Consider this: You are writing short story that requires a significant amount of detail about a historical period. You do your research, and begin to write a scene with two characters that takes place outdoors, during this time period, in a place of note. The going is tough, as your words feel clunky, the dialogue between your characters stilted; yet you persist, understanding that there is no “right” way to get initial words onto paper. You just need to generate some forward momentum with the plot, sensory experience of the setting, and fit the scene with both a climax and resolution. Perfecting any of these elements (and many more), however, is not the central focus of your work; everything can be tested and ironed out during revisions.
So you write. And write. And eventually something strange happens. Without even realizing it, you have entered another character to the scene. This completely changes the dynamic between your original characters, adding complications that you'd rather avoid. However, this new character has announced herself and she carries with her a great deal of energy. She is bright and alive, and her relationship to one of your original characters is such that the conflict that would really anchor this scene becomes much clearer.
Still, you notice your hesitation, your fear about having to write another character, as well as the fact that the story feels as though it is spinning beyond your control. You envision having to work longer and harder, learn more about writing, and now the prospect of failure — either not finishing the story, or writing a bad one, or it being criticized for lack of depth or something else — is very real in your mind. It is all you can do to keep writing at this moment, to acknowledge the various voices tossing their opinions and judgments at you, and to register them as what they are: voices.
What they are is the conditioned mind, rearing its ugly perspective and demanding that you “stay within the lines” with which you are already comfortable. They are the voices of your teacher who taught you how to write a scene with two characters, or your peer who is really good at writing dialogue, or the book you read about how long it should take to write the “standard” short story. If you are not careful, you will let these voices take you over, they will hijack your writing process and start laying a level of self-doubt under you that threatens to stop you cold before you ever find out what is truly going on in the story.
So what do you do? How does mindfulness keep this writing period (and this story) from crashing and burning before it even gets going?
The key here is RARC, or Recognize, Act, and Remain Curious.
First, however you can, and whatever level, you must learn to Recognize these voices when they first arrive. You must see them for what they are — not wisdom from your deep core, or jewels that arise from the literary flow. They are the voices of prescription, the ones that have always taught you that there is a “right” and a “wrong” way to do things, that if what you produced is not worth their approval, then it is not worth anything. The problem is that we so often confuse these voices with the genuine, talented, and very instinctive evaluator we all possess, the perspective that allows the writer to make good decisions about the direction, characters, and other aspects of a story. So recognition is absolutely key.
Second, you must Act. And usually action is nothing more than dismissing the voice and keeping on with your work. You might acknowledge it, even thank it for it’s opinion, and they you ask it to move on, or you force it to move on. In some cases, you might choose to take a moment to examine the texture or origin of the voice, and perhaps the emotions it is stirring. Most importantly, you simply keep writing — let the words, the new ideas, the old ideas, the “dumb” and “smart” ideas, simply flow onto the page. There will be ample time later during which to read what you have created more carefully, and to use your genuine judge to make firm, informed craft decisions.
Third, you must Remain Curious. Of all the attitudes to maintain during writing, especially in the initial stages, before you have even formulated a whole draft, this may be the most important. Curiosity means that rather than trying to figure out if what your words are doing makes sense, has veracity, or even works, you focus on trying to figure out what they are actually doing in the first place. Like a child lifting up a rotting stump to examine the world of insects in the mulch below, you approach the appearance of each word, sentence, and paragraph with that same wonder. The more you are able to look at what you write from a place of inquiry — guided by the key question, “What effect does this have on the work, both micro and macro, and also on me as the writer?” — the less prone to judging it you will be. In this way we are not looking at ourselves as the person required to construct the story — and thus bearing the entire responsibility for its success or failure — but rather as one whose aim is to create an open space into which parts can flow, where we take a close look at them, shake them, sniff them, understand their size and shape, and then, once we have gathered enough information to determine how they effect the ongoing work, decide what to do with them.
It is far-more freeing to write from a curious place (“Oh, look at what just arose! How interesting. I wonder what this is about?) than a critical place (“Oh, this is stupid. Nobody will like that idea. I can’t write"). These “transcripts” of what might go on in your mind are cliché, for sure, but I include them to demonstrate how they each influence our ability to remain relaxed, open, and inquisitive during the writing process.
In truth, the whole of mindfulness practice, and living a mindful life, may in fact be boiled down to these two things, and the difference between them. One who is curious about the ways in which his actions and creations operate and interact with the world, as well as how they impact himself and his own process, is far less likely to get stuck in the ruts that are so familiar to many of us who create art: being “blocked,” having an over-active “inner critic,” or simply giving up altogether. This is because this writer's “measure of success,” is it were, is not about the quality, or even the quantity of the work, but rather about the writer’s effort to keep the practice going — getting words on the page — and then, releasing any attachment, or link between what is happening in the writing and how he or she feels about himself, be able to simply observe and understand the effect that the words are having. We might call this being in a “flow” state, if, in fact this curiosity is under the surface, not even we are aware of it happening as it is happening. Otherwise, it is a conscious effort to remain somewhat disconnected from the work as it is being produced, like a scientist steps back from his experiment once all the ingredients have been put into play, and simply watches what happens.