On Presence & Writing
Updated: Mar 30, 2018
About a year ago, standing near the cold cut display, I met a woman who said she’d been to infinity and knew the meaning of life. She’d sucked me into the conversation by complimenting my child, who was two, at the time. I was lonely, still battling some residual postpartum sadness, and so I found myself open, curious, even. In a hurried tone, she told me she’d spent her life flying around the world as a flight attendant. She was seventy-four years old. She said that she was god and that I was god and that everything was god. She said she had to go away in order to know that the only thing that really matters is this, right here.
For most of my life (except, perhaps, for a few years as a child, a few years of which I have very limited memory) I’ve lived inside my head. It’s where I am most comfortable. I’ve built worlds in here. And, as I told my husband one very late night, after hours of bouncing our crying son back and forth, I just prefer to live in here.
Living in your head isn’t a problem, until it is. For me, it became a problem when I became a mother, and my child demanded something I couldn’t give him: presence. Not just my physical presence, but all of me. Body and mind.
Eventually, I started meditating, and it changed my life.
As I began to pay attention to my mind, to the world, and to my son, without reacting and without racing off to the past or the present, I began to find balance. Perhaps some mothers find this kind of presence easily. I had to work at it. I’m still working at it.
What’s so interesting about writerhood and parenthood, to me, are the ways in which they intersect, and writing requires mindfulness as much as our lives require it. Yiyun Li writes about staring at characters so closely that you see past their facades. “It can be harsh,” she writes, “but I think I like the harsh, true things you see when you don’t turn away. The writer must never look away.” (Read the whole essay here. It’s beautiful.)
Anthony Doerr thinks that writers should try to bring the kind of attention they bring to their writing to their lives. He is an avid journal-keeper and believes that the things that we experience eventually (hopefully) transmute themselves into our fiction: “The key is to try to stay open, to stay comfortable enough and free enough in one’s own life that you don’t get too self-absorbed, too busy, too blinded to the wonders all around you.”
And that’s why I’m starting this blog, after oh so many years of maintaining that I’m “not that kind of writer.” To bring the kind of attention I used to save only for my writing to my life. To share that with someone.
So how can we bring mindfulness to our writing? Mirabai Bush, the mindfulness guru who helped to develop Google’s Search Inside Yourself curriculum, has an incredibly simple, yet brilliant, strategy for writing mindfully (she gears this toward email-writing, but I think it works well for every kind of writing we do, short and long):
1. Write a first draft;
2. step away from the words and center yourself on your breath, for at least three breaths;
3. return to the words and read them, imagining that you are the recipient of those words and, finally,
4. edit, as needed.
In other words, once you have a draft down, and you gingerly step away from that manic, self-absorbed state required for creation, it’s important to bring yourself back to the present, the real present, not just the words on the page. Go have a pint with your best friend. Listen to the wind roar through the eucalyptuses. Dig in the mud with your three-year-old. Give yourself a week, if you can spare it; shelve the file until you’re inspired six months, one year, down the line. Listen to your breath. When you’re ready, return to your work and read your words as a reader. What is confusing? What is too slow, too fast? Are there any missing transitions? What kind of emotions do the words elicit?
Being a writer, in many ways, means being able to compartmentalize your inner writer and your inner editor. Mindfulness can help us achieve this by serving as an anchor for transition from one state to the other.
That woman in the cold cut aisle, though I didn’t know it then (because we tend to ignore the truth when it’s simple, don’t we?), was offering me a sort of anchor, one that took a bit of time to catch, one that still gets loose now and then, skimming the bottom of the river and missing all the big rocks.
But I know it, even if it’s not easy. What’s most important is here, right now, and if we pay attention to it, not only will we benefit but also will our writing benefit.