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How to Write Like the Buddha

buddha [1]Author’s note: I’m currently rehabbing from rotator cuff surgery (forty years of ultimate frisbee will, in fact, take its toll) and my time at the keyboard is constrained by my doctor’s – and my shoulder’s – orders. We could pause to dwell on the remarkable fact that the word “constrain” means both to require and repress, but that would be a waste of the few keystrokes I’m presently allowed. We could also note that “presently” means both now and later; instead let’s dip into the archives for this month’s missive, ripped from the pages of my book Creativity Rules…

The Noble Eightfold Path, that bedrock of Buddhist thought, is a simple, sublime prescription for anyone striving to live an effective life. It seems like it should work for writers, too.

Right Knowledge: Know what you’re up to. To the extent that you know yourself, write yourself. To the extent that you want to improve your writing, improve your self-knowledge. But world-knowledge counts too, especially if it’s knowledge that others don’t have. If you’re an avid hang glider, your hang gliding experience gives you unusual insights, a specialized vocabulary, a built-in market for your work, and an interesting story to tell. If you know a great deal about banana slugs, that’s kind of gross, but it gives you an edge over writers who know less in the highly competitive field of banana-slug scribery.

Right Aspiration: Set appropriate goals. There will always be a gap between the writer we are and the writer we want to be. Worse, in the sense that no matter what writing stunt we pull off, we always want to do more, we’re kind of always moving the goalposts on ourselves. Thus, there’s really no such thing as “done” for a writer; there’s only closing the gap. So embrace it. Feel yourself grow as a writer. Give yourself the satisfaction of hitting harder targets. Seek to be a better writer today than you were yesterday. That’s an appropriate goal, and one you can always achieve.

Right Speech: Say what you mean – effectively. Writing is code. When we write, we encode our thoughts as words on the page. When readers read, they decode our words back into thought. In this sense, writing and reading resemble the kids’ game of telephone, where a whispered phrase starts out as, “Hard choices confront diligent writers” and ends up as, “Head cheeses convert disco fever.” Remember that your code has power – the power to persuade. And the more you improve as a writer, the greater this power becomes. So have a care with your code, and make your message count.

Right Behavior: Don’t forget to walk the walk. Are you a serious-minded writer, with a serious practice of writing? Or are you a “cocktail party writer,” the kind of writer who talks a great game without actually getting much done? In truth, we’re all somewhat less serious-minded than we’d like, but also significantly less flaky than we fear. To have a great practice of writing, simply set the goal of moving toward better practice. Keep putting words on the page. Everything else follows from that.

Right Livelihood: Work for well-being, not for money. It’s hard to fit a productive writer’s life into the corners of your time. It’s especially hard to be a working writer at the end of a long day spent at a “real job.” That’s why so many writers come home from work and – deservedly, deservedly – crash out on the couch. It’s an obstinate problem, and one that (short of a major lottery win or the death of a rich relative) does not solve overnight. But you can take steps. Seek freelance opportunities. Gravitate toward jobs that involve writing – any kind of writing at all. Now matter how poor the paycheck, there’s bound to be secondary benefit in the experience and expertise you gain.

Right Effort: There’s more to writing than just writing. There’s study, practice, drive, discipline… craft. Even as you take steps to improve your writing through writing, think about other steps you can take as well, because there’s also more to writing than just generating product. There’s also submitting your work for editing (ack!), finding buyers (double ack!) and building your brand on social media and elsewhere (head explodes). Your job includes all parts of the writing process, not just the writing part. Be realistic and accepting of this: No one gets to do the fun part of their job exclusively.

Right Mindfulness: Mind yourself and those around you. Writers don’t write in a vacuum. We live within the context of other people. Some of them help serve our writing goals, and some, let’s be frank, hinder us. Obviously seek to minimize enemies and maximize allies. But consider the consequence of this: To be the sort of writer you truly want to be, you may have to leave some people behind. Why? Because writing enhances self-awareness, and your burgeoning self-awareness can feel threatening to others. People who don’t want to move into awareness have been known to fight or subvert the efforts of those who do. If you desire to live the writer’s life, it may cost you some relationships. Good news: It may be that these are relationships you’re better off without anyhow.

Right Concentration: A state of bliss is its own reward. Writers deeply engaged in the act of writing lose all consciousness of bills, disappointments, aches and pains, human conflict, past failures and future longings. Writers deeply engaged in the act of writing enter a realm where nothing matters but the precious world that’s brought to life by the writer’s hand. Writing is how we get better at writing – but writing is also how we enter nirvana. When you suddenly look up at the clock and wonder where the last three hours went, you know you’re in bliss. To get there, write more. To get there a lot, write a lot more.

Friends say that I have a gift for reducing complex concepts to trivial one-liners. I think I have a gift for reducing the wisdom of the ages to handy-dandy tips and tricks. This revisionist reconstruction of the Noble Eightfold Path is one such reduction. There are many more, and all will add to your understanding of what it means to live the writer’s life.

How do you understand the practice of writing? What tips or tricks do you use to keep yourself focused on, engaged with, and happy about the writer’s life you lead? What advice do you give to others who want to walk our path?


About John Vorhaus [2]

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!