A little while ago I was reading a book by Jan Chozen Bays in which she describes various techniques for bringing mindfulness to everyday life. One of the techniques that particularly caught my attention was ‘Looking Deeply into Food’, in which you consider the plate of food in front of you and trace the various forms of labour and energy that have gone into making it available to you. You could derive many kinds of lessons from that exercise, from thinking about the politics of food to, as in Bays’ book, contemplating the fundamental interdependence of sentient beings. Although Bays chose to write about food, it struck me that it might be a useful exercise for thinking about any kind of task you have to accomplish where you feel overwhelmed by the notion that you, you as a small, separate individual, are solely responsible for what is in front of you.
Usually, the task in front of me that fits that description is writing, where the success of the task seems to depend on me alone. Good writing teachers will help you understand that writing, though admittedly carried out alone, is immeasurably helped by a social element, by working with writing groups and classes to support you so that you don’t experience your task as an isolated one. Of course support is vital, but I think Bays’ exercise suggests something else that our highly author-centred ideas of writing don’t usually allow us to think about: we never accomplish anything ‘by ourselves’. One reason we are highly anxious about writing is because we have to do it alone, but many of us refuse to give up the struggle entirely because we also want most of the glory for ourselves. At the end of the struggle, however much you acknowledge the contributions and support of others, your name is on the byline or jacket cover.
There are some interesting ways to experiment with this question of ‘being’ the author. Inside academia there are writers like bell hooks, who not only write under a nom de plume but also refuse the capitalization that turns a name into a ‘proper’ name. Outside academia (though not separated from it) there are groups like the Combahee River Collective who refused to separate into individual authors in order to make themselves heard. I think it is quite significant that women of colour, those who have historically had the least chance of becoming ‘the Author’, have been most willing to rethink the privilege of authorship and practice it differently.
Bays’ exercise prompts me to do some more thinking about the privilege of authorship, as well as the attitude of individualism that encourages us to believe we accomplish alone or that our accomplishment is ours alone. When I write I can do so because of the people who produced and assembled my computer, the paper mill workers who produced the reams of paper that I have read in the form of books and articles, the people who taught me how to read and write, and the students who allow me to teach them and rehearse my thoughts before writing even begins.
Aware of how the tricky mind of a perfectionist or procrastinator works, I can see that this could easily descend into another kind of mea culpa, in which the writer deplores their own attitude of laziness when so many others have made it possible for them to sit down and write. In the same way that I don’t think Bays means us to be overwhelmed by the value of the food we eat, we don’t have to feel indebted to others for our ability to write. Instead, we just need to bring a little mindfulness to our situation so that when we sit down to write, we don’t have to defend ourselves or assert ourselves as separate from others, but just say what we came to say.
Bays concludes the discussion with a quote from the well-known Zen Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh:
A person who practices mindfulness can see things in a tangerine that others are unable to see. An aware person can see the tangerine tree, the tangerine blossoms in the spring, the sunlight and rain which nourished the tangerine. Looking deeply one can see the ten thousand things which have made the tangerine possible … and how all these things interact with each other.
It matters, then, that you and I sit down to write, not because we are ‘Authors’, but because we have something to say and ten thousand things have come together to make it possible for us to say them.