Saturday, November 21, 2009

You don't have to be great all the time

In her fabulous book, Writing Down the Bones, author Natalie Goldberg introduces a Zen-inspired practice of writing, whereby one sits and writes for an allotted time, say five or fifteen minutes without stopping, without correcting, always keeping the pen moving. This is not writing for publication, but rather writing as spiritual practice, more akin to meditation, therapy and martial arts practice than writing for an audience.

Here's my favorite anecdote from a book packed with wonderful vignettes:
Artistic Stability
I have a pile of spiral notebooks about five feet high that begin around 1977, my early years of writing in Taos, New Mexico. I want to throw them out -- who can bear to look at the junk of our own minds that comes out in writing practice? I have a friend in New Mexico who makes solar houses out of beer cans and old tires. I think I will try to build one out of discarded spiral notebooks. A friend who lives upstairs says, "Don't get rid of them." I tell her she can have them if she wants.

I pile them on her stairs leading up to her apartment and leave for Norfolk, Nebraska, for four days to do a writing workshop. When I return she looks at me oddly, plunks herself down in the old pink chair in my bedroom: "I've been reading your notebooks all weekend. They are so intimate; so scared, insecure for pages, then suddenly they are not you -- just raw energy and wild mind. And now here you are -- Natalie -- in the flesh, just a person. It feels so funny." ...

She said it was empowering to read my notebooks because she realized that I really did write "shit," sometimes for whole notebooks. Often I tell my students, "Listen, I write and still write terrible self-pitying stuff for page after page." They don't believe me. Reading my notebooks is living proof of that. My upstairs neighbor said, "If you could write the junk you did then and write the stuff you do now, I realize I can do anything. There's so much power in the mind. I feel like who knows what I can do!" She said the main thing she saw in the notebooks -- whole notebooks of complaints, boring description, and flagrant anger -- was an absolute trust in the process. "I saw that you kept on writing even when you wrote 'I must be nuts to do this.'"
When you see someone do something amazing, it's a mistake to attribute it to mere talent. You just don't see the hard work.


Sue C said...

Hi Dan, this sounds like a great technique for overcoming writer's block! I think it allows you to empty your mind of all the rubbish that's going through it so that you can allow it to fill with the stuff you really want to write about. Isn't there that old maxim in martial arts about 'emptying the cup......'

Dan Prager said...

Hi Sue. Yes, to emptying the cup; there's also an element of "chop wood, carry water", and the more modern and commercial "Just do it".

Apropos of which, in the spirit of martial/writerly creativity, I dare you to write a post under the title of "Karate's block vs Writer's block".

Sue C said...

Hi Dan, mmmmm......can't usually resist a challenge....I'll think about it!

Neal Martin said...

Hi Dan. First off, let me congratulate you on an excellent blog filled with quality content. I do traditional jujitsu myself and it's nice to come across someone else who not only shares the same passion, but is very knowledgeable with it.

On the subject of the article, I completely agree that you have to write a lot of crap before anything good comes out. I wrote for many years before I finally started to produce halfway readable content. The same is true of the martial arts. Despite the fact that I've been training for many years, I consider myself only to be coming good now.

Dan Prager said...

Hi Neal

Thanks for the kind words. I skipped over to your blog and must return and add to the congratulations: you have a very well-written and extremely well-thought-out and laid-out blog. Good luck with your enterprise.