Using Zen Philosophy to Improve Creativity and Overcome Writer’s Block
“We teach ourselves; Zen merely points the way.” -D.T. Suzuki
Of the many obstacles that plague an ambitious writer, that of the blank page demanding to be transformed into beautiful literature is the most daunting. It was once said that if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
Likewise, what makes the blank page so fearsome is its ability to reflect its untapped potential back into the writer’s eyes and, perhaps, reveal a similar void in the author’s soul.
Do More to Overcome Writer’s Block
Fear magnifies fear. However, the fear of having to write generally minimises motivation, originality, creativity, and an author’s mastery of language. If sufficiently intense, this fear may leave even the ambitious writer feeling devitalised and totally empty.
Many in the literary world have suggested countless ways to overcome this emptiness, improve writing and expand one’s creativity. Among other things, you will undoubtedly have been advised to:
- Carve out portions of your schedule and dedicate them to writing. Just write. What if it isn’t great? Doesn’t matter. Just write! You’ll soon find a profusion of sapphires in the mud. In other words, with quantity comes quality.
- Try mind-mapping: use a diagram to visually arrange your ideas on paper and you might discern novel connections between ideas.
- Live your life and use your experiences as source of creativity.
- Try free-writing.
- Read. Read. Read. Then what? Read some more!
- Seek inspiration in things that aren’t immediately connected to writing.
What unifies these principles is the assumption that creative productivity is attained by doing more; be proactive and your muse will reward you accordingly.
While writers are fortunate to have been informed of these techniques as means of overcoming emptiness, the problem itself could be the solution. In other words, these principles might prove useful, but we mustn’t discredit nothingness and passivity as worthwhile tools in the creative process.
What is Zen?
Zen is a school of Mahayana Buddhism that developed in China during the Tang Dynasty (6th Century). The word Zen is ultimately derived from the Sanskrit word dhyāna, which can be approximately translated as “absorption” or “meditative state.”
Oddly, it is simpler to define Zen by what it isn’t rather than by what it is. It is not a collection of doctrines, beliefs or dogmatic principles. It is not a formalised and crystallised way of knowing.
Rather, Zen attempts to catch life as it flows, without adding mystery or spiritual complications. Zen allows its practitioners to embrace the inner workings of their being, to attain freedom, and to do so in the most direct way possible.
Furthermore, in the words of Zen master D.T. Suzuki, “The truth of Zen, just a little bit of it, is what turns one’s humdrum life–a life of monotonous, uninspiring commonplaceness–into one of art, full of genuine inner creativity.”
So how may one apply this to the writing process? This article will isolate three basic principles of Zen, which when appropriately considered can diminish writer’s block and improve creativity.
More often than not, ‘writer’s block’ isn’t a shortage of ideas but rather a stifling self-criticism. Quickly name a random object. Now, quickly imagine a completely surreal and absurd situation. There is a strong chance that you did so successfully. Your ideas are always there and willing to flow from the depths of our psyche into conscious awareness. However, writer’s block manifests itself when one proclaims that an idea is only worthy of being expressed if it meets a stringent expectations.
Zen encourages us to watch the mind without judgement or expectation. Allow your stream of consciousness to flow without hindrance, and don’t be too ready to understand what flows through your mind. Remain a passive and impartial witness watching your inner self operate as it pleases. You’ll find that doing so reveals an abundance of ideas whose existence was doubted when you faced the writer’s block.
How is this different from free-writing? It isn’t wholly different. The idea here is that judgement and expectation have to be eliminated before one can write freely. Related to this is the peripheral idea that writing and editing occupy separate realms. A writer writes. An editor edits. This is a crucial distinction.
And remember Bruce Lee’s words: “Running water never grows stale. So you just have to keep on flowing, baby.”
Now, this isn’t an instruction to embrace laziness. It is, instead, an encouragement to recognise the pitfalls of misguided proactivity.
To understand nature is to appreciate the principles of Zen. Broadly speaking, nature does not make any mistakes, and yet it produces nothing short of the miraculous. Nature operates without any real preconception of what it must achieve. Nature does not formulate a plan. It simply does. It does simply.
As Zen philosopher Alan Watts once said,
“Clouds never make mistakes. Did you ever see a cloud that was misshapen? Did you ever see a badly designed wave? No, they always do the right thing. If you would treat yourself for a while as a cloud or wave, and realise that you can’t make a mistake whatever you do. Because even if you do something that seems to be totally disastrous, it will all come out of the wash somehow or other.”
We, as writers, tend to have a strange anxiety that if we don’t interfere, ‘it’ won’t happen. We agonise over the correct formulation of words during the initial stage of the creative process. We sometimes demand perfection of ourselves from the very start.
How often have you thought something like “This sentence has to be perfect! I will only write it down if it exactly conveys my intention.” Through these lofty self-impositions, we work ourselves up into a paradoxically unproductive frenzy.
It is when you stop trying that all that wasted energy is suddenly available to you as a creative source. If you really want to write something clearly, you must not try. You must simply trust and allow your mind, brain, nervous system and your inner author to do their things.
The basic idea here is that the more you give ‘it’ away, the more ‘it’ comes back to you.
Accept the Suffering
Creative writing is remarkably difficult. It is the evisceration of one’s soul and its preservation on paper (or on-screen). To enjoy writing is not necessarily to enjoy every aspect of it. It’s worth keeping in mind that writing can’t always be fuelled by a pleasant and electrifying motivation. It can be a gruelling, torturous and sometimes unrewarding process.
Part of the secret to overcoming writer’s block and improving creativity is to accept the suffering as a necessary component of the process.
A young monk once visited his Zen master in an attempt to overcome the heat of suffering.
He asked: “Master, it is hot. How shall we escape the heat?”
The master replied:“By going right down to the bottom of the fire.”
The monk, perplexed by this counterintuitive approach, queried: “How then shall we escape the scorching flame?”
To which the master decisively responded: “No further pain shall bother you.”
Zen deeply recognises that each thing has its own way. Here’s to you finding yours.
Alan Watts Radio Lectures
An Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki
What do you think? Leave a comment.
When I was 10 I got an idea for a book and started writing it down, by hand. For weeks I felt possessed by it and I filled several notebooks, including backgrounds on characters, a detailed map, information on the world I’d created and how things worked in it. Then I typed it all up and saved it to 5 floppy disks (yes, floppy disks, and that makes me feel old.) Fast forward eighteen years and life events and several moves later and I thought they had all been lost, but I recently rediscovered them in a dusty box. This may sound stupid, but I’m not even sure how to get the files off the disks now, as my computer doesn’t have the drive, nor do the ones at the local library. Also, some part of me is extremely hesitant to open it all up. From what I remember it was a pretty awesome story and with editing and fixing and what have you that it could actually get published. But I’m also worried that if I figure out how to open the files I’m just going to find copious amounts of word vomit and disappointment.
Google for a external USB floppy disc drive. You have to at least try, regardless of the outcome, I think. Even if it’s not great like you remember, maybe it will inspire you to write something else a lot better. Most of the greatest artists, writers, filmmakers, etc, will tell you they think the stuff they made as kids was crap, but if you don’t start walking you don’t get anywhere. But, shouldn’t let that worry stop you from at least checking back on it.
Great article! When I read it, I read my own thoughts about the subject 😉 I have been ‘into’ Zen (Buddhism) since 2007.
What I suffer from more is lack of confidence about my writing. I know I can put words together, but I’m not always sure people will relate to them. I understand that even though my lack of confidence may not keep me from writing, it can keep me from sharing and it can take the joy from it sometimes.
A zen master once said “Don’t write to or for people, write to the great sky.” If you know that you can put words together then you’re already on the right path. Even if you couldn’t put words together, you’d still be on the right track. A river may temporarily be obstructed but once it starts flowing it flows without hesitation. Take the first step and share with others without worrying about their judgement. Write as though you were your only audience. If you’re pleased with the work then believe me your work will find its rightful audience.
Great article! I don’t know much about Zen Buddhism; you’ve inspired me to do some more reading on that!
As long as I’ve helped one person then my work has been fulfilled. I hope you find much satisfaction and wisdom in your readings. Thank you 🙂
A short but concise explanation of Zen philosophy. Well done.
Excellent writing advice! When I started my blog several years back, I was inspired by my little sister’s creative writing pieces. I envied her talent and wanted to write just like her. As I struggled to write anything worth reading! Talk about writer’s block! Then a friend suggested that I simply write about my own personal experiences. Write about my own life. I scratched my head, thought about it, and started writing. It was very cool, the evolution of my writing…then I went to college. How valuable all that journal-style writing became for my introduction to academic writing.
The Zen principles you offer combined with simple practices is a sure avenue to good writing. I really appreciate this article. Thank you!
Helping other people achieve a little more is really the only thing I could ever hope for. I hope your productivity and creativity continually improve 🙂
This is an interesting application of Zen philosophy to the problem of writing! Are there any exercises or practical examples of application you can share?
Of course. This might not be a direct connection to zen, but there is an online application called “The Most Dangerous Writing App.” It forces you to never take more than a 5 second pause while writing lest you lose all your work. It’s the most direct example I can think of insofar as it encourages flowing without hesitation. If you’re asking for a more general exercise, I would consider meditation. If you can learn to still and quiet the mind, the benefits will be boundless when it comes to writing. If you need me to clarify then by all means contact me.
This article was a great read! I’m a painter and when I start a new piece the white of the canvas is always daunting. I loved the tips you gave to get over writer’s block (I call it artist’s block for myself).
I’ve got three tips for punching writer’s block in the face.
1. Find Writer’s Block.
2. Clench fist.
3. Aim and move fist towards Writer’s Block, in a fast, striking motion.
Rather than tips, these look more like steps.
The best writing I ever did was while taking a creative writing class in high school, because it forced me to write every day. And, strangely enough, the more you do of it, the better you get. Ever since then, however, a stubborn combination of laziness and fear of sucking has kept me from doing much.
I, while not a great writer by any stretch of the imagination, have one small piece of advice that might help a couple of people.
Write as if you are creating for someone else.
Let me explain. While writing is a hobby, I do marketing and design by trade. Give me a concept and I can create it, tweak it and produce something satisfactory or better for just about anyone. Except myself. When I need my own invitation or flyer or logo, I lock up. Not sure why but that is often the way it goes for me.
It’s the same when I write. So I thought about it, and now I have started writing each chapter as if someone else has asked me to write it for them. Sometimes I imagine my mom wants to read a new genre or my sister needs help on an essay and write accordingly. Sure, the initial writing is very disjointed but I get so much more on the page, it is fixable. I can always go back. But there is something there.
I know not everyone will benefit from this as writing is very personal but maybe it will help someone.
I just started switching to this mindset with the work i’ve been slaving over, and it has helped me SO much. where before i’d eke out a few paragraphs, i find myself able to go on a lot longer with consideration for the fake “other” i’m writing for rather than tripping myself up with internal back-and-forth.
this is really a booster for those who wish to write
I love this post! It’s timely because I just had a blessed month of guest bloggers and was finding it a bit tough to break into my own writing again.
As an aspiring writer who often has a hard time organizing and developing her thoughts, this was a very helpful resource. Thank you for posting this.
As someone who is often subject to “writers block” I was very happy to find an article addressing the issue. The piece about clouds and waves spoke to me deeply. Listening and watching waves as well as staring at clouds makes me feel calm and is one of my favorite activities.
I hope the waves and the clouds continually appear in your life and inspire you to be freer and truer to yourself.
Nice, relevant, and helpful mini-treatise.
Rock on! Keep snorting whatever it is gives you these wonderful brain-gasms.
Writing is like dropping a huge sphincter-tearing log. At first it starts coming out slow and it hurts a little bit. But pretty soon things are flowing along and you are feeling good. And when you are done, you stand up (you feel like a weight has been lifted), put your hands on your hips, look down at what you’ve done, and are damn proud of what you have made..
Probably the most important is to stop programming your mind with negativities that become reality.
Meditation and yoga works wonders for all human beings. When it comes to yoga, mainly because of the deep breathing. No matter how stressed you are after an hour of deep breating and yoga you feel you have taken a drug that makes you one hundred percent positive.
I’ve only recently started to read about the psychological benefits of yoga. I once thought it only had physical benefits, and of those benefits I thought that the majority were to do with relaxation. I’m starting to realise that yoga is in fact an energising practice that can make life more vivid and intense.
Seems to me that Buddhism, like all religions (whether it wants to call itself a religion or a philosophy) is just another tool to keep the masses in their place, essentially saying “learn to accept your lot in life and accept the wisdom of your betters”.
I suppose it depends on which school of Buddhism you look at. As for zen, it doesn’t aim to placate or to stifle the people, it aims to reveal the nature of their existence. What people choose to do with that information is entirely up to them. Some become spiritualists, others carry on with their lives as normal, and some isolate themselves and become esoteric hermits. Zen isn’t dogmatic; it only tries to impart a lesson.
When I get stuck, I tend to try various forms of freewriting. That way even if I have to write about something really off topic, I am still writing. That eventually tricks my brain into getting the writing done.
I understand exactly where you’re coming from. Have you ever used “The Most Dangerous Writing App”? It’s an interest take on enforced free-writing.
Freewriting can help. Although when I use those strategies I hardly ever write anything useful in the present and easily dismiss it. It is only later when I revisit my notebook or Word documents that I find an idea or even a few sentences that are actually quite good and become the basis for a new writing project. I think as a writer it is important to repurpose your work.
Interesting take on how to cure writers block. Especially nice for people who get stuck often when writing.
I am going to read a slightly edited version of this to my creative writing class today. They’re always complaining about writers block.
It’s truly an honour for you to do so. Thank you 🙂 I hope the class went well.
This one’s not about writers block but just to writers in general.
Great advice. When I get stuck, writer’s block seems to worsen. It’s a downward dog for sure! I’ve never tamed that beast. Now I have some practical tips. Useful post.
This has really inspired me to go back and work on that novel I abandoned a while back.
I look forward to reading the whole novel one day. Good luck!
No one can really teach anyone else how to write, and that is the art of it.
Having taught writing for twenty years, publishing four novels along the way, I regard this as a great topic on the craft of writing.
That’s really impressive! It gives me hope that I might one day achieved what you’ve done.
I have a voice that has so much to say, but every time I hit the publish button I am in fear of missed typo’s and misspelled words and I know that holds me back.
Be dyslexic has been a challenge all of my life. It hasn’t stopped me from facing challenges or I wouldn’t be blogging. However, I do know it holds me back at times. But then I finally publish my posts and the comments start to come in and the article seems to be well received. I know there are typos and some misspelled words because my neighbor and former legal assistant is now helping to identify them and make corrections.
Nevertheless I take your words in, I marvel at how well you craft them and your message seriously resonates with me.
Amazing article! I’m definitely going to bookmark this for future reference.
I really appreciate that!
This is a very deep post and applicable to so many areas of life. Thanks for writing it.
It was a pleasure. Thanks for indulging me by reading it.
Nicely written, totally agree.
I agree with D.T. Suzuki that the use of Zen philosophy can help people write, especially the “let it flow” concept of Zen, and in this article. When I teach my English 111 college students, we do a reading from B. Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh. I find the chapter titled, “Pooh’s Way” effective because Hoff compares A.A. Milne’s Pooh to Tao-ism. Pooh’s way is that he goes with the flow and just let things happen they way they are supposed to, and not to force things. I have my students look at the structure and write about the way it was written, instead of the content. So, in doing so – the students are looking at the way the writing appears to flow naturally, like the stories within the story do. An example is the story of Small. Small, a beetle, is lost and Pooh and friends seek to find him, when Pooh falls in a well. He hears a voice and thinks it’s his, like he broke it in the fall. But it turns out it is Piglet. Pooh fell on top of him. Once Piglet is out from under Pooh, he finds Small on Pooh’s back! So the idea is to trust in the way things unfold in writing and come to you, like Alan Watt’s cloud taking shape that Suzuki teaches us about.
I am on my little trip to minimalist lifestyle for some time now and I have read some about buddhism.
The best technique I’ve found to overcome writers block is just to WRITE! No matter if it’s good or bad or uninspired.
I wholeheartedly agree with that. Too many people try to write, critique and edit simultaneously. If you’re going to write, just write. Keep on going. Thanks for reading the article.
This is essential advice, and often easier said than done. Even if you get yourself to write (badly) for 5 minutes consider it a victory when you’re stuck. You can always revisit the writing later.
What I find most interesting about this article lies within its implications if we are to shift our focus. I find “zen” and other forms of Eastern thought inform my writing process, at least to some degree, and clearly there are others here who share the same influence, or find the idea of writing under that influence appealing. This said, I am curious as to what zen writing might insinuate for fields such a literary criticism. While authorial intent is considered to be a fallacious mode of study because (unless we are the author) we can never truly “know” what an author intended, I am curious if by studying the technique an author used to create a work, we could develop new interpretations based upon that method. Certainly this happens to some degree already, James Joyce and Willam Wells Brown come to mind, but I wonder if there is something larger to be gleaned from this that can be useful for writers and readers like.
What I find most interesting about this article lies within its implications if we are to shift our focus. I find “zen” and other forms of Eastern thought inform my writing process, at least to some degree, and clearly there are others here who share the same influence, or find the idea of writing under that influence appealing. This said, I am curious as to what zen writing might insinuate for fields such a literary criticism. While authorial intent is considered to be a fallacious mode of study because (unless we are the author) we can never truly “know” what an author intended, I am curious if by studying the technique an author used to create a work, we could develop new interpretations based upon that method. Certainly this happens to some degree already, James Joyce and Willam Wells Brown come to mind, but I wonder if there is something larger to be gleaned from this that can be useful for writers and readers alike.
Meditation usually helps me when overcoming writer’s block. Things just come so much more naturally in that state – why? Maybe it’s because the cogs are turning so much more easily.
I agree–the cogs are turning much more easily. Also, by meditating, you silence the inner critic. In a certain sense, you get out of your own way and establish a more direct connection between inner creativity and the blank page before your eyes. Keep on meditating and keep on writing 🙂 I look forward to reading and hearing of your work really soon.
I totally agree with this article, even in a general sense. As writers, and as people, we have the tendency to be apprehensive and try to make our creations a certain way, but in the end, we end up becoming paralyzed. Although I do not meditate or practice zen buddhism, I do like the lessons writers, and all people, can take from the application.
I agree. And I enjoy articles like this because it reminds me that I am not the only one paralyzed and stuck in the web of my own perfectionism. It can be discouraging when we hear other writers talk about how writing is their escape, bliss, or enjoyment. Writing can be painstakingly cruel, and certainly not fun or enjoyable at times. That’s okay.
Great article, I have recently been exploring ways of beating writers block and this really opened my mind to what I do subconsciously. When I write, I am a perfectionist.
When I think of Zen’s relationship to writing, I think of paradoxes (like Zen koans) and unexpected connections. As a writer, I try to avoid the Western mentality of breaking things down into their constituent parts, and I try to instead think holistically, tracing all possible connections, however unlikely, absurd, or impossible. I know that I do not have total control of my thoughts, I simply follow them:
“I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know. ”
-Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
Your words remind me of Alan Watts. I’m especially fond of the notion that the universe is not made of parts. Everything that happens right now is one continuous process with the origin of all things. Thanks for this comment.
Speaking of koans, have you heard the ‘Goose-Bottle’ koan?
I, along with every other writer, experience writer’s block all the time. It is a common and human occurrence, so I thank you for sharing this zen perspective.
And I thank you for being willing to read this article 🙂
Yes, yes yes! I love this article in all its parts! The mention of flow reminds me a lot of the story workshop method where “games” are played to relax the inner critic and get ideas moving before actual writing begins. It’s been useful to me so far. It isn’t an exact cure of writer’s block, but it certainly helps work around it!
Thank you very much! Thanks for reading it. What kind of games are you talking about?
They’re more like writing exercises now. I’m currently in school for creative writing and we use them in class. It’s similar actually to the thing you mentioned about thinking of a random word. We’ll go around the room and give random words and sometimes sequences of words (like a noun a verb and another noun). We’re supposed to imagine something, for each word, say if someone gave the word shoe I might see a shoe store about to be robbed or something similar. Eventually we settle on one “place” either decided ahead of time or inspired by the games. Then we might describe what’s happening there, who’s there what sounds are there out loud to the class and then on the page.
It’s a little harder to do on one’s own, but the principle of relaxing the critic and opening up the imagination before going into writing is still good practice.
That’s interesting and so useful too. I’m part of some writing groups and I think that’s something that would be useful to us. Thanks 🙂
It will be a year since I began writing small poems, prose and stories. I open a second facebook account just to write. It is like a journal, but I’m able to share it with others. It brings Zen in my life when ever I write in it. I also post poctures of nature, outings and things that inspire me. You guys are welcome to read on… here is my fbook email email@example.com
Writers block is an excellent topic to cover because we have all experienced it at some point or other and is a topic that everyone can connect to. Personally I found that one of the best ways to combat writers block is to use it against it’s self. One of my better written pieces was actually about writers block. I once got so frustrated with trying to force a piece out that I started writing down how having writers block made me feel and how the white page seemed to be taunting me. Before I knew it I had multiple pages written out.So sometimes it’s good to just creatively re-channel that frustration into something else/ use it to your own advantage.
I love all of the articles I’ve read so far about embracing the task in front of you as a writer and letting fear fall away. Letting go of fear is absolutely the first, best step. It’s not enough to have good ideas if you never act upon them. Fearfulness was my biggest obstacle for a long time.
I think this idea of Zen as a tool to battle writers block is great. The Alan Watts quote about clouds is great because everything you write does not have to be perfect. By writing even when it doesn’t feel like the right emotion coming out, you are able to see what you don’t want to right and can edit or re-write from there. I rarely know exactly how I want to convey what I want, so I just write and then go back and look at it, editing and re-writing until the product is as I imagined.
Agreed! I write best when my mind is empty.
This was a wonderful read and I wholeheartedly agree, writing is sometimes best when you just let it happen.
Fantastic article! I myself am a Buddhist and a musician, as well as playwright. It was extremely interesting to read someone else’s words reassuring my thought process and approach to the arts.
This is an amazing article! I always had ideas about why I was inhibited, but this has cleared up some of the confusion, and given me sure fire ways of overcoming.
I could never fully grasp why it was so hard for me to write, but this article beautifully summarizes all of my feelings on the matter. It was a pleasure to have read this and I am sure it will help me with my writing.
writer’s block has always been something i’ve struggled with, so this was an enlightening read. 🙂
Thank you so much for this article! As a lyricist/songwriter, I often let the “blank page” attack my mind. I have never thought of it in this way, though. Until now, I had never realized that my perceived importance of an idea could diminish the idea before it is even birthed.
I am a firm believer in the quantity will result in quality idea posted here. When in doubt, write it out is my personal motto. However, I too fall into the trap that my ideas have to follow certain criteria before I will pursue them.
In my worst times, cursed with writer’s block, I simply think. I do not use some strange process to derive a gap in my thought process. I never leave my paper to rot as I wait for an epiphany to arrive during a systematic consumption of the contents of my fridge. Most people with writer’s block struggle with what to write next. I look at the situation at hand and expand upon or break down my current idea, rather than building an annex to that already solidified thought. There is always an opportunity to either abstract one’s specific information or tie an abstract thought to grounded details. Why construct an annex when there’s a perfectly useable basement and a wonderfully unexplored rooftop?
This article is very insightful. Writer’s block is something I have become too familiar with over the past couple years and I have struggled to find a solution. I like this approach and I’m definitely going to give it a try.
I think this article is a nice way for writers to open themselves up to new methods of overcoming writer’s block, even if some of them do seem self-explanatory. Nevertheless, you explained how Zen can help out writers. I do especially like the tidbit that writing should come naturally to you and writers should be more passive. The last thing your writing needs is forced developments that aren’t natural or believable.
This is a really good article, especially for a writer like me who finds fiction to be such an art, such a great experience when I feel it’s “working” (I’m talking about me).
“What unifies these principles is the assumption that creative productivity is attained by doing more; be proactive and your muse will reward you accordingly.” – This is a very good point. I didn’t think about it this way before, but I’m glad you pointed it in this article. You must work for your creativity, these methods say, not to just let them come to you. Which is, I think, what your main focus is, when connecting ideas of Zen to writing? That you should do the opposite?
I also like the Alan Watts quote about clouds. Whatever you do, it doesn’t matter that it ends up in disaster – it’s something that you do, and that’s all. That’s you. I haven’t heard of him before, but I certainly will research more about him, now.
i really like how you pieced together these two things. You did a very good job on connecting the ideas together. However I feel as though it lacked a bit of voice and excitement.
I’m a practicing yogi and have a love for meditation as well, and this article really inspired the way I see writing in relation to state-of-mind. The incorporation of quotes puts wonderful insight into the idea of the article and really helped tie everything together. Breaking it down into parts was very useful in helping understand the process of living in zen.
Great read. Very inspiring as this happens to me a lot!
In my personal experience (and I think Zen embodies this well), writing has to flow from a spontaneous source. There is only so much planning, outlining, and reflection I can do that will prove to be sources of inspiration for writing. But continually, nothing suffices but the act of throwing myself into the actuality of writing itself – the living, breathing, embodied experience of pen on paper or fingers on keys.
Zen, in getting us to notice the immediate and sensuous experience of reality, calls us to get out of our own heads, so that true wisdom and understanding can flow into our minds unimpeded. Writing, no less than meditating or reflecting upon nature, calls us to do the same. When we free write, or engage in stream of consciousness writing, we open ourselves up to the ability to be fully spontaneous in our practice. And spontaneity is a quality of the heart, not necessarily the head.
Zen masters often use the element of surprise to get their students to come to a full realization of the nature of the present moment, and thereby attain “satori” or enlightenment. When we focus on what is directly in front of us, the act of writing, instead of the lowly voices within our heads that tend towards fear, insecurity, and anxiety, we attain the capability of being spontaneous and flowing, therein allowing words and ideas, pictures and stories, to erupt through us.
In the words of Epictetus, Stoic philosopher, “If you wish to be a writer, write.”
Thank you for writing this article. There are a plethora of advice articles which suggest, as you mention, the exact opposite. Passivity is an oft-neglected virtue in more areas than just writing. As someone who often struggles with writer’s block, I’ve found that the Zen approach usually makes the most sense. When I was a kid, I wrote much more regularly and much more freely partially because I placed fewer limits on myself. I just wrote for no other reason than because I wanted to (it was natural) and thus I threw fewer mental blocks into my flowing stream of consciousness. As adults, we may substantially improve in the technical aspect of writing but we also gain a lot of psychological restrictions that impede us. No matter how hard you try or how much you may want to control something, you can never force it. Your creative output will happen when it’s meant to and when you finally allow it space for it to happen. There’s something so incredibly vibrant about allowing your writer’s thoughts to “be” rather than forcing them to become anything. It requires a great deal of trust in yourself.
“‘[W]riter’s block’ isn’t a shortage of ideas but rather a stifling self-criticism.” Well said.
Whenever I suffer from writers block, the best solutions are either a) swapping my medium: trading in my laptop for pen and paper or b) changing my environment: leaving my stuffy desk and going to the library or cafe.
So much of my writers block really steams from a lack of ability to stay with the writing when it gets hard. If you can stay with the lack page, eventually the next sentence or paragraph does come to you. If it doesn’t, maybe you really do need a break!
When I was 15, I was really into Zen philosophy – it made sense, I think, to me at the time. Cultivating a sense of … not indifference … but more like acceptance, made me feel a lot happier about both myself and my forays into the writing world. I still do think about Zen occasionally.
Nowadays, when I get bored or start procrastinating, I sometimes recall a thing I read in a book about the history of philosophy. It was about how one particular philosopher (can’t recall who) kept a human skull on his desk, as a reminder of the shortness of life.
In a way, thinking about “Memento Mori” gives me a little jolt of encouragement – because even though I may have hundreds of stories, they’re not going to write themselves! It helps, when considered in a Zen-like manner, to remember the impermanence of things. That’s what helps me write when I feel blocked.
Writing is for the introverted and passive realist. We see and we know and we want to stay hidden from all the terrible things we understand.
As a practitioner of both Buddhism and writing, I enjoyed reading your piece. I often tell my writing students to have no judgment as they draft–another carryover from Buddhist practice to writing practice. Thanks for your thoughts here…
Thank you very much for having read the article and for your kind comment.
Great points! The acceptance of ‘what is’ is an important component of art. Zen practice, mindfulness, flow all contribute to that. For me, it helps increase awareness – essential for artists! Noticing things, and being able to see them clearly as they are, is a skill that when mastered makes good art great.