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The Meditative/Contemplative Essay

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By Dave Hood

What is a meditative or contemplative essay? It is a subgenre of the personal essay, which is one of the pillars of creative nonfiction. A short meditative essay is typically 500 to 1200 words. For many who teach creative writing, the writer of a contemplative or meditative essay asks or poses a question and then answers it in the form of an essay.

For others,  the writer can build a meditative essay by examining an idea or emotion— by referring to objects that embody that emotion or idea. Or the writing can explore a particular object, uncovering what is inside the particular object, uncovering the symbolic meaning, uncovering the associations of the object. It’s like opening a present to discover what’s inside, often a surprise, something unexpected.

In this article, I’ll discuss how to write a meditative or contemplative essay.  The following will be covered:

  • Definition of a meditative essay
  • Approaches to writing a meditative essay
  • Creative writing techniques to use

Definition of a Meditative Essay

For many, a meditative essay explores an idea or topic. Typically, the writer asks an open-ended question—and then attempts to answer it in the  body of the essay. There is no definite answer to the question. Instead, the writer thinks out loud, pondering the question, writing down possible answers.

For others, a meditative essay requires that the writer examine an object or emotion, seeking understanding through similes, metaphors, associations. The intent of the writer is to turn the abstract idea or the generalization of an emotion into an essay of concrete details that readers will understand and relate to.

The meditative essay is not a narrative, and so there is no true or fictional story shared with the reader. Nor does  the meditation focus on the self. And so it is not a personal narrative essay, which is based on a personal experience that results in an epiphany, and a universal truth. Instead the writer focuses outward on some idea, emotion, object—exploring possible answers. But there is no single, definitive answer.

The aspiring writer can write  about any topic. For instance:

  • What is cruel and unusual punishment? Why do you support the death penalty?
  • Is war ever just? Is killing ever justified?
  • Why or why don’t you believe in abortion?
  • Does God exist?
  • Does life have meaning and purpose? Or do we live existential lives?
  • Should a citizen have the legal right to carry a gun?
  • Is stem cell research ethical?

This topic is developed organically, and so there is no single structure on how to write a meditative essay.  Each meditation can unfold in a different way. The key points to remember are to 1)Select a topic and then 2) pose a question.

The writer adds details from observation, learning, personal experience, personal reflections—- to answer the question, explore an idea or object.

Often writers move from  particular facts, observations, experiences to a general answer. In other words, the writer applies the tools of inductive reasoning to discover the possible answers to the question. Facts, observations, life experiences provide the support for a general conclusion.  For instance, does life have meaning ? A writer might identify several sources of meaning–a rewarding career, stimulating reading, uplifting music, pop culture, a significant other who is a kindred spirit, supportive and loyal friendships, loving children, faith in God—and then expand on each of these points. And so the question is turned into a meditative essay or contemplative essay, writing based on the musings or contemplations of the writer. Every writer might have a different answer to the question. That is why there`s no single right answer to a meditative essay.

Not only does the writer include factual evidence based on personal experience or observation or learning, the writer also engages in personal reflection, then writes down his or her thoughts on paper or types them out on the keyboard.

Approaches for Writing the Meditative Essay

There is no single way to write a meditative essay.  Many writers select a question related to a topic that they are curious about.  Here are three approaches:

Write down a Question and then Answer It

A popular approach to writing a meditative essay is to pose a question and then answer it. Here’s how:

  1. Find a topic, and then select an open ended question.
  2. Jot down a list of possible answers that pop into your mind.
  3. Take some time to ponder the question. Jot down any additional points to explore.
  4. For each possible answer, write out an explanation. Be sure to use the elements of fiction, such as scene building and the poetic devices of simile, metaphor, alliteration and assonance.
  5. Take a break  from writing for a few days. This will give you time to reflect and develop a new perspective on your essay.
  6. After your break, reread and revise your meditative essay. Delete any redundant or irrelevant details. Add any other details that you feel are important.

Write about an Emotion or Idea with Objects

Other writers examine an idea or emotion  by writing about particular objects that embody the emotion or idea. For instance, suppose you want to write about  sadness, you would explore the abstract topic by writing about particular objects that embody sadness, such as job loss, death, marriage breakdown, mental illness.  Essentially, you are explaining an abstract idea with particular details, concrete and specific descriptions, similes, and metaphors.

Write about a Particular Object Itself

The second way to approach a meditative essay is to begin with the object itself. But to consider a physical object you must uncover hidden attributes or associations of the object. It’s like opening a present to see what’s inside. For instance, suppose you want to explore a found object, such as a wallet. You could begin by describing the outside of the wallet. Then you could describe its contents. Then you could describe something suggested by the wallet. Then you could expand further, describe something existential, social, cultural, political about the wallet.

Keep in mind that there is no single answer. It all depends on how use your imagination to uncover possible answers. It is all about creative thinking–brainstorming, mind-mapping, asking “what if questions”, changing your perspective, seeking the alternatives, asking “why?”

If  you are interested in reading meditative essays, read “The Art of the Personal Essay“, edited by Phillip Lopate. This text contains several examples along with many other types of personal essays.

Creative Writing Techniques to Deploy

What techniques should the writer  take from his or her tool box of creative writing to construct a meditative essay? The writer applies the techniques of writing short fiction, a personal essay, and poetry, such as showing and telling, use of metaphor and simile, rhythm, assonance, alliteration.

Here are a few techniques to help you write a meditative essay:

  • Find a topic you are curious about, and then ask an open-ended question. For instance, you could respond to the statement: ” The only bad job is no job” by posing the following question: Are there any jobs that a person should not have to do, if they lose their job? Another questions to consider, “What is the meaning of life?”, Do we have free will?
  • Explore the question by freewriting. Begin by asking a question, then jot down  the thoughts that pop into your mind, and begin to write your essay.
  • Show the reader, don’t tell them. You can do this by writing down significant details and vivid descriptions.
  • Use similes and metaphors to explain abstract ideas.
  • Write in the first person point of view “I” or the third person “he/she.”
  • Seek out symbolic meaning, which is meaning other than literal meaning.
  • Seek out associations, related ideas. For instance, when you think of studying , what associations come to mind? When you think of learning, what associations pop into your thought process?
  • Include your personal opinion and personal reflections.

In summary, the purpose of the meditative essay is to explore a question about an idea, topic, object, or emotion. The writer puts to use vivid descriptions, significant details, simile, metaphor to answer the question. There is no single answer to the question, and the meditative essay is developed organically, without a particular structure. The writer can write from the first person or third person perspective.  The writer jots down his/her thoughts on paper  or types them out as they arrive in the mind. Writing is subjective, based on personal experience, personal reflections.  the writer can construct a meditative essay by answering a philosophical question or by writing about ideas that embody the emotion or idea. Revision is important.  In short, the writer records his or her thoughts or meditations using the devices and tools of creative nonfiction in the form of an essay. That is why it’s called a meditative or contemplative essay.

Resources

  • The Art of the Personal Essay, selected and with introduction by Phillip Lopate
  • Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style, with Readings by Eileen Pollack
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