Do Stuff, Sit
I think I’ve been filled with fear all of my writing life. In fact, I begin to worry a little when I don’t feel that sort of “butterflies on fire” palpitation in my belly when I sit down at my desk to work. One learns over time that instead of trying to make the fear go away, a better approach is to use it. The artist Georgia O’Keeffe said, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.” Although I have wanted to be a writer ever since I can remember, it wasn’t until university when I realized that writers were also expected to read from their work, poets especially, were asked to frequently read from their work. Aloud. In public. This did not fit with my idea of a happily lonely existence, writing in a garret, and just feeling things with a wild intensity that I would later sprinkle upon the world, magically disseminating my poems in book form to like-minded souls. I used to ‘joke’ about finding myself a stunt double for those times when I was required to do a reading.
It’s the doing, the writing, that takes you out of that place of fear. Doing displaces fear. Susan Sontag says, “Do stuff. Be clenched, curious; not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.” Do stuff. Stay eager. Be curious. Wonderful advice. The other true thing – that by engaging in your art, with the life that surrounds the making of art, this also has the potential to connect you with others. This is the big surprise pay-off. I’m not talking about schmoozing or networking, I mean, connecting. Connecting with those who read your work, or who will in the future –and who value those observations you have made, the insights you have gleaned, which can be traced to the attention you have paid to the world, to the stuff. And also because of a persistence, an eagerness, a fire in your belly.
Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher believed that, “the whole of life lies in the verb seeing.” We might ordinarily associate the word seeing, with a passiveness, but seeing, really seeing something is vital and intense.
So much of writing is just plain seeing – just taking the world in, detail by detail – without overthinking it at the time, just drinking it up, receiving. Sometimes what we see, an image, a scene, the way a leaf clings to a tree in winter, the image of a woman crossing a busy and snow-laden city street, cars passing by her left and right, stays with us for years before we can make use of it, or make sense of it.
I try and take a photograph or so at least every day. I walk with our big, black lab Ace, along the same route most mornings with some variation. In the winter especially, I have at times said to myself, oh why bother bringing the camera, it’s the same old snow covered field, same old grey fence to the one side, same old field and highway on the other side. And every day I see something different, something unexpected, the light is never exactly the same. It’s true that it’s only possible to take in so much, and also that my seeing has been refined by the repetition of walking along this path.
The same is true of my yard. I keep taking photos of the same things. My rusty Tibetan bells, a metal bird that sits on the rail of our deck, the Virginia creeper that I hide behind in summer when I write at the table on the patio, the prayer flags that run from the vine to the sour cherry tree.
Even though I knew it wasn’t my path, I used to really envy those writers who leave the country, travel, who lead exciting lives in glamorous or dangerous or rustic places. I still do admire the kind of courage it takes to pick up and go, to immerse yourself in another culture and language, and to leave things, people, the comfort of the known behind. But I’ve also learned that there is a sort of courage required to just staying put. There’s a persistence required, a tenaciousness. The ability to go inward and ever further inward. When you travel, everything is new and fresh and maybe because of this it’s easier (I know it's not easy) to feel closer to a type of clarity. I also used to think that traveling, or living elsewhere, would be a sort of fast-track to writing well, to understanding the mysteries, and to the sort of self-discovery so crucial to the artistic existence.
But Rumi says,
“The mystery does not get clearer by repeating the question,
nor is it bought with going to amazing places.
Until you’ve kept your eyes
and your wanting still for fifty years,
you don’t begin to cross over from confusion.”
This is not to say that one ought to steer clear of amazing places, but that it’s not necessary – there are other possibilities. It’s part of the myth of the artist isn’t it, this idea that one must go away to prove oneself, before one can become truly great. There are endless examples to the contrary, of course, but the myth is a strong one.
One of my favorite passages in To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and one that is often quoted, is the picture Woolf paints of Mrs. Ramsey, knitting, thinking, mulling: “To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.” She goes on, “This core of darkness could go anywhere, for no one saw it.”
I have very often read over this passage and thought to myself, that these are the main conditions I need to have met in this writing life. To be silent and to be alone. Nothing more. This is the way to receive. In a short poem by Phyllis Webb (from her book The Vision Tree), called simply “Sitting” she also points out:
“The degree of nothingness
to sit emptily
in the sun
that is the way
an extraordinary world,
Rumi says that it takes fifty years, and I might have scoffed at this at one time. Nowadays I think he’s probably got it about right. I started writing in creative writing classes in university over twenty years ago, and it feels like I’m just getting close to learning a few things. And then of course, there are times one loses the thread, and it feels like starting over, nearly from scratch. The thing to know is that the thread can often be found near the chair, maybe the chair is near a window and you’ll feel the sun on your face – that solemnity. Maybe, as a pretense, there’s a basket of knitting, some mending, at your feet, some ‘scraps, orts, and fragments’ as Woolf says.