What is contemplative writing?
What is not contemplative writing?
And why do I want to prioritize contemplative writing in my life?
While teaching the “Contemplative Writing” workshop series this October, the importance of definitions has become increasingly clear. “Contemplative writing” invokes a range of interpretations, so this blog post defines the term and shares questions for exploring your relationship with writing. From there, I offer a guided meditation for writers: a version of “the five whys” exercise to tunnel into motivations for writing.
What Is Contemplative Writing? Defining the Term
As I wrote in the first blog post in this series, contemplative writing is a practice rooted in intentionality:
At its core, contemplative writing asks us to slow down, know ourselves better, and bring intention to all communicative acts: reading and writing, listening and speaking, witnessing and testifying. Engaging these practices, therefore, highlights embodiment and the need to feel, experience, and act—and not just think our way through the world.”
For this second post, I want to share a bit more about how I understand the term. Let me begin, though, by asking you to pause and do some journaling before you read on.
Here are a few questions to consider:
- What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “contemplative writing”?
- When and how do you relate to idea of “contemplation”?
- What is included in your sense of “writing”?
- And what is not writing? not contemplative? not contemplative writing?
- When and where do you practice contemplative writing?
- Why at those times and in those places and not others?
- What can contemplative writing do? Or, in other words, what are your hopes/desires/longings for contemplative writing?
I start with these questions because still, years into writing, researching, and teaching about contemplative writing, I have far more questions than answers. I hope you’ll take my definition as a starting point and consider how you relate to the term and what actions (even life changes) it may invite.
When I approach “contemplative writing,” I anchor in the principle of both/and, imagining a wide umbrella under which a number of actions may fit. These include cultivating greater intentionality and awareness through writing; setting intentions and managing expectations; reflecting and being more attentive; noticing where we operate on auto-pilot and breaking auto-pilot patterns.
Reviewing definitions of “contemplative,” I find that the word can invite introspection, rumination, meditation, and even spiritual devotion. Getting specific, the Cambridge Dictionary defines “contemplative” as “involving quiet and serious thought for a period of time.” Broadening outward, Merriam-Webster names it as “the act of regarding steadily.” To be contemplative, then, we might cultivate quiet, calm, or stillness—and not as a one-time thing or dropping-in mode, but through steady practice.
Considering what contemplative writing is not can also clarity what it is. In contrast, antonyms of “contemplative” include hurried, rushed, mindless, careless, thoughtless, unthinking, and unreflective. When I consider how much harm happens when I’m on auto-pilot (acting carelessly), then I orient to contemplative writing as harm reduction: as a way of approaching life with more care.
What these definitions add up to, for me, is a sense that contemplative writing is more a way of approaching writing (the how) than the type of writing we do (the what). Though it’s easy to associate contemplative writing with particular genres like journaling or analytical writing, the true challenge is in approaching all writing contemplatively.
The study and practice of contemplative writing, therefore, might involve both contemplative practices that support writing (like guided meditations and grounding for writers) and writing practices that support contemplation (like learning logs and reflective writing). Within this both/and framework, contemplative writing may be both anything that prepares and supports us in approaching writing more purposefully and any writing that allows us to show up in our lives with more presence and more meaning.
As part of seeking purpose and extending this definition, let me share some additional questions, questions I keep asking myself as I seek to prioritize contemplative writing:
- How can I notice when I’m on auto-pilot and interrupt this?
- When do I especially want to interrupt mindless scrolling, “business as usual,” and doing things just because I “should”?
- How might I approach writing and living in more contemplative ways?
- Why? Why do I value “contemplative” as a way of showing up and being present?
- What motivates me as a writer? Why is contemplative writing a priority?
- How do I live with greater intentionality—knowing and striving to live out my commitments?
Guided Meditation for Writers: Asking the Five Whys, or Tunneling into Motivations for Writing
These questions lead me to a contemplative writing practice I’d like to share: a guided meditation recorded during a recent writing retreat. This 14-minute practice tunnels down into motivations for writing, asking “why?” Why this writing? Why for me? Why now?
This meditation is a version of the “five whys” exercise, which I learned through one of my partner’s business coaching courses. It speaks to adrienne maree brown’s reminder to “listen with ‘why?’ as a framework.” And it reminds me of what I’ve learned through spending time with toddlers who ask “why?” after each answer, making clear that what I imagine to be a first or explanatory answer is only ever partial. It’s worth seeking additional answers and noticing which answers emerge.
This guided meditation is also influenced by my own experience with meditation: learning through mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR), yoga and yoga nidra, and Reiki courses; learning and teaching through the “Contemplative Pedagogy” certificate program at Marquette University; and practicing regular meditations—with special appreciation for Buddhist Peace Fellowship, the CHANI app, generative somatics, Marty Tribble, Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed, and Your Body Speaks Your Mind.
I offer this guided meditation as a contemplative writing practice that can be used to settle the body and get grounded before writing. It can also be used whenever feeling stuck or uncertain about a writing project. I often turn to these “why?” questions when feeling a lack of clarity, like when I’m not sure which project to move forward with or which step to take next.
Along with the question of “what is contemplative writing?” this meditation asks us to consider “why contemplative writing?” or “why do we value contemplative writing?” My hope is that many reasons solidify for you, as you ask the question “why?” and feel the “why?” in your body.
And I hope that this post, like the first in this series on contemplative writing, provides support for slowing down and bringing intention to all communicative acts: reading and writing, listening and speaking, witnessing and testifying. For, truly, contemplative, communicative action is needed for striving toward justice.
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