The Human Condition:

Zen and the Artist – May 19, 2013

I recently posted on Facebook a thought that occurred, like all my good thoughts, in the shower:1 “Writing novels is a Zen experience. Although you may have acquired the adept’s tools, you must approach each project with the beginner's mind.”

Clearly, the thought has two parts: “the adept’s tools” and “the beginner’s mind,” but the Zen does not exist in either part. Instead, it exists in the unspoken place: the tension between them.

The Adept’s Toolkit

To become competent at any art—whether it’s writing novels or poems, painting canvases, carving statues, or composing music—you must learn a set of basic principles. Then you expand on what you’ve learned to adopt the principles that work for you, in your particular style and voice, and reject or ignore the principles that chafe and constrain your particular vision.

For the writer, these principles stretch from the simplest elements to complex relationships: word usage and the juxtaposition of denotation (what the word means in a dictionary sense) and connotation (what it will suggest to the reader); sentence structure, paragraph structure, the optimum length of such units and the limits of complexity and compression; the flow of ideas and the flow of action; the optimum mix of telling versus showing, the mechanics of point of view, and the mechanics of character creation and revelation; the flow of dialogue and techniques for revealing information and insight—as well as concealing the core structural surprise—all without being obvious about it; story structure, knowing where to start, knowing how to resolve a story thread, and knowing when the story is complete.

All of these elements and relationships go beyond what they can teach you in school about spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and all the other mechanics of writing that can be written up as rules and that any writer ignores at his or her peril.2

Other artists have their own principles. For a painter, they involve perspective, proportion, color mixing, treatment of light and shadow, level of detail, and a thousand other things at which, as a poor artist myself, I can only guess. For a musician, they involve the musical key, use of chords, transitions and refrains, and other things which, ditto, I ditto. And for either of them there are also basics not to be ignored, like the location of the viewer’s “eye” and angle of incident illumination for the artist,3 or scale and harmonics for the musician.4

The artist can start with the basics taught in school. But the work will not rise to the level of art until the practitioner learns the principles and decides which to adopt and which to ignore. Until that framework is in place, the writer will produce either pleasantly bland or confusing stories, the painter will make pedestrian, paint-by-numbers canvases, and the composer will make, at best, elevator music. Each will attain his or her requisite “voice,” or “eye,” or “ear” only after he or she knows what rules to break and which to emphasize.

This is why I’ve often said that no one can teach you how to write. A teacher can only expose you to different ideas and help you think about the mechanics and the principles. But you must learn what works. You do that, first, by reading what others have written and deciding whether it works for you as a reader. These are what a painter or musician would call “influences,” and the same applies in literature, too. But you must also, second, actually meet these problems in the act of writing, work through them for yourself, try out different approaches, and then decide what works for you as a writer. Until you’ve done the work yourself, you remain a student and an imitator.5

Some very rare people can produce a polished first novel which displays a seasoned understanding of the principles and an adept’s choice of approaches. I couldn’t do it. My first novel—a manuscript written when I was sixteen years old and worked in the dim hours before dawn, when I got up an hour early before heading off to school—was a slipshod mess. So was my second novel, written in the same circumstances before heading off to work. So was my first attempt at a third novel—although, after having that attempt thoroughly stamped on by a professional editor, my second try came out better, became published, and actually won an award.6 You can bet that anytime you see a highly praised “first novel,” it’s the author’s third or fourth attempted manuscript and only the first one which he or she was willing to show to an agent or publisher.

For most of us, we have to learn to swim in the calm waters of a pool before we try to swim across a lake—or the ocean. Most of us are learning to write all the time, getting better, smoother, more practiced, more certain, more likely to hit the right tone and story arc with the first draft, rather than putting down some any-old rubbish that must then be whacked and battered into something that kind-of, pretty-much works.

But with the adept’s toolkit and the adept’s confidence comes the adept’s assumptions. “I know what I’m doing, because I’ve been here before.” “Of course, the story will follow this path and not that. I’ve been this way before.” “These characters will act this way, talk this way, think this way. I know how to create a character.” … And that’s a trap.

It’s all right to work from a set of established assumptions if your goal is to write the same story over and over. That’s the structure of each James Bond novel that Ian Fleming wrote: same character walking into different circumstances with a different villain but using the same skills, charm, and perseverance to find his way back out. The approach also worked for authors like Agatha Christie and Edgar Rice Burroughs. It can create amazingly popular fiction. Readers who like a particular author’s work can feel pleasurable anticipation in comparing the known to the unknown: How will Bond get out of this one? Which of these clues will Poirot discover? What evil mastermind will kidnap Dejah Thoris, and how will John Carter get her back? This sort of storytelling is a bit like honest carpentry. It’s about planning, measurement, and precision. But it involves very little of the aha! element that makes for great literature.

If your goal is to create something new, something that defies expectations, a work of great imagination and deep insight, then you need to pull something more than carpentry out of the adept’s toolkit.

The Beginner’s Mind

The beginner has a fresh mind. He doesn’t always know the difference between what he knows and what he doesn’t. He is still in discovery mode: seeing, sensing, learning, and adapting. Confidence and the complacency that it can bring are the enemies of the beginner’s mind. To begin again as a beginner, you must stop insisting that you know how to do something. Instead, you must go quiet and let your subconscious perceive, suggest, and affirm what is real about your present situation.7

As a writer, you must perceive your story, not as a contrivance of linked actions to arrive at a preconceived ending, but as the experience of real people living and responding to life’s circumstances. You must forget what you know about plotting and structure, about climax, denouement, and surprise.

You must come to know your characters as real people with background stories, unique expectations, desires, fears, and prejudices. You must forget what you know about types like “protagonist,” “antagonist,” “foil,” “ingénue,” or “the hero’s best friend.”

You must hear the dialogue of your characters as actual speech, rather than a contrivance to reveal information to the reader and to pass it from one character to another within the reader’s understanding. You must forget what you know about language structure and composition.

You must see your settings as real places that your characters inhabit and which your reader might want—or fear—to visit. The setting is not simply a contrivance to propel action and plot and to hand the characters convenient tools, clues, and props along the way.

As a painter, you must see the world and the objects in it as they exist, peculiar to themselves, with their own surprising beauty and flaws, and not as a symbols or representations or generalizations. As a musician, you must let the melody go where it must and resolve when it will, and not according to some rhythm and tempo imposed by a classical form.

Later, once the story, the characters, their conversations, and their setting have come alive in your mind, you may want to use the toolkit you know to sharpen and enhance, to smooth out flaws or highlight differences. But this is the final polish—not the initial discovery. If you start with your story as a preconceived plot and your characters as types, you may have the skill to create something real for the reader, but the risk is that you will end up with an easily disbelieved wind-up toy peopled by dolls. Worse, if you don’t believe in your story and characters yourself, you may err by adding details that don’t belong and characteristics and personal facts that contradict the character’s true nature. In this I’ve found that my subconscious is a better guide, perceiver, and evaluator than my own conscious mind can ever be. My subconscious is a repository of what “feels right” about a situation, whether in real life or fiction.

To achieve this state, the writer or other artist must forget for a moment that he or she is creating something that is not real, has never existed, and perhaps cannot exist in this universe. This is more than forgetting the learned principles of the toolkit, but forgetting the very nature of the art. The mind launches forward into the darkness or the daylight carrying only the image and sense of this perceived story, of these accustomed people, of the places they naturally inhabit, and of the things they are likely to say out of their own awareness, perceptions, motives, or fears. The tension lies in playing two parts simultaneously: both as recipient of the story on one side of the screen, living it as the reader, viewer, or listener does; and as creator and coordinator of the story behind the screen, making it up, drawing it out, and cutting it off.

To be an artist is to put your mind in two places at once, holding two thoughts and driving two realities at once, both creating and experiencing, yin and yang. It should be a form of madness … except that the brain is an incredibly complex mechanism. It has operations in both the focused daylight of the conscious mind and the shrouded darkness of the unconscious. And to pursue an art form—any art, at its deepest level—requires the artist to bring the two together at one time, to be both aware and unaware, to be both the adept and the beginner.

1. I think it has something to do with warm water hitting the back and side of my neck, maybe relaxing some key muscles, possibly increasing blood flow to the brain. Whatever the mechanism, I treasure anything that gives me a moment of insight into what, I presume, is my subconscious—although it may also be another dimension.

2. Unless you have a good reason that will be obvious to the reader. For example, Don Marquis’s beloved character Archy wrote stories and poems all in lower case because, as a cockroach, he couldn’t push down the typewriter’s shift key. Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic character Riddley Walker wrote in a fractured form of English that was both dismaying and mesmerizing. If it works, do it.

3. Unless, of course, you are Picasso, painting faces and bodies from all angles at once.

4. Unless you’re doing experimental, modern, atonal music and don’t mind offending the audience’s ears.

5. I remember, early in my writing career, hearing an interview with Marilyn Durham about her first novel The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, where she mentioned the problem of getting a character to walk through a door. I thought, “How hard can that be?” But it’s actually a complex question. Do you have the character open the door, or simply walk through? Does he turn a knob to open the door? Do you describe the kind of door, its paneling and paint, and the shape and composition of the knob? Is it a brass knob or a crystal knob? … What I’ve learned since then is that you are using the reader’s eye and ear like the camera and microphone on a movie set. You only describe the woodwork of the door or shape of the knob if it serves some purpose to focus on it—such as to suggest the age of the house or the taste of the character observing it. You only describe going through the door if you want to say something about the room beyond and how it’s situated and entered. For most of my purposes, the action starts and ends inside the room or other place and no doors are required, coming or going. Pare away to essentials. Only show what should stick in the reader’s mind.

6. And by that time I had already graduated as a baccalaureate with honors in English literature, worked in two different publishing houses as an editor myself, and was making my living as a professional communicator writing press releases and articles for employee newsletters and magazines. Fiction certainly requires good writing skills, but many kinds of writing and editing have nothing to do with fiction. To write a novel, you don’t even start at ground level: you must climb your way up from the third sub-basement.

7. When I use the word “subconscious,” I’m referring to a special understanding of the human mind. We all have our point of view, our attention, our focus, the thing that knits together our present awareness, our perceived sensory experience, the memories that our thoughts and senses trigger, and our expectations about what will happen next. This is the bright line that knits together past, present, and future in our mind and responds to the notion of “I” and “me.” But the mind is vast and complex.
       While I’m sitting here writing, I attend to the computer screen and the words appearing on it. I also attend to my thoughts and to the learned response inside my head that follows a logical sequence of thoughts and turns them into words. My fingertips follow another learned response to spell those words correctly and push down the appropriate keys. At the same time, however, my ears may be hearing things to which I am not consciously attending: key clicks, traffic noises, background music, the dog snoring. My skin may be feeling pressure from the chair seat and tiny pressure changes from air currents in the room. My nose may detect cooking odors—hmm, garlic?—from the apartment down the hall. Similarly, when I ride the bus, my eyes may see words and images on advertising posters of which I’m barely aware, or overhear fragments of conversation to which I do not consciously listen. But other parts of my brain are recording all these sensations, triggering responses and creating sense memories of which that bright line is not completely, if at all, conscious.
       More of the brain, in its various cortices and networked systems, is functioning than may be under control of that bright line. It is from here, in the unconscious part of brain functioning, that I believe new insights, connected thoughts, and inspiration live and develop in darkness, held passively until they announce themselves to the bright line of consciousness. If I could not tap into that subconscious process, I have no idea how I would write fiction—or even, for that matter, nonfiction.