Deborah J. Ross: “Settling” in Meditation and in Writing

Quakers call it “centering down,” but I like the word, “settling.” It reminds me of settlers, pioneers and voyageurs who have, for some utterly unaccountable reason, taken a mind to put down roots. My mind is like that, wandering all over the place, alighting here and there with no particular purpose. It thinks it knows what it’s doing, but a butterfly has more focused direction. So I sit. What I do with my mind isn’t important and probably wouldn’t work for anyone else. I sit. I breathe. And at some point, that surely must be magic because my own poor will has nothing to do with it, a little bubble — not of mental chatter but of deep stillness — forms inside me. Now I can begin to listen. I don’t have roots yet, just little thread-like rootlets, but they’re enough to keep me in one place long enough for that bubble to do its work.

Some days — heck, who am I kidding? most days — my writing begins with a similar process. I can find almost any excuse not to sit down in front of the computer or with pad and pen in hand. It’s not that I don’t want to write or I’m not excited about the story I’m working on. I know intellectually that once I’m into the flow, I’ll lose myself in it. I love my characters and miss them, even overnight. But some part of my brain, my monkey-chattering time-frivoling, recalcitrant part of my brain, runs amok.

I can get into a death battle with that monkey-mind, grimly insisting that we will sit down. No. Matter. What. Sometimes I need that turbo-charged gear. I have deadlines, I get caught with too many projects and one of life’s inevitable sand-in-the-gears crises. Then I need to be able to put Ms. Idiot-Monkey on ice and plunge into work-on-steroids mode.

Most of the time, however, my schedule is a bit less frantic. On some days, I’m ready to go as soon as I’ve finished breakfast, or even before. Yet on other days, I don’t “settle” until an hour or two before dinner. I go through much the same process as I do at Quaker meeting. I wait. I listen. I try to pay attention to what I need in order to be ready to write. The very concept of being ready to write took me years to formulate. Partly because I have insanely high expectations of myself and partly because I began writing professionally when my children were small and there was no such thing as transition or warm-up time, I think I should be prepared to write at any moment. The truth is that when I do that, I have to rip out a lot of what I do. If, on the other hand, I am able to pay attention to what my creative mind needs, I am much more likely to work well and productively.

After some years of trying to listen to myself, I realized that most of the time, the things standing in my way were not frivolous or unrelated to my writing. As often as not, I discovered a niggling plot problem, a lapse in tone, or a character aching to point me in a better direction, in yesterday’s work. Or a new story idea that will quite happily go back to sleep once I’ve jotted it down. Or something in my life that is moving beneath the story, awkwardly and silently, waiting for my attention to bring it to life.

Listen. Pay attention. Settle. Put down roots deep into your story, deep into your life.

Note: Those familiar with the practices of the Religious Society of Friends may point out that Meeting for Silent Worship is not “meditation,” but since people are more familiar with the word, I’ve used it instead.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe. Her most recent print publication is Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley.

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