The late, great Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that “the feel and appearance of a book when combined with a literate person in a straight chair can create a spiritual condition of priceless depth and meaning.” He was referring to the experience of reading. After a foray into Transcendental Meditation (TM) in the 1960s, Vonnegut realized how similar reading and meditation are. “When I read an absorbing book,” Vonnegut wrote, “my pulse and respiration rate slowed down perceptibly, just as though I were doing TM” (Vonnegut, Fates Worse Than Death, 188). Any avid reader can attest to this effect, even if they’ve never experimented with meditation, and any academic will tell you that the experience of writing produces similar results.
Within the last couple of years I’ve begun meditating and doing yoga on a regular basis, at first in a desperate search for a cure to my insomnia and now for regular stress relief, peace of mind, and increased concentration. While I wouldn’t characterize writing as “scuba diving in lukewarm bouillon” (which is how Vonnegut described TM), I would say that the experience of quieting the mind via meditation and via writing are similar. The practice of each reinforces the other and it takes quite a bit of practice to become adept at either. I have several favorite guided meditation routines–here are a couple I highly recommend if you have trouble with insomnia–but if you’ve never attempted meditation and want to test the similarities between the experiences of reading, writing, and meditation try this simple routine for five or ten (or twenty) minutes:
- Sit or lay in a quite room in a comfortable position.
- Consciously relax your body and close your eyes.
- Try your best to pay attention to nothing but your breathing. Focus on how the air feels cool as you breathe in, and warm as you breathe out. Feel the air travel from your nose, down your throat, and into your chest. Feel how your chest rises and falls with each breath in and out. Concentrate on nothing but your breathing.
- Recognize that your mind will wander but that you can control whether or not you follow those thoughts that skitter across your mind from time to time. As soon as you notice your attention drifting, refocus on your breathing. Imagine you are breathing a mist of relaxation into your body and exhaling any thoughts. Continue for as long as you like.
- Over time, try to increase the length of your meditation practice.
Over the next couple of posts I’d like to explore the craft of writing and examine other (professional) authors’ best methods for consistently producing writing of high quality and clarity. I’ll be especially interested to see what advice is offered for cultivating healthy writing habits and writing in a manner that engages a wide variety of audience types. Below is a list of works I’ll be focusing on. Please feel free to make additional recommendations. Thank you to my colleagues Jason Heppler and Brian Sarnacki for their suggestions.
- Writing Well: The Essential Guide, Mark Tredinnick
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King
- Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg
- On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser
- Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great, Serious Nonfiction–and Get It Published, Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato
- How to Write History that People Want to Read, Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath
- The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White