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The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing
     

The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing

by Jeff Davis
 

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“In addition to suggesting specific yoga exercises for various writing roadblocks . . . this is a substantial writing guide, with lessons in voice, symbol, syntax and dialogue.”—Dallas Morning News

With wisdom for writers at any level and in any genre, nationally known writing and yoga instructor Jeff Davis shows writers how yoga’s

Overview

“In addition to suggesting specific yoga exercises for various writing roadblocks . . . this is a substantial writing guide, with lessons in voice, symbol, syntax and dialogue.”—Dallas Morning News

With wisdom for writers at any level and in any genre, nationally known writing and yoga instructor Jeff Davis shows writers how yoga’s principles and practical tools can deepen their writing practice and increase their versatility writers. A grounded guide to the body-mind-imagination connection, this book shows ways for writers to reconnect with their deeper intentions for writing, sustain concentration and confidence when writing, and write with an authentic voice.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780976684381
Publisher:
Monkfish Book Publishing Company
Publication date:
04/01/2008
Edition description:
Revised
Pages:
320
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Introduction: Remember Your Body

This book takes as its premise something simple yet potentially transformational: Yoga's philosophical principles and myriad skillful tools (upaya) can help you as a creative writer deepen your writing practice, become more versatile in your writing process, and enrich your writing style. My journey as a writer, as well as my ongoing work with thousands of writers and students, have led me to discover that a wellspring for our creative writing is as close as our nose. Our breath and body—these in part can be the muses that help us learn to navigate our fluttering minds, our tricky imagination, and our unpredictable hearts as we write (and rewrite).

For the nonyogis reading this book, keep reading. If the focus on yoga intimidates as much as intrigues you, maybe it's because you imagine svelte yogis sweating and twisting their bodies into impossible shapes. You need not worry, though, if your day's most physical act has been to walk to the corner shop for coffee and a bagel. Don't sweat. Really. Although sweating does loosen ligaments and prepare muscles for physically intense yoga sessions, your torso need not drop buckets of water to derive yoga's benefits for authentic writing. As this book will show you, being able to twist your imagination with a flexible spirit is more important for authentic writing than being able to secure your foot behind your head.

“Don't accept anything the speaker is saying. Test it out for yourself,” the twentieth-century Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti frequently said. This skeptical inquiry and this thrust of testing out things define the essential mindset for practicing yoga. Part of what distinguishes yoga from forms of exercise as well as from many other spiritual disciplines is its all-encompassing tools to understand through the body's experience how body, mind, and other faculties relate. For had someone approached me fifteen years ago and told me that yoga would profoundly alter my understanding of how my body, mind, and imagination cooperate with my writing process and style, I would have raised my eyebrow. So be ready to test things out. I had to.

As a writer, I've had a precarious relationship with my body. The summer after my freshman year in college, when I heaved stones under the hot Texas sun for my then brother-in-law's landscaping business, I wrote in a notebook one evening, my slight muscles throbbing, “I will be a writer.” Anything to avoid that heat and that backbreaking labor. More than pain avoidance, of course, led me to make that peculiar and private declaration of independence, for a far more reasonable aspiration than to become a writer might've brought more reliable sources of pleasure. After two years spent under the tutelage of writing professors such as David Wevill and Thomas Whitbread, I also realized that I genuinely wanted to be an extraordinary writing teacher as much as a writer. Those two pursuits I followed with fervor during my twenties, a fervor that exacted a cost on my body.

During my twenties and early thirties, I had become wedded to my writing and to teaching writing. At different times, I taught creative writing courses and poetry seminars at three colleges and at three high schools, including one public high school ranked by Newsweek as among the nation's top twenty. As a consultant for the College Board and as part of a textbook company's mentor team, I often traveled throughout the Southwest to teach hundreds of writing teachers the art of teaching writing. I also cofounded and acted as first president on the board of Dallas's first literary nonprofit organization, WordSpace.

I was a working head. Smug with my vegetarianism and imbalanced asceticism, I had not made love in years, fell ill from stress at least three times a year, and by age twenty-eight had stress-induced bronchitis, chest pains, and a pinched nerve in my right trapezius muscle that often left me half-paralyzed flat on my back. With muscles aching chronically and a right arm shaking from too much writing and responding to students' writings, I'm surprised I didn't scribble in a notebook at the time, “I will become a stoneworker,” which was starting to sound like more attractive work.

Not particularly athletic, I had intuited even at nineteen that I needed to be more aware of my body. As an undergraduate, I had sneaked off early one morning away from my roommates to take my first yoga class. That was in 1985 in Texas, where yoga among my friends was still relegated to one of the weird things people who wear funny beads and smoke funny weeds do. I knew it felt good. Unfortunately, for my body and my writing, for the next ten years I didn't stick with it consistently. No one in graduate school or in the writing workshops and conferences I attended suggested I tap into the body or breath to alter my writing or to help me understand why sometimes, when I wrote, images and ideas flowed effortlessly and yet other times I sat and doodle-wrote for hours, sure that I was a fraud and hack. Would that someone had.

By the time I returned to yoga regularly twelve or so years later, I was so wound up, balled up, and stressed that I had the tightest shoulders in my yoga class. I had leapt into a high-pressure job as English department chair of a high-profile school, where I developed a budding creative writing program and helped lead the nineteen eclectic English instructors—whom I also supervised, counseled, and evaluated— through the implementation of a new writing philosophy. Around the same time, I also had abandoned a stagnating relationship to leave myself alone again with writing and teaching. My consistent, dogged, maniacal writing had dwindled into an Anaïs Nin–style cataloging of all-night excursions, and even when I could write a publishable creative essay or poem beyond my own foggy perspective, something in my writing process and style felt untrue, labored, dried-up. And as much as I understood elements of writing craft and process and style, I had no clue how the physical vehicle and subtle faculties that allowed me to write—in short, my body, mind, and imagination—functioned. I wrote from chin up, my shoulders clinched around my ears as if to keep any awareness from seeping down to my torso.

Once I returned to a steady yoga practice, my imagination awakened to my body. In the middle of a yoga class, I'd see my body as an ancient home with vast corridors, as a cottage in the Austrian mountains; aqueducts and rivulets with paper cups floating in them pulsed somewhere in my legs; a stranger's face, an old woman with braids and a scratchy scarf, rummaged around in my chest. A yoga class felt like an LSD trip. It also felt like those few and increasingly rare moments I'd have at the desk that you might call “writer's flow” when your imagination cooperates with your intellect and lets words unfold with few sputters. Those visual experiences, the pleasurable pulsing in my brain, and the relief of the pinched nerve in my right shoulder were enough to keep me coming back to yoga three times a week.

But on my journey I would come to understand far more deeply what happens when I write and how to help other writers understand their process. When practicing the physical part of yoga, I intuited subtle shifts in my views of myself, my ability to harness my energy and faculties for my writing, and a gradual ability to let go of or to work with the major obstacles—interior and exterior—that obstructed me from writing the kind of prose and poetry I intuited I needed to write. Those experiences initiated a series of questions: How could the body be a limitless yet immediate muse for writ- ing? How does the practice of yoga conduce to an authentic writing life? Those questions have led me through a deeper study of yoga philosophy, through two yoga teacher-training and certification programs, and to Greece and India to study with such generous, authentic yogis as Angela Farmer, Victor Van Kooten, and Sri T.K.V. Desikachar, whose father, T. S. Krishnamacharya, virtually birthed yoga in the West during the twentieth century. These studies and my own experience confirm that yoga is a philosophy and science for transformation. It's also a readily accessible practice that can address with openness our yearnings and needs as creative writers.

Now I teach yoga as much as I teach writing. I teach yoga classes in Woodstock, New York, and I also teach Yoga as Muse workshops to writers across the country in writing centers, universities, retreat centers, and yoga centers. In both venues—the yoga class and the Yoga as Muse workshop—I encourage students to be receptive to the subtle changes in perception, constitution, and energy that yoga most assuredly will promote. Each day yoga and writing wed with one another at my desk, on the mat, and on the street. My mat in fact resides beside my desk. This journey has led me back to my body and to the faculties I embody—intuition, the unconscious imagination, intellect, emotion—a descent that has altered profoundly how I view, experience, and understand my writing practice and my writing life. This book shares with you my findings and provides you the guidance, the yoga philosophies, and the yoga practices to help you try things out for yourself.

Why yoga? Why not another form of meditation or some form of physical exercise such as running, aerobics, or lifting weights? Meditation alone certainly heightens concentration and relaxation, but focusing directly on our thoughts drives some people crazy. Their lower backs twitch, their noses itch, and their minds flutter. A writer friend I know took a six-week meditation class to help him quiet his jittery chatter. By the end of week one, he was ready to take literally the Zen saying, When you meet the Buddha, kill him. That's one reason yogis developed the practices of physical poses (¯asana) and breath awareness (pr¯an¯ay¯ama) over two thousand years ago and why yogis later developed Hatha-Yoga, the science of breathing, physical poses, and energy flow. The fifteenth-century text The Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika recommends that rather than tending directly to thoughts we instead focus upon our breath's in-and-out flow and on our body's careful movements; thoughts naturally will quiet down as breath, body, mind, harmonize.

With consistent practice, yoga can alter how you breathe, think, shift energy, and deal with emotions— all beneficial attributes, as this book will explain, to writers. And whereas physical forms of exercise such as aerobics and running do benefit the brain and body, yoga's principles and tools offer a practical philosophy that does not exhaust the mind and body; instead, it efficiently energizes and centers the “body- mind-imagination” and deepens self-understanding. Yoga is a philosophy and practice that emphasizes less how you look on the mat and more how you live in the world. To practice yoga as muse for authentic writing involves the physi- cal postures (¯asanas), breath awareness (pr¯an¯ay¯ama), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), visualization (bhavana), and self-study (sv¯adhy¯aya). But yoga and authentic writing make use of these tools not as an end in themselves but in the context of how days take shape in our lives. Practicing yoga poses alone is no more a full yoga practice than learning a few tricks about style is an authentic writing practice. I suggest you approach these philosophies and practices not with rigidity but with a sense of play. Test things out. Read this book to trigger fresh ways of approaching your writing practice from a different space, a more abiding space, your center. The center.

The word authentic is an adjective that stems from the Greek authentes, “one who acts on his own authority.” So, again, we circle around to Krishnamurti's wisdom: Use this book to test things out for yourself and write from that space of experimentation. I suggest you first read Chapter One because yoga can help you explore what truly matters to you as a writer and remember your authentic intention as you draft, revise, and publish. Then either jump to any chapter that seems to speak to your writing needs, or enjoy the book from beginning to end. Chapters Two through Four address some of the most common questions that writers ask me: “How do I find time to write?” and “How do I find the concentration and self-discipline to write consistently and effectively?” Yoga can strengthen your constitution and slow down your brain waves so you can endure intense writing projects with self-discipline, perseverance, and concentration.

Even your writing style can benefit from yoga, as Chapters Five through Thirteen explain. Most writers I know sense that words are harbored in their bodies and that something visceral among body, imagination, and language mixes in authentic writing. Through simple yoga tools you can access the layers of your embodied imagination to heighten your presence and to create what John Gardner called in The Art of Fiction the “fictional dream,” the seamless web of redolent detail and sapid images a good writer often creates for readers. For many writers who begin practicing yoga, something rich happens, too, to the present moment of penning or typing word after word. With simple yoga practices, you can induce a creative frame of mind that can so open your imagination and body that the writing experience can become as satisfying as a day spent hiking through a newly discovered evergreen forest. And with yoga's tools for listening, you can regain your authentic voice, craft convincing dialogue, and write sentences whose music comes from the mix between brain and heart—literally.

Chapters Fourteen through Nineteen explain how yoga helps you as a writer face emotionally hazardous terrain. By deepening your emotional intelligence, yoga grants you resources to better handle that most primal emotion—fear—as well as its close cousin, anger. I'm not promising that yoga will make you a better person, but because yoga can help you practice compassion and truthfulness, you can learn to portray your subjects—yourself, other people, difficult fictional characters—with greater complexity and believability. And perhaps no part of the writing process so confounds writers as rewriting, but yoga can help here too. Chapters Twenty and Twenty-one offer you advice. If you already have a regular and advanced yoga practice, you might jump to and review Chapter Twenty-three. Its ideas and generalizations I offer there may inform your reading of the other chapters.

Each chapter shows you how either yoga principles or specific yoga tools can help you become a more versatile and authentic writer when addressing specific writing topics in your own practice. Most chapters include “TAKE A BREATH” exercises to guide you through embodying your writing practice. If an exercise requires a physical pose, you can use the appendix of photographs as a prompt. Several original Sanskrit terms—Sanskrit being yoga's language—may deepen your knowledge and understanding of this sacred tongue. To those ends, the book also offers a glossary of terms.

To write authentically is to write from a common source, a common center. Ancient Hatha-Yoga texts describe unique centers within certain parts of the body that guide facets of ourselves such as our emotions, physical energy, will, imagination, and vision. Some texts describe seven, some eight, some more. You'll learn in this book, though, how some of these centers help you write from one center.

When an anthropologist asked a yogi, “Where is the center of the universe?” the yogi looked across the plain where they stood, pointed at a mountain, and said, “There.” Then he said, “If that's where you're standing.” Then he pointed to his left at a tree and said, “There. If that's where you're standing.” Then he pointed to the place beneath the anthropologist's feet and said, “There is the center of the universe for you at this moment.” He paused again. “And there. It's always there,” he said, pointing to the anthropologist's heart. He wasn't a relativist or a narcissist suggesting that the universe is simply a construct of a person's point of view, nor was he being clever or symbolic by pointing to the heart. The heart's location below our brain and in our torso can keep our awareness in our core, the Latin word for heart, from which we get courage. From that center, common to all of us, spirit and body and language align. When you write from the center, you write what your spirit, body, and language demand you write. It's a potentially hazardous and dangerous path because your protective ego may no longer be in as much control, and this writing can shake you out of your comfortable habits by forcing you to write the truth—regardless of genre. With persistence, though, you learn you can persevere, that you can write no other way.

Writing is a journey. When Margaret Atwood asked several novelists a few years ago what it felt like to write, they repeatedly used words evoking a journey through a dark place. Many of them felt almost blind along the way, yet they sensed that the movement forward would bring about vision. Atwood writes, “I was reminded of something a medical student said to me about the interior of the human body, forty years ago: ‘It's dark in there.'”1 And perhaps this is how I've remembered to live and to write authentically: to make love to the darkness instead of trying to kick it out of bed. To make love to the darkness a writer moves toward doubts and doesn't try to repress them or let them control her. Such a writer finds ways to spelunker into the body's and the imagination's subtle caverns and find hideous yet exquisite forms and names of oneself, of humanity, of God, and of whatever it is we call reality—the basic stuff of authentic writing and the basic stuff of yoga.

This book encourages you to enter that darkness. It does not pretend to be Virgil to all of the Dantes in the writing world. Writing is difficult. This book, however, does suggest new ways for you to use yoga's tools and live its philosophies, that you may find the courage, confidence, and skill to step into the darkness and so begin a journey to the center and then back to the page.

I.
MAKING A FEW PREPARATIONS
< BR> CHAPTER ONE

Putting on the Robe: Exploring Your Intentions for Writing

An hour or so before dawn, the congress in my head that years ago would wake me by trumpeting the day's debates seems this morning cooperative and sedate. I creep from bed across the hall's squeaking hardwoods to my study. On one side of my study, the window above my desk looks like a blank blackboard that complements my computer screen's white sky. On the study's other side, my yoga mat waits for me to step on it like a diving board. If my mat be a diving board, then that white screen must be the sky into which I dive. (I'm not one of those gonzo writers who actually leaps from downed planes flying over, say, war-torn Liberia and live to write about it; metaphors placate my imagination just fine.) It's a precarious business, this writing life, one filled with little daily affirmation from other people that what you're spending your precious time and energy doing actually matters or is any good. No supervisor nods her head in approval. No customer survey rates your writing. No regular performance evaluation ranks you for writer of the month. Just the wide-open page and you, free-falling, twisting, teaching yourself how to shift your limbs to spin into airborne pirouettes, all with the faith that as you see some creative problem mount and the brown ground zooms toward your face, your parachute cord will work. More often than not when you write, although it feels at times as if you get caught in trees or hurt your knees, you land upright on your two feet, your soles refastened to earth. The next day you can't wait to begin again with a new page.

Why on earth, of all the ways to spend the morning, do I choose to write? While I was a temporary resident at the Zen Mountain Monastery, Vice-Abbess Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei, raised a question about practicing Zen that reminds me of an essential question for writers: “Why, given the endless possibilities of a morning, given dawn, put on a robe at the sound of a bell?”1 Why put on your robe, indeed, and hobble to the desk? Why write? It seems like a good question for starters. Without a genuine motivation, we're possibly hobby writing, sky doodling. We got into this business of taking creative leaps for reasons other than an adrenaline rush.

Something I've learned from my yoga practice—to revisit a variation of the question “Why write?”— has changed the way I start things—my mornings, my classes and workshops, and my own writing sessions. Before practicing yoga, I set an intention. An intention is a conscious gesture to align your mind, heart, imagination, and body with whatever act you're about to begin—whether it's a series of physical poses, breathing awareness, a day of karma yoga and good acts, or a writing session. A yoga teacher and writer I know practices yoga to manifest her highest qualities. A friend of mine says he simply practices yoga to deepen his joy. Another friend practices yoga to perpetuate peace. Most of us take that first step onto the mat for personal reasons. An injury, the first signs of cellulite, loneliness, heartbreak, grief, addiction, or a gamut of physical and emotional ailments may propel us into downward dog pose and cobra pose. In her classic book Awakening the Spine, Vanda Scaravelli lays out her poetic reflections for a natural, egoless practice: “Yoga should not be a training for body control; on the contrary, it must bring freedom to the body, all the freedom it needs.”2 The highest motive to practice yoga may be liberation.

I don't know if writing will set us free, but I do know there's value in setting an intention as a writer. To begin each writing session and each workshop, I've rephrased the question “Why write?” to “What am I writing for?” A more private question than its more direct sibling, it's meant to be asked of and answered primarily to yourself and to whoever or whatever else can read your body, mind, and heart. No other yogi, writer, or professor will hear you. That fact alone may make all the difference in the answer that surfaces. You can respond with a justification, a defense, but you may be surprised by what happens. You'll feel more at ease about your writing as you start to connect your writing intention to your core identity as a writer. The phrasing “What am I writing for?” may even lead you to dedicate your writing practice to something or someone. In this way your writing may come from a source other than your ego. When successful, seasoned writers tell me “something is missing” from their writing practice, this simple gesture begins to satisfy some of their hunger.

No need to expect grand or immediate answers, though. Often only after years of writing do we have any perspective on why we've been spending the better part of our days following one word after another. This gesture of asking “What am I writing for?” to yourself, though, begins the process. Perhaps the answers that surface for you—today, tomorrow, next month—may reflect what other writers have said they write for. Jhumpa Lahiri, the youngest writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize, says she writes to confront and sort through the discrepancy between her Indian parents' worldview and her more American worldview with which she has grown up.3 Sindiwe Magona, a novelist from South Africa and now working for the United Nations, says writing is therapeutic for her and for others.4 Essayist Jean Bernstein says she must write because questions, voices, images, surface in her like “splinters,” and writing essays is the best way she has found to pull out the really irritating ones.5 These motives sustain writers and propel them to the desk each day.

What are you writing for? Perhaps, like many writers, you write to make sense of the world. If lucky, you can form some order out of chaotic human experience. For now, what you write for may be nothing more than the pleasure or wonder you've experienced when wielding words. Something related to a core principle also may stir you to write. If you hunger to make sense of how the taco-chain owner who migrated from Mexico twenty years ago is filthy rich and yet pays his illegal immigrant employees thirty- five dollars for fourteen-hour shifts, then exploring justice's complexities may be what you write for. Sometimes the reasons why we write seem as fleeting as the hidden blue jay cawing among the birches, but these more remote, at times ineffable, motives help us write from our center.

When checking in with this question, watch your ego. A thirty-year-old writer, Elise, recently asked me to help her figure out a focus for her first novel. She had almost finished the first draft of the story, which follows a young woman's emotional and political entanglements as she avoids marriage to pursue her dreams of opening an animal sanctuary, but Elise felt that the story, and she as a writer, had started to lose direction. “What stirs you to write this book?” I asked. She responded almost without hesitation: “To prove to my mother I've accomplished something. I have three degrees in languages and have nothing to show for it.” Oh, the mother motive. I'd heard about it, although thankfully I've never had to wrestle with this one myself. Elise's ego, I sensed, still clung too tightly to her manuscript. She didn't trust her own authority. I suggested she let the project rest for a while and instead explore a deeper motivation that leads her to write even when her mother's not approving or disapproving; otherwise, she not only may censor herself when drafting and rewriting, but she also may be sorely disappointed when the book's completed, and her mother still doesn't nod her head. Will the book, then, be a failure? Two months later she hadn't taken my advice. Her mother's judgmental air still hovered over her shoulder, and when she had worked on the book she still felt lost and often uninspired. So, I took her through a fairly simple process to slow down her thoughts, to ground her in her body, and to help her locate an authentic drive that would both sustain her writing and give it focus. Within a few minutes, she realized she was writing her novel to satisfy an insatiable hunger to figure out some of her own views on being a woman in this country, on living an ethical livelihood, as well as on the conflicting loyalties between having a family and following a personal dream. These issues mattered to Elise, but she hadn't been able to acknowledge that her caring about these puzzling topics was what had stirred her to write the novel. The next day, Elise told me, she centered herself and kept in her heart some of these intentions. The results? She finished a second rewrite of the manuscript within six weeks and submitted it to her agent.

Many writers appreciate admiration and approval, but that motivation can consume us. Nonfiction writer Michael Stephens has admitted how, as a young writer trying to prove himself, spite and competition in his writing group fueled his young blood at St. Marks Poetry Project. Whether green or seasoned, we seek it. Nothing wrong with a little praise or ego drive, except that it can become an addiction that can steer us away from a more sustaining path. “Stop trying to get your audience to like you,” writer Gerald Burns once told me and a group of other writers. Writing mainly to please someone—even an imagined audience—may sustain a writer for a while, but those exposed roots only extend so far.

When you privately ask “What am I writing for?” the ego can rest (and it's rare for our writers' egos to rest). You don't have to impress anyone. In this space, you can be more honest with yourself about what leads you to write. Recently, my father-in-law (a retired stockbroker), my wife, and I were talking about books and writers. My father-in-law said, “Well, you know, most writers publish books for one reason: to make money.” My wife immediately disagreed. He looked at me and said, “Well, all right, Jeff, why do you write? When you're writing, aren't you thinking about making money?” I grinned and told him that I ask myself every morning why I write and never does “to make money” surface; otherwise, I would've stopped writing long ago. He smiled back and said, “You know, you'd make a lousy stockbroker.” I didn't detail to him exactly what I write for, because sometimes the reasons are difficult to articulate, but I should have told him about my father's journal.

When I was five, my father gave me possibly the most important gift he's ever given me: one of my grandfather's datebooks that my father had used as his own daybook. It contains my father's scribbled boyhood descriptions of mowing the lawn and walking to the lake with his friends as well as such sketchy observations of my own as I saw a hobo by the tracks today. I wonder where he goes. What he sees. I want to ride a train someday. I've been riding the train of language and imagination ever since. With that journal, my father gave me the writing bug that never left my system. Fiction writer Ellen Gilchrist says there is next to “... nothing the outside world gives me in exchange for my writing that is of value to me. I do not take pleasure in other people's praise, and I don't believe their criticism.”6 Would that I could always be that clear. Gilchrist knows why she writes: She loves language. For some writers, it's as good a reason as any.

So, before I write, I stand before my desk, hold my hands at my heart, close my eyes, take at least two full breaths, and quietly ask, “What am I writing for?” This gesture prepares my body, mind, and imagination before I take a leap. The answer's content and nature often depend upon my writing project. Sometimes an answer wells up in fragments and phrases: “to help others,” “to tell the truth,” “to hold myself together,” “to figure out what I think I think and what I think I know,” or often even something as vague as “to follow language's currents.” Sometimes, I have to wait for several minutes, and, granted, some mornings give me little more than faint images. Yet lately, voices more urgent have surfaced in the morning: “Fight the tide of complacency” and “Do something for peace.” Words may not save us, but it's worth reminding ourselves of our words' intention. Doing so gives me hope.

I take students through two important parts to setting a writing intention. Once we've listened for a few breaths to whatever rises in response to our question about what we're writing for (the first part), we clarify the simple topic or specific focus for the day's writing session (the second part). Maybe it's something direct like “concentration to finish a book's chapter” or something juicier like “wild images for a new essay.” This second part does not take away from writing's magic; it gives the magic direction. Sometimes, writers choose to keep this part general and say, “I'm open to the moment.” Novelists such as Milan Kundera and Norman Rush often begin drafting a novel with little more than a faint voice, a shred of dialogue, or a character whose face won't leave the writer alone. In one of my workshops in New York City, a veteran short-story writer said she rarely writes with an intention, but doing so ironically prepares “her imagination's soil” so that she can be open to whatever happens in the moment of creating. Sometimes she starts with one intention and then follows another.

Other writers tell me that making a simple twofold intention grants them more ease while writing, and one writer in Portland, Oregon, says that setting this two-part intention lifts her out of what she calls her “morning neuroses” so she can promptly move on to “writing that matters.” As a writer who can get lost in distractions and digressions, I enjoy the hazardous interplay between having an intention and not knowing where the train's taking me; the intention gives my wanderings some slight direction, like the pull of my mother's voice calling years ago whenever I had strayed miles away into the woods. Remembering both my larger intention of what I'm writing for, morning after morning, and the more specific intention of a single morning's session often brings me home.

Many of the exercises in the rest of this book will offer you possible specific intentions. Take them or leave them. They're there to help you focus your imagination and your mind.

Two last words about intentions, though: First, let go of the outcome. If, after one session, or if, after a week or a month, you still haven't written what you set out to write, don't fret. The writ- ing likely took you somewhere you wouldn't have arrived had you avoided the desk altogether. On the other hand, if you do accomplish precisely what you had intended, relish it and move on. And this: Sometimes the answer about what you're writing for is right in front of you. One writer I met in a workshop in California last year said that one morning no answer was surfacing until she heard her four-year-old son's laughter in the next room. “To sustain that laughter,” she said, “—that's what I'm writing my stories and essays for.”

It's a little past dawn, the mountain mist rising with the sun. From the window above my desk I spot a wild turkey walking across my lawn, then two, three, soon eight baby turkeys with one adult leading and a second adult following. Like schoolchildren lined up on a field trip, the chicks are being led near the garden and beneath the oak to find their morning feed. This, I think, is as good a reason as any to rise early, put on my tattered robe, and sit at my desk: to watch hope manifested in ten awkward bodies hobbling across my lawn like words in a sentence in search of some small seeds of reassurance.

TAKE A BREATH

It can be just this simple: Do what you need to do to settle some of your inner chatter. Sit comfortably in a chair, on the floor near your desk, or stand in front of your desk. See the Appendix for seating options. I usually prefer to stand in MOUNTAIN POSE (t¯ad¯asana), my feet hip width apart, my spine long, my hands at my heart. Try it. As you breathe, focus on your lower body and feet to help ground yourself literally in your physical connection to the earth and to draw attention away from your chatty head. Chuang Tzu noted, after all, that the venerable teacher breathes with her heels.

Just breathe. Stand or sit for two minutes or so simply listening to your breath. Take a deep inhalation from the base of your belly, and a full exhalation. Do as a fiction writer in Connecticut told me she does: Close your eyes and center on your heartbeat.

When your thoughts stop whirling long enough that you can follow two full inhalations and exhalations, you're ready to set a twofold writing intention. First, ask yourself with a quiet voice, “What am I writing for?” You may remind yourself of something residing in your creative wellspring that nourishes your writing. Listen. Don't force a response. Let it bubble up.

Second, clarify a more immediate focus for your writing, a subject (for example, my grandmother, the fourth scene of Chapter Eight in my novel, fear) and/or an intention to receive insight (for example, to gain insight into what motivated my grandmother in her later years, to get to the heart of this scene's surprising conflict, to understand the complex joys of fear). Then, while you're writing, you can return to those intentions, to whatever invisible source rouses you to write.

An intention can be made in a simple or complex way. It's up to you. Regardless of your intention's intricacy, practicing a gesture such as the one described above can radically alter your writing process and connect your source or your motivation for writing to something great and still within.

Meet the Author

A writing coach, poet, freelance writer and editor, Jeff Davis founded the Yoga as Muse for Authentic Writing workshops and has been teaching writing for twenty years.

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