In this era of constant chatter, nothing is more important than knowing how to quiet your mind. Whether you’re writing a marketing plan, a legal brief, or the novel of your dreams, it helps to discern where to direct your attention. The incessant input of every day can add up to stress.
Consider a few ways to cultivate a fresh perspective:
Siphon off the mental muck Silence the mental chatter. To try: the brain dump. Veterans of The Artist’s Way will remember Julia Cameron’s signature “morning pages,” where you unleash what’s worrying you in three daily pages. If you’ve got a racket in your mind, get scribbling: the grocery list, errands, everything clamoring for our attention while we try to write. In Zen-speak, they call it “monkey mind,” and too often we’re willing to feed it bananas.
Take a hike. There’s a reason that writers through the ages insist that writers walk. (Brenda Ueland of If You Want to Write, Thoreau [not that any of us are relocating to the woods.]) There’s something magic about that sound—the rhythmic scritch of footfalls on gravel—and pace that clears my mind and allows a current of new words to flow.
Writing is not an enigma. It is a sport. Apply what you know of tennis, football or swimming to your writing. I think we Americans are afraid of writing because we are afraid of the loss of control of the mind that writing entails. We are afraid of the unknown, of our own darkness. We don’t need to be.
In Writing Down the Bones, Goldberg draws parallels between writing and running: the procrastination, the need to practice, and the rewards of persistence. “One of the main aims in writing practice is to learn to trust your own mind and body; to grow patient and nonaggressive.” Unlike many of the Great Writers who struggled with substance abuse and self-destruction, Goldberg says, “This process teaches about sanity.”
Have gratitude At the risk of sounding all woo-woo, it’s amazing to dig into your brain and bring forth a work that once didn’t exist. Whether the final product fulfills artistic or commercial purposes, we write to tell stories and connect with an audience. An annual report celebrates a year of achievement; a novel immerses us in an imaginary world. A poem commemorates a moment. This gift of inquiry comes in many guises.
Set the stage Eastern thought offers this advice: “Take the one true seat.” When I’m writing something new, if I feel itchy, I choose an empty table and set out a glass of water. Or the opposite, I find the cozy carrel at the library, where it’s worked a thousand times. That’s the signal: Brain, hand, go.
Be a beginner, again Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is the title of a classic book of teachings. I haven’t quite read it all (Japanese History 101) but the name stayed with me. As writers, we strive to improve our craft, refine technique, produce. By taking the posture of a novice, we can get humble. I like to question my assumptions; I’m not a gardener, but with this I imagine turning my mind over, like soil, to see what’s underneath. In her writing guides, Goldberg offers simple prompts: 10 minutes of “I want to write about (a topic),” then 10 minutes of “I don’t want to write about,” and as you do, out comes energy, emotion, memory.
In Writing Down the Bones, Goldberg describes beginner’s mind as:
the first way I thought and felt about writing. In a sense, beginner’s mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write. Each time is a journey with no maps.
Play with perspective
In yoga, people go upside down. Downward dog, legs up the wall, “inversions.” Mind and body dance; the thinking brain gets a rest. These time-proven tools help people take care of themselves and calm mental turbulence. Yoga has been described as stillness in motion. With even a few moves, you come back refreshed, and sometimes a turn of phrase loosens for the new.
Shake off the stress
There’s a Yiddish word for nervous energy: “shpilkes.” Especially with a first draft, it can be hard to stay put and experience the discomfort of writing some dark truth in fiction, or in writing for commerce, the mind-state to explain a complex business scenario. Whatever the endeavor, we’ve got to be able to sit and live in our minds for extended periods of time. As they might say in the yoga studio, “Just for today,” let’s stay in the moment. Meanwhile, it’s time to shake off the shpilkes and write.
What gives you clarity in your writing life?