(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2015)
“When we become truly ourselves, we just become a swinging door, and we are purely independent of, and at the same time, dependent upon everything.” Shunryu Suzuki
As I was sitting by the woodstove last night—this November much colder than last—scribbling away on my latest something, I was struck by how little connection I feel to the books and stories and plays I’ve written over the last forty years, or even to the book I finished writing earlier this year.
How does it happen that something I thought about constantly and worked on for several hours every day for months on end is now but a vague memory? How can something that meant so much to me, mean so little now? Can the creative heart really be so fickle?
Then this morning our neighbor came by with a dozen beautiful blue and brown and white eggs just laid by his prolific chickens, and I thought I’m a hen, and the egg I’m laying right now is the most important egg in the world to me, but a few eggs hence I won’t remember this egg at all.
That put me in mind of when I was a young writer and would spend a year or two furiously working on a novel, my work fueled by a palpable visceral erotic majestic sense of how staggeringly great the story was. When at last the first draft was finished, I would let it cool for a few weeks before reading the entirety; and more often than not, I found the story and writing less great than I had sensed they were while in the throes of creation. And often that was the end of the process, the novel stillborn. But sometimes there was enough mojo in that first draft to inspire a rewrite, and once engaged in remaking the story, I would again be filled with certainty I was birthing a masterwork.
As I got to know more artists and writers, I learned that they, too, were often taken over by a sense of the importance and brilliance of the things they were creating, and when the things were done, the veils of grandiosity would be lifted, and they would see their creations in a wholly different light. So I came to think of this recurring self-delusion as a necessary trick of the mind enabling artists to complete creations requiring hundreds or thousands of hours of work. If the inner critic became engaged too early in the process, the flow might stop.
But what is that trick of the mind? How do we fool our egos again and again into thinking something is great when it isn’t yet great, and may never be great?
“What I love about the creative process, and this may sound naïve, but it is this idea that one day there is no idea, and no solution, but the next day there is an idea. I find that incredibly exciting and conceptually actually remarkable.” Jonathan Ive
I have spent the last three years writing a quartet of connected novels called Ida’s Place, and when I completed Book Four in August, it never occurred to me the saga was at end. I was so much in the habit of writing these books, so emotionally enmeshed with the large cast of characters, and so enamored of the ongoing drama, I couldn’t imagine there wouldn’t be another book or two or seven.
Indeed, the first chapter of Book Five poured forth from my pen as effortlessly as the previous four volumes. But then the flow ceased, the Ida muse done with me. However, my ego was not yet ready to let go of this large self-defining undertaking, and for several weeks more I labored away and cranked out five more chapters, though the process was no longer about harnessing an artesian flow but wringing water from stones.
Then on one of my walks to town, I was finally able to admit I was done with the Ida saga, or the saga was done with me, and the moment I admitted this to my conscious self, I realized that the last line of Book Four was a fine place to stop. And now, some weeks later, when I pick up one of the Ida books and read for a page or nine, the story and the writing are new to me. I’m happy to say I find the tale deeply engaging, but who wrote these volumes? Was Buckminster Fuller correct in saying we are verbs, not nouns?
So now what do I do? Now how will I be conjugated? Now who am I if not the person writing a series of novels set in a bakery café on the far north coast of California, a mythic version of Here?
“When we forget ourselves, we actually are the true activity of the big existence, or reality itself. When we realize this fact, there is no problem whatsoever in this world, and we can enjoy our life without feeling any difficulties. The purpose of our practice is to be aware of this fact.” Shunryu Suzuki
There is no rushing a muse, and no telling when or how she will come to you. I once asked a painter I admire if he painted every day. He replied, “I go to my studio every day, except Sunday, and some days I’ll paint for fifteen minutes, some days for five hours, some days not at all. I made myself paint every day when I was a neophyte because I wanted painting to become a deep habit. And now that it is, showing up every day is the important thing.”
My favorite Sufi stories are those in which a person is at an emotional and spiritual impasse, and one of two things happens. Either a visitor arrives and does something or says something that liberates the stuck person, or the stuck person goes out into the world and has an experience that opens his mind and breaks down the wall around his heart.