Today’s blog comes from question in our, So You Wanna Be A Writer section.
I spent so much time on the answer, that I thought I’d put it in here, where more people would see it.
i have recently been exploring the values of buddhism. i have in the past read a lot about it, i am just now taking it more seriously.
at the same time, i am taking my writing more seriously. i am working on 2 different novels right now.
now here comes the contradiction…while i am a complete failure at this, i realize that one of the most important things in buddhism is to “stay in the moment” to have an enlightened awareness to your everyday activities.
as i continue to work on the plots of my stories, i often find myself thinking about different scenes or directions they may go. nearly every free moment, my mind seems to find its way towards those topics. some good material and ideas come from those sessions. however, a lot of it is useless mental chatter.
The Author Guy Responds:
I have been waiting 20 years for someone to ask this question. I don’t have an answer, but I’m glad you asked.
Here’s the thing. The place to be in Buddhism, is in the moment, without ‘dualistic” thought. (That is, good, evil, big, small, here, there, past, future, etc.) But writing is the most singularly dualistic art form I can think of, with the exception of perhaps film making. A painter can sling paint, a musician can jam, but a writer does everything with deliberation. It is simply the nature of the craft. You have to look ahead, you have to think of the effect you are trying to achieve.
Consider the “Zen” arts, and how one goes about them. Sumi-e ink painting, archery, flower arranging, fencing. (Yes, swordsmanship and painting can be manifestations of the same philosophies.) In each of those things, you practice repetition, the same stroke of the brush, placement of the object, cut of the sword. You do it again and again until your body knows what to do without thinking about it. As the swordsman, you stand ready and open, no mind, to react to whatever happens. You don’t plan what you are going to do, because when your opponent attacks, then you’ll have to “unthink” your plan, and then react. You have to be pure in thought, ready to move. In painting, you will see bamboo, a plum blossom, an orchid, and you will have done the orchid stroke, the bamboo stroke, the plum blossom stroke so many times that your composition will appear on the page in minutes, if not seconds. The “spontaneity” of the art comes from repetition, of learning your chops, so the art (or craft) becomes automatic. (For instance, you would want to learn to use the “shift” key, then move on to more complex tasks)
That said, you have to be satisfied with moments that only approach “no mind” in writing. As you get better, you have to think less about how to achieve an effect, and you simply imagine what you want and you do it. At many points in writing my first book, I remember thinking, “Okay, now some people should talk.” Then, “Okay, that’s enough talking, now I should describe something.” I don’t do that anymore. That stuff is on autopilot. I feel it. I simply write narrative or dialogue as it is needed, as it serves the material. I don’t have a perfect “Zen” moment. I am thinking about where the book is going, who will say what next, what the scene is setting up, where it has come from, the agendas of each of the characters, but part of the craft has become spontaneous. You get, at best, pieces of Zen.
Haiku is the Zen literary form. And it is, I suppose, as close as one gets to Zen expression in language. But I find that the rhythm of the 17 syllables has never become automatic for me. I have to always count on my fingers. I’m sure if I wrote a thousand haiku, I’d just write 5-7-5 without thinking, but I’m not there yet. The Zen aesthetic that applies in Haiku is that it “invokes” the moment. A single thought, sensation, second in time. Practicing the art form itself, not so much. Much is the same in Zen rock gardening, or flower arranging. It’s not spontaneous and instant, it expresses the composition of the Buddhist mind, the yin and yang, the space and object, the dark and light. The actual making of a Zen rock garden — well, it requires planning, thought, and repetition. Perhaps in raking the stones, one achieves a Zen of movement, which is also a precept of Buddhism. That is, moving meditation. (Wax on, wax off, for those of you playing the home game.)
So, really, even in the most pure Buddhist art form, we only achieve the “present”, for a moment at a time. Despite the dualistic nature of any goal, because, as the Zen monk would say, we are trying to get to somewhere that isn’t there, we keep in mind that a Zen moment may happen to us at any time. And when it does, well, that was nice, now what? As soon as you spot it, it is gone.
As a writer you have to recognize that you may achieve these moments of spontaneity very, very rarely, and look upon them as gifts. But, the better mastery you have of your craft, the more you write, the better chance that you will achieve a Zen of “just writing” rather than having to think of every aspect of the craft. The craft becomes automatic, and the creation can just happen on the page.
But you have to remember, that the reason you kill the Buddha on the road if you meet him, is because he represents a barrier between you and your own Buddha nature, he removes you by one degree from the moment that is enlightenment. I have never met anyone who can claim enlightenment as an ongoing state, But I have met a few, who have glimpsed it, had a single moment where everything slid into place, and then evaporated, and perhaps, that is all you get.
So to reconcile this inherently dualistic art form with the goal of being integrated into the moment, what do we do? One writes, one frets, one learns words, structures, timing, transition. We practice. And in the midst of that practice, we experience moments of pure expression, of an unconscious link between the image in our brain and the keyboard or pen, and that is the Zen of writing. It’s as good as it gets.
I’ve been learning Sumi-e ink painting, because I needed a way to make art that didn’t weigh so much. In my studies I ran across an interview with Wynton Marsalis, wherein he compares Jazz to Sumi-e. What he said so impressed me that I used it as the lynch pin in a scene in A Dirty Job. It was like this:
“In Jazz, there is a crisis in every moment, and you bring all your skill to bear on that crisis.”
Brilliant, and true. A jazz musician does not have time to unthink his improvisation. He has to has his chops down in order to keep time. That involves the practice of scales, forever. As artists, writers, musicians, photographers, whatever, there is still a crisis in every moment, and we must bring the full measure of our skill to bear on that crisis. That is the Zen of the art. The practice and learning, not so much.
I’m not even sure that putting the words on paper doesn’t negate the moment. I know that in each of my books there has been a passage that suddenly occured to me, fully formed, without any editing. Almost always this came to me when I was doing something else, and I had to stop and put pen to paper before I forgot. It was the flash of inspiration, the spontaneous creation that encompassed the Zen moment. Writing it down took it away. But that’s okay, there was no there, there.
And that’s what you have to remember. That trying to grasp a moment of enlightenment is like “trying to bite the teeth”. At best we just keep buggering on, learning our craft, preparing without preparing, being prepared without acknowedging for what, so that when that elusive moment appears, we are fully in it, we bring all of our skill and knowledge to bear on the crisis.