What this post is not about…and what it is
This is not an article about the mechanics of writing. I leave that to the grammarians. And it’s not about how to express yourself as a scribe. That’s for creative writing instructors or authors of how-to-write books, or bloggers who impart their wisdom on how to craft well-written prose.
This is about how to go about setting the stage for unleashing the voice from within when you have something that needs to be expressed. It might be a letter, a blog, a book, a poem or a song. That which needs to be put into words may be trapped or muddled. It may be bound up in doubts or fears, or you may feel an emptiness. Or maybe you can’t find the match to light the fire.
How do you initiate the process, dip into the creative well, and stir the creative soup so that when you put down your pen or click to close that file, you realize with certainty that you have said what your heart wanted to say in just the way you meant to say it? Here are nine tips for entering the writing zen.
1. Sleep. Not while you’re writing, of course, but the night before. If your mind is to be sharp, you need to be refreshed, energized, ready to tackle the mental demands of the day ahead. For those of you whose normal amount of sleep is 3 or 4 hours, more power to you. You probably accomplish more in a day than the rest of us do in a week. But if your body cries out for more, give in. Those brain cells need to be firing on all cylinders.
2. Pick your peak time of day. There are morning people and there are night people. Everyone knows which they are. It goes without saying, do your most important work at a time when your mental functioning is at its peak.
3. Accessorize. No, not a bracelet or scarf to look good. I’m talking about strapping on some physical aids: headphones and ambient music. Plug a headphone jack to your desktop, laptop or tablet.
For energy, insight, and inspiration I listen to Dr. Jeffrey Thompson’s audio recordings. They’re designed to stimulate the creative mind pattern in our own brainwaves by emitting inaudible pulses of sound. To get the full effect of Dr. Thompson’s sound program, headphones are required. They also insulate you from other noises and visual distractions.
4. Tunnel vision. Focus. The only world that exists is that of the subject about which you’re writing. If it helps to visualize that concept, imagine a horse wearing blinders. Or see yourself standing at one end of an empty tunnel, and at the other end is the light. That’s what you’re writing about: that light.
That’s the frame of mind with which to approach this task. Leave worries behind. Stop mind wandering. Put that grocery list aside until later. Is this beginning to sound a little bit like meditation? It is!
There is a form of meditation called “mindfulness. It’s the stripping away of everything except that which is in the present. In this case, the present is you and your writing. It is also treating each thought non-judgmentally, with acceptance and patience.
Don’t confuse mindfulness meditation with basic meditation, which is where you are making your mind a blank and getting to the raw essence of “being”, connecting with your higher self. I could go on and on with this subject as you can probably tell.
5. Let’s pretend. This tip is similar to tunnel vision, but its focus is on your attitude when your vision is narrowed down. The subject you are writing about is the most important, wonderful, exciting thing the world has ever known. Its importance exceeds that of brain surgery, world peace (Well, maybe I’m exaggerating here a little).
But that’s the kind of attitude to adopt about your subject. This can take a little self-persuasion, but usually once your mind starts to focus, this tends to come naturally. Note: if you’re writing about world peace or brain surgery, you can skip this step; no need to psyche yourself.
If you’re writing about something you’re not completely committed to—worse yet, don’t believe in—you have a particularly difficult row to hoe. In this case, stay in the “now” (re-read the “tunnel vision” step), be objective, forget that you have any opinions on the subject, pretend that you’re discovering it for the first time, and that it is of the highest good for society—or at least for your target readers.
If you can’t align with that mentality and are feeling a bit like a writing prostitute, give it up. It’s not worth the mental anguish, no matter how much you’re getting paid to write it. If you’re not getting paid, drop the assignment like a hot potato. If you don’t, your work will not only sound stilted and inauthentic, but your readers or client will be unhappy and unimpressed and will see right through it.
6. Thesaurus to the rescue. This is one of my cherished writing tools. It helps with a couple things. First, it finds a synonym so that you can avoid using the same word several times in a sentence or paragraph. This can also prevent you from keyword stuffing, which Google search engines dislike fiercely. The other thing it does is give you the name for the thingamajig…you know, the gizmo that helps with the doohickey that makes the whatchamacallit.
When a word is on the tip of your tongue and it just won’t shake loose, seek help quick with the wordsmith’s oldest reference guide. My favorite tool is Thesaurus.com (from those wonderful folks who brought us Dictionary.com). Both tools can also keep you from making a fool of yourself by clarifying a definition.
I once saved myself the embarrassment of using the adverb “notorious” preceding my client’s name in a press release before I discovered that the word doesn’t mean “prestigious” as I thought, but actually means ”disreputable” or “widely and unfavorably known”. Whew. Thesaurus.com saved my butt on that one.
7. Avoiding stuckness (writer’s block). Writer’s block sounds so highfalutin, doesn’t it? It makes you sound like a pro, an author who has written award-winning manuscripts but has temporarily stumbled upon brain fog, or suffers from some other complicated psychological disorder.
I’ve found writer’s block to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you tell yourself or others you have it, by golly you’ll have it…and you’ll stay in that rut until you stop saying you have it. Here’s where positive affirmations come in.
Stand in front of the mirror and repeat after me: “I am a wonderful, creative person, with interesting things to say, and I express them freely and eloquently in written words.” Ok, you don’t have to do it in front of the mirror. Say it once in the morning and once at night. Keep it on a piece of paper by your desk and nightstand. Then, sit yourself down in front of your screen or monitor and—as Nike likes to say—“Just do it”. Don’t worry about what your writing. Just get words on the page.
Eventually you’ll see a thought forming…then a paragraph…then a page. Before you know it, you have a complete short story, e-book or proposal.
If that doesn’t work, take a brief vacation. Interacting with the world beyond your home and neighborhood, exposure to new people, or walking in nature can profoundly change your perspective, open you up emotionally, relax you…liberate you.
Another one of my favorite breaks—when I can’t get away—is to get away literarily. Read something inspirational. Read something on the topic you’re writing about but from a different angle. Read something on a topic far removed from the one you’re writing about. Your mind will make associations and comparisons.
Watch a funny movie. Laughter lightens the soul. A good belly laugh can lift your spirits and remove the 10-pound brick anchoring your thoughts. Wild Hogs does it for me. Ideas will form that seem to come out of nowhere, without effort, almost as if they were not coming from you [Twilight Zone theme song cues up here].
8. Take frequent breaks. Have a cup of tea or coffee, play a few rounds of Solitaire on your iPad, watch an episode of Orange is the New Black on Netflix. You’ll know when. Your mind and body will feel tired. Your brain will shut down. You’ll start feeling cranky. You’re fried.
9. Put it away and read it the next day. Always follow this rule. It never fails, there’s always at least a few insights and errors you’ll catch when you’re looking at your piece with a fresh set of eyes. I extend a heartfelt thank you to the writing gods each time I find a typo, ill-formed syntax, subject-verb disparity, or awkward sentence structure on day two. I would be upset with myself if I had discovered them after submitting a writing job.
There will be times where you’ll want to do a complete rewrite after reading it the second go-round, realizing you missed the mark or didn’t like the flow or tone, or missed key points.
There you have it. Nine ways to enter the writing zen. Now go off, evoke the force that lies within, and do good stuff. But first, let me leave you with this zen paradox to ponder.
The master of Kennin temple was Mokurai, Silent Thunder. He had a little protege named Toyo who was only twelve years old. Toyo saw the older disciples visit the master’s room each morning and evening to receive instruction in sanzen or personal guidance in which they were given koans to stop mind-wandering.
Toyo wished to do sanzen also.
“Wait a while,” said Mokurai. “You are too young.”
But the child insisted, so the teacher finally consented.
In the evening, little Toyo went at the proper time to the threshold of Mokurai’s sanzen room. He struck the gong to announce his presence, bowed respectfully three times outside the door, and went to sit before the master in respectful silence.
“You can hear the sound of two hands when they clap together,” said Mokurai. “Now show me the sound of one hand.”
Toyo bowed and went to his room to consider this problem. From his window, he could hear the music of the geishas. “Ah, I have it!” he proclaimed.
The next evening, when his teacher asked him to illustrate the sound of one hand, Toyo began to play the music of the geishas.
“No, no,” said Mokurai. “That will never do. That is not the sound of one hand. You’ve not got it at all.”
Thinking that such music might interrupt, Toyo moved his abode to a quiet place. He meditated again. “What can the sound of one hand be?” He happened to hear some water dripping. “I have it,” imagined Toyo.
When he next appeared before his teacher, Toyo imitated dripping water.
“What is that?” asked Mokurai. “That is the sound of dripping water, but not the sound of one hand. Try again.”
In vain Toyo meditated to hear the sound of one hand. He heard the sighing of the wind. But the sound was rejected.
He heard the cry of an owl. This also was refused.
The sound of one hand was not the locusts.
For more than ten times, Toyo visited Mokurai with different sounds. All were wrong. For almost a year, he pondered what the sound of one hand might be.
At last little Toyo entered true meditation and transcended all sounds. “I could collect no more,” he explained later, “so I reached the soundless sound.”
Toyo had realized the sound of one hand.
Copyright 2014, Alayne Merenstein