Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Who Are You When There's No-One Else Around?

In my library I have a couple of shelves of books about writing: writing guides; translation memoirs; books on the philosophy of creativity, and on the practical aspects of creativity; books my writers about writing; books by poets about poetry. Some of them are more useful than others, either as inspiration or as practical guide. Counter-intuitively, some of the least helpful books on writing poetry are by poets. Surprisingly, one of most fun to read and the most useful is Stephen King's On Writing: A memoir of the craft. Three other really good and useful books, for my money, are: Conrad Aiken, Collected Criticism; Don J. Snyder, The Cliff Walk: A memoir of a job lost and a life found; Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the mind of poetry. There may be something to the truth that some of the best writing guides are structured as memoirs rather than exercise guides.

Writing guide after inspirational writing guide will tell you that your best, most valuable writing will come from your authentic self. That part of your self, or Self, that is most truly you. That part of your self out of which your authentic writing voice arises, which is distinctive and uniquely your own. The writing guides talk about how important it is to discover your authentic voice, which is the result of writing form within your authentic self, and to be true to it.

But how do you find your authentic self? Most writing guides don't tell you. They evade the issue, often because it's baffling to the rational mind, and not easy to put into words. They tell you how important it is, but not how to recognize it. We're going to take a moment here to look at that.

There are a couple of myths which the writing guides usually try to sell us, that are wrong. Or rather, they're partially right, in their intentions, and wrong in their executions.

1. Your permanent self

Some guides will tell you that you need to go within, to look deep within your self, to find your authentic self. Some will stress observation, contemplation, or meditation. Others will stress more intellectual means. Still others ignore the issue completely. There are no guarantees, of course.

But here's a way in which you are more likely to discover your authentic self: Notice what you are like when there's no-one else around. When you are completely alone, there is no need to perform for others, to wear masks, to pretend to be something other than what we are. When you're alone, you can let the masks fall away, and just be who you are. When there's no play, no acting, no thought of self-conscious presence on the landscape of interaction. When you're just sitting there quietly, watching the light change, taking in the silence, not thinking about anything in particular, not trying to force yourself to be anything to anyone.

Writing is often proclaimed to be a solitary activity, in which we go off alone to our fortresses of solitude, and wrestle with our angels and demons to bring forth the written word. But we carry our outer selves into our chambers with us; our relationships, intangible as cobwebs, are still in our minds. Both our joys and our family dramas are grist for the mill. Every writer at some point pulls some incident from life as a starting point, for good or ill. It's a basic practice, and almost every writing guide will at some advise you to "write what you know."

There are many benefits to solitude. It is when we are alone that we can most clearly hear those quiet inner voices, that our own inner selves in conversation, our mind in operation, the still, small voice of guidance and inspiration. Even when we meditate in a group, when we do it in silence, we are alone in counting our breaths and observing our thoughts arising out of nothingness, and falling away, back into nothingness. Nothing hones the observation of the self like silent inner contemplation as a discipline.

There is something eternal and changeless deep within us. We can reach it, and many have. This deep inner part of our selves is a place we are unable to talk about, because it exists in a place before naming, a place in us where words do not go, and cannot. Our deepest inner self is pre-verbal, and not subject to language. Our deepest self is not actually our writer's self, or our authentic voice in writing: because it is a place without words.

Yet our authentic writing self still has a cloud of words whirling in the air around it. This is not the deepest, innermost silence. But it is deep, and it is clear. It's not far away from center. You can use your memories of your deepest, pre-verbal self, as a touchstone for finding your writer's mind, as a place to begin from. If poetry is a Way, as haiku master Matuso Basho said it was, then this is the poetry mind from which one sets out.

Who are you when no-one's watching? Who are you when you're all alone? Who are you when no-one else is around, and you have no agenda, no plan, nothing to do but just be.

That person who you are, in those moments of silence and solitude, that person is more likely to be your authentic self. You can begin to write from within that space, tentatively perhaps, at first, with confidence growing with practice. With time, you can come to recognize how being alone in this silence feels; and you can take it with you, and remember what it feels like, and go to that same place whenever you write. It is something you can learn to find in yourself, that becomes your beginning place.

Start there, at least, and see where your aloneness, even if it's only momentary, takes you. Remembering who you are when there's no-one else around to influence how you are, in that moment, is a remembering that, with practice, you can also take back with you into your daily life, your relationships and interactions, and your work. This is how you learn to live authentically, and consciously aware of your own true self, even in the midst of turbulence and chaos, of everyday drama and strife.

2. Your impermanent self

One thing the guidebooks try to convince us of, albeit tacitly, is that once we've found our authentic self, it is a permanent, unchanging, fixed thing. This is completely wrong.

Who you are is always changing and growing. There is indeed a permanent self, an eternal self, under all the layers. But even this silent, eternal self is always evolving, always changing.

What are you like when you're alone? Are you the same as when you're with others? (A clue that you're living perhaps more authentically than most.) Are you quieter, more contemplative, more inward? Are you darker and more dour? Are you cheerful? playful? still? Do you remain more or less the same as when with others? Do you actively enjoy being alone, or does it make you nervous? These are all clues.

The truth is: No-one is fixed forever in one self. We are mercurial. To a greater or lesser degree, we change as we follow our feelings, our thoughts, our memories. This doesn't mean you have to act them out when alone, like some solitary pantomime, but your feelings are essential aspect your authentic self, and of your writer's voice.

Your authentic voice as a writer will change often, over the course of your lifetime. Don't think that once you've found it, that it will never change again. In fact, you ought to hope that you do keep changing, because change is a marker of experience, growth, and personal evolution. If you stagnate, you die: it's that simple.

I am not the same writer I was ten years ago, but I do feel like I continue to write from an authentic self that has an authentic voice. That voice has grown and changed over that time, and the products themselves, the samples of writing I leave strewn in my wake, are quite different now from what they were back then. But there is a central core that remains constant. The moon changes its face as it goes through its monthly changes, its phases of appearance; but the moon itself is constant, and solidly present, and relatively permanent. in yourself, there is a moon that also changes will remaining the same.

The Divine exists at the point of every paradox, and this paradox of changeless changing is essential knowledge for every artist. You will change, and you will remain the same. There are layers to the self, some more friable than others. The innermost, darkest chambers are those out of which our unique and authentic voices arise. You will know them by their grip on your attention. You will recognize them by their demanding presence in your attention. You can't evade or ignore them: they will be heard.

That's when you know you're on to something.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

There is also the point that as time goes on you either work through things, often through your writing, or realise that these things aren't the issues you thought they were. And it's not only you that changes, the world you inhabit changes. Had you put the man I was in my twenties in the environment I now live he would have gone off his head whereas now I appreciate the piece and quiet and I'm in no rush which is surprising because my life left if obviously reduced but there you go.

As you say however I'm still the same person I was then in that my core values haven't changed. I just apply them differently.

4:37 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Yes, exactly. That's very well said. Thanks!

8:58 AM  

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