Meditation for Novelists: On Being In the Moment

The English language is baffling, even to native speakers like yours truly. One phrase in particular has harassed me lately, so here’s the score.

Happily or unhappily, most of us have heard the phrase “being mindful.” Sometimes, it’s used in close proximity to “being in the moment.” But I take severe issue with this pairing. They’re contradictions in terms. To be mindful often means to think on your feet but also to be diplomatic – to think of the long-term consequences or to weigh which decision is more practical or beneficial. To be in the moment is to cede to whatever the majority force seems to be: anger, joy, panic, passion.

I just don’t understand how to make those ideas compatible.

I feel that I’m fairly fluent in mindfulness (even if my mindfulness is different from yours). What I fail to grasp is being in the moment. Some people wield both the phrase and the idea as a coded complaint while others offer it up like some kind of mental euthanasia. It tends to denote fickleness or immaturity, and yet it’s seen as a marvelous thing indeed when a busy businessman married to his phone can manage to keep it switched off for the entirety of his child’s soccer game.


Language is a flaming hypocrite sometimes, and that’s bad news for novelists.

Being in the moment is similar to (but not always the same as) being in the zone. Things just occur to you. In the span of three breaths, you’re surrounded by a flurry of ideas or solutions. In even less time, those ideas disappear without warning. Losing ideas can be as much of a mercy as getting them in the first place because sometimes – just sometimes – you cannot, in fact, fix every problem in one afternoon.

And yet we writers are slaves and addicts alike to the mere chance of a good writing streak. Some of us use very methodical means to nudge the odds in our favor – the right food, the right music, the right routine. A few of us, deliberately or otherwise, prefer random variety on the (possibly quite correct) assumption that a lack of habit or predictability will stump and distract our brains in the perfect way to solve a problem when we’re not looking. Still others are as rampantly superstitious as sports fans. I’m not passing judgment on anyone’s procedure because there isn’t a universally good one. The point is much starker: many of us are terrifyingly willing to push the limits, and that never bodes well for the outside world.

On a terrific day, we can smell and see and hear a landscape. We can give an exact tally of the wrinkles in an old curmudgeon’s face or mimic the differences in characters’ accents. We can see every kick, swipe, punch, and stab in a complicated fight scene, not just sketch through the most likely sequence of events. It’s one of the most motivating factors in the writing world. One good day of sleek flight can make up for a week of slow, stuttering, interrupted work.

We obsessive types sometimes have even more trouble letting go of the moment than slipping into it to begin with. For some reason, this only levels more blame at us, as if we’re no better than sociopaths. To the outside world, we play games with people because it amuses us. To them, we’re erratic because we decide to be as different as possible, as if we’re all deliberately extreme modernists.

Well, I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t carry water. I’m odd, but I only rarely try to be odd. I write because ideas won’t simply go away for lack of writing them down. In fact, the more I refuse to put something into words, the more it impedes life in general. I can’t be the only one. I’m an instrument, not an enthusiast. I don’t consciously enjoy writing – it’s just something that occurs to me. It’s something that has enough of its own force that I don’t need to add to it. And I can’t possibly be the only one.

Maybe being in the moment isn’t the problem. Perhaps it’s the world’s definition of what “the moment” actually is. Must a moment be bombastically bold or astonishingly heartfelt? I think not. Moments are moments. For me, the best ones are those in which I can take a quiet step back while simultaneously untangling a deafening question. Such moments are impossible to predict and daunting to universally define. They tend to act like petulant children if you try to duplicate them – or worse, they seek revenge because someone forced their hand.

So if “the moment” comes, take it for what it is: a moment. They come and go by the thousands or millions. A bad one won’t last forever, and neither will a good one. Useless and useful are always pitted against each other. Wars can be bloodless and invisible – and they only need the space of a nerve ending to play out.