The Path of Writing
©2009 Kelly L Stone
Around 1991, long before I became a writer, I began to study Vipassana meditation. This is a Buddhist form of meditation; Vipassana means “insight.” How it works is you sit on a cushion, cross your legs, fold your hands in your lap, and focus your attention on your breath. Within a matter of seconds, you realize that watching your breath is impossible because your mind starts going hog wild: it plans, it sings, it creates stories, it drudges up memories, it makes lists, and so on.
The practice teaches that this is the nature of the mind—its “job” is to create those thoughts, which in turn generate emotions, and that your task is to observe these thoughts and feelings as they arise without judgment, aversion, or attachment. You simply sit and watch whatever comes arise, linger, and finally pass, like clouds floating through the sky.
When I started writing, I had been doing Vipassana meditation for more than a decade, and I discovered that some of the things I was learning on that cushion were also helpful to the writing process. I hope you find them helpful, too.
Sloth and Torpor
Aren’t those great words? Sloth and torpor. What they mean in Buddhism is inertia and resistance to doing anything productive. For me, sloth and torpor come around every morning when the alarm goes off at 4:00 AM and I have to get up to write for two hours before going to my day job. Especially in winter when it’s cold and dark outside, I resist mightily the idea of getting out of bed to trudge off and think up words to put on paper.
So I lay there, telling myself that I really don’t need to get up that day because I’m ahead on my weekly word count goal (which is rarely true), or that I’ll make up the lost time on the weekend (which rarely happens). I almost have myself convinced until I remember a little thing called positive effort for the good.
Positive Effort for the Good
Positive effort for the good means that every day, it’s important to take some action, no matter how small, toward bringing about good not only in your own life but in the life of all sentient beings. It can be something as simple as buying a reusable grocery bag, choosing to be extra courteous that day, or sitting down at your computer and writing for fifteen minutes.
In terms of my daily dose of sloth and torpor, making positive effort for the good means hauling my butt out of that bed and getting to my computer as planned. It means working my writing schedule. It means doing something, every single day, toward my long-term writing goals. Even if I don’t write anything usable, or what I write is never published, the point is—make the effort. Take that first right step in the direction of your dream.
Creating a meaningful life takes lots of positive effort, and becoming a writer is no different. No one is immune to the kinds of things that can totally derail a writer’s plan to succeed. My 78-year-old mother unexpectedly became ill last year. I now spend a lot more time with her—time that I used to spend writing. But it’s okay. My life is richer for it. And so is my writing. I make positive effort for the good with my mom, and each morning I make positive effort for the good with my writing. I write a scene, a chapter, or the draft of an essay. In this way, the small efforts combine over time and become what some people call “an overnight success.” Here’s a secret: there is no such thing as an overnight success. There is only that first right step, and then the next, and the next, and the next.
Becoming a Writer
My meditation teacher tells this story: a woman with a dirty home bought a beautiful vase. She placed it on her coffee table, which drew her attention to how filthy the table had become. She cleaned it. That drew her attention to the dirty rug under the table. She cleaned that. Then she saw how dirty the room was, so she cleaned that next. This continued until she had eventually cleaned her entire house.
That’s how it works with writing, too. You find your beautiful shiny dream of being a writer and bring it home to your heart. But you realize that you have much to learn about the craft of writing. You know nothing about character development, so you learn about that. Then you need to hone your skills in dialogue, so you study that next, and so on. You start by setting small goals—write one paragraph a day-- and you take the first right step toward reaching that goal. Maybe that means you write on your lunch break, or while your baby naps, or after your family has gone to bed.
Soon, by making positive effort for the good one small step at a time, you become a writer. And you become something else, too. You become a person who possesses the quiet confidence that grows out of sustained self-discipline; you experience the joy that setting and meeting goals creates; you discover the profound inner peace that only writing can give you. You greet sloth and torpor mindfully, because you know that their nature is to arise, linger, and eventually pass. And you take that first right step toward getting out of bed at 4:00 AM and making your way to the computer, your collective positive efforts nudging you slowly but surely along.
WITH THOSE WORDS OF WISDOM FOR US TO CONTEMPLATE, WE'LL MOVE INTO OUR READER CONTEST!
Kelly is gracious enough to give us TWO of her books for a giveaway today: Grave Secrets, her fictional murder mystery, and Cup of Comfort for Sisters:Stories that Celebrate the Special Bonds of Sisterhood, which contains her story "Leaping Year Sisters."To enter, please leave a comment below. Contest ends tonight at midnight and the winners will be posted tomorrow. Please check back for your name as unclaimed prizes will be awarded in a second drawing after three days. Good Luck!