Breathing New Life Into Your Writing

Sunrise, Kosrae, Federated States of Micronesia

A while back, I lived on a tiny Micronesian island for a year. I taught various English department classes to students at the junior college, and for several reasons, my stay there was flavored with some sour stints of depression and anxiety. But I like to think about the things there that soothed me: the extraordinary beauty of the waters, the dazzling, resplendent corals and marine life under that water, the tropical breezes that lightened the blazing hammer of the days.

But one of the things I remember so clearly is a sound (maybe because they didn’t have any of Proust’s madeleines there with which to tag my aroma memory). That sound was the bright, high, rattling tinkle of waves breaking and receding over the bits and chunks of coral at the water’s edge. There was a broad coral reef surrounding the island, and there was coral rubble of all shapes and sizes at the shoreline. When the waves brushed over that coral, it was as though a master—and eccentric, maybe like Thelonious Monk—pianist or perhaps a vibrant vibes player finger-danced over coral keys.

It’s challenging to describe a sound, particularly one that because of the variable tempo of the waves and the configuration of the coral was forever changing, but there was something so pleasingly calming about it; the repetitive sweep of the waves and its tinkling chime was an aural massage. After some particularly crappy days at the school, just coming back to our house and sitting by the ocean listening to the jangling chime of the coral was enough to bathe my bile in a sonic balm.

No Coral Concert? Just Breathe Instead

I bring up those island days because I’ve lately had some biting bouts with anxiety and depression again. Just the usual mishmash of feeling unaccomplished, that my writing work—both business and personal—was going poorly, that though it was sunny spring, there was a chill inside. And there aren’t any coral-chipped beaches for a few thousand miles from my Central California home.

I can conjure many reasons not to write: worrying that a button was missing off my shirt, wondering if that girl from high school really didn’t like me or just slashed my tires to get my attention, thinking I would work on my novel if there weren’t a section of the tax code online I should study for an hour or two—the list knows no end. No writers need to add “I feel like a deflated tire” to the long list of inanities that prevent them from applying the magic formula: put the time in, and the words will come.

So, for the past couple of weeks, I’ve started the morning with a simple meditation. I’m not going to get militantly woo-woo on you and tell you you have to do 1,000 Sun Salutes, an hour of chanting and then stare at the sun until God speaks, and that then your writing will flow like the mighty river. What I’m doing is simple: a 15-minute meditation that has been working for me like the sweet sound of waves on coral: a lightly stirred serving of now, and now again. This particular meditation is a guided one, though you certainly don’t need an iPad to sit and breathe. This guidance is served up by a modulated woman’s voice offering some thoughts on focusing on the present moment, then offering silence, then focusing on the ebb and flow of the breath, then silence, and on.

And it’s helping.

Breathing Through the Ping-Pongings of Your Infernal Mind

The meditation suggests that you look with kindness on the ping-pongings of your infernal mind, that mad monkey that goes from, “Are we low on milk” to “if the asteroid hits and destroys the earth in a week, I won’t have to make the payment on the flat screen tv.” Beginning my morning with a simple meditation, and reminding myself that any time throughout the day, I can return to a minute or two of acknowledging the rolling ride of my breath (rather than watch another YouTube video) has been liberating in some ways.

I bookend the meditation with some quick thoughts on things I’m grateful for. And these don’t have to be any complex or grandiose or self-aggrandizing things, like being grateful for the Apple stock split. No, it’s more like the “I’m grateful for the sound of waves on coral.” Ahhhhh …

My feeling about my writing has been better—it’s breathing some new life. And I’m doing a little more of it. I wish I’d found out earlier that writing is actually a breathing exercise.

A Little Bit Extra

I wrote a piece on getting a gun at a young age, and how that troubling time has stayed with me all my days: Taking Flight from the Trigger, published on Medium. Recommend it with that bottom button if you’re of a mind to.

And a Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers out there!

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8 thoughts on “Breathing New Life Into Your Writing

  1. Our brain needs care and feeding and guidance.

    The noise in my head can be deafening. Once when I was 15, going for a drive with my dad, I wanted to turn the radio on and he asked why I couldn’t just enjoy the quiet.

    I can only assume HIS head didn’t contain a baker’s dozen voices all talking at once. Closest I got to silence back then was music familiar enough to let me take the driver’s seat. Nowadays I have more than one method, but music loud enough to drown the voices is still my go-to writing support tool.

  2. Joel, I very rarely play music when I’m writing, because I can’t restrain my mind from listening to (and anticipating) the lyrics, which always throws me off from the words I’m writing. Or not writing.

    Sometimes I can listen to some kinds of jazz, but most of the time, I write in silence. Excepting, as you mention in your comment, all the cries and tumult served up by the inner voices. They do breech the gap sometimes, and surface with their whining demands, but I try to hold them at bay with false promises and delay tactics.

  3. From:

    “As a boy, Tolstoy and two friends put together a club. They called it the White Polar Bear Club because the only membership requirement was that a boy had to stand in a corner for 30 minutes and not think about a white bear. Memory researchers say we’ve all got a bit of the White Bear Syndrome. Close your eyes, if you don’t believe me, and whatever you do do not think about a white bear.”

  4. Rick, yes, the white bear syndrome. A friend and I were bicycling together on a rutted trail, and though there was a decent way around a particularly deep rut, he headed right into it and took a tumble. Why? As he told me, “I kept telling myself, don’t crash into that hole, don’t ride there, focusing on the hole, rather than the way around it.”

    I have focused too much on my anxieties at times, and then spent time trying NOT to focus on them, which as your circling white bear will growl at you, renews their focus. Now I’m just trying to wave at them when they stop by to visit and wave goodbye when they go on their way. We’ll see how that works.

  5. Tom, I loved this post, not the fact that you had been feeling anxious, but the way you write about it so lyrically. I’m glad the meditation is helping.

  6. Hi Jule. Yeah, I’ve been meditating now for a couple of months, and I’d say it is helping. Not dramatically, but measurably. And because it’s now part of my routine, it doesn’t feel like it’s any kind of time commitment, but rather just part of the way my day unfolds.

    It took a bit of attention to make it a habit, but that it now is one shows me that I can actually make changes that make changes—and that’s good.

    Thanks for coming by!

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