Beginner's Mind

Do you remember the first time you rode a bike? How about the first time you flew in an airplane? You definitely remember your first kiss. Was it everything you expected? Did you practice kissing on the back of your hand before then? I sure did. My best friend told me I had to, otherwise I’d be considered a bad kisser. When the first kiss happened, I never expected to have that weak-kneed feeling—nor did I expect to be so focused on the boy’s tongue entering my mouth that I forgot what I should be doing in return. It was over before I knew it.



There’s something mind-opening about doing something for the first time. You might have an idea of what to expect, but it’s vague, like the memory of a dream from the night before, flitting in and out of your consciousness. Maybe your expectations are really wild. Or you might not expect anything.

In my yoga class last week, our teacher switched up our usual routine several times. Instead of doing Upward Dog after a Chaturanga, she made us go back to Plank. When I expected to go from Warrior II to Reverse Warrior, she made us pause, turn, and squat into Goddess pose. She tripped many of us up, and though some laughed, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt frustrated, wondering why she was messing with us.

Then it clicked. There’s something beautiful about letting go of your preconceptions. Even if you’re experienced at something, let your beginner’s mind take over. Don’t expect a certain outcome. Detach yourself from what you think will happen. Listen to the immediate, not ingrained cues. Be in the moment. Just accept.

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
—Shunryo Suzuki

The concept of beginner’s mind has become extremely important to my writing. I wrote the first novel under cover of darkness, in secrecy, hidden from the world. I had no idea whether anyone would ever read the crazy pile of words I’d been typing. I wrote because it calmed me. I wrote because of the driving need within me to tell a story. I wrote because it felt like an emotional cleanse. I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know much about the craft of writing. I didn’t know about three act structures, or character development, or literary agents or the world of publishing. I had a computer, an idea for a story, and an intuition of where it should go. I focused on the writing. That was it.

That first novel is almost ready for release into the world and I am having the hardest time sitting down and writing the second novel. I want to write the second novel. I want to write many novels over the course of my life. And it’s not that I don’t have an idea for a story, because I do. I have characters that are talking to me. I see the setting, and the horses (yes, there are horses in the second one, too) and I have an almost physical, tortured need to write. But I’m afraid. I’m afraid of how much work it’s going to take. I’m afraid that now that I’ve studied the craft, gone to conferences, read more than a couple dozen books on writing, and taken many classes. I should know what I’m doing. I know so much more about the craft of writing and the world of publishing that I want this next book to be perfect (okay, really good would suffice). I know the difference between showing and telling. I know each scene needs an arc and a hook. I know I need conflict on every page. I know my dialogue needs to sing. I know where my plot points and reaction beats should be. I know all of this — and it seems so big, so damn overwhelming, that the magic of writing has disappeared, hidden somewhere in that ‘expert’ mind.

Has all the knowledge I’ve tried to gain taken over my creative, intuitive mind? What about stepping back and writing for that one reader I imagined would love my first book? What about opening up again to the unknown possibilities?

It’s vital that we, as writers, step back and allow for the spontaneous, creative possibilities that happen when writing.  It’s vital not just for us, but also for the imaginative spark it elicits in others as they read our words.

And you know what? All that you’ve learned, and everything you’ve experienced, will naturally flow into your writing. (Besides, we’re going to be revising the sucker for several months anyway.)

A beginner’s mind is innocent of preconceptions, judgments, prejudices, and expectations. Having learned so much, I know that I must somehow return to beginner’s mind and allow the writing itself lead me somewhere new. Somewhere exciting. It is, in the end, all about the journey.

What about you? How do you move forward with writing your second (or third) novel? How do you clear your mind and begin on a new journey, knowing all that you now know?

Article originally posted on Writers In the Storm Blog, July 15th, 2016.