So these three steps are the key components of integrating mindfulness into the actual writing process: recognition, action, curiosity. One should also, of course, be prepared for the days when one or more of these proves harder to access, days when we simply cannot see that we are slipping into critical thinking and judgment, or that what we think are valid reasons for not continuing to write are actually just manifestations of the hindrances. There will be times — even out of necessity, as in later stages of the process — when you must bring forward your critical eye to serve a greater function, and that it will be vital that you not confuse the “critical eye,” which helps you differentiate between writing that is truly serving the character and the story and writing that is not, and the “critical voice” that wants to cast blame for those mis-steps on you as a writer, a bad one indeed.
During the times when there is simply nothing going right, days when the words are not coming, and when they come they suck, and because they suck, you suck, it may be all you can do to just keep writing. If this happens, it is so important that you do whatever it takes to get your words onto the page. You will never know, until much later, the impact this has on your work, how it deepens your practice and solidifies both your projects and your foundation as a writer. It may be impossible to see from up close, especially when it takes such effort to get to the page, to keep the words flowing, but you must have faith that, if you make the effort, it is creating an impact.
Some days you’ll know the impact right away. You will start off writing what your mind labels as garbage, but somewhere mid-session, there will be a click, an inspiration, an idea out of the blue that simply appears. When I taught 6th grade, I used to tell my students that the beginning of every writing session is like taking your first step down a long hallway that stretches out before you. Due to your position, and the geometry of the hallway, you cannot see, when you begin, that there are doorways scattered on the left and right of the hallway all the way to the end. If someone were to ask you what is there, you would say nothing. It’s just two straight long walls. And it may be. But it also may not be, for these doors often exist, although we can’t see them at the outset. So you must start walking — writing — to see where it’s going to take you, to see which doorways show up, on which side, and maybe to open some of them and take a peek inside, to see where they may lead. This is the beauty of the creative process, that it is a mystery from start to finish. The more we trust our subconscious minds, the proven truth that there is a whole network of journeys available to us once we have started moving in a particular direction, the more surprised we’ll be once we start moving.
For instance, when I started writing this blog entry...
I had no idea where I would end up. I was pleasantly surprised to be humming along, writing about curiosity and recognition of voices, and then to discover the doorway leading into the metaphor of doorways. If you had asked me what would come up during this writing period, I probably would not have guessed this, just as I wouldn’t have guessed I’d be writing about a little boy and his desert sun picture yesterday. So long as I don’t try to maintain a choke-hold on my work, so long as I give it the freedom to go where it needs to go, removing, like a curler with a broom, any obstacle I can that may impede its process, then I am going to get somewhere.
I may be sick of myself by the end. I may take a beating from my inner critical voice. I may head straight down the hallway and never find a doorway. This is fine, for there is no rubric to evaluate whether I was a success or a failure. There may be something in the work I have written that will make perfect sense to me — maybe even provide a missing piece to a narrative puzzle —a few days or months down the road. It may be that my focus for today was actually more about remaining patient and mindful, or being curious when it seemed impossible to determine what the meaning of anything was. Maybe I needed the experience of frustration so that I can learn to live with it better, or of despair, or perceived failure. Maybe I need to realize that sometimes “work” is just “work.” You do it, it’s done, you move on. Maybe there was absolutely nothing accomplished from the effort that day, a reminder that we cannot always expect grand insights and massive progress each day. Writing it a long journey, filled with tiny steps. There are also days when we struggle up a hill only to fall back down, or realize that it’s the wrong hill. It is all fine, all part of the journey, and all important. So long as we don’t fight any of it, so long as we are sincere in our efforts, maintain our best possible discipline, and don’t make excuses for ourselves when we know we are just making excuses, we will grow. We all know — or have heard a version of the famous advice from the great master about what it takes to succeed as a writer. What did he say? “Well, I think you just have to write.”
It may seem dismissive, this voice. But if you think closely about it, there is great wisdom here. Obviously, if you want to succeed in writing, you have to be writing. But beyond that, when you are writing, you must just be writing, careful to filter the other energies and distractions that want to infiltrate the process, careful to avoid the “justified” changes in routine, schedule, duration of your practice. I remember reading about a writer who was noting that many of his writer friends were very fond of attending festivals, getting together to drink and carouse, and engage in other exciting, but, in his mind, frivolous activities. “Well, what do you when you are not writing?” someone asked him. “I write,” he said. So think about it. While others are out and about living out the fringe benefits of the writer’s life, you could be home actually being a writer. You might get somewhere that way.
We have a limited number of days. Whether you are 18 or 80, it is your decision each day about what to do with your time that will determine how this all goes for you. Should you select approaching each day of writing as if it were your last, as if this were the only opportunity to say what you really needed to say, how would that look different in your work? Would you hem and haw, avoiding the discomfort of writing things that scare you or might offend others? Would you find something else to do with your time — go for a hike, eat an ice cream, play with your kids? While there is nothing wrong with any of these choices — remember, a mindful writer is a curious writer — you can learn a great deal about the role you want writing to play in your life by answering honestly. If you do, indeed, want to dedicate your life to the craft, then you will likely want to spend that last period writing the best you can about the topic you find most important. You may want to push yourself a bit beyond your time and limits in order to finish a section or benefit from the insights that seem to always come once you have “written past your fatigue.” You may want to sink so deeply into the work that you become it, for a period of time, and know that when you emerge you will have given it everything you had, and that you can move on to whatever is next with no regrets. While this may not be a daily occurrence, it can certainly be an intention.
Remember, though, that all good intentions are defined by their disappearance once you begin to move towards them. They are the signpost, the marker in the distance towards which we are moving, and although they may not end up being our final destination, either today or in the end of our work, they will remain a steady beacon to keep us grounded, until, of course, another one arises to replace them. So set your intentions — to write like a madman, to stay a the table for 45 minutes, to explore your mother’s jewelry box in words, to generate a two-person scene in Ming dynasty China outside the Forbidden City — and then get to work. Note with curiosity what arises, both on the page and in the writing, and use your strategies to work with those thoughts and words. Refrain from making premature decisions about the use of various passages, characters, or ideas, and simply allow things to be, so that you can fully allow them access to what I call the "Under Brain" (or the "true self, perhaps?).
The harder you work to wrestle with your ideas and dilemmas in the conscious brain, during the writing period, the better equipped these things will be to respond to the workings of the "Under Brain" after you have moved off to other activities, like taking a bath or sitting under an apple tree, perhaps.