Friday, July 24, 2009


Transformative writing is more than just changing one's mind on one or two issues. That remains all in the head, all intellectual. Transformative writing needs to be more than just a superficial change. Writing, when it's a process of self-discovery, has the potential to transform the writer, just as with all engaged creative processes; the reader comes along as a voyeur, watching over the writer's shoulder.

Like every other kind of writing process, writing begins with reading. Transformative writing begins with transformative reading. Reading in which you, the reader, are utterly changed. I don't think I ever wrote anything worth reading until I had encountered, and survived, numerous life-changing experiences, including life-changing reading. (I recently drafted a quickly-written list of books that have stuck with me; one can pick out several life-changing reads from that list.) Life-changing reads change not only the shape of your mind, but the shape of your life. Decisions and choices cascade from experience, leading one down paths previously unsuspected. A truly powerful personal experience can completely change your life's directions, and make you discard your plans and expectations, replacing your dreams with new ones. For writers, such experiences can come from reading as well as from life itself.

It needs to be remembered that reading is an inward journey, but no less of a journey than a physical pilgrimage. I've done both, so take my word for it. I do some of my best thinking when on long drives through empty lands—pilgrimages to the desert, to wilderness, to the ocean's wild coast, to the empty spaces. I continue doing my best thinking when I pause in those travels, and begin to write about what I've seen and thought. I write longhand in my road journals when camping at night, between day-long drives. That's often when insights and poems emerge. Others emerge later, when I'm back home, reflecting upon the journey.

There is a mental silence to driving all day long across the Nevada desert, across Arizona under a cloudless sky, across the open prairie states, across northern New England. One must honor this mental silence by not listening to the radio or blasting loud music. Out of this mental silence arises the quietest and most inward of one's own voices. Sometimes when I'm traveling on a train or an airplane, I put my iPod headphones in my ears not to listen to music, but to let other travelers know that I'm being inward, that I don't want to partake in casual conversation, or watch the in-flight movie, or be otherwise interrupted. It's a boundary-marker for an inward focus.

Far too many people use conversation or the radio and TV or their iPods to fill the silences; as a culture, we are afraid of silence, of its unknowing. People fill the silence with distractions that keep them safe from hearing their own inner voices, that arise whenever there is silence. Most people seem uncomfortable with the voices that arise in such silence. It brings them too close to that terrifying Void.

But I've been unable to avoid becoming a Void-diver. I've been thrown into deep water by life so many times, that I've been required to learn how to become a diver, a spelunker, a swimmer. In my mind's eye, there is an underground river of black water that occasionally breaks through to the surface, flowing hard and fast with a lot of power. In my dreams, there are often tidal waves rising up out of lakes, or wells, or fountains, to inundate the land: I've come to recognize these inner symbols for what they are: the power of the unconscious about to break through into the light. When I have these dreams I know I am being put on notice: watch out, something's going to come through soon.

I've had more than one vision of the Void. The first vision was incredibly traumatic; it was kenotic. It ripped away everything I believed, and thought I knew, and left me with nothing. I literally saw the ground fall away under my feet, leaving me suspended above an abyss. The second vision of the Void, which came exactly 4 years 3 months and 14 days after the first vision, healed the first vision of the Void for me. It was during and after the process of these visions, that I first began to write a group of poems I called the Sutras. This writing was also directed and inspired by transformative reading I engaged with during the Void process, between the two visions.

I later realized, from my theology readings, that I had been through what St. John of the Cross called the dark night of the senses, which is characterized by three interrelated spiritual indications:

1. The soul finds no satisfaction in either the things of God or in other creatures. One cannot connect anything; it's all meaningless.
2. The soul is troubled by the impression that it has turned away from God; it interprets its distaste for the things of God as a falling away from Him. There is no satisfaction in any familiar spiritual or religious practice, ritual, or aphorism. The words and actions are all hollow and empty, meaning precisely nothing.
3. The soul finds itself no longer capable of meditating and using the imagination in its prayer, despite fervent attempts to do so. Dryness and acedia are common.

In my case, the two visions of the Void bracketed this experience. The second vision healed the first, I said above: meaning, it gave solace at last, in a mysterious and symbolic way I can only describe poetically, to the feelings of alienation, abandonment, and isolation I had been living with continuously for over four years. It was a balm. I came away from the second vision with no idea that anything new had come in to replace the emptiness, and with no glib words to articulate how I felt, but with a sense that now, again, connections could be made to happen again. The first vision ripped away every idea or belief I had held to that time; the second did not replace what had been taken away, or return them. The second vision did nothing to fill the Void: only now, the Void was no longer terrifying, no longer an existential crisis. There was nothing that needed to be filled.

Since then, periodically over time, I've been required to strip away every idea and belief habitually accumulated from experience, to wipe the slate clean, and start over again. To know nothing is to experience the process of unknowing, of unnaming. This has happened several times in my life since these first two, rather dramatic visions. Each time, the process of stripping away my assumptions and beliefs has been difficult and sometimes painful—we do so love to cling to our ideas about life—but it's been made easier by knowing what was going on. Oh, it's the Void again: the same old familiar kenosis, that old blues empty feeling. Hello there. What's new?

By the way: Let go of the "God" language, if it gets in your way. The dark night of the senses is all about letting go of what we think we know about the Divine, about our images of the Divine (imago dei), about what we imagine the Divine is. One has to rid oneself of these illusions, or delusions, before one can see what's really there. Meister Eckhart once encapsulated this truth in a memorable aphorism: I pray to God to rid me of 'God.'

The transformative reading I encountered during this period of my life—a period in which I was probably more susceptible than usual to being transformed, by experience, by reading—can be listed here, however inadequately, as the book titles that gave me life-changing reading experiences at that time:

Nikos Kazantsakis: The Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises
Michael Novak: The Experience of Nothingness
Lyall Watson: Gifts of Unknown Things
Albert Camus: Lyrical & Critical Essays
Rainer Maria Rilke: Duino Elegies and Letters to a Young Poet
(some of these I'd read before, yet re-reading them during this period went much deeper)

All this led, almost immediately upon the heels of the second vision of the Void, to a flood of writing longer poetic "spiritual exercises" more akin to Kazantzakis' small book listed above than to the poems I had previously written to date. Life-changing experiences change your art, as well as your artistic process. I wrote a moderately bad chapbook, with one or two good poems salvageable from the mire; I wrote a lot of haiku; and I worked on the Sutras. Actually, for a period of about 18 months surrounding the second vision of the Void, I wrote no poems at all; except a few scattered haiku. That was an important fallow period at the time, which led to new directions, and within a few years my first real poems (in my opinion) in a mature style, in a more mature poetic voice.

I noticed, eventually, that one result of the life-changing experience of the Void, and of the life-changing reading I was doing (especially via the first three titles on the list above), was that I could now recognize the Void in the writings of others. It's like you develop the ability to hear an octave of music, or see a painterly content, that had been previously inaccessible to you. It was always there, perhaps, but now you are able to recognize it. I could see where the Void had touched Dickinson, Whitman, Rilke, and many other poets; I could recognize the Void experience in short stories, in novels. An artist friend of mine once confided that, after she had taken LSD a couple of times, she could see in the art of other artists whether or not they had ever taken LSD; those doors of perception had been opened. My experience was very parallel to hers, although no drugs were ever involved, just the presence of the Void.

I haven't finished the Sutras, as a purely literary work. I don't know that I ever will. There now exist about 40 poems in the cycle, which I have only loosely gathered, and which have as yet no final edited order or structure. I'm still rewriting a few individual poems, while others are in as finalized a form as I can achieve. (Paul Eluard's comment, A poem is never finished, only abandoned, is very relevant to this body of work.) Some dedicated poets I have shown these writings to refuse to label them as poems. (One wonders, in hindsight, if this wasn't the beginning of my eventual move towards refusing to label my writing as "prose" and "poetry," to let those overlap and blend however they will.) I accept that they're not typical "poems," and that in a purely literary sense I have written much better poems elsewhere.

I've ceased to claim any literary quality for the Sutras, therefore, because I have come to understand that Kazantzakis' subtitle, Spiritual Exercises, is precise with regard to the Sutras. I wrote them out of necessity: they were transformative writings. The issue of literary quality is beside the point; the Sutras are as well-written as I can make them, without crossing over that line into "fine art literary poetry" that would dilute their impact as (let's be honest) personal attempts at writing Scripture. In many ways, the Sutras are epistolic: letters to the faithful, letters to myself, to an errant congregation of one. They are transformative writing; their intent was scriptural. They are the records of visions, or visionary encounters and experiences. They are one brand of visionary poetry that I engage with, which transforms me during the writing.

Several of the Sutras are poems of embodiment; in fact, one or two of them are explicitly sexual. But the sexual is the spiritual. That's one truth both the visions of the Void and the process of writing about them revealed. Perhaps it was part of my coming-out process—but a process as much about spiritual experience as about sexual orientation. One "rule" I required of myself when writing the Sutras was complete, even ruthless honesty: no poetic evasions or literary obfuscations; no hiding behind words; no diversions or tactics of concealment. The purpose of this "rule" was to be completely honest with myself: I was, after all, writing to understand, to transform, to reveal myself to myself. I began to study Tantra because I had had spiritual and psychic awakenings during sex, and I needed to understand what was happening; and writing about some of these experiences in the Sutras transformed my understanding of events. How do we heal the past? By changing our interpretations of events.

I have come to believe that, if making a work of art doesn't transform the artist, too, then it hasn't achieved its highest potential as art. I realize that this will be readily misconstrued as art-therapy-speak by some, as fringe blasphemy by others. It's a very highfalutin' critical standard, perhaps quite impossible to live up to. I do not mean that artworks that don't live up to this very high standard have no quality or merit. I mean, as near as I can articulate, that this level is perhaps the next level beyond; the next higher level of art, and art-making.

Some will no doubt claim that examples of this transformational art must be very rare. Yet I find examples of transformational art in all media, all the time; it all seems to so obvious to me, now. Perhaps, like the experience of the Void, or of my friend's experience of LSD, one isn't ready or able to see it in the artworks or writings of others until one has experienced it for oneself. Perhaps, one must be open to the possibility of perceiving a new octave of color shades, in order to be able to actually see them.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Much in this essay is beyond me. I have had nothing that can be regarded as a spiritual experience and abandoned religion because of it. Silence I am learning to appreciate though. I think that comes with age. I find it harder to concentrate than when I was young when I could happily write away with Deep Purple playing in the background. I've been sitting here in the living room for over four hours now and the only sounds are the bubbling of the fish tank, the clattering of the keys and the odd car or plane outside.

When my dad was still alive and I'd go over to visit him I'd more often than not finding him sitting in his chair in silence. He was almost blind and pretty deaf and so I expect that the experience was more intense for him that for you or I. A lot of people are afraid of their own thoughts. As writers we have a peculiar interest in them.

As transformative writing goes, again I can't say that anything I've read has jarred me off the rails. All of it has influenced the direction of my life – that's inevitable – but 'transform' is a big word. I have had moments of clarity along the way. I'll even hold my hand up to a genuine epiphany but that's about it.

2:01 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Silence is underrated, indeed. I find myself listening to music at home less than I used to, or in the truck. Music fuels my writing, still, when I do listen to it.

Music also fuels my mood, or my effort; Mozart for example is great for housecleaning, while Mike Oldfield I find very useful while cooking and cleaning (I'm thinking of "Songs of Distant Earth"). When I'm feeling dark, and want to go deeper into it, which is how I sometimes get through such times—by going all the way in, you pass through out the others side—I'll put on a Jan Garbarek CD, or T-Bone Burnett, or Rachmaninoff, or Johnny Cash.

Music is so central to my innermost self, though, and has so much power over me, over my mood and and mind, that I tend to be judicious. Random listening is not something I do much of anymore; which means I rarely listen to the radio, except for the occasional special concert or opera broadcast.

2:48 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I actually suspect that music is something we have far more in common that words. Writing about music isn't so easy though. We can rattle of the names of composers and performers and of individual works but I listen to music because it's not words and I look at art because it's not words and I rarely feel inclined to comment on either of these in my written work further than what I've mentioned above.

Like you I have very broad musical tastes. As I'm writing this I'm listening to the Scottish (and deaf) percussionist Evelyn Glennie. If you don't know her have a look out for her. She feels music like no other performer I've seen (she has to, it's a part of how she hears).

There's a nice wee video of her here: How to listen to music with your whole body

4:11 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Yeah, that makes sense. I know you've composed some, too.

For me words are often inadequate to express experience. They miss some feelings utterly, and they outright betray some other kinds of experience. Music can be more abstract in that it's non-verbal, but at the same time it can be more condensed and compressed in its expressive qualities also because it's non-verbal.

Thanks for the link. I'm very familiar with Glennie, actually. I know she's commissioned many new new solo percussion works from composers, too. A remarkable person in many ways.

7:48 AM  

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