How Nothing Helped My Writing

meditationI have difficulty sitting, a condition I treat with an ever-present pillow and an unusual form of therapy — one I find instructive as a writer. I practice doing nothing.

I was turned onto this ‘nothing’ therapy by Dr. David Wise. He had the same condition and cured himself by perfecting a relaxation technique that would allow the culprit, a chronically spasmed muscle, to relax and heal. It was much easier said than done. Appropriately, the therapy is based on meditation because the most active part of the body — and biggest obstacle to doing nothing — is the mind and those organs associated with it: the eyes, moving when the mind visualizes; the lips and jaw, working imperceptibly whenever the mind verbalizes.

It took Wise many years of practice before the therapy worked for him. The problem, he found, was that he was trying to do nothing, which doesn’t work, because if you are doing, then you are doing something and, as such, not relaxing. To do nothing properly you have to not do, to not effort, which can be very hard to do, as he explains in his book, Paradoxical Relaxation. Once you get the hang of it, it works, allowing a state of deep and healing relaxation, but it takes months of practice to master because it’s so counter-intuitive — not trying to relax in order to relax. It’s difficult to grasp without actually doing it. Or not doing it. Whatever.

The takeaway from my therapy was that, like doing nothing, writing seems easy. You sit down and do it. But, of course, real writers know that writing requires training, experience and tools — and I don’t mean laptops and typing skills.

If you’ve never driven a car, you don’t just jump in and drive off. You need to learn the rules of the road, how to shift the transmission, when to brake, to accelerate, to use your turn signals, and so on. After a few years of driving, you don’t think about shifters, pedals, or turn signals. Whether one is attempting to achieve an extreme state of relaxation — i.e., to do nothing — or to write, both need that same level of sublimation, where the tools recede into the background so that all one senses is the flow of work. But they are both much harder than driving a car because your tools are not so easily grasped. They don’t fit in your hand or respond to your foot. They’re all in your head, and unlike steering wheels and gear shifts, writers’ tools are always evolving, changing and improving the more you practice, take classes, and read craft books. But they will not evolve if you do not practice religiously and with great discipline, even if you are not working on anything in particular.

It’s not an original idea, I know, but an idea that made more sense to me after I learned how to ‘do nothing.’ Writing teachers will say it’s not what you write that allows you to develop as a writer so much as how much and how often you write. I had one class where the instructor made it mandatory to write thirty minutes a day, every day, no matter what. If you didn’t know where to go with your story or book, you were to keep a journal, or do automatic writing, or put down whatever stream-of-conscience came into your head. It didn’t matter. Her point was the same. Even if you feel you are doing nothing useful, you are. Your mind and body are internalizing the writing process, building writing muscle and stamina, honing sensitivity and perception.

Granted, the more training you have, the more you hone the writing tools and techniques you’ve learned, but even untrained writers can benefit from practice. To me, it hardly seems possible to convert thoughts into sentences on paper without making them more substantial, almost demanding you give them structure, sense and meaning. How can such practice not make anyone a better writer?

As I do my relaxation therapy, I become attuned to my body and to individual muscles in ways that would not have been possible without months of practice. The more I write, the more easily I can slip into the voices of my characters, visualize my settings, empathize with whatever struggle my characters are enduring. Worlds I imagine become clearer and more distinct; words required to give life to these worlds come more easily and with greater fluency. My voice becomes clearer and stronger. Even if I’m just puttering around in my book — dusting the shelves, straightening a picture, making a character sit up straight — I feel like I am practicing by inhabiting it and making it more real to myself, which in turn will make it more real to my readers.

On those days I can’t get into my book or story, I’ll write something else. Maybe it will be an expose on the crumbs I found in bed that morning, a travelogue on the route my razor took shaving, an anthropological study on what’s buried between my couch cushions. It may seem like nothing, but it’s still practice, still using your tools and making them better, and as I have found, achieving nothing can actually be quite an accomplishment.

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