Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

The Mindful Writer - Introduction

Noble Truths of the Writing Life

INTRODUCTION: THE FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS OF THE WRITING LIFE

As the author of a memoir exploring my potholed attempts to fit Buddhist practice and philosophy into a typically busy, overindulgent modern lifestyle, I am often asked to explain how the Dharma teachings have influenced my writing. Despite the frequency of the question, however, for many years I found myself unable to provide anything close to a satisfying answer.

I knew that the Buddha’s core teachings had seeped deep into my life, in ways that I had not originally anticipated, but I could not honestly say that my writing habits had changed as a result, or that I had taken on a “Buddhist approach” to the highly deliberate routine of choosing words, composing sentences, and accumulating pages. My work, it seemed, went on as it always had: ploddingly, unevenly, and with consistent difficulty.

Yet the question—“You are a Buddhist, so can you tell us how your Buddhism affects your writing?”—kept returning, and I kept offering feeble and evasive responses.

Then one day it occurred to me: my inability to articulate a satisfying reply might mean that I was, in fact, trying all along to answer the wrong question. It was not Buddhism that had influenced my writing, but quite the opposite. The river of influence, perhaps, ran in the other direction.

Rather than seeing mindfulness and Buddhism as shaping my efforts on the page, what I’ve come to understand is that my lifelong pursuit of writing and creativity has helped to open me to the path of Buddhism. The innumerable lessons learned in struggling with my writing over the years has made me already aware (albeit in an inarticulate, subconscious way) of the simple wisdom of mindfulness and nonattachment presented in the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.

Life is full of discontent, the Buddha told us, and that discontent (sometimes translated as suffering) comes about due to our grasping at things, our craving and clinging—the desire to make permanent what will always be fleeting. There is, however, a way to make the inescapabilty of discontent less problematic in our lives. The Way, the Path, is through right action, right speech, right livelihood; through living a deliberate and intentional life.

As a writer, I had learned the power of releasing my control of a story, of letting the words, the characters, the images, the mysterious underpinnings of a piece of prose take me in unexpected directions. The less I grasped at and choked my writing, the more it seemed to expand into areas that surprised and pleased not just me but the reader as well. Even my “noncreative” writing—business memos, application letters, proposals, and reports—were strengthened by this realization.

From the other end, I had seen how my ego and desires would inevitably lead me toward writer’s block and self-loathing, how worrying about critical responses or negative reactions would eventually dry up whatever creative flow I had managed to bring forth.

I had come too to understand the importance of examining my motives for writing, of rooting out insincerity. Dishonest motives, such as writing to “get back” at someone who wronged you or pretending to be more decent or devout on the page than you are in real life, are as dangerous to a writer as just about anything I can name.

These lessons had already been learned and relearned many times over in my writing life, so when I first encountered the Four Noble Truths, they seemed familiar and true to my experience.

None of this is easy, of course. The deeper practice of intentional living and mindfulness remains an ongoing effort to be aware and awake, but at least I am not wondering if it all can work. I have seen with my own eyes, observed it directly, in my daily task.

What Is Mindfulness?

The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has written and lectured often on the subject of mindfulness, and he remains one of my most valued teachers because his message is so beautifully simple: if you want to promote peace, be peaceful as you walk across the room; if you want to promote love, love yourself and those immediately around you; if you want to reach enlightenment, be entirely awake and in the moment, whether awash in an oceanfront sunrise or merely washing the dinner dishes.

Mindfulness begins with an awareness of the simplest action: breathing in, know that you are breathing in; breathing out, know that you are breathing out. This may sound ridiculously basic, but this attentiveness is difficult—and it forms the heart of meditation. Through the simple awareness of breathing, you can eventually expand your mindfulness to the more complex and involuntary actions of your life.

For instance, when you are listening to your child, just home from school and crushed by the unkind teasing of a classmate, true mindfulness means that you are aware and present, hearing closely what your child is saying (not rushing to quickly dismiss the hurt feelings, or worrying that the problem is going to be a disruption in your busy day). Moreover, you remain alert, focused, listening—not distracted by the ringing telephone, the need for dinner preparation, or your own frustrations at the office.

In the context of writing, mindfulness means that at those moments when you are focusing on an elusive line of poetry or a stubborn plot obstacle in a story, you are able to remain attentive to the task at hand, seeing the words that are before you, hearing the possibilities in your mind, not succumbing to the thousands of other willing and ready distractions.

More than that, mindfulness means being aware of why you want to write, who you are writing for, and how to balance your desires for recognition with the demands of clear-headedness and honesty.

Finally, mindfulness includes a conscientious and thorough consideration of who you are as a writer, where you are in your life, what you are feeling, and what is inside of you that wants (or needs) to be written.

Or to put it another way, consider the Four Noble Truths, transposed into a writer’s credo:

The Four Noble Truths for Writers

  1. The writing life is difficult, full of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
  2. Much of this dissatisfaction comes from the ego, from our insistence on controlling both the process of writing and how the world reacts to what we have written.
  3. There is a way to lessen the disappointment and dissatisfaction and to live a more fruitful writing life.
  4. The way to accomplish this is to make both the practice of writing and the work itself less about ourselves. To thrive, we must be mindful of our motives and our attachment to desired outcomes.

This book offers a series of quotations and brief responses to those quotations, illuminating how, in my view, writing and mindfulness can intersect in positive and productive ways. Most but not all of the quotations come from writers and artists. A few of these people are Buddhist, but the majority of them are not. One need not be Buddhist, of course, to be mindful and alert. In fact, seeing how often non-Buddhist writers offer advice that seems entirely compatible with what I encounter in my Buddhist studies reinforces all that I have come to believe about the convergence of the two.

The book is divided into four sections:

  1. The Writer’s Mind: Where do writing and creativity originate?
  2. The Writer’s Desk: What does mindfulness mean when you are directly at the task of writing?
  3. The Writer’s Vision: How do writers mindfully engage their own writing, writing habits, and need for growth?
  4. The Writer’s Life: What does it mean to be a writer in the world, to have dedicated oneself to the craft of writing?

Often, in researching this book, I ran across quotes from equally experienced and accomplished authors that appeared to be in total contradiction. In trying to reconcile the divergent perspectives, I inevitably decided both views were correct. Accordingly, in all cases, the advice offered should be taken in the spirit of suggestion, not edict.

And remember this as well: just as we should avoid unproductive attachment to our own thoughts or words, it is not a good idea to cling too fiercely to the advice of others . . .

 

How to cite this document:
© Dinty W. Moore, The Mindful Writer (Wisdom Publications, 2012)

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