next word. Don't worry about what you wrote three paragraphs earlier or what you will write three paragraphs later.
Outlines are the place for planning, and editing is the time to fix what you have written. Writing happens one word at a time, just as meditation happens one breath at a time. Otherwise, we’re lost either in the past or the future, and we’re unfocussed. Our writing suffers.
Instead, we need to be fully engaged with our writing, one word at a time.
Let go of effort
If you're like me, few of your best ideas come when you're staring at a computer screen. Most of my best writing ideas come to me when I’m walking, without any intention of thinking about writing.
The idea for this blog post came to me while walking through the U of T campus. I’ve had other ideas come to me while hiking up hills, walking through parks, or just sitting on benches in the sun.
Not-great ideas tend to come when I’m staring at a computer screen, panicked, mini-Allison frantically searching for something good somewhere in the back recesses my mind.
We can’t force it. When we do, it often goes poorly. Instead, we need to let go of effort.
Headspace has a cute animation that describes how this works for meditation. I think it’s applicable for writing, too.
Accept what’s on the page
Part of meditation is acknowledging what you are thinking and feeling, without judging it. This kind of acceptance is important to writing. We are rarely able to put words together as effortlessly or articulately as we would like. It is important to accept that rather than fight it.
Lamott has an entire chapter dedicated to the importance of first drafts. Not just first drafts—shitty first drafts. She declares, “In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”
Most of us are like this. We have to accept what’s on the page. It’s okay if we think it’s terrible. There are tools and techniques to make the draft better. First we have to get it down, and that requires acceptance without judgement.
I have no doubt that taking it one word at a time, letting go of effort, and accepting what’s on the page will help you write in a calmer, clearer and kinder state of mind. Good luck!
Have you learned about writing from another practice or hobby in your life? Whether it’s a lesson taken from hockey or knitting, I’d love to hear it!