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Beginner’s Mind–Writing Practice

© 2010 by Jack Remick and Robert J Ray

Beginner’s Mind: Writing Practice—Foundations of Craft

Writing Under the Clock to Free up the Creative Mind

We encourage writers to adopt timed writing as a discipline.

For the writer who has never experienced timed writing, we strongly suggest buying and reading Natalie Goldberg’s foundation book, Writing Down The Bones. Writing under the clock (what Natalie Goldberg calls “writing practice”)  opens you up to all kinds of writing—poetry, fiction, sketch, dramatic writing, and essay. In this book we use writing practice to assist the writer in creating progressive segments of timed writing  which build stamina, strength, insight, flexibility, and writerly self-awareness.Timed writing is a sure-fire way to discipline. It’s in in three parts:

1) selecting a fiction problem
2) setting  the timer for five, ten, fifteen or more minutes
3) finishing what you start.

Natalie Goldberg says it very simply: “Keep your hand moving until the time is up.” This  essential discipline—finishing what you start is the foundation of craft.  Timed writing frees up your creative mind by putting your internal editor to work watching the clock while you roam the fields of fiction unfettered to finish what you start without the internal editor bothering you about the small things.

Writing practice strengthens the writer’s craft by extending writing times on topic that take writers deep into their creative unconscious to break through the emotional barriers that block creativity.

Beginner’s Mind and the Blank Page

Natalie Goldberg wrote Writing Down the Bones using writing practice: “One of the aims of writing practice,” writes Goldberg, “is to learn to trust your own mind and body; to grow patient and non-aggressive….Writing practice embraces your whole life….”

Every new work starts with a blank page. In the lore of world writing it’s said of Thomas Mann — author of Dr. Faustus, The Magic Mountian, Death in Venice, and The Confessions of Felix Krull—that when he finished a work, he immediately rolled a blank sheet of paper into his typewriter and wrote the title of the new work.

Beginner’s Mind is the writer’s way past the blank page because it allows you to start small. Starting small means just that. Write about character, create the settings. Let characters and setting develop into scenes. Let the characters in their scenes tell the story.

In Beginner’s Mind, you don’t cross out when you write because then you mix up the editor and the creator. The internal editor is guardian of the jewels.  The closer you get to the jewels the louder editor mind shouts at you that you’re not worthy of the jewels.

In Beginner’s Mind, you write specifics – it’s not a “car”, but a “Cadillac.” Not just a Cadillac, but “a Cadillac El Dorado”; it’s not a piece of fruit, but an apple. Not just an apple but a Braeburn.

In Beginner’s Mind, you don’t think, but you lose control. If the writing gets scary, that’s where you go. You follow your mind.

In Beginner’s Mind you let go of what you know so that you are free to take what comes.

In Beginner’s Mind, you want the crossing of emotion and detail. You want to be in the writing without being present in the writing.

And finally, in Beginner’s Mind, you already know the book. It is in you. You just have to let it out.

Exercises:

When you come here, give up everything you know about writing. When you come here, you are not a novelist, or a story writer; you are not a screenwriter, or a poet. When you come here, you know nothing. This is Beginner’s Mind. Come here everyday.

Here you will rediscover the magic and excitement of innocence. Watch the first word form on the page…. “My…” It’s a miracle. It means something…

Here’s what Natalie Goldberg tells writers in her workshops:

  • “Be like a cat watching a mouse pop through a hole.”
  • “Don’t question color, take what is there.”
  • “ Follow your mind. Let it go.”
  • “ Let the body go, the mind will follow.”
  • “Write from the bottom of the mind.”
  • “ Wake Up.”
  • “ I’m trying to teach people to burn through to a deeper place.”

Come here to write an Opening… “The First time I made love…” followed by a Closing… “The last time I kissed…”

In every story, there is a beginning and there is an ending. What happens in the middle is art and craft.

Treat the following exercises as warm up writings. Come here when you want to write with direction.

Firsts and Lasts are important Threshold Crossings if they bring you (and later your characters) to a change of states or a change of mind. The First Time initiates, the Last Time builds pain or memory or nostalgia. Use First Times to rediscover the simplicity of words and feelings, to rediscover the joy and happiness. Use Last Times to instill your own sense of loss, pain, or memory. You’ll bring these same feelings to your characters.

First Writings:  Set the timer for five minutes.  Write until the timer shuts off. Don’t cross out, don’t edit, go deep, find the joy.

  • My first…
  • The first time I made love…
  • The first time I bled…
  • The first time my mother told me…
  • My first day of school…

Last Writings: Set the timer for five minutes. Write until the timer shuts off. Don’t cross out, finish what you start. Find the anguish of crossing the threshold for the last time. The last time means you will never go there again. There is finality in the last time.

  • At  my last birthday party…
  • The last time I wore…
  • The last time I saw my mother…
  • The last time I kissed…
  • The last time I made love to…
  • The last time my father told me…

Going in through the Back Door.  Natalie Goldberg calls this Back Door Zen. If you don’t know what you want to write, write about what you don’t remember: “I don’t remember…”  is a good way to get inside without having to take that awful first step. You want to go in, but you don’t want to admit it.

Back Door Writing: Set the timer for five minutes. Write until the timer shuts off. Follow your mind here, take what comes, don’t cross out. Discover the blank wall and the secret doorway to the deep inside.

  • I don’t remember ever…
  • I’m not looking at….
  • I don’t see…
  • I don’t want to write a story about…
  • I’m not thinking of…

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One Comment

  1. Nel wrote:

    I find this quite useful. Thanks for sharing. :)

    Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

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