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Sitting and writing

'Small noticings' can lead to larger insights.
By Brenda Miller And Holly J. Hughes
Fall 2012 8.15.12

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In The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World (Skinner House, 2012) the authors combine personal essays about spirituality and writing with exercises suggesting regular contemplative practices and writing practices. This excerpt is from chapter one, “Sitting Down and Waking Up.”

Contemplation practices

1. Are you able to create a space for yourself that is sanctified in some way? This consecration doesn’t have to be much: a small table with some significant objects on it, a candle, a picture, anything that allows you to feel that the time you spend here is different in some way. It might just mean that there’s no Internet connection or email accessible in this particular corner.

2. Make it your practice to stop for a few moments in the midst of your morning routine. This could mean breathing in and out three times as you wait for your coffee to brew. It could mean stopping for ten seconds before taking your first bite of breakfast. It could mean driving to work without the radio on, and breathing in and out at stoplights rather than planning the day ahead. See if this small practice changes anything in your mood, your perspective, or your ability to find time for writing.

Writing practices

1. As Sam Green does in his “Daily Practice” poem from The Grace of Necessity, take ten minutes to describe what’s right in front of you, wherever you are writing. Keep writing for the whole time, not worrying about the content or the quality. Don’t even read this work when you are done.

Just shut the notebook and begin your day. These are the “small noticings” that can lead to larger things. After a few weeks, go back and read what you’ve written to see what kernels you can take away, and what themes or images keep popping up on their own.

2. Try beginning your writing session with a letter to a friend. Something shifts when we feel ourselves not as solitary beings, existing in our solitary ways, but in communion with another. The word correspondent means to “co-respond.” You and your friend are responding together to the world. In this age of quick, instantaneous, and constant communication, writing a letter can be a welcome break from that quick pace.

In your letter, start exactly where you are, describing the setting (what you see, smell, hear, touch), and then allow these details to lead you wherever they might go. The poet and essayist Judith Kitchen says of letter writing that “we willingly peel back our defenses to reveal that interior we name the self.” Allow yourself to write without inhibition, revealing your truest self.


This article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of UU World (pages 15–16) and was adapted with permission from The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World (Skinner House, 2012).

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