My interview last week with the Reverend Paulette Pipe on her radio show "Touching the Stillness" inspired me to put down in writing a navigation of my happy discovery that suffering is not a prerequisite for great writing and that the most important aspect of what we create as writers is not that it distinguishes us as separate from others but rather, that it connects us to them and highlights what is shared among us...
Something that plagued me for many years as a young writer and teacher was the idea that suffering and art go hand in hand. I had the idea that only misery and grief could generate good writing, and historically, there are so many examples to support this. The “tortured artist” is not a new concept. I had this fear that I could never achieve peace and happiness in my life and still write meaningful poems and stories. It was some comfort that in my periods of misery, self-loathing and grief, I could come up with some very powerful poems, but ultimately, I wanted to be happy. And I wanted to be a writer. So much of what I knew about writers supported the argument that these two conditions were mutually exclusive.
Theodore Roethke, arguably one of America’s greatest poets and writing instructors, once said, “I can’t go on flying apart just for those who want the benefit of a few verbal kicks. My God, do you know what poems like that cost?” It was true. In my own experience, each poem, each crown of sonnets, each villanelle, had been born of some devastating sensation or experience. They exacted a very real cost in that the requisite suffering took its toll, one that didn’t necessarily, and certainly did not permanently, get erased or even compensated by the works of art so exalted by others. Roethke went on to exclaim, “They’re not written vicariously: they come out of actual suffering, real madness.”
I feared, too, that inherent in the poetic sensibility was a kind of instability and even this “madness” Roethke talked about. I wanted to write, but my fear that what made me a writer also constituted inherent flaws in my mental state began to overwhelm. It helped when I started to write more prose, more fiction. I would eventually move away from wrenching the personal material from my gut for the poetry I had been so committed to writing in my twenties and early thirties, and I would start to invent characters. It would feel safer, more stable, and finally I would all but forget what had previously felt like an irreconcilable conflict….but it did not happen all at once.
I began to deepen my yoga practice. I began meditating regularly, exploring stillness, sitting with my quiet self and simply being. These practices brought me profound peace, and I began to find that the sort of fissures in the heart, caused by suffering and causing a kind of leakage of consciousness, were not the only way I could access what lived and moved in my “dreaming place.” It was one way, and indeed I had haphazardly dredged up the contents of my “dreaming place” in this way for years, dragging them over the coals of my own torturous uncertainty, through the darkness of my melancholy, trying, as it were, to tend to wounds that always surprised me with the keenness of their sensation. I would often later craft these images, this language, into poems that would then get published in a literary journal or magazine, but the cost. “My God,” the cost.
Through my practice of yoga, which led naturally into meditation, I began to change. I began to heal myself. I began to find my centre. To know and love stillness, which landed me smack in the middle of the present, where I found I could let go of every fear, every ache that had ever plagued me. Not by resisting it, but by acknowledging it. Absorbing it. Breathing it in, letting it be transformed in me, and then breathing it out as peace. As gentleness. As love. This, I learned, was the practice of Tonglen. It is a Buddhist practice that, roughly defined, means “giving and taking,” or “sending and receiving.” In the practice of Tonglen, we breathe in not only our own suffering, but also the suffering of others, the universal hurt that differs only in the stories that encapsulate it, and we breathe out what we believe will give relief: serenity, human connection, joy, confidence. In this way we heal ourselves. In this way we heal the world.
So where did this leave me as a writer? Could I exist as two people? The elevated, joyful yogi, and the tortured poet? Or could I somehow integrate these aspects of myself, allow the “torture” to be transformed in me, and let it feed my writing? Would my writing become flaccid, undisciplined, springing as it would from a place that was wildly happy and content? It was a risk, I felt, but this softness of heart, this boddhichitta, or “awakened heart,” was not something I was willing to give up. I was realizing my true nature, it seemed, and I was not willing to accept that this meant that I would no longer write. When I began to try, I felt in some ways that I had little to say in a poem. The poems just did not come. I knew, though, that writing is like child-rearing, and as soon as one says, “I always do this,” or “Whenever I do that…,” the maxim just formulated becomes null and void by a new behavior, a changed and wholly unpredictable variation in the pattern. With this in mind, I did not get too worried.
Instead, I tried my hand at fiction. This was new for me. By meditating and navigating my way consciously into that “dreaming place,” instead of waiting for the membrane between my conscious and subconscious thought to tear painfully, I found that I could give myself access to all the wildness of my imagination without the suffering. I could begin to generate language, images, and whole stories in a healthy way. I found that my writing became richer and more intricate, and certainly more accessible to others, since I was no longer skulking about in the semi-obscure language of my secret longing.
Characters began to arrive at my proverbial door, and I began to welcome them happily, weaving them in to the stories that germinated somewhere inside and found their ways to the surface, like gardens. I felt only partially responsible for them, and yet I had the desire to cultivate them, and this effort, this loving time invested in them, gave me ownership of what felt otherwise divinely gifted to me. I had discovered, it seemed, a new way to create. I had also begun to realize, that this experience was not unique to me. People love to think that they are unique, special in some way, and it is through no fault of our own that our egoic self is so intrigued by the feeling that we are doing something that no one else (or very few others) can do. I had to let that go. I’m not special. Not in this way, at least.
EVERY person is a writer. EVERY person has a “dreaming place” that is unique to herself, and EVERY person can learn to access what is there and to bring it onto the page. We can also ALL learn to craft that material into poems, stories, essays… It is limitless, really, what we can create and how we can, through our creation, connect with others. Why do we orient ourselves early on toward asserting ourselves over others? There is room in the world for infinite expression, infinite art, and ultimately, infinite empathy. How about that as a goal of art? To unite?
I do believe that many artists throughout history have ‘gotten’ this. Albert Camus, for one, who said in his banquet speech upon accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, that “often he who has chosen the fate of the artist because he has felt himself to be different soon realizes that he can maintain neither his art nor his difference unless he admits that he is like the others.” In Camus’ words, “the artist forges himself to the others, midway between the beauty he cannot do without and the community he cannot tear himself away from. That is why true artists scorn nothing: they are obliged to understand rather than to judge.” Gospel. Seriously.
The more that I practice yoga, I see that I/we can achieve union, as it were. Between body, mind and spirit; between our selves and others; between our subconscious and conscious minds. I see that it is possible to access my creativity, indeed my “dreaming place,” through peaceful contemplation. Through the softening of my heart, the opening of my self to the infinite possibilities of my own imagination, I can create, and this connects me with my fellow human beings. And I see that with a little guidance, we can all do this…and experience the joy, healing and liberation of speaking our truths, whether through real or invented characters.
I have made it my mission to provide such guidance and to help other people, people who desire to be both happy and creative, to find their way through this labyrinth of human experience. I love teaching yoga, meditation and writing. What better way to combine these things than in a Lotus Wheel Retreat? I invite you to join me for the upcoming retreat at Awaken Whole Life Center in Unity Village, Missouri (click the link below for more info). And in the meantime, may your spiritual path be well lit, and may you cultivate your own creativity through daily practice, even if it is to sit down and write a single sentence each morning. Your stories, your observations, have a place in this world, and they connect you to others in a way that means everything.