Hi. I'm Jenna McGuiggan.
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Mindful Writing Exercise (In The Word Cellar)

The Chocolate Room, Brooklyn, April 2010

 Last summer, I declared that I was learning to write badly:

I am learning to write badly. Don't misunderstand me: I can write badly. Very badly, in fact. But I hate doing it. I hate to write when it's hard and cumbersome and ugly. I hate to write when the words aren't flowing easily and every sentence feels like a Herculean effort laden with clichés. I hate to write when I don't know what I want to say or can't get to the heart of what I mean. And since I'm all about pleasure, I avoid the writing when it's hard and bad. But this doesn't help me as a writer. So today, and tomorrow and tomorrow for however long it takes for it to become more natural, I'm practicing writing badly. I'm practicing sticking with it even when I can hardly stand it. I'm practicing the writing process, no matter what the product looks like. I'm learning to write badly so that I can write well more often.

In the eight months since then, I have indeed learned to write badly more often. This is a triumph! I still have days when the words don't flow and I just want to stop trying until inspiration (that elusive lover) returns. But now, the difference is that I have more staying power to sit still and keep writing rather than fleeing to more palatable tasks like doing laundry or watching videos of adorable kittens online. I wouldn't go so far as to say my discipline has improved, but I guess that's one way to view it. (I've written about my preference for the term "enthusiasm" rather than "discipline.")

Of course, the end goal isn't to write badly. It's to keep writing, to keep honing my craft and using my skills, so that the good stuff has time and room to come out on the page. By increasing my commitment and quantity, I've also improved my quality. By working through the rough patches, I've opened up new fields where I can play and have fun with words.

This struggle with writing reminds me of the way people often describe the challenges of meditation. When I practice sitting calmly and try to clear my mind, it wants to get up and run around, showing me all of the things I should think about or attend to. My internal dialogue is similar for both writing and meditation. It goes something like this.

Okay, I'm concentrating. (Oh look, laundry!) Come back to the page. (This is hard. Wah!) Breathe in and out. (I need cute kitten videos right now!) Write a few more words. (Don't wanna!) Breathe and be still. (I need to call the pet groomer tomorrow.) Write.

Writing and meditation both require a certain paradoxical level of mindfulness and detachment. In meditation, I try to notice the thoughts that float through my mind and then let them go without attachment or analysis. In writing, I notice my resistance, and then I write another sentence without judgment. Meditation and writing both require ongoing practice. Breath by breath. Word by word.

Here's a mindful writing exercise for you to try.

The next time you sit down to write, notice how you feel if it seems to be going badly. How long does it take you to feel frustrated? What do you feel compelled to do instead of write? How can you bring your attention back to the story at hand? What helps you to push through and to keep writing?

Try this exercise a few times over the coming weeks and see if it becomes easier to be committed even when you don't feel the magic of inspiration. Notice if there is a certain point at which the magic shows up for you in the writing practice. Does this tell you anything about how you process or pursue your creativity?

I'd love to hear how your writing practice is going. Are you feeling enthusiastic? Meditative? Like you're engaged in a wrestling match? Please consider sharing your thoughts in the comments or sending me an email.

**I'll be answering community questions in the coming weeks. Send your writing questions to jennifer{at}thewordcellar{dot}com with "In The Word Cellar" as the subject line.**

In The Word Cellar (normally) runs on the second and fourth Wednesday of the month. Check out other articles in the series here. (Apologies for this post being one day late. Clearly, I have some lessons to learn about discipline. But I remain enthusiastic.)

Reader Comments (2)

Great piece.

I've been doing the very same thing. Learning to 'write imperfectly' (is that as bad as badly?).

One thing that has really helped has been making a commitment to myself to blog every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. I'm allowed to blog on other days, too, if I feel so inclined; but I have to blog on those three days of the week whether I feel inclined to or not. Even if my blogging is deeply flawed and very imperfect. Even if I have nothing of huge consequence to say.

So here's to bad blogging and imperfect writing. And the great writers behind them. ;)
April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHelen (Dixon Hill Girl)
Some days it just flows and others...You're right though. When I have to get through it just continuing to put words on the a page is the only way.
April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmie aka MammaLoves

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