Writing, No Writing: Cultivating the Emptiness of the Page

Normally, not writing is rejected experience. Most writers value the popcorn sound of typing or other signs of productivity—a paragraph written, a journal page filled, a poem drafted, a noble goal of 3,000 words a day. The entire reason for prompts is to springboard writers out of the preverbal and into the verbal, for instance. We only begin to feel secure once language makes an appearance on the screen and the word count climbs. Each new sentence or line seems to rescue us from a perceived plight of failure, transporting us farther away from this face-off with nothingness.

I want to make a case for cultivating blankness, not avoiding or fearing it. I have found the Buddhist mindfulness perspective on the interrelation of form and formlessness to be of immense help in both starting and continuing new work. It has allowed me to rest much more easily with blank moments and resist the suffering that comes from constantly craving verbal productivity. I’ve learned to not resent how little I might produce on a given day at the desk: I bow to the entirety of the writing moment, including its emptiness. Writing is nothing more than no-writing, no-writing is not different from writing, neither is writing different from nonwriting, indeed, not writing is writing.

Routinely, writers cordon off the starting moments for brand-new projects with a sort of yellow police tape and then are afraid of what they might discover (emptiness) inside the roped-off mental area. Along with fearing blankness when beginning new pieces, we may worry that we’ll reach a dead end in the middle of a project, that proverbial running-out-of-material. A more mindful, present-based approach to verbal emptiness will make these moments in the writing experience more tranquil and productive.

In The Heart Sutra, a disciple of the Buddha named Avalokitesvara instructs another disciple named Sariputra, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is not different from form, neither is form different from emptiness, indeed, emptiness is form.” The most powerful word in this mantra is that deceptively humble “is.” This tiny word underscores how both substance and nothingness are present in each moment—how they’re adjacent experiences. It’s like turning a corner. By the time we reach the second half of the equation, “Formless is form,” form is visible. At the same time, the implication is that the two are simultaneous and synonymous.

Applied to writing, this pivot means that writing and no-writing are simultaneous-synonymous. Writing and no-writing are present in each moment. The rotation between form and formlessness carries implications for writing, for the nonverbal and verbal. The teaching can help us cultivate a healthy relationship to blankness by first fixing our errors in evaluation (how we cling to the verbal and reject the nonverbal) and then adjusting our sense of timing (our assumptions about when the verbal should occur). In a mindful writing practice, three paradoxes about verbal emptiness and writing ability are important to observe:

Insight #1: From a mindfulness perspective, writing is inevitable. We have no basis to fret that writing won’t happen. You will write again—possibly within the next minute—if you observe the changes of the moment. I am hoping this idea is a comfort. A razed mental space (such as one achieved through formal meditation) will soon flood with language. It’s actually a herculean task to banish all mental wording. Anyone who has attempted a seated meditation practice will tell you that our “monkey minds” or ongoing discursive tendencies tilt us toward language production, not away. Your ability to write is always present.

Insight #2: From a mindfulness perspective, no-writing is inevitable. This statement isn’t a contradiction of the first, and the binary-busting Buddhist mantra actually necessitates this view. (Remember, form also turns over to formlessness.) Delays are inevitable. I’ve met far too many people who self-diagnose their occasions of verbal emptiness as a deficiency in themselves as writers, a misperception that may cause them to quit trying altogether. Nonverbal moments are as frequent as verbal moments—probably far more prevalent. Word count: 3,000. Gap count: 10,000. Every typed letter stands on a backdrop of emptiness, a certain amount of nonverbal space stands between it and the next. In actuality, whenever we write, we make contact with countless moments in which we are not writing. We’re breathing, twirling a wedding ring, listening to a sound from the kitchen, staring out an office window, noticing our feet in warm socks, sipping coffee.

Insight #3: From a mindfulness perspective, completed writing doesn’t happen on our schedule. Although it’s the case that writing happens on a fragmentary, momentary basis all the time—why writing ability is consistent—the moment of writing doesn’t guarantee the polish of final versions. Typically, the writing process is seen as a sequence of efforts through which language moves from formlessness to ever-increasing and ever-stabilizing form, from the multiple and divergent possibilities of early drafts to a stabilized final version meant for readers.

This line of thinking is skewed toward bigger amounts of form: writing products are price tagged as more valuable the greater their removal from verbal emptiness. Form doesn’t differentiate on the basis of perceived usefulness or quality. In a mindful writing practice, a single letter in Garamond font is an instance of form and “legit” writing; a well-formed paragraph, the use of description, and a haiku are also instances of form. A fragment is as legitimate as a complete sentence or a book.

Operating with a false timetable, writers tend to compartmentalize verbal emptiness as mainly occurring during prewriting and early drafting—when in actuality, emptiness surrounds us, even at late-stage editing phases, due to the radical groundlessness of present-based experience. The switch-over is frequent and momentary. Anything typed becomes the next-door neighbor of emptiness. For example, the thirty seconds or so around the time I signed off my email and pressed “Send,” submitting this blog post to the North American Review, contained traces of the nonverbal. Changeover between formlessness and form happens on a moment-by-moment basis rather than in macro phases like “prewriting” and “rewriting.”

Methods to develop facility with verbal emptiness include disposable writing (a type of sand mandala in which your writing is blown away, deleted); a relaxation or “corpse” pose for revision based on the savasana pose in yoga (focusing on one section at a time in a draft and releasing preconceptions to return to clear consciousness); momentwriting (a variant on freewriting that includes no-writing like physical sensations and emotional pulses); and a This Very Moment Is Perfect prompt (in which we ask ourselves, “What would I like to write right now?,” “What wants to be written now?,” and “What am I hearing?” and immediately record the reply, without filtering for apparent quality, and welcome the silences). Details about these methods can be found at www.prolificmoment.com.

By not overvaluing writing ability, we grow less fearful of failure; not caught up in that fear, we are better able to perceive the present writing moment and all of its affordances, including how formlessness changes over to form. Writers who accept emptiness don’t cling to the material they’ve already produced but are able to catch & release (and therefore catch more in the long term) because they reside comfortably in the turnover between form and formlessness. Emptiness is writing at 100% rather than at zero. It’s why I think we should have NaWriNoMo (National Write Nothing Month) in addition to the public writing marathon of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) between November 1 and November 30. Far from a celebration of procrastination, National Write Nothing Month would mean learning to purposefully dwell in verbal emptiness. Writing is nothing more than no-writing, no-writing is not different from writing, neither is writing different from nonwriting, indeed, not writing is writing.

Alexandria Peary

Alexandria Peary (MFA, MFA, PhD) is the author of six books, including Prolific Moment: Theory and Practice of Mindfulness for Writing (Routledge 2018) and The Water Draft, her fourth collection of poetry, forthcoming from Spuyten Duyvil in 2019. She has given talks on mindful writing at universities and colleges in the United States and the United Kingdom. More information can be found at her blog: www.prolificmoment.com.