As both a meditator and a writer, I wondered what Dinty Moore would have to say in his new book, The Mindful Writer, about the relation of one to the other. He sent me his book and answered a few questions I asked him after I read it.
Q: Young writers for years have been told to “show, don’t tell,” and to “pay attention.” Is what you mean here in your book a different kind of attention, different in quantity or quality in some way?
A: Paying attention is always a good thing, but I think my book is arguing for a different type of paying attention. We can fool ourselves when aggressively concentrating on something into thinking ourselves to be mindful, but in truth, I think mindfulness is a letting go, a slowing down, an almost passive way of seeing. Before we can see what is really there, across the street, or in our thoughts and memories, we need to stop the process of super-imposing what we expect to be there. So yes, there is a different quality of attention when one is truly mindful. A softer quality. Certainly a calmer one.
Q: I like the way you’ve used quotations by other writers to prompt your own comments. My favorite is from Annie Dillard, “Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all the case. . . .” I like the way you use this to point to Buddhism’s first reminder, that we are “free and well-favored” with this “precious human life” for only a short while, that we must use it well. Did you choose any of the others with specific Dharma teachings in mind? Or, I might ask, do you find that any of the other quotations speak directly of Dharma teachings?
A: Oh, I think in one way or another all of them speak to dharma teaching, even the quotes from the famously Catholic Flannery O’Connor. When she talks about Grace, I think she is speaking also of enlightenment. When poet William Matthews says “The depth is the surface,’ he is offering a koan of sorts. Many writers speak of “just sitting” at the writing table until you achieve something. That’s different than sitting quietly on a mat, but not that different. The quote from George Saunders strikes me as worthy of the Buddha himself: “Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.”
Q: Another quotation I like a lot is from Margaret Atwood, “Everyone thinks writers must know more about the inside of a human head, but that is wrong. They know less, that’s why they write. Trying to find out what everyone else takes for granted.” Can you say if there is something you don’t know, that you’re trying to find out, in this book?
A: The book, for me, was an attempt to untangle what I learned about writing through studying Buddhism from what I learned about Buddhism by a lifelong exploration of the artistic process. It hardly matters which came first, I suppose, but the parallels between Buddhist thought, especially the Zen concepts of total openness and vulnerability to surprise, the sacred smack in the middle of the forehead, and how artist’s speak of creativity are manifold. What do I not know? I don’t know anything. But I do think about these things quite a bit.
Q: You say you’ve often been asked to explain how the Dharma teachings have influenced your writing. This book is, it seems, is an answer to that question for the young writer. Do you think, though, that the seasoned writer naturally leans in the direction of mindfulness? Does the writing itself teach us to do that? In other words, are there things we writers can learn, no matter what age, from the Dharma?
A: The dharma can be studied and explained, but to truly live it takes discipline. Writing can be analyzed and theorized, but to actually create something fresh, you need the discipline of the meditating monk. The understanding of this perhaps goes both ways.
Q: You say that rather than seeing mindfulness and Buddhism as shaping your effort on the page, you’ve come to understand that it’s your writing that has helped open you to Buddhism. I’d like to hear you say more about that. Other writers are committed Christians, atheists, Muslims, etc. What has been true for you obviously hasn’t been true for them.
A: I can’t speak for the others, of course, except to mention what many have observed, that the pure teachings of Christianity, especially contemplative Christianity, are remarkably similar to the unadorned teachings of the Buddha. I am no expert, but understand this to be true of some Muslim beliefs as well. It is apparently true of Judaism. Atheists? Well writers need to be skeptical, certainly. They need to question everything they are told. In the end, there is no one path to God, or god, or divine energy, and there is no one path to creativity. In The Mindful Writer, I enjoy examining a possible path, and some parallel tracks.
Q: One last question, Dinty, one that intrigues me particularly: If we really, fundamentally awaken, if we no longer understand the world in terms of separations (on an ultimate scale, not the provisional scale we have to use to function), how does, or would, that change how or what we write? Would it? Does it?
A: Did you somehow think I had figured all of this out? Goodness, I am merely stumbling through my Buddhist practice and fumbling through my writing career. I do imagine that we are all writing from our enlightened minds now and then, birthing the occasional phrase or paragraph that even we, the writer, know is better than what we normally bring forth. Perhaps the answer is to increase the ratio between how many dull paragraphs we grind out with our everyday minds and how many startling moments we can bring to the page. I live for those unexpected flashes.