Elizabeth Herman has been helping and supporting writers of various backgrounds and ages and in all stages of the writing process since 1998. She completed her doctorate in Rhetoric and Composition in December of 2008. Vital Writer Services is her new business offering coaching, tutoring, editing and proofreading to writers in various genres and with a variety of possible issues. Five percent of each fee will be donated to non-profit educational service projects around the world, which are described on the ‘supporting others‘ page of this blog. Contact her at 618-559-1641 (cell phone) or firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
The Quick Fix: Meditating in School Settings
Practicing meditation doesn’t have to take a great deal of time. In a classroom, 5 minutes of guided deep breathing can make a big difference to students under pressure.
One instance of this occurred in a program for students from minority backgrounds who chose to prepare for the exam required to enter a pre-medical school program. The teachers decided to initiate a regular, 5-minute session of guided deep breathing at the beginning of each class.
Their study showed that the breathing, with eyes closed, and the mental focus on relaxing imagery, helped their testing experience and performance significantly.
Numerous other studies of students in academically and culturally challenging environments show similar positive findings about meditation. As writers, it makes sense to draw from this wealth of energy that remains versatile and applicable in practical settings.
Paul, Gina, Elam, Barb and Verhulst, Steven. “A Longitudinal Study of Students’ Perceptions of Using Deep Breathing Meditation to Reduce Testing Stress.” Teaching and Learning in Medicine. 19.3 (2007): 287-292.
Forgetting to Meditate
As writers write, moments of contemplation occur frequently, either planned or unplanned by the writer or writing teacher. Such moments, paying attention to thoughts, sensations and feelings within the writer’s inner consciousness, already constitute an implicit form of meditation.
Intentionally using classroom time to create such moments and extend them, with planning, forethought, and for the purpose of an enhanced sense of personal agency, a clearer connection with the inner self of the writer, comprises a working definition of meditation for the context of composition courses.
Without such spontaneous or planned moments, academic writing style can sound particularly disconnected from the self, and authors must therefore struggle laboriously, often failing to achieve clear meaning and/or a strong sense of ethos, or voice.
Why, then, would composition pedagogy experts disregard more intentional uses of meditation techniques in composition pedagogy, when such a teaching tool may only serve to enhance an activity that already naturally occurs when people write?
Upon initial research into literature on the confluence of these two processes, it has been readily apparent that meditation has played a role in enhancing personal agency within the context of composition at least since the time of the ancient Greeks, and continues to facilitate the development of the self in composition courses.
The research I completed for my Ph. D. dissertation project reviews theoretical and practical perspectives on the role of meditation in the writing process and investigates the potential and actual value of intentional meditative practices in writing pedagogy.
Past Haunting- A Memory Problem
As you develop your sense of writers’ forms, you can work within a network of memories to channel past experiences into a variety of interdependent parts.
To what degree does a piece of writing need to draw on your memory? It depends on what you intend that piece to do, and what form would work best to do that!
For stories, vague memories might take shape in unintended ways. For essays, the motivation to say something to certain audiences might be a specific, troubling or inspiring experience.
For a memoir, the whole narrative may find its energy within your memory banks. For journal entries that stay private, the recent past may be fresh enough to fill the page without long-term connections to older memories.
Memory provides a necessary part of the research process. In order to form conclusions based on data, bits of data must be remembered, and bigger pictures of a grander scheme of things have to be joined and compiled via overall impressions taken from readings and live observations.
What do you use your memory for most often? How could you expand your writing repertoire by drawing on more parts of your memory?
It is likely that most writers have found a comfortable niche, but the memory can extend a writer’s comfort zone beyond old boundaries. Through experimentation, writers can find ways to use memory to write more in many previously unexplored genres.
You have stored so many of them over the years. They go with you everywhere, even when you don’t realize it.
While you work to formulate what you’re writing about, the memory continues to shape how you think and how you come up with new thoughts. Everything you do in the present moment receives shape, feeling and other information from your memory banks.
For instance, if you’re writing about a fictional birthday party, the notion of such a ceremony has already taken place within you, via your own birthday party experiences.
You can spend time researching other birthday parties, and find all kinds of new details about the current fashion and available themes for birthday celebrating, but the choices you make will necessarily be filtered through impressions from your own personal past.
My best advice steers you toward embracing your memories in your writing. By including what you remember, you can establish your ethos more easily and naturally, and show your readers who you have become over time.
The Practice of Power Writing
Do you remember those blank books with the extremely thick, empty lines on them? First a solid line, then a dotted line, and then another solid one, allowed us to form letters inside those lines with plenty of room. Some letters took up only the bottom half of the line, while some of them had parts that extended up to the very top solid line.
Those books made it possible to create our own books. After reading the ones already written, we could illustrate the top half of the page, and then make letters to describe our images in the bottom half, within the space of those big, thick, split lines.
In fact, you’ve been practicing writing for a long time, since well before you started using those pieces of lined paper. Imitating the speech of your parents was a form of writing practice. So was drawing on your walls, and arranging your toys for periods of playtime.
Engaging in artistic work happens anytime you take action to move, arrange and form the signs that make up language. These signs have evolved from the ancient pictures etched in the walls of caves.
The shape of visual and audible language comes from many images, forms and shapes, not just the linear text that we currently remain within when we think of defining writing.
In this blog column, I sometimes share memories of my own writing practices. When searching for the very beginning of my empowerment through writing practice, the memory that comes to mind involves my numerous fabric animals that I loved so much as a very young child.
They comforted me so much that I started putting them into stories. I put them in places inside my crib, where they could interact with each other and with me. Now, I see this as a type of writing.
When I created situations for my stuffed animals, I was composing words for them to say to each other. I posed them so they could act in various ways. I formed something bigger from the forms that I already had.
That’s exactly what you practice every time you do your own writing. Just take the forms of language that you already have, and form something new, bigger and more helpful with them!
Forgetting to Practice
“If you want to get to Carnegie Hall, there are only 3 ways to get there: practice, practice and practice.”
This old saying may have come from vaudeville, but it is no joke. In order to stay with it, writers must keep going back to their blank notebooks and produce the kind of writing that nobody will ever publish.
Ignoring your audience not only allows you more comfort and ease in how you present yourself on the page, it necessitates self-acceptance. In the long run, self-acceptance assumes greater importance than this or that publication or this or that reader.
Your writerly voice sounds genuine when you have gained your own respect, not when you write only for others. Others’ opinions constantly shift and change, like the winds and the sand on the ocean’s shoreline surface. The depths do not.
In your notebook, you will always be the only inventor and the only critic. Your own understanding and pleasure take precedence over all others, and your own mind becomes the grist for all you produce.
Writing Outside: A Pleasantly Distracting Environment
What do you do with a wandering mind?
As peaceful as the outdoors may be, the transcendent beauty of natural surroundings that smell, look and feel great can often distract as much as an unwelcome, unpleasant disruption.
I remember writing during college, how I would sit outside in the sun, and feel the cool breezes and watch the leaves moving in the trees. My thoughts wandered almost uncontrollably, and forcing words onto the page simply didn’t work.
Back then, we didn’t have laptops or iphones or ipods, or even cell phones for texting. A notebook, blank journal and a pen sat motionless on the picnic table where I sat, enjoying the day along with me. My head would only feel comfortable when I lay it on its side, with my hands and forearms as pillows, or when I leaned it back to stretch out my neck in the refreshing breeze.
The homework assignment would have to wait until I could re-situate myself indoors. A desk, electric light, and a closed door took on the role of necessities for my writing process.
I’ve also tried writing on the beach, and yes, “trying” turned out to be the full extent of what I got done. I would lie on my stomach on a towel with a book in front of me, a pen in my hand, and what would happen? I started feeling drowsy, laid my head down, and slept until I got sunburn.