I’m so excited to share with you all that, two weeks ago, I graduated from a two-year mindfulness meditation teacher certification program. It was such an honor to study under Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, who have loomed large in my life for the last fifteen years as figureheads of the mindfulness community. As we wrapped up, they asked us all to think about our intentions for how we want to teach. For me, the answer has come into focus in the last few months: I want to share mindfulness with my writing community.
Meditation has changed my life in countless ways, yes, but one of the areas where it has had the greatest impact is in my writing. It is no surprise to me, when I look back on recent years, that my writing really took off when I got more serious about my meditation practice.
I’ve thought a lot about this because, as we should all keep in mind, correlation is not necessarily an indicator of causation. But when I really picked it apart, I found I could actually quantify the ways in which meditation has improved my writing.
I can name 7 ways (and counting) that mindfulness has helped me become a better writer. There’s no way I can address them all in one blog post, but over the next few months, I plan to write a little about each. (If you’re feeling impatient, consider signing up for my day-long Mindful Writers Workshop on March 27.)
Today we’ll start with the idea of “Right View” and how it can help us improve our editing.
Right View is the place where all mindfulness meditation practice begins. It’s about about seeing things as they truly are, not as we want, wish or imagine them to be. Only once we accept things as they are in the present moment can we begin to know what actions (if any) to take.
Okay, you say, that’s all peace and rainbows, but how does it help me edit my work?
Because we can’t edit a sentence/paragraph/chapter/story if we can’t first see what is actually on the page, as it is, without the imagined overlay we bring to it with our minds. This is Right View.
Try this. Imagine a kitchen.
Picture the details. The appliances, the colors, the finishes, the floor. What does it smell like? What is the light like?
Okay, so if in my manuscript I write that my character “strolls into the kitchen” and starts arguing with her mother, in my head I’m seeing this:
But that isn’t what’s on the page. What’s on the page is “the kitchen.” For you, “the kitchen” could be this:
You can see how the different kitchens lend themselves to different moods and probably affect whatever scene is about to go down.
If it’s important to the story that you see the kitchen as I see the kitchen, I need to give more details. Not EVERY detail, but enough that you begin to see what I’m trying to convey.
The trick is, as I’m editing, my eye scans right over the words “the kitchen” because in my mind, I know what it looks like. I am bringing a whole room full of imagination and overlaying the words “the kitchen” with pale wood cabinets and brick colored tile. If I want that to be what you see, I need to get those words on the page.
Currently I’m editing a draft of my second novel and I’m finding this insight very useful. I try to see exactly what is on the page. Thinking about Right View, I try to notice every generic placeholder phrase and ask myself if a detail or two wouldn’t help paint the picture more effectively.
For instance, in the opening of my story I had written that “it was raining.” Blah. Dull. What kind of rain? Was it a drizzle or a flood? I played around with it a while and landed on: “Fat, unrelenting drops pummeled the earth leaving divots in the mud.” Perfect? I don’t know, I’ll probably revise it again, but it’s a whole lot more illustrative of what I saw in my head when I set out to write the scene.
And I would not have taken the time to rewrite the line if I hadn’t been able to really see what was on the page and ask if it was what I was seeing in my head, if it was REALLY what I was trying to convey.
Red Flag Words
You’ll notice in the example above I started with the phrase: it was raining. I find the word “was” to be a red flag word. It’s one of those words that I really look for when I get to this final stage of editing. I’ll even go so far as to do a word search for it to help me see it (because it really can be invisible).
She was sad. It was late. The car was fast. The dog was ugly. These are boring, uninteresting sentences that actually tell us very little. Ask yourself what you actually see when you imagine her being sad. Write that.
To be clear, you’re never going to get every instance of the word “was” out of your writing, but if you look at your draft and think “it’s perfect” do a search for the word. If it pops up five or six times in a paragraph, you could probably do some editing.
My list of red flag words also includes lazy verbs (walked, looked, loved, thought) and colors (blue, red, yellow). If you have your characters “looking” a lot, consider some more interesting verbs (peering, gazing, staring). Likewise, search for colors and ask yourself – is the dress blue? Or is it saphire, or maybe cobalt? You can see how a specific blue paints a more specific image.
Take a Break
One of the best ways to see your work clearly is to take a break from it. When I finish a draft I print it out and stick it in a drawer for as long as I can. I try to give it a whole month while I move on to another project. This allows my brain to forget all the imagined details so that when I come back to it I can give it a “fresh” read and hopefully catch all the places where I need to add more details.
A break, combined with some mindfulness practice, is the best way I’ve found to really see what’s on the page. So in the name of mindfulness (and better prose) I invite you to join my partners and I at A Very Important Meeting. We start each writing session off with a ten-minute meditation. It’s a great way to introduce the practice into your writing routine. And it’s free. And the people are great. Seriously. It’s worth checking out.
I hope you enjoyed this piece and learned a little something. If you found the content valuable, tips are hugely appreciated.