empty your mind


a guide to writing

cynthia gregory

Sometimes, it feels like that are too many words in the wide world to squeeze down to the size of a journal page. At other times, it feels as if all of the words have turned to smoke and there is literally nothing left to say. The universe is eternally creative; you just have to remember that when you approach the blaring, blazing, empty white page of your journal. Emptiness is an illusion. This is always more.

There is a wonderful parable that I think about when the emptiness arrives. This is a story of a teacher and a student. A new student comes to a teacher one day and begins to tell the teacher all the places he has studied, and all the wonderful teachers he has had. The master listens patiently and then begins to make tea. When the tea is ready, she pours the tea into the student’s cup until it begins to overflow and run across the floor. The student watches the chaos of the overflowing teacup and shouts, “Stop, stop! The cup is full; you can’t get any more in.”

The teacher stops pouring and says very calmly, “You are like this cup; you are full of ideas about knowledge and skill. You come and ask for teaching, but your cup is full; I can’t put anything in. Before I can teach you, you’ll have to empty your cup.”

Periodically, you have to forget everything you know about a subject. You may have studied writing for years. Or, maybe not.  At the very least, you were forced to sit through years of grammar and composition training in school where you were taught how to spell, craft a sentence. As a writing teacher, I’ve often told my students to quit trying so hard to sound like a smarty pants.  Somewhere along the line,  we developed the idea that to write well, we must adopt the voice of an expert with a PhD in microeconomics or some such thing. In fact, the opposite is true.

Have you ever read A. A. Milne? He is best known for his books about a bear named Pooh who is much beloved by a boy called Christopher Robbin. Milne also wrote some astonishing poetry, and he had a penchant for writing everything in lowercase. Sometimes without punctuation. The trick to his writing is that it seems so simply and elementary. In fact, its complexity is brilliant. His work seems to be written for an audience of five year olds, but if you look closely, the beauty of his prose staggers.

Pablo Picasso said that every child is an artist. It’s true, isn’t it? A child is completely open to the creative process, she resides wholly and completely in the Now moment. She does not project her thoughts to tomorrow, or think critically about how to shape a hand or what color to paint the sun. She lives completely and utterly Now, and is willing to put it all out there without filters, without revisions, without guile. You must approach your journal with the same integrity.

Empty your mind and release all expectations. Forget what you wrote yesterday, don’t give a nanosecond of thought about what you might fill your page with tomorrow. Just show up and use whatever material is at hand. Look at it, find the shape of it, bounce it around in your mind for a moment and then put it on the page. Don’t think about what it means about you; that is none of your business. Don’t worry about what someone might think if they snoop in your very private, very personal journal. Don’t wonder if the Nobel Prize committee will publish your journals in their entirety when you are dead and gone, dazzled by your genius.

Empty your mind, pour every drop out of your cup. What is your cup so full of that it crowds out the possibility of an original thought?

We all have incredibly complex lives. Sometimes it is astonishing when you consider what it requires to navigate through a single day. All of our busy lives and the lives of those we love requires thinking, and organizing and planning. Add to the responsibilities of a single day, a lifetime of memories, or worries great and small, anticipation of future events, future plans, all the might-haves and could-be’s. There is so much crowded in our cups!

But then, we have moments of clarity. We empty our cups and we just are. Have you noticed  that when you’re completely absorbed by a project, whether its painting the fence or writing a letter or playing a Bach prelude, that time falls away? That you are no longer aware of sounds outside of the room, of the pattern of your breathing in and breathing out, of anything but the melody? You can lose hours and gain lifetimes of pleasure by simply being present to the creative process. This is the paradox: only when you empty your cup, are you open to the possibility of filling it.

Each time you approach your journal take a moment to empty your mind to all but the intention to write. Let the words come. Trust that they will. A bit like magic, it works.

 to be continued. . .

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