Some instructions for writing practice
(Exerpted from Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg)
THE BASIC UNIT of writing practice is the timed exercise. You may time yourself for ten minutes, twenty minutes, or an hour. It’s up to you. At the beginning you may want to start small and after a week increase your time, or you may want to dive in for an hour the first time. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that whatever amount of time you choose for that session, you must commit yourself to it and for that full period:
- Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying.)
- Don’t cross out. (That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.)
- Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t even care about staying within the margins and lines on the page.)
- Lose control.
- Don’t think. Don’t get logical.
- Go for the jugular. (If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)
These are the rules. It is important to adhere to them because the aim is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel. It’s a great opportunity to capture the oddities of your mind. Explore the rugged edge of thought. Like grating a carrot, give the paper the colorful coleslaw of your consciousness.
First thoughts have tremendous energy. It is the way the mind first flashes on something. The internal censor usually squelches them, so we live in the realm of second and third thoughts, thoughts on thought, twice and three times removed from the direct connection of the first fresh flash. For instance, the phrase “I cut the daisy from my throat” shot through my mind. Now my second thought, carefully tutored in 1 + 1 = 2 logic, in politeness, fear, and embarrassment at the natural, would say, “That’s ridiculous. You sound suicidal. Don’t show yourself cutting your throat. Someone will think you are crazy.” And instead, if we give the censor its way, we write, “My throat was a little sore, so I didn’t say anything.” Proper and boring.
First thoughts are also unencumbered by ego, by that mechanism in us that tries to be in control, tries to prove the world is permanent and solid, enduring and logical. The world is not permanent, is everchanging and full of human suffering. So if you express something egoless, it is also full of energy because it is expressing the truth of the way things are. You are not carrying the burden of ego in your expression, but are riding for moments the waves of human consciousness and using your personal details to express the ride.
In Zen meditation you sit on a cushion called a zafu with your legs crossed, back straight, hands at your knees or in front of you in a gesture called a mudra. You face a white wall and watch your breath. No matter what you feel—great tornadoes of anger and resistance, thunderstorms of joy and grief—you continue to sit, back straight, legs crossed, facing the wall. You learn to not be tossed away no matter how great the thought or emotion. That is the discipline: to continue to sit.
The same is true in writing. You must be a great warrior when you contact first thoughts and write from them. Especially at the beginning you may feel great emotions and energy that will sweep you away, but you don’t stop writing.
You continue to use your pen and record the details of your life and penetrate into the heart of them. Often in a beginning class students break down crying when they read pieces they have written. That is okay. Often as they write they cry, too. However, I encourage them to continue reading or writing right through the tears so they may come out the other side and not be thrown off by the emotion. Don’t stop at the tears; go through to truth. This is the discipline.