What can anyone give you greater than now,
starting here, right in this room, when you turn around.
— William Stafford, You Reading This, Be Ready
In a world crowded with innumerable distractions and incalculable nuggets of new information, it’s often difficult for even the most productive writers and artists to find the time and space for quiet musing and the quality moments that so often lead to new creations.
Acclaimed Northwest writers and friends Brenda Miller and Holly Hughes saw that the pace of life was spiraling out of control for their students and fellow writers and interfering with the activities that were most important to them. In response to these concerns, they began a year-long conversation in letters on writing and contemplation, and on how writers can create space for their work and how mindfulness practice can strengthen writing.
These letters are the core of their new book, The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World (Skinner House Books). As the authors report, the letters themselves “became a deep, rich practice . . . and showed us details or memories we never would have found otherwise.” And they found that contemplation and writing occur not just in quiet places, but also in dialogue with the world and the chaos of our daily lives.
They write: “If we train ourselves, we’ll see that our writing material, and our contemplative state of mind, can be found anywhere: in the Volkswagen repair shop, at the doctor’s office, in a traffic jam, at PetSmart.”
In addition to the thought-provoking and stimulating exchanges between the authors, each chapter of the book contains exercises to jumpstart writing and awaken the creative soul. Topics range from noticing details and contemplation at work to gratitude, mortality, balancing contemplation and action, spiritual traditions, befriending grief, and even animal companions. The book is dedicated to their canine companions, Fox and Abbe, “who remind us every day of how to be in the world.”
Brenda Miller is a professor of English at Western Washington University and serves as editor-in-chief of the Bellingham Review. Her other books include Listening Against the Stone, Blessing of the Animals, Season of the Body, and (with Suzanne Paola) Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes and has been published in numerous journals.
Holly J. Hughes teaches writing at Edmonds Community College, where she co-directs the Sustainability Initiative and Convergence Writers Series. She is an accomplished poet and her books include the award-winning anthology Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease, which she edited, and Boxing the Compass. She has spent over 30 summers working on the water in Alaska in a variety of jobs, including commercial fishing for salmon, skippering a 65-foot schooner and, more recently, working as a naturalist.
Miller and Hughes will be reading from A Pen and The Bell Reading at 2 p.m. Sunday (Dec. 2) at The Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Avenue, Seattle. (The day of the week has been corrected since the story first appeared.)
Brenda Miller and Holly Hughes responded by email to a few questions on their new book and their thoughts on the creative process.
Robin Lindley: What sparked your new book?
Holly J. Hughes: We wrote it for ourselves, really. We both teach writing full-time and were struggling to create space and time for our own writing. We also see our students struggling, as their lives are increasingly packed with social media and other distractions. More specifically, we discovered that we shared a mindfulness practice and both felt mindfulness practice aided our writing practice, so we set out to explore the synergy between these two practices. We began simply writing letters to each other in which we explored, day to day, how we each combine mindfulness and writing —a nd those letters became the basis for the book.
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