This post was written by NCTE member Alexandria Peary.
One doesn’t have to search long to find people who admit that they are unable to write in the way they wish, who feel dissatisfied or apprehensive about writing: students who can’t meet deadlines or who profess to dread writing courses, acquaintances who twist themselves into knots over a New Year’s resolution to finish their book.
If we teach writing in our courses, we can just glance across the classroom to spot negative reactions to the call to write—slumped or protective body language at desks, averted eyes, sighs, and passive aggressive behavior. As a teacher, I suffer when my students don’t like to write, when their unaddressed history of past difficulty and fixation on their writing future spills onto the classroom context we share in this moment.
It’s my belief that nearly every writing trouble can be alleviated by adopting more of a present moment focus while writing and teaching writing.
None of us write in the future—you don’t, I don’t, our students don’t. I may promise that I’ll write tomorrow at 8 a.m., but all that’s actually happening right now is my promise. When 8 a.m. rolls around, who knows where my present circumstances will find me. The same goes for the past: we don’t produce new writing in our past.
In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki explained our tendency to misplace the present as a constant plotting: “‘I must do something this afternoon,’ but actually there is no ‘this afternoon.’ We do things one after the other.”
Most writing problems are attributable to mindlessness, or the countless ways we overlook the present and forfeit its amazing rhetorical resources, fixating instead on the future and (less often) the past. Writing tends to be a future-driven activity during which most of us stray from the present out of fear, dread, fantasy, ambition, and our training. Humans also have a propensity for mindlessness beyond the desk—our perception of the present is said to last between five and twelve seconds (Wilhelm Wundt) or fewer than a dozen seconds (William James).
In addressing writing troubles, the number one undertaking is to notice that writing is never accomplished outside a present moment—and whether or not that present is perceived is a matter of mindfulness or mindlessness. Mindlessness leads to writing-related suffering. This fact should affect every aspect of our teaching. It’s why it’s a good idea to occasionally—if not frequently—teach as though writing has no future and comes with no past.
The fundamental elements of the present writing moment are its impermanence, intrapersonal talk, and embodiment.
Students who are inattentive to the real-time circumstances of writing resist ongoing change; they burden the writing moment with preconceptions about their general ability and the specific assignment at hand; and they have limited awareness of their internal talk (which is a source of new content for their pieces as well as the conveyor of often debilitating self-talk about writing). They also ignore signals from their body and the physical environment which are important for their writing.
Impermanence, intrapersonal talk, and embodiment are rhetorical factors as crucial as conventionally taught ones like audience or purpose. That’s because the perception of these three increases verbal productivity and ease such that every moment is a writing moment, and every student can become a prolific writer.
While writers often host future-oriented thoughts in this present moment, they never experience the future firsthand in the way they do the present. The future is secondhand experience, and so is the past.
Moreover, future-oriented thinking is the source of many stressors students experience around writing; the most prevalent stressor is an imagined audience who perches on the student’s desk and expects that the draft under construction is already polished, already in its future state.
What we need is a pedagogy of mindfulness, or the perception and non-evaluative acceptance of the present. A mindfulness-based approach to teaching of writing means helping students understand constant change, internal talk, and the role of the body, along with matters like verbal emptiness and emotional responses to the need to write.
There’s a whole range of exercises and assignments—yoga for hands, moment-writing, breath work, internal rhetorical analysis, to name just a few—that can help students dwell in their present writing moment. None of these require time on a meditation cushion, yet any and all can help bring writing ability into the present.
Alexandria Peary is a professor in the English Department at Salem State University where she coordinates the First-Year Writing Program. Her book Prolific Moment: Theory and Practice of Mindfulness for Writing will be published this summer by Routledge. Peary’s article “Walls with a Word Count: The Textrooms of the Extracurriculum” appeared in the September 2014 issue of College Composition and Communication. Visit her blog on writing.