Five years ago, my husband and I drove from California to Texas. As we drove a good portion of the length of California, and then across the Mojave desert, I kept a journal, which I eventually turned into a piece of creative nonfiction for a contest. It was during that trip that I also returned, once more, to writing meditation – a five-minute-long daily writing practice that I still continue today. Whether your road trip this summer has been literal or virtual, I offer my thoughts on writing as meditation, as I recently presented them to the church I attend.
True confession: I’m a failure at sitting meditation. Whenever I’ve tried it, I’ve either fallen asleep, or ended up with a mind so full of ideas that I had to stop right then and find a notebook and pen, or a computer, so that I wouldn’t lose them. I admire people who can sit and count their breath, but some of us – like me – just aren’t wired that way. Our minds are never still, never silent. How, then, can we find some of the peace and awareness that meditation offers to others?
Well, if you’re me, or if you’re at all like me, you find it through the written word. In my case, I use a technique outlined by Natalie Goldberg in her book Writing Down the Bones, which was first published twenty-three years ago. It’s a form of meditation that applies Zen techniques to timed free writing, and it’s called Writing Practice, because, like sitting meditation, you do it every day, for a specific period of time, and with total focus.
But how is it meditation? It actually works in much the same way as guided meditation. By opening your mind – writing whatever comes – you clear away whatever mental obstacles might be there. I’m going to ask you all to join me in a brief session of writing practice in just a moment, but first I want to share the basic rules, which are my modifications of Ms. Goldberg’s originals.
- Keep your hand moving. This means once you begin writing, you don’t stop to read what you’ve written until the time is up. Don’t self-edit. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Don’t cross anything out. Don’t even worry about staying in the lines. Personally, I often write on graph paper, purposely ignoring the grid lines.
- Be specific. If your writing involves colors or scents or shapes, describe them. Are you writing about a memory of a bird? What kind of bird? A robin? A parrot? A grackle? In writing practice, the devil is in the LACK of details. Specifics give you the definition you need to really enter a memory, or savor an idea.
- Don’t think. This really means don’t analyze. The idea is to keep the flow of words going, without any hesitation. They don’t have to be complete sentences, and you’re not writing for publication. The only wrong answer in writing practice, is not writing.
- Lose control and go for the jugular. If something comes out that makes you feel naked, vulnerable, afraid, don’t shut it down. Dive in and explore it, and use the energy it provides. You may surprise yourself.
These rules, by the way, don’t apply only to writing. Ms. Goldberg herself found that they could be applied to sex, and I’ve found that they also work when applied to improvisational theater.
One thing I’ve also found that is important when using writing as meditation, is to have a sacred space in which to do it. Whether you write in longhand or use a keyboard, your surroundings affect the way you interact with your creative, meditative self. While I’ve finally created a writing studio in my house that feels like a creative space, rather than an “office,” my favorite place to write is in bed. I prop my laptop on a pillow, curl up with a dog resting against each hip, and find great peace in spinning words and phrases from the comfort of my cushioned cocoon. (In fact, I’m sitting in bed as I write this column.) I find that when I’m using my bed as a writing space, I’m more likely to use the laptop when I write in the morning, but a pen and notebook when I write at night.
My studio upstairs is sacred in a different way. It does have a soft spot – a couch – where I can sprawl, but it’s also filled with inspiring art, cards with quotations I like, and funky punches of color – like a giant turquoise vase filled with pinwheels, and a small lava lamp. It is in this room where I have a personal shrine to my muse – a red candle in a wreath made of sea shells. Red is a power color for me, and the shells remind me of my connection to the ocean.
Writing as meditation, then, doesn’t have to be so structured that you can only do it while sitting in a chair and keeping perfect posture, but it does have to be done in a space where you feel completely at home. It doesn’t require deep breathing, just the steady click of keys, or scratch of pen on paper. It costs nothing, and can be the most precious five minutes you spend with yourself every day.
For me, my five minute writing meditations are my morning warm-ups, and my evening cool-downs. They help get my creative juices flowing, and lead to blog entries, articles, bits of stories – or just help me clear my head.
Some days, I do feel blocked, and then another of Natalie Goldberg’s tricks helps me. I write the phrase, “I remember,” and as there is never a time when I don’t remember something, I can find my flow from there.
The next time that someone suggests that you try meditation, remember that practice comes in many forms. You can sit on a cushion and count your breath, you can walk a labyrinth, or you can set a timer for five minutes, grab a pen, and write.