Zen Writing


As I sat down in front of my computer this morning, a litany of thoughts circled through my head, the same ones that always assault me when I get ready to write:

    I hate this.
    Why am I doing this to myself?
    I’d rather scrub the toilet.
    Why couldn’t I have been an accountant?

If I’m honest with myself, writing has ceased to be fun for a long time. I liken it to trying to push my body, inch by inch, through a brick wall. It’s painful. Even more painful are those days where I’ve spent hours in the chair, as I’ve been told to do by the masters, only to have 500, maybe 700 words to show for it.

So again, I ask myself, why am I doing this?

For anyone else feeling the same way, I encourage you to look back on your life, to when making up stories was simple. When your heart and mind were both open, when ideas whispered to you in the wind, and there were all sorts of possibilities in the starry night sky.

Back when writing was fun.

When I was a kid, I wrote because I had an almost obsessive desire to create. Picking up a pen and facing a blank sheet of paper opened the door to a type of magic all my own. I could forget myself for hours in the worlds I designed, make new friends in the characters that bloomed across the page, have adventures that otherwise would never occur in my physical life, because I was a girl, because I was poor, because because because.

As a teen, my purpose for writing changed. I sought books to answer questions, and I used writing to make sense of those answers. Writing gave me a voice; it gave me power. It gave me something I otherwise didn’t have a shred of: confidence. I kept stacks of journals and felt unfinished if I’d not deconstructed my day within them.

Then along came college, the study of writing, and writing degrees. Next, the teaching of writing and guiding students. Then, serious writing projects with the sole goal of publication. Finding an agent. Making enough money to live off so I could quit my day job.

And there, I think, is the trouble.

In his essay collection Zen In the Art of Writing Ray Bradbury tells writers to adhere to three rules: Work, Relaxation, and Don’t Think. Work, because without it, one will never learn. One will never fail and learn from the failure. Work, and work a lot, because without the quantity, there will never be quality. “The artist,” says Bradbury, “must work so hard, so long, that a brain develops and lives, all of itself, in his fingers.”

Okay, I understand all of that, but where does Relaxation come in? All this talk to work and quantity and brains in fingers sounds rather exhausting to me.

“By work,” says Bradbury, “…man releases himself from obligation to anything but the task at hand.”

Lack of experience leads to fear, which leads to tension, and—in my case—rips the fun right out of writing. But by doing the work, continually and over time, your body will develop a rhythm. It’s sort of like the adage, “fake it till you make it.” Keep sitting down, keep writing, and eventually, the brain in your head will shut off, and the brain in your fingers will take over.

You will relax. When you relax, you will stop thinking. Stop plotting. Stop planning and making yourself crazy by analyzing Every. Single. Word. You. Put. On. The. Damn. Page. You will open yourself back up to the joy of creation.

This is good to remember. It’s good to remember that you will likely need to rewrite your story 5,000 times. It’s good to tell yourself that it’s not going to be perfect that first, second, or fifteenth draft.

Even if we already know this, inherently, it’s good to remember it again and again.

And then Bradbury addresses the same question I asked myself earlier today: Why do I do this?

“We are working not for work’s sake, producing not for production’s sake…What we are trying to do is find a way to release the truth that lies in all of us.”

Bam. There it is. I write because if don’t, I am unsettled, irritable, out of sorts. I am restless and agonizing. I feel like a rabid squirrel is clawing around in my gut, desperate to be released. I write, as I have always done, because I must. I must capture the way I see the world, express how I feel about it, set it down in words, and maybe, it will reach someone else out there, someone who needs that truth.

I write because it’s who I am.

I know how to make magic. I know how to disappear to somewhere else. I can swirl away on magic carpets or flip backwards a billion times like a ninja. Only I have the power to release my stories. No one else is going to do it, and in fact, no one else can do it. All I need to do it sit back, wake up my fingers, and take a ride.

How fun is that?


Jamie Kallio is a January 2011 graduate of the MFAC program. Her book, Read On: Speculative Fiction for Teens was published in August, 2012 by Libraries Unlimited. She is a youth services librarian in suburban Chicago.

For more information:

Read a 2013 Inkpot Interview with Jamie.
Visit her blog, Going Charlotte: Re-reading the Classics of Children’s Literature.