Writing Books/Things that your life and work has taught you
Dear Mr. Roth
As a young and aspiring author, I would be grateful to receive some of your wisdom and knowledge.
Hence the following question:
What things has your life and work taught you about the art of writing, especially based on your special interests and subject covered by your writing?
I'm open to any advice or feedback.
Thanks in advance,
PS. If you could have me read and master the contents of one book or course, what would it be?
Your query is deep and broad. To give you a short answer would be to belittle the significance of words such as "wisdom, knowledge, life and work, and the art of writing." So, here is my promise; I will give you as full an answer as I can muster at this time. In return, I ask only that you take your time and study the answer with care. I ask that if any of my answer is quoted in your homework (this sounds like a homework assignment to me)that you please be a professional writer and credit me, M.L. Youngbear Roth, U.R.M. . The following is a transcript from a class I taught at California State University, Northridge. It contains many of the answers I suspect you are searching for. Here goes!
"What things has your life and work taught you about the art of writing, especially based on your special interests and subject covered by your writing?"
So, I'd like to ask you all something. Sex, enlightenment, and driving - what do these three activities have in common? Anybody?
Well, to do any of them, one must be awake. You know, I tried doing one of them when I was half asleep, and I didn't get a very good report the next morning.
The room: Which one of them?
There's a troublemaker in every crowd. But let's continue. A disciple once asked Buddha, "If you are not enlightened, then what are you?"
Buddha answered, "Awake!"
I'm not certain what any of this has to do with peeling eggs, or what peeling eggs has to do with writing, but this is a humorous folk tale and I'm going to read it to you.
HOW TO PEEL AN EGG
This morning I sat across from a friend of mine at the breakfast table. Shoving hard-boiled eggs into his mouth with one hand and gesticulating with the other, he garbled dryly at the same time, "How is a writer's state of consciousness different from anyone else's? How do you," he aimed his crooked finger at me, "become inspired?"
His question amazed me, and not in the least because of those roundly stuffed cheeks.
I selected an egg out of the bowl sitting between us and held it up with my thumb and forefinger in the early morning light. I cracked the shell, though not before noticing a fine-grained texture and feeling the weight of the warm white oval resting in my palm.
"Have I ever told you the story of how a single egg destroyed the finest barn ever raised in the Midwest?" I asked my friend. "You see, my great-grandfather, Wiley Vaslexi, was not a man who did things in a small way. It seems he and Lenin struggled over a fundamental disagreement; Grandpa Wiley left Russia because the party would not allow him to run the revolution by himself. So, instead," I said, concentrating on peeling my egg, "he became a chicken rancher in the Midwestern United States. And being a rancher in the grand style - my great-grandmother never clear on what defined the grand style, and Grandpa Wiley having only a handful of diseased, naked chickens - he invested their life savings in building the finest, most prodigious barn the Bible Belt had ever seen.
Neighboring farmers and ranchers traveled from all over the territory to stand gawking at Grandpa Wiley's shocking example of contemporaneous architecture, scratching their jaws in wonder. 'Why, I believe, sir, that Noah himself, taking instruction from the Almighty, could not have built such a fine barn,' the county preacher said to Grandpa. It stood a proud red and white affair planted solidly against the sky, and at night Grandpa Wiley threw a giant switch handle, and twenty-six spotlights blazed its wide sloping roof before shadows of the gently rolling fields and flat lands. 'But, if I might inquire, Mr. Vaslexi,' the preacher asked, 'what will you put in it? The chickens live in their hen houses, and you only have two horses and one cow. If you were of the faith, I'd say it's dandy for prayer meetings, but…' and the preacher clasped his bony hands together in a gesture of hopelessness, because in such hard times as these every inch of space remained precious, every farm animal worth its weight in gold; and a chicken rancher could not afford to lose one chicken or a single egg. While better men than my great-grandfather were starving, no one dared plumb the mystery of why Grandpa Wiley spent his hard earned money on a barn the size of Nebraska instead of increasing his number of chickens and selling more eggs. Whenever asked, Grandpa smiled and said softly, 'I have a plan.'
In Russia, Lenin sat my great-grandfather on a horse, because in Russia everyone knew. But in America, no one knew, and one day when Grandpa Wiley went to town to purchase an automobile with the last of his fortune, they sold it to him. Of course, Grandpa couldn't drive.
That afternoon, Grandpa Wiley came barreling down the road leading into his ranch in a forty-five mile per hour swerving dust cloud. Since leaving town for the chicken ranch, the automobile refused to spin more than two tires on the road at any time, and the other two plowed ditch dirt first on one side and then the other; and it grew inexplicable to Grandpa why 'The Machine', as he called it, continually built up speed until the wind in his eyes nearly blinded him. He would have liked to stop The Machine, but he couldn't decide whether to turn the key or step on one of those odd shaped pedals down by his feet, or both, and quickly picking up speed with the wind in his eyes made choosing impossible.
Closing on the yard he panicked, twisting the wheel this way and that, knowing he'd built a barn with nothing in it, knowing he'd bought The Machine intending to park it in the barn so that he'd have something in it, but not knowing how to drive it there - all of this, and then he saw the egg. It sat small, round, and white in the middle of the road during such hard times when better men than he were starving.
Grandpa Wiley wouldn't run over the egg and couldn't turn off The Machine. He did the only thing he could do; he turned the wheel and The Machine smashed into the barn at fifty miles per hour taking one wall and three quarters of the roof and twenty-one of the twenty-six spot lights with it into the gently rolling fields and flat lands of the Bible Belt.
After that, and at the prodding of my great-grandmother, Grandpa Wiley Vaslexi apologized by special letter to Lenin, who being a revolutionary in the grand style, took him back into Russia and returned him to his horse; and that is the story of how a single egg destroyed the greatest barn ever built in the Midwest."
I picked the last speck of shell off my hard-boiled egg, smiling at my friend who stared speechless at the white shiny oval. He had ceased chewing and his hands rested on the table.
I said, "You ask me how I, a writer, become inspired. I ask, my friend, how is it that you do not?"
Now, at the risk of using a few well-worn words like 'Zen' and 'Tao', I want to put this writing we do in a philosophical perspective, and this is important because the world is not only as it is, but also, it is as we perceive it to be, or, a mountain is not only a mountain, then again, it is a mountain. So, listen.
Writing with clarity and courage, we become as children witnessing the spectacle of a three-ring circus for the first time. Without preconceptions, the hues, textures, tastes, odors, actions, sounds, and silences perform magic, and we take no detail for granted because we have no notion of what to expect; the professional writer is perpetually beginning - this is writer's-mind.
With the mind of a beginner on the journey of life, the world reveals itself as wonder opening into wonder. Sensing the universe through writer's-mind, no such animal as writer's block can shake its woolly mane. Only expert's block exists - been there, done that block. A writing expert suffocates between the pages of a closed book.
Ordering our fiction through writer's-mind means participating in a universe of potential, an open volume of stories yet to unfold. Experienced writers are actually beginners in a world of drama, comedy, and mystery. We create legends tied to an artistic pact with our readers:
"I will spin an absurd yarn, and you, dear reader, will trust my every word."
The story of Grandpa Wiley Vaslexi is the hybrid tale of my great-grandfather, a Polish chicken rancher, my wife's grandfather, who called his automobile 'The Machine', and both gentlemen who never mastered driving. For the audience, these elements of reality coexist as absolute truth and perceived truth simultaneously. Writers are aware that we straddle the abyss between two universal qualities - truth and perception. Well, there's not a damn thing a writer can do about the truth, but as artists, we can alter perception.
Perception fools us into mistaking the forms of our everyday life as fixed reality, as unchanging truth. Of course, the only reality in life is change. Understanding reality in this way, writer's-mind discovers a fresh universe everywhere, each moment - all is fodder for the muse. While I speak to you today, science is developing a theory of multiple universes. However, if the universe is an infinite whole, if its completion is in its never being complete, well, then no matter how many universes they find, there is only a single universe of mystery opening into mystery.
But, I want to talk about an interesting observation author Kurt Vonnegut made in Publishers Weekly. He said,
"…There is this prejudice on the part of critics, who customarily are English majors, that anybody who understands how a refrigerator works couldn't possibly be an artist…."
Mr. Vonnegut summed up my folk tale in a single sentence. Writers are fascinating people because they are easily inspired by a life appearing mundane to the uninitiated eye. My fictional characters often reflect my past as a shoe shine, stoop laborer, door to door salesman, department store clerk, ranch hand, loading dock laborer, and later, my life as a frightened, starving revolutionary jerk-off, a mystic pilgrim, and finally a literary professional and ego-maniacal academic: thank you, and yes, I have gone from bad to worse.
A writer is introspective, attentive, and aware, because ultimately we write about ourselves and our common condition, the human condition.
Writer's-mind creates characters through awareness that the human condition is a transcendent process. Understanding this process demands that we construct protagonists that are pro-active, that create experiences and are changed by their experiences; this transcendent character evolution is called 'character arc', and it is patterned after our own living arc.
Writer's-mind is an inspired sojourn. A trip to the doctor's office is an uproarious comedy worth at least three thousand words, if not more. Arguing with my wife, Ann, is miraculous, especially if I win, which I haven't - but after twenty-eight years, I know it is only a matter of time! Planting a rose bush in the garden and laying a footpath screams out an essay. The other day, a young lady asked my opinion on the modern miracle of Teflon, to which I responded with a letter the length of a novella. And, lastly, foods - particularly eggs - are excellent for folk tales.
Storytelling is not a thing we do, it is a deeply felt passion given form. Like all form, our pages yellow or our memory fades: but, not to worry - the potential for another story is omnipresent. Writing is a process we become!
Still, writers own a reputation for being moody. It is because we often introspect, digging through the muck and mire of our struggles and performing a post-mortem on dead issues from every angle, living at the bottom of the pond. We intuitively feel this process leads to triumph, and we must shout our discovery of the common thread that binds us, allowing us to relate to each other's irony, angst, humor, and joy. We write to save humankind, to save ourselves. We feel compelled to get it down in a story, a novel, a screenplay, and a poem, to tell others. It is more than something we do, it is what we are - writers, of course!
Recently, I performed an expanded reading of my poetry and prose at California State University, Northridge. Before reading my central piece, a narrative poem titled The Rugged Crossing, I mentioned this was my favorite piece of work. The professor immediately seized upon my comment shouting out from the rear of the class a simple one-word question, "Why?" The moment felt immediate, akin to facing one's roshi in dokusan. The class waited, stared, they too expected an answer.
My thoughts fluttering and flying, I said, "I was searching for a way of making sense of a life that appeared directionless in my mind. I lived many experiences in a short period of time and I needed a map to understand their relationship with one another and their relevance along my path. Further, I desired to thoroughly comprehend my relationship to the universe, to nature. I felt guilt over some of my experiences; my peripheral involvement in supplying arms and ammunitions for a violent revolution in Guatemala, and a sense of joy and success over others; love at long last discovered, marriage, a healthy spiritual development, and my artistic success as a writer. I had creatively proceeded, transcending my past. I wanted to bring this living experience together into a cohesive whole that made sense to me, and writing The Rugged Crossing enabled me to formulate the questions and arrive at the answers. In this way, the art of writing helps me to stay in contact with The Path."
I nattered on, telling the class I am fifty-one, and for now, this poem suffices. But, if I live correctly, continuing to create my life through further experiences, when I am sixty-eight, I'm certain the poem will not suffice.
Struggling through a rebellious, dangerously sincere youth 'I always knew', though the noble, conceited vision of always knowing lacked broad universal perspective. Youth lacks perspective. It never dawned on me, rather than being the center of my world, I exemplified but a single living facet of the gem through which an hoary universe shines its ancient light, and that in turn I light other facets. I did not know my true face, understand my practice or worth, nor suspect my age.
The creative process cannot begin within you and I, because by the time it enters our awareness it is primigenial dynamism, operating through a breathing cosmos allowing space and time to create. This allowance pattern we call 'Tao'. If our universe did not demand a constant revolution of change inside the single cell, I wouldn't be here creating anything. The process is ancient, yet forever fresh!
The creative process opens as nature's revolution, and nature evolves because of it. Each of us, as working aspects, reflects the nature of the universe through our desire to carry on the creative process. Nature imbues us simultaneously with insecurity; the quality of never really knowing, and the instinct for survival; our inner voice insisting that we must know, we must finally understand, and reflecting these qualities creates a challenge we strive to answer.
What does any of this have to do with writing? Each human being undertakes a courageous expedition searching for answers through their individual manifestation of the universe, and for the artist this sojourn leads us through the labyrinths of auditory, visual, and intellectual expression. Often bewildered, we compose our songs, paint our canvases, choreograph dances, and write our books sharing this search with one another, the journey to make sense of our lives. We learn - a combination of collecting knowledge, arriving at a realistic understanding of compassion, and achieving wisdom - and cast light empowering others and ourselves in the unique fashion of our kind.
The human mind is not designed to comprehend infinity - everything, everywhere, all time, here now. We visit our lives in sections, exploring each one, gaining bits of enlightenment, sometimes painfully, and often with joy, and then moving along. When we perform this way, we meet life creatively, we proceed, and we become and reflect the process. Meeting life creatively, consciously exercising awareness, is the practice we call 'Zen'.
Zen is an awareness practice. Contrary to popular misunderstanding, it is not free of structure, although, one may learn freedom through Zen structure. Writing is an awareness practice, and through its structure we learn - and, in a moment, I'll link the two practices.
Understanding that the universe is pattern and relationship; we are pattern and relationship; this broad perspective of our sojourn nurtures individual expeditions, because when our vision matures realizing the unity of nature's elements, you and I become aware that we are part of a vast, deep adventure - the drama of creation - and we each transcend as beings greater than our sum, a reflective quality transcending our individuality. As artists, we desire to explore and express our new perspective to others.
After a period of training designed to awaken our individual awareness to universal creativity, we say the muse clings to our robes: that art is not a thing we do, it is a process we are; we feel the calling.
In the beginning, our expression of the individual creative process grows out of an a priori belief. The statement that we hold an a priori belief is ironic. It must be, because humanity is only capable of a relative experience through which we view our universe. When I say relative, I mean, something, a quality must always already exist or we have nothing to build upon. We simply are not available to absolutes. During the day, first we are hot and then believe in a world of open doors and windows. At night, first we are cold, and then shutting our doors we burn wooden Buddhas for warmth. Yet, as far as it goes, we claim certain a priori beliefs, and that after the fact, as we learn to perceive the universe through these beliefs, we find the experience of living our days and nights strengthens this a priori knowledge. It is upon this knowledge that our individual reflection of the creative process grows, and eventually transcends itself.
This transcendence theory is critical and so I hope you all grasped it. Because books and screenplays don't appear. They are end products - at the moment - of a structure the writer put into practice to transcend itself and become the sum of its parts and more!
Now, I have to get back to Zen and Taoism because it's through those practices that I learned to express my artistic nature, and they are the structure through which I teach. They are my home ground, and I feel most comfortable through them, and I hope you will too. Often, when I'm teaching a class, I won't use those terms - Zen and Tao - because I don't wish to alienate people with strange sounding words, but the words I use are usually representative of those concepts.
As a philosophical Taoist, what is my a priori belief? As an artist, what is my individual springboard, the firm foundation from which, and through which, my artistic quest shapes itself?
Today's Buddhism is widely believed to be a godless religion or philosophical practice. However, neither Buddha or Lao Tzu discussed God's existence one way or the other, though Buddha was schooled in a polytheistic culture, and Lao Tzu came close to admitting a monotheistic perception of the universe driven by an all-pervasive, political intelligence. My a priori statement; our universe is born, and burns, and blossoms using an all-pervasive intelligence with which the creative process develops. An inherent, intelligent, cosmological light is the first and continuing artist. I do not believe the statement can be made for a creative intelligence separate from the universe - creative intelligence and the universe is a single torch.
What qualities of the creative process support the existence of, and define intelligence?
Observe a quality of permission in the universe - the permission in space and time to become, to create. Some of us may view this creation process as willy-nilly, devoid of order and form. Although, science, while it cannot prove the existence of intelligence, can certainly measure the creative process's order and form. Science is in the business of taking what is visible and scientifically known, and utilizing it to measure that which is invisible, thereby decreeing it as known. So, old-field science uses classical physics to measure and predict, with some variables, a result called quantum physics. Science informs the west of what the east has known for centuries, that the creative process does indeed operate out of form, an intelligent order. The universe is born of creative process. The creative process is born of intelligence.
If the universal creative process has intelligence working within to establish order and form, must it have a direction?
From note to measure to the bar, to the musical composition; from the letter to the word, to the sentence, the paragraph and finally the book; from seed to root, to the tree, to the forest - creativity develops along a virtual path from simple to complex. To creatively meet life is to harmonize with The Path. As artists, we use our chosen medium of expression to guide us along this path, to enable our realization of The Path. Living as a philosophical Taoist and daily sitting in zazen is part of my practice. Just as important, my art, the art of writing, plays a large role in my life practice.
For myself, art is much like science - that is, I use what is known to ask questions about those things in life I'm not so sure I've got a handle on, and I continue the writing, the intelligent process of creative discovery, until the unknown becomes known to me. Scientism within the creative process is another facet holding and spreading light throughout the gem. Science, art, and a spiritual belief in universal intelligence are all a part of the creative process. Sacrificing one to the other means losing touch with our path, it means living out of harmony with the universe.
Humankind's true face is a naturally unified cosmos, our work is the practice of realizing our path, and our worth is the value of the writing process, the creative process - for the process is who and what we are.
"If you could have me read and master the contents of one book or course, what would it be?"
Brian, you are writing the most exciting book ever written, mystery opening into mystery - you are writing the story of life. Most students believe they are writing their own story. Truth be told, only one story exists, the story of life, and we are all writing a chapter. Life in all of its beauty and angst is the course I would have a writer master.
M.L. Youngbear Roth, U.R.M.