Posts Tagged ‘not knowing’

Opening Words

Monday, May 14th, 2018

Forest Rhodie

Forest Rhododendron photo by Todd

“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it happens outside, as fate.” Carl Jung

I like to write letters to friends and to artists and writers and movie directors I admire. Sometimes my friends will send me letters, but the artists and writers and movie directors I write to very rarely answer my letters, though until twenty years ago if the admired person was British, Australian, or from New Zealand, no matter how famous, he or she always wrote back—but not anymore.

For many years, before there was email and texting and tweeting, I sent off several letters every week; and almost every day in those halcyon days of postal abundance, the postal service agent would bring me letters from friends. On my computer I have a file entitled Letter Head Quotes. In this file are pages topped with a quote I especially like, and I will either type a letter to someone on one of those pages, or print out the page and use the empty space below the quote to write a letter by hand.

Here are some of my favorite letterhead quotes and a few thoughts about them.

“I would suspect that the hardest thing for you to accept is your own beauty. Your own worth. Your own dignity. Your own royal pedigree. Your priestly identity as one who blesses and is blessed in return. Your own calling to learn to love and allow yourself to be loved to the utmost.”  Alan Jones

Alan Jones is an Episcopal priest who was the Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco from 1985 until 2009. When I lived in Berkeley from 1995 to 2006, I would attend Evensong on Thursday evening at Grace Cathedral twice a month. I’d take BART from the North Berkeley station, get off at Montgomery Street, hike up the hill to the cathedral, walk the labyrinth adjacent to the cathedral, enter the cavernous church, listen to the Boy’s and Men’s choirs sing gorgeous unintelligible hymns accompanied by a genius organist, and open my heart and mind to Alan’s spontaneous prayer, which always concluded Evensong.

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.

This quote from Winnie the Pooh is especially dear to me, literally dear, because when I was creating a book of my writing exercises The Writer’s Path with Mindy Toomay, I really wanted to use this quote in the book, and our publisher, 10-Speed before they were eaten by Random House, informed us that Disney, who now owns all things Pooh, was demanding five hundred dollars for the use of those few lines. 10-Speed was not about to cough up five hundred cents for our book, let alone five hundred dollars, so I coughed up the money, which amounted to ten per cent of my advance for the book; and I have never regretted the expenditure.

If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it;

If I be in a state of Grace, I pray God keep me so.” Jean D’Arc

I first read this quote in Mark Twain’s novel Joan of Arc. I’ve read everything Twain wrote, and though I consider The Prince and the Pauper his finest novel, Twain considered Joan of Arc his greatest work. He spent two years in France meticulously researching his book, and he studied French for several years so he could read the transcripts of Joan’s trial in the original French with the aid of able translators. Despite Twain’s immense fame, no publisher would publish the book, so Twain published the fascinating work himself.

This quote, which comes from the transcript of Joan’s trial, speaks of a desire to be in a state of grace without needing to know whether one is in such a state. In that sense, the sentiment, when separated from the context of Joan’s trial, echoes the Buddha extolling the virtue of Not Knowing, of Beginner’s Mind—an innocent acceptance and appreciation of whatever we are experiencing.

In the context of Joan’s trial, these words are a testament to her astonishing genius, for this simple reply effectively defeated her brutal prosecutor and proved the most brilliant minds in the Catholic Church incapable of convicting her of heresy. Thus stymied, those hideous men tortured her until they imagined her anguished cries to be an admission of heresy—after which they quickly burned her at the stake.

But before they tortured her and killed her, they laid a pernicious intellectual trap for her. There was an arcane law of the Catholic Church stating that anyone claiming to be in a state of grace, or claiming not to be in a state of grace, was a heretic. So if Joan could be tricked into saying, or even implying, she believed she was or was not in a state of grace, she would be proved a heretic. Having been deprived of sleep and sufficient food for several weeks, having stood through weeks of trial in the face of legions of ghoulish priests intent on killing her, Joan, nineteen, illiterate, and knowing nothing of the complicated laws of the church was asked by the prosecutor, “Do you believe you are in a state of grace?”

As Twain describes the scene, the devious prosecutor asks this question almost as an afterthought at the end of a grueling day of interrogation. Joan gathers herself, awaits guidance from her angelic allies, and replies with quiet eloquence, “If I be not in a state of Grace, I pray God place me in it. If I be in a state of Grace, I pray God keep me so.”

In a more modern context, but in a similarly metaphysical vein, the following quote from Buckminster Fuller is a succinct description of how I believe the universe operates. I assumed that nature would “evaluate” my work as I went along. If I was doing what nature wanted done, and if I was doing it in promising ways, permitted by nature’s principles, I would find my work being economically sustained. 

Having shared this quote with many people, I can report that artists and poets and people who have lived unusual lives universally agree that this is how the universe operates, while everybody else says Bucky’s idea is hokum.

Here is one of my favorite Philip Whalen poems.

HOW MANY IS REAL

Whether we intended it or liked it or wanted it

We are part of a circle that stands beyond life and death

Happening whether we will or no

We can’t break it, we are seldom aware of it

And it looks clearest to people beyond its edge.

They are included in it

Whether or not they know

 

Do I Know You?

Monday, October 23rd, 2017

243moondoor

moon door diptych by Max Greenstreet

“Man is constantly watched by powers that seem to know all his desires and complications. He has free choice, but he is also being led by a mysterious hand.” Isaac Bashevis Singer

Some months ago I began writing a new novel. I’ve written dozens of novels in my life, published a handful of them, and when I am not writing a story or a novel or a play, I tend to feel somewhat ungrounded. I am something of a social recluse, and socializing with the characters populating my fiction is the main kind of socializing I do. This has been true for more than fifty years now; and though I do not recommend writing fiction as a substitute for forging friendships, that is what I unwittingly chose to do and am now habituated to.

As it happens, I do not “think up” my characters, nor do I devise a plot before beginning to write a story, nor do I have any idea what I might write from one sentence to the next. Thus the characters who materialize in my unfolding works are strangers to me when they first arrive, and a large part of what holds my interest in the process of writing a long work of fiction—a process that may require thousands of hours of work—is getting to know these strangers and discovering why they have chosen to come live with me.

The central character of the novel I’m currently writing—and I didn’t know she was the central character until a few days ago and a couple hundred pages into the book—is a fifty-two-year-old French woman who is writing a book about another of the characters in the book—a man I thought was the main character after I’d written a hundred pages or so. He is obviously an important character, but the French woman has emerged as the person on whom everything in this book depends.

When I hear this woman speaking to other characters in the book, it is as if she is in the room with me—her accent and way of constructing sentences definitely French. Until the last few chapters I wasn’t sure I liked her and I was somewhat suspicious of her motives vis-à-vis the other characters, but I like her now despite her many flaws. No, I like her because of her flaws, which are not really flaws but aspects of her personality that troubled me at first and now seem to be clues to who she is.

I rarely write or speak about my writing because I am uncomfortable with writers and artists holding forth about their creative processes. So why am I writing about the novel I’m writing? Because I thought you’d find what’s going on interesting.

If that is so, why am I uncomfortable with other writers and artists talking about their creative processes? Because many of the artists and writers I’ve heard talking about their art and their writing make generalizations about creativity based solely on their personal experiences. This is not only wrong thinking, as the Buddhists would say, but makes those writers and artists sound, to me, like pompous academic dimwits.

Indeed, I have several times gone from liking the work of a particular writer to despising the very thought of them and their books after hearing them make pronouncements beginning with, “All writers…” or “Every writer…” or “Most artists…” If you are a writer or an artist, please don’t do that.

So this morning I woke to a continuation of the scene I was writing last night involving my French woman. She has just returned to her hotel room with two dresses she bought in the previous chapter. She tries on both dresses, studies herself in the mirror, and to my surprise decides not to wear either dress to the party she is going to, but instead wears a long-sleeved shirt and trousers.

When she was in the dress shop having a fascinating time buying the dresses and thinking about how she wanted to present herself at the party, I was certain she was going to wear one of these dresses to the party, and that her wearing a dress was going to have a significant impact on some of the other characters attending the party. But that is apparently not going to happen now. Or maybe it is. Or maybe she won’t even get to the party. Or maybe she will get to the party and change her mind and go back to the hotel and change into one of the dresses. But maybe when she arrives back at the hotel with the intention of putting on one of the dresses, she will find the hotel on fire.

These scenarios, I remind myself, spring from trying to imagine what might happen; and that kind of guessing/inventing never works well for me when I’m writing fiction. Not knowing is the state that works best for me—allowing a less conscious part of me to run the show while the pen is moving on the paper.

Here is a passage from the first draft of The Recipes of Alexander Skåll.

Andrea undresses in a large well-lit dressing room appointed with a small sofa and two mirrors. She puts on the yellow dress, looks at her reflection, and feels terribly feminine—a feeling that fills her with anxiety.

Teresa is waiting for her outside the dressing room and leads her to a large room with floor-to-ceiling mirrors on two of the four walls—Serafina and Margarita seated in the center of the room on a black leather sofa, the fat little dog sprawled between them—one wall of the room dominated by a large window looking out at a burbling fountain on a brick terrace overhung by a Japanese maple with green leaves turning yellow.

“I like this dress on you,” says Serafina, sounding surprised. “It hangs very well on you and this shade of yellow does not fight with the red in your hair. You have good shoulders. We can make this fit you perfectly, but perhaps you will humor me and try on a dark green dress we just finish making. A little more…daring. You know?”