Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Way Beyond Words (some thoughts on writing)

"If the mind were constructed on optional lines and if a book could be read the same way as a painting is taken in by the eye, that is without the bother of working from left to right and without the absurdity of beginnings and ends, this would be the ideal way of appreciating a novel, for thus the author saw it at the beginning of its conception."

I bookmarked this passage when I first came across it in Nabokov’s LECTURES ON LITERATURE, because it resonated so fiercely with my own experience as a writer. I come back to it now, because I have somehow found myself in the position of making final edits on a soon-to-be-published book and also at the very start of a new book’s fresh and raw first draft.
Each of my novels has begun as a sort of yearning energy summoned from, it seems, the act of moving through certain places and feeling a sense of something powerful going on there in a simultaneous past and present.  This “yearning towards” may go on for a while—weeks or months--but then there seems always to come a time when things focus and the book suddenly appears to me whole and finished—I can feel the weight of it, see the words and spaces on the pages, understand absolutely in a way beyond words what the book has to say and transmit.

Ah, but then I have to write it.  That becomes the daily work, sometimes flowing and effortless, other times close to impossible. Each draft does seem to bring the book closer to that initial vision. And eventually, first readers’ and editor’s comments and suggestions will be taken and addressed in the light of that first apparition. Details may shift and change, but the book will, for better or worse, arrive at being itself: Paradoxically, words will accrue to transfer the wordless energies that inspired in the first place

All of this was clarified to me further yesterday, when I came across another passage in my reading, this time the story of the bell-stand carver in THE WAY OF CHUANG TZU ( Thomas Merton’s translation is the version I was reading.)

  Khing, a woodcarver, is asked the secret behind the beauty of the bell-stand he had carved. He explains that there is no secret, but that the wood itself—and his own focus on the “single thought of the bell-stand”--tuning out all distractions--was necessary to the outcome.  
 What Khing says next makes deep sense to me:

   “Then I went to the forest
    To see the trees in their own natural state.
     When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
     The bell stand appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
      All I had to do was to put forth my hand
      And begin.”

   I’ll be keeping these words in heart and mind as I explore the surprises of a first draft, as I ferret away at the fussy details of a final proof.  And I’ll do my best to keep my focus and desire on the original vision as it first appeared: clearly, beyond doubt.