BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Writing your truth ...

This is one of those books that was sitting around in my to-be-read piles for years (I got it via one of the B&N after-Xmas on-line clearance sales), I'm guessing since '06 or '07, and it only got into the actual reading pipeline last fall. I see that there's a “revised” edition of this out, which, oddly, only followed this one by three years ('08 vs '05), but via a different publisher … needless to say, I have no idea what the difference between the two might be. I'm using links out to the listing for the copy that I have, however, so there's no confusion.

Anyway, Jeff Davis' The Journey from the Center to the Page: Yoga Philosophies and Practices as Muse for Authentic Writing is the type of thing, that were it not so good, might well be subject to ridicule on these pages, as it is, on the surface at least, a pretty “out there” combination of Yoga and Writing (hence the odd formulation of the title). However, I find that there are over a dozen of my little bookmarks in this from my read-through, and that's usually a sign that I was very much into what the book was presenting.

Helpfully, the author is pretty much open on the whole philosophical underpinnings of the book, and starts out the introduction with defining its premise:
Yoga's philosophical principles and myriad skillful tools (upaya) can help you as a creative writer deepen your writing practice, become more versatile in your writing process, and enrich your writing style.
Davis appears to come to this professionally from the writing side (both as a writer and a writing teacher in numerous settings), with Yoga being a passion/avocation/devotion of his (he has photos of him in assorted unpleasant-looking contortions illustrating an appendix) … he does have a reality of the state of most writers, reassuring us that “if your day's most physical act has been to walk to the corner shop for a coffee and a bagel” … “being able to twist your imagination with a flexible spirit is more important for authentic writing than being able to secure your foot behind your head”. Whew, that's a relief!

The book's structured as 24 chapters unevenly distributed across four sections, which are themed to a “Journey”: Making a Few Preparations, Setting Out, Facing Emotional Crags, and Looking Back & Looking Forward, and are somewhat distinguished by varying tones, as appropriate to each. Much of this, as one might expect, shifts back and forth between Yogic material and Writing advice. Since the closest that I come to being a “Yogi” is likely to be a fondness for "pic-a-nic baskets", most of what drew my attention here was on the writer side of the fence, for example, this little gem:
If developing a regular schedule is new to you, even if you've been writing for years, you might use this simple formula: 3-60-15. Write three times a week for sixty minutes each session for fifteen days (that is, three days a week for five weeks). Or this formula: 7-60-15. Seven days a week for sixty minutes for fifteen days. The fifteen days is a marker to see if this changed habit will stay; it provides a reachable end.
He follows up with with broader guidelines, and notes of how some of his students reported that using this discipline “changed their lives”. Now, I don't want to give the impression that this flips back and forth between the Yogic and the Writing, as the various poses/practices he suggests are targeted to particular writing challenges. One of the few that didn't elicit a “that ain't gonna happen” response from me was one that was for a piece of writing “that needs expansion”, and is described as “Hold Your Breath to Make Space”, which starts with sitting in a chair, and then lying on the floor (in Savāsana - “Corpse Pose”), and working on expanding the volume of your breath, that you then imagine “literally opening up” the segment of writing you're trying to enlarge on. OK, it seems there's a bit of jump there, but hey.

So, forgive me if I seem to be ignoring the āsanas, but this really is a book for writers to use Yoga as a tool, and not a book for Yogis to improve their writing, and the material for writers is solid, and of value even if you don't throw a single mudra. An example of this is his persona/dummy/ventriloquist model for obtaining “mentors” that are only present in their words: “A remote mentor is a writer still living, yet who advises a writer solely via the mentor's texts. A dead mentor is the same, of course, just dead.”, which he notes allows one to exist in a virtual sat-sanga (“community of like-spirited individuals”), which means you never need be alone as a writer. He offers up an exercise:
      When you've found such a mentor, find a passage – fifty words, a hundred words, may suffice. Then read and heed – slowly – the syllables, the twists in syntax, the edgy wit or bawdy humor, or the saturnine gravitas that drums through the paragraphs. Let the passage wash over and in you. Then begin to record, word by word, this passage. Notice how your body feels as you handwrite these sentences' rhythms. Your inner ear cannot help but tune in … {to} … the cadences, the images, the twists, the tones.
The author goes on to detail how to apply and expand this exercise, over several very interesting (but a bit to dense to cherry-pick quotes for here) pages. Further on, he dips into advanced writing seminar stuff, looking at parallelism, antithesis, and then offering this juicy bit:
      Sometimes we write with such fury or reverie, disgust or jubilation, that our voice beckons us to repeat phrases and clauses. In such writing, our writing bodies and voice may need the shapes of anaphora or epistrophe. … anaphora, the repetition of the same word or group of words at the beginnings of successive clauses or sentences. … Epistrophe … the repetition of the same word or group of words at the ends of successive clauses or sentences …
This (of course) then dovetails into a discussion of the breath, the biology of breath, and then into Prānāyāma, and eventually back to stuff like iambic word patterns and rhyme schemes – with a smattering of examples, some bordering on snark, such as:
Although writers like Emily Dickinson and Robert Creeley seem content with tight breaths, some writers – like Walt Whitman, Faulkner, and Norman Mailer – seem to inhale to a count of ninety (I think Mailer inhales once a page and Faulkner once every two pages).
… and finally into additional Yogic breath work.

Another topic that gets its own chapter is that of First Drafts … frequently a major point of neurosis among writers. Any writer who produces a lot of copy knows that it's better to get words on the page and then spend as much as 3x the time it took writing it to edit it into something presentable … and the author starts out this charming chunk of text with a very wise admonition:
Permit yourself to write crap. Pull out the leftovers, worn-out drafts from ten years ago, if reworking them gives your imagination something palpable to sink its teeth into. Even if what you start to write sounds as if you've been writing the same thing for years, write it. … If you insist on drafting only when you feel each word must be recherché to avoid your words tasting like a rechauffé, then you might actually starve your muse. You'll have time later to clean up the mess – the excess, the overwriting, the creative indulgences, the melodrama – that you made. For now, enjoy the trek. Drafting, like cooking, can be messy.
Interestingly, this gastronomic-themed passage leads into a section describing how various writers have used darkness and/or blindfolds to generate their first drafts, which then gets around to the idea of writing from one's “third eye”, which ends up in another exercise (done seated) that involves energy channels, breath, the physical eyes, and a number of interior elements. Heck, this one I might try.

Unfortunately, as is often the case when I have a lot of little bookmarks in a volume, there are many which, when returning to the book, I have no idea what I was indicating (some days I wish I were one of those people who scrawls notes in books … but no), and most of the middle parts of this suffer from this lapse. Most so far have been pointing to passages I found enticing, but next was a “factoid” that I found fascinating (albeit somewhat stretching credulity – its prime source seems to be a newagey “research center”):
… the heartbeat's waves can be graphed on a machine called and ECG … its charge apparently is so strong that an ECG placed within three feet of you can measure your heart's waves and energy field without being directly hooked up to your physical body. That is, your charged heart casts off energy around you. Literally. You body inhabits that field. Literally.
Of course, some of these point to snippets that stood out as particularly arch, such as the note in a discussion of satire that warns that “Many readers, especially of the self-important sort, just don't get irony, wit, and satire.”, along with some rather painful examples where this miscommunication went badly.

There is so much excellent information in The Journey from the Center to the Page that I fear that I'm giving it short shrift in just highlighting the writing bits I was enthused about. As noted, most of the Yoga parts were sort of a moot point for me, although were interesting enough to read about, but there's also a whole lot of “autobiographical” material here that lent a richer matrix for the rest. At the end there's an appendix where Davis demonstrates poses mentioned in the exercises, arranged with reference to the chapters in which they appear. Also, and this was one of the things that I found very useful, there's an appendix of well over a hundred “key terms” which is primarily the Yoga vocabulary, but with a smattering of scientific and linguistic terms (“beta waves” and “syntax” as examples) … quite a handy list to have available.

Again, I don't know what's different with the (slightly) newer version than the one I have (aside from being listed with a bit longer page count), but this is available new for as little as six bucks (including shipping) from the new/used guys. It appears that the 2008 edition is still in print, so you might be able to find this at your local brick-and-mortar as well.

This surprised me in being a really superb book for writing skills (the author must teach fabulous classes) given the Yoga theme, and it should be something that every writer ought to consider for their “writing” bookshelf.

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Tags: book review
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