This is no. 47 in a series of micro craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
I am one of those people who enjoys reading articles about the rituals and habits of writers. Partly because the articles acknowledge the work and commitment that goes into writing a story or a book, and partly because they demystify the process a little. But I’ll admit that I’m also reading because, in the same way that I’ve clicked on BuzzFeed listicles of household items that promise to magically increase my happiness quotient, I’m often hoping for a quick fix when I feel stuck or unproductive.
I’ve repeatedly thrown myself too eagerly into a new writing ritual, hoping it will unlock something and then inspiration will flow. I’ve tried only writing at certain times of day or night. I’ve tried maintaining an immaculately organized desk, pens and notebook neatly lined up along the table’s edge. I’ve tried writing in the dark cave of a closet, and in front of a window, the view ideally green and leafy, though a view of a brick wall, it turns out, is fine too. One writer I know cannot work without the bustle of people around her, which becomes a reassuring sort of white noise. I often like a quietish room with faint sounds of human life, but have also been able to write with a teenager playing video games next to me. Total isolation, I’ve discovered, feels claustrophobic and lonely.
I’ve come to realize that, rather than striving to create the best atmosphere for writing, what really matters is creating the conditions for pre-writing. Silence. And by silence I don’t mean the absence of external noise, but of internal noise. As Kimberlee Pérez describes it, silence is “a point of entry into deep listening.”
So how does one create silence? One way is through meditation.
I consider myself a lousy meditator. Not that it’s a competitive sport or anything, but I am the first to admit I could do it more often, and for longer. Still, more than taking a walk, or going for a run, or taking a shower, or eating a packet of chocolate digestive biscuits, I’ve found that meditating helps my writing. When I meditate, I’m definitely not turning over a writing problem in my mind. I’m just trying to pay attention—trying being the operative word—to nothing but my breath. In, out. In, out. It’s bloody difficult to do. Only when I invite stillness do I have to contend with how cluttered and hectic my mind really is, like a monkey on amphetamines jumping from branch to vine to branch, ooh what’s that over there, I’ll swing onto that roof as well, oh no! I’ve landed in pigeon shit, oh well, look, banana! (This is what 99 percent of meditating is like. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar.) And I never expect epiphanies, but sometimes in that monkey mess or in very rare moments of equanimity, thoughts will shoot up from the depths and break the surface.
Afterwards, I am most definitely not full of clarity or calm. But I usually find I have a little bit more space in my head, and I’m a little bit more alert. I might not return to the writing straight away. I might make a cup of tea first, or leave it until later that day, or the next day. But when I do return to the page, I encounter the work, more often than not, in a slightly different way, the path ahead cleared of whatever obstacles were previously blocking it. Or maybe the obstacles were previously invisible to me and now I can identify them.
Meditation is not a quick fix, or a hotline to call up in a moment of crisis. Like writing, it requires practice so that the mind gets used to stilling and quieting itself enough to listen. It’s like going to a mental gym, and even if 99 percent of the time my thoughts fly all over the place, the practice does eventually translate into a kind of discipline of the mind when I’m writing, and helps me to stay in the moment of the story—to focus and immerse myself, and to listen for what comes next.
How to meditate:
- Turn off or silence your phone and put it in another room.
- Set an analog timer for fifteen minutes.
- Find a sitting position (chair, cushion, stool, etcetera) that you think you’ll be comfortable in for that duration.
- Close your eyes and focus on your breath in the space between your nostrils and your upper lip. (Sometimes I like to count my breaths up to ten, then start over so that it doesn’t feel as if I’m breathing into the howling abyss of eternity.)
- If you feel your mind stray, breathe in and out more deeply for a few breaths, then return to normal breathing.
- If you feel your mind stray, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just return to your breath with the gentleness and patience you might employ if you had to guide a lamb or a small child away from a cliff edge.
- Rinse and repeat until the timer goes off.
Mimi Lok is the author of the story collection Last of Her Name (Kaya Press, 2019), which was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Ingenuity Award and an Ylvisaker Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Fiction Prize and the Susan Atefat Arts and Letters Prize for nonfiction. Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Electric Literature, and Literary Hub, among other outlets. She is currently working on a novel. Lok is also the cofounder, executive director, and editor of Voice of Witness, an award-winning human rights/oral history nonprofit that amplifies marginalized voices through a book series and a national education program.Thumbnail: Chi Tranter