MFA Nugget: Inspiring Your Writing with Contemplative Practice

MONTPELIER, VERMONT — As a creative writer, you know the importance of routine. Writing at a certain time of day, with a particular pen or inspiring sweater, anything that helps you find that quiet place where it’s just you and the words.

Creative nonfiction author Kurt Caswell, whose lecture on contemplative practice caused me to contemplate such practices.

Creative nonfiction author Kurt Caswell, whose lecture on contemplative practice caused me to contemplate such practices.

But how often does life really let you find that place? That’s the question Kurt Caswell asked in his lecture here at my MFA in Writing residency with the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Caswell–an award-winning author and essayist, as well as a lover of nature and my inspiring first semester faculty advisor–explained that when a writer has a contemplative practice in his or her life, it can be easier to rediscover that quiet place regardless of distraction.

What is a contemplative practice, you ask? (Well, I would have.) It is any repetitive habit, he said, that allows you to connect mind and body. Caswell walked us through the rewards of four such practices–meditation, yoga, walking and running.

Meditation helps you find a “beginner’s mind,” allowing you to pull out treasures of your subconscious for your writing. Yoga–which he said is at its core meditation–helps you find that quiet place. (Lisa Berman, a writer and instructor at Naropa University, told Caswell that yoga allows her to let go those distractions that otherwise would pull her out of her writing.) Walking can be a vehicle for you to actually compose your writing, a la Wordsworth. And running, he said, allows you to improve focus and endurance, both essential to a writer, who gets better the more he or she writes. Oh, and he threw into the mix a little matter of such practices helping build gray matter in our brains, leading to more memory, less stress, and increased empathy.

All writers struggle, Caswell said. But “your struggle is beautiful.” Embrace that reality, and find your repetitive practice that helps you emerge from that struggle with beautiful prose.

Just about anything can be a contemplative practice, Caswell said during the q&a, as audience members volunteered their own habits. Cooking, motorcycle riding, even dishwashing were offered. To the student who likes to do dishes–I’d love to have him as a dinner guest–Caswell said that if you approach it with the intention of washing dishes, it can work; if you approach it to get dishes washed, it won’t. I liked that way of looking at it.

Do you have a contemplative practice that helps you connect with your muse?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

23 Responses to “MFA Nugget: Inspiring Your Writing with Contemplative Practice”

  1. I’ve practiced yoga for years, but never connected it to my creative practice. However I do find that an urge to write comes when the mind is quiet, which for me seems to happen during my commute to work on the bus. Once I finally relax in the seat, I take out my pen and write for at least three minutes and often the 40 minute bus ride.

    • Poetdouble… your bus commute experience reminds me of how… when I’m out walking, far from pen and paper and keyboard… the mind becomes oh so fertile. I love it. I can’t write, but I can remember… sometimes… and the homeward trek is full of anticipation of nailing down those ideas.

      • Ah, PJ, you’re another Wordsworth! Actually, I thought of Thoreau’s “On Walking” when Kurt discussed walking in his lecture–he had me read that essay when I studied with him–but it was interesting to learn in this lecture that Wordsworth composed entire poems while walking; they could come to him and when he got back home he would write them down. You’re in good company!

    • What a great way to make productive use of your commute! I would compare that to the phenomenon of showering, where we know we aren’t going anywhere and aren’t expected to do anything taxing. I would suspect that thoughts come to you at times during that ride, bubbling up from your subconscious, because they can finally grab your attention. Of course, that means you’re resisting checking your smartphone, which Kurt said can be a problem for many of us.

  2. I have long been aware that I get creatively inspired during a walk. I usually spend about 10 minutes after I get home to download everything into my ideas file. But I love Kurt’s expansion of this to other activities like washing dishes and the connection he makes between the mental habits developed in these practices and the similar mental habits needed to support your writing practice. Brilliant! I know this is true but hadn’t consciously gotten this far with the idea. This definitely does give me something to contemplate. I’m going to play around with this idea for a few days, in fact, and see where it leads me. Very valuable insight. Thanks for letting us attend your MFA program with you!

    • Hi Sue! Yes, Kurt mentioned that he’s been kicking around the idea of this lecture for awhile now, so he himself is still making these connections. It turns out he conducted a lot of interviews for the lecture as well, not just the yoga enthusiast I mentioned. I’m glad you see connections to your own creative path–folks, Sue is a creativity consultant, so she isn’t new to this kind of topic–and thank you for the encouragement. It takes a bit of effort to do these daily posts, so I love the positive feedback!

  3. You will not be surprised to hear that InterPlay can function that way for me. But, not always.

    For me, a full-body practice like InterPlay or Yoga or mindful dish washing (which I rarely, but sometimes, do) brings me to a deeper place than sitting meditation, but sitting meditation sometimes leaves me closer to my ability to connect that depth with words when I emerge from the practice.

    Great question. I look forward to reading other people’s responses.

  4. Sadly enough, cleaning’s a contemplative practice for me. Numerous times I’ve constructed a scene while scrubbing a counter or floor.

  5. Kurt deploys meditation to find that “quiet space”. But of course meditation doesn’t like to be done for any reason. It’s that “not knowing” what may arise in meditation that gives it its value for writers, in my opinion. Writers who produce every day can sit down to the blank page and suffer through that frightening “not knowing” what will appear on the page. The best writers have learned to face it every day, maybe many times a day, and they embrace it because something always comes. I’m no great writer, but I’ve lived off that joy for years. I’ve lived off that magic. (I certainly don’t have much else to show for all these years!) So, yes, meditation — I’m talking about sitting still meditation — has probably helped me “do” that.

    But what about other writers? I’m not sure that my favourite authors sat, walked, ran, or did the dishes. I’d have to ask them. Henry? Ernest? Fitzgerald? J.M. Coetzee? Pamuk? We hear that many of the best writers found their muse in a whisky bottle. So, I’d say this meditative biz is one of those things that sounds good but may not prove to be true for the greatest writers. But, as with any other tip… we can try it out and see if it fits. Thanks, Patrick.

    • Hi PJ,

      Kurt mentioned that for Hemingway it was booze, but he didn’t endorse that! To be honest, Kurt quoted from a number of brilliant authors who had used these various techniques–Kurt interviewed some, quoted from their writings in other cases–and those didn’t make this blog post. But I certainly don’t think Kurt felt this was a necessity for a writer, just a plus for those who choose to. Kurt says he runs 30 minutes a day, but doesn’t compete as a runner, because that would change the experience for him. He said he’d prefer walking if he lived in a place more suited to it. (Having read his memoir Inside Passage, Kurt has lived in places like that before, but he’s in west Texas now, not quite as scenic as, say, Montana or northern Japan.)

  6. Sent from my Kyocera Rise

  7. I’m a big fan of meditation, in theory, if not always in practice. But journaling is a key part of my contemplative practice. My journal(s) provide a safe space to work through resistance, blocks, and moments of insight. And what I think is garbage left on the page often becomes fodder for creative growth, inspiration, and more insight. Most of my days start with writing for half an hour in the morning before work and end with (seriously) washing dishes by hand. Maybe in 2013 I’ll return to a meditation practice too…. I’ll be interested to hear/read whether you decide to incorporate any contemplative practices when you return from Vermont. Thanks as always, Patrick, for taking time to write these MFA Nuggets!

    • Hey, Carolyn… there’s certainly no meditative practice for Patrick tonight. Look — it’s almost midnight on the east coast and he hasn’t shown up on his blog. Of course he hasn’t… he’s partying! Happy New Year, Patrick, Carolyn, and everyone else!

      • You know, PJ, I didn’t show up on the blog for most of yesterday because residency schedule is so crazy! But yes, I enjoyed the New Year coming in with classmates, but we’re the old fogey types, gathering in the dorm’s third floor lounge having quiet conversations and eating Chocolate Chex Mix; the rowdy crowd raised the roof over in the College Hall gallery basement with music and dancing. That said, they do a dance here every residency near the end, and I will go to that and make a fool of myself, as I have done in the past. Happy New Year!

    • Carolyn, my recollection is that one audience member volunteered journaling, but she didn’t use that exact phrase. Obviously a lot of people have embraced The Artist’s Way, which teaches us that. I’m glad it works for you. It can clear your head, oil the gears, AND give you material you can make use of later.

      Thanks for your encouragement!

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