Reflections on “The Art of Slow Writing”

From formlessness, form arises. A story, essay, poem, novel, begins from a slight agitation, a dream, an image of the sun sprinkling over the water, from a hidden place deep in the unconscious. It is raw, muddled. A piece of soft clay that must. be shaped repeatedly before hardening. There may not even be a final form in mind, only the steady cut of steel to unformed material, as shavings float away to reveal a mysterious figure.

Write when you’re ready, when you can. If you wait for inspiration to guide you, if you need to conjure up the perfect image of a masterpiece before you glide your ink pen across a piece of paper, you’ll never start.

Start anywhere. Linger longer in silences, playing with time like a zen monk plucking a daisy from a field, open to what comes.

No expectations, no high standards.

Just write. It could be shit. Who cares? That’s what revision is for.

Write. Write often. Revise even more often.

Go through a couple of drafts before you expose your work to other people for a critique.

Decide what tools are best for you: being physically intimate with a scrap of paper and a pen, clicking away on the keys of a steampunk typewriter, going stream-of-consciousness on a modern computer.

Whatever you use will mold your writing. While a golden retriever and pit-bull are both considered dogs, each has its own bark.

There is no ideal time to write, especially when you have a full-time job, kids, and hobbies. If you truly want to write, you’ll make it work, though.

From waking early, long before the clouds have parted to let sunlight in through the curtains. From those precious moments before the school bus squeals to a stop in front of your house. From an unpaid lunch hour in between a ten hour shift. From a weekend when everyone else is at a bar, watching the football game.

Usually having too much free time can make you lazy with possibilities. But to aspire to work under a constraint can paradoxically be the most productive writing help.

Writers should endure an apprenticeship to develop their abilities. They can learn from masters, alive and dead. Everyone and everything can be a teacher. From television shows to trying new formats, from copying the prose of novelists to mimic their structure to reading wide varieties of material, every experience shapes the development of the artist.

Writers must be patient when struggling for progress.

They must endure in themselves, so that they can become who they first believed they were when they began writing.

Most people will not work for years to steadily improve their craft. They will dabble around, then give up. They will see minor success, then give up. They will get distracted, settle down with a family, find a full-time job, play a video game, then give up.

Writers must have the heart to continue.

Solitary walks through changing trees. Musing in nothingness with sunlight on pine needles, open to all ideas, but not holding on. Writing comes without any obstruction when you idle without a purpose.

Writing is process, not result. Journals kept of meticulous notes, observations, image patterns, daily thoughts. Learn through life and write about life. Some material written ten years ago can be useful in a future novel. Work slowly, deliberately, not rushing to produce.

Henry Miller considered the relationship that one has with books to the one that one has with life.

Are you a slow reader, a note taker, one who is methodical in your learning? Do you linger on certain lyrical passages, feeling the syllables seduce your lips?

Are you one of those people who breezes through a work, taking in information for a moment, only to forget everything a week later?

Writers need to deeply read in order to deeply write.

sixteen haiku

“A haiku is not just a pretty picture in three lines of 5–7–5 syllables each. In fact, most haiku in English are not written in 5–7–5 syllables at all — many are not even written in three lines. What distinguishes a haiku is concision, perception and awareness — not a set number of syllables. A haiku is a short poem recording the essence of a moment keenly perceived in which Nature is linked to human nature. As Roland Barthes has pointed out, this record neither describes nor defines, but ‘diminishes to the point of pure and sole designation.’ The poem is refined into a touchstone of suggestiveness. In the mind of an aware reader it opens again into an image that is immediate and palpable, and pulsing with that delight of the senses that carries a conviction of one’s unity with all of existence. A haiku can be anywhere from a few to 17 syllables, rarely more. It is now known that about 12 — not 17 — syllables in English are equivalent in length to the 17 onji (sound-symbols) of the Japanese haiku. A number of poets are writing them shorter than that. The results almost literally fit Alan Watt’s description of haiku as “wordless” poems. Such poems may seem flat and empty to the uninitiated. But despite their simplicity, haiku can be very demanding of both writer and reader, being at the same time one of the most accessible and inaccessible kinds of poetry. R. H. Blyth, the great translator of Japanese haiku, wrote that a haiku is ‘an open door which looks shut.’ To see what is suggested by a haiku, the reader must share in the creative process, being willing to associate and pick up on the echoes implicit in the words. A wrong focus, or lack of awareness, and he will see only a closed door.”

~ Cor van den Heuvel

***

hammer echoes 
shingles at dawn,
silent red clouds

***

light stills dust
into the steel
guitar strings

***

rain
slipping through 
porch

***

baby curled in,
eyelids

trembling

***

bay waves
glittering beyond
piers on shoreline

***

cherry drops 
in pond,
rippling

***

pregnant belly of
sunlight, bouncing
over an open book

***

yellow leaves
flickering in sun
with brown leaves

***
 
waterfall gurgles, froth 
rocks

***
night pumpkin
shadowed by
legs on stairs

***

rustling bush,
peeled in the 
wind of its leaves

***

hands full of
sunlight
wrinkled shadow

***

callused flesh,
fingertips roll
on soft strings

***

full moon fills 
in power lines,
crow flies off

***

trash bag wraps
in the wind of
highway tires

***

boot plops in
mud, sucks
back into air

The Way of Zen (book review)

Children are conditioned to fit into a given society and to accept its codes. They are reinforced with different symbol-systems from their religions, schools, communities, cultures, peer groups, and so on, until they internalize what they are influenced by. Eventually they think, feel, and act according to given “reality tunnels,” rebelling or conforming against them, but ultimately, they will assimilate certain “realities” into their identities.

One of the first symbol-systems they learn is language. They learn what the agreed upon symbols to designate meaning are. Different cultures have different tacit agreements over not only what some words mean but what should be said and not said, what should be in one category and not another — essentially how their chosen realities are to be divided to make sense. Children not only have to learn the codes of language, but they learn, whether consciously or not, many other forms of agreement.

“For the necessities of living together require agreement as to codes of law and ethics, of etiquette and art, of weights, measures, and numbers, and, above all, of role. We have difficulty in communicating with each other unless we can identify ourselves in terms of roles — father, teacher, worker, artist, ‘regular guy,’ gentleman, sportsman, and so forth.”

People identify with the categories, and sometimes stereotypes, chosen and placed upon them. They aren’t merely one role, but a multitude of related roles. Father and son, laborer and high-school drop-out. Daughter and sister, amputee and white veteran. Son and brother and fatherless, Methodist and Japanese. Out of innumerable roles, people learn to identify with a conventional view of “Self.” They believe they “have” a persistent identity with a History, apart from everything else.

“According to convention, I am not simply what I am doing now. I am also what I have done, and my conventionally edited version of my past is made to seem almost more the real ‘me’ than what I am at this moment. For what I am seems so fleeting and intangible, but what I was is fixed and final. It is a firm basis for predictions of what I will be in the future, and so it comes about that I am more closely identified with what no longer exists than with what actually is!”

The history of a person’s identity — of all their memories of past events — is continuously selected (often without conscious awareness, depending on the emotional intensity of the event). Out of an infinitude of events that have transpired in one’s life, some are chosen as significant while others are not. Those that are insignificant or nonsensical or irrelevant are discarded. One interprets these past events with the symbol-systems they have internalized. Experiences are processed through their mental filters to make sense to their views. They select one type of past and not another. One event is seen as good or bad, right or wrong, scary or pleasant, but not another. Experience is chopped up into familiar signs, which represent a narrow reality.

What is represented is only a finger pointing to the moon. As Korzybski said, “The map is not the territory.”

Furthermore, people communicate their realities with language. Their language is an “abstract, one-at-a-time translation of a universe in which things are happening altogether-at-once — a universe whose concrete reality always escapes perfect description in these abstract terms.” To account for all that happens, to even perfectly describe “a particle of dust,” would take an ever-lasting time. Thinking (communicating with ourselves), speaking (communicating with others), using a string of symbols abstracted from the past, will never be able to grasp “every breath, every beat of the heart, every neural impulse.”

“Taoism concerns itself with unconventional knowledge — with knowing life directly, instead of in the abstract, linear terms of representational thinking.” Conventional thinking isn’t entirely shunned, but rather, it’s used as an instrument and not as the Truth. Taoism is based on a hunch, an intuitive state. Peripheral vision of the mind. Taoists will “feel” a situation and know it, without saying it. While the intellect is trying to box the world into rigid categories, and grasp at the past and future, the Taoist doesn’t clutch at anything. The intellect will exhaust itself in seeking the Tao, in its need to define it.

Chaung-Tzu once said, “The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing; it refuses nothing. It receives but does not keep.” The mind isn’t reduced to idiocy, although those who are conditioned with Western thinking may believe so. The Taoist plays with his innate intelligence — spontaneous and aware. Instead of forcing a solution, he lets go of mind until it stills into pure naturalness. Then one knows of the Tao, unconscious of all dichotomies, of all divisions in life.

Rather than darkness or light, there are infinite shades of the Tao.

To define the Tao is to not know the Tao. To grasp it is not to grasp it.

In the doctrine of Maya in Buddhism, as in Taoism (which heavily influenced Zen), there is no “real” division in life. Human beings, not nature, are the ones to separate “things, facts and events” with descriptions. These descriptions are relative to different people’s perspectives, never truly fixed, permanent, or absolute.

“Ordinarily a human organism is counted as one thing, though from a physiological standpoint it is as many things as it has parts or organs, and from a sociological standpoint it is merely part of a larger thing called a group.”

To a Buddhist, to describe “reality” in a fixed, linear manner with symbols, is not to know “reality.” To describe it, or oneself, as something permanent, is to not grasp the changing and incomprehensible mystery of life. There is no enduring self that persists, for “the ego exists in an abstract sense alone, being an abstraction from memory, somewhat like the illusory circle of fire made by a whirling torch.” Every moment is a rebirth, a coming back to the present. Buddhism above all is a practice, seeing the world with clear awareness. “Such awareness is a lively attention to one’s direct experience, to the world as immediately sensed, so as not to be misled by names and labels.”

There is a watching of sensations, feelings, thoughts. There is no purpose or judgement. Like a mirror, the mind is “passively active,” purely reflecting what arises and falls away. When there is nothing to be grasped, there is no one to grasp it. When there is no one to grasp, then there is no division, no subject and object.

The Buddha did not try to create a philosophical system to satisfy the questions of restless minds. He often maintained a “noble silence” about questions dealing with Gods and the origins of the universe and Absolute Reality, because to him, they were irrelevant when understanding the way to liberation.

To seek such answers is to cling to abstractions again. Lost in the perpetual cycle. Many of the questions that people ask about meaning, life and death, are merely subtle ways of trying to categorize the world, turning their uncertainty and fear into familiar ideas. “Thus the world that we know, when understood as the world as classified, is a product of the mind, and as the sound ‘water’ is not actually water,’ the classified world is not the real world.”

To be liberated is to have no intention of liberation. To try to become someone important, to achieve something, to gain some ultimate truth, is to be confused in the compulsive habit of symbolizing. The more that one attempts to figure out the answer, the more frustrated one becomes.

“I have no peace of mind,” said Hui-k’o. “Please pacify my mind.”

“Bring out your mind here before me,” replied Bodhidharma, “and I will pacify it!”

“But when I seek my own mind,” said Hui-k’o, “I cannot find it.”

“There!” snapped Bodhidharma, “I have pacified your mind!”

To try to empty the mind is to get caught up in the mind again. To let go of the mind, of its thoughts and impressions, “neither repressing them, holding them, nor interfering with them” is to free the mind. To practice no-thought is not to block all thoughts from coming in. Then one would be as good as a stone. Thoughts come and go. That is all. To let go is to trust in one’s natural spontaneity. There is no effort.

For Lin-chi, “There is no place in Buddhism for using effort. Just be ordinary and nothing special. Relieve your bowels, pass water, put on your clothes, and eat your food. When you’re tired, go and lie down. Ignorant people may laugh at me, but the wise will understand…. As you go from place to place, if you regard each one as your own home, they will all be genuine, for when circumstances come you must not try to change them.”

One doesn’t try to silence one’s feelings, thoughts, impressions. One is not trying to be indifferent. There is the awareness of what is. Subject and object, knower and known, white and black, arises relative to everything else. Everything depends on everything else to be.

Thich Nhat Hanh said, “If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. ‘Interbeing’ is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are.
If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.

Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here-time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. ‘To be’ is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.

Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper will be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of ‘non-paper elements.’ And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without ‘non-paper elements,’ like mind, logger, sunshine and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.”

There is no such thing as a separate Self. Everything relies on everything else to be given a shape, even non-shapes. The mind-body of a human gives structure to experience, but there is no experience with no mind-body. Sunlight makes sight as sight makes sunlight. The “individual” and “external universe” are simply abstract limits that one has set up. There is no “between” between the two, because the division is not truly there. People give importance to their ideas of what is me and mine versus the experiences they have, as if they are apart from them, as if they “have” them. They identify with a narrowly selected number of memories and social roles and feel permanent. Meanwhile life flows through them, unnoticed, because they are fixated on ideas of themselves in the past and future.

To even be caught up in ideas about what Zen is, what Zen isn’t, is to stink of Zen. One can be as attached to their spiritual Self as their material Self, believing they are a certain type of person.

“For this reason the masters talk about Zen as little as possible, and throw its concrete reality straight at us. This reality is the ‘suchness’ (tathata) of our natural, nonverbal world. If we see this just as it is, there is nothing good, nothing bad, nothing inherently long or short, nothing subjective and nothing objective. There is no symbolic self to be forgotten, and no need for any idea of a concrete reality to be remembered.”

Once a master drank tea with his two students. Then he suddenly tossed a fan at one of them.

“What’s this?” he said.

The student opened it and fanned himself.

“Not bad,” he said.

He passed the fan to his other student.

His other student placed a piece of cake on it and offered it back to his master.

Where there are no longer any names, the world isn’t “classified in limits and bounds.” While most people want to classify things in their proper places, a master trusts in spontaneity, in “no second thought.” Zen masters are not emotionless beings without pain or hunger pangs. They can be sad, jealous, angry, and so on. The difference between them and others is that they are wholehearted, neither blocking nor indulging in anything.

Zen is not to “confuse spirituality with thinking about God while peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.”

Thoughts fall away when they’re not necessary anymore. Muddy water is best cleared when left alone. Zen is about seeing reality concretely — undivided by labels and titles and names and numbers and right and wrong. To sit in quiet awareness is to let the distinctions of Me and Other, subject and object, fade and rise and fade again. Without any commentary, without any purpose, there only is. Zen masters are neither Gods nor are they perfect. They are simply human. Nothing special.

As Ikkyu said:

“We eat, excrete, sleep, and get up;
This is our world.
All we have to do after that — 
Is to die.”

One awakens to what reality isn’t. Ideas of what one is, of what the universe is, is more nonsensical the deeper one goes into it. Reality feels ungraspable, even when claiming that “I am nothing” or “I am something” or “I am everything.” Rather than flitting from system to system, one is already here, “senses fully open to receive the world.”

There is nothing to be achieved, no one to blame, no past, no future. Only here, only now.

To some Westerners, the present seems like “nothing more than the infinitesimal hairline,” dividing apart the past and future. For a linear-mind, for one who only knows of reality through compulsive thinking and symbolic forms, the world will rush past while they’re consumed with fixed notions of identity. Their consciousness seems all-important to them, but it can never sustain their heartbeat, breath, or the operation of their muscles, glands, senses, and organs.

Their consciousness thinks it is in charge, but it only grasps at slivers of experience, interpreting and analyzing, dividing and separating. In only a moment, anyone can realize what is. The past and future, which one has been so preoccupied with, are fleeting illusions. There is only this moment, moving but still. It doesn’t leave or come. it’s here for everyone. Precious and timeless.