Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Writer Zen: Mindful Writing

Technique Tuesday

I once heard a poet named Scott Livingston say that, ""Poetry is intentional brevity."

I've talked before about your responsibility as a writer to produce purposeful prose: narratives crafted with intent that give the reader a well-prepared experience. There's no place in good writing for pool-hall bravado (i.e., claiming you intended the balls to go where ever they went).

I've also talked about flow in writing, which is the notion that you can get into a state where you're so fully immersed in the process that you stop worrying and simply do. It's a frictionless balance between right-brain vision and left-brain detail.

Now it's time to consider the synthesis of flow and purpose. I call it mindful writing and I've shamelessly borrowed the Western psychological take on the Buddhist virtue of mindfulness.

When you're mindful of your writing, you're both aware and not aware of what you're doing (and therein lies another Zen riddle). You see the story and hear the voices of the characters, but then you have to capture what you see in specific and intentionally chosen words.

If that's not entirely clear, then consider the problem of mental telepathy.

In fiction, whether on the page or on the screen, we generally portray the telepath as somehow having access to a person's secret inner monologue--something that's often represented as a stream of speech. But modern brain scans find nothing of the sort. Our brains are alive with activity, and while the patterns of active regions change, there's always a number of things going on.

So how can a telepath fish a finished thought out of the sea of brain activity?

I suspect they can't.

There is an analogy between quantum uncertainty and conceptual fluidity: like the quantum notion that a particle exists in a superimposition of all its states until by measuring it you force it to collapse into a single state, our thoughts are fluid until we fix them in some form like words on the page.

I realize this sounds esoteric, but there's something practical here: mindful writing is the process of transforming fluid thoughts and fixing them in encoded forms (e.g., words). The technique that arises from this understanding--that I characterize as being both aware and unaware at the same time--is to pay "attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally."

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net