Today, I’m thrilled to host author Brenda Miller, who shares an excerpt from her forthcoming book: The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World, co-authored with Holly Hughes. And be sure to check out Brenda’s blog, The Spa of the Mind, where she muses about living and writing in the digital age.
In my small home, I try to keep my upstairs attic loft reserved for reading, writing, and sometimes—when I can remember to do it—meditation. My dog, Abbe, often joins me there and makes her nest in the blanket next to me, digging with her paws until the blanket’s messy enough to be comfortable. She flops down with a human-like sigh.
Only when she is settled do I settle, adjusting myself on the cushion before ringing my little bell. And to do so, I have to take up the only implement handy: a pen. Abbe has gnawed the bell’s wooden striker beyond recognition, so all I have is a pen—an ordinary Bic ballpoint—to tap against the bell and begin my few minutes of sitting meditation.
This bell calls me to attention—to the attentive stance necessary for writing.
The word “contemplation” literally means “in the temple,” and when we reserve spots for contemplative activities we do “sanctify” them in some way. For me, the upstairs can feel like a different world altogether, removed from the quiet bedlam that’s ongoing downstairs: all the email, the mail, the newspaper, the television, the blogs I simply must read, the student papers, the to-do list. All of them clamor like toddlers for constant attention, though my attention is not really needed there, not every moment of the day. My attention is more acutely needed here, upstairs.
When life gets busy, I sometimes don’t make it up here at all. I often don’t realize it until I feel myself spiraling downward into a familiar depression. If I’m lucky, it will hit me: well, of course, you haven’t been upstairs in two weeks! So I’ll climb the stairs to find the room quietly waiting for me, unchanged (except for more dust!), the cushion sitting still on the rug, the messy dog blanket rumpled in position next to it. The dog might be there too, looking up with inquiring eyes, as if to say, Where have you been? And I remember, once again, that if there’s anything I think I’ve lost, I just need to go upstairs to find it.
Writing itself can be a meditation, a time when we simply allow ourselves to observe and become curious about where those observations lead us. We allow the noise of the day to subside in order to hear a deeper voice—one that is always present but often muted, and sometimes all it takes is a simple “call to attention” to bring this voice forward.
This call doesn’t necessarily need to come from a fancy meditation bell or expensive equipment ordered from catalogs. It might be as simple as really tasting those first few sips of your morning coffee before you start reading the paper or listening to the radio. Or taking just a minute to study the branches of a tree outside your window, seeing how they change in small increments day to day. Or it might be something as simple as tapping an ordinary pen against your cereal bowl, finding something—anything—that resonates to begin your day with a subtle, vibrant call to attention.
Coming to attention: It’s what writing is all about. We are here to pay attention, to observe and take in what the world offers at every turn. Only through paying attention can we offer back to our readers that world now transformed through our authentic voices. As Laraine Herring writes in her book Writing Begins with the Breath:
“Writers struggle to find their voices because they struggle with the process of listening. When we as writers talk about finding our voices, we mean: What do I sound like when there is nothing and no one else speaking? What do I have to say once the distractions of my life are stilled?”
When you’re working this way—quieting down, really paying attention—you’ll begin to feel like a genius. Really! The derivation of the word genius means simply a god who protects the headwaters, the originating source of a fresh spring. So, to be a genius means really to be original, in every sense of the word: returning to your origin, to “upstairs,” to that quiet space where your true voice waits.
Brenda Miller is the author of Listening Against the Stone (Skinner House Books, 2011), Blessing of the Animals (EWU Press, 2009), Season of the Body (Sarabande Books, 2002), and co-author of Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction (McGraw-Hill, 2003). Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes and has been published in numerous journals. She is a Professor of English at Western Washington University and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Bellingham Review. Her book The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World, co-authored with Holly Hughes, is forthcoming in 2012 from Skinner House Books.