Slow Down and Focus: The Mindful Writer by Dinty W. Moore
(Wisdom Publications, 978-1-61429-007-0)
Dinty W. Moore’s new book The Mindful Writer came about as a response to a question that he is often asked: How has Buddhism influenced his writing? Moore writes that he could never articulate a satisfactory answer until he realized that he was “trying all along to answer the wrong question,” for it was not Buddhism that brought him to writing, but the inverse: his pursuit of writing opened him up to Buddhism. As readers, we would be wise to remain open to the insights about writing that Moore’s superb book elucidates.
In the Introduction, Moore explains that a mindful writer is one who blocks out distractions when one is writing. This sounds basic enough, but Moore takes mindfulness a step further and explains how it also means that as a writer one is aware of why you want to write, for whom you are writing, and are able to appraise who you are as a writer. On the surface, these definitions of mindfulness seem obvious, but as writers we are often busy working at other jobs for financial support, are actively seeking publication, and once published we spend hours promoting our work, so Moore’s comments on mindfulness are reminiscent of the monks whose first lesson on meditation to a neophyte is to simply breathe. Breath is basic for survival yet when it is performed with mindfulness, this activity can lead us on the path to enlightenment. Heeding Moore’s advice on mindfulness can place us, hopefully, on the path to the writing equivalent of enlightenment.
To start us on this path, in the Introduction Moore rewrites the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism into the Four Noble Truths for Writers:
1. The writing life is difficult, full of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
2. Much of this dissatisfaction comes from the ego, from our insistence on controlling both the process of writing and how the world reacts to what we have written.
3. There is a way to lessen this disappointment and dissatisfaction and to live a more fruitful writing life.
4. The way to accomplish this is to make both the practice of writing and the work itself less about ourselves. To thrive, we must be mindful of our motives and our attachment to desired outcomes.
These Noble Truths, I believe, should be posted in every college writing classroom as a warning to beginning writers. Many of us new to writing, especially fiction, come to it with dreams of seeing our books on bestseller lists, adapted into movies, all of which equals a large income for the author, and while this occasionally happens, this is not the norm for most writers. While making money is necessary for our material survival, if that is a person’s sole reason for writing, then it is more likely that the writer will eventually crumble under the First Noble Truth.
The book is divided into four sections: The Writer’s Mind, The Writer’s Desk, The Writer’s Vision, and The Writer’s Life. Each section is composed of chapters that begin with a quote, most often from an author, and the chapters range in length from a page to a few pages of Moore expounding on the quote. The one I found most edifying and to a degree relaxing was in chapter forty-eight from T.S Eliot: “For us there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” Augmenting the comingling of Buddhism and authorial insight into writing, Moore includes in this chapter a Zen koan that is corollary to Eliot’s comment:
The student, newly arrived at the monastery, asked the master, ‘What work will I do as I seek enlightenment?’
The master replies, ‘Chop wood, carry water.’
‘And what work will I do once I achieve enlightenment?’
‘Chop wood and carry water,’ replies the master.
Eliot’s quote and this koan will now be a part of every writing class I teach, for they succinctly sum up a writer’s fundamental focus: doing the work. As writers we all want to win awards, have numerous publications, and large readerships, but as Eliot and Moore remind us those items are tangential to us putting in time performing the same daily tasks: writing and rewriting. I am relaxed by the koan because it reassures me that no matter a writer’s level, the only thing that we must do is write.
In addition to the wonderful information about writing and the writing life, the book’s direct and plain-spoken prose style is well suited to the material. There are no superfluous words in the book, allowing the reader to focus on the information, and thereby be a mindful reader. An example of this direct style is in chapter thirteen, which begins with a quote from C.S Lewis:
Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. Give up yourself, and you will find your real self.
Lewis’s comment sounds strikingly similar to Buddhist thoughts on the self; Moore acknowledges this in the paragraph that follows the quote and his recognition of this similarity could have led him into a deep pontification on the point. In a little over a page, however, Moore teases out the important meaning from Lewis: “There is simply the truth of our being, who we are as human beings on this odd planet, how we live our lives, and a writer captures that truth not through cleverness and guile, but by listening, observing, recording.”
I will keep The Mindful Writer close at hand for its ability to illuminate thoughts on writing and as a referral for when the writing life becomes too hectic and I need a quick pick me up.
Reviewed by: Hardy Jones