Being Present to Writing

In a post a few weeks ago, I talked about the fact that even when I make a schedule to write, I don’t respect my own writing time. Sometimes I don’t write during my writing time because I’m so distracted by so many competing priorities. Respecting my own writing time gets particularly tricky at the end of the year. I’m scrambling to do all of the things that I meant to do and haven’t yet. Little is getting accomplished. Panic is setting in. Everything seems equally important at the same time: significant other, family, gifts, social functions, work. The list goes on. It’s overwhelming.   

When I’m staring down a million things that all need attention, having a meditation practice (or any mindfulness practice) pays off. Despite all of the busy thoughts flying around in my head (What should I eat for breakfast? I need to email five people. Wouldn’t this be better if I had a little coffee first? I’m missing something important on Twitter. What’s going to happen next in the book I’m reading? I’m bored. Shouldn’t I be doing something more interesting? I don’t have time to just sit and breathe.), I make myself sit and meditate for twenty minutes every day. Maintaining consistent awareness of something as boring as breathing takes a surprising amount of focus.   
 I need to learn to concentrate on my writing as intently as I focus on my breath while meditating. The same thoughts that sidetrack me during meditation also distract me when I write.  Lots of times, even though I’ve scheduled writing time, I’m still not prioritizing my writing. Just because I’m sitting at my computer trying to write doesn’t mean that I’m actually WRITING.

I’m trying to train my mind to focus on one thing at a time these days. I’m working on paying deep attention to one thing at a time and simply noticing how I feel about it. I start writing with every intention of maintaining a laser focus on the task at hand. But it gets hard. Thoughts race. Emotions surface. I don’t feel productive. So I start being “busy” and give into distraction in an effort to feel like I’m getting things done. I often mistake being distracted for doing actual writing.  As I’m writing this, my phone is on. It just beeped, telling me that someone started following me on Twitter. I have seven different programs running on my computer at the same time. I have nine browser tabs open. I’m also in the middle of cooking lunch. I just got a Facebook notification! Surely it’s important!

I don’t need all of those programs, windows, and browser tabs open to write. All I need to write this post is my Scrivener project. I just need to focus on writing while writing, just like I focus on breathing when meditating.  

Learning to focus on a single thing has helped my writing practice. I’m relieved to see that the idea of multitasking is out and singletasking in coming back into vogue.  Doing a one thing at a time well rather than do many things poorly at the same time isn’t easy. Just like doing something simple like focusing on the breath is harder than it sounds, so is the idea of concentrating only on my writing.   

In 2016, I want to try to be more mindful and conscious about what I’m doing with my time and my life. I’m planning to keep working on being fully present while writing.`

Here’s my plan for more focused writing in 2016:

  • Daily meditation
  • Create an intention for focus
  • Scheduled writing time
  • Door closed
  • Phone off
  • Only one computer program open at a time
  • Noise canceling headphones and white noise
  • Using a timer.

I’m already doing some of these things and notice that when I put them all into action at once, I suddenly have no choice but to write. Turns out that focusing on writing isn’t easy, but it has made me a better writer.

[Photo: Palo verde flowers. Tucson, Arizona, 2014.]


Writing While Sad

Now that I’m finished with my Twelve Week Article, I’m back to blogging my own thoughts about the writing process. Much to my surprise, the most popular posts on my blog aren’t about actual writing or writing advice. The most frequently read posts are the ones about my own emotional struggles with writing. When I write about feeling shamed by criticism or trapped by the anxiety that comes with perfectionism, those posts seem to resonate the most with readers. Sometimes people tweet me or comment on the blog to let me know that they’re glad they’re not the only ones who feel X about their writing.

I would be a more productive writer if I could keep my writing emotions from my life emotions and vice versa. Sometimes life stuff happens that makes writing difficult, including breakups, breakdowns, and other travails. My emotional life always leaks out all over my writing life like battery acid. Life stuff creates feelings of anger and sadness that well up and infuse my writing. Writing with less than perfect emotions sometimes feels like struggling to wade through wet concrete. Some days, I’m too sad or too angry to give even a single, solitary fuck about writing.

For a long time, I didn’t think it was possible to write when dealing with an emotional tsunami.  I'd stop writing entirely until I got the emotional stuff under control. However, I’ve learned that it is precisely when I’m sad or angry that I need to be writing the most. In fact, during a particularly recent sad writing day, I managed to work through a major problem with my twelve week article. We can write despite sadness or anger. [This, of course, is not to say that anyone should be focusing on academic writing when dealing with grief or depression. I’m just talking here about having the serious blues.]   

What I’ve found is that writing with big emotions requires practice to ride it through, much like meditating with big emotions requires the same kind of practice.

Natalie Goldberg, of course, is the person who likened writing to Zen meditation in Writing Down the Bones. She encourages writers to make writing a practice in the same way that a person makes a sitting meditation into a practice.

I’ve been meditating for about five years now. I am never thrilled to sit for meditation. I try to talk myself out of it every morning. I have plenty of excuses. It takes too much time. I’m busy. It’s boring. It’s not a crucial part of my day. An occasional meditation practice is just as good as a regular practice. I’m hungry. Meditation would be better with coffee. I have too much email.  I’m too emotional. I’m not in the right mood. It’s too hard. I’m too sad. Anger is sure to fuck up my meditation completely.

My sorry excuses to avoid meditating are the same excuses that I make to avoid writing. I know when I’m manufacturing flimsy excuses. What’s important is that I don’t give into them. So, I make myself meditate even though I don’t want to. In the same way, I make myself write even though I don’t want to. I sometimes feel huge emotional tidal waves, but now have enough trust to know that they’re going to calm down if I just acknowledge them.

Meditation is so much like my writing. I’m getting better at it, but still struggle with it. My emotions threaten to derail me completely. My attention wanders. I think too much. I blame myself for thinking too much. I blame myself for blaming myself for thinking too much. I remember that I’m supposed to be paying attention. I feel guilty that I can’t. My breathing is too fast and shallow. I’m ashamed that I can’t seem to get it right. And then I readjust, let go of judgment, and start over. Write. Breathe. Feel. Write.

Writing while sad or angry is often a repetition of my mediation practice. I don’t want to, I’m not in the mood, but I do anyways. I’ve long since abandoned trying to convince myself to care about my writing when I really do feel too sad or angry to care. The caring comes later. What’s important is to just recognize and accept that I’m going to have to do a little bit for meditation or writing even though I feel rotten. And the meditation practice and writing session might suck. But the important part is in doing it despite emotional yuck.

[Photo: Ceiling of one of the chapels at the Basilica de Guadalupe, Mexico City, 2015.]