Inertia. Apathy. Terror. Monkey Mind.

Inertia. Apathy. Terror.

Was I alone in my delusion that becoming a published author would cure this ill, drive it from my mind? Having books out in the world with my name on them hasn’t fixed it. Rather, the critical internal voice has grown stronger and more bold.

“Who do you think you are?”

Imposter syndrome. Low self-esteem. Personality quirks. Sloth. Insecurity. Anxiety. Chronic depression (recurrent, severe).

This is what I face nearly every time I sit down to write. Call it what you want, but one term fits better than any other:

Monkey Mind.

“According to Buddhist principles, the ‘monkey mind’ is a term that refers to being unsettled, restless, or confused.”—Psychology Today

Monkey mind can take many forms. It might be a voice in your head or mild (or extreme) agitation. It could send you to the refrigerator (or the drug dealer) and is probably why you’re unloading the dishwasher (or going for yet another dog walk) instead of writing that piece you promised your editor months ago. Monkey mind transforms itself and reformulates as quickly as you find a solution.

Monkey mind is the great chameleon.

Best-selling author Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones, Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home) explains one theory about the tenacity of monkey mind. In Thunder and Lightning, Natalie calls monkey mind “The guardian at the gate.”

Monkey mind, she explains, is like those enormous and somewhat terrifying statues that “guard” the gates to a monastery. They’re put there to challenge entrants. The guardians ask if you are willing to face these demons (and your own). Are you worthy of the teachings? Are you up to the challenge?

Sensei Sean Murphy of Sage Institute for Creativity and Consciousness recently discussed something similar with our 200-hour meditation leader training cohort. As he traveled across the country interviewing Zen teachers for his book One Bird, One Stone, many of the teachers did their best to evade him, refusing to answer his questions. They only wanted to teach the serious, the persistent, the rigorous. Sensei Murphy continued to show up and, ironically, their antics, playing guardian at the gate, gave him great stories to tell.

What do grotesque statues and reluctant Zen masters have in common with your unrelenting desire to play just one more game of computer solitaire?

Inertia. Apathy. Terror.

They are protecting the jewels.

The part of us trying to write terrifies the part of the mind that thinks we need to be protected. Monkey mind believes it is doing you a favor. But this guardian at the gate of your heart and mind also knows you’re getting close. The story that needs to be told, the mystery only you can solve, the message you must tell the world awaits just behind the temple door.

The guardian asks, “How bad to you want it?”

And how do you prove you want it?

By writing.

Simple, but true. In another piece I’ll talk about how the only cure for writing is writing.

Is that it? Just write? Yes, and no. Other techniques can help you still that chattering monkey which will, in turn, allow you to face the page.

For me, it’s meditation both on the cushion and out in the world.

Sitting meditation, writing practice, and moving meditation (usually running) have brought my own monkey mind out of hiding. It’s stealthy, slippery, persistent, but not invincible. When you sit through terror, run through inertia, and write about (and through) apathy, monkey mind realizes you’re not fooling around.

But why bother if writing is so difficult? Why not take up plumbing or mathematics or binge-eating instead?

Because the rewards are huge. Not much beats the feeling of pushing a pen across a page. And when you’re done, you have the victory of having made a thing, first a raw, often ugly, rarely sensical, thing, and later, a more lovely, shaped, and formed creation.

You’re at the temple gate. Will you walk through?

For more writing wisdom, please check out You Should Be Writing, the new writing journal from Mango Publishing by Brenda Knight and Nita Sweeney.

Writing From The Inside Out – August 12th

Don’t miss my next class!

Sunday, August 12 at 1 PM – 5 PM

Upper Arlington Senior Center
1945 Ridgeview Road, Columbus, Ohio 43221

Fee: $50

For more information call 614-583-5300. Register online here.

“I fully recommend Nita Sweeney, a wonderful teacher who I asked to bring writing practice to Ohio. She has studied with me intensively for many years and understands the fears and hopes of writers. Her workshops benefit beginners as well as long-time practitioners.” – Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind

Does that nasty inner critic keep you from writing? If so, spend an afternoon learning writing practice with Nita Sweeney, MFA, freelance writer, teacher, and long-time student of Natalie Goldberg. “Writing practice” reduces stress around writing, increases productivity, and tames the inner critic. In-class writing practice, optional reading with no critique and short periods of meditation help students access their wild writing minds. No previous writing or meditation experience is necessary. Course content varies to accommodate returning students. Open to adults of all ages. Bring a pen, a notebook, and an open mind for a day filled with creative fun!

My Critics, My Friends

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” – Winston Churchill

I’ve spent the past two years collecting rejection letters from agents and publishers. If I were to print them, I’d have a fistful.

The generic “this isn’t right for our list” letters don’t bother me. Even the ones that say “memoirs don’t sell” don’t get under my skin. But when a letter is more specific and there’s some possibility the agent or editor could be on the right track, I get twitchy. And that’s what I need to attend to. The more twitchy I get, the more likely they are on to something.

I choose to believe that the vast majority of people in the publishing industry work there because they love the written word. But they are also bombarded by so many submissions that they have to make a quick decision based on their gut and their experience in the market. Do they miss from time to time? Of course! Remember Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? It received 121 rejections before going on to become a best-seller. But more often than not, since editors and agents work in the field, they know what they are talking about.

My job is to not let this feedback derail me. My biggest critic is myself. As a child, I may have internalized my perfectionist father or a teacher with biting words, but now that I’m an adult, it’s my voice I have to deal with. My job is to listen, thank the voice for trying to help me, because that’s what it thinks it is doing, and figure out if there’s any truth it it.

It’s very similar to what I do with an agent or editor’s specific response. I thank the person for the feedback and for taking time to respond. Few editors and agents reply at all. When one takes the time to write something more than “it’s not what we’re looking for,” I thank them. Then I let my emotions simmer and let the feedback sit.

While I’m waiting for my jets to cool, I do something else. I might read someone else’s work and offer feedback. I might submit to other agents or publishers who only want a proposal, a query, or a few chapters. That way, if I decide to revise, I’m sending parts that won’t be changed later. Or I enter contests that have upcoming deadlines so I won’t miss an opportunity. I stay busy.

Once I’m calmer, I look again. Is there truth in the feedback? If so, how can I incorporate it? I try to see the critic as a friend. I’m not alone in this endeavor. There are helpers all along the way.

No Future Reward

“There are no standards and no possible victories except the joy you are living while dancing your run. You are not running for some future reward – the real reward is now!” – Fred Rohe, The Zen of Running

When I run, and especially when I race, I’m able to stay in the moment. I just finished the San Diego Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon. A line of women all dressed like Marilyn Monroe left me laughing for a good mile. The funky houses and friendly neighbors in University Heights kept me alert and awake for several more miles. The sight of runners dressed like Elvis, wearing tutus, or dolled up in other costumes helped me keep my head right where my feet were for more miles after that.

When there were no interesting distractions, I made the physical sensation of running my companion. I observed the rhythmic movement of arms and legs. I felt my heart beating. I focused on my breath as it flowed in and out. All of these things kept me rapt for 13.1 miles over several hours. There was no future and no past. There was only now.

I know that there are standards and victories in writing, but still I wish I could adopt the attitude of having no future reward every time I face the page. So often my mind turns to the future. I wonder if what I’m writing will interest anyone else or if I’m simply writing for my own purposes. I wonder if it’s marketable. I wonder if it’s boring. I wonder, I wonder, I wonder.

All this wondering is simply my inner critic taking me for a ride. It is not helpful to me or the writing and it is not kind. Rather, it is painful. The inner critic thinks it is being helpful by preventing me from making mistakes. The problem is, when the critic is so strong, merely facing the page becomes a huge challenge. Finishing anything turns into a monumental task.

The key, I believe, is to be fully present to the writing as I’m doing it. Not only do I lose myself in the work, but I take pleasure in the physical sensations whether it is my fingers on a pen or on a keyboard. I alternate between a sitting desk and one for standing which helps keep me alert and reduces pain. And when the words take over, I lose myself for long periods of time in the consciousness of the page.

In my experience, publication alone doesn’t bring the huge rewards one might think. The huge rush of seeing my first magazine article on the cover of Dog World Magazine lasted only a few days. It was a momentary high I’m glad I experienced, but neither it nor my other publication credits could carry me for the long run.

Rather, the writing itself delivers the pleasure. If not, I wouldn’t write at all. And this brings me back to the moment. I must continue to find ways to enjoy writing in the moment. Even a bad day writing, a day when I put in the proverbial comma in the morning only to take it out in the afternoon, is better than a day not writing at all.

After NaNoWriMo, What’s Next?

I finished National Novel Writing Month with 75,000 words of a first draft. Now I have options. Since there’s more story to tell, December could be NaNoFiMo (National Novel Finishing Month) in which, despite the holidays, novelers attempt to write an additional 30,000 words. Or, I could partcipate in De-PlotWriMo – December Plot Writing Month and refine the plot arc of my first draft. Come March, there’s NaNoEdMo (National Novel Editing Month) in which folks pledge to log 50 hours of editing. And, if I just can’t wait until November to take another book writing challenge, I could join JulNoWriMo (July Novel Writing Month).

Fiction isn’t the only genre with a NaNoWriMo type event. Want to write a screenplay? There’s Script Frenzy. A picture book? National Picture Book Writing Week. The poets have RePoWriMo (National Refrigerator Poetry Writing Month) in April and NEPMo (National Epic Poetry Month) in May. And the songwriters have FAWM (February Album Writing Month) in which they attempt to write fourteen original songs in twenty-eight days.

These challenges create a structure and a supportive environment in which to set aside the inner critic and get the work done. Sure, I can slog it out at home alone in front of the computer with the faithful yellow labrador beside me, but it’s more fun to be in a group of people who are all up against the same challenge. We gather on-line and in person. We toss around ideas. We grouse. We celebrate small victories. We go a little nuts.

No matter your preference, there’s a writing challenge for you. I’ve only mentioned a few. For a complete list, go here and scroll down to “NaNoWriMo-style Events On The Horizon.” Which challenge will you take?

Verified by MonsterInsights