As long as I have been writing I have struggled with the challenge of defining what exactly it means to write ‘mindfully’. In this post I thought it might be useful to attempt to tease out some of the differences between writing practice, mindful writing and journaling. At various times I have appended any one of these labels to my writing process. At various times I have been perplexed as I have tried to figure out which label best described my practice. My mother always said I liked my ducks in a row, and when I was younger I had no idea what she meant. Now I know! Perhaps it’s a touch of OCD, perhaps it’s an attempt to pin down and force meaning upon the chaos of words, or perhaps it’s simply an attempt to understand and grasp what exactly it is I am trying to do when I sit down to write; in other words, why I write.
One of my favourite personal essays is “On Keeping a Notebook” by Joan Didion. In this inspiring work of creative non-fiction, Ms Didion muses upon her reasons for writing in her journals, the explanations not always readily evident when re-reading past entries, many of whom remain a mystery to the author herself, as she wonders what on earth she meant by words and phrases which obviously struck a chord when first she wrote them down. In the end Ms Didion suggests that it’s not what the words recall in themselves, but rather what they evoke in the author’s imagination, the memories they stir, the associations they generate. The words we write bring it all back, so that it is as if we had returned to times past. With our words we can re-live previous experiences, not always in a direct relationship to the facts of the event per se, but rather as conduits of their emotional undercurrents, traces of shadows still lingering, echoes of the past. Keeping a notebook is one form of journaling, that is, a method of capturing moments in time, painting life as it happens in the raw with, hopefully, the sensuous imagery of richly evocative words. Is this mindful writing? Yes, if it is written with attention, and a deep listening with the inner ear, lingering languidly over the nuanced newness of the moment as it unfolds. Of course, some journaling is a simple noting of a few pertinent facts and no more. Then the only mindfulness required is in the initial noticing.
So much for journaling! What then of the difference between it and mindful writing? Mindful writing incorporates more than the seizing and word-capturing of an event, the apprehension of an episode or an encounter. When we write mindfully, we don’t always have a thought, (though we always have an intention, more about that below) initially anyway, with which to begin. So the writing itself is the practice, the words spin out from the initial desire to sit still, in silence and solitude, and simply write.
But what do we write? Ah, now at last we are coming closer to the heart of the matter. Herein lies the difference between writing practice and mindful writing. Though they are related, they are not quite synonymous. In writing practice we open our notebooks and set down whatever is stirring our minds at that precise juncture. We don’t edit or re-read; we just keep writing until the timer goes off, usually 10 or 20 minutes after starting. And then we stop. Writing practice, like mindful writing, is best embarked upon after a period of sitting meditation, for then the mind is open, spacious, and free; thoughts, ideas and sensations have latitude and license to rise up from the murky depths below. All of which sounds very similar to what we might reasonably expect from the practice of mindful writing.
But still there remains an important distinction. Mindful writing differs from both journaling and writing practice in one essential element – intention. Thus, before beginning our mindful writing practice, we have normally decided what our focus in any particular session is going to be, that is what the bedrock of our writing shall be, where we shall direct our concentration and attention, whether we plan to pen a haiku, or respond to a specific writing prompt, or some such other.
Is this splitting hairs? Perhaps. Perhaps too it doesn’t matter what we call it, nor even what our particular approach might be on the day, so long as we write. For it is the act of writing, the process of transferring our wild thoughts to the page that generates the alchemy, playing with the elements which serve as the foundation for future creative works, whether these manifest as transformed and transforming works of creative non-fiction, memoirs, short stories, novels or personal essays.
Each form shares one important detail in common – raw writing which awaits transfiguration through the alchemical shaping of craft. As Alice LaPlante writes in her seminal book ‘The Making of a Story’, first “immerse yourself in the intuitive creative process. That you may then take these raw, early pieces and shape them into something meaningful…”. [p. 25]
Journaling, writing practice and mindful practice then are the ‘process tools’ through which we discover what it is we wish to say. Which brings me back to the beginning – why I write. Ultimately I write to discover who I am. Mindfully.
Why do you write?
–Edith Ó Nualláin lives with her family in a small village on the east coast of Ireland, snuggled between the mountains and the sea, where she reads, writes, and sits at her spinning wheel, spinning dreams with words and fibres. Some day she hopes to learn how to spin straw into gold. Her poetry is published in Crannóg, an Irish literary journal, and her book reviews are published in Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature by Women, as well as online at Story Circle Book Reviews. She writes occasionally on her blog, In a Room of My Own