Maintaining my spiritual practice as a Buddhist has helped me in lots of ways, but here I want to talk about how it’s helped me as a writer. To begin with, let me mention that the two key concepts for a productive practice are place and process. I meditate twice a day, every day of my life, and for meditation, I need a quiet place without distractions. Once I settle in to meditate, I need a process for doing so, in the form of a Sanskrit mantra that I repeat silently, as a way of bringing stillness to my erratic thoughts.
I mention place and process in my spiritual practice because the need for place and process applies equally well to my writing practice. Here’s why.
Writing as Meditating
I’m lucky enough to have an ideal situation for a writer, which I can configure to suit my needs. To begin with, I sit at my desk in front of the computer, so that if I want to find out when Abraham Lincoln was born, or how to spell a word, I can do so. But that’s just writing as fact-checking.
For the real, creative part of writing, I don’t use the computer at all. The computer comes last, just as a way to record what’s been created. To create, I have very specific requirements. I’m left-handed, so I sit with a clipboard with lots of lined notebook paper on it, and two fountain pens on my left.
I write on lined paper because the lines give me a reassuring sense of order; the stacks of paper and the pens—more than I need at any moment—give me a sense of abundance. If I have abundant pens and paper, then it’s easy—easier, anyhow —for me to believe that I also have an abundance of ideas and stories.
What to Do with Blank Pages
Then comes the part writers often find difficult—looking at the blank pages. I have the impression that looking at blank pages often causes anxiety for writers, and is a prime source of writer’s block. I have a two-level solution for it.
The first level, the obvious one, has various sources and precedents. Its best-known advocate is Julia Cameron, in her 1975 book The Artist’s Way, in which she advises people to write for the sake of writing. While The Artist’s Way has proven very helpful to me, I find it more useful to remember media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s phrase “the medium is the message.”
There’s nothing mysterious about this much-discussed phrase. For the writer, it just means writing one sentence after another. The content doesn’t matter. As in: “I’m sitting here. I’m sitting at my desk. I’m wearing jeans. Today is Tuesday.” And so forth. But like I said, this is just the first stage. It’s often useful to get you going, but there’s nothing especially creative about it.
The Creative Part of Writing—Asking Questions
For the creative part of writing, I draw on my meditation practice. I go into myself and ask questions. And—this is the really important part—I don’t just sit there and ask myself questions. If I just sit there and think about my questions, it’s all too easy for me to get lost in the labyrinth of my mind. So I write the questions down, and the act of moving my hand across the paper connects my mind with the external world and keeps it connected until I get the answer.
Sometimes I write the question down over and over again, just as I repeat my mantra over and over again. Sometimes I cover a whole page with the same question. Like this: “Where does the story take place? Where does the story take place? Where does the story take place?”
And, after I’ve written my question several times, then, inspired by my favorite Beatles song, “Let It Be,” I sit there and I let it be. I let the question be. If I’m supposed to write the short story, if there’s something there for me, it will come.
Faith and Creativity
This is where the faith of the practitioner comes in. We practitioners learn to feel comfortable when the answer doesn’t come right away. Or, sometimes, there’s no answer at all, and I leave myself open to what that might mean. It might mean that there’s no story for me that day—or maybe that week. But that doesn’t mean that I stop writing down the question.
But let’s be optimistic. Let’s suppose that, as in “Let It Be,” Mother Mary, or my muse, or Buddha, or Spirit (insert your favorite term here) brings me words of wisdom from that well of creativity that usually remains mysterious, even to the greatest of artists. I recently went through this process for a story, and when I asked the question about place, the answer did come, and it was “New York.”
Okay, so the story is set in New York. This simplifies lots of things and eliminates a lot of possible characters. Although there are lots of stories you can tell about New York, they usually don’t involve surfers, say, or farmers.
First Comes the Place; Then Come the Characters
For me, and I know this sounds idiosyncratic but bear with me, finding the place of the story comes before finding the characters in the story Finding the place of the story quite literally grounds the story.
Once I have the place, then I can ask more specific questions about the characters, like “Who’s in the story?” If I’m lucky, and I’m in the flow—in the zone, as athletes say—then I have a sense—sometimes a visual image, sometimes not—of a character in the place that I’ve defined. When I have an image of a character in a place, then the story starts to jell, to cohere.
In general, the questions that I ask about my stories begin with the most general ones, and then they become more specific. Once I know where the story takes place, I can ask what characters are in the story, and what they do.
Asking Questions and Developing the Characters
Recently, while working on the story set in New York, I had an image of a woman on a sidewalk. It was just a flash, but it was vivid. Once I have that image, I can ask, “Who is this woman? What is she doing in New York?” And, crucially for this story, as it turned out: “Whom does she encounter on the street?” When you have the answer to a question like that, then you keep asking questions. And, once again, for my writing process, it’s crucial for me to keep writing down the questions with a fountain pen on lined paper. That physical act grounds the questions by slowing down my thought processes.
Creativity and Pacing
It’s a paradox of creativity that after your mind slows down enough to get the necessary answers about the place and the characters, then—if all goes well—then the pace picks up. The words come tumbling out of your mind; they tumble so fast that you can hardly put them on paper fast enough. But the muse, to revert to that old, possibly sexist, cliché, is fickle. Sometimes the flow of words, which is so exhilarating, just…stops. And that too is part of the process. Sometimes you can restart the flow, and sometimes you can’t. Sometimes when the flow stops, you’re done for the day, and it’s time to run errands and fold the laundry.
But the next morning when I sit down to my clipboard with the lined paper again. I pick up my pen and I write down more questions on the lined paper, or the same questions that I got stuck on the previous day. Usually, eventually, I get answers, which lead to more specific questions such as “Okay, when he says that, how does she react?” I keep that up until I finally run out of questions. At this point, I understand where the characters are, what they do, and why they do it. When I have no more questions, the creative part of writing is mostly over.
That doesn’t mean that I’m through writing, though. I will probably want to go back over the story, filling in details, checking for spelling and punctuation, and doing all those things that give the story a professional feel. Then I enter what I’ve written on the computer, and the story is done.
And Then the Next Morning…
And then the next morning I pick up my fountain pen and write on my lined paper, “Where does the next story take place?”