Writing with a Beginner’s Mind

Writing with a Beginner’s Mind

One of the basic tenents of mindfulness is beginner’s mind. Beginner’s mind refers to the act of thinking like a beginner as you engage in any activity. Can you think back to when you first started writing (or painting, or gardening, or even showering) and how you were thoughtful about the choice of each word, how excited you felt when you discovered the perfect metaphor, the sense of accomplishment you felt after a long stretch of writing? As writers, many of us have been writing so long that we just cruise on autopilot, but how would your writing be different if you came to it from a different perspective, that of a novice?

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For those of us who have been at it a while, we often forget why we chose to take up this often frustrating, isolating, vexing profession/trade. Bringing a beginner’s mind to our writing can serve to open up new channels of creativity that might become blocked by a fixed, stale perspective.

All writers, at some point, must have possessed a love of language. Think back to what made you fall in love with storytelling. I always got a rush when I discovered the perfect conclusion, not because I knew I was done, but I just love great conclusions. I love the art of pacing and rhythm to get there and the moment of release with that final line. After writing a while, I found that I didn’t appreciate those hard-won endings as much I once did. The novelty of creating them had worn off. The mindfulness practice of beginner’s mind offers writers the opportunity to re-discover the joy we once experienced in the act of writing.

Exercise

Think back to the first time you picked up a pen or pencil or tapped a keyboard. What did it feel like, on an emotional level? Can you recall? Were you excited? Enthusiastic? Terrified?

Now think back to what you felt on a physical level. Did you enjoy the feel of the perfect fine-tipped pen in your hand? Did you hold a spiral notebook, or were you the yellow legal pad type? Maybe you never wrote a word longhand, but have always typed because you liked the feel and sound of tapping keys.

If you began writing by hand and now only type, even your first drafts, try writing by hand and see what happens. Going back to our writing roots is often a great way of unblocking our stuck creativity.

Let me know how it goes!

Mindfulness Meditation and Memory Recall

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As a writer of personal essays and memoir, I rely on memory, often a very distant-past memory, to write. Unfortunately, I never kept a journal in my youth. If I knew I would become a writer, I might have taken notes! When I am in the middle of a writing session, I sometimes struggle to recall long-ago events. If a friend or relative mentions a “remember when,” moment, I often find that I had literally forgotten, at least on the surface, all about that event. For a memoirist, I have a terrible memory.

Luckily, I discovered that meditation can aid in the ability to recall memories, and there is research to back this up. Catherine Kerr, a researcher at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging and the Osher Research Center, has discovered that people who practice meditation can adjust their brain waves better than those who do not meditate. Kerr’s research shows that meditators can screen out distractions and increase productivity faster than those who do not meditate. Fewer distractions mean that the brain is able to integrate new information. Kerr’s research shows that memory recall is dramatically improved. “Mindfulness meditation has been reported to enhance numerous mental abilities, including rapid memory recall,” Kerr states.

For those of us who rely heavily on our memory for writing, meditation may be the key to unlocking the past we may have forgotten as we age. Consider this: once a memory, let’s say of a childhood event, has inhabited the brain, there is no place to discard memory, and so it stays stored in the brain on a subconscious level. The memory is there, always has been there, but only needs to be accessed. According to the Exploration of Consciousness Research Institute, we lose the ability to access the memory; the memory itself has never left us.

Researchers at the EOC Institute also believe that meditation can enhance the ability to store and retrieve future memories: “By flexing your memory muscle in meditation, your information storage mechanisms multiply, ensuring that your brain retains the ability to store new memories now, and as you age.”

The more I practice mindfulness meditation, the more distant memories I have accessed, which has helped my writing in a myriad of ways. Try it, and leave a comment on your results. I’d love to hear!

 

To read full article mentioned above, visit  psychcentral.com “Meditations’ Effects on the Emotion Shown to Persist”

 

Reflections on the Benefits of Mindfulness for Teachers and Students: A Dialogue

Originally posted on AEPL's Blog:

Greetings, blog readers! This week’s Sunday Meditation is a bit different. Instead of being single-authored, Sheila Kennedy and I teamed up to offer a running dialogue about the ways we believe students and instructors benefit from learning mindfulness practices within our courses. We hope we can offer some gems of insight for any readers interested in integrating mindfulness practices in their courses, readers who may be wondering: why take the leap? Does our dialogue move you to mindful action? For readers who have already integrated mindfulness into their courses, we hope you’ll chime in and let us know your experiences in the comments below.

Today’s structure is just one of the many formats welcome on this blog. If you have an idea and would like to contribute to our Sunday Meditation series, posted on the last Sunday of every month, please contact Christy Wenger at cwenger@shepherd.edu.

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Christy:

Five…

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Why do you Write?

Have you ever actually stopped to think about why you write? I hadn’t, until I recently read “Liberating the Tortured Writer,” from Mindful Magazine. The writer recounted his tortured writer years of rejection, poverty and uncertainty as he struggled to become a writer. He had amassed a lot of negative mental habits, including

  • A desperate need for some kind of approval: basing one’s self esteem on the opinions of others.
  • Over identification with my work—mistaking my work for my actual life.
  • A constant striving for a future moment that would be better than this one.
  • An image of what I should or shouldn’t be achieving at any one time of my life.
  • A clinging to suffering, an addiction to the highs and lows of it, including endless speculation on whether I was “good enough.”      (Ben Craib)

This list (and we could all probably add to it) sounded too familiar. Why do we so often find the word “tortured” side by side with “writer”? Ask most writers of they have ever experienced anything from this list, and it would be the exception if they had not. So why do we torture ourselves so?

In my own writing, I have often wondered what drives me to write, if I am really doing it for myself or seeking some kind of approval I’m not consciously aware of (mommy issues?). I’ve also had trouble separating my writing from my life. Think about it: what would you be if you didn’t write? Are you what you do? I’m not sure I can even answer that.

I have to admit, as a writer, I do find myself striving for a future moment that might be better than this one, like dreams of the major book tour or a book-to-major-motion picture deal. I suppose that’s grasping, a very un-mindful way of being. As writers, we inherently are attached to outcomes – publication, admiration, respect – another very unmindful way of being.

The writer of the article eventually learned through mindfulness practice not to attach to the hope of success or fear of failure, but to simply live in the present and let the rest go. For myself, it’s a daily struggle, but on the days I’m feeling more tortured than grateful, I know it’s time to take a step back and re-evaluate why I’m writing. If I ever cannot answer, “I write for the joy of writing,” then maybe I’ll know it’s time to take a break to rediscover my motivations.

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I’d like to hear from you.

  • Why do you write?

  • Who would you be if you didn’t write?

  • What would you do with your time if you didn’t write?

Front Porch Writing

 

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My front porch

My husband just built this beautiful front porch. We tore down the old rickety porch – more of a front deck really – and built this from the ground up. The view from the white rocker is gravel road and rolling cornfields – the perfect writing spot, a friend said. Yes.

I hadn’t even thought about the front porch as a writing spot. Since we moved to the country last fall, I’ve been so focused – overwhelmed might be a better description – on the  inside of the neglected 1905 farmhouse that I hadn’t given much thought to what the outside could offer. We writers need a writing “space” and that is different for every writer. I have always had the notion I needed what Virginia Woolf called a “room of her own” with four walls, a door, and all the writing amenities Office Depot could offer: computer, printer, file cabinets, bookcases, message boards, shelves of paper and notebooks and pens – so many pens!

The renovations have taken much longer than I anticipated. My “room of my own” has been a half-hazard mess, up the steepest flight of stairs imaginable, into the coldest (in the winter) to, in mid-July, the now  hottest room in the house. I hated it. Avoided it. My writing, along with my spirit, waned. How could I write without a room! I moaned to my husband.

One project finished, then another, then finally he began the front porch this spring. I wasn’t interested. I had become used to living without using the front door. What did I need it now for? I watched out the front window as he set the  posts, then frame. Tongue and groove boards joined together to make a floor, then white spindle railings and, finally, the hand rail. I had a porch.

I brought back an old white rocker from the Ozark home of my childhood, and knew immediately it was going on the front porch. Once home, I set the rocker down, walked off the porch and to the road in front of our home. I needed a wider angle view of the porch, a different vantage point. I needed to look at the porch in a different way.

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Then my friend, when seeing the white rocker looking out from the covered porch, said, “The perfect place to write!” Of course. Why couldn’t I see that? It didn’t have a computer or printer or bookcases or file cabinets or any of the amenities I thought I needed. It didn’t even have a flower pot yet. Just a simple front porch with an old white rocker. Simple as that.

Writing Prompt:

Do you have a favorite place to write? What makes it special?
Do you think you need a “perfect” place to write? Where do you think you’ll find it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quieting Distractions

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The 4th of July will soon be here, with all the booming noise that often lasts for days on end. Can you tell I’m not a fan? I can’t imagine how pets or war veterans cope. For me, the 4th of July is more an unsettling, nerve-racking distraction. My mother always told me to ignore things that bother me, like loud noises, but I always found that advice ridiculous. How could anyone possibly ignore fireworks exploding right outside their bedroom window? When I was young, my favorite “fireworks” were black snakes and smoke bombs. They didn’t make a sound!

We are surrounded by distractions every day. As I sit here writing, I am distracted by voices outside my work area, the phone, thunder. You would think a mindful writer would learn to shut out the noise, the distractions, but it’s not always so easy. I was just reading a blog post from a fellow writer who was complaining about losing early morning sleep from the loud cacophony of birds outside her window. I adore the chorus of birds, and for me, bird song has never been a distraction, but what is relaxing to one might be noise to others. Sometimes, even the most subtle sounds, the tick of the clock or hum of the refrigerator, are distracting for writers.

One way I have found that works to quiet distractions when I am writing is to actually concentrate on the distraction. It’s the same principle when you’re dieting, and all you can think of is eating that chocolate cake. A dietician will tell you to take just a bite of the chocolate cake to satisfy your craving and not deprive yourself; otherwise, you’ll drive yourself crazy thinking about that chocolate cake. Trying to ignore noise or other distractions will only cause the noise to consume you. Focus on the noise, or whatever distraction is sucking your attention. Once you give it a few moments of your complete focus, take a few minutes to refocus by breathing in and out slowly, do a quick body check, and give yourself back to your writing. Once you are back into your writing, the distractions may still be there, but hopefully it won’t consume your mental energy.

Writing Prompt:

Close your eyes, take a few breaths, and listen. What do you hear? Are the sounds enjoyable, or unpleasant? Do the sounds you hear recall any childhood memories? Focus on one sound, link it to a memory, and tell that story.

 

 

Writing the Past in the Present

Writers, whether they write memoir, fiction or poetry, often find themselves dredging up painful memories of the past. As mindful writers, we know we should focus on the present moment, but it’s difficult for writers to be present when we are through necessity, often living (at least in our heads) in the past. For some – if not most – of us, the past can be a painful place to visit. Sometimes the painful emotions – sadness, anger, sorrow – we felt in the past resurface as we compose our narratives in the present. So how do writers avoid getting stuck in their narrative past?

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Be Fully Present

If you feel yourself falling into the emotions of the past as you write, take note of your body’s response to the emotions that arise. What are you actually feeling in your body? Where are those feelings coming from? What are you seeing, hearing, doing, right now, in the present? Don’t ignore the feelings, emotional or physical, or try to push them down. When the narrative of your past creates uncomfortable feelings in your body, take note, relax, then let them go.

Focus on the Present

It’s easy to get lost in the past when writing, especially when we’re writing memoir. Thinking how you could have done things differently or wishing things were different often serve to bring negative experiences into the present. As you write, remind yourself this is a story from the past. It’s not your reality now. No need to be a victim in the present or bemoan the past. For a reminder, place a big sticky note on your computer with the words, “The past is the past! Write on!

Write Through the Pain

If you have avoided writing on a subject because it is too painful, you may be actually creating anxiety for yourself. Research supports this theory. According to an article in Psychology Today, confronting your fear gives you evidence of your ability to cope. Avoiding the past out of fear that recalling it will bring up uncomfortable emotions will only maintain and magnify the very emotions you are trying to avoid feeling. Confronting your past by writing about it takes the power away from it. Writing will take you through the pain and to the other side where healing can take place.

Remember that even as you write the past, be fully present in the here and now. The past cannot hurt you now unless you let it. If painful emotions surface as you write, take note, feel them, then let them pass. Avoid the urge to avoid feeling. The only way out is through.