Meditation, mindfulness, and creativity, how do they work hand in hand?
I like to meditate twice a day. It's a practice that took 8 or 9 years to develop. I first learned meditation using the app Headspace and took guided meditation courses. Then, I started taking some in-person meditation courses. I even went away on a meditative retreat.
Because I spend so much time working alone, I find meditation helpful for mental health and learning how to focus and gain a bit of perspective.
These days, I also use the meditation app Waking Up, which Sam Harris created. Sam interviews guests and experts about the topic of meditation and the different types of meditative practices that are out there. It's a good way of understanding how you can fit meditative and mindfulness practice into your writing, creativity, and overall life.
This week, I caught up with Albert Flynn DeSilver, an award-winning, internationally published writer, speaker, and workshop leader. He's also a former Poet Laureate and has written several books, including a memoir and a book about writing, creativity, and meditation called Writing as a Path to Awakening.
Albert hosts workshops whereby he teaches attendees how to develop a meditative practice and build a writing habit.
In this episode, we discuss:
Albert would love to offer listeners to the episode a 30-minute FREE writing and coaching session on any aspect of writing, editing, or publishing. Please book a call at https://calendly.com/albertflynndesilver/30min or contact him via www.albertflynndesilver.com.
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Albert: You know, what I love to share with people is that you have to tell your truth first. You can think of it almost as like a journal, just telling the story that you have to tell, telling it to yourself and getting it down as honestly and vulnerably and truly as you possibly can. And then you can sort of deal with how it’s gonna be received in the world.
Welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you’ll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: Meditation, mindfulness, and creativity, how do they work hand in hand? That’s the topic of this week’s podcast interview. My name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become a Writer Today Podcast.
This week, I caught up with Albert Flynn DeSilver who’s an award-winning, internationally published writer, speaker, and workshop leader. He’s also a former Poet Laureate and he’s written several books, including a memoir and a book all about writing, creativity, and meditation called Writing as a Path to Awakening.
My key takeaway from talking to Albert this week is how meditation and writing are not entirely dissimilar. We’ll get into the differences between the two practices in the interview, but Albert actually hosts a workshop whereby he teaches attendees how to develop a meditative practice and he also teaches them how to build a writing habit.
When I think about it, writing and meditation both involve that you turn up in front of the blank page or sit your ass in the chair and write or focus on the breath. Now, personally, I like to meditate twice a day. It’s a practice that took me I’d say 8 or 9 years to develop. I learned meditation first by using the app Headspace and I took a series of guided meditation courses on Headspace. The meditation courses on Headspace are quite good actually. There is a free course you can take, I think it’s for 7 days, and you only take a few minutes to learn. Then, I started taking some in-person meditation courses. I even went away on a meditative retreat. I’d love to go on a retreat that combined meditation and writing in Ireland but I haven’t come across anything like that just yet.
These days, I also use the meditation app Waking Up, which was created by Sam Harris. I like it because it has various types of guided meditations that I can follow and also Sam interviews guests and experts about the topic of meditation and the different types of meditative practices that are out there and it’s a good way of understanding how you can fit a meditative and mindfulness practice into your writing life, into your creative life, and into life overall.
I also took a course in transcendental meditation or TM. If you’re not familiar with TM, it basically involves focusing on a mantra, it’s just a meaningless sound, for 20 minutes twice a day. It’s a bit of a commitment to fit TM into daily life. I always get one TM session in a day, sometimes two, depending on whether or not I’m doing a guided meditation session.
Because I spend so much time working alone, I suppose that’s the life of working as a writer or running an online business, I find meditation is helpful for mental health and also for learning how to focus and gaining a bit of perspective. Meditation is something I guess I wish I’d learned in my 20s and it’s a habit that took me a few years to develop, which has gradually given back to me over time.
If you enjoy this week’s interview with Albert, please consider leaving a short review on the iTunes store. You could also share the show with another writer on Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you’re listening.
Now, let’s go over to this week’s interview with Albert Flynn DeSilver.
Bryan: Welcome to the show, Albert.
Albert: Thank you so much, Bryan. Delighted to be here.
Bryan: Could you give listeners a feel for how you got into writing and what your writing journey to date has looked like?
Albert: Oh, boy. Sure, yeah. It’s a long, long journey and we only have 30 minutes, right?
Albert: I’ll give you the brief version. Yeah, so I actually came about in — like many people, grew up in a tumultuous household, alcoholism and a little bit of violence, and so I was a pretty anxious kid and started drinking from a young age and didn’t really fit in anywhere. So, when it came time for school, I did not do very well in traditional academics and so I got drawn towards the arts and one of the beautiful things about my parents, once I got over blaming them for all my troubles, is the fact that we did grow up in a household full of books and they were great consumers of writing, literature, dance, opera, theatre, etc., so that was always sort of hovering around in the background. So in high school, I took a photography class. I did a trip to Europe that year. Took some of my first pictures. And then when it came time to go to college, I had no idea what to do. You know, they always tell you here in America, you know, “What do you wanna be when you grow up? What are you gonna major in?” and I learned that you could major in taking pictures and I thought, wow, okay, I could do that. That sounds like fun. And so I started photography as an undergrad and then I didn’t know what to do with myself after I graduated and I was painting houses and that wasn’t so fun so I thought I would try and go back to school and send a portfolio to the San Francisco Art Institute and wound up at the Art Institute for a graduate degree in photography. And there, I got into all kinds of other things, you know, exposed to painting and performance arts and sculpture and drawing and video and poetry, which was not something that they offered but it had so happened that my art history teacher, Bill Berkson, was a great art writer and a poet and like not just any old hack poet, I mean, he was very tied into the New York School of Poets. He was friends with people like Frank O’Hara and Jimmy Schuyler and John Ashbery and all these people. And so there was this fateful night that I wasn’t doing anything, I was bumbling around in the art studios and Bill came by and said, “Hey, there’s this poetry reading tonight down at the Cal Theater. Do you wanna come check it out?” I was like, not really into poetry but I didn’t have anything going on so I went and it turned out it was a launch reading for the Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry.
Bryan: Impressive. Yeah, I’ve read their anthology of personal essays.
Albert: Yeah, it’s amazing. So they do all these big huge anthologies and this was kind of a new one because it was just a very diverse anthology, you know, filled with, you know, all kinds of experimental poetics and, you know, for the first time I think in Norton’s history, there was women and people of color and it was just an amazing — anyways, they had this huge event at the Cal Theatre in San Francisco. I go to this thing and I had no idea what to expect and it was an all-star cast and Alice Notley had flown in from Paris and Lyn Hejinian was there and Bill read and all these incredible poets, and I just was — and I remember hearing some lines from a poem by Jack Spicer that were read by the editor, this guy named Paul Hoover, who’s a legendary Bay Area poet and editor and writer and he quoted the Spicer poem where Spicer says, “Unbind the dreamers. Poet, be like God,” and I was like, wow, what is that? And I didn’t know what God was or God meant or — but it just, there was so much passion behind the language that I was like, “That’s it. That’s what I wanna do.”
Bryan: Write poetry.
Albert: I wanted to write poetry. I just — I didn’t know how, I didn’t know what this really meant, but I was so snowed by these writers and their approach to possibility and some sort of transcendent creative communication that I totally wanted in. And I should mention the fact that I was kind of flailing in this photography program. I had actually failed my year-end review, like how you fail in art is kind of a mystery but, yeah, they wanted to hold me back in graduate art school but I stuck my way through and I found this passion for writing and that’s when it really began.
Bryan: And you had some success writing poetry, Albert. You became Marin County first poet laureate for 2008 to 2010. I’m always curious, what does a poet laureate do?
Albert: They write poems and they hang out and smoke —
Bryan: About whatever they want or does it have to be about the local area?
Albert: No, no, no. It was — I was part of the California Poets in the Schools program so I taught poetry in the schools for many years and I was very engaged in that community of teaching and I thought, well — so poet laureate is really a kind of an ambassador for poetry and so their role is really to reach out and to — you know, in America, it’s not like Ireland where you believe in your poets, you celebrate your boys. In America, poets are very much marginalized and we’re kind of on the periphery of culture. And so I wanted to try and integrate more into kind of average, everyday — connect with average, everyday people and see what their connection to poetry was. So I collaborated with a friend of mine who’s a sculptor and artist and we made this giant chair made out of poetry books, and we hauled it around the county and we went, you know, we’d go to like the gas station, we went to the county fair, we took it to the beach and we would just kind of set up shop and hang out. And we had like a little booklet in the back with a flip-top, you know, where there was paper and pens and people could just sit in the poetry chair and write whatever came to mind and heart. So that was my big project. And then we created like a little anthology and stuff.
Bryan: Nice. Nice. And at what point did you decide to write your memoir of, the Beamish Boy?
Albert: Oh, boy. Well, you know, I was writing poetry for many years and I couldn’t — somehow the form, the poetic form, couldn’t hold my story, you know, this history that I had of abuse and addiction. And I also started to become very intrigued by narrative and storytelling and what that really meant outside of poetry, and just sort of wondered, like could I even write a story? Could I write about my life in a way that might be interesting to other people? And so because I had read, you know, I had read other memoirs and I was kind of fascinated by a funny nobody telling their story of transformation and I had been very moved by these and so I just started experimenting, really, with that, and trying to make that transition from poetry to prose and to a narrative. And I thought, well, I’m gonna do this for myself, right? I’m just gonna like tell my story to myself and kind of get it out of my body, get all the gunk of the trauma out of my body by telling the story and then I can judge later if it might be worthy of consumption by a larger audience. And after about five years and much editing and challenge, I sort of — I came to this notion that, okay, maybe yeah, I’ll put this out there and see what happens.
Bryan: Five years is quite a long time to spend on a single creative project. Were you also working on other books or poetry at the same time?
Albert: I was, yeah, so always poetry. So poetry is always kind of there. I call it the ground of all great writing and the language of possibility.
Bryan: I like that.
Albert: And so it’s always there because, you know, all great writers, I think, whether they’re musicians and they’re writing songs or whether they’re playwrights or script writers in Hollywood or whatever, the best ones, I feel, like have — they read poetry, they understand poetry, they practice poetry. And so it’s always there. And, yeah, basically, I was working on some poems. And then I started thinking about novels too. My father had kind of an interesting story himself and both my father and then I had this half-brother who had disappeared for many years and nobody knew where he was and so I started thinking about, oh, like what would it be like to kind of make up a story about my family that, you know, could be maybe turned into some sort of a novel. So then I started getting larger notions of narrative in my head and experiment — I always like to give myself a difficult writing project to see if I can do it.
Bryan: It sounds like you’ve tried a few genres. Did you find your family had positive or negative reactions to seeing themselves featured in your work?
Albert: The memoir, yes. So, my father had passed away in 2001 and my mother was still alive when I was working on the memoir and she kind of didn’t wanna hear it. She didn’t wanna heart about it. She was sort of — you know, she came from this generation where you didn’t talk, there are things you didn’t talk about, and your personal life was one of them. And so I think she found it kind of abhorrent. I mean, she loved me and she loved the idea of me as a poet and kind of a literary person, although she feared for my economic stability so she kind of — I didn’t like share much with her. And then as I was finishing up the book, she got diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and then she was dead within two months.
Albert: And so I ended up rewriting the ending of the book and dedicating it to her.
Bryan: Okay. So had she read any of the book before she passed away?
Albert: She did not. No, no.
Albert: So that was kind of a relief, you know, in a way. I mean, it wasn’t — you know, she was actually the heroine of my story and I think if she had lived through it and we had come to the point where I could have shared it with her, I think she really would have appreciated it. She would have come to appreciate it. You know, I reveal a lot of difficult situations and, you know, I’m very honest about the challenges and the grief around my relationship with her. But, ultimately, she was the one who inspired me to become a poet. And it wasn’t direct, right? It wasn’t like she sat down and was like, “Yes, honey, you should do this and here are the great poets of the world.” You know, there was no sort of tutorial around it but there was her language, her personality. She was very bubbly. She was an incredibly great storyteller and she just used like the craziest words, and she kept a great bookshelf and was constantly reading. And so I learned so much from her that I had never — I never really realized until my 30s, you know, what a powerful influence she was.
Bryan: That’s good. That’s good. So, what you went through there writing about a difficult family situation meant overcoming your fear of what people will think. It’s something that holds back many new writers.
Albert: Oh, yeah.
Bryan: And I know you coach writers via your online program on your course. So what advice would you offer if a student came to you and said, “Look, Albert, I’m really worried about what my parents or my brother or sister is going to think when they read this section in my work”?
Albert: Yeah. You know, what I love to share with people is that you have to tell your truth first. You can think of it almost as like a journal, just telling the story that you have to tell, telling it to yourself and getting it down as honestly and vulnerably and truly as you possibly can. And then you can sort of deal with how it’s gonna be received in the world. And if people understand, I think it’s also really important to communicate with your loved ones, you know, and tell them like, “This is my story. This is my perspective. This is not your truth and probably not how you saw things but this is the story that I have to tell,” and, I mean, ultimately, we can’t control how people will receive it, right? So I think the important thing is to start with that truth-telling on your own terms and then you can kind of navigate the difficult waters of how it’s gonna be received in the world.
Bryan: After you wrote the Beamish Boy, did you go on to start work on your nonfiction book for writers, Writing as a Path to Awakening?
Albert: That came a little later. Actually, I wrote a novel, I call it my warmup novel, ’cause it remains unpublished. I like it. I think it’s pretty good. I did get an agent through that book in New York and he loved it but he wasn’t able to sell it and so I’ve kind of shelved it. And then, in the meantime, I had been teaching at these spiritual centers and retreat centers and so forth and had been kind of pulling together a curriculum around writing and mindfulness because I had been practicing meditation since the mid-90s and it had become kind of part of my parallel path in my sort of evolution as a human being, as a creative being, and so I thought about what would it be like to have that book that would be an integration of mindfulness and writing and creativity and what would that conversation look like? So, yes, I started after the novel. I really got into writing that.
Bryan: I meditate as well. I’m curious, do you think there’s similarities between meditation and some types of writing?
Albert: You know, I think it’s — there is a kind of zone that we get into when we write. I think it’s different than meditation because writing, you know, can be — writing, it’s one of those things, it’s sort of like gardening, you know, where you’re concentrating, you’re focused, you’re sort of in this cognitive, it’s both — for me, it’s both a visceral and a cognitive zone so it’s a physical embodied zone but it’s also an intellectual zone and you can lose track of time. But I do think that meditation, sort of a deep meditation, is a different thing, where you’re not engaging the intellect per se at all, you’re simply observing. And they’re very different activities. People, I think, make the mistake of mixing them up, you know, and say, “Oh, I meditate all the time when I garden,” or when I run or, you know, even when I write, and, yeah, we have to be tricky with the terminology, I think, and not to like discredit the power of that, like when we’re gardening or when we’re running or when we’re writing and we feel like we’re in that kind of concentrated zone. That’s a very powerful and beautiful place, but it’s not quite meditation, in my experience.
Bryan: It’s more like flow state.
Albert: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. And meditation, as I understand it, is it’s a way of being fully concentrated in the present beyond thinking and even, at the most deep level, beyond embodiment, physical embodiment.
Bryan: So how can meditation help a writer, because what you’ve described there, I suppose, is more personal development or overcoming anxiety or becoming more patient but it’s a little bit different to writing based on what you’ve just said.
Albert: Yeah, so I think what happens for me and, you know, meditation is really dependent on people’s — you know, I want people to — I wanna invite them to check in for themselves if this is true in their own experience when they make that sort of surrendering effort. But, for me, it’s in a deep state of meditation, what happens is that you enter back into the “field.” I call it — the “field” is in quotation marks, the field of non-existential substance, I don’t know what to call it, you know, that which makes physicality possible. And when we can enter back into that “field,” it basically clears us out, you know? It sort of clears the mind, it clears the heart, it gives us direct access to a kind of truth and a kind of presence that’s very powerful and very nourishing. So, instead of creating art about our brilliant ideas, we’re creating art about the truth of our experience, the reality of our immediate experience that is coming from the heart, more from the heart, and the body rather than from the mind and from all the influences that the mind can take on, if that makes sense.
Bryan: It does. It does. You kind of reminded me of the book Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.
Albert: Yes, yes, yes. A beautiful book.
Bryan: Yeah, she describes how there’s a type of writing where you just write about whatever’s on your mind, a type of free writing, and that can be exploratory, which I guess this is a little akin to some meditative practices.
Albert: Well, yeah, it’s kind of outpacing, you know, the way I understand her practice and I do kind of a variation of that for my students is really outpacing — and I had — this kind of an interesting little story. I had this experience on retreat once with a young woman who, you know, I do these retreats, like five-day retreats, and, you know, you give up your cellphone and you give up everything and you’re just being there embodied and we meditate and we write and we meditate and we write for five days. And so the big rule is no cellphones. And I was trying to begin the lesson at the beginning of this retreat and there’s this one woman that was on her cell, she wouldn’t like let go of her cellphone and while I was talking, she just kept like, you know, it looked like she was texting. And I said, “Excuse me, you know, we’re putting away our cellphones,” and she’s like, “Oh, I’m just taking notes and actually, you know, this is how I do my writing and note taking.” I was like, what — you know, being an older guy, I was sort of skeptical and so I just kind of let it go. And then she — you know, I made the request again for people to put their cellphones away, and then I offered the writing prompt, an idea, and out came her cellphone again, and click, click, click, click away, you know, with her thumbs, it looked like she was texting, you know, like a devious student in class, right? And then it came time to share and we went around the circle and she wrote it — she read from her phone and it was the most beautiful, like powerful, immediate, rhythmic, far out writing that we all gasped, like the entire — we were just —
Bryan: So she wasn’t texting a friend.
Albert: She was not texting a friend, she was going deep, and the way she described it was so interesting. She said, “You know, when I’m able to do this, because I grew up with electronic devices, I’m so fast on this thing, I can outpace my self-critical mind.” And I thought, wow, that’s pretty cool, right? Like that’s what free writing is, if we write as fast as we can to kind of outpace the conditioned mind, the self-critical mind, the self-doubting mind and then there we can get to the truth and we can get to the raw, immediate emotional stuff that is powerful writing.
Bryan: I guess it worked well for her. I’d still have reservations about trying to free write on a smartphone, there’s just too many distractions. It’s fine for note taking but I could find myself clicking into social media quite quickly.
Albert: Well, exactly. That’s the danger and that’s what I was trying to express and I think it’s very difficult to do because it’s a distraction device and unless you have some really great discipline, it’s hard to pull off, but I just thought that was kind of an interesting little anecdote for a grumpy old guy like me who’s like, “No phones ever,” but that you can still use this tool in a powerful way to access some deeper creativity.
Bryan: So outside of your online work and books, is that the bulk of your work whereby you kind of bring meditation and writing together in workshops for students?
Albert: Yes, yes, yes. Unfortunately, it’s been primarily online for the last two years. But prior to that, I was kind of running around the country teaching workshops and hosting these retreats. And really powerful. You know, the transformations that people experience was just extraordinary. I mean, you probably know this in your work, but just the joy of seeing someone’s face light up with the sense of possibility, seeing that they wrote something that surprised them, you know, that they didn’t think that they were capable of, that’s what I live for.
Bryan: Yeah, writing can be transformational. And, in turn, for the meditation side for your students, is there a particular type of meditation that you instruct them on?
Albert: Well, I’ve sort of invented a little bit of a hybrid. I came of age studying the Vipassanā meditation through Spirit Rock and their kind of mode is through that Thai tradition, Thai Forest Tradition, but I’ve studied a lot with non-dual traditions, Vedanta, that come out of India. There’s a teacher here in America named Adyashanti who’s a terrific, non-dual teacher. I love the work of Byron Katie and she integrates writing to kind of — she has a very sort of specific process, but it is writing based that helps people transcend conditioned mind. And so these are — I’ve kind of amalgamated some of these different traditions into my own style.
Bryan: When I look at the themes in your work, meditation, addiction, recovery, spirituality, some of those topics are topics that could emerge in journal writing. Is that something that you work with your students on as well?
Albert: Well, yes. I think journal writing is a very powerful aspect of writing and it’s a very — it’s an amazing way to heal through emotion, to get clarity and to be in a deeper conversation with ourselves. So, yeah, every Friday, we do an open prompt class and for some people, that’s journal writing. You know, they take the prompt and they run with it. For some people, they have a project and they wanna write into their poems or they wanna write into their memoirs or their novel or whatever. So I — yeah, I’m a huge advocate of journal writing. I tend to work a lot on projects, you know, in terms of my writing, but I have found myself lately doing a lot of journal writing and it’s been very interesting to see how it integrates with what I call writing writing, you know? The writing towards a particular project.
Bryan: Yeah, I found journaling is tremendously helpful for kind of source material for kind of long-form writing, as in I can go back and read entries about events or family occurrences that I’ve forgotten about and then they can potentially be turned into scenes or stories for nonfiction work.
Albert: Absolutely. Yeah. And when you — you know, you think of someone — I always think of Cheryl Strayed when she wrote her memoir, Wild, and, you know, many people like me were wondering, like how did she remember all that stuff from her 20s? And, you know, it turns out she had kept a journal while she was hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail and she went back and integrated some of those journal entries into the reflective memoir writing. So, yeah, very powerful.
Bryan: You mentioned you’d like to work on different projects. What’s your current writing project or what’s the book that you alluded to that’s coming out soon?
Albert: Oh, yes. Well, I’m doing kind of an experiment. One of my great passions is mountain biking and being in nature and finding — getting into that, we were talking a little bit about the flow state earlier and so I’ve been very enamored by this experience of just being in the flow state on a bicycle in nature, in wild places and how that connects us more deeply to place. So I’ve written a book called Single Track Mind: Finding Wisdom and the Poetry of Life on Two Wheels and I have connected with a Swedish photographer, a world-renowned adventure photographer named Mattias Fredriksson and we have — his photos are just, I think they’re so beautiful. They’re these just extraordinary landscapes where you find a little tiny bicycler in the corner dwarfed by like giant mountains and sweeping vistas and streams of god rays and he’s just got a really amazing way of framing things. So I’ve written these five travelogs and he — and we’re integrating some of his pictures. And we’re doing this all on Kickstarter as an experiment, publishing experiment, because I’ve published traditionally, I’ve small press published, I’ve self-published, but I have not done a crowdfunding campaign for a book project. And so…
Bryan: So how will that work? I’ve never — I haven’t really explored crowdfunding for authors. Is it that they’ll — when you receive a certain amount, you’ll write the book or you use the amount to fund the cost of publishing or is it some other way?
Albert: Yeah, so I’ve written the book, I have pretty much a final draft, and we are raising money to produce it, yeah, to design — for design, production, and distribution of the book under a private imprint.
Bryan: Okay. I’d imagine costs are a bit higher if there’s a lot of photography in it.
Albert: Exactly, yeah. So, yeah, so we’re budgeting about $25,000 for an initial run. And we’re gonna do a limited edition hardback.
Bryan: Where will people buy it?
Albert: So they’ll be able to buy it online and through — so we have a website, singletrackmindbook.com, and then we’ll have distribution through Lulu, I think, is the printer that we’re gonna use, and Lulu is an online printer, they have connections through Ingram and through Amazon and so those are kind of the two distribution portals in the States. And I’m gonna have to look into international distribution ’cause I hope that — I wanna make it easy for people to buy in the UK, for example, and certainly in Canada because Mattias is living in Canada, he’s from Sweden but he’s got a lot of fans around the world.
Bryan: Where else, Albert, should people go if they want to read your work?
Albert: Gosh, if they wanna read the work, well, the website, my main website is albertflynndesilver.com and there is a little bit of an outdated blog there but, you know, the books are there and how to connect with the books are there and that’s really the best place.
Bryan: Thanks, Albert. It was great to talk to you today.
Albert: Excellent speaking with you, Brian. Thanks so much for having me.
Albert: Hi, everyone. It’s Albert Flynn DeSilver again. Thank you so much for listening and I wanted to offer listeners to this podcast a free 30-minute strategy consultation call on anything related to writing, editing, or publishing. Simply go to albertflynndesilver.com and hit the Contact link and we will send you a link to jump on this free consultation Zoom call. Thanks so much.
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