The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life by Dinty W. Moore might look like a “gift” book if you saw its cute red cover on the shelf at your local bookstore. You know the type of book I mean – nicely packaged, not too long, full of nice reflections and meaningful quotes. Perfect for the person who has everything or when you really don’t know what else to get. Personally, I’ve been known to turn up my nose at these kinds of books, judging them as shallow without reading a word. It would be a mistake to see The Mindful Writer this way.
Still, pre-conceived notions need to be broken. I’ll admit it was the quote from Thomas Mann printed on the back of the book (in reassuring serifed letters) that shattered my snap judgment and grabbed my attention: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
The idea resonated. I call myself a writer and writing is hard for me; I have to read this book. So I did, and I’m grateful.
More than being a writing guide or an inspirational call to composition, The Mindful Writer encourages us to be aware of and explore the practice of having a creative process. Moore’s book nudges us to evolve and deepen as writers through our own mindful and deliberate actions. Like how a meditator develops a practice, a writer sits down to write, again and again. This kind of writing practice is done with consistency and awareness, accompanied by curiosity, dedication and, hopefully, a good amount of enthusiasm. As I’ve developed as a writer, the idea of approaching writing as a day-to-day practice feels increasingly true, useful and profound.
Moore knows about writing. He’s authored many essays, stories and books, including The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment and Sitting Still, where he writes about finding a meditation practice, and Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide for Writing. He is also a well known and respected writing teacher, particularly in the area of creative nonfiction.
For The Mindful Writer, Moore has chosen 59 quotes from writers and artist that articulate different aspects of the writer’s experience. For each quote, he provides a brief response, “illuminating how, in my view, writing and mindfulness can intersect in positive and productive ways,” he writes. “One need not be Buddhist, of course, to be mindful and alert. In fact, seeing how often non-Buddhist writers offer advice that seems entirely compatible with what I encounter in by Buddhist studies reinforces all that I have come to believe about the convergence of the two.” The quotes and commentaries comprise the book’s four chapters. In addition, Moore has written an introduction, in which he explains the four noble truths as he sees them applying to the writer’s life.
I have read, re-read and carried in my backpack this little red book of Moore’s for three months now. The book’s size (I measured 4-3/4 by 6-3/4 inches) and hard-bound cover make it an ideal traveling companion: durable and small. Perhaps because it’s often with me, the book has taken on a near totemic place in my life. Just looking at its humble red cover, I am reminded that putting ideas on the page is a practice, and a practice worth doing.
Moore’s book has offered assurance to me when writing seems too difficult to do and thoughts on how to move through those tough spots. Finding the right arrangement of letters to share my experiences requires a clear and focused mind, strongly rooted in the present moment. For me, this is hard. But The Mindful Writer prompts me to remember that I’m already practicing these very things when I sit on my meditation cushion. The relationship between meditating and writing is not a new idea to me, but it is one that benefits from reinforcement. If I can create a firm seat at my writing desk, I can then best relate to myself and the world, recording my impressions with wisdom and compassion. That’s the idea at any rate. To be sure, it’s a practice.
The Mindful Writer touches on many challenges familiar to anyone who has put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. On some days, self-doubt and dissatisfaction pop up between nearly every word. Based on his own experience as a writer and teacher, Moore shares useful wisdom to navigate the choppy waters churned up by these negative thought patterns.
Here’s a quote from the chapter “The Writer’s Mind” that struck a chord for me:
“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 sounds remarkably like a Zen teacher, perhaps one attempting to explain the most notoriously bewildering of Buddhist concepts, the notion of ‘no self,’” Moore comments. Reading this, I connect with my own experiences attempting meditation on wisdom realizing emptiness. From there, I get curious about integrating writing with wisdom meditation: How does that work?
Moore concludes his reflection on this quote with an idea about the conventional experience of writing: “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 or guile, but by listening, observing, recording.” I find this idea very helpful, smoothing out my worries about having something worthwhile to say.
I could give many more examples of meaningful quotes and Moore’s responses, but then I would be giving away too much. This is a book best left for a reader and writer’s personal exploration and discovery. I’ll wrap up, however, with this pithy and provocative quote from Thich Nhat Hanh: “Compassion is a verb.”
Take a moment to think about what that might mean for you not only in how you live your life, but in what you write as well. As Moore points out, we are all writers. We text family, email co-workers, fill in comment cards at the doctor’s office, write cover letters for jobs and so on. Where do you see the “compassion verb” fitting in with your keystrokes and hand-formed letters? The Mindful Writer might be a book worth reading to help answer that question.
Laura Miller is the managing editor of Mandala. She is also trying to complete an MFA in creative nonfiction (which may explain part of her enthusiasm for Moore’s book).
Published by Wisdom Publications