As I sit here (“As I sit here”? “As I sit here”! “As I sit here” is one of the worst, most clichéd and overused beginnings in the history of first-person narrative … and yet … it is germane, as I am indeed sitting here! So …) as I was saying, as I sit here on the floor in my little room in this little medieval hill town of Castiglion Fiorentino looking out the window over the narrow curving street below with the bakery and the faggots to be burned in the oven (more about that here), I am noticing my irritability, my bad mood in the morning, and how the urge to write these thoughts down comes as a palliative gesture. It feels better to write these things down. Writing is a refuge for the restless, unquiet mind.
The connection between writing as a useful mental and spiritual exercise, a palliative or even a self-help routine, and writing as a quest for excellence and influence and aesthetic perfection interests me because of the role I play as an Amherst Writers and Artists workshop leader. For as I was sitting here (again: that dead phrase which is yet so useful, for I do sit here a lot; in fact there is more to it than just sitting here; in fact I do not come to be sitting here by chance; I have come to sit here because I know that sitting here will bring some degree of psychological re-grounding, a quieting of the restless and irritable mind that is beating its wings about my head) I was thinking that writing as a way of quieting the mind by focusing on language, and writing as a way of creating something beautiful, are intertwined and mutually supportive. For what writing requires–clarity of mind, care, choice of words, focus, continuity–are also the qualities we seek in quieting the restless mind.
I am all over the place when I am irritated. My wife asks me a simple question — When did you come to bed last night? — and I snap at her: What do you mean when did I come to bed last night? Right after you did! In truth, right after watching a program on the Italian RAI network about Michelangelo, and then a bit about all the notable things that have happened on July 21. When I am irritated, I cannot see clearly. Nor can I sit in the same place long enough for the irritation to dissipate. I am captured by bad feelings into pointless activity. So the two work together. The writing requires a certain state of mind. The state of mind it requires is actually the state of mind in which I wish to be: receptive, long-wave, interested, reflective, alert but not anxious, contented but not heedless.
So that is how I see these two things working together when, for instance, the question arises: Is this workshop just a kind of group therapy, or does it actually help the writing? I think it helps one get into the state in which writing can occur, and, coincidentally or not so coincidentally, that state is also a salutary mental condition in itself. The quieted mind that is writing is also the mind that is alert, inquisitive, receptive, contemplative, capable of humor and surprise, free to make connections, balanced and serene.
So the workshops don’t so much teach writing per se, i.e. what a particular culture values as good writing and how to emulate that culture’s models for good writing. Rather, they provide a method, a practice, a way to get going with the writing. Improvement and refinement comes naturally once we acquire the practice.
And, along the way, as in the course of writing this short piece, we end up feeling a bit less irritable, able to face the day.