Writers and Meditation

I gave this talk as part of a panel with Casey Clague at the Gulf Coast Association of Creative Writing Teachers conference a couple of weeks ago, so forgive the speech-like feel. (And if you’re anywhere near Fairhope, Alabama, and a writer, consider coming to that conference next year—I’ve taken over as president, and it’s always a great time of community and connection. Not just for teachers, and not just for literary writers or writers within academia.) 

—Katie

I wanted to start my little talk with a joke, something to loosen people up and connect us to the here-and-now, something that might establish me as at least good-natured, a little bit clever, knowledgeable about the strategies of successful panels and conferences (as I should be at this point, having done this kind of thing for 25 years). I even thought about opening with my opening at the Other Words conference, my other favorite Southern writing conference, where all I had to say was, “I’m not funny. I’m from the Midwest,” and the audience burst into laughter.

But. That conference was back in early November. That conference was before the election. We are living in a different world now, and I am even less funny now than I was then. I am, in fact, stricken. I try to write, to think, about anything other than the suffering that will be a consequence of the current administration—that is already happening—and, mostly, I can’t.

Except for meditation. I can think and write about meditation, because I first came to it due to suffering, and it is one of the few things that helps me deal with suffering, mine or others’.

So one of the things I’m writing about meditation is a short book, tentatively entitled, There’s No Wrong Way: 44 Meditations, in which I list a variety of ways you might meditate. Some are standard parts of Buddhist or mindfulness meditation practices, and some are a little weird, like stoplight meditation, cursing meditation, fabric store meditation, and time travel meditation.

I bring this up for two reasons.

  • As both writers and readers, you know that how someone explains something is often as important—or more important—than what they are saying. Which means that some books and speakers on the topic of meditation and mindfulness will turn you off. Tone, word choice, metaphor, and all the other tools we work with daily will affect you. (Personally, the words of Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, don’t work for me. Her tone reads to me like “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” when I need something more like “everything’s going to be ok,” or really, “everything’s going to be as it is, and you freaking out about it won’t make it better, so give yourself a break and chill out.”) There are tons of books and videos on meditation—in fact, I thought about calling my book Who needs another book on meditation?—so if one doesn’t resonate for you, try another one. Meditation itself may still work for you—I believe it works for nearly all of us—but you need to find the right perspective and wording.
  • If you think you’ve tried meditating and you can’t do it, I’m here to say that I don’t believe you. Because if you’re a writer, you’ve meditated. What do you think that “zone” is, that “flow,” where you’re writing the first draft and your hands can’t move quickly enough to get down your thoughts? Where do you think your crazy ideas come from, when your characters say things you didn’t plan for them to say or your poem loops back around to that image from the first stanza and you suddenly have an ending? I would argue that this state—which we all know is not all there is to writing—at the very least has a lot in common with meditation. It is a state of concentration without striving, a state of openness and receptivity that nevertheless excludes our usual worries about the future or regrets about the past. Success and failure are not part of it; when you’re in that state, you simply are.

Now, do you get to that state of being every time you sit down to write? No, of course not. Similarly, you don’t get to that state of being every time you sit down to meditate. But the more you practice meditation, the more likely you are to enter that state. I suspect there are writers here who would attest to a similar effect when writing, who know that it is the sitting down regularly that makes it possible for that “zone” to occur.

So, in this ultra-busy world, I can hear some of you thinking, if the writing “zone” is so much like meditation, why would you want to do both? Don’t they accomplish the same thing?

Ah…no. For us, writing is inevitably, inextricably tied to both the past and the future. It is connected to judgment at its very core: our writing is judged by teachers, mentors, and editors, as well as by our own inner critics. The zone may be free of all that, but as soon as we leave it, we’re back to the world in which we are writers, people whose careers depend on being published, people who want to be read. We suffer from our rejections, fall into self-doubt, spend months hoping for good news and dread having to publicize ourselves when the time comes. Yes, the writing zone is a beautiful state to be in, and it’s a vital mental practice, and it’s a high; but we’re always going to come back to the other parts of writing, the revision and submission, publication and reviews.

Meditation is not connected to all that. There’s no editorial board for meditation. No one will tell you whether you’re worthy as a meditator or not. Your income doesn’t depend on it, nor your public reputation. When you’re done meditating, you don’t then have to pick apart the results of that half hour, applying your overlay of craft knowledge to the raw materials of the imagination. The point of meditation is not to produce anything. For the time you’re meditating, you are out of the loop of work and judgment. In fact, two basic ideas of meditation are nonstriving and nonjudging.
But it is still a mental practice. Studies abound on the specific effects of meditation. Meditation improves creativity, flexible thinking, concentration, and decision-making. It improves resilience and lowers stress, which is measurable in lowered blood pressure and heart rates. Meditation will feed your writing, making it easier for you to access the writing zone, manage your time so you can write, and bounce back from the inevitable negative events of life so you can spend more time being productive and less time down the YouTube rabbit hole. Maybe you’ll find the courage to get really weird in your writing, break some rules, experiment. Practicing the shutting down of those inevitable inner voices of judgment and discouragement may make innovation more possible. Not to mention the ability to access quiet, stillness, and concentration in a world of constant, instant connection, stimulation, and information overload.

One last thing: when I was younger, I worried that if I ever found a way to silence my inner demons, heal lifelong emotional wounds, that I’d lose the urge to write. I worried that I’d lose the inner itch, that urge to create, to try to understand the world through words. Meditation may seem like that kind of bandage, soothing your inner turmoil and simultaneously smothering the crazy, effed-up part of you that needs to write. Of course I can’t promise you won’t become a bodhisattva, an enlightened one, and levitate into the next world—but I suspect that, like the rest of us, you’ve got plenty of crazy for this lifetime. After all, you’re a writer.

Advertisements

2016’s 30 Most Transformative Essays

The Sundress Blog

Screenshot 2016-12-21 12.43.40.png

We asked our staff, editors, and authors to name the essays, published in 2016, that were most transformative and significant to them. The following essays represent a sampling of favorites.

We hope you find them as exciting, inspiring, and essential as we do.

A Tape Doesn’t Change a Goddamn Thing
by Karrie Higgins for Full Grown People

“I can no longer distinguish between the Trump campaign and sexual abuse. I can no longer distinguish between the past and the present.

just, adj:

based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.

just, adv:

barely, by a little; very recently, the immediate past

I can no longer distinguish between tattling on my hometown’s Jerry Sandusky and voting for Hillary.

I am going to talk to that reporter. I am going to name names. I am going to say what I want to say. I am going to let…

View original post 3,427 more words

After the Election: Create to Cope

The Manifesto

(this post originally appeared on The Gloria Sirens)

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

—Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

In the wake of the 2016 U.S. election—I was going to write “the election,” which has come to be capitalized in my circles, The Election like The Great Depression or The Moon, but then I remembered that people from other countries and, if I’m lucky, other times will read this post—I, like many of my friends, have struggled with my own depression and anxiety. It does not help that I already struggle with those issues, but I know several people who do not have a history with depression yet are having powerful emotional responses to The Election. The U.S. is likely to be led by a person who condoned hatred and violence during his campaign, whose misogyny and bigotry of all varieties is, unfortunately, being…

View original post 829 more words

A Doubter in the Church of Poetry

Friends, I have a confession to make:

I lose faith. Often. Sometimes multiple times a day.

And I’m not talking about religious faith, though I have been known to call it the Church of Poetry.

I’m talking about my faith in the power and importance of literary writing, and poetry in particular.

I suspect some of my former students would be surprised to learn this. When I’m in the classroom or mentoring a writer, I can access my passion easily. I feel it; I know it, that this person’s writing is important, that saying our truths in the wonderfully nuanced, complex, paradox-embracing way that literary writing encourages makes a difference in the world. How can we understand the world—something I consider one of our primary purposes here—without the words, the art, that allows for glimpses beyond the surface?life-863148_1920

There I go again, getting caught up in my own rhetoric, when I began with my assertion that I lose faith. Confessing to that loss of faith feels like a big thing, because so much of my identity is connected with trying to help others. When I write to you—readers, out there in the wonderfully varied blog-reading virtual world—I want to believe my words might be of some use. My own worth is tied up in helping you, writers and readers, to remember that you have worth.

But…sometimes the lists of publications and awards in my social media feeds just wearies me. I see that some poet is grateful to have poems in Small Journal #7082, and my inner cynic rises so all I can think is, “But you didn’t get paid for the work you put into that art.” Then I think, “And the editors of that journal didn’t get paid either.” The system we’re part of—America’s literary community, some call it, while others call it “po-biz”—angers me, hurts me, saddens me. It undermines my faith, eroding it like the tide erodes the sand under your feet when you’re standing on the beach, pulling you down.

I have written before about academia, how it is failing teachers and students by relying on exploited part-time and contingent faculty. This upside-downing of higher education is part of the larger decline of the American economy, the widening income inequality and unjust wealth distribution that has been getting worse for the past twenty years at least. One of the effects this has had on writers is that teaching college, which for a while was the fallback job (several of my college teachers considered it a “day job,” something done, like waiting tables, merely to support themselves as writers), is no longer. For a while, academia as default job for writers did some amazing things: it made it possible for highly educated, highly intelligent individuals to make a living that was not dependent on the marketability of their writing. Taking the pressure off writing to be marketable was a blessing, because the rise of television and the internet had made it so fewer people read books. Literary writing became like other types of academic writing: something undertaken not because it paid directly, but because it contributed to a larger body of scholarship, knowledge and wisdom. In a practical sense, it was paid for—by colleges and universities, which had been paying professors to write as part of their jobs for centuries.woman-41201_1280

But this system now feels like one that only serves the privileged few—those lucky enough to have tenure-track positions—and it doesn’t serve those nearly as well as it did initially. Even those writers are now required to produce and publish far more writing in the name of tenure and promotion than they used to, all while teaching more class sections, serving on more committees, and earning less (factoring in cost of living). And for those who are not privileged—adjuncts and contingent full-time faculty—the system can feel positively pointless.

After all, an 8-page cv, packed to the margins with lists of publications in reputable journals, is no longer anything special: the vast majority of the 500 people applying for a single tenure track position have one just like that. So when I see someone, particularly a young person full of hope, shyly posting their “good publication news” on social media—well, that’s when I’m mostly likely to lose my faith. To shake my head, walk away from my computer, and contemplate for the millionth time my decision to drop out of law school to become a poet.

I don’t want to feel this way. I don’t want the system these young, talented people are entering to be this way. I once spent a half hour in the car with an undergraduate poet recently accepted into an MFA program, telling him all the things he needed to do if he was set on teaching at the university level (go on for his PhD, publish only in big name journals, don’t adjunct for more than two years, win prestigious awards, get fellowships to writers’ residencies, publish at least one book, go to conferences, and learn how to network like a tipsy extrovert at a cocktail party). Just before we arrived at our destination, he said, “Well, that was pretty damn depressing.”

nature-874039_1920What I’d really like is to be able to separate my feelings about the rigged career system from the often supportive, vital, exciting literary community of small magazines and publishers. No, what I’d really, really like is for the system to change, to transform so extensively that I can’t even recognize it anymore. I’m not entirely sure how that might happen, but it is my hope that all of us, old and young, will help make that change, will insist on that change.

Honestly, I think hope is more likely to support us as we work towards change. I really do. But we also require honesty, and the confrontation and acceptance of contradiction, even paradox. So as a devout member of the Church of Poetry who frequently wrestles with doubt, I have to leave you with one amazing, hopeful story for poetry: in the wake of tragedy, a poem gone viral, a poem not written by an Old White Male, a poem published in a journal very much like Small Journal #7082. Read the poem, and reconnect with your faith.