The Glorious Avidity of the Beginner’s Mind
“In the beginning mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Suzuki Roshi
I don’t know about you, but I consider myself an expert. Yep, I sure do. Because I’ve been writing novels for a gazillion years and teaching fiction writing for half that time. I’ve studied long enough to have earned an MFA and blogged long enough to remember when WordPress barely existed. So, yes indeedy. Expert here.
You’re probably an expert, too. Maybe in writing—you’ve probably been at it for a while, too. Or maybe in other areas of your work and life. By the time you reach a certain age, you’re a bona fide expert. That means you and I know a lot.
It also means we have a lot of preconceptions. Maybe a mind that is a tiny bit closed to challenges to our knowledge. A brain shut tight to new ideas, to an expansive openness that lets the light in. And we may not even notice, being so very busy in our expertness.
I was reminded of all this last week when I taught a group of beginners (or raw recruits as I liked to call them). Out of a group of eight, seven came to the novel-writing workshop with no prior experience writing full-length fiction. They had ideas, but some were vague. They knew nothing about plotters and pantsers and plot points and character dossiers or how to write a scene or structure a novel. By the end of our three days together, they walked out with a plot and characters firmly in mind, close to being ready to write.
I attribute this readiness not to me, but to them—and their marvelous beginner minds. They soaked up ideas like the moss on my sidewalk soaks up water during rainy Oregon winters. Their beginner minds filled up with knowledge and ideas at an astounding pace and they inspired me—and this post—along the way.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with attaining expert status. There’s the whole 10,000 hours thing espoused by Malcolm Gladwell , who claims you need to practice a thing that many hours to be considered an expert. Do a quick spin around the interwebs and you’ll find all kinds of references to mavens and experts and specialists and professionals. And they are all good. We need their knowledge and expertise. But there’s something amazingly wonderful about approaching one’s work with a beginner’s mind, as I witnessed last week.
Following are some ideas for maintaining a beginner’s mind. But also go read this lovely article about it from a Buddhist abbess.
Be open. I know, duh. But how often to you find yourself listening to another person and eagerly pondering what you’re going to say in reply? Or getting defensive and upset about their words? Yeah, me, too. So, for instance, if a writing friend is going on about how great it is to write without an outline and you fervently believe the opposite, try just being a tiny bit open to his point of view.
Be willing to admit you’re not always right. Often we desire to be right more than anything. I’m not sure why this is—perhaps it gives us a sense of power or security in the world. But it can be detrimental, too. Though my husband and I like to joke that I’m always right, I can think of some times when I’ve been very, very wrong. A willingness to admit it would have saved me tons of grief.
Be willing to admit you don’t know everything. There are all kinds of literary terms whose meaning I don’t get. Okay, I admitted it. And I still sometimes get confused about omniscient viewpoint. And don’t even get me started on math—my son, the mathematician has explained prime numbers to me at least five times. I still don’t understand them. And that’s okay.
But don’t close your mind just because you don’t know. Don’t let not knowing keep you from being curious. I could probably stand to learn Excel, for instance, an app I’ve told myself repeatedly I can’t master. With an attitude like that, it’s likely I never will.
So the not knowing thing cuts both ways.
Approach life and writing with a sense of adventure. Every time I’ve said to myself, “Life’s an adventure,” it has turned out to be. You can’t have an adventure with a closed mind, you just can’t. And life and writing are ever so much more fun when you’re adventurous.
Okay, those are my thoughts. And now I’m going to go apply a beginner’s mind to looking at my WIP (work in progress for those with beginner’s minds). I invite you to come on over to the blog ( ) to comment on how you cultivate beginner’s mind.
Photos: top by me, lower right by woodleywonderworks.