Friday, July 12, 2013

Under Story

Battement D'Ailes, Correze, France, June 2013
I taught a Contemplative Writing workshop in London a couple of weeks ago. It was, as always, a powerful experience - the students brought their stories and souls to the pages.

The power, the energy comes not so much from the revelation of secrets or shame, as I am coming to understand. The empowering comes, in fact, from seeing the understories - the stories beneath the stories. Getting past the things we tell ourselves about ourselves: the ongoing narratives of self, the self-hatred and criticism and resistance, even the clever renditions of what we have done in our lives; this all leads to a place of feeling like we have nothing at all to say.

At the end of the weekend program, a few students remarked - in their writing, in a discussion period - that they felt they were done. Not done with the practice or process, but done as in they had nothing more to say.

"That's a great place to be," I noted. "The perfect place. I wish we could keep going together tomorrow so you could see what appears when we think we are done." Contemplative Writing itself, like the Writing Practice of Natalie Goldberg that it is partially modeled after, says to keep going, during the 5, 10, 20, 40 minute period you are writing, no matter what arises. There is no done. Done is when the timer goes off, not when you think you are done. And the same extends to the larger scope of your practice and your life: when you think you have nothing more to say, there's more to say.

There are many adages for writing that prove to have even more depth for 
Contemplative Writing:
1. If you are not surprised, as the writer, then the reader won't be surprised.
2. Don't show, tell (meaning: describe, let the reader experience it, rather than just saying what is).
3. Universal is strong, personal that shows the universal is even stronger.
4. Devil is in the details.

All of these can be taken at the level of the word, or at the level of the mind. 
Leave it to Contemplative Writing to take it at both.

In my last talk for the retreat in London, I read from a piece I had written in which I mention that I carried grief like baggage for many years, believing it to be essential: a crucial part of who I was, and a necessary, undeniable facet of myself. I came to this insight over years, of course, not just over the span of one two-minute writing. But I had never encountered this prompt ("bags") at this moment, in that circumstance, towards the end of a retreat, thinking about how heavy my actual luggage was, and in a mindset where I thought I had nothing else to say.
The analogy/metaphor hit me hard - as it hit the students hard. In fact, it was so fresh that the most universal piece of feedback from all participants was that that insight - that I believed grief essential to who I was for so long and carried it around purely because of that belief - was something they would carry with them as a benefit from the weekend.

What was so powerful? That I got to the understory. That I pierced through the story I carried for so long - not the grief itself, but the story about the grief - and got to the under-story/belief that was the actual weight. What was personal was my own story about grief - what was universal was this way in which we carry things we don't have to carry anymore. I revealed a mythos - a personal myth - and by doing so, as happens with all myth, I revealed the wires, the puppet machine that shows how our minds attach to a story.

This is the most powerful thing memoir can do. I think it is the most powerful thing any writing can do, but especially memoir. 

It is not confession. It is not what is being shared, though that, too, carries its own potent. What carries the power within us, and what carries that power through to the writing is not the revelation of crucial details or the poetry of the words. It is the ability of the writer, as a human and as an artist, to reveal their own forms of self-deception and see the mind, and see words, for what they are: ever-changing, impermanent and exploratory. 

If we can see the mind in its process, as it tries to grasp and understand, if we can abide patiently as it rides its way out and through, until it reaches the point where it can actually show itself, then we have some really, really good writing. It takes time. It takes practice. But the wonderful thing is that the mind - and writing - are endless. There is no end to where we can go, even with our own stories.

Drop in. Write your way underneath - beneath even the level of shame you think is the most vulnerable place you can go. Write that. Write it many times until it exhausts itself. Then you can find what is truly groundless: your direct experience, previously un-explained.  
There you know you have truly begun.

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