How to be creative in a busy world

Holly J. Hughes

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.

Lindley: How do you describe your new book?  

Brenda Miller: We consider The Pen and the Bell a companion to keep at your side, a friendly guide to remind you to pay attention as you move through the world. We include stories, readings, and prompts that describe how to be more present in the midst of busyness and therefore create more time, space, and material for creativity.

Lindley: What is contemplative writing?

Hughes: We both feel our strongest writing comes out of contemplative practice, since we’re more connected to our authentic selves and are paying closer attention to both our inner and outer landscapes. So contemplative writing can be any writing that’s done with this intention: to bring the two practices together, whether consciously or not.

Lindley: Mindfulness seems a key to your approach to writing and it may be a foreign concept to many of us in our busy lives.  How do you describe mindfulness?

MIller: Mindfulness means to be aware of what you’re doing. It seems simple, but in reality can be difficult to achieve, since we have so much “mind chatter” going on all the time. We are often dwelling in the past or the future and missing what’s going on right in front of us. A great tool for being mindful is the breath. Even a few moments of conscious breathing — in and out — brings you into the present and centers your body and mind. In this state, you can be more observant, without judgment, and therefore create space to let in more of the world.

Lindley: Did you learn some new approaches to writing in doing the book?

Hughes: One of the great pleasures of collaborating on The Pen & The Bell was writing letters to each other. This proved to be the perfect vehicle to explore how these practices work together because our letters allowed for a more intimate voice, so the reader feels included (we hope), like s/he is looking over our shoulders. We also enjoyed adding the contemplative practice (The Bell) exercises. Since we teach writing, we have many favorite writing prompts, but it was a fun challenge to come up with the contemplative practice exercises, too.

Lindley: Can your approach work with nonfiction or journalistic writing — or visual art?

Miller: Yes. Many of the examples we give in the book are creative nonfiction (personal essay, memoir), and I’m a nonfiction writer myself. The contemplative approach allows us to observe more fully and therefore bring those observations into our work. Fiction writers can also benefit from practicing mindfulness, as it can provide a way to be patient with the writing process and to bring unexpected observations and insights into the story.

Lindley: You’re both very accomplished writers and teachers. Can you talk about how a specific work you’ve done arose from your contemplative practice?

Miller: Through a mindful writing practice, I’ve learned to trust that whatever is right in front of me might lead to good writing. Rather than “think out” a piece ahead of time, I often start by describing something commonplace that I’m observing in the moment. For example, my essay “Dirty Windows” (available in the online journal Mindful.org) started with the observation that when the sun is out in my Northwest home, instead of enjoying it I often notice how that angle of brightness highlights my shoddy housekeeping. This observation of something mundane leads me to a meditation on the kinds of light I’ve sought in my life, and how I crave a softer, more forgiving illumination.

Hughes: I’ve been combining mindfulness and writing practice for more than 10 years now, so it truly influences all my writing. The most evident example of this is a collection of what I call my “morning” poems. For many years now, my practice is to write a poem each morning after sitting, often working with an image that emerges during meditation or is prompted by observing what I see out my window.  An example of this is my poem “Mind Wanting More,” (available here) in which I begin by describing what I see out the window where I’m in residence at Centrum and end up exploring the “monkey mind” that I observed during my meditation.

Lindley: Can you briefly comment on how you came to be a writer? Was writing natural for you as a child?

Miller: I was always one of those voracious readers as a child, and I think most children who read that way also feel the urge to write. From an early age I was narrating the events of my life and “heard” a writing voice in my head.

Hughes: I, too, was a voracious reader, and therefore, wanted to be part of that “club” of readers and writers. I started keeping a journal when I was 10 on a family trip, a practice that continues to this day. After college, my years fishing in Alaska were a good opportunity to pick my journal up again and continue writing, both poetry and journalism. Plus, working on the sea was a constant reminder to “pay attention” because our lives depended on it.

Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add for readers about your book or your work?

Hughes: I’ve been encouraged to hear feedback from friends who aren’t necessarily aspiring writers that The Pen & the Bell is useful in reminding them how to create space for any form of creativity and just how helpful it is to be reminded to carve out contemplative/reflective time in our too busy, too distracted lives. This means a lot to us, that our book is doing what we’d hoped it might do: Be a good companion for all us struggling with achieving this balance. And the struggle continues: We sometimes have to remind each other to read our own book!

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