Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Beginner's Mind

Finding a very nice hardback copy of Bruce Chatwin's last book in a bargain bin, a kind of miscellany of previously uncollected pieces called What Am I Doing Here, got me reading him for the first time in maybe two decades.  I read him in the 1980s mostly, into the early 90s.  He died in 1989.

Reading the first pieces in this book in conjunction with at least the wikipedia version of his biography prompted a few loose thoughts about writing.  Chatwin had problems establishing himself as a writer in the 1970s.  He was a very good looking man and a bisexual, which apparently helped with influential relationships.  Some things he tried failed, some combinations of contacts and happenstance paid off--he made the best of some bad situations and some good opportunities.

His travels seems to begin almost accidentally, as did his reputation as a travel writer.  His first big success was In Patagonia in 1977.  He later published novels and articles before the book he is most known for, The Songlines in 1989.

I read in the wikipedia entry that one of his early models for prose was Hemingway, and I could certainly see that influence, particularly in his dialogue, in a couple of early pieces in What Am I Doing Here, like "A Coup, A Story," which is his account of being held captive for three days in Benin during a coup, and "Until My Blood Is Pure, A Story."  The Coup story includes descriptions of memorable meals he'd eaten, recollected while in captivity without food.  It's very Hemingwayesque in style and subject, and the episode is itself reminiscent of Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber."

Writers learn by imitating others, and even stealing from them.  Chatwin had other models and how he handles the combination is part of what turns out to be his style.  Even these pieces in which the Hemingway influence is overt, the writing is pleasing and effective whether you see it that way or not.  If only because the subject and the diction are more recent, they are in some ways more pleasing than Hemingway, who can seem now to be quite wordy, with a vocabulary a little arcane by this time.

Chatwin liked to experiment with the form of a book.  That was very 20th century, especially in Hemingway's time, but also in those decades of the 70s and 80s.  The times sometime insist on new forms, if only because writers find it very difficult to write using the old forms.  They don't see and hear the world that way.

Chatwin experimented with the form of The Songlines and in a formal sense he failed.  It starts out as an account of Australian Aboriginal beliefs about the songlines that link them as a people and as individuals to the land, for songlines are both topographical lines of passage and song stories about their origins and relationships, linked by the rhythm of walking.

But the story broadens out to considerations of human origins and the nomadic impulse (about which he'd tried to write a book previously, and some chapters in What Am I Doing Here seem to come from that uncompleted project), until it abruptly shifts to a selection of quotations and notes taken from his notebooks and other sources.  So while this book has a beginning, it doesn't have an ending.

On that basis it should have failed.  Instead The Songlines was a best seller throughout much of 1987, and then again as a paperback.  I was completely enthralled by it.  I remember wanting to read it out in the open, so I found a spot on a sparsely traveled road between Seton Hill College and other buildings on its isolated hill.  I sat reading under a tree, and recall a car driving by with an older woman driving who saw me and smiled to herself.

It was partly the times--little was known about Indigenous cultures, but there was great interest that would blossom in the early 90s.  Certainly it was a revelation to me, but as a reading experience it was exciting as well.

What makes a successful piece of writing, whether or not it becomes a best-seller? It's in a way a happy accident, though it is a deliberate accident.  We like to think we're in control and following some prescription, or perhaps we feel that our powers are such that anything we apply ourselves to will succeed.  Usually we are forcibly disabused of such notions.

There are always times in a project that the writing is hard, or the research is overwhelming a sense of what to select from it, or there are conceptual roadblocks and--worst of all--dead ends.  Everyone who writes was seduced by what some others have written.  We want to do the same thing, so we try something similar, but try to be different, too.  Here the first level of talent is discernible.  Lots of people can write a good beginning.  But where does it go?  That's frequently the first problem: the dead end.

Chatwin had a lifelong obsession with nomads, with the impulse to wander he shared and which he believed was intrinsic to humans, and that became the center of The Songlines.  That center and that beginning was good enough to make up for the lack of an ending.  It may have worked because it left the reader wanting more.  It also allowed the reader to participate, to consider the questions, to expand on the thoughts and quotations.  To wonder, along with Chatwin, what this is all about.

There are other possible reasons for why The Songlines worked--such as the reader being seduced to identify with the first person narrator, a necessity when the first person is used.  How thought out this way, how intentional, I don't know.  There's also the question of how ill he was, how close to the end he felt.  But my experience as a writer suggests that something about the process caught him and carried him along.  Some rhythm in the words, in the pages.  Something that might not mean anything to anyone else.

What is front and center in that book to me is the Beginner's Mind. It's difficult to find it again after so much writing, so many trials.  But if you're a writer, or if you've ever started to write, you've generally started with that Beginner's Mind.

 Things are exciting the first time, which is why we remember events of our first 20 years more clearly than later experiences.  Similarly, the approach to writing of the Beginner's Mind can--when it works--transmit that excitement, that engagement, to the reader.

I've come to believe that, despite those who say all writing is just hard work, the really good work comes most often from the Beginner's Mind, the feeling that the formal problems you have set for yourself or encounter, the approach you are taking, the material you are working with, are in ways important to you, utterly new.  Isn't that the definition of "creating" anyway?  Making something new.

It's hard to hold onto the Beginner's Mind, and it's hard to find it again.  When you've never had a response to your work, you write with innocence.  When you have, and when that response makes you self-conscious, or the lack of subsequent and present response fills you with a sense of futility, the innocence of the Beginner's Mind is gone.

When writing becomes work for pay only, and has no play in it anymore, Beginner's Mind may go off somewhere else, maybe playing with the aps on the iphone.

I've come to believe that finding the project that so fascinates and involves you that these are not considerations, that your Beginner's Mind and heart are fully engaged, is completely the key.  Maybe it happens only partially, and maybe you get lucky like Chatwin did with The Songlines and you more or less stumble onto something new, like the way he ended it.  But it's what you need.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Long May You Run

It's been several months now since I gave up El Volvo.  Born in 1986, the same year as one of my nieces (married, a mother), El Volvo came into my life in 1999 and served me well for 16 plus years.

Not much to look at, El Volvo had an engine that wouldn't quit.  But circumstances brought another car into our possession, and we can hardly justify two, let alone three.  Still, I held on to the Volvo for a lot longer than I should have.

It took me months to understand why.  Then I realized that on my many drives to local theatres to review plays, I was almost always alone.  I went alone, sat alone and returned alone.  I had to get myself together to go, especially when they were plays I didn't particularly want to see, on nights or afternoons I would rather have stayed home.  And then I had to figure out what to say about them.

At several theatres, the management people were nice to me, but by and large actors and others involved in the production weren't especially friendly.  Why should they be--I was outside the process, judging them.  Pretty much a buzzkill.  Most often these weren't comfortable evenings.

But I did have one companion--El Volvo.  My car got me there safely and most importantly, got me home.  That applies to other situations as well.  That was a relationship, and it turned out to be hard to end.

There was a lot I liked about that old car.  It pre-dated a lot of fancy technologies that are mostly confusing and are little more than something else that can break.  The windows actually wound down.  At the same time, there were some very nice Volvo features.  Headlights that go off when I turn off the engine.  A visor that swivels to catch sunglare to the sides.  I liked the dark blue upholstered seats.  And all the confidence of being in a Volvo out there with the crazies.

El Volvo gave me very little trouble over the years, mostly electrical from that old wiring.  It was missing rear brake lights and the headlights never were very strong.  But I do believe there was some good karma attached to the car because of how I bought it.

I answered an ad in the Times Standard.  The car was being sold by a young woman in Eureka.  She and her boyfriend bought it used--she told me the price they paid--and now she was selling it so she could go visit him in Mexico, prior to their wedding.  He was working there.  She was living with her father.

I had it looked at before I bought and it needed some work.  She and her father listened to me say so in the dimly lit living room.  But when I made my offer they were both surprised.  Essentially I offered about $100 more than she'd paid for it, pretty obviously as a wedding present.  She was overjoyed.  Her father was so pleased he almost hugged me.

When it came time to part ways, I thought I would donate it to a public radio station.  But that turned out to be complicated and pretty impersonal.  I was supposed to talk to somebody in Colorado.  Then a local guy offered to buy it--he likes fixing up old cars.  I figured El Volvo would have a better chance at a longer life that way.  With your chrome heart shining in the sun, long may you run.