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Off the Cushion: Contemplative Writing in the Real World

We don’t meditate to become expert meditators, right? At least in the meditation practices I follow, we do eventually get up off the cushion and bring practice into the world.

But what about contemplative writing practice? How do we bring this practice into the world of “real” writing projects? (“Real” is in quotation marks because I’ve found, more often than not, that the germ of a “real” writing project has come out of my daily practice.)

Contemplative writing practice is about following your mind, with awareness and kindness and curiosity. The intent is to make friends with your mind, learning its habits and quirks, much like the meditation practices it’s grounded in.

Now, my ADHD mind is a tough thing to follow, let alone make friends with. Yet, over time, contemplative writing practice has actually helped calm the confusion and scattered-ness that are among my ADHD challenges, while also making me a better, faster, happier writer.

I’m the first to admit that this does seem counterintuitive: this practice calls for sitting still and focusing, either or both of which are often hard for neurodivergent minds.

My own mind, for one, is full of all the things, all the time, so many thoughts colliding at any given moment that it’s impossible to follow any one train of thought without great effort. And now you want me to capture whatever wisps of thought or inspiration might be floating by and actually write them down?

Actually, yes.

And right there, that seems to be the secret sauce. The practice of writing everything down, no matter how random, is what seems to have made it possible for me to translate contemplative writing practice into writing skills I use in “real” writing projects.

In fact, this practice has helped me adopt a new process of writing. Since this process turns out to be really nothing more than the tried-and-true advice to write a first draft, without editing, and then go back and revise, what’s the big deal?

It’s that I was never able to do it before. In fact, I actually taught this process for years without really being able to do it myself.

I simply couldn’t stop myself from editing at the same time as writing. I’d try to get every sentence exactly right, so it would convey exactly what I was thinking in just the way I wanted to convey it. This may look like perfectionism, but I think I was just so afraid I’d lose the idea altogether that I couldn’t see how to do it any other way.

So I’d agonize over getting each word right, to the point where I’d freeze until, when faced with a deadline, I’d do a mad dash to the finish line all in one all-night session.

Somehow the right words—or at least, acceptably good-enough words—would flow out of me when the pressure was on, but without a deadline, I did nothing.

This process was nerve-wracking and, eventually, debilitating. For one thing, it doesn’t work for a longer project. Writing my Master’s thesis was pure torture.

And then one day, my ability to get words onto the page just dried up. I stopped writing altogether. Even my lifelong journalling practice sputtered to a halt for a time, sporadically stuttering back to life for a week or two before retreating to the back burner again.

Now, I use the principles of contemplative writing practice to create something that really is a “first draft.” I can now do this regularly and reliably, with or without a deadline.

I get there using the same process as I do for contemplative writing practice:

  • write by hand

  • use a timer and keep the pen moving the whole time

  • write everything that comes to mind, even things that are off-topic, self-critical, or whatever

  • let yourself lose control, don’t reread while you’re drafting, don’t worry about where it’s going or how it’s going to end

That’s my first draft.

On a great day, this draft flows right out of my daily practice, and I just don’t stop when the timer goes off. Something comes up during writing practice that sparks something about an idea that’s been knocking around for a while, and I’m off like a shot, and the writing happens magically. Still following my mind, but now I’m also writing the thing.

Sometimes I slip into hyperfocus—that state of flow so intense that if my hair were on fire I probably wouldn’t notice. This is a mixed blessing: when I eventually come back to earth, I’ll find that an hour and a half has gone by, I haven’t eaten, I’m still in my bathrobe, and I need to pee.

But the thing has gotten itself written, and now I have a good-enough first draft.

Sometimes I need to take a more head-on approach and sit down specifically for the purpose of writing the thing. It’s harder than the magical way, but this is where the real power of contemplative practice reveals itself.

Through contemplative writing practice, my pen has learned to follow the movement of my mind without judgement. My mindfulness meditation practice has taught me how to bring it back, again and again, to the focus of my attention, whenever my clouds of thought go scudding across the open sky of my mind.

In meditation practice, the focus of attention is usually my breath. When I’m writing with a specific purpose, the focus of attention is the thing I’m writing about.

Through contemplative writing practice, I’ve learned to give myself permission to write down the random things—squirrel!—then just move on, gently bringing my mind back to the flow. Since I've captured the random thought, I don't need to think about it anymore.

In the end, regardless of how I get there, I end up with a complete handwritten draft.

Then I type it (key it in? transcribe it? what the heck do you call it these days?), editing just a bit as I go—I leave out the “squirrel!” bits, maybe change a few words here and there, but otherwise I stick pretty closely to the handwritten draft.

While I may find myself hesitating over the right word at this stage, I’m usually able to I catch myself if it’s taking too long and nip it in the bud:

“This is still just a draft. You know you’ll edit this again, so move on.”

“Oh, right! That’s what I’m doing now. Moving on it is, then!”

Even with the additional step of writing by hand, creating this rough first draft still takes half the time it used to take when I composed directly on the computer.

And it’s way less painful. WAY less painful.

I no longer try to capture wisps of thought before they escape while also trying to get the right words to do it with. The wisps of thought have been captured.

Now it’s a matter of revision: refining what’s already there, maybe doing a bit more research or adding some new bits, then some rearranging and strengthening the connective tissue of the piece.

Regardless, the separation of draft and revision means that the hardest part—keeping the critic from hijacking the raw writing—is done.

Now I lovingly invite the critic to sit at the table.

Now she can shine.

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