The Mindful Writer: A Book Review

By Moina Arcee, Nov 15, 2015, edited August 26 2018


“A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” Thomas Mann

Readers old enough to have an association between Dinty Moore and canned beef stew may be surprised to discover Dinty Moore is a writer too. What’s more, Mr. Moore has written an intelligent book about the creative process of writing, titled  The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life (Wisdom Publications, Boston).

Hmmm. Isn’t “Noble Truths” overstating things? After all, we are only a bunch of scribblers trying to get people to listen to us. Where are the noble truths in that?

If you are a writer but aren’t sure what your noble thoughts are, or aren’t sure you even have any, give Moore’s book a read. It is small in size and short in length: a collection of reflections meant to be read separately and thought upon. Passages tend to be inspirational, but above all,  bone on bone honest.

Each chapter begins with a quote from a writer. Moore has some illustrious authors weighing in on how and why we weigh our words: Truman Capote, TS Eliot, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, and many more.

john steinbeck

Here we find great writers at their most human. Like American novelist John Steinbeck, who remarked:

When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. This happens every time. Then gradually,  I write one page and then another. “

Or Junot Diaz, who observed:

“A writer is a writer because even when there is no hope, even when nothing you do shows any sign of promise, you keep writing anyway.”


Or Rainer Maria Rilke, who declared:

Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.”

Where do writing and creativity originate? According to Moore,

We (writers) care about finding the precise word, the clearest expression, and we understand that sometimes a thought needs to be revised tens or hundreds of times before we find the perfect way to say what we really mean.” 

Small wonder writers tilt to the obsessive. We incessantly arrange and rearrange words, sentences, and paragraphs, sometimes for a living . We play with and wrestle with words.  “To me the greatest pleasure of writing,” said Truman Capote,  is not what it’s about, but the music the words make.”

Pick your poison to obsess on: plot, theme, sentence structure, letters or words. We love it, we hate it, we can’t do it, we can’t not do it, on and on ad nauseum until we either drive ourselves crazy or, mercifully, a deadline stops our demented little dance with words. Deadlines are a writer’s best friend (even more than coffee and a thesaurus).

Moore explores writers at their desks. For instance, Flannery O’Connor’s work habit was to sit at her desk from 9 am to noon every single day. “Many times I sit for three hours with no ideas coming to me,” she observed. “But I know one thing: if an idea does come between 9 and 12, I am there ready for  it. ”

Flannery O'Connor

Waiting for inspiration, for ideas, for story subjects to come to mind is maddening for all of us. My own tendency is to rush the process to get it over with. This never works because I quickly become dissatisfied with the expedient choice I made and discard it.

From the writer’s desk comes the writer’s vision, according to Moore’s chronology. Our visions and our expression of them are as unique as we are.  Sometimes visions are expressed boldly, but just as often vision seeps through a writer’s style of writing, teasing to be noticed and explored.

Finding your writing voice can be easy or bewildering. Voice merges with style, as distinctive as TS Eliot or as subtle as Ben Yagoda, who offers the following perspective on writing, style, and vision:

Anyone who puts pen to paper can have a prose style. In almost every case that style will be quiet, sometimes so quiet as to be detectable only by you, the writer. In the quiet you can listen to your sound…start to shape it and develop it. That process can last as long as you keep writing, and it never gets old.”

But what happens when writing gets old? Our relationship with words, ideas, and stories (fiction and non-fiction) can be as loving and exasperating as relationships with human beings. “What crazies we writers are,” laughed Hayden Carruth, “our heads full of language like buckets of minnows standing in the moonlight on a dock.”

Can any writers relate? The moonlight glistens off shiny minnow bellies and then is gone forever: glisten and gone, glisten and gone, like ideas in our heads, like words on a page, like pages in a book, like stories of a life.

In this great kaleidoscope of time and space we call life we see everything flashing by our eyes, our ears, our lives;  sometimes returning, sometimes disappearing forever. How do you translate  the grand mess in a way that is real, that resounds with your truths,  that does justice to art, poem, and song, and perhaps even makes sense to you and to others?

Answer: you write and you revise. You write some more. And then revise again. Don’t wait for ideas to come back. Don’t wait for lightning flashes: “Inspiration is for amateurs,” declares Chuck Close, “the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

And so Moore comes to the last stop in his little book: The Writer’s Life. He likens it to the old eastern proverb: both before and after enlightenment the job is the same: chop wood and carry water. A writer’s life is similar: “the words must be chopped and the sentences carried.”

Your last article, your last book, your last assignment, however enlightened, is now gone. You start over and begin again the ritual of piecing together words into thoughts, hoping words give birth to thoughts. From thoughts you trace back farther, searching for the raw pearl, the genesis of your idea, your inspiration. And if you finally get there – well, then you chop words and carry sentences.

And as you do that, day after day, article after article, book after book, perhaps something starts welling up within you. Perhaps you realize that for all the tedium and struggle writing involves, it is a damn joyful thing to do.

Stephen King

Stephen King said:

“I have written because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house  and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side…I did it for the buzz. I did it (writing) for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for joy, you can do it forever.”

At the finish Moore sums it all up for us:

“The message in this book is simple enough. First, don’t grasp too hard or you will choke off any creativity. Second, be open to the moment, the surprise, the gift of grace or enlightenment. If you are not mindful, not attentive, you will fall victim to the first and fail to recognize the second. So be alert. Be deliberate. Take care.”

And to allow the author some final words of inspiration:

“It is the very texture of language, the primal clay of verbs, nouns, sentences, the tactile sensation of combining these words into a poem or story that in the end will bring a writer the most satisfaction. Glory and recognition are fleeting – but loving what you do, in the moment you are doing is an incomparable gift.”

(Reviewer’s Note: Dinty W. Moore is the Director of Creative Writing at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. He has written many books, mostly about writing creative non-fiction. He also runs a web site named Brevity which covers the same topics.  Professor Moore is pictured below.)Dinty W Moore

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