Writing and the Beginner’s Mind: Taking A Zen Approach to Creativity

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“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the experts there are few”

Shunryu Suzuki

This quote is taken from Shunryu Suzuki’s book on Zen meditation and practice, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Although Shunryu Suzuki is talking about the approach to practicing Zen Buddhism in this quote, it’s possible to apply this philosophy to the practice of creative writing.

Do you remember your first experience of creative writing? It’s likely to have been at primary school, or even before. Do you remember the joy you felt when you completed that poem about leaves or trees or dogs and cats? Do you remember the pleasure in rhyme, in the sounds of words, in the meanings tucked in behind the vowels and consonants? How does it compare to how you feel now?

What about when you came back to creative writing as an adult?

It’s so easy to get bogged down in the push to be a writer, we forget to enjoy writing.

Similarly, the more we learn and the more knowledge we process, the smaller our field of vision becomes. We begin to judge the poetry we write by a bench mark we set ourselves, or a bench mark we are set by the perceived success of other writers. We want desperately to emulate the writers we respect, to have someone say that our poem is the best, the most moving, the most perfect. We want the validation of competition wins and publications. We study and we learn what makes a good poem according to this professional writer or that professional writer and we learn we shouldn’t say shards in a poem or shouldn’t use rhymes or shouldn’t write about nature or cats. The tools available to us as writers become fewer and fewer, the rules become more confusing as we see writers being successful, even though they have used the word shards or written about cats. We look at other writers and judge their work. We look at ourselves and judge ourselves, usually harshly. We begin to feel it in our writing: the pressure to produce, the fear of not producing something good, good, that is, when held up to the bench mark that we have decided is What a Poem Should Look Like. We start to only read the books that have made massive international award lists because they must the the right sort of books. We look at competition winning poems and think that they must be the right kind of poems because they win competitions. We try to be the thing that people want.

How exhausting to live under so much pressure, to be a writer fighting for the light like a sapling in a forest. I’ve done all of this. I do all of this. It’s part of human nature to want to be in the pack, to want to not be the animal on the outside because they’re the ones that make a nice meal for a hungry lion. But I think by developing a beginner’s approach to writing, and to reading, by first asking yourself “Do I like this?” without the fear of getting it wrong and showing yourself up in front of the imagined poetry judges who know what a ‘proper poem’ is, is a good start. This isn’t to say you should approach your writing with a crayon and a slap dash approach, it’s more about approaching your writing with an open mind, open to the possibilities of different styles and different voices, and different styles even within your own work. Open to compassion too, for yourself especially. No one ever wrote the perfect poem, because the perfect poem is different for everyone.

I find it sad that so many people, especially women, in my experience, look at their own work and think ‘this is wrong.’ or ‘My work doesn’t fit in’. How different would they feel about themselves and their work if they thought ‘my work is different’ or ‘there’s room for everyone here’ or ‘My work is different, I add something to the writing world that wasn’t there before’.

How do you approach your work with a beginner’s mind? You come to the blank page without preconceptions, ready to enjoy the experience. You allow the negative thoughts to arrive, but allow them to leave too. You remember the first poem you wrote, and aim for that sense of happiness and joy. You remember the feeling of possibilities before you hedged yourself in.

How do you approach reading other’s work with a beginner’s mind? You arrive at it without preconceptions of good or bad, only difference. You allow yourself to read the poem openly, allowing yourself to enjoy it or not enjoy it.  You are conscious that not liking something doesn’t mean you are less educated, less talented, less a part of the writing world. You remember that there is an entertainment factor involved in all creative practices, and it’s OK to be entertained without needing to be artistically or intellectually challenged.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. I compare myself constantly to others and it makes me miserable. I’m working on it. I’m working on being kind to myself. I think  the most important thing is to be kind to yourself, allow yourself to just write without the pressure to fit in or make a ‘proper’ poem. Be a friend to yourself, be a friend to your writing. And don’t confuse excitement with happiness. They’re not the same thing. I aim for contentment. Contentment is massively underrated in all areas, and I think in the writing world, contentment – enjoying what you do and enjoying what others do is important.


Thus ends the lesson for today.


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