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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Where did the flow go?

During the school year I talk all the time to middle schoolers about keeping a writer’s notebook — about observing and noting and encouraging your creative flow. And this year I felt like a fake.

I’ve been at this work so long, earning my living as a fulltime freelancer for 30 years now, and you have to produce so much stuff to pay the bills and stay afloat ... it seems as if the flow of ideas and observancy, for me, has been dredged out or pounded away. I don’t write in my notebooks any more. I’m not sprouting ideas for new stories or projects; I’m turning the crank.

Does that sound familiar?

It is the same for so many of us in middle age (or sooner, or later). We work so much, and what happened to those dreams of a fulfilling, fertile career? More simply, where did the flow go — and how can we get it moving again?

This is the kind of thing you can attend to in the summertime. At least, you hope to. I’m still very busy, but I’m off the travel treadmill and there just feels to be a little more space. Even if you’re not taking time, you could be. This is what I’d like to be taking time for: restarting or re-cultivating the flow of ideas, of observation. After all, this is what writing comes from, if it’s to have some life and be worth reading, worth doing.

So this week I went back to Natalie Goldberg. She’s the author of Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind, two inspiring and useful books about writing as observation/meditation/awareness practice. The books came out in the late 70s (Bones) and 1980 (Mind), and they’re still popular: Writing Down the Bones, her breakthrough and best-known book, is #5,423 on Amazon’s sales ranking today.

Goldberg’s approach grew out of Zen meditation practice. “Practice” is how Buddhists describe meditation: it’s something you do as a regular practice, and it’s also practice for living with greater, deeper awareness. But Goldberg the Zen student was a writer, and she yearned to write more than sit. In Bones she tells how her teacher, Dainin Katagiri Roshi, advised her to do just that — to make daily sessions of writing-just-to-write into her practice.

So she did. She developed four vital rules for writing practice that she began sharing as a leader of writing workshops, and then put into these two books. In this approach, you’re not writing to create a work or a product, to accomplish something — you’re writing to write. It’s practice, and here are the rules:

1. Keep your hand moving.
2. Lose control.
3. Be specific.
4. Don’t think.

These are close-to-perfect rules for any writing. Myself, I filled many notebooks years ago doing writing practice, but eventually I gravitated back to sitting. I’ve done simple meditation, shaped by Buddhist tradition, for many years, departing from it but always going back — and what I like about sitting practice is that I’m not producing words. My living relies on producing words, so I have to produce a lot. When I sit, I just sit. Or I try. (It’s simple, but not easy.)

Both forms of practice aim at the same thing: not to succeed, as with new wisdom or a new book, but to be here. Awareness, attentiveness, observancy. And since all good creative work springs from this, either practice can lead to a richer flow. Can. There are no guarantees. And it’s not that you do this thing and count on a result. If you approach practice that way, it’s no longer practice; it’s just more work.

Anyway, this week I took out an old notebook — I like the old-fashioned marble-cover kind, with a stiff cover so I can use it anywhere, and no lines on the pages inside — and I did writing practice again, for a couple of mornings. I set the timer for 20 minutes and just wrote. It felt good in some ways, and I was glad to be writing in the old notebook again ... but I don’t know. It’s more writing. More words. I’d been feeling tired, and this, I noticed, made me feel more tired.

Summertime is the chance, the open, inviting space within the year, to regenerate our flow, to return to and revive within us what matters most. How can I do that? I don’t have an easy answer, but I mean to try. I think it would be good to use this space to journal it, to chronicle it. Maybe I can pass along something worth taking in. Because I know I’m not the only one. 

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