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The Practice of Writing: An Interview with Dinty W. Moore
DHARMA AND THE MODERN WORLD
Between memos at work, emails to friends, Facebook updates and notes to partners, children and roommates, we commit words to paper or screen everyday. For some of us – the keepers of diaries and blogs, journalists and students to name a few – writing exists as a specific activity requiring time and attention. But for all of us, writing can be an opportunity for us to practice mindfulness. Dinty W. Moore is a writer and teacher, perhaps best known for his creative nonfiction work, but he’s also spent many hours on the meditation cushion. In his book The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life (published by Wisdom Publications), Dinty brings together what he’s learned as both a meditator and a writer. Mandala managing editor, Laura Miller, interviewed Dinty over email in July 2012 about working with writing as a practice.
Mandala: Would you explain what the idea of “the mindful writer” means to you? And so that we can have a little context, can you describe briefly your relationship to Buddhism, meditation and/or mindfulness practice?
Dinty Moore: Being a mindful writer, in the end, has less to do with sentences and words and more to do with ambition and purpose. Any serious writer has to be mindful of sentences, and metaphors, and rhythm – that simply goes with good writing and strong revision. But so often we lose track of why we are writing and become badly distracted by career, rejection slips, praise, sometimes money. There is nothing wrong with wanting a career, some recognition, a steady salary, and, most importantly perhaps, the access to a wider readership that comes with success, but it is necessary to be mindful of how all of this interacts with the writing process, and how it too often sabotages the writing.
As for myself, I’ve always been a lazy Buddhist. I save my discipline for my writing desk, it seems, so I am only an occasional meditator, a polyglot follower of Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chödrön, and Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. Buddhism is truly important to me – it has altered my way of thinking about the many ways in which I determine the reality of my own life – but I’m lousy at the outward trappings and regular practice.
How is the idea of mindful writing important to people who do not think of themselves as writers?
For the most part, the book is relevant to creativity and practice in all art forms, and for that matter, creativity outside of the artistic arena. To be honest, the act of mindfully checking one’s intentions, one’s motivations, one’s possibly malformed assumptions is likely as useful to a lawyer, a surgeon, a daycare worker, and a police officer as it is for a writer, but I happen to be a writer, so that’s the focus of the book.
On a very basic level – the office memo, for instance – mindful writing means being aware of audience and desired result. I teach that when I teach business writing, without mentioning mindfulness or Buddhism, of course. Audience and desired result is a far more complex equation when you are working on personal, literary writing, and this is where motivation and intention also become more complicated. But in the end, no matter who you are and what you are pursuing in life, being mindful is simply slowing down and seeing what is there, not rushing through your days and years wearing blinders.
In your fourth “Noble Truth for Writers,” you offer the suggestion to “make both the practice of writing and the work itself less about ourselves.” In the abstract, I love this idea. It seems very important to me as a Mahayana Buddhist to do this. But honestly, there are days when I struggle to figure out what a mindful writing practice looks like in day-to-day life. Can you expand on this point?
I agree that this fourth step is a difficult bend, a yoga pose challenging to both the mind and the ego. But I would summarize this way: though some sense of “you” must be present if you plan to be a writer, at least the simple sense that you have something to say that will be worth sharing, the writing needn’t be all about you. Failed writing doesn’t make you a bad person any more than successful writing makes you a good person. And what you should want most is for the writing to succeed, and reach a reader, and for the reader to find value, be enhanced, experience joy and inspiration. To make this happen, the writer often does best to get out of his own way. This quote from modern dance pioneer Martha Graham says it well: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy … that is translated through you … and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
What motivated you to write this book? What were the origins of the book? And how does your experience as a writer, a meditator and a writing teacher figure into it?
I have to thank Wisdom editor Josh Rosenthal Bartok who was familiar with my earlier book about spiritual practice, The Accidental Buddhist, and with my various books of writing advice, and who challenged me to combine the two. The question of how Buddhism influences my writing has always been a difficult one for me to answer, but the challenge of writing this book forced me to look deeply into my work and work life and find coherent responses. What I discovered was that much of what I practice, believe, and teach is motivated by what I have learned through Buddhism, even though the language I use to talk about it is very different. My students don’t know me as a Buddhist practitioner – I’m fairly private that way – but much of what I tell them about trusting the work, finding inspiration, being cognizant of motive aligns nicely with the Noble Eightfold Path.
As managing editor at Mandala magazine, I’ve seen a lot of writing from spiritual practitioners about their experiences. Some writing touches me deeply; some feels remote and dull. Sometimes the writing comes off as clichéd. Other times, even though the story is familiar, I’m surprised by the freshness of the telling. As both a writer and a teacher, can you offer advice and thoughts on how to write about spiritual experiences so that they are interesting and meaningful to readers.
Well, to be honest, all of my writing is clichéd and stale and familiar. My one and only secret is that I am a ruthless reviser after that horrid first draft. I go through multiple revisions slashing at clichés, cursing myself, bashing my head against the keyboard looking for ways to replace the lifeless sentences and insights. Fresh writing is often an illusion – it seems in the end as if the writing came easily for the writer, as if it just flew from the pen magically and instantly. The truth so often is that the author struggled, grew despondent, struggled some more, but tenaciously hung in there until the early, flat, common ideas and insights went deeper, and the writer herself was surprised by where the writing led. Spiritual writing can be especially difficult, since so much happens up in the head or somewhere in the heart. The challenge, I think, is to find concrete details, specific and tangible moments, that illustrate the more ethereal spiritual change.
Besides The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, Dinty W. Moore has authored many books including Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction and the memoirs Between Panic & Desire and The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still, American Style. Most recently he edited The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, coming out in late September 2012.
Dinty lives in Athens, Ohio, where he “grows his own heirloom tomatoes and edible dandelions,” teaches writing and serves as director of Ohio University’s BA, MA, and Ph.D. in Creative Writing program. You can read more about him on his website.
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My approach is to expose your ego so that you can see it for what it is. Therefore, I try to provoke your ego. There’s nothing diplomatic about this tactic. We’ve been diplomatic for countless lives, always trying to avoid confrontation, never meeting our problems face to face. That’s not my style. I like to meet problems head on and that’s what I want you to do, too.
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