Bringing Presence into Your Writing and Art

When asked to speak about the writing process, or the craft of writing, it's common to hear writers talk about how there really isn't much to talk about.  The act of creation, of creating art--be it writing or really any other form/medium of art--is in some ways elusive, veiled, difficult to grasp or articulate.  I find this both intriguing and amusingly ironic, how a writer can produce entire novels, but may be stumped at the idea of talking about their own writing process.  In the same way, though I am not a painter or much of an artist beyond a storyteller, I imagine it would be difficult for a painter to describe their process: how they create something from a blank page; what vision drives them; what ideas or visuals or themes influence the brushstrokes toward the image they want to be the final product.  It's something I find incredibly interesting.

Lately I've been pondering the nature of my own creative process, and what I've learned in doing this, I feel has helped me.

In previous posts I've talked about presence--about being present in your life, about living intentionally.  In the past, my creative process was something that existed in me but was never contemplated.  I never considered the nature of it, I only knew that I did it--all the time.  My own need to create--to tell stories, to create narrative, which gave way to writing--goes back across my entire life, long before I ever started writing, and in some stages of my life it's even been compulsive: a part of my brain that would never shut up and was scrambled all over the place.  Circa sixth or seventh grade, I had dozens and dozens of ideas that seemed to be taking hold all at once.  I started stories only to get a few pages in and then abandon them to move onto others.  With time I learned how to manage this, how to tame it, or more so, discipline it.  But it was only in recent years that I started to pay closer attention to my own writing process, to consider my own art from a more objective point of view.

In this way, I learned how to observe myself as an artist.  I could go on about observing myself as a person, about introspection and meditation and the things I have learned from there, but that would merit a post all its own, one not necessarily related to writing.  However, learning to observe myself as an artist was as much a process as was observing myself as a person.

For all of my life I've suffered from a pervasive, sometimes crippling sense of self-doubt and insecurity regarding my own writing.  Even though writing was something I did all the time, I never nurtured it properly, never looked at it objectively.  Even as I grew as a person, I never took the same lense to my art and therefore continued to suffer a constant sense of doubt that I identified with, as if crippling self-doubt, uncertainty, self-criticism beyond reason, etc, were just part of being a writer.  I can tell you now, however, after everything I've learned in becoming present in my art, that while self-doubt and insecurity may come with the territory of creating art, they do not define the experience of being an artist.  And you do not have to be a constant victim of them.

What do I mean when I say to bring presence into your art?  Really, it's nearly as simple as it sounds.  I'm sure many of you reading this already know what I'm talking about.

To be present in your life is exactly what it sounds like.  To me, it means to live on purpose.  To choose to be in every moment.  That means no more waiting--that is, even when you find yourself waiting for the next moment, choose instead to be fully in the moment you're in, even if it's an unpleasant one.  I know people who live in a constant state of waiting, as if real life--real happiness, real contentment, real success, real anything--is always just around the corner.  "I'll be happy once I quit this job and get a better one," or "I'll be happy once I've saved enough money and can travel the world," or "I'll be happy when I get a new partner," or "I'll be happy once this is over," or "I'll be happy once I get that promotion, or once I retire," and so on and so on.  But if you're always waiting for the next thing, always waiting for that thing you've always been waiting for, I'm not the only one that can tell you: It isn't going to come.  You're going to get what you've been waiting for, get where you've been waiting to get to, and discover that you don't feel very differently than before.  You're still you.  The fundamental problems remain.  As I've heard the spiritual teacher Mooji expand on, you may have 100 problems, and you could either spend your life solving all of those problems only to discover that there will always be more, or you could get to the heart of it.  And the beginning of that is to learn to be present.

And you can be present in your art.  It's a challenge, yes, or it seems to be, but it is one that is deeply rewarding.

Part of learning to be present in your own life means also learning how to still your mind.  And I don't mean merely in meditation, but I mean in everyday life--learning to stop identifying with your mind, to step outside of your thoughts and not follow each one, not grip so tightly to your own mind, your own understanding.  It's easy, as an artist, to exist in your head, to suffer the rigors of the "life of the mind."  But it is profoundly difficult, and takes a great deal of bravery and openness and strength in vulnerability, to realize that the amount you are suffering from your own mind is primarily up to you.  Which isn't to suggest that presence is freedom from all suffering.  Life is a great deal of suffering.  That's just a fact of life in the same way that death is simply the other side of life.  But we make ourselves suffer so much more than we have to.  And it takes a humbled ego to examine one's own life objectively, impartially, compassionately, and to see what you're holding onto--identities, ideals, philosophies, hopes, expectations, etc--and to see how much of your own suffering is your own unconscious choice.

Doing this, realizing this, looking inside yourself and choosing the present moment over the past, choosing life over stagnancy, is also one of the bravest things you could ever do.  It is often in defiance of those voices in our heads telling us we don't deserve it.  But it's possible.  And I can tell you, it isn't something you get to.  "Enlightenment," as some would call it, isn't a place you reach.  It's something you do.  It's a verb.  Presence.  It's something you do every day.  Something you choose to do.  It isn't something that happens to you.  Which is why, I think, so many people spend their whole lives dancing around it, waiting for it.

So, finally, what does it mean to bring presence into your art?

To me, it means simply this.  It means to bring stillness and peace into your art.  It means making your mind your ally rather than your master.  Think about it.  It's nothing short of miraculous, the act of creating.  We live in a constant, eternal, unending present.  It is always now, a constant, beautiful flow.  You can learn to exist in it, to step outside of the chatter of your mind and just pay attention to right now.  You can ignore the thoughts that are spinning through your head as you read this, pay full attention to what you're reading and what it means, and understand without having to label or judge.

To write, or in any sense to create art, is to bring yourself into the present and to simply produce something out of it.  Isn't that amazing?  Have you given yourself enough credit for that?  I'm serious.  It doesn't matter if you've had monetary success as an artist, it doesn't matter if anyone else has seen/heard/experienced your art yet or if you've received positive or negative praise--or anything like that.  Think about what it takes to create art of any kind, and applaud yourself.  It's beautiful.  That we exist, that we can choose to pay attention to what it's like to exist presently, and to create something that is ours.  And you'll notice, most likely, that you don't necessarily use your mind when you're in the throes of your art.  When I sit down to write, yes I hold the story in my head, yes it's all there in my mind--the characters, the world, the progression of the story depending on where I'm at in it, since I don't plot things out or outline--but I do not necessarily use my mind to create.  When I'm writing, it's like entering this wonderful flow--of language, of story, of time--and there aren't thoughts in my head mapping out the creation.  It just happens.  Almost like muscle memory, I write without thought or analysis or judgment behind each word.  And I'm curious how that works for other artists, because it's my theory that we have this in common.  You use your mind in the practical sense of creation, but it isn't your mind or your thoughts actually producing the art.  The mind is just a starting point, if you will.  The platform from which the rest will spring.  Or, most accurately of all, the mind is the toolbox you draw from in the act of creating.

By all of this, I mean there is a serious difference between intellectual knowledge of something, and truly knowing something.  You can understand something on an intellectual level without knowing it on a deeper level.  You can understand presence without being present.  You can understand how to create art without being able to overcome inner resistances or blocks.  So, to me, one of the most shattering and life-changing realizations I came to, not just intellectually but in constant practice, was that my art was not a product just of my mind.  It goes deeper than that.  Once again, almost like muscle memory.

In the Tao Te Ching, there is more than a passage or two referring to the Tao, which means "The Way," as inexhaustible.  And if you see the Tao as "the Way," as in, the way of living in the present and not in your own mind, then there is no need to fear that this ability to be present, to choose presence, both in life and in your art, will ever be exhausted, will ever end, or will ever be out of your reach.  It is so simple, but it is so profound nonetheless.  Being present in your art means it can become a source of joy rather than of pain.  It can be a wellspring rather than an merely an outlet.  And it can interest you in the same way other art interests you.  The more present I have become in my writing, as a writer, the more sure of it I've become.  My impostor syndrome, my tendency toward self-deprecation and crippling doubt and uncertainty, it's all still there, but it does not have the same power over me as it once did.  Sometimes I can even use it to my advantage, allowing my doubts to become useful criticisms, allowing me to consider the flaws in my own writing and therefore work on those flaws productively.

I will end simply on this note, a quote from the Tao Te Ching:

"Approach it and there is no beginning;
follow it and there is no end.
You can't know it, but you can be it,
at ease in your own life.
Just realize where you come from:
this is the essence of wisdom."