Writer as flypaper

Have you noticed that when you’re deeply involved in something, you turn into a magnet for anything related to it?

I once interviewed Kay Gardner, a musician and composer of healing music (sadly, she died in 2002), who told me that during a time when she was intensively exploring the physical effects of sound—teaching experimental workshops and reading extensively—all sorts of information found her. “People sent me books and articles. Books would fall off shelves. A book would be handed to me through a crowd—just a disembodied hand like one of the aces in the tarot deck.”

In that state of focus, you become like flypaper—things sail in out of the universe and stick to you. That’s what it feels like, anyway. To take just one example: writing my book on homeless women, I struggled to untangle some complex ideas about what these women meant to people inside society. I was tackling a chapter about mental illness—which I was choosing to call madness, a term that gave this condition a lot more meaning.

One bright Saturday afternoon, walking down my block toward a nearby park, I came across a stoop sale, which included a bunch of books. (In my Brooklyn brownstone neighborhood, we don’t have front yards, but everyone has a stoop, so that’s where we set the items out.) I was tempted, but figured I’d check it out on my way back. Read more

The sky of mind: vast like space

Buddhist meditators practice experiencing the mind as a vast, clear sky, through which thoughts, feeings, and all other experiences pass like clouds, appearing and then vanishing in an open space of awareness that’s not limited to the inside of the head. (Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield describes this practice here.)

Wassily Kandinsky’s painting Blue Sky combines that image of the mind as vast open sky with an experience I’ve had when writing at a very deep level. Part of the conceptual work for my books about homeless women and about self-sacrifice was simply discovering what they were actually about. I came across incidents, articles, and books, and generated images from my imagination, that I knew were important, but I didn’t know why, or what exactly they meant. And normal-type thinking about them didn’t help. Read more

What’s the “practice” of writing?

I practice yoga, and I practice meditation. And I also “practice” writing. I like this concept, because it connects skill and inspiration. I’ll begin with skill.

One authority defines practice as “systematic training by multiple repetitions.” Other sources emphasize frequency, skill, instruction, discipline, and “artful management.” (Here is a thought-provoking collection of definitions.)

The BuddhaMy practice of insight meditation shapes my thinking about writing as a practice. In meditation, you train your mind to stay focused by systematically returning over and over to your breath. You need instruction to learn how to do this. There is an art to choosing the particular technique (out of many) that is appropriate to a given moment. Read more