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.) 


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.

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.

I’m Nobody

The Manifesto

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Are you – Nobody – too?

Then there’s a pair of us!

Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!


How dreary – to be – Somebody!

How public – like a Frog –

To tell one’s name – the livelong June –

To an admiring Bog!

–Emily Dickinson

How many of you have 1) identified with this poem and 2) secretly thought, “I doubt it’s really all that dreary”? I mean, are we allowed to call bullshit on the old masters? Because pretty much all of us have felt like Nobodies. If being Somebody sucks too, then is the point that it sucks either way?

Well, Buddhists would say yes. Yes it does. It’s called dukka, and it means something like “suffering” but more accurately “the dissatisfaction of knowing you are a being stuck in time with very little control over anything, especially the…

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On Rejection

“The truth: I am in love with every new poem I write. Even if I ultimately decide the poem isn’t very good, in the first flush of writing, I love it. I don’t love it because I think it’s good, or because I think I’m clever, or because I think it’s going to get published in Poetry magazine. I love it because one more time I pushed against my own urge to keep silent…”

To the USF MFA Graduating Class, 2014, and Writers Everywhere

To the USF MFA Graduating Class, 2014, and Writers Everywhere.

To my dear graduating writers –

I am so sorry to be missing the big reading for graduating MFA students at the University of South Florida, where I would get to hear your amazing voices all at one time, where the hard work you’ve done over the past three years will be apparent to all. I know your professors will give you all insightful, funny and poignant introductions, and your friends and families will again see just how smart and talented you are. And after, I hope there will be a party, and you will laugh and talk together, and when you leave, know that you have made not only beautiful works of art but also a community to be proud of and to rely on.

After all the struggle and work of graduate school, it may be hard to face that there is more struggle ahead. But it is always a struggle to be a writer in this culture, in this world. Doubt is always around, the way insects are always around us in Florida: even if we can’t see them at the moment, we know they are close, and sometimes they bite to remind us.

I wish I could develop a force field to protect us all from those insects of doubt. I wish I could start a school and hire you all to teach, to write, to counsel and support other writers as I have had the privilege of doing with you. I wish I could find the right readers for your work and connect you to them without all the delays and dead ends of submissions, rejections, revisions, acceptances, more submissions. I wish I could be there every day to remind you that your writing matters.

This is what I can tell you: what you do for a living, how much you publish, what clothes you wear, what your spirit animal is–none of these things affect the fact that you are real writers. You are real writers because you write, you think hard about your writing, you revise, you reconsider, you practice. You are real writers because your voices are important, unique, hard, soft, smart, profound, true. You are real writers because you’re not looking for writing to be easy, but for it to be the best you can possibly make it. Every hour you carve out of your lives to write is a burst of light, and that’s what the universe is made up of. You are making stars. Remember that, when the doubts come. Remember it, too, when the triumphs come as well.

Much love and admiration to you, writers, makers of stars.


The Manifesto

So, my dear friends, I have an announcement:
I have just published a self-help book. I wanted to say “a sort of self-help book,” but I don’t think it would fit into many other categories. Something about philosophy, perhaps? Or spirituality? But not quite. Not really either of those.
It’s a book. A short book, which should make for a quick read. I self-published it through Amazon. It is called The Manifesto. In it I list 10 ideas that help me to feel freer to be my own authentic self. I talk a bit about each idea, trying to explain and clarify. I give a few suggestions for exercises that might be helpful for readers, things I do myself. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and I don’t suggest that my perspectives are the only “right” ones. In the end, I challenge readers to write their own manifestos for their own freer lives.
Why did I write this little book, when I’m a literary poet and creative nonfiction writer? Well—it felt urgent. It pushed at me. It seemed important. As I wrote it, I thought of the people I have been privileged to support through difficult times. I thought of the students who have cried in my office (NOT because I made them cry, but because I just listened). I thought of how much it would have meant to me if someone had said, years ago, that it might be helpful to try to stop judging myself. I thought maybe a few people will read this, and it will say something they need to hear. I thought, if even one person reads it and it says one thing that person needed to hear, then it is a good thing.
I’m not a self-help expert. I’m not a doctor, yogi, therapist, philosopher, or guru. I’m just a teacher, writer, reader, friend. I meditate, but not, I admit, every day. I think a lot of different groups are onto a lot of really important stuff, but for me, no single formulated ideology gets everything right for all of us all the time. I think the biggest job each of us has in this life is to try to figure out ourselves and the world, and any tool that helps with that job is worth trying. And I think you, my friends, are very, very smart, and already on the path of figuring out yourselves and the world, and if anything I say can support you in that endeavor, then I’ll be honored.
Another question: why did I choose to self-publish, starting with Kindle, through Amazon, a company some people have political difficulties with? Really, I just wanted to get the book out. I wanted to have complete control over it. I didn’t want to have long conversations with editors about making it “sexier” for the “market.” And I wanted the process to be very simple and very easy for me, so I could spend my time writing, reading, and teaching. I’m sorry if it is politically problematic for any of you. There will be a print version, also through Amazon, but that’s the next step for my tireless and saintly friend, Jim Miller, who has already volunteered his expertise to format the book for Kindle. If you don’t own a Kindle, incidentally, you can get the Kindle app for free on any computer, tablet, or cell phone. Or you can wait for the print version, which we hope will be available soon.
At this point, I will try to split my posts into “more literary” things that I put on this blog, and “more manifesto-related” things that I put on my other blog. I hope you will dip in and read either or both, and perhaps get something from the reading.
Boundless love and gratitude to all of you.