Sunday, August 18, 2013

Writin' like a Buddha - Lesson 9: Show Don't Tell - an exercise from John Daido Loori

In his book The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life, John Daido Loori outlines the following exercise - a good one for writers, visual artists, or anyone looking to expand their insight.

Have a friend put five or six small objects that can be held in the palm of your hand into a wastebasket or some other container.  The objects should represent different types of tactile surfaces.

Without looking, reach in and take an object from the basket.

Now spend fifteen to twenty minutes exploring the object with your hands, your eyes closed. Feel its every part.  Don't try to identify it.  As thoughts arise, acknowledge them, let them go, and return to the object.

When finished, return the object to the basket.  Repeat this process at another time.

As you continue this practice, you'll come to be able to experience the object directly, without labeling it or identifying what it is.

The exercise can help you develop the ability to just see, just hear, just touch, just smell, just taste - without needing to name the thing.  This way of perceiving will allow you to expand how you describe people, scenes and environments in your writing.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Writin’ like a Buddha: Lesson 251 – The Bodhisattva’s Path: An appreciation of Gary Schanbacher’s Crossing Purgatory

You can like almost anything, but when push comes to shove you usually got to choose.

Like Westerns. There’s those big mythic Westerns with gunfights and outlaws and strong ego lawmen. One guy’s good, one guy’s bad, that kind of Western. And then there’s the nouveau Western, which tells the story of small men struggling in large landscapes. 

I’ve always preferred the nouveau. They’re more human, less predictable, more timeless, more Buddha, and more shaded with spiritual ambiguity. The mythic Western’s bombast can jolt you for a moment or two and maybe get you cheering for good to triumph over evil, but the nouveau Western haunts you for days and days, sticking with you like something finished but not quite done. Nouveau Westerns place us less in ourselves and more in the world. They’re not so smug. They spin their characters’ flaws and failures into the stuff of quiet redemption. Or maybe just a brief brush up against redemption. When we read the nouveaus, they help us feel fragile.

Gary Schanbacher’s written that kind of Western.  His first novel Crossing Purgatory tells the story of Thompson Grey, an impoverished Indiana farmer obsessed with the death of his wife and children and his failure to provide. There’s no bigger poverty than our failure toward loved ones. Suffering the guilt of losing his family, Thompson begins walking west into America.  If he’s searching for something, he’s not sure what. Should he find it, he may not even know.  He is uprooted, displaced, and uncomfortable in his thoughts and memories.

Crossing Purgatory is not a big novel.  It is quieter than that. Schanbacher’s sparse prose is his book’s first allure. Nothing is told in judgment.  Everything is told simply at plain face value. Thompson is a man in shock, and we the reader feel it.  We remain vigilantly sympathetic to his quiet observations, always a bit hopeful that the changing environment will coax some peace out of him. By the book’s end it has. Although it’s a quite peace at best, and one we know Thompson will have to keep pursuing long after we’ve finished our read and put the book back on its shelf.

That is the second allure of Crossing Purgatory.  In Thompson’s quiet observation we see and feel so much – about the time in which the book is set, about the environment and how it can simultaneously save and crush a man, and about the other characters, whose stories provide the main dramatic thrust through which Thompson’s journey plays out.

It may not a big novel, but Crossing Purgatory is epic. Epic in how it interweaves so many disparate lives into the fabric of Thompson’s soul searching. He finds work with a wagon train heading for western Colorado.  On the journey he takes up with a family of travelers, for whom he feels responsible and from whom he remains aloof.  Is that the guilt he feels over losing his own family, or the very behavior that caused him to lose them?  Is Thompson moving toward redemption or deeper into his own hell?  Throughout the book the question persists.

Arriving in Colorado Thompson absorbs into an even larger family –different bloodlines bonding into a new frontier community.  While Schanbacher keeps Thompson the main actor, it’s the others who lives and challenges appear more dramatic. Like the landscape, Thompson is a canvas on which the novel unfolds. In his quiet way, he is our narrator and our hope for the society growing around him.

Which is the third allure of Crossing Purgatory – how the story is the story of the land, with its large sweeping ebb and flow of challenges and fulfillment, and how its stubborn persistence allows its majesty to quietly prevail. 

In the nouveau Western the challenge is never complete. There’s no one big gun battle of hard won success. Success is something that plays out over time. That’s how Crossing Purgatory is. It stays with us on our path, as our path leads us toward wherever we may be going.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Writin' like a Buddha: Lesson 912 Zen Koan

What is this that I am?

When defining a character - his hair, the pudge of his face, where his eyes sit and how his body walks -  best to leave a question there as well.  Don't be so specific the reader doesn't engage.  Leave room for the reader to read into the character a little of the "this-ness" that the reader is.

Or maybe not?

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Buddhism & Writing - Lesson 555

In Buddhism they teach you to treat all dharmas as dreams – which is really just a fancy way of saying whatever you experience in life, it is not solid.  It is fleeting.  

Too often we don’t see it that way.  When will this rain ever stop?  Why can’t I get rid of this pain in my knee? Will I ever be happy? I mean, long continuous everlastingly happiness (is there such a thing)? Who is this person I keep recognizing as myself all these many years?

If life consists of any one consistent ingredient, it is its potential for constant change. Hold onto any one pain or happiness for too long, and it will slip away soon enough. Sometimes long before we’re even willing to let go.  Sometimes long before we even know it’s gone.

Isn’t that like writing? Real writing, good writing is the ability to imbue one single moment, a scene, one single bit of action with the breadth and sweep of the entire story. Sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter, we create these little bon mots (with due respect to poet J Diego Frey) that serve as summary for the entire sweep of the tale being told.  Just as a single chromosome tells of the larger being. Or the way an acorn holds the entire secret of the oak tree it has inside it.

Buddhism tells us all things that originate – hate, love, heroism, guilt, and all the rest of it - originate in our minds. And although these thoughts are vivid, they are not solid. They each hold the potential to flitter away. To change for better or worse, grabbing onto the grand sweep of life.

And that is the promise of good writing.  The promise that nothing is ever stuck, everything changes, and we’ve been invited on the read-along ride to see and anticipate how it all works out.