Dinty W. Moore is the author of numerous books, including the National Book Prize winning memoir, Between Panic & Desire, and The Accidental Buddhist. He is editor of Brevity, a journal of concise creative nonfiction and teaches creative writing at Ohio University. He also has amazing glasses. His latest book is The Mindful Writer, in which he relates his Buddhist practices to the act of writing, and comes out the other side with advice that any writer would be wise to consider. He answered questions by email.
John Warner: I read the book, so I know, but for the audience’s sake, what are the Four Noble Truths of Buddhist teachings?
Dinty W. Moore: They go like this, depending on the translation:
There is some disagreement about the word often translated as “suffering.” I agree with those who say that “discontentment” is a better way to capture the constant ennui and distraction so many of us feel. Or to put it in easy-to-grasp, modern language: People are by their very nature discontent, and this discontentment leads to unhappy lives filled with unproductive yearning for more. There is a way to lessen or end this constant discontentment, however, and that way is the path of mindfulness and non-attachment taught by the man we call “the Buddha.”
JW: And you’ve turned those into the Four Noble Truths of the Writer’s Life.
DWM: Yes, or at least I’ve tried to. The term “noble truths” makes me uncomfortable, so perhaps I should have called them the “four possible things that may be true or at least somewhat helpful,” but that probably would not have not have grabbed people’s attention.
JW: In the introduction, you talk about how, rather than Buddhism influencing your writing, your writing led you to the path of Buddhism, that the difficulties you experienced writing prepared you for a fruitful encounter with Buddhist teachings. You’d been, in some way, dabbling in those truths. Are lots of writers, in your words, “inarticulate, subconscious” Buddhist practitioners?
DWM: I suppose it is a bit presumptuous to call someone a Buddhist practitioner if they have not chosen that term for themselves. Flannery O’Connor, for instance, would surely have spit right in my eye if I said that to her. But so much basic spiritual teaching overlaps – grace is similar to enlightenment, “do unto others” connects with karma, and so on and so forth. Maybe what I am really saying then is that a connection with one’s core spirituality – whatever the label or belief system – resembles the mindset most conducive to writing, and to other artistic practices. So if James Tate says, “When one is highly alert to language, then nearly everything begs to be a poem,” he is reminding us to be mindful, to slow down and breathe and experience what is all around us, including the words themselves. That’s all. There is a world of similarity between the alert, contemplative life – whether Buddhist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, or atheist – and the open, artistic life.
JW: You also say in the introduction that your writing didn’t really change once you embraced a conscious practice, but surely having a conscious, articulate awareness is different than the inarticulate, subconscious one. I’m thinking in writing, where in one’s early development stages, one might catch some lightning, but not really be sure about whyor howthat material is somehow better and hotter than the previous stuff. Later, with a greater awareness of craft, or just the wisdom gained from experience, one becomes better at finding the lightning, bringing a big metal pole to the writing field with you (if you will). That’s not really a question, but maybe you can comment on that.
DWM: I love that metaphor – bringing a big metal pole to the writing field, because you know the lightning is what you seek. But that reminds me of something I’ve learned about the Buddhist concept of Enlightenment. While some – certain Zen teachers still stress this – describe enlightenment as a sudden smack to the forehead, a lightning bolt if you will, I’ve run into teachers who describe it as a gradual, even incremental process. Enlightenment can come and go. It is not like a New Yorkercartoon where the enlightened one sits outside a cave staring into the sky for all eternity. So yes, as a writer who has learned again and again through trial and error, I am probably better at recognizing when something true and unexpected pops up in an early draft, and I know to honor that and follow it to see where it may lead. Is that enlightenment, or just experience? Who cares, if it makes my life, or my writing, more productive.
JW: The book is organized as a series of very short chapters, each led by a quote, most of them from well-known and successful literary writers. To a non-writer audience, many of them paint the writer’s life as a kind of misery:
A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than other people. – Thomas Mann
Writing is a struggle against silence. – Carlos Fuentes
When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. This happens every time. Then gradually I write one page and then another. – John Steinbeck
And yet, in the book, they’re meant as inspiration, and I, at least, read them that way. Some are closer than others to koans, but they seem to fulfill a similar purpose.
DWM: Yes, when you put them back to back, they can seem rather depressing. (Insert wink and smile.) What is positive, I think, is to recognize that even Steinbeck, even Mann, had those days where they sat in front of their writing paper and wanted to curl up into a ball of despondency. If you think you are the only writer who has these days where every interesting thought seems to have dried up, and every word sounds flat, then you will quit. If you realize it is part of the ongoing process, that even the great ones faced it, that you just have to write through to the other side, you will keep going. As for the koan part, we writers and seekers of some truth need to keep the capacity for balancing two competing ideas in our head at one time: “Writing is wonderful. Writing is so hard I want to scream.”
JW: When writers gather together in numbers greater than one, you often hear complaints about how “hard” writing is, and that writing itself is a kind of torture, Dorothy Parker’s “I hate writing, but I love having written,” if you will. Personally, I’ve never felt this way. I often have a hard time initiating writing, but once engaged, I enjoy it. Never does time pass so quickly. What’s your experience? Has becoming a “mindful writer” changed your view at all?
DWM: I love the revision. Moving sentences around, rearranging paragraphs, seeing how a fresh opening phrase changes everything on the page, is pure delight for me. Generating entirely new material, on the other hand, remains tedious and grim. I hate starting from scratch, but it is a necessary step if I am going to generate the raw, sloppy first drafts that allow me to play, expand, arrange, and connect.
JW: You’re also a teacher and an editor. Writing seems maybe uniquely suited to a Buddhist (or maybe spiritual) approach. Do you bring similar mindfulness to these practices?
DWM: I am very uncomfortable suggesting that I am a “better” Buddhist or more mindful than any other person. I am just someone who is trying to do these things well, or as well as I can given all of my screw-ups. But I hope – hope – that I am a better listener to my students because of what I have learned through Buddhism; that I am more attentive to the question that often lies behind the surface question they are asking. I like to think that I am a better editor; that I stop looking for what I think I want in a manuscript and switch more readily to seeing what the writer is trying to do. Mindfulness is hard. I fail all of the time. But it is also a habit, so the more I do it, the more easily it comes.
JW: When editing others, I often find that practicing this kind of mindfulness with someone else’s piece is a function of the time I spend with it. When I’m rushed, I’ll either punt entirely, or just start changing things to how I want them to be. When I’m at my best, it feels more like coaching than editing. I suppose the same could be said for teaching, particularly when it comes to written responses on student writing.
DWM: Well, yes. Caretakers talk about “being truly there” with the person, hearing them, what they say and what they don’t say, and trying to feel what they are feeling, versus rushing in and trying to fix things that may not be a priority at all. So if you are truly with an ill person or dying person, the first step is to listen hard enough to determine what will reduce their anxiety or suffering, rather than projecting what you thinkmight reduce their suffering. It does not seem an unreasonable stretch to apply that to working with a writer, or even working with a manuscript. When we move too quickly, all we do is apply the usual bandages in the usual places, rather than seeing each writer/each piece of writing as a unique entity. Once again, let me remind you that I try to be this person, but I don’t always succeed.
JW: I’m going to take advantage of your expertise by sharing my current personal hang-up. I published a novel in the Fall to marginal acclaim, and I have two other projects very close to completion that my brain won’t allow me to finish, I believe, because I’m concerned that I’ll have a hard time publishing them. I work on them all the time, but the finish line gets further away as I rework and rethink. I generally enjoy the process, but I fear the completion. What do you think I should be mindful of with these projects?
DWM: That goes back to the essential Buddhist teachings of non-attachment. You, John, are attached to a particular outcome – something beyond “marginal acclaim.” Trust me, I’ve wrestled this devil myself, time and again. Well, remember this: you can’t control publishing and all of the industry madness. You can’t control the New York Times Book Review. You can’t control bookstores, or Amazon, or readers’ whims. So what can you control? You can control your own reactions to these outside forces. If these realities drive you up a wall, remember that it is a wall you can choose to disassemble. Just take it down, brick by brick. You can’tcontrol whether your next book is the sort of success defined by big sales, splashy parties, glowing reviews, and industry buzz, but you cancontrol whether you define success in those terms. If you define success outside of these external forces, you can achieve that success within your own control: a book that you are proud of, a book that speaks truth, a book with elegant sentences. Easier said than done? You bet, but if success for every author is only achieved when we hit #1 on the bestseller list and have agents fighting over our next novel, then by definition 99% of us are going to be miserable and dejected all of our writing lives. What a waste. So with these two books, be mindful of how you define success, and what you can control. If you are not attached to a very particularoutcome, you are more able to enjoy and appreciate whatever outcome comes along.