A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me—a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day’s blow
rang out, metallic—or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.
—Denise Levertov, “Variation on a Theme by Rilke”
Denise Levertov’s poem describes a state of mind many of us would love to achieve in our daily lives. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to feel that each day we’re granted an “honor and a task,” and each day to know that we can easily do this work—with pleasure, focus, and joy? For those of us who love to write—or think we might love to write if we could simply find the time to do it—this honor and task could be sitting down with our minds wide open, our pens and notebooks and computers at the ready, to articulate our perceptions as accurately and as beautifully as we can. In this way, writing serves a purpose greater than the product alone; it becomes a spiritual practice, a way to connect ourselves to that “presence,” however it manifests in our lives.
This book is about how to create space for writing in a world crowded with so many distractions. It’s about how many of us long to be “a bell awakened,” and yet how difficult it can be to achieve that state in the face of our massive to-do lists. It’s about gaining access to our deeper selves in the workaday world, and bringing forth this authentic self in our writing.
The Pen in our title refers to the writing process; the Bell refers to those things that can support the writing process, the tools that can help us to stop a moment and settle down in a contemplative frame of mind to just listen, to take in as much as we can. In mindfulness practice, a little bell is rung often to remind us to stop, breathe, listen. In life, these bells can be anything we choose: perhaps the bells we hear in a meditation room or a place of worship, but also the bells of everyday life—the call of a bird, the laugh of a child, or a familiar voice on the radio. In this book, we provide you with stories, readings, and writing prompts that address both the pen and the bell: We offer many suggestions for both everyday writing practices and contemplative practices—some of which take only a few minutes—and we give you examples of readings that illustrate both processes.
As writers who have incorporated spirituality as a part of our lives, we have found that writing, in and of itself, can be a powerful form of contemplation: Writing can focus us, center us, slow us down, and allow us to simply observe as clearly as possible. Rabbi Ruth Sohn has defined spirituality as “a search for the affirmation and cultivation of the inner life. . . . It is the desire to learn to be more mindful, to slow down and live more deeply each and every moment. It is the desire to be more tuned in to the present, to be more open, more aware and appreciative of what we have, here, right now.” We believe that writing fits perfectly into that definition of spiritual practice and can be a rich, active form of paying attention to the self and the world.
We also believe that contemplative practice can strengthen one’s writing; the two work synergistically to support and reinforce each other. We hope that by creating more contemplative space in your life, you will also naturally find more detailed, original material to draw upon for your writing. You will become skilled at paying attention, and so will notice more of the sensory details of the world; these details will infuse your writing and evoke rich meaning. You might also find yourself able to tap into a deeper reservoir of memory for your stories, and do so without judgment or other negative emotions that can get in the way. You will become more trusting of your intuition, and might be able to train yourself to write promising material in just a few minutes a day. We want to help you find the space for both contemplation and writing within the realities of day-to-day life, to make room for whatever connects you to your own creativity.
The two of us—Holly and Brenda—created this book out of a shared concern that the pace of life for most people is spiraling out of control, leaving less and less space for “unproductive” time: the gestation period, the quiet musings. We saw the stress in our students and in our fellow writers getting in the way of what was most important to them. So we spent a year writing letters to one another about the twin subjects of writing and contemplation, about how these processes have manifested and evolved in our own lives. And the most wonderful thing happened: the letter writing, for both of us, became a deep and rich practice. The letters took on their own life, showed us details or memories we never would have found otherwise, because the simple words—“Dear Holly,” “Dear Brenda”—became our bells of mindfulness. And we had each other as an audience to these thoughts, a listening ear that helped us settle down.
We then shaped this book around the topics we discovered, keeping most of our stories as a way to provide personal examples of how these concepts play out in real life. Some chapters focus more on contemplation, some more on writing. But in every chapter you’ll hear both our voices speaking side by side as we describe our struggles to make time for reflection and writing in a world filled with a thousand interruptions, and share our insights for achieving that goal.
In the process, we came to fully understand that all those interruptions are really life itself, not something apart from life. Contemplation and writing do not happen only in quiet places, in sanctified rooms. In fact, we need to be in contact with the world, to feel ourselves in dialogue with our ordinary lives, rather than resisting them. If we train ourselves, we’ll see that our writing material, and our contemplative state of mind, can be found anywhere: in the Volks-wagen repair shop, at the doctor’s office, in a traffic jam, at PetSmart. Through our personal narratives—and through the readings and exercises—we hope to guide you in finding the elusive still point in your own busy life, and we encourage you to articulate what you hear once the clamor ceases.
At the moment, as we write this preface to you, we are lucky enough to work in a quiet place, where the day begins with the ringing whistle of red-winged blackbirds in the marsh and ends with great horned owls calling us to pay attention for just one more minute before the day is done. Here, we really feel ourselves imbued with Levertov’s mantra: I can. We pulled a book of Levertov’s poems off the shelf at dawn, opened it serendipitously to this message that reminded us why we are here, what our “honor and task” might be for today. Levertov wrote her poem in dialogue with the poet Rilke, and so it seems even more fitting as our opening bell. Because through writing the stories that make up this book, inspired and supported by one another, we realized that we are—all of us—truly writing together, in dialogue with one another, even in the midst of stillness and solitude.
We invite you to read this book in whatever ways work for you. You can read it from beginning to end, noticing the way our conversation unfolds, or you can dip into it at random, drawn by whatever topic captures your eye. We hope your copy of the book becomes battered and well worn, evidence of tactile use in practical ways. Whatever way you choose to use The Pen and the Bell, we hope that you will find yourself whispering I can, I can, I can when you next sit down to write.
Brenda Miller and Holly J. Hughes (Meadow House, Whidbey Island)
Sitting Down and Waking Up
. . . Except
for paying attention, what else
is continual prayer?
—Samuel Green, The Grace of Necessity
A long time ago, before I even knew how to be a writer, I attended a writers’ workshop with Terry Tempest Williams in Missoula, Montana. My fellow students and I sat ourselves in a small circle, nodding shyly to one another as we waited for our teacher to arrive. When Terry breezed into the room, wafting a scent of sage, she immediately pulled from her bag a clay whistle in the shape of a turtle. She blew into the whistle three times—three quick sharp blasts that cut through our nervousness, our wish to be elsewhere. At that moment, before Terry had even said a word, we had learned something: how to be really here, right now, ready to learn, ready to write.
I remember little else of that workshop: not what we discussed, not what we wrote. I’m sure I came away with some concrete tools to use. But I do remember Terry sitting next to me in the circle, her long skirt brushing her calves. I remember her presence, the way she shifted from being somewhere else, busy and hurried, to being fully here, in that room, the whistling object in her hand.
Now, decades later, I’ve learned that becoming truly present is both the hardest and the most necessary thing for me to do—both in life and in writing.
In my small home, I try to keep my upstairs attic loft reserved for reading, writing, and sometimes—when I can remember to do it—meditation. My dog, Abbe, often joins me there and makes her nest in the blanket next to me, digging with her paws until the blanket’s messy enough to be comfortable. She flops down with a human-like sigh. Only when she is settled do I settle, adjusting myself on the cushion before ringing my little bell. And to do so, I have to take up the only implement handy: a pen. Abbe has gnawed the bell’s wooden striker beyond recognition, so I use an ordinary Bic ballpoint to tap against the bell before beginning my few minutes of sitting meditation. Like Terry’s whistle, this bell calls me to attention—to the attentive stance necessary for writing.
The word contemplation literally means “in the temple,” and when we reserve places for contemplative activities we sanctify them in some way. For me, the upstairs can feel like a different world altogether, removed from the quiet bedlam going on downstairs: all the email, the mail, the newspaper, the television, the blogs I simply must read, the student papers, the to-do list. All of them clamor like toddlers for constant attention, though my attention is not really needed there, not every moment of the day. My attention is more acutely needed here, upstairs.
When life gets busy, I sometimes don’t make it up here at all. I often don’t realize it until I feel myself spiraling downward into a familiar depression. If I’m lucky, it will hit me: Well, of course, you haven’t been upstairs in two weeks! So I’ll climb the stairs to find the room quietly waiting for me, unchanged (except for more dust!), the cushion sitting still on the rug, the rumpled dog blanket in position next to it. The dog might be there, too, looking up with inquiring eyes, as if to say, Where have you been? And I remember, once again, that if there’s anything I think I’ve lost, I just need to go upstairs to find it.
Writing too can be a meditation, a time when we simply allow ourselves to observe and become curious about where those observations lead us. We allow the noise of the day to subside in order to hear a deeper voice—one that is always present but often muted—and sometimes all it takes is a simple “call to attention” to bring this voice forward.
This call doesn’t need to come from a fancy meditation bell or expensive equipment ordered from catalogs. It might be as simple as really tasting those first few sips of your morning coffee before reading the paper or listening to the radio. Or taking just a minute to study the branches of a tree outside your window, seeing how they change in small increments day to day. Or it might be something as simple as tapping an ordinary pen against your cereal bowl, finding something—anything—that resonates to begin your day with a subtle, vibrant call to attention.
Coming to attention is what writing is all about. We observe and take in what the world offers at every turn. Only by paying attention can we offer that world back to our readers, now transformed through our authentic voices. As Laraine Herring says in Writing Begins with the Breath, “Writers struggle to find their voices because they struggle with the process of listening. When we as writers talk about finding our voices, we mean: What do I sound like when there is nothing and no one else speaking? What do I have to say once the distractions of my life are stilled?” Writing begins with listening, and listening can begin with the simplest bell of mindfulness, inviting you to stop for a moment and breathe.
When you’re working this way—quieting down, really paying attention—you’ll begin to feel like a genius. Really! The derivation of the word genius means a god who protects the headwaters, the originating source of a fresh spring. So, to be a genius means really to be original, in every sense of the word: returning to your origin, to your “upstairs,” to that quiet space where your true voice awaits.
Paying attention became a practice for me when I fished salmon commercially for eight years in Alaska. While fishing was the hardest physical work I’ve done, there were also long stretches of time for contemplation: sailing north in the spring when the days were long and we could run twenty hours, or after we’d set the green, dripping gillnet off the stern of our thirty-three-foot boat and waited for it to fill with silver salmon. The time between bursts of activity was filled with reading, writing, and navigating, which I later came to understand as my own version of mindfulness practice.
I loved the way fishing grounded me firmly in the moment with whatever needed attention: twenty sleek king salmon waiting to be cleaned, a storm gathering, a ten-hour run back to town through the red and green lights of Wrangell Narrows. We needed to pay attention to the way the wind veered out of the southwest and picked up to forty knots. We needed to pay attention to the odd clatter in the diesel engine when we ran it at six hundred rpms. I needed to notice my body—my stomach turning queasy as we rounded the cape and headed out into open waters.
The Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh became my mentor in the practice of paying attention. On my fishing trips, I stashed one of his books next to my bunk, and read it each night after wheel watch. At last, I could put a name to what I’d come to call “wheel-watch mind”: mindfulness practice. Breathing in, I breathe in the world; breathing out, I release my thoughts. Again and again, I repeated this phrase until it seemed true: that I could pour my mind out onto the horizon, that I could become as empty and light as the hollow bones we found littering the beach when we went ashore.
No wonder, then, that when I remember this my mind feels bigger, for the word attention comes from the Latin attendere, meaning “to stretch, especially the mind.” We attend to that which we give our attention. We often use this word to refer to errands—we attend to details, to our affairs—but attending to is perhaps most significantly a sacred act. We attend to the sick, the bereaved, the dying. When I attend to all the details of my life in this way, with focused attention, I am connected both to myself and to the world outside my window.
Washington poet Samuel Green calls these daily observations “small noticings”; these are the details that make our writing come alive, the details that William Blake called “bright particulars.” In Green’s book The Grace of Necessity, he includes a section called “Daily Practice,” where he includes a short poem for each day (with the date as the title), usually based on a single image. Here’s an example of a simple observation—an early-blooming plum—that blossoms into a lovely metaphor:
The one early plum
in the orchard has bloomed,
the flower girl gone to school
in the dress that she wore
to the wedding.
This practice keeps the poet alert to the daily events in the natural world, and these images can then reflect our human lives. Green’s sequence of “small noticings” written the week of September 11, 2001, are especially powerful because they do this so well. Here’s one I admire because, although he wrote it two days before September 11, it seems prescient:
A nuthatch slams into the bay
window. The ledge catches her,
keeps her from the cat’s mouth,
but she stays there, stunned, caught
by the betrayal of air turned suddenly
solid. How could she ever move
past this moment without the grace
of necessity? How could any of us?
His haunting questions, even if written before the event, resonate: “How could she ever move/past this moment without the grace/of necessity? How could any of us?” In his daily noticing on September 11, he lets a simple observation of fallen plums carry the weight of this tragedy:
The rain-split plums
have been falling, the ground
so littered now that numbers
no longer have any meaning.
Of course, the fallen plums here can be viewed as human lives, so many now “that numbers / no longer have any meaning.” Again, by noticing what’s around him—the plums littering the ground—the poet is able to convey a powerful message at a time when so many of us were rendered speechless. Green admits, “I was LOOKING for parallel details, some noticing that would stand for the event, and the plums were perfect. I think there are at least two ways to approach this: one is to know what you’re looking for beforehand; the second is just to notice, begin with the details, and discover in that process some meaning that expands beyond the moment.”
This practice serves Green well in writing about a devastating emotional event, but he employs it equally well in writing about what we see each day. I, too, find that this daily practice of observation—sometimes on a walk, sometimes just looking at what’s outside the window of my writing studio—grounds me in the world, allowing me to enter abstract terrain via a concrete image, as Green’s poem does so deftly.
These days, instead of being on wheel watch on a ship, I step out the front door of my cabin and walk ten steps to my writing studio. Like a fishing boat, my studio is small, with places for everything I need: books, a desk, a rocking chair. I take my seat at the desk, which looks out on a tangle of bamboo and salal, and begin by writing about whatever I see outside the small-paned wood windows. Sometimes my morning poems take the form of haiku, which I can write quickly, wanting to bewith whatever is in this moment. At other times, I write notes that, if I’m lucky, gather enough momentum to take flight in a full-fledged poem. Here’s a “small noticing” from my journal that could become a poem:
Last night, rain. This morning,
I watch a sparrow hop
across the wet wood deck,
dip his beak down to sip
from each nail hole,
each perfect well
When we can begin each day by being fully in the world, noticing even the movements of the sparrow, we bring more of ourselves to the page and more, I hope, to our lives. Perhaps we can begin by considering that everything we see—even the smallest detail—is worthy of our closest attention, our witnessing. We can bring this focused attention and sacred reverence to all that we meet each day. And then we can write it down.
1. Are you able to create a space for yourself that is sanctified in some way? This consecration doesn’t have to be much: a small table with some significant objects on it, a candle, a picture, anything that allows you to feel that the time you spend here is different in some way. It might just mean that there’s no Internet connection or email accessible in this particular corner.
2. Make it your practice to stop for a few moments in the midst of your morning routine. This could mean breathing in and out three times as you wait for your coffee to brew. It could mean stopping for ten seconds before taking your first bite of breakfast. It could mean driving to work without the radio on, and breathing in and out at stoplights rather than planning the day ahead. See if this small practice changes anything in your mood, your perspective, or your ability to find time for writing.
1. As Sam Green does in his “Daily Practice” poem from The Grace of Necessity, take ten minutes to describe what’s right in front of you, wherever you are writing. Keep writing for the whole time, not worrying about the content or the quality. Don’t even read this work when you are done. Just shut the notebook and begin your day. These are the “small noticings” that can lead to larger things. After a few weeks, go back and read what you’ve written to see what kernels you can take away, and what themes or images keep popping up on their own.
2. Try beginning your writing session with a letter to a friend. Something shifts when we feel ourselves not as solitary beings, existing in our solitary ways, but in communion with another. The word correspondent means to “co-respond.” You and your friend are responding together to the world. In this age of quick, instantaneous, and constant communication, writing a letter can be a welcome break from that quick pace.
In your letter, start exactly where you are, describing the setting (what you see, smell, hear, touch), and then allow these details to lead you wherever they might go. The poet and essayist Judith Kitchen says of letter writing that “we willingly peel back our defenses to reveal that interior we name the self.”Allow yourself to write without inhibition, revealing your truest self.
Preface and first chapter reprinted by permission of Skinner Books.
Please visit The Pen and the Bell website at http://www.penandbell.com/