Written by A Guest Author September 14th, 2023

Mindfulness and Writing

Martha Witt

Many years ago, during a residency at an artist colony, I was sitting at my desk struggling to write when my eye caught a phrase scrawled into the wood of my desk: “Writers write.” At the time, stalled trying to draft a story, I naturally moved to the existential question, “Am I really a writer?” The graffitied words provided a needed balm. If all it means to be a writer is to write, well, I can do that. OK. Over the years, I have heard this axiom repeated, and I still find it soothing, but I’d like to propose a few additions: “Writers also walk, run, catch the bus, go shopping, dialogue, engage with other disciplines, raise children, sit on the couch.” In other words, the obvious bears being said: writers’ lives go beyond the words on the page.

The world, especially the contemporary world, is not built to accommodate artists. The publish-or-perish mentality that makes all endeavors a zero-sum game, fuels the product-oriented mindset that judges a writer according to the number of publications produced, the amount of the advance, the ratings on Amazon or Goodreads. These aspects of a writer’s life are, of course, important, but lean into them too strongly and you will invite the noise antithetical to any authentic endeavor. To counteract the toxicity, writers must cultivate a certain mindset, a way of listening crucial to creating and sustaining their art as well as to accessing their own voices, which can only be found levels below the loudest ones. And things get very loud: the noise of social media, the noise of work, play, the noise of a telephone ringing, the noise of all that we must do, forgot to do, did do but must re-do, the sounds of children fighting. Without cultivating strong channels to our unique ways of hearing, noticing, understanding, all that noise will drown out the reason we started writing in the first place.

Within this noise, I try to remind myself that a deep commitment to creating a beautiful thing, to returning day after day to layer a character, expand a scene, or to select the right word or linebreak, holds intrinsic value independent of what happens with the work in the end. The daily engagement with process—shaping a sentence until it captures a certain nuance, or re-reading a scene for false notes, or diving headlong into a first draft without restrictions or second-guessing, hones the lens through which we see and respond to the world. This practice sharpens our senses so that, beneath the noise of daily living, we can hear not only our own voices but those of others. We can tune into what is worthy of our attention and channel our focus, offering what we discover along the way to our imaginations.

There are a few steps to cultivating a mindful approach to writing that will help us break through the noise and return us to the joy of process:

  • Freewrite: Bring your experience to the page. Write without restrictions, rules, or judgement. Give yourself a time limit, but for that entire time your only goal is to spill words onto the page.
  • Allow for a State of Flow: In his foundational study on the psychology of creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi posited that people are happiest when the ego falls away and they are able to work in “a state of flow.” Achieving this state requires a task that is engaging and challenging but achievable. Your project should be of genuine interest to you. Don’t write what you think other people want to read or what you think will make you sound smart and interesting. Shed the ego and discover the joy of being transported into a state of flow.
  • Stay in the Moment: Tune into the world around you. Imagery requires details, specifics, minutiae. Focusing on what is in front of you now, in the present, will lead you to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. In her poem, “Sometimes,” Mary Oliver offers valuable instruction for a mindful approach to both writing and living:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

Bio: Martha Witt is the author of the novel Broken as Things Are (Henry Holt, 2004; Picador, 2005). With the support of a Fulbright Award, she is currently in Brazil completing her current novel, The Truth Lies Between. Her flash and short fiction, some of which have been translated into Italian, have appeared in One Story, AGNI, Narrative Magazine, Boulevard Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, Southern Indiana Review, and elsewhere. In collaboration with Mary Ann Frese Witt, she has translated Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (Italica Press, 2013) and Henry IV (Italica, 2016), Grazia Deledda’s Ivy (Italica, 2019), as well her novel Dance of the Necklace (Italica Press in March 2023). She has held several residencies at the Yaddo, VCCA, Ragdale, and Ascea artist colonies as well as the Casa delle Traduzioni in Rome. Her translation of Deledda’s The Mother is forthcoming with Italica Press in 2024. She is a professor of English and creative writing at William Paterson University.


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