Eternal nothingness is OK as long as you’re dressed for it — WOODY ALLEN
Writing is the hero’s journey. It calls for vast reserves of energy and initiative.
To write consistently in the midst of solitude and fickle moods is superhuman. The phrase “being a self-starter” doesn’t even begin to do it justice.
Through writing, we understand the Zen Buddhist aphorism about courage in facing the blank page: “Climb to the top of a 100-foot pole. Then take one step forward.”
In many ways I loathe the word spiritual. Honestly, I hesitate to even type it. But the term offers some benefits — if nothing else, for gaining the attention of people who like Oprah.
When I describe writing as spiritual, I mean that it includes dynamics that are also present in meditation, prayer, and similar practices. What stands out for me are the following.
Facing the abyss
The Encarta® World English Dictionary offers several definitions of abyss:
a chasm or gorge so deep or vast that its extent is not visible…. something that is immeasurably deep or infinite…. a situation of apparently unending awfulness…. hell thought of as a bottomless pit….
Ouch. Kinda grim.
Yet while writing, you might find that such definitions acquire a dim resonance.
Just pull out a new sheet of paper. Or, open up a new file on your computer.
That’s the abyss.
Your job is dive straight into it and fill it with words.
In her book Yes, Please, Amy Poehler captures what I’ve felt so many times about this process:
Everyone lies about writing. They lie about how easy it is or how hard it was. They perpetuate a romantic idea that writing is some beautiful experience that takes place in an architectural room filled with leather novels and chai tea. They talk about their “morning ritual” and how they “dress for writing” and the cabin in Big Sur where they go to “be alone” – blah blah blah. No one tells the truth about writing a book…. The truth is, writing is this: hard and boring and occasionally great but usually not.
Fortunately, the literature about spiritual practices abounds in description of the abyss. It’s been called the dark night of the soul, the cloud of unknowing, emptiness, the void, and more.
You can take comfort in this literature. It means that when you enter the abyss, you are not alone. Plenty of people have gone there before you.
And, they lived to tell about it.
Watching mind states come and go
Some writing teachers counsel you to avoid the abyss.
Never open up a blank space, they say. Pull out something that you’ve written before and revise it.
Or, do some free writing. Just start moving your fingers and write anything at all. Fill up the void as quickly as possible.
I understand the reason for such strategies. Facing a blank space strips us naked, psychologically speaking.
While we write into that space, thoughts and feelings of all kinds to rise to the surface of our awareness. These might include mental states that we’d rather not face.
Even so, there are benefits in entering the abyss on a regular basis.
What I’ve learned from years of meditation is that any feeling that terrifies us also has the potential to liberate us. The key is to simply greet it with mindful awareness, moment by moment.
If we drop the habit of resisting unpleasant mental states, we can simply observe them as they arise and pass away. Over time we develop a still point of internal stability — a place that is immune to changing conditions.
This is one way that writing merges with meditation.
Doing a daily practice
Like meditation and other spiritual practices, writing is also something that we do every day — often at the same time and the same place.
We repeat the practice. We persist. And over time we feel the power.
We don’t postpone writing until we feel inspired. Instead, we place our butt on the chair and get to work no matter how we feel.
After all, inspiration is fleeting and fickle. It arrives on its own schedule. We can’t control it.
What we can control is the placing of the butt on the chair. That’s pure karma — action and consequences. That’s something solid and stable in the midst of all those changing mind states.
Like novelist Haruki Murakami, you might even discover that your various daily practices — writing, reading, exercising, meditating — all reinforce each other.
When interviewed for The Paris Review, Summer 2004, Murakami said:
When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind. But to hold to such repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength. In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.
Creative destruction — phase one
Writing anything more than a few paragraphs is often messy. That’s because creating something new often means destroying something that already exists.
This destruction takes place in two phases: structure and content.
Think about what happens when you research a writing project. You consult a variety of sources — articles and books that have already been published about your topic. You might also interview a few people and transcribe what they say. In the process, you create a body of notes that you can refer to while writing.
This sounds mundane. But underneath it is a profound process.
Remember that all of your sources had their own way of organizing information. They had their own table of contents, their own sequence of ideas.
When taking notes, you destroy those stable structures in order to create a new one. You take all the facts, quotes, and anecdotes from your notes and rearrange them. You then create a new table of contents for your book, a new structure for your article.
In order to arrive at that new structure, however, you have to destroy the existing ones first.
Creative destruction — phase two
Destruction at the level of content goes even deeper.
Writing — especially the process of revising your first draft — is crap detection. Factual errors, gaps in logic, and fluffy sentences become obvious when they stare back at you from the page (or screen). They beg to be rewritten or simply deleted.
Letting go of that crap — especially when it’s stuff that you believed — can be painful.
You might even purge so much that you discover you have nothing to say.
Welcome, again, to the abyss.
In the foreword to his book The Lazy Man’s Guide to Enlightenment, Tad Golas described this process:
I never varied from my determination to evolve hard information, a way of being that could be relied on even in chaos. It was chaos that taught me. I was so ruthless in testing, suspecting every sentiment, that I came to feel I was a destroyer of ideas, and indeed my books are based on what I could not demolish. Anyone who wants to tear those books down will have to work harder and longer than I did.
This is an ideal that we can all aspire to. Our readers are drowning in half-truths, click bait, and hastily-published fluff. They will appreciate the effort we make in purging the bullshit from our work.
Service to others
As David Foster Wallace pointed out, good writing means overcoming our self-centeredness in the service of readers.
“I am not, in and of myself, interesting to a reader,” Wallace said. “If I want to seem interesting, work has to be done in order to make myself interesting.”
When we do that work, we create an experience of effortless flow for readers:
They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it — the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention.
There’s an aphorism from David Reynolds, author of many books about Constructive Living: “Self-centeredness is suffering.”
When I’m feeling sad or angry, my attention is usually on myself — often on how other people are failing to give me exactly what I want. This line of thought serves little purpose but to increase my negative mood.
Writing is a way to refocus my attention and restore perspective. Even though it seems so internally focused, writing means opening up to the world outside my head. It means working hard to create value for readers.
This is something to remember every time that we sit down and commit an act of writing. First we can take a few conscious breaths and pause to affirm our courage and generosity. This makes it a little easier to continue scribbling into the abyss.