There is a way to write that solidifies story lines–and a way to write that liberates you from them.

I and Twitter pals Hiro Boga (@hiroboga), Mahala Mazerov (@luminousheart), and Jennifer Louden (@jenlouden) all wrote on the same topic today: The process of writing.

For a kaleidoscopic view of this issue (storytelling vs truth telling), check them out.
Hiro Boga: Tsunamis in the House of Wholeness
Jennifer Louden: How to Be a Writer Who Loves the Gap
Mahala Mazerov: When Stories Hurt

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You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet. ~Franz Kafka

Right now, I’m in the beautiful Colorado Rockies, teaching a meditation retreat for writers. We spend most of the day writing, interspersed by periods of sitting meditation. In the first practice, our aim is to find our voice, say something, tell a story. In the latter, the encouragement is to let go of “story” completely and instead focus on the breath, which is always in the present moment.

How can a practice that is all about story go hand-in-hand with one that is about dropping it?

On the face of it, these seem like opposites. However, they are so alike as to be almost identical.  Here is why I say that:

Meditation practice—resting attention on the breath and, when it strays, gently bringing it back—involves two qualities simultaneously. It is one-pointed. The focus of attention becomes a single point, in this case, the breath. Yet it is panoramic, too. This very simple (though not easy) practice, cultivates clarity. Often, insights arise from, well, nowhere. You could be very surprised by what you come to understand, know, feel as a result of meditation. Narrow views, judgments, preconceived notions are suddenly seen through and you have a sense of great spaciousness. So, meditation is both one-pointed and panoramic.

When you let go of concepts, genuine wisdom reveals itself to have always been present. That is why meditation is far more than a stress-reduction tool, it is a path to enlightenment.

Now consider writing. Couldn’t you describe it in similar terms? Writing is one-pointed: you can’t write two words at a time, only one. Word + word + word until you have created something that expresses your point of view. At the same time, how do you know what to say? What do you say first? What is the point of saying it at all? What comes next? The answers to these questions come when you relax your mind and, instead of making things up based on stuff you’ve read or what you wish was true, you wait to see what arises in your mind and then write it down. This is where good writing comes from. When the writer has pre-planned what to say, her words lack vitality, juice, impact. In fact, she can use exactly the same words to tell her story, but if in one case she is dictating it from her mindstream rather than her index cards, it will read as a living document. I don’t know why it works this way, but it does.

So writing too is simultaneously (not sequentially) one-pointed and panoramic. Writing in this way, you discover what you have to say rather than presuming it, you find fields of wisdom more vast than you had imagined, you see truths only half-glimpsed before, and you write past your concepts into a more pure kind of knowing.

As a writer and one who leads writing retreats, I can tell you that time and again, I have seen it demonstrated that when you turn away from discursiveness you find the groundlessness from which insight arises. Instead of thinking you know your story, it tells itself to you and in this way, you find liberation from conventional mind. Just like meditation.

There is a way to write that solidifies your story and there is a way to write that liberates you from it. To all the writers and practitioners out there, I wish you the wisdom to know the difference, which is the blessing of a strong and steady practice.

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7 Comments

  1. Hiro Boga { 06.08.10 at 8:18 am }

    Ah, Susan, your post is a living example of writing that liberates…of writing that is simultaneously one-pointed and offers a view across wide horizons.

    Thanks so much for initiating this blog conversation–what Jen Louden calls a Blog Flurry–with your post on meditation practice last week.

    Both meditation and writing emerge from a strong and willing presence. And presence is freedom.

  2. Jennifer Louden { 06.08.10 at 8:59 am }

    Your writing always makes me feel smarter and wider brained and calmer… and more grounded. “write past your concepts into a more pure kind of knowing” is what I am going to go do right now! I love that you are in my life, and that I am lucky enough to learn from you!

  3. Susan { 06.08.10 at 12:13 pm }

    Hiro & Jen, what a pleasure to put our minds on the same topic and see the unique gorgeous-ity that arises from each of you.

    I feel tremendously lucky to know each of you, and of course Mahala, too. Being in community is everything–

    Love, S

  4. (OvO) { 06.08.10 at 2:15 pm }

    Thanks. This is great.

  5. Kelly Salasin { 06.08.10 at 2:26 pm }

    Love that you all 3 wrote on the same topic and linked it together.
    Even without reading the post, I appreciate the insightful distinction of solidifying vs. liberating one’s story line. And the idea of writing being panoramic is an “aha” that resonates deeply.

    Funny that I just happened to post about the writing process myself–with talk of “hide and go seek” with what comes next–have to go back to see if I was solidifying or liberating :)

    Kelly
    http://2owlscalling.wordpress.com/2010/06/08/crap-i-need-a-job/

  6. Mahala Mazerov { 06.09.10 at 10:39 am }

    Susan, it was such a pleasure writing in community with you, Jennifer and Hiro. So wonderful to see all our facets reflecting one another.

    I admire the precision in your writing, the fruition of a strong and steady practice.

  7. Andrew Lightheart { 06.09.10 at 11:26 pm }

    I remember the photo you showed on Twitter of where you’re running this retreat.

    I can almost taste it in your words.

    I’m interested in the space behind someone’s words – I think this is part of the reason the same words can pass something totally different.

    I find the space behind your writing here is so silent and broad, with the sound of the air of blue sky.

    Beautiful.

    I’m crushin on you, right now.

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