Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Seven Factors of Great Writing

I'm reading The Beginner's Guide to Insight Meditation by Arinna Weisman and Jean Smith to review tomorrow, and I realized that it actually makes for a really interesting writer's guide. At times I had to remind myself that they were discussing the personal road to Nirvana not the best way to write your next novel. But it just so happens that the Seven Factors of Enlightenment also seem to be the Seven Factors of Great Writing. They are mindfulness, investigation, effort, rapture, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity. Mindfulness might be where the breaking point happens between competent writers and great writers. "The Buddha described two kinds of mindfulness: bare attention, that quality of knowing directly and intimately the essentials of experience without interpretation; and general comprehension which understands the purpose of what we are doing" (120). Writers need to cultivate both kinds of mindfulness, simultaneously reducing the world around them to the essentials, breaking down the elements to discover how the pieces work, or don't work, together. At the same time, they need to be students of the human condition so they can understand why people behave the way they do, what motivates certain emotions and actions, what makes the world what it is, or what could change the world in an instant. Constantly asking questions is a sign of mindfulness, and that leads to investigation

"Investigation can counter boredom and aversion by lighting up the mind with questions such as 'What is my experience?' 'What are the details of it?' 'Do I really know it?'" (131). These are good questions for anybody to ask, but a writer takes these questions as a starting point to more investigation, more inquiries. If you're stuck on what to write, you can jolt your muse by asking a series of questions about yourself and the world around you. "What is my experience and how does that differ from my brother's experience?" From there, the only thing stopping you is your imagination. Writing is an attempt to answer questions and solve mysteries. Some of them are explicitly drawn questions and mysteries, like the work you might do for a research essay, and some of the mysteries are more subtle, implicit, maybe we don't even know they're inside of us. If you're stuck on a school assignment or you have writer's block, find something to investigate. Investigation leads to effort. "The Buddha described four ways we can make courageous effort: guarding, abandoning, nurturing and maintaining"( 114). When I read that line, I immediately thought of my greatest challenge as a writer. It's not the search for ideas, since there are ideas and characters and new worlds everywhere you look. My greatest challenge isn't motivation, since there's nothing I love more than losing myself in my imagination and bringing a new story to life. My greatest challenge is the internal editor, the little voice that criticizes everything I do until I'm paralyzed with indecision and uncertainty. I know I'm not the only one who feels this way. Every writer at one point or another is secretly convinced they suck. Every. Single. One. That self-doubt may last for a few minutes, a few hours, or a few years. When the self-doubt is allowed to go on for that long, it usually looks a lot like writer's block.

It's possible to protect yourself from the destructive imps that would hinder all progress. If you're aware of a possible threat, you can guard yourself against it. This may take some self-evaluation. Are there any particular factors or events that set your inner editor off? Are there particular people that harm your self-confidence? Is there past trauma informing your current actions? You have to protect yourself against the circumstances that cause your insecurities and fear. At the same time, when the critical voices and feelings start, make the effort to abandon it. Don't feed into the critical thoughts, creating a constant loop of doubt and debasement. Recognize they're present, acknowledge them, and then dismiss them because you are in charge of them. Not the other way around. Nurturing involves creating the mental space that will lead to positive feelings and results. Don't just focus on the things that hurt you. Seek out and cultivate positive influences. I love the definition of rapture. "Rapture is the joyous interest that pervades the mind and body with lightness and happiness." Naturally, they're referring to quite a different state than what I'm thinking about, but isn't that exactly what it's like when a project really clicks? Don't you feel a sense of lightness and happiness when a plot goes into high gear, when characters began to speak for themselves, or when you finally have the perfect thesis statement for your research paper? Isn't it that sense of lightness and happiness that carries you through to the end of a difficult project and then beyond? Ultimately, isn't that what writers strive for and what students always secretly want to capture? The moment when you're imbued with that joyous interest and you reach a higher level beyond self-doubt? You don't have to be an author or self-identify as a writer to reach this state of rapture. Everybody is capable of it, including the student who is only writing the essay because he "has to."

"Investigation, effort and rapture are called the arousing factors; tranquility, concentration and equanimity are called the stabilizing or calming factors" (130). Writing requires energy, enthusiasm, confidence, and joyous interest. But it also requires the stabilizing factors. Tranquility brings peace and suppresses anxiety, which leads to great concentration. The ability to gather the mind and direct it continuously towards one object--in this instance, the project, the art, the work you're creating. Finally, there is equanimity. "It is a mind without clinging or aversion, so it is not inclined towards any extreme" (132). I don't believe wild flights of emotion, extreme reactions, or disrupted mind states lead to great art. The best writers I have ever met are, without exception centered, focused people. They are not emotional automatons or enlightened beings above petty human concerns, but they have disciplined minds, patience with themselves, and focus.

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