Monday, 3 June 2013

Beginner's Mind - Heather Dyer

 

‘This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner.’ - SHUNRYU SUZUKI

As soon as I signed my second book deal, I quit my day job and started writing full-time. Unwise? Maybe. But I had written a book before – twice – and assumed I could do it again.
I soon realized that it wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d thought. It wasn’t that I couldn’t write. I was writing constantly.  But my stories just petered out. Or I had to force them into a shape that didn’t feel right.

 
I couldn’t understand it – and neither could my publisher. I knew more about writing now than I had ever done. I had studied ‘plot arcs’. I had read Christopher Vogler and John Gardner and every other how-to-write book I could get my hands on. I knew how many chapters my book needed, how long each chapter needed to be, and how to pitch the language; but none of my ideas worked. And yet, I had stumbled through my first two books without a clue what I was doing. I’d just opened up my laptop and begun.

And then I realized what the trouble was. I had lost my ‘beginner’s mind’.

 
‘Beginner’s mind’ is a Zen Buddhist concept. It refers to an attitude of openness, eagerness, and a lack of preconceptions. It is non-judgemental. Children have beginner’s mind. If you ask a child to paint a picture they will just begin – without giving it much forethought, and without any anxiety over how it ‘should’ be done. 

This quality seems to deteriorate with age and with experience, however. If you ask the average adult to paint a picture they’ll say, ‘I can’t paint’. Then they’ll agonize over whether they’re doing it right and finally give up in disgust. This is because adults think too much – and thinking actually seems to inhibit creativity. 
 
In Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande explains: “...the root of genius is in the unconscious, not the conscious, mind. It is not by weighing, balancing, trimming, expanding with conscious intention, that an excellent piece of art is born. It takes its shape and has its origin outside the region of the conscious intellect."

Science backs this up. According to neuroscientists, insight – those sudden leaps in comprehension – arrive when the brain’s prefrontal cortex instructs the logical left hemisphere to shut down in order to allow the intuitive right hemisphere to wander freely. You will have experienced this yourself when you’re trying to remember someone’s name. The more you wrack your brains the more distant the answer feels. “Never mind,” you say. “It’ll come to me.” Sure enough, when you’re no longer thinking about it, the answer pops into your head.

The message seems clear: if we want to be creative we need to stop thinking, and start acting on our intuition instead. And we need to keep acting on it, moment to moment, following that risky trail. Rather than knowing where we’re going, we must allow ourselves to be led. And that’s the most magical thing about writing. By following our hearts instead of our minds, we seem to be able to intuit a pattern of greater harmony – and therefore beauty – than we could have planned. Shaun McNiff in Trust the Process says, “I learn over and over again that the creative process is an intelligence that knows where it has to go. Somehow it always finds the way to the place where I need to be, and it is always a destination that never could have been known by me in advance.”


We need to learn to be comfortable with not knowing the answer. Some artists and writers are good at this. Agnes Martin, an abstract painter, says:

“I have a vacant mind, in order to do exactly what the inspiration calls for….”

It’s this same ‘vacant mind’ that Keats is referring to in his letter to Robert Gittings:

“A Man of Achievement especially in literature, must possess this ‘Negative Capability’, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable searching after fact and reason.”

 
So if we want to be truly creative, perhaps we need to throw away the rulebook, put aside what we already know, and let our minds (and pens) wander freely until inspiration strikes. We need to stay beginners.
 
Heather Dyer
www.heatherdyer.co.uk
 

15 comments:

gruffmaths said...

An excellent piece - I have always been an advocate of planning (and I still think it has its place) but I am increasingly convinced that instinct and the non-conscious mind are at the root of it all.

zornhau said...

I've recently been through this! Thanks for sharing.

John Ward said...

oops, inadvertent identity theft - the comment above is from me...

zornhau said...

@John
I think you mean the comment ABOVE mine is from your :)

John Dougherty said...

Thanks, Heather. The perfect post for this morning, for me at least!

John Dougherty said...

Thanks, Heather. The perfect post for this morning, for me at least!

David Thorpe said...

This is very perceptive and I can see it is hard-won, Heather. It's similar to what I am writing about for my 4 June post...

Anonymous said...
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A Wilson said...

Just what I need to hear as I struggle to force my latest story into a mould I am unhappy about. I shall let my mind and pen wander instead and see what happens. Thank you.

Penny Dolan said...

"Beginner's mind." That's a good thought to muse on. Thank you Heather.

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks for the comments. Nice to hear that I'm not alone. And yes, I certainly agree that planning has its place - just think that I've been giving it first place for too long now...

Daisy Bumpsa said...

Excellent. I think it's quite useful to know how books work, but then ignore all that knowledge when you actually write. You can use it when you edit.

Sue Purkiss said...

This very much chimes with my feeling, too - thanks, Heather!

Sue Purkiss said...

This very much chimes with my feeling, too - thanks, Heather!

Emma Barnes said...

Coming a bit late to this - but such an interesting post. I think this playfulness/spontaneous side of writing can be a bit neglected in schools at the moment, with the emphasis on formal story structures and planning. Maybe some teachers/curriculum planners will see this blog!