The business of story is waking up.
– Martin Shaw
The business of story is waking up.
– Martin Shaw
There is no mystery greater than our own mystery. We are, to ourselves, unknown. And yet we do know. The thought we cannot quite think is nevertheless somehow a thought, and it lives in us without our being able to think it. We are a mystery, but we are a living mystery. The most alive thing about us is what we are when thought breaks off and our mind can go no further—for that is where our yearning begins, our inconsolable yearning, and the loneliness that begets compassion, the forlornness that prepares the heart for love. A. Powell Davies
I posted this quote recently here in this spot. I posted it as I do all my quotes, because it captured my heart when I read it, so I wanted to pass it on. But on the day it sprang to new life on my website, I found myself pausing over it again. Not just admiring the words, the thought. Not just wanting to pass them on as “true.” But wanting to name the truth in my own life.
No mystery greater than our own mystery.
Every piece of fiction I have ever written has come out of “a thought [I] cannot quite think.”
I start with an idea that captures my imagination. There has to be struggle embedded in the idea. There is no story, at least in the traditional western sense of story, without struggle. But I start with something I pluck from the air or from a newspaper story or from something that happened to me when I was a kid just because it seems interesting. And if the idea is truly interesting to me, other ideas begin to fly to it, like iron filings to a magnet. It builds. And builds.
I never ask myself why I’m thinking of writing this particular story. Asking why would be a bit like slicing open a cat to see what makes her purr. I just keep turning the idea in my mind. And if it truly belongs to me—it keeps growing.
But I still don’t know what makes it my story. I just sit down and write it.
Sometimes I don’t know why I wrote this particular story until reviewers and readers begin to talk to me about it, to tell me what my words mean to them. And then, at last, I can say . . . “Oh! Of course!” Sometimes I begin to understand as I reach my story’s conclusion. (And interestingly enough, I always know where my story will end before I write the first word, but still it’s the writing of it that reveals its truth to me.)
My story becomes “the thought that lives in [me] without [my] being able to think it.” Which is precisely why I am compelled to bring it into the world as a story.
I wonder sometimes, have always wondered, whether someday I will no longer need to cloak my unknown self in story. Is it possible to become so transparent to myself that I won’t be compelled to search out my own mystery this way?
But then A. Powell Davis also said, “The most alive thing about us is what we are when thought breaks off and our mind can go no further—for that is where our yearning begins, our inconsolable yearning, and the loneliness that begets compassion, the forlornness that prepares the heart for love.”
“That is where our yearning begins, our inconsolable yearning.”
“And the loneliness that begets compassion, the forlornness that prepares the heart for love.”
Where have I ever heard a deeper, truer expression of the way story lives in us?
In truth, I’ve found that any day’s routine interruptions and distractions don’t much hurt a work in progress and may actually help it in some ways. It is, after all, the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster’s shell that makes the pearl, not pearl-making seminars with other oysters.
There are times when I don’t know my own mind. Worse, there are times when I think I know my mind perfectly well and then find an entirely different mind on a later visit to my opinions.
Which feels almost as though I have no mind at all.
Some time ago one of my favorite writers came out with a new novel. I had been waiting for her next book for years, so, of course, I signed up to have it pop into my electronic reader at the first opportunity. It did, and I read it eagerly.
I was disappointed. Deeply.
It wasn’t that the novel was badly written. This author isn’t capable of bad writing. It was just that I didn’t care about the people she explored so deeply. And even knowing their complexities, one layer exposed after another, didn’t make me want to spend time with them.
I didn’t have to wait nearly so long for her next book. This time, though, I read it with caution, with my newly acquired discontent. (Once burned.) This novel was . . . okay. But I wasn’t in love. I had been in love with her early novels. Besotted, really.
Now another book is out. In a series of interwoven short stories my once-favorite author explored many of the characters from the previous novel, the one I didn’t dislike but that had never quite captured me.
And before I had quite decided to do so, I had finished the latest offering and gone back to reread the previous novel. The okay one. And I found myself rereading the book I had been so tepid about with new respect, even full-blown appreciation. Obviously, the book hadn’t changed on the page.
Next I intend to return to the first book that disappointed me. Will the change in me, whatever caused it, now make room for that one, too?
As someone who has for many years mentored my fellow writers, I find myself wondering. Is my opinion any more reliable, any less emotionally based when I am evaluating a manuscript than it is when I approach a published novel?
When I critique a manuscript I always try, if I possibly can, to read it twice. Sometimes a strongly held opinion from my first reading dissolves on the second. When that happens, I usually trust the second reading. And, especially if it’s a long manuscript, I rarely risk a third.
Is nothing in my mind solid, certain? Are my opinions based on anything except emotion? Is all the logic in the world simply something I pile around me to justify my mood?
When I’m responding to published work and the opinions I hold are only my own, the question is merely a matter of curiosity. Something to take out and wonder at in wondering moments. How solid is this thing I think of as self with all its supporting framework of opinion?
When I’m responding to a manuscript-in-process, the question is one of profound responsibility. My opinion will impact another person’s work. And what if my response is, indeed, a product of my mood? What harm might I do to a piece of writing in the name of helping?
The question is even more disconcerting when I face my own work. Some days I am utterly confident of this new novel I’m pecking away at. Others I’m equally convinced that my entire premise is bogus.
I have long known that nothing impacts my writing output more than my confidence. If I’m certain that this piece I’m working on is truly good and I’m loving writing it, the words flow. (The true value of what I produce is a matter for later discernment, my own and others.) When I doubt myself, each word arrives after a slog through mud.
How I wish there were a reliable way to keep my writing flowing, to keep my soul brimming with confidence.
Emotions are slippery, often hard to recognize and name, certainly impossible to keep marching in a straight line, and yet I’m convinced this supposedly logic-driven world is more accurately an emotion-driven one.
It’s a scary thought!
Let the things that enter your life wake you up.
Life’s work is to wake up, to let the things that enter into your life wake you up rather than put you to sleep. The only way to do this is to open, be curious, and develop some sense of sympathy for everything that comes along, to get to know its nature and let it teach you what it will. It’s going to stick around until you learn your lesson, at any rate. You can leave your marriage, you can quit your job, you can only go where people are going to praise you, you can manipulate your world until you are blue in the face to try to make it always smooth, but the same old demons will always come up until finally you have learned your lesson, the lesson they came to teach you. Then those same demons will appear as friendly, warmhearted companions on the path. Pema Chodron