Monday, January 21, 2008

Monkey Mind

First I must state that I have an irrational hatred or monkeys. I cannot stand them. I hate those stupid 80s movies which had chimps dressed up in various costumes, smoking cigarettes or flapping their mouths to hilariously dubbed dialogue. I hate their whole Gorillas-in-the-Mist- chest-beating, mythological trickster-being, SD-Wild-Animal-Park cavorting, poo-flinging antics. I hate their brightly-colored butts and their wrinkled faces and their long skinny fingers squick me out. Go ahead and accuse me of finding them abject because they are troublingly like humans but so frighteningly alien --- and completely lacking in dignity --- at the same time. Go ahead. I'll agree. And as long as I can have nothing to do with them I will leave them quite alone.

However. I've been thinking about my friend's exercises in meditation lately, and trying to see if it has any connection or relevance to the writing process. You see, she goes to a Buddhist meditation retreat on Saturday mornings, and she was telling me about how hard it is to concentrate, even with the multi-ringed symbols and the chanting and the breathing and the practice. How near impossible it is to truly focus on something, really and truly, even when you think you are shutting everything else out. Concentrating down on one thing in that setting just reveals to you how jumpy and uncontrollable your thoughts are all the time --- I don't know about Tibetan Buddhism (which she practices) but Zen calls this "monkey mind": unlike what we may call stream-of-consciousness in fiction courses, "monkey mind" is this never-still, constantly-wriggling-out-of-our-attempts-to-control-it chaotic motion (a "stream" seems more passive and contained, even if constantly flowing.)

So my mind these past few days has seemed like a tree full of riotous monkeys. Which ones are the ones that make that whoop-whoop sound? Howler monkeys? Gibbons? Whichever --- just picture a big-ass tree completely aswarm with wriggling, climbing, leaping, shouting monkeys. I want my thoughts to move like this:

See? Orderly, streamlined, focused, rational --- productive? Hello!?!

But maybe, I've been thinking, I need to stop fighting Monkey Mind --- or maybe find some different way of dealing with it, because I agree with those people who claim our minds just don't work assembly-line fashion and really are more like a tree full of monkeys. I don't have any actual deep pronouncements or conclusions about this yet, sorry. I don't know if that means that I'm going to start meditation practice (unlikely) or study up on it more or throw out the notion of machine-like productivity or what, but I'm thinking about the way I think and the way I work these days.

Today I tried something I haven't done since I was working on my undergrad thesis: about 30-45 minutes of writing (brainstorming and outlining, in today's case) and then I'd go back to bed. My undergrad roomies used to joke that I wrote papers in bed, as if the mental effort of writing out a paragraph was too much and I had to give up for the day.

But, you know, back when I did this as an undergrad, I would immediately drop off to something like the edge of sleep and just sort of ... float ... there. I wasn't asleep --- I was vaguely conscious of what all was going on in the room --- but I wasn't directly, consciously focusing on the paper I was writing, and I wasn't forcing myself to think of one thing or another. Thoughts would just slowly float to the surface and burst, like bubbles. And they'd be all over the place from what I wanted to do with my life to the interesting color metaphors in the novel I was writing on to the cute guy who worked with me at the paper to a favorite street in undergrad city to a commercial jingle. And then suddenly I'd get up after about 15 minutes of that and start writing something again. (Not a finished paragraph --- it comes out as notes and questions just like when I am consciously writing.) And when I'm forcing myself to concentrate on the project at hand while lying there it doesn't work. There seems to be something important about the fact that it's this floating, waiting process --- reading something unrelated to my writing (or even directly related) or watching tv or even cleaning stuff ends the process.

So, hmm. I don't particularly want to write the rest of my dissertation at home in bed --- for one thing, there is still a huge temptation to not work and just surf the web instead --- but on the other hand, I did six cycles of this today and was able to put in more writing effort than I do when I force myself to focus. So, I'm still pondering this whole thing.

I'd ask about other people's writing processes, but I'm worried that everyone will post descriptions of it all coming exceptionally easy and working like robot welding arms cranking away every day for 10 hours and make me feel bad. Or mock my antipathy to monkeys. I warn you, I'll fling mental poo at you if you do!


Dr. Crazy said...

Hmmm. I don't think I've analyzed this part of my process before. But thinking about it... I *think* what I do when I lack focus is to do busy-work, like typing in all of the quotations I might want to use. Then, I look back over the brain-stormy outline-y stuff I've got (because I always do that, too), and I pick a quotation and I analyze it in relation to that. I think that usually gets me going. But I do think it's important to let one's mind wander as part of the process. So I don't think you're a monkey, but you're not a machine either, and if you were, you'd be boring :)

St. Eph said...

Another "hmmmmm" here. I was just thinking the other day about how I spend most of my awake time either avoiding thinking about things I need to write about or feeling guilty about not writing. Except for when I'm brushing my teeth before bed--for those two minutes, I'm somehow totally focused on how all my teeny ideas hook up to the Big Idea, and I get all excited about all the writing I'm going to do... tomorrow. And then I go to bed, still musing. But when I wake up, everything's gone.

I like your approach much better, what with the going-back-to-bed part.

Also, Monkey Mind is my newest imaginary band name.

zombieswan said...

I used to write like this all the time. I did *some* of my dissertation writing this way... especially the parts where I had to read Foucault. Those made me VERY sleepy. :) I teach my comp students that this is one method they might try. It can work reallly well, as you clearly know... the nap turns off your inner critic and ideas can flow.

But mostly, the napping got out of control and I was very distracted by life. I had to set aside two hours every day and just churn out what I could. I didn't analyze too much, I just wrote. And then the next day I might spend those two hours revising what I wrote. So not every day was putting out new stuff, but every day for those two hours I did some kind of work.

It was NOT linear and robot like. I think my committee wanted it to be much more like that. But I don't write that way at all. I think few people do.

My biggest motivation was that I had babies (twins), and those two hours a day were the time the nanny was there and if I didn't write then, it was not happening. That is NOT a strategy I recommend to ANYONE.

But the two hours a day? That was helpful. You might set yourself a time slot.

Maybe it's two hours, maybe it's five, maybe it's one. Where you JUST WRITE. And it helps you to get over the guilties while tooth brushing, or if you're actually having fun for five minutes if you KNOW that you did your two hours of good work that day. And don't beat yourself up that you're not working endlessly, 24/7 on the document from Hell. Some people can do that. I think they might have nervous breakdowns later, but it wasn't for me.

THEN go take a nap. :) And maybe, during that nap, you'll make those monkeys tired enough that you'll come up with something wonderful. And you can always go back afterwards.

While I was dissertating, I wrote 1,017 blog posts. Some of them nice and short, some of the long and thoughtful. And if I had just written that many pages on my dissertation, I would have been done waaaaaay shorter than I was. I set aside that hour or so a day of blogging religiously, though.

And I didn't get done with my dissertation 'til fate made me make myself do that with the dissertation, (the two hours of paid childcare) instead of blogging.

Psycgirl said...

This must be going around the blogosphere, because I've been thinking a lot lately about writing, and guilt, and about how guilty I feel every waking moment I am not working, how to turn it off (And why the hell I feel that way in the first place.) As for writing, my process is highly chaotic, but I'm trying to do it regularly. I really recommend Silva's "How to write a lot" which is a fast read and surprisingly simple and gave me a swift kick in the ass.

I also hate monkeys. Its nice to see someone shares this with me. Other people think they are cute - how? They are hideous.

moria said...

It's kind of strange, but I think this is my favorite post of yours to date. And I think you're dead-on -- embrace the crazy, and the rest will follow. Or at least that's my own insane hope.

Wonderful food for thought. Thank you.

undine said...

Interesting. Creativity at the edge of sleep--I think that isn't crazy at all.

Sisyphus said...

Eh, it's not guilt (at the moment) it's frustration --- I don't _want_ to go at this slow and steady and only a couple hours a day and with my mind leaping about everywhere except the topic; I want to be a machine and power through this stupid thing in one big chunk of time so that I get it over and done with. I am not at peace with my inner chaoticness (not craziness --- I think that has a very different feel --- this is just jumpy thoughts.) Mostly, I want to be done and those stupid trickster monkeys keep grabbing my stuff and leaping all over the tree and taunting me.

Stupid monkeys.

Dr. Virago said...

OMG, how can you hate monkeys (or apes, for that matter)? Clearly it *must* be all about the abject. Of course, I have an unhealthy predilection for them (OK, not *that* kind of unhealthy!), so much so that when Bullock and I were first dating, he bought me a small, inexpensive MP3 player and loaded it with songs, one of which had the lyric, "You're so beautiful, you should be guarded by monkeys!" Hee!

My word verification says you should be "mrcfvl" to monkeys and to me and my love of them. Please don't throw poo.

Horace said...

late to this particular party, but there's something about theta waves in the brain: all of my best ideas come at 5:45 in the morning when I can't get back to sleep, or while I'm driving, or showering (oddly, never when I'm exercising, which is when Willow says she does her best thinking).

An oddly similar incident: I was working on a paper on Sarah Kane's play 4.48 Psychosis--4:48 am supposedly being the most statistically common time for suicides to occur. One morning, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking through the paper, and ended up with some kind of really important theoretical working out of an issue not just crucial to that paper but to my whole book project. I finally decided that I had to get up and go type. The time? 4:48. There is a fine fine line between madness and inspiration, indeed. Just ask Wm. Blake.