Total presence in the writing center

Hello, dear blogosphere and assorted Writing Center friends.

The best writing advice I have ever stumbled upon was not in a standard grammar book or Style by Williams & Colomb or even Stephen King’s On Writing. Rather, I happened upon it in a little book by a Catholic priest named Henri Nouwen, and this is roundabouts what he said:

For the sake of your own soul, I urge you to cultivate presence.

“By presence,” he writes, “I mean attentiveness to the blessings that come to you day after day, year after year. The problem of modern living is that we are too busy … to notice that we are being blessed… It has become extremely difficult for us to stop, listen, pay attention, and receive gracefully what is offered to us.”

Is this truly writing advice?

I would argue, YES.

The artist of great language experiences a special joy. We can be such artists! Crafting our language into shapely thought-animals, capable of standing on two (or four) legs apart from our creational clarification… that is achievement and worthy of aspiration.


We too often try to make flying leaps between achievement and aspiration and fall flat on our faces! We want the first draft to be the last draft! We multitask ourselves into defeat!

In the quest of creating GREAT ART, bridging the aspiration and achievement is doable. It’s just a process.

So let’s break it down, shall we?

How to Cultivate Total Presence in the Writing Process

  1. Turn off that cell phone. Be where you are. (Where are you? See #2)
  2. GO someplace that will lead you to “pen-to-paper” productivity.
    • Being alone is perfectly acceptable. Library, study corners, your room…
    • I prefer a semi-quiet environment. Coffee shop, kitchen table, the Writing Center… These are particularly great places if you need positive peer pressure to get your work did.
    • Outside is always an option. Beware of this one, though. Looking for that one word on the tip of your tongue can quickly turn into looking at that mermaid-shaped cloud or looking at how cute the squirrel is. Construction is also to be considered.
  3. Shut off:
    • Safari
    • Chrome
    • Mozilla Firefox
    • (the ever-popular) Internet Explorer à My other Writing Center friends are much more technology savvy than I, and they say they know ways to get the technology to workagainst them, e.g. have your browser lock you out of Twitter or FB after 2 hours of surfing for no good reason (other than seeing those wedding photos for the hundredth time or revising your movie list or checking out Drop-Dead-Gorgeous So-and-So). No no no no no. Every bit of research ever done by anyone ever says we can’t multitask and expect excellence.
      • So get off. Now.
  4. Put headphones in, even if you don’t or can’t put on music. I have gotten into a writing zone for hours and realized I never opened iTunes, but once I took the headphones off, the osmosis of thought between my computer and me was disturbed unto death. Wearing headphones alone is a silly trick. But it works. Honest.
  5. You tell yourself you can work with friends. You cannot. Statistically speaking, the likelihood you will, in that grand social atmosphere, write anything is zero percent.
  6. Get a hot drink to plant your tail.
  7. Finish drinking and thinking and staring at the blank screen.
  8. Then just begin to write the thing. Turn off the inner critic and promise yourself, now that you’re writing Round ONE, you can work on the craft of your creation after it’s finished getting created.

I believe in you. And once you discipline yourself to stay on task and just write, you can begin to engage in the great joy of CRAFT. Creation stands apart from craft. But in both seasons of the writing process, your presence is vital. And you know… Writing goes faster the more you pay attention: that’s why the best parts of our lives seem to fly by. We’re invested!

So invest! Pay attention! Lock into the beautiful specifics of your own writing process and, as Neil Gaiman urges us,

make good art.

I happily anticipate your creations.


This post was originally published on October 4, 2013.


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