The art of writing is, in large measure, the art of emptying the mind. There are several ways in which this is true, and they are all important. First, and most conventionally, writing entails the creation of a clear-headed mental state — and even this is really two different things. In many cases, a “mind like clear water” is the best way to write, if we understand that to mean clearing away, or putting aside, the many, many worries and concerns and to-do items and projects and irritations and headaches that distract you, that cloud your awareness. Like they say, when you’re feeling up to your ass in alligators, it’s very hard to remember that the original purpose of being there was to drain the swamp. So for this kind of clearing, you may meditate, try to write early in the day, go to a new place like a coffee shop where you aren’t distracted by all the other stuff that stirs up cognitive dust storms in your life.
But there is also the clarity you can gain by catharsis — by finally saying, blurting, dumping onto the page (or into the ears of a therapist or friend) all your concerns and troubles and worries about your work or life, or this nagging thought about something you’ve read or seen that you want to somehow preserve, get down, get off your chest. (The image that’s right here is of a weight on your chest, something that as long as it’s there, you cannot breathe.) This is not so much a moving away from the clutter and pain, but writing the clutter and pain away. Getting it all down on paper (or onto your therapist’s notepad), so you can have that “there! I feel clearer now!” experience.
So writing is sometimes about finding a clear, alligator-free space, sitting on a sunny hilltop on a pleasant day and being away from your cubicle and your bill pile and the screaming children and honking drivers, and letting your freak out on paper. And sometimes, it’s about taking all those cubicle nightmares and baby-screams and tales of idiots you’ve wanted to strangle, and writing about them, so you can finally get a bit of that clarity.
The third type of mind-clearing is perhaps the most important, and the least obvious. It’s not about finding peace and quiet just so you can write; it’s not about writing all the bad stuff down in order to find the peace and quiet. It’s a perhaps more craft-like process, in which you sit and notice what is happening down in that “clear water,” and write down what you notice. Emptying your mind into your writing. Just that.
How is this different from the first two ways of writing? It may first be important to say what it’s not. It’s less of a “nervous breakdown coping device” of trying to calm down or get all quiet or take enough Xanax so you can finally write. It’s also not a cathartic dumping of your turmoil-mind onto paper to get that fresh breath of “there, I said it and I’m glad!” air. Rather, the focus is on what happens when you have already managed to attain some degree of peace and quiet, when you can devote your attention to a kind of quiet awareness that “Hey! That’s a thought or experience or idea I am thinking, or on the edge of thinking, that I should capture on paper!”
It’s learning the art of sitting quietly and not being disturbed by anything for the duration of the writing session, of being observant, and taking the next, essential step of not just thinking, not just noticing what’s happening in the coffee shop or in the back yard around your hammock or on the news you’re reading — but noticing that you have just noticed something to write about. That you can and should record this awareness, idea, observation you are having. In short, it’s a kind of meta-awareness — awareness that you are aware, and then recording it.
Now, this seems like an obvious, even childish thing to say, but it’s really not. In fact, it may be the one distinguishing quality of a “born writer” or a self-trained writer, that it occurs to her or him to write it down. We all experience things all day long, have great thoughts, come up with witty observations or heartbreaking memories or dazzling scientific discoveries… and instantly forget them. They are lost forever — uncounted and uncountable novels, plays, poems, jokes, song lyrics, observations of nature or character or solutions to intractable problems, all gone. Most of the mind of humanity is a vast sieve through which three million years of collective experience has leaked into the sand, forever lost. Only a very, very few ever stop and write an experience or a thought down. But almost all advancement in awareness, all expansion of the human heart and capacity for justice and compassion, all advances in science, flow from the efforts of those few.
More than anything else, the “art” of writing (or of photography, or of painting, or of being a creative scientist or inventor) is developing the skill of noticing that you are noticing something, and then capturing that awareness in words, in pictures, in laboratory notebooks. Scientists and inventors who change the world do so, most often, because they observe something and remember that observation, they value it, either as a clear, new, useful thing or as something at least worth pondering. Millions of people pick burrs from their pants and skirts and pry them from the fur of their dogs, and then just one guy starts to think about how these fibers work, and invents Velcro. A scientist comes up with a glue that doesn’t seem to work very well, and we end up with Post-it notes. A photographer sees the same, tired mother’s face that a whole nation is seeing all around them, but she turns this into a masterpiece that in one glimpse, captures forever and for all humankind the psychological impact of the Great Depression.
And a man or a woman, a boy or a girl, has the same kinds of thoughts that all their friends have, that everyone else in the same time and era has about the experience of being human, of struggling, of being alone or in a tormented relationship, of wondering what happens after death or why I deserved this life, but instead of merely suffering, they also write down what that life, that suffering is like. And by doing so, they create a literature, which not only records but, often, changes the very experience of being.