Brenda Miller is an award-winning author, a professor of English at Western Washington University, and the editor-in-chief of Bellingham Review. Her many books include Listening Against the Stone: Selected Essays; Blessing of the Animals; Season of the Body; and Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. Most recently she co-authored, with Holly Hughes, The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World — and this is what I’m chatting about with Brenda today. This new book is a wonderful reminder to us writers that we need to create the time to write rather than wait for it — and its prompts show us how we can incorporate mindfulness into our writing practice in order to deepen and strengthen what we do.
Q: Brenda, I love that your book connects writing and mindfulness—and your own writing space is the same space you use for meditation. What are some of the ways in which being mindful in turn helps you with your writing?
A: I think it allows me to practice observation, even subliminally, so when it comes time to write, I have images/words/memories that can float more easily to the surface. It also teaches you patience and faith: I might be writing something that seems odd and random, but I’ve learned to just go with it and see where it leads. If I stay quiet, without too much judgment at the beginning, the writing can flourish without the intellectual/critical mind interfering too soon. If the writing ends up not leading anywhere, that’s okay, because I haven’t labored over it, beating it into submission. It’s all practice.
Q: Yes, practice—that is another key component in your book; in fact, Chapter Six is devoted to the idea of writing as practice, as with a musical instrument. You mention in this chapter that you sometimes do a writing practice with friends. How is this different from writing alone? And do you have any tips (such as using a timer, as your group does) for writers who get together with others for their writing practice?
A: Writing with others provides a certain kind of focus and momentum that I find is not possible when writing alone. Since we are writing in a timed fashion (with a timer) there’s also an intensity about it. When I’m writing alone, it’s a bit more leisurely, and I’m gathering my thoughts and written fragments together to form a bigger picture. It’s more of a “mulling,” a stroll, while the writing together is more like aerobics! If you write with the same group for any length of time, you may also find yourself subtly working off each other’s imagery and energy; oftentimes people will end up having the same imagery as if they were telepathic.
I think it’s important to have a certain level of commitment from the group; while it’s okay to be flexible of course, it’s best to have the same time/day that everyone agrees on for a certain length of time. Then you’re not always trying to figure out schedules and it becomes a habit.
Q: I agree that getting into the habit of writing is one of the best ways to get into and remain in that creative space. In your book, you write, “As a young writer, I don’t think I ever really understood that you need to prepare for writing…I’ve come to see that I need to be warmed up.” In one chapter you mention the importance of observation, and how a woman who prunes the roses in the park near your house always makes you eager to write — I love that! For me, too, paying close attention to the world around me always sparks my creativity. Have you ever experienced a loss of connection to your writer/creative self, and if so, how did you reconnect? Do you have any advice for writers seeking to find better access to creativity in their everyday lives?
A: That’s a timely question, Midge, as I’m experiencing that right now! It usually happens when I’ve finished one project (in this case, a book of linked short-short essays) and don’t really have another one in the works. I get very, very nervous during these fallow times, and the intellectual mind feeds that anxiety, giving me messages of despair: “Okay, that’s it, you’ve written everything you’re ever going to write.” So, at some point, with the help of my therapist (a saint!) and my writing friends, I remember that this voice is not the true voice. I continue with the weekly writing practice, even if nothing I write feels “good.” I read poetry. I take a lot of walks. I type up words from the writing practice just to see if anything might spark something new. I find a writing contest deadline to motivate me. But the main thing is having a sense of humor about the whole thing, not being so heavy about it. I slap that critical voice on the shoulder and say, “Cheer up, old chap!”
Q: This is all such great advice … I often finish a project and lose my connection to writing, and then it only becomes harder to reconnect. I like the idea of continuing to write, but I especially like the idea of taking walks, which is not “writing” but an activity that opens up the mind, which in turn leads to writing. Your book includes chapters on travel and encounters with the wild — how does connecting with other places and with nature affect your own work?
A: I recently returned from a trip to northern California, a landscape that is quite special to me. I lived there in my early twenties, at a hot springs resort, and as I walked down the road from that resort, I found myself talking to the trees. Really talking to the trees! I know this sounds crazy, but there’s a point on that road that shifts from mellow oaks and dry grass to old redwoods. You feel like you’re crossing a threshold into a deeper place. It’s very, very quiet–and timeless. And I truly felt like those trees remembered that younger self I’d so firmly packed away. They were asking me to remember her, to accept her, to welcome all her good qualities into my life now.
That’s a long (and maybe pointless) story, but in regards to your question: that experience in nature allowed me a moment to feel something unexpected, and to have the space to really feel it: to let it settle and expand. This would not have happened in my quotidian life, where I live more on the surface, where the familiarity of the day-to-day landscape can dull my perception. I haven’t yet translated this experience into writing, but it’s certainly a seed that is germinating.
Q: It’s so true that stepping outside one’s everyday life can be so enriching; we notice things so much more. Your chapter “Emptiness” reminds me of how I need to get away from the clutter of my desk in order to think more clearly. Do you have any advice for writers who tend to avoid the emptiness and the quiet that is both necessary as well as a little intimidating?
A: I’d say it’s important to know that you don’t necessarily need A LOT of it; just a small respite can do. Even 30 minutes off of email/Internet at a particular time every day. Or a ten-minute intentional breather outside where you practice, simply observing without doing anything. And also to enlist allies: make a contract with a friend and hold each other to it!
Q: Last but not least, one of the many things I love about your book is hearing both your voice and that of your co-author, Holly Hughes. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to collaborate?
A: It was wonderful; we each brought different perspectives to the topics and so our voices complemented one another. We wrote the book as letters to one another, so it was always easy to simply sit down and write “Dear Holly,” which would be like a mindfulness bell, putting me immediately in a writing frame of mind. We enjoyed the letters so much that we kept the first draft of the full book in letter form, but got the feedback that it wouldn’t work in the long term for the reader. The hard part was shaping the book out of the letters, but keeping that same sense of intimate communication. Letters are a wonderful practice, and I recommend it wholeheartedly as a way to infuse your writing with joy.
For more inspiration, visit The Pen and the Bell website — and also Brenda’s blog.