Essay I: Coming To Be
Why write? Aside from the business of writing, in which the writer is an extension of corporate will, why write?
Those called to writing feel it is a way to know themselves as individual selves. There is a powerful feeling of self-understanding involved.
The self is not a thing but a be-ing. More like an action, a happening.
It happens for the writer in the writing.
Whatever else the writing does —- and it may accomplish any number of things —- it embodies the writer’s ownmost incarnation to be. It is this particular writer’s sign of coming to be.
Lu Chi: When cutting an axe handle with an axe,/ surely the model is at hand. // Each writer finds a new entrance / into the mystery, / and it is difficult to explain.
The writer’s self emerges with the truth, the form, of the flesh of her writing.
The writer’s “coming to be” involves her in the flesh. “Flesh is the porosity on the threshold of wording. In the flesh the porosity of being comes to aesthetic wording” (Desmond 2020 p. 255).
Essay II: Reading
Writing is a habit that comes with reading. If you want to write, you probably love books. But books can be intimidating. Sometimes it’s more fun to read than to write.
Reading, says Robert Bringhurst, means paying attention to what is in front of you and trying to make sense of it. The birds and the bees and the fish do it. For humans paying attention to what is in front of them, reading has to be learned. It’s a discipline. We are all creatures of habit, often out of laziness, boredom, and fear. Reading in this sense means a willingness to notice what is different and to try to make sense of it.
Spiritual teachers often suggest to their students that they should find a place where they can sit at peace. This instruction is usually followed by a second instruction: to listen. To what?
The habits of observation that contribute to the basic skill set of the writer are those of reading in Bringhurst’s sense. Watching and listening to what is in front of you. Like all the flora and fauna, we live in niches. Good writing starts with being an observant denizen of your niche.
If all goes well, your niche becomes your community.
Essay III: Risks of Reading
Reading must be learned in an environment as a matter of survival. Bringhurst’s biological, ecological view has ramifications for the quality of life of a reader. Readers know a lot of facts that escape non-readers, and a lot of theories too. The maximalist mind of Joyce is that of an inveterate reader. Paradox: not many can read Finnegans Wake.
So it goes.
So you want to be a writer. You must learn to read tricky environments or they will defeat your purposes. In Bringhurst’s phrase, at risk is “the ground of mind itself.” He cites Bach’s fugues and the 30,000 year-old paintings of Chauvet (the lion panel) and Central African musicians of recent times. These works and many others are examples of polyvocalism (cf. polyphony).
As a good reader your mind must learn how to read complex, intermediations of sense. They are the flesh of our minds. The mind, Bringhurst concludes, “consists of abstract patterns formed from multiple chains of concrete sensory perceptions.”
True: Vertigo is a clear and present danger. Think of Durer’s Melancholia. That’s you on a bad day.
Yes, writing helps us express our selves. But we only have selves to express because we can read.
The other side of vertigo is ecstasy. We know ecstasy in the very flesh of our readerly minds. The community of readers know a companionship that is the ultimate love, the love of the ultimate, unnamed and unnamable, the unfulfillable desire of our beings.
Essay IV: Saturation
Writing pours from the saturated one in the midst of her community. That is how we might put it today. In third century China, Lu Chi put it this way: “The poet stands at the center / of a universe, / contemplating the enigma, // drawing sustenance / from masterpieces of the past.”
The “enigma” is the perennial one, that there is anything at all, the enigma of being. Our niche is always already the wonder of existence, which includes our own embodiment of being in our own flesh.
The wonder includes the community of voices that surround us and to which we add our own voices. Lu Chi: “Studying the four seasons as they pass, / we sigh; / seeing the inner-connectedness of things, / we learn / the innumerable ways of the world.”
What we call the aesthetic sense is our way of reading the multiform surfaces of our environment. Unfortunately we use the word aesthetic to put down our flesh as saturated with the appearances of the world. As we contemplate our lives as writers, we need to redeem some twisted vocabulary.
Words matter. As we make sense of the aesthetic happenings in our life, we find the right words to express our experience. This process we may call “wording,” we “word” or “put into words” our intimate sense of things.
This “wording” is inseparable from selving. We know ourselves as part of the larger open-ended wholes of the events of our lives. As we reflect on our lives as readers and writers we get down to the basics of being.
Why bother thinking all the way down to the “to be” we share with all other beings? Ask the first writers who reflected on their experience: ask Parmenides, ask Heraclitus, ask Lao Tzu. Your way of being your self reflects the words the “ancient masters” of the kind referred to by Lu Chi: “sing in the clear virtue / of ancient masters.”
Loneliness and melancholy make the writer’s calling frustrating. But they go with the territory. As you “contemplate the enigma” with their words in mind, you will begin to feel better about your vocation.
Essay V: Equivocity and Movement
Like everything else in your environment, words come and go with the seasons. Reading involves sorting the timely from the passing. We find ourselves in the mix. Our voices help thicken the horizon of sound that greets us every morning.
We adapt our desire to survive this flux of energies with specific acts, the rules of which we discover by joining the conversations. We become comfortable with showing up in conversations that we learn to participate in. Let us call these ‘betweens’ to emphasize their dynamics. Betweens draw us into their currents, they have direction, origins and goals we can’t quite fix in so many words but which define our response to them. We come to know ourselves in these betweens.
These betweens are super abundant and differ widely in what they involve. We look in the refrigerator to see what there is to eat, we make a plan, we move ahead, drawn on by the gradually materializing situation. So we read the situation and respond creatively by meshing ingredients and our preparedness to act. This emerging event has several aspects, one of which is aesthetic.
As opposed to this model, tradition urges on us the myth of Adam. Adam faces the bountiful environment and imposes names on the flux. He defines himself as the world’s fixer. His will contrives to master the energies flowing from the Creation. It’s a matter of not letting matter take over. Pride pushes humility aside. The story of humanity against all begins. The earth becomes disposable, degradable and degraded. The story of progress had no inkling that the earth might have other ideas but we now struggle to name that. The names spread confusion. We must get involved in reducing the confusion so that we can act on a scale proportionate to the challenge. We need good writers now more than ever.
Lu Chi wrote: “Calm the heart’s dark waters; / collect from deep thoughts / the proper names for things. // Heaven and earth are trapped in visible form: / all things emerge / from within the writing brush.”
We can see the influence of the Adamic story but it has its truth. In some ways it is a good myth: we must be responsible to our situation. In our given betweens “all things emerge”; the Between includes the “within” of our own acts of creativity.
Within our given situation we are moved to act. Our voices mix with our fellows in the Between. The movement almost engulfs us. As we read we write.
Bringhurst, Robert. 2008. The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind, and Ecology. Counterpoint.
Desmond, William. 2016. The Intimate Universal: The Hidden Porosity Among Religion, Art, Philosophy, and Politics. Columbia University Press.
Lu Chi. 2000. The Art of Writing. Translated by Sam Hamill. Milkweed Editions.
Tu Fu. 2020. The Selected Poems. Translated by David Hinton. New Directions