Something Keith Cronin mentioned in a comment a few months back struck me as incredibly insightful, and that impression has only deepened in the months since. I’ve worked on a variety of writing projects with his remark in mind, and it’s changed some old habits I didn’t realize beforehand might need addressing.
I’m going to paraphrase what he said, and hopefully not butcher it in the process. (Keith—feel free to step in to correct me.)
He mentioned a teacher he had as a musician who emphasized not just mastering technique but gaining a sense of the state of mind you enter when you know you’re playing or practicing well. At the risk of relying on a tired cliché, that state of mind might be called “the groove.”
The term in Taoism is wu wei, which translates literally as “non-action.” It means performing a task naturally, the way water flows along a stream bed, without any effort to control or force matters. This way of putting it has a special new relevance for me, as I’ve returned to studying tai chi after a forty-year hiatus.
But I also encountered something similar when I studied acting. Constantin Stanislavski refers to it as “unconscious creativeness through conscious technique:”
“[A]sk an actor, after some great performance, how he felt while on the stage, and what he did there. He will not be able to answer because he was not aware of what he lived through, and does not remember many of the more significant moments. All you will get from him is that he felt comfortable on the stage, that he was in easy relationship to the other actors. Beyond that, he will be able to tell you nothing.
“You will astonish him by your description of his acting. He will gradually come to realize things about his performance of which he had been entirely unconscious.”
As I’ve worked these past few months, I’ve tried now and then to take momentary notice of my mindset when the writing is going well. And more and more I recognize the calm, centered focus I acquire, as though I’ve entered a curiously silent hum. It’s a special kind of mindfulness, to borrow another Eastern term.
I’ve also become more aware of what ruptures that state, and how easily—and frequently—I give in to it.
Focusing on a creative state of mind may seem like a luxury given the innumerable distractions that arise in any given workday, not to mention the anxiety over the worth of the work (or its creator), deadline pressure, word count concerns, etc.
And yet, as one learns in meditation, there’s no need to grasp at these distractions—be aware of them, recognize them as inessential (even counterproductive) for the moment, and let them go, returning again to the work.
This technique, of recognizing your “groove state,” the better to return to it when distractions are inevitable, is particularly helpful when real-world concerns—that pesky, greedy, selfish family of yours, the goddamn day job, lumbers, painters, the death of western civilization, puppies on Facebook, GAME OF THRONES!!—diverts the mental stream like a giant meteor slamming into the Mississippi.
Sometimes (all too often, actually), that stuff can’t wait (well, not the FB puppies or GoT). But if you’re aware of how it feels, physically as well as mentally, to be grounded, centered, in the right frame of mind to create, and how important it is, it can be easier to slip back into it when chaos subsides and you can return to your desk, if only for a brief period.
Interestingly, the more I’ve become aware of my “groove,” the more I’ve noticed several bad habits I always just accepted as my “process.” Now I’m not so sure.