Writing and Mindfulness
I first encountered meditation during the spring semester of my senior year of college. A group of twenty or so of us sat in a two-tiered circle, red and blue light shimmering inside from the interfaith center’s stained glass windows, as a philosophy professor/smiling mystic led us in breathing exercises. These exercises relaxed our group of early-20’s non-Buddhists, set a tone and a mood for the mid-morning class session, and were followed by some tai chi and finally fifteen minutes of focused stretching and meditation. They were, looking back, one of the most peculiar and most productive aspects of my entire undergraduate experience.
I moved away that summer, first to Massachusetts and then to Buffalo, New York. In each place, I brought my meditation pillow along with me, stuffing it into suitcases whose finite space it filled half of. In Buffalo, I entered graduate school. My daily habits reading and writing improved during this time. In fact, this was when I first developed a real understanding of what it meant to consciously fill my day with the parts of my life that meant to the most to me一 see here. My mindfulness habits, however, fell off almost completely. I don’t mean to say they’d even really developed in the first place, as meditation was something I would do once a week during class and then fail to find the time for on subsequent weekdays, but once I entered graduate school the meditation pillow became permanently stuffed underneath my bed, little more than a prop in a story to tell guests when they entered the confines of the room.
At the NeMLA conference I attended in Baltimore last weekend, I caught a number of sessions within my chosen field of writing, composition and rhetorical study. The panels dealt with a range of topics一 smartphone communication, syntactic instruction, classroom collaboration, online learning groupwork, food-writing communities, public writing initiatives, even emoji linguistics and emoji poetry. One can’t go wrong with any of these panels, and the people leading many of them were outgoing, well-informed and happy to answer my questions on their respective topics (and as a burgeoning scholar, I had plenty of questions, which I did not hesitate to ask). The panel that struck me most, though, taking into account my current and future profession of teaching college writing and composition, was a panel on mindfulness, meditative mind exercises and their intersection with the craft of writing.
My approach to teaching writing is to walk my students slowly through a continuum of skills: exploring and discovering what’s out there and what we already know, brainstorming ideas, organizing topics and details, researching thoroughly, sitting down at a desk, opening up a Google Doc (I require my students to write in this mode, as we utilize a Chrome extension tool called Draftback to track our writing habits), and then, as we inevitably will do, typing haphazardly and semi-focusedly as we ease ourselves into the abyss of, as Anne Lamott would say, our “shitty first drafts.”
Indeed, I oftentimes feel this is the one aspect of writing instruction I occasionally fail my students in. How do I teach them to visualize a composition that fulfills all of their goals, and then to make it happen, to piece a project together? I attempt this through project-based learning. I can lecture on MLA format and in-text citations with ease. I can fix syntax and semantic errors in a jiffy. I can lead next-level conversations on ethos, pathos and logos, and I can introduce my students to writers even more informative than I. I can talk all day about the craft of writing一 if you ask my students, they’ll tell you that I often do. But how do I help my students enter the “flow” that getting words down on the page of your “shitty first draft” requires?
Writing is thinking, but it’s far more than that. How might we teach the mindstate that a steady, sustained outpouring of words requires? How does one develop “intuition” in the craft of writing?
There have been a number of so-called “turns” in rhetoric and composition. I think our field has a particular penchant for them, actually. My recent interests are in the “public turn” and the “apocalyptic turn” that Paul Lynch, among others, have written about in the age of the anthropocene.
The surge in interest in the public humanities, in neuroscience, in interdisciplinary work within the study of writing and writing communities is of tremendous interest (and excitement) to me. A former teacher of mine incorporated implicit elements of mindfulness into his class sessions. His influence on my teaching has been substantial, and have led to my own experimentation with focused, guided thinking in my own classrooms. Though he never came out and directly stated it, there was clear and decisive focus on freewriting, freethinking, contemplation, journaling, reflection, questioning, communicative thinking, inclusive group construction, and contemplation of music and art within his classes. I now build my classes, a few years later, on this type of model.
This isn’t a “take your shoes off when you enter and light a few candles” type of mindfulness initiative. It’s deeper, more substantial, more valuable than that. It’s thinking-oriented. We aren’t concerned with appearances or aesthetics or with giving our students funny stories of their wacko professors to tell their friends about. Instead, our focus is on asking our students to connect the intuition of their interior lives with the words (worlds) on their pages of writing. Moving in this direction, bridging this gap a bit over the course of a semester, is the ultimate goal.
A recent panel at CCCC’s in Portland (Rhet/Comp’s largest conference) tackled the emerging theorem of mindfulness in the writing classroom. A panel at NeMLA that I participated in explored the topic as well. Steve Shoemaker spoke very elegantly about the “neuroturn” in metacognition and mindfulness in his own research and classrooms, as well as about his attempts to instill a “focused-but-relaxed” mindstate in his his students as they enter the writing act. Neuroplasticity, the human brain’s magnificent and breathtaking ability to rewire and reconfigure itself, requires practice and repetition. Shoemaker enlists freewriting exercises in his classroom to make this happen. Another scholar-teacher on the panel, Natalie Mera Ford, incorporates a “friday freespace” writing activity into her curricula in which students write creatively, reflectively and without restriction in a notebook separate from anything they do elsewhere in the class. Rachel Spear opens some of her classes with a short yoga exercise activity; when performed once, it’s a gimmick and isn’t especially productive, but when repeated time and time again, it seems to make an impression on students, especially those in STEM-oriented fields who aren’t normally asked to discuss emotions, feelings and mindsets in their writing.
I teach at an athletically-minded school, and my typical classes aren’t composed of English or humanities majors. Regardless, we find ways to incorporate mindfulness into the classroom each day and do our best to weave it into the act of writing itself. Writing is a craft that’s intertwined with mindfulness, though not how the uninitiated reader might expect: it’s a craft of controlled breathing as often as it is of sudden bursts of revelatory insight; of piecing together coarse and jagged paragraph fragments as often as it’s a steady flow, a Zen-like trance; of writing banality as often as it is of writing insight, stimulus, arousals.
I’ve become interested lately in neuroscience, particularly on interpersonal neurobiology, how our social relationships shape our brains. Kirke Olsen explores this topic in her book The Invisible Classroom: Relationships, Neuroscience and Mindfulness in Schools, which I suggest wholeheartedly for anyone interested in the subject. Incorporating mindfulness, both explicitly and implicitly (more of what I’ve been doing with my classrooms) into the teaching of writing is a means of teaching our students a variety of difficult thought elements, but I’ve found it particularly helpful in one specific area: personal intuition, vital for student growth and empowerment.
Vanderbilt University maintains an excellent website on contemplative pedagogy for incorporating mindfulness into the daily class meeting. For further reading, I’d suggest giving their site a visit. Otherwise, I love talking about this stuff. Get at me.
I’m done writing for the morning (the watch on my nightstand says it’s 8:21AM). In a few minutes, I’ll prop myself down on the floor, stretch, and tap on my muscles with my fists as my old philosophy teacher once instructed me to do.
I’ll be sitting quietly, doing nothing. I may write again after. I will likely be in the mood for it.