Learning the Craft by Imitation

When I see a smooth gesture or kind behavior from my meditation teacher (or indeed, from anyone I admire), I turn around and, in private, imitate it to see how it feels, bringing a bit of that wonderful inspiration or kindness into my own physical being, if even for a moment. From this I learn what’s possible in myself — with practice, of course. All of nature, from birth onward, learns in this manner of imitation, like ducklings following a string of mother cackles and nibbles. And then we put our unique stamp on it and it becomes our own.

Why not imitate art in order to learn art? And in particular, why not imitate a great piece of writing as practice? Pulitzer prize-winning poet and teacher Mary Oliver says in A Poetry Handbook (1994, Harcourt),

“Before we can be poets, we must practice; imitation is a very good way of investigating the real thing.” (p. 13)

I’ve tried my hand at imitating certain paragraphs of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which gave me a greater understanding of his poetry and craft in switching points of view. For example, imitation allowed me to observe up close how he took readers into character A’s viewpoint, then had us focus on a neutral object in the scene common to both character A and B (a lamp post), and finally move us into B’s point of view. That resting in neutrality was masterful, making the transition barely noticeable! It’s easy to miss in a mere reading of it. I didn’t catch this until I tried to imitate it that paragraph.

Imitating a Bit of Haiku

Okay, so, let’s try it together with something shorter, shall we? Don’t be afraid. I have faith in both of us. Here’s a verse of haiku we’ll imitate by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), translated by R.H. Blythe, from Haiku, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poet, c. 2003.

The sound of the bat

Flying in the thicket

Is dark.

Okay. Investigate the first line. We have five syllables in line one and there is both a sense (sound) and a sense object (bat) mentioned, borrowing terms from meditation training. You write your first line. Here’s mine:

The scent of the breeze

I am using the sense of smell with the sense object “breeze.” I admit, I also included the “s” and “b” words from Shiki (my “scent” for his “sound,” my “breeze” for his “bat.”) Let’s see where it goes.

Now, let’s investigate the second line. Shiki’s second line uses an action word and a place, with two tough sounds using the “f” in “flying” and the “th” sound in “the” — almost the sound of an arrow flying. Ingenius. I didn’t notice that before. Also, there are six syllables in line three. Try your own second line in imitation. Here’s mine.

Dying in the marshes

I purposefully did not use Shiki’s arrow sounds, but chose death and an “mmmm” slink into “marshes.”  I still don’t know how this will end up. How’s yours going?

Let’s investigate Shiki’s third and final line: Is dark.This is the crux of the poem — the SOUND of the bat is DARK. Really intriguing, using a visual term for what someone hears. Also, this is a two-syllable statement describing what lines one and two are to the poet — the sound of the bat and the flying in the thicket are dark (kind of creepy, huh?).

Let’s try to wrap up our haiku in this manner and see how it reads with all three lines together. Try yours. Here are my three lines following the Shiki style:

The scent of the breeze

Dying in the marshes

Is birth.

Oh. So, that’s where it ended up. Surprise to me. Although nicely infused with Shiki’s spirit, it could be better. Perhaps if I used a different contrasting word at the end it would stand out more starkly. That’s up to another draft.

Anyway, you get the idea. Keep going. Practice is everything. And while you’re at it, get a copy of Mary Oliver’s short guide A Poetry Handbook, as well as a few books of poetry and good literature — old and new — to play around with.

And happy discovery!

Meditation and The Saint John’s Bible

The continuous process of remaining open and accepting of what may reveal itself through hand and heart on a crafted page is the closest I have ever come to God.

Donald Jackson
Artistic Director, The Saint John’s Bible

“The Saint John’s Bible is a work of art and a work of theology,” from St. John’s Bible website introducing “The Process.”

While at a recent Tergar meditation workshop and retreat at Saint John’s Abbey and University north of Minneapolis, I was doubly inspired by the chance to see some of the large hand-illuminated pages from the newly commissioned Saint John’s Bible.

Oh, my word … the beautiful script, the modern illustrations shadowing traditional medieval style, the gold leaf subtly representing “the breath of God” throughout the action of the artwork and text — it all brought tears to my eyes. They did it. They joined creativity and meditation.

As I slowly passed each exhibit case of illumination and text and read the descriptive plaques, I discovered that not only did the artists and calligraphers contemplate each page before putting pen to paper, but also each member of the commissioning organization reflected on each guideline that would be handed to these artists. In Benedictine terms, this is known as lectio divina, “a slow and careful, meditative reading of a text.”

As further stated in the introduction in the contemplative reader’s guide The Art of Saint John’s Bible, vol.1, by Susan Sink:

The Saint John’s Bible is more than an artistic work, more than a book. The project is a source of reflection, for the team that creates it and for everyone who views it either in reproduction or exhibits traveling throughout the world.

Detail 2 from “Christ Our Light” from the Gospels of The Saint John’s Bible.

Incidentally, not only does the reader’s guide help us notice the little interesting details, like how a double helix of DNA, Hindu mandala, computer code or butterfly sneaks into a picture, but also asks questions of the reader that spark individual contemplation, not giving us all the answers. That leaves room for our own lectio divina.

Was I the only person to burst into tears at the sight of these pages? I meekly asked my museum guide. “Oh, no. There are a lot of who people do that,” she said. And then she smiled and left me alone with all that brilliance.


 One of the main goals of The Saint John’s Bible is to inspire and cultivate creativity.

The Saint John’s Bible Website

Acts and Genesis details by Chris Tomlin & Donald Jackson, from The Saint John’s Bible.


Meditation and Creativity

I have often felt that meditation helped my creativity by allowing me first to relax, and then in that relaxation to be open to whatever arises — inside or out — using methods taught by great meditators like Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.

yongey mingyur Rinpoche

Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche in a video segment on creativity and meditation. Image courtesy of Tergar International.

Rinpoche explains how meditation and creativity work together in this short video on the Tergar Learning Community website.

There are many online courses at this site you can take to learn how to meditate at home and at your own pace. For me, the goal of meditation is not to engender greater creativity. That is a by-product of meditation. The goal is to free myself from harmful mental habits and thus, be a more flexible and warm human being to be around. In short, I’m hoping my meditation practice benefits others, and that any resulting creativity also benefits others, be it great or small.


Noticing Your Surroundings

The best writers seem to be the ones who add just enough detail about the setting in each scene of fiction to make it alive inside the reader’s mind. Leo Tolstoy is amazing at it, and so it China Mieville, both of whom I posted about earlier. You have your favorites, I’m sure. How about the sights and sounds present in just one sentence of Herman Melville‘s Moby Dick?






Moving on, I at last came to a dim sort of light not far from the docks, and heard a forlorn creaking in the air; and looking up, saw a swinging sign over the door with a white painting upon it, faintly representing a tall straight jet of misty spray, and these words underneath — “The Spouter-Inn: — Peter Coffin.”

Mr. Melville could have just said, “And I came upon the Spouter Inn.” But he didn’t. He let the scene find his character via the character’s wide open senses.

Or take the more contemporary James Lee Burke in The Neon Rain, who adds internal emotion to the world of senses. 

The light was soft on the lake as I dressed on the houseboat that evening.Up the shore I could see the palm and cypress trees blowing in the wind off the Gulf. The air smelled like rain again. I felt very alone and quiet inside, and I wondered if my feeling of confident solitude, my peculiar moment of serenity inside, was not a deceptive prelude to another turbulent time in my life.

What does this kind of writing take? It takes noticing what’s around us and perhaps taking notes when we can so we don’t forget what struck us so freshly at the moment.

And what does it take to notice what’s around you? Being present. Ah. Just rest a moment. Without tweaking it in any direction, past or future, imagined or judged. Ah.                If such a free moment was hard won, this is where meditation can help the writer (and even the reader, and certainly everyone). I promised I would address meditation in this blog, and here it comes.

My Alaskan blur begins the wake-up call: I remember hiking in Alaska and noticing all of a sudden that the stress of the month-long hike didn’t allow me to notice any details at all about the terrain I was in, or even my own internal experience of it. To this day, I don’t remember much but a blur of gray gravel and green plants and maybe the smell of sweaty wool. After the hike, I found I still was not fully aware of my environment, even in a nice comfortable home. Some time later, I learned meditation so that I could just sit comfortably with how things are, rather than within a fuzzy daydream or constant chatter I seemed to constantly produce. Slowly, the world came alive to me, and oddly enough, the good books I read became more interesting.

Now, I am able to sit (or walk) anywhere and pretty much BE there, aware. I notice little things, what the birds do, not just that they’re there, the smells of the air, the unique colors in friends’ faces, their vocal tones and how I feel within them, and how my body feels as I either work or work out, and how my inner judment can color each moment in its own shifty way. As Star Trek’s Spock would say, “Fascinating.”

Introduction to Meditation: I continue to deepen my meditation practice with the well respected Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche and his non-profit Tergar Meditation Community. Here’s a great place to start if you’re interested. This introduction to meditation is free, self-paced, applicable to any faith, and includes Rinpoche’s light humor, which makes it a heck of a lot easier to “awaken to the joy of the present moment.” Bon voyage!

Two Lucid Passages from War & Peace

French Retreat from Russia in 1812 by Illarion Pryanishikov

French Retreat from Russia in 1812 by Illarion Pryanishikov

On this 4th of July in America, I am inspired to review a few passages in Leo Tolstoy’s famous epic War & Peace, which covers the period of 1805 to 1820 and features Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Why I call this book great is because of the clear writing style and the themes that deeply address leadership issues, romantic struggles, walking the tightrope between spiritual beliefs and acts of survival, and most of all, those unexplained moments of lucidity that happen just when everything is looking very bad. Here are some outtakes from the latter category of lucidity, or transparency -- seeing something beyond its label, borders or form. I hope they are as bright taken out of context. (If not, enjoy the entire book someday. The translation quoted below is by Constance Garnett)

Early in the novel, Prince Andrew Bolkonski is in a battlefield and has struggled valiently with others to carry the Russian flag forward into the thick of action, bullets “whizzing over him incessantly . . .”

“What’s this? am I falling? my legs are  giving way under me,” he thought, and fell on his back. He opened his eyes, hoping to see how the stuggle of the French soldiers with the artilleryman was ending, and eager to know whether the red-haired artilleryman was killed or not, whether the cannons had been taken or saved. But he saw nothing of all that. Above him there was nothing but the sky — the lofty sky, not clear, but still immeasurably lofty , with grey clouds creeping quietly over it. “How quietly, peacefully, and triumphantly, and not like us running, shouting, and fighting, not like the Frenchman  and artilleryman dragging the mop from one another with frightened and frantic faces, how differently are those clouds creeping over that lofty, limitless sky. How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last. “

And much later, here is Pierre Bezukhob (and eventual husband of Natasha Rostova), during a forced march from Moscow as a prisoner of the French troops.

. . . Tucking his legs up under him, and dropping his head, he sat down on the cold ground against the waggon wheel, and sat there a long while motionless, thinking. More than an hour passed by. No one disturbed Pierre. Suddenly he burst into such a loud roar of his fat, good-humoured laughter, that men looked round on every side in astonishment at this strange and obviously solitary laughter. “Ha, ha, ha!” laughed Pierre. And he talked aloud to himself. “The soldier did not let me pass. They have taken me — shut me up. They keep me prisoner. Who is ‘me’? Me? Me — my immortal soul! ha, ha, ha! . . . Ha, ha, ha! . . .” he laughed, with the tears starting into his eyes.

. . . And beyond those fields and forest could be seen the bright, shifting, alluring, boundless distance. Pierre glanced at the sky, at the far-away, twinkling stars. “And all this is mine, and all that is in me, and all that is I!” thought Pierre. “And all this they caught and shut up in a shed closed in with boards!” He smiled and went to lie down to sleep beside his companions.

On this Independence Day, a symbol of freedom for many, I salute what is in us that can recognize the boundless present —  even compassion — through the mists of suffering. This is the deepest freedom I know.

Across the Rails: On a Ride with China Miéville

Cover of RailseaChina Miéville’s latest work of “weird ficition,” Railsea (May 12, 2012, Del Rey Books), is a blast to read — extending beyond its intended audience of young adults. While many book reviewers, including Barnes & Noble reviewer Paul Goat Allen, will give you the plot highlights & the reasons why the book blew them away, I will share with you a particular style in this book that delighted me whenever I came across it.

Miéville transcends his own fictional narrative with a paragraph or two — or even a short chapter — on why we’re switching or not switching to a different character’s point of view in the language of a train engineer deftly changing tracks. It took me outside the story at key moments that I needed to breathe, reminding me that I was simply HERE, the present, reading a book — a.k.a. delivering me right into the same “open present” that is taught in many styles of meditation.

Here’s an example. In the previous chapter, there was a surprising turn of events for the main character Sham ap Soorap. Then, in this next little chapter, we switch back to his friends the Shroakes, who are in another part of the Railsea. After just one page with this brother & sister duo comes this …

At last they pushed on, under a huge night, in the deeps of which upsky predators made sounds. The Shroakes —

— but wait. On reflection, now is not the time for Shroakes.

There is at this instant too much occurring or about occur to Sham ap Soorap.

… This train, our story, will not, cannot, veer now from this track on which, though not by choice, Sham is dragged.

Later, Shroakes. Sham is with pirates.

So, we get back to the action with the Sham. Then later on in chapter Sixty-Four … well, here’s the entire chapter:

Time for the Shroakes?

Not Yet.

I giggled. Although I noted that this technique annoyed one reviewer (not Paul), it reminded me of the fresh, personable style that good old-fashioned storytellers use  (& beautifully explained by the storyteller in Frank Delaney’s Ireland). These interludes are as fresh as the rest of Miéville’s language & plot throughout Railsea. Five stars.

Oh, & more about “open present” awareness later.

About this blog

Jonelle Kearney

Jonelle Kearney

I love good writing. I write for a living, mostly freelance for companies and organizations, and some news outlets, with dalliances into short fiction and haiku. But now, I also finally love meditation. It took awhile. It took a meditation teacher who imbued a lot of joy and relaxation into the journey. Perhaps it also took my seeing through a lot of junk. Anyway, now I’m inspired to merge this natural open awareness that I now know as meditation, with my old love of writing — all from a precious hilltop in the desert grasslands of Sonoita, Arizona.


Let’s see how it goes.

“Actually, enlightenment is quite simple.” — Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, from Joyful Wisdom

Transcending the Two-Sided Story

The Atlantic recently featured a video on Ken Burns and this formula for transcending the one-sided story — even the two-sided one: 1 + 1 = 3. In a nutshell, you put two points of view together and get a third view that embraces and transcends what the invidual views were independently. I love this idea. Opening the vista, so too speak.

Tossing hay to goats, a thousand flakes fly backwards like a flutter of green birds. I stand in in the whirl, not who I was the second before. — jk