Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Knowing Mind

Chicago Graffiti, February 2013
Natalie Goldberg, my writing+dharma teacher, speaks frequently at retreats about the significance of reading authors' works and seeing their minds. When we read aloud raw work to one another - something that has just now been written, unedited, we really see raw mind - whether it is fiction or non-fiction. I believe this to be true. Brand new writing is especially powerful and vulnerable, even if it is written about a topic which is not particularly vulnerable or is complete fiction (as if that even exists). Published work, as I have been exploring here, is also significant in terms of knowing a writer's mind. Obviously, memoir, a non-fiction and also entirely personal/intimate form, seems to be the ultimate source of "knowing someone's mind."

But is it?

In the process of publishing memoir, a lot of editing happens. A lot of adjusting timelines, changing vulnerable personages into composite characters. Whether you are LeGuinian about this or not, nowadays the trend is certainly towards lyrical styling, or towards using "creative non-fiction"/fictional techniques to write non-fiction content. For instance, I am writing about my early sexuality and intimacy, and the style my critique group and I have found to work best is intercutting scenes from childhood with adolescence and adulthood. This is not your mother's narrative - not straightforward, not linear in time or even in mind. It is a bit how I work, but it is also how the story works best - I am adapting my writing to fit what the story needs. Perhaps this is some of the "dishonesty" that LeGuin speaks of in her essay in Wave In the Mind. It certainly adds a layer of complexity - never a bad thing, just something to take into account - to finding mind when reading memoir.

How my ordinary, daily mind works is to leap from idea to idea. I am a linker, not a cutter, though as I age I appreciate more and more the honesty of recognizing ideas as less and less "like" something else and simply appreciating them as is. When I write "naturally," off the cuff, I freely and widely associate - quotes from authors come to mind, references to other eras of my life. But this way of associating my early readers found distracting. And quite revealing. I would write a passage about spending time with my father, and slice in all kinds of oblique references or currently-unneeded info. Yes, this is how my mind works. Yes, it does show my mind to the reader. No, it doesn't make for solid reading. It took away from the intensity of the story and scattered the attention all over the place. My resistance was clear, and while that is a significant part of my story, it makes for sloppy writing and reading.

Now, in adapting the writing to just the stories, without distractions inside them, at anywhere from 2-9 pages a pop, then slicing them into each other, I am preserving some of the same quality of my mind - it's tendency to leap and associate - while creating a much more readable style. As soon as a brave member of my critique group announced that all she cared about in the chapter about my father was our story, and none of the distracting elements (this meant cutting out half the chapter as it was), I knew she was right. I wasn't sure how I was going to make up for a lot of lost words, or explain more expository elements without so many distractions, but I knew she was right. I could - I can - show my mind as is, but on the more sophisticated level where my writing needs to be in order to publish.

Natalie Goldberg often says that we are "closing the gap" between what we think we write and what we write, who we think we are and who we are, as we write this way: in Writing Practice, in Contemplative Writing. Sometimes people poo-poo this as secondary writing, journaling, practicing. However, the only way I've been able to see what is really going on and what really needs expressing is to get it all out on the page, and then to pull back. You can take it or leave it, but my writing mind isn't the same as my everyday mind. It's better. A lot better. More clear and kind, sophisticated and smooth. But it is honest and it is really me. No fakery. No pretending. And when I connect my writing mind to my ordinary mind, I give my ordinary mind the chance to "improve," to realize I can be better than I am, unify myself on a higher level. The level of understanding my ordinary mind doesn't even realize I have inside.

The level of real, true knowing mind.

1 comment:

  1. Another great and thoughtful post, Miriam! I will reread this and ponder it more later; got a headache right now that is preventing deep thought.

    I do have some immediate reflections on it, though. I was hoping you'd bring up the LeGuin thing that we talked about, and you did. That seems important. I don't think I've ever read/heard Natalie talk about knowing someone's mind, but I'm interested in that concept and that is one of the things I will give more thought to later.

    What I wanted to say is that last night when I was writing, I did something that was new terrain for me, especially in autobiographical writing. (This was a short essay, not something for my memoir.) I was writing about a memory I had, a memory that suddenly came in loud and clear and nearly palpable and so visceral that I cried while writing the essay. It wasn't traumatic, just sad.

    So I wrote the essay and stayed true to the moment I was writing about. But the thing was, what happened after the moment I wrote about left off actually went in a rather different direction in real life. I wondered if I was bound by honesty (and you and I discussed this, what is honesty in memoir, etc., and I probably said it was important to me to be transparent and represent "the truth" as best I could) to describe that, to talk about how things went in this different direction.

    Ultimately, I decided that it was just as honest to stay true to that moment and not go into "what really happened afterwards." It felt strange to me, but also kind of exciting and powerful.