I’ve always been a backsliding meditator.
Meditation was like a hammer I used to bludgeon myself.
I’d start a practice because it was good for me. Because the best people do it. Because it would make my life richer. So I’d sit and watch myself breathe for a few minutes. But you know how it goes. Soon I’d find myself planning my grocery list, or drafting a letter to AT&T about the bizarre new charges on my bill, and before I knew it the timer had gone off. Instead of finding myself in a state of peace and calm, I was ready to take someone’s head off at my wireless provider’s hotline.
I’d try the next day. Better. By the fourth day I’d be too busy to sit, and by the next I’d forget about my resolve to still my mind and center my life.
Along with promising to keep my drawers and closets tidy, balance my checkbook every month, and do everything in moderation, my resolution to meditate daily in pursuit of a state of Nirvana had gone down the drain. I’d be stuck with my same old undisciplined self, and once again, had to learn to live with it.
So imagine my surprise when I found myself several years into a daily writing practice.
Me, whose only disciplines were getting up in the morning, going to bed at night, and flossing in between.
How did this come about? Glad you asked, but more importantly, how did it turn into a meditation? And if it worked for me, would it work for you?
…like most life changes, my writing practice came about because life gave me a serious slap upside the head.
First, it’s essential to know that, like most life changes, my writing practice came about because life gave me a serious slap upside the head. I’m no different from the average Jane. If my life of indulgence is skimming along, why change it for something hard? And for me, writing every day was hard.
It took a no-nonsense confrontation with a major publisher and lawyers who snatched away a writing dream, along with a huge contract and advance for me to have a talk with myself. At the time I was living in a deep, dark hole with no visible exit.
I’m not the first writer to have a publisher change its mind about putting her on the best seller list with a big, fat contract, and I won’t be the last to consider a dive off the nearest bridge to quell the pain of that rejection. But, though I can be a drama queen, I’m not really the suicidal type. I gave myself an extended holiday in the self-pity hotel, vowing I’d never write again, and for sure, I’d never show anything I wrote to another human. Translation: nobody would ever hurt me like that again.
To make matters worse, after a couple of years of living on my advance, I had to find a day job again, another knife to my ego.
Kafka says, “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
Some months after I negotiated an agreement to begin repaying my advance and I’d grown weary of my depression, my summer reared its head as a fevered desire to write.
Okay, I told myself. I’ll write again. But only for myself. Only what I want to write, and nobody will ever see it. For fifteen minutes a day. Surely I could handle fifteen minutes.
I decided I’d do it every morning before going to the job I’d found, and so I began. I set my alarm fifteen minutes early, made coffee, and sat down at my computer. I wrote for that fifteen minutes, printed out a page, and took it with me. I’d reread it on the bus to work, and if I spotted it during the day when I opened my purse for my lipstick or wallet, it spoke to me.
It reminded me that I really was a writer.
Prior to this time, I’d been a stop and go writer. Inspiration would fuel my stories, then when an idea dried up, I’d forget about writing.
I vowed to change this habit and stick with my fledgling practice.
I persevered and made sure I got something on the page every day before work. Weeks passed, and I was still writing every day. Months wore on. My random jottings had turned into actual stories.
I still couldn’t show this work to anyone or tell friends what I was doing. They might ask to see it, and that was too painful. The first time someone critiqued a line of my prose I might fall right back into a pit of despair. Perhaps you have to be a writer to understand how thin our skin is. I’d been publically rejected and couldn’t risk anyone opening that wound. Anyway, I didn’t need to show my work anymore. It was enough to write.
In time, I began expanding my sessions to twenty minutes, then thirty. And doing more than write. I’d revise, read, and revise again. I’d spent a fortune on writing classes over the years and had a library full of books on writing. I began putting that education to good use. No sentence went unexamined, no phrase went unpolished many times over. My goal was now, if not to publish, then to perfect. I would make my work as good as I could, even if just for myself.
In the quiet of my walk-in closet where I had moved out clothes for a desk and chair, I’d read my sentences aloud, think them through, study my printouts. I’d close my eyes and visualize each word, each image. And I’d rewrite.
It was not all smooth sailing. The rejection from the publisher added to other wounds that the human psyche is heir to, and it all came back to haunt me on a regular schedule. A voice in my ear would whisper unbidden, what makes you think you’re a writer? You’re wasting your time; who said you could write? Nobody’s interested in this drivel.
But I had made this promise to myself that the publisher could take my checks away from me, could tear up the contract, and stamp out my dream of landing a big book. But they couldn’t take away my writing.
Some days I’d be tempted to give up. Yet,
I clung to that promise to myself. For fifteen minutes in the morning, I allowed myself to be a writer. I might have to render unto Caesar for the rest of the day, but my morning practice was mine.
Eventually, I began to notice that I was arguing with the voices. Instead of putting down my pen, I’d acknowledge them. I hear you, I’d tell them. Thank you for sharing, but I have work to do. And with a choir of “you’re no good” still ringing in my ears, I’d continue working. I soon found the voices faded away. And I went on working.
They’d come back of course, but now I had a weapon. Acknowledge them and move on. I could write in spite of them. Who knew?
Next, I noticed something else happening while I read over my work. I’d read sentences I liked and sentences with problems I could spot. And then my eyes would glaze over. That became like a temple bell chiming for my attention.
Whenever I lost my focus revising, I knew something was wrong with the passage.
Something I couldn’t figure out in the moment or something that would require a major rewrite I didn’t want to acknowledge. But because I had become attuned to the way I was concentrating and reading, I was learning to pick up my internal signals when something wasn’t working on the page.
Sometimes my body would twitch when I’d get sloppy with word choices. So I’d make a mark on the printout and figure it out later and fix it. By the time I was done with my many revisions, noticing, becoming more and more aware of what my body as well as my mind was telling me about my pages, I had made my draft as good as I could.
Years had gone by. I was well into a novel and by now setting my alarm for two hours before I had to get ready for work. Then one day, I came across a description of meditation that said it was not about clearing your mind but about awareness. About paying attention. About noticing each breath and when your mind wandered, bringing it back to the subject at hand.
My eyes popped open when I read that. Of course, that’s what I’d been doing in my writing practice.
Thinking I was just writing, I’d fallen into a meditation practice without realizing it.
I’d taught myself to become aware of every word, to notice my body as I wrote, as I revised. I allowed this awareness to teach me where I had to make changes when my conscious mind wandered or refused to focus.
Discipline, I’d learned, comes from the Greek word meaning to follow. I was following my writing. I’d made writing my teacher, writing my meditation. It had all made me a better writer.
I was no longer a stop and start writer. When I began a story, I followed it to the end. I learned to look for the answers to a writing problem in the work and not put it away and wait six months for inspiration to hit again. To just stay with it. Notice it all and eventually the work will open up the way.
I learned that a daily writing practice is hard, finding the discipline to do it every day, at least in the beginning is hard. But so is stop and start writing, the guilt when you’re not writing, gathering up your confidence to start again.
The benefit of a writing practice, apart from honing your skills, is that you give yourself permission to do the thing you love every day. And one day you find when you sit down to write, it’s easy, or at least easier. You’ve taught your brain that when you sit down, it’s time to work. And your brain responds by opening the channels.
Is this for you, a daily writing practice? If you want to be a writer, I would tell you… absolutely.
I’m eighty years old. I think back on all the time I’ve wasted worrying about whether I was any good, whether I was a real writer, whether I should do the thing I love most. I’ve been writing every day for almost twenty-five years now, and those aren’t the things that bedevil me anymore.
I’m hardly a perfect writer, but at least I can say I own something I care about. I am a writer.