The Mindful Writer - Selections

Noble Truths of the Writing Life


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Selections from Part I: The Writer’s Mind

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
– Thomas Mann

Being a writer can seem like a struggle at times: there is the challenge of trying to constantly refine the words that make up the stories you want to tell, and there is the difficulty of sustaining a belief in yourself and in the idea that your stories (or poems, or essays, or ideas) are of enough value that all of the work is worth the effort.

Yes, it can seem daunting, but Mann is assuring us that this is natural and fine. He is reminding us that iron is forged in fire, and the very fact that writing takes great determination—no matter who you are—is what makes the practice worth your effort.

So, why is writing more difficult for the writer than for others?

Because we care about finding the precise word, the clearest expression, and we understand that sometimes a thought needs to be revised tens or hundreds of times before we find the perfect way to say what we really mean.

The good news? On the days it all seems too hard or nearly impossible, you can just reach around and pat yourself on the back.

The frustration simply means that you are going about it in the right way.

The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.
 – Chuck Close

Let’s dispense with inspiration from the start, because nothing causes more dissatisfaction and disappointment in a writer’s life than the myth of the thunderbolt.

I have met, through the years, so many frustrated writers who have spent hour upon hour waiting for inspiration to arrive, waiting for that One Big Idea to land in their frontal lobes and fulfill their fantasies of becoming geniuses. Oh, I know the feeling well enough. I am not immune to the vagaries of desire. But artist after artist, writer after writer, will tell you that this is simply not how it works—and I know from my own experience that they speak the truth.

Instead of the lightning bolt to the forehead, the million-dollar insight, a writer finds the best ideas in trial and error, in sentences that start out one way and surprisingly, uncontrollably, end up pulling in another direction, in the toppled mess of a third draft that tumbles into a pile of half-finished thoughts.

This is perhaps the first and most important application of mindfulness for a writer:

Show up and get to work, as Close suggests, and at the same time, listen to where the writing wants to take you. Understand that the writing itself will often provide far richer material than your logical, predictable mind. Even more “intellect-driven” writing—for instance, a dissertation—can benefit from the cognitive leaps that occur when you stand back from the manuscript a moment and listen to your intuition.

Often our ideas about where we think a poem, story, or essay should go are all too willing to drown out the small whisper that is suggesting, “No, that’s not really as honest as this impulse over here. No, that’s not quite right.”

Listen to that whisper.

Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.
 – Barbara Kingsolver

Nearly every writer worries about having enough “material” to fill the page, or the chapter, or the book. We worry whether what we have written is worthy of attention, or whether we have exhausted all that we had to write about in the first place.

Writers worry as well about audience: Is what I am writing now what was popular last year? Is this the kind of writing that will be in vogue next year? Will I get the desired response from the reader, editor, agent with this sort of work?

And yet—to my mind—all of these worries are missing the point.

What we have is ourselves, and that is all we can really write about.

Now this is not to say you cannot enrich your experience. Your path as a writer may include travel to some foreign destination to chronicle the extreme hardships of poverty there. Or maybe you need to visit a neighborhood grocery store in a part of town to which you rarely venture, just to remind yourself of how rich a culture exists within your own city. Perhaps all you need to do is stop to talk for three minutes with the elderly neighbor up the street with whom you’d barely found the time to speak before. “So, how is your garden this year?”

Every writer does well to step away from the desk at regular intervals, to confront life where it is most tangible, most urgent: not on the page, but out in the world.

But even in these cases, it is only what you see, what you hear, what strikes you as important and significant, that you can write about. We have ourselves, our feelings, our reactions to the world, our insights, and the metaphors that spring to our minds. That is the clay with which we make our sculptures, the notes available to play our music.

But what if you are not interesting enough, you ask?

You are.

Yes, it may take some work on your part—to understand yourself, to explore those parts of your life and your mind that rest below the surface memory and thought. But the material does surely exist. The material always exists.

Notice how Kingsolver closes her quote: “It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”

Make an honest offering, and readers will respond.


How to cite this document:
© Dinty W. Moore, The Mindful Writer (Wisdom Publications, 2012)

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