Yeah, I guess I’m back. Been in deep hibernation, apparently…
Strange the things you learn about yourself when you try your hand at nonfiction writing…
I think it is given to everybody to be at a point where they can look back, in retrospect at the entirety of a life (long or short as it was or seemed), and with having grown a little bit wiser, if not in years, then certainly in perspective. How many times have I heard people, friends, ask “Why must so and so have happened, if in the end it was not to have been after all?” How many times have I asked that myself, of one thing or another, and in true existentialist fashion, determinedly wonder at the greater meaning behind it all – the greater purpose. They say this is an era of truth, where humanity seems bent on embarking on deeper meanings, and worthwhile living, and purposeful acts.
Follow your heart seems to be a common watchword, as one friend recently told me of her own resolution by which to judge her own decisions. So many times have I followed this very watchword, and in the resultant tally of losses and gains was a bit put out to suspect that my own “following my heart” might have led me astray. But perhaps I spoke too soon, for one who is really still so relatively young. There could be no final accounting of anything, I suppose, until the very end of a life. And until then all you can do is stack your cards as each situation demands it.
The stack of cards does grow, at any rate, as time goes by, and as one enters into successive reflections, lights of understanding can explode inside the brain. I don’t think it a futile or pathetic thing to believe that it had all been to the good, everything that has happened, when now I can sit back and write about it all, with greater understanding than if I had always been on the outskirts, seeing and observing everything from the safety of the sidelines. If only for the sake of first-hand experience, I have greater confidence to write about what I know, and to judge the credibility of my own opinions scattered within my work product (which are surely to come out) by the standard of my having seen, and known it all myself.
I have, again, recently had occasion to turn down another job offer – which in terms of compensation and connections (and workload) was very promising. The potential income was, in fact, so very tempting that it gave me troubled sleep for several days, especially considering my current tight-fisted (I would not say distressed) circumstances. I flatter myself that over the course of this year alone, I have had to turn down more offers than I could comfortably tell my supportive parents and family of, even if they had not known of my career resolutions, my state of health when I did work, and my current happy and all-out effort to come up with good (if not my best) work while I am able. But after the last civil word of negation, things seem to be easier, still, than ever before. Truth to tell, I would not trade my current peaceful state for tons of money (I cannot, in good conscience, say “all the money in the world” – “all the money” is still too great a temptation). I have listed the pros and cons long ago, and have it imprinted on my brain; and come to a heavy stacking of cards judiciously on one side.
But like I said, till a life ends, who is to say what may happen? For now I am content to let the cards fall where they may, content with the present uncertainty, content that whatever comes of it, it can all only be to the good, and content to find that my choices, difficult as they may be for some to comprehend, have been formed by all my seemingly “purposeless” meanderings.
So it would seem that there is a point, after all, even to events that are “not to be” in the end. Any arbitrary turning along the way, and I would be different; I would be someone else. Certain that I might be writing about completely different things now, too – if not what I still consider juvenile ramblings, then surface and superficial attacks and promotions of timeworn subjects. Less certain, but still possible, that I might not even be writing at all.
This “going with the flow” business has certainly taken me along unexpected lines. I had planned on working on serious literature (or what my definition would be of literary literature), at best; if not, then perhaps work on fantasy or mystery genres, the possible plot lines for which have been running through my head for several years now. Instead, as I wrote, I ended up writing a romantic piece instead.
But then again maybe it wasn’t so unexpected. The very first short story I wrote I did so in the wake of one of those youthful romantic escapades the sensations of which are strong enough to jumpstart creative doodlings. If anything could inspire creativity it would be love and romance, I guess. Only now I find that it isn’t a very easy genre to write after all.
My emphasis has shifted. While I am looking up markets to see what I can write and where I can send work to, I no longer adhere to “publishable” guidelines. Instead I’ve chosen to work on the internal cohesiveness of the work itself, making the storytelling worth the story I was trying to tell. In a love story it’s a pretty simple standard, though not quite so easy in execution: write something that can make the reader re-live the headiness of falling in love. End it happily or tragically, as the story itself demanded, but get the two lovers on the journey and make their experience vivid and meaningful on page so that whoever reads it will feel that telltale magic that one always expects from a well-told love story.
Like I said, it wasn’t easy. The beginning was a bit of a struggle, though the excitement and the novelty of a new creative project had a hand in jumpstarting my creative juices. The mid-part was relatively easy, though it took me a week to get the action “rising.” The conflict and the ending was torturous. It would probably have been a good idea for me to leave off the writing for a while and let the possibilities incubate in my mind while I worked on other things, but instead I obsessed about it and worried at it. It bugged me, quite honestly, that I was so near the ending and yet couldn’t grasp it just yet. I had a vague idea of how to wrap things up but which I was having trouble detailing – what to emphasize, what to leave the reader with, what mood to stress… I did not want too giddy an ending or else I might end up with an unbelievable piece for the jaded public who were not looking for fairy tales inasmuch as they were looking for believable fiction that can give them a respite from their daily chores. I had the characters well in hand, and knew well enough how their story would end, but could not really decide in what emotional state to leave them in. I suffered through weeks‘ long headaches trying to puzzle the story out, and like I said, trying to work from the internal coherence of the story itself, instead of what the market demands.
I finished it finally, and again I breathe another huge sigh of relief. It was a far different experience working in this manner, a lot more exacting, but also a lot more satisfying. Now whether the work really does work remains to be seen. I’m letting it sit for a while in order to decide whether it really does work, or whether I’m viewing it from the relief of one who has finally written finis to another head splitting work. Meantime I have a contract to draft, and some other pending research to get through. Then maybe I can have a look-see at the market again.
And then I work on my novel – and I have a suspicious feeling it’s again going to turn out to be a romantic piece. But we’ll see…
It happened in a public restroom..
I was in my own cubicle minding my own business (or if you prefer, busy with my own business) when an excited chattering burst forth from somewhere in the room. As is usual, I ignored the chattering – which is to say that I did not eavesdrop, though neither did I close my ears against the barrage of incoherent words.
By the time I was washing my hands, she came out from behind one of the closed doors, a phone held up to her ear. She came and stood by me, and she had the vacant look of one who was trying to have a private conversation in a public place. I was therefore able to study her reflection in the mirror with ease. It wasn’t hard to figure out why she wanted the conversation to be private. I could only think that she desired that the phone conversation to have taken place anywhere else – preferably not while she was on the toilet in a public restroom.
“Of course I’ll marry you,” she was saying.
I grinned. I couldn’t help it. At least she didn’t notice.
“Yes, yes, yes! Yes, I will marry you!”
The novelty over, my grin became a quiet smile, and I focused on washing my hands and freshening up.
“Although… there’s a bit of a problem. I have to get an annulment first. I was married before.”
A short silence, followed by a hasty explanation: “Yes, I was married before. But that was a long time ago. Don’t worry, it’ll be easy enough to fix. It’s no trouble.”
Hmp. There’s no trouble indeed, provided you have the money to spare – to pay the lawyers and the psychologists for the fat legal and court fees, and to back up your grounds for an annulment. Sure, you could get an annulment easy enough – after about two years (and that was a generous estimate) as your lawyers negotiated their way around the extremely conservative laws of a Catholic country who wouldn’t even call a divorce by anything other than a brilliant stretch of a moralistic legal concept. Technically, we did not have divorce in this country. And then, of course, you had to throw the dice on whether or not you got a conservative or a liberal judge.
”Yes, yes! I will marry you! I’m very excited!”
I smiled again. I would be happy for any woman who received a matrimonial proposal from a man she would agree to marry. Though not, as I said, by choice, while on a toilet in a public restroom. And not, I can only suppose, to have to answer “yes” with a caveat. But it was none of my business.
She was alone, too. I think most other women there overheard the phone conversation, but the newly engaged kept herself aloof. I think she was wondering what she ought to do next.
“…or “non-doing.” Wu-wei refers to behavior that arises from a sense of oneself as connected to others and to one’s environment. It is not motivated by a sense of separateness. It is action that is spontaneous and effortless. At the same time it is not to be considered inertia, mere laziness, or mere passivity. Rather, it is the experience of going with the grain or swimming with the current. Our contemporary expression, “going with the flow,” is a direct expression of this fundamental Taoist principle, which in its most basic form refers to behavior occurring in response to the flow of the Tao.
“(…) Lao Tzu writes that we must be quiet and watchful, learning to listen to both our own inner voices and to the voices of our environment in a non-interfering, receptive manner. In this way we also learn to rely on more than just our intellect and logical mind to gather and assess information. We develop and trust our intuition as our direct connection to the Tao. We heed the intelligence of our whole body not only our brain.” (Ted Kardash, “Taoism”)
My selection for the title of this blog was not intentional – that is, it was for no specific, life-changing purpose. I just thought it sounded good, and was an obvious play on titles I’ve seen in bookstores: The Tao of Pooh; the Tao of Piglet – neither of which I’ve read. I did have a light grasp of some Taoist principles, but they were tenuous at best, which is to say I had an intellectual, or conceptual understanding of them, and not much else. They read beautifully, that much I would concede, though personally thought the passive way of living a great idea for one who was not so consciously and deliberately going after something – in my case, published writing. On some subconscious level, perhaps, I wanted that kind of effortless peace, but on the whole considered the contrast to my “driven pursuits” as a given.
Things have changed since I’ve shaken of the “drive for fame.” Of late, my focus has been on the creative process itself, and it has, again, been slow going. Though ever since making the connection that good writing is as much emotion-driven as it is logic-driven, I’ve been floundering even more. If you had to write with an emotive bent, then you listen to what your heart is telling you. Besides that, I’ve heard (and known) enough about the creative process to know that in many ways, it defies logic altogether, is pretty much mood-based, and comes with its own darn schedule. So when it does come, you’d almost have to be really busy or embroiled in an emergency in order to justify turning away and shrugging it off. On the other hand, it’s difficult enough to turn away from the current progress of an ongoing work to address a new, completely different creative impulse. I’ve made the habit of writing the seeds of those ideas down, but “returning” to those ideas later, absent that creative impulse, just doesn’t do it.
Taoism seems to offer a solution anyway, in its wu-wei principle, and while wu-wei tells you a lot of things, at its most basic level it tells you to just “go along with the flow.” Surrendering the excessive need for control and trusting that it’s all to the good, in the end, and all a part of life’s grand flow. The yogis, I believe, call this “mindfulness” (the Sanskrit term escapes me at the moment), but it all amounts to the same thing: stop fighting it.
“…in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again. Every good story has mystery – not the puzzle kind but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it’s likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful…” (Eudora Welty)
How many writers, somewhere in the beginning of their careers, have thought that it would all be so much easier if there was a formula to this writing business. That if only there was some kind of checklist, or list of ingredients, which you could sort of check off one by one while in the process of writing – sort of a quality control standard checklist by which you could ensure the durability of your end product.
I know I thought as much. And it’s not even the years-long habit of case digests where you filter the facts, spot the issues and identify the prevailing doctrines and the ratio of the case that had me thinking along those lines. (Apologies, but years within the legal circles would inevitably let loose a stray legal jargon or two). Possibly by force of the problem-solving habit that we humans are so fond of, it was a tantalizing notion to think that there might really be some kind of formula somewhere, and that if I found it, my job would be so much easier.
Besides, it isn’t as thought there wasn’t some shadow of a universal standard by which literary works are judged: in the elements, in the principles, or in the rules. Critics the world over have “critiqued” to their heart’s content, “judging” the merit of works by standards such as these: clarity, balance, theme, character development, plot, etc. The list is virtually endless. Who among us, back in those book-report days, have not had to groan at the prospect of “critiquing” hundreds and thousands of pages worth of a story, along standards we ourselves did not even fully understand?
I suppose I could make out just such a list, and I have no doubt that my work will probably turn out a lot better for it if I did. But then it occurred to me to ask, somewhere in the middle of those elements, and Kipling’s five helpers, to ask: yes, but what is the point? That is, what, essentially, is the point of the story?
Actually, the thought occurred to me somewhere in the midst of regurgitating a memory. It was an experiment of sorts – by focusing on a true-to-life event, I already had the “scene” set and the vividness of the descriptions and the flow of my narrative skills could be tested without putting my imaginative powers to the test just yet. I think I did a pretty good job of it, too. Or at least I thought so at first.
The relatively new creative nonfiction genre does have its standards, too. The goal, it has been said, is still literature, and not a mere reportage of words. And as I had been reading selected samples of short fiction alongside short creative nonfiction, found that though one might be real and the other not, they still read the same. They still read like art. That they are real or not mattered little in the execution; or at least, they mattered only somewhere in the end, when you paused and marveled that such a thing actually happened somewhere in the world.
Over the past weeks, I had been delighting at the works I’ve been poring over. I’ve decided to leave off novel-length writing for the moment in order to focus on short fiction. For one, I could not yet afford the time and energy investment required by such a long work, and as a matter of practicability, the manageable length of short fiction was a way of test-driving what skills I may have managed to pick up, and get a birds’ eye-view of the entirety of at least one creative work in the time it took to write one.
As I read more and more short stories, their power over me grew. Yes, they do have mystery, and beauty, and an emotional after-effect that almost always leaves you looking at the world with different eyes afterwards. They have a transformative quality about them that plumbs deeper and deeper into you each time you read another. They don’t tell you outright that they have a point, or that “the reason I was written is this…”; and maybe they weren’t even written or intended to have a point in the first place. Though as far as my readings have gone, and the quality of works I’ve had the privilege to read, I return from those stories back to my own life, with a certain conviction that whichever emotion was touched upon (joy, happiness, apathy, anger, sadness, etc.); that even those emotions as they occurred in my own life are not quite so pointless after all.
I reread that experimental nonfiction piece, asking myself – then, well, so what is the point of this story? That is, what is the point for its occurrence in my life? Why should it matter that I write it, or that other people should read it? What additional mystery could it lend to life other than the now-apparent bland narration of facts?
I’ve a truckload of rewriting to do…