If Buddha Wrote a Novel

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By Jenny Downing on Flickr’s Creative Commons

Today’s guest is Renee Swindle, the author of newly released A Pinch Of Ooh La La and Shake Down The Stars (NAL/Penguin). Her first novel, Please Please Please, was an Essence Magazine bestseller. Renee has an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University. An admitted tea snob, Renee lives in Oakland with three rescue dogs and three cats—“Yep, six animals and me,” says Renee.

Dish magazine says, “Swindle has a way of making her characters dance on the page, drawing you deep into the midst of their laughter and their sorrow, their joys and their mistakes.”

You can connect with Renee on Facebook, Twitter, and on her blog.

If The Buddha Wrote A Novel

I’ve been practicing meditation for almost ten years, and I’ve realized Buddhism, and many of its teachings, relate not only to life, but to writing, which for many of us is synonymous.

First off, please don’t let the title of my post scare you away! Buddhism is far more about psychology than religion; even the Dalai Lama is known for saying his “religion” is compassion. And meditation, the cornerstone of Buddhism, can be practiced by the religious and non-religious alike. Think of it like that hot trend right now—yoga. Yeah, yeah, I hear you saying. So what does all this have to do with writing? That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?

Well, I’ve been practicing meditation for almost ten years, and I’ve realized Buddhism, and many of its teachings, relate not only to life, but to writing, which for many of us is synonymous.

Equanimity

A couple of years ago, while meeting with my meditation instructor, I said something along the lines of, “I love Buddhism—except for the whole compassion thing; that part sucks. Most people get on my nerves and I have zero compassion for jerks!” My instructor, who’d read my first novel, and knew about the novel I was working on at the time, stared at me pointedly and asked if I ever felt my characters were jerks—if I ever lacked compassion for the people who inhabited my stories.

I think it helps as writers if we treat our characters like people—complex, living, breathing people. Instead of labeling your characters as good or bad or whatever, consider remaining curious.

Granted, the heroine of my first novel sleeps with her best friend’s husband (d’oh!), and the narrator of my second novel battles alcoholism and the habit of sleeping with strangers. Still, I felt defensive. I love my characters. I think they’re complex, broken, spirited and funny. When I told my instructor as much, he reminded me about the importance of equanimity: the practice of keeping curious and open without grasping hold to a fixed opinion.

I think it helps as writers if we treat our characters like people—complex, living, breathing people. Instead of labeling your characters as good or bad or whatever, consider remaining curious. Even if a certain character’s backstory doesn’t make it into the novel, you should know why and how they became who they are. If you write your so-called “bad” characters with no sense of insight, or compassion for that matter, you just might end up writing them as flat.

Discipline

In Buddhism, discipline is a key “paramita” or practice.

1524613_672925089426550_1193509661_nIt’s tough to write a novel—to keep our momentum as writers—period—without discipline. When I first started meditating, I felt as if the random thoughts swirling in mind would surely drive me crazy, and sitting on my cushion became the last thing I wanted to do every morning. So I switched things up. Instead of aiming for twenty minutes, I set a more doable goal of only five minutes a day. I wanted sitting to become as routine as brushing my teeth. After I became comfortable with five minutes I aimed for ten and eventually twenty.

Discipline comes from “practicing” more days than not. Make writing part of your routine.  Nothing special, just part of your routine. Consider not counting pages or words and simply make showing up the goal. Sometimes I write for an hour, sometimes only thirty minutes, but it’s amazing how much you can get done when you keep your goals low and achievable.

Humor

Q: Why don’t Buddhists vacuum in the corners?

A: Because they have no attachments.

(Ha ha. I found that joke online.)

In Buddhism there is an emphasis on humor and the practice of not taking ourselves too seriously.

What if we laughed a little at our stinky scene or chapter? What if we lightened up?

What if instead of beating ourselves up for not sounding like Faulkner or Morrison every time we sit to we write, we give ourselves a break and even have a chuckle over our worst line or passage? Frankly, the amount of cheese I’m sometimes able to generate when I write can be pretty hilarious. Why take writing so seriously that writing becomes torture? What if we laughed a little at our stinky scene or chapter? What if we lightened up? No one is expecting perfection in a draft. No one wants you beating yourself up over a sentence—or beating yourself up period.

I’m guessing that’s what the Buddha would advise.  So my friends, pat yourself on the back. Smile. Stick to it!

Have you ever tried meditation? If so, how has it helped you as a writer? What other ways have you found to manage the stresses and demands of the writing life? 

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Comments

  1. says

    What a great post. I think these principles are great, especially the idea of having compassion for your characters because they are complex beings.

    I also love humor, both in the writing and about the writing. Perhaps humor is a way to have compassion for ourselves and our characters. :) Writing takes time and it’s certainly not going to be perfect in the first draft, so accepting that it’s not perfect without berating yourself is a good idea. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to improve it, but too many writers are too hard on themselves about flaws in those initial drafts. Laughing a little is a good idea.

    Again, great post.

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  2. says

    I really needed this reminder today — both about a person for whom I haven’t had much compassion lately and about my writing. No matter how many times I am reminded of the “just show up” part, I tend to get attached to the product, so always need another nudge. Thanks. And the part about, “What if instead of beating ourselves up for not sounding like Faulkner or Morrison every time we sit down to write, we give ourselves a break and even have a chuckle over our worst line or passage?” Oh, yes! Thanks again.

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  3. says

    Lovely connections between Buddha and writing. Actually Buddha wrote 84,000 ‘books’ of different ways to work with our thoughts, mind and emotions. He was the ultimate psychologist and writer as well as a totally enlightened human being!
    Therefore there must be at least 84,000 ways to be a writer and support us when we write.
    Our best writing can sponteneously arise during meditation. (keep a pen and paper next to you.)
    You may write an enlightening book.

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  4. says

    I’m a terrible meditator; my brain skips all over the place. But you’ve given me hope, Renee, if you felt the same once upon a time. Five minutes I can handle.

    Thanks for a wonderful post and for being our guest today!

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    • says

      Therese,

      though you always have kindness and wisdom at hand for us at WU, I hope you will allow this old-dog Buddhist to “re-frame” your self-judgment in this one instance. Believe me, everyone whoever begins to meditate despairs at discovering what mind does. One’s mind skipping all over the place is not the sign of a bad meditator. It can be argued that there is no such thing as a bad meditator. Perhaps only whether one does or does not engage in the practice.

      The skipping mind–well, the great news is that you see yours doing this!!! That involves awareness and is a great step “in.” We can choose to judge or to allow it to be, like a kind grandmother watching children playing games, not worrying about what made it so, or fearing what it will become. By seeing it as it is, the whole world opens up with humor, clarity and compassion. I am not alone in being certain that this kindness is natural to you.

      No doubt, the Buddha’s novels would have been full of laughter and depth. And thanks for all that you do.

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  5. says

    Renee–Thank you for an amusing, thought-provoking post. It’s always good to “lighten up.”
    Buddhism isn’t my personal cup of herb tea–I’m too much a Western-civilization guy. But the Chinese Tao te Ching is probably the wisest book I know. It isn’t strictly Buddhist, but close. I especially like what it says about love–be that of people, things, or the writer’s love of what she/he creates. In the West, we think of love in terms of intensity, passion, possession–that’s what romance readers expect from authors.
    By contrast, the Tao teaches that the greatest love occurs when people let go, when they stop grasping after something or someone. What’s the greater love shown by a parent–holding close, being protective and vigilant? No one denies that’s important. But the Tao teaches that the ultimate act of love is letting go of children, so they can become true selves, not reboots of their parents.
    Applied to writing, this is reflected (oddly enough) in the often-repeated command from writing experts, “Be ready to kill your darlings.” What this means is, don’t be so attached, so possessive of anything you write that you’re unable to let go of what needs to go. Or something like that.
    Peace.

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  6. says

    I love this post! Compassion and humor for ourselves and our characters (not to mention fellow humans) is great universal advice. I especially like the idea of laughing rather than scorning our less than stellar writing efforts.
    -Dana

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  7. says

    I’ve been practicing Zen meditation for over four decades. (I may get it right one of these days!) For me, the sitting quietly and letting thoughts leave the conscious mind, being in the present, sets me up to let new thoughts flow in. I never keep a pad next to me, because that would upset the balance of the meditation.

    Theresa Walsh, five minutes is terrific. If you can sit quietly for that amount of time, you can refresh your mind and be ready for what ever comes next.

    Great post, Renee. Thanks for sharing it.

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  8. says

    Thanks for the fun read and helpful post.

    Separate from writing, I have pretty much always kept a journal. Only now has that become a ritualized discipline for me. A class I’m taking requires a daily journal of whatever amount we set for ourselves. This is something I’ve never done. My journal has always been my release and confidante when and as much as I needed.

    At first there was a lot of teeth gnashing, but over several months of this I have found the discipline of keeping a daily journal freeing. Instead of using up my writing time and creative space, it has freed me to write on a more regular basis.

    Perhaps it was simply the thought that if I can journal 500 words a day, why can’t I write 500 words a day in my story? Then too, in allowing myself to write drivel in my journal when I have nothing to say, I get to remind my inner judge that if I don’t have a sucky first draft, I have nothing to improve.

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  9. says

    This is by far one of the funniest blogs that I’ve read in a long time. I love Renee’s wit and how she relates writing to meditating. Been meditating since I was 25 years old, which was… never mind, let’s just stick with the 25 years. And yes, it takes discipline just like writing, and honesty–some days it works, other days “not-so-much.”
    So if I fall into the trap where neither work, I call the funniest person I know and laugh until my sides ache, or I go for a run or bike ride. Being outside in nature gives me a different perspective on life. I can open my ears to sounds other than the hum of my computer, smell fresh cut grass which can’t be done behind closed windows, and see nature reveal itself in living color–alligators swimming in the pond, wood storks flying overhead and geese strutting across the street without a care in the world–rather than watching it on Discovery Channel or YouTube.
    Thank you Renee making me smile!

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  10. says

    I need to take 4-6 rests/naps a day – I have learned techniques for breathing, setting aside thoughts just for a moment while I finish a breathing pattern (surely the thoughts can wait three breaths?), and then another, and another.

    All the tricks empty my mind systematically of the garbage that floats around and leaves physical debris my body needs to wash out of my brain – I call it mental dialysis. It works every time, whether I fall asleep, or just breathe and keep thoughts at bay for a while.

    I have found the techniques, developed for functionality, not particularly meditation, invaluable when things in real life threaten to overwhelm: almost anything benefits from taking a rest for a while, and emptying the brain of swirling thoughts.

    You can’t start meditating in the middle of a crisis – and in the middle of recent crises it has been a Godsend to already have the practice established.

    Oh, and it lets me write – I always come back with a clearer head.

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  11. says

    Renee, you have inspired me to get back into meditation time. I have found I get more into the heart of my characters when I am still inside, though I have never worked on building a daily discipline. I like your suggestion of trying 5 minutes, then building up. That is very doable. I wonder about trying to space these 5 minute sessions throughout the day rather than building one time in the morning? For me it’s easy to get distracted, especially after eating or when I’ve been working too long, so these intentional times to “be still and focus on breath” might be wonderful breaks where I can re-center.

    Thanks for taking the time to write about a different angle to writing craft that often is overlooked.

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  12. says

    Lovely post, Renee.

    It puts me in mind of a quotation I found recently from a new favorite novelist, Luis Alberto Urrea. It seems apt.

    “I have to thank the ancient Chinese poets and writers, and especially the Japanese haiku poets. Through them, I’ve come to realize that writing is not a product, but a process. Writing is a life style, a life choice, a path. Writing is part of my process of sacredness and prayer even. What I do is writing; that’s how I’ve chosen to understand and process the world: as a writer.”

    Yeah! Like he said!

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  13. says

    My attention span is way too short for meditation, but I do love doing yoga. I need to be better about that. I do make writing a habit, though, doing something on a current WIP every single day.

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  14. says

    Thank you all so so much for the lovely comments. Thank you so much for taking the time and sharing your thoughts. What a wonderful way to end the day. xoxo

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  15. says

    First, I love all your novels and can’t wait for your next one (no pressure ;-).

    Thanks for this essay. It’s a great reminder to have fun while writing and to keep the practice strong to get good work done.

    I’m going to share this with my students.

    Good Writing to You,
    liz

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