Beginner's Mind for Writers

Zen philosophy encourages a state of mind known as beginner’s mind. I have always found this very suggestive and it’s one reason why our introductory course is entitled Beginner’s Mind. Basically it takes all that it is GOOD about being a beginner and leaves out the negative connotations of being a newbie (almost useless word in my opinion). Beginners have beginner’s luck- let’s start there. Why? Because they aren’t in a rut, staring at the tiny space in front of their noses. Their minds are switched on and open. Studies by Dr Richard Wiseman have shown that lucky people are very often simply more open to experience and the advantages that life throws at all of us. In his experiments the people with an ‘open mind’ were more likely to see money left lying on the ground and advertisements in the paper that benefited them. The unlucky people were simply switched off, convinced that life had nothing much to offer. This applies to writing as much as anything else.

My first book sold more copies than any other I wrote in the following ten years. Often students have the experience of their first real story or poem, the first they really work on, turns out to be their ‘best’ for quite a while. Beginner’s luck is out there, and if you switch into Beginner’s Mind you can gain access to it, even if you are no beginner at the craft of writing.

Beginner’s mind signifies being in a state of openness. You are ‘on’ to whatever is around you. In writing terms it means you treat stuff that seems like old hat, or you heard before as if it were MORE IMPORTANT than new and exciting things you’ve only just learned. A real beginner in everything is in that state naturally, but since this is an idealisation (you have been writing for years even if you don’t self-identify as a writer) you need to fake it to make it real. Every time you hear something said about writing that seems over familiar or ‘not exciting’ pay especial attention. It isn’t just because of that particular piece of information, it is to cultivate a sharper sense of perception, that will be useful in all areas of writing.

If you allow a complete beginner to read a story or film script they will very often pick out the problem areas- they may say they like them or hate them and they may offer solutions for fixing them- all of that is irrelevant. Their beginner’s mind has identified a problem area- physically on the page. All you have to do is study it and find a way to fix it. Ignore their suggestions- as non-writers they won’t have much of a clue how to fix a problem- but they have already done a great job of pointing out the place where the problem is. Unburdened by theories of good and bad the beginner at least knows what they like- and it is that sensibility you are trying to regrow and encourage. Regrow- because you had it when you were much younger and had a ‘natural’ reaction to everything you read. But years of schooling and hearing other peoples’ ‘informed’ opinions can do wonders for blocking your own ability to tell what you really like and what you don’t. Beginner’s mind aims at restoring this first of all.

Barry Lopez, the highly regarded writer of Arctic Dreams, famously gave three pieces of advice to new writers: Read a lot. Get away from the familiar. Find out what you believe. A beginner accepts that this is new territory. They accept that their own writing mind is something of a mystery to them. They engage in analysing what they believe rather than assuming they know already. ‘Been there done that’ is the antithesis of such a mind. It is also the death of good writing as it kills the energy to even attempt to write something.

Michael Merzenich, a leading researcher into cognitive decay and its avoidance, has discovered some optimum conditions for learning. One is being ‘switched on’. This occurs when you do something for the first time (beginner’s mind again), when you are shocked or when you focus hard. It resonates with what Colin Wilson called the St. Neot’s margin- by forcing oneself to deeply focus you suddenly ‘break through’ and achieve a whole new level of engagement and interest. This is one reason for never writing for less than a couple of hours at a time. If you don’t feel in the right mood keep taking tiny breaks but returning to your desk. After the third or fourth try at getting going you may be surprised at the sudden surge of engagement.

Beginner’s don’t have high expectations and ideally they have no expectations. Expectations are what get us every time. How to avoid them? As Andy Warhol said: make more art. Get busy. Hammer that keyboard. Drive the fantasies away by using the word count button, the best invention since the fountain pen…

When you feel lost or unsure switch into beginner’s mind. Revel in uncertainty rather than drown in it. Be experimental rather than judgemental. Find our what you like writing, what you believe in.