Over the past three weeks I drove through Washington, Oregon and California to do some research for my new novel. While I was in San Francisco I had the good fortune to hear Paul Hindemith’s Cello Concerto (1940) performed by Yo-Yo Ma with the San Francisco Symphony.
As Ma’s fingers worked the cello fret board and strings the air rang with a complexity of sound I’d never heard before. To say that Yo-Yo Ma is a brilliant cellist is common-place. But what struck me was the remarkable aura he emitted during the breaks in his performance when he was not playing a note—the respites when the orchestra carried the music through the transitions that moved the score forward without the soloist.
In these brief interludes Ma sat back in his chair and scanned the musicians, the maestro (Michael Tilson Thomas) and the audience surrounding him. Ma’s face was lit by the forces streaming through him, his knowledge and talent and years of practice and study—all of it compacted in the moment of his performance which was both completely under his control, yet completely controlling every molecule in his being.
This reciprocal stream of creative energy reminded me of the current Dalai Lama, a man whose face glows despite the unending trouble and grief he encounters day after day. In his case, I suspect he’s sustained by faith in the unity of the one and the many: the knowledge that his place in the world is like a fading rose nourished by forces which will reinvigorate his mission for generations to come.
Is this the same stream of being that “totally scared” Yo-Yo Ma—an experience that made him “an infinitely richer person”? The answer is not as important to me as the thought that an artist has to enter a psychological world that is both enlightening and frightening, energizing and enervating, a vortex of the one and the many.
Sometimes I’ve been afraid to explore this world, the places my fictional characters have created. But I tell myself that I have to look upon their scenes with unblinking eyes and transmit what I see without censorship or the slightest filtration.
My greatest fear is that I’m not up to the task. Too often I turn away, or it seems the language that I need to convey this meta-reality is beyond my grasp. The work is too huge, too ambitious for me to render competently. What sustains me is the idea that there is no other task worth doing. That, and the transcendent look on the faces of Yo-Yo Ma and the Dalai Lama. I would give a lot to wear their faces for even a few moments.
There are moments when one feels free from one's own identification with human limitations and inadequacies. At such moments one imagines that one stands on some spot of a small planet, gazing in amazement at the cold yet profoundly moving beauty of the eternal, the unfathomable; life and death flow into one, and there is neither evolution nor destiny; only Being. — Albert Einstein
When people ask what it’s like to write a novel I often reply that it’s the closest I get to levitation. You can imagine my pleasure when Einstein and Wasson testify to similar experiences. Despite their endorsements, I suspect the subject deserves some elaboration if it’s going to make compelling sense to readers.
Although Wasson and Einstein were contemporaries, they were very different from one another. We all know Einstein as a physicist, or perhaps as an amateur violinist. The lesser-known Wasson was a vice-president at JP Morgan & Co. and a self-taught ethnomycologist who began the study of edible wild mushrooms on his honeymoon (must have been quite a romance!)—a pursuit that led to his personal discovery of magic mushrooms and other hallucinogenic fungi. Despite these differences, both men were accomplished writers.
Wasson and his wife began to travel the world reporting on their experiments with psychedelics and the variety of transcendental experiences associated with spiritual and religious practices. His first-hand reports reveal a sense of wonder at his out-of-body journey, one that provided an elevated view of consciousness.
I’ve never heard reports of Einstein toying with psychotropic drugs of any kind. Yet I’ve come across several passages written by him that express a disembodied awareness similar to Wasson’s accounts. While he never fully endorsed any religion (he was a secular Jew), there are hints here and there that he was a pantheist, one who believes that God inhabits all things. When I read these statements from Einstein, I take them literally. I suspect there were several occasions in which he possessed a complete identification with “Being”—free, as he says, from the constraints of “evolution or destiny.”
Please be assured I’m
making no claims to identify myself with Einstein,
Wasson, or anyone else. However, many artists report
similar phenomena to those of Einstein and Wasson,
especially when their painting or composing or
writing enters a groove when the work seems to create
Some writers, for example, have revealed that at some point their characters begin to generate their own dialogue. I’ve certainly enjoyed this experience—and much more. In my current work-in-progress (somewhere around page thirty) I discovered a girl hiding in a bedroom in her mother’s apartment. I had no idea she was there, yet when she entered the narrative, she immediately demanded an important place in the novel—one so important that it drove the story in a direction I didn’t imagine when I began to write.
When the creative act reaches this point of “lift-off” it can become a form of dictation in which I simply record the text and correct bits and pieces to ensure it makes sense. Sometimes the force of this experience is so powerful that I feel as though I’m almost irrelevant to the process. All I need to do is trust it as the words appear on the page. Once that sense of trust is complete, I am free to read the narrative as a disembodied eye, to witness the unfolding of the forces of nature as they are transmitted through my being.
It’s a remarkable experience. Much safer than psychedelics.
By becoming attached to names and forms, not realizing that they have no more basis than the activities of the mind itself, error rises and the way to emancipation is blocked. — Buddha
The writer of these lines has nothing whatsoever to teach anyone; his words are just his contribution to our common discussion of what must inevitably be for us the most important subject which could be discussed by sentient beings. — Terence James Stannus Gray (a.k.a. Wei Wu Wei)
When three respected spiritual leaders—each writing from a different tradition—declare that “words,” “thoughts,” and “names” are wrong-headed, it makes me pause. Although they may indeed be correct, I wonder why they impart their wisdom using ... words, thoughts, and names.
It’s taken me some time, but now I can accept the paradox and the ironies involved. After all, those of us (and I include myself here) trying to achieve some insight into the mystery of our existence have to dig pretty deep to penetrate all the cultural “noise” that gets in the way. For example, is it possible to enter a state of self-realization while tapping your toes to the latest tune from Britney Spears? Or whilst sipping a single malt whiskey, or digesting the news about the Japanese tsunami?
Most spiritual guides would say, “No.” The spiritual journey must be undertaken unplugged—“unplugged,” that is, in the sense of The Matrix. In other words, you need to disconnect yourself from all the cultural personas and social diversions to get to the centre of life. According to the gurus above, that includes unplugging the “self” that you’ve constructed with words, thoughts and names. When (or if) you achieve this state of pure being your self will have dissolved, and as a result, there will be no “you” to experience it.
So, despite claims to the contrary, the relationship between spiritual awareness and writing is perhaps stronger than with any other art form. Apart from various tribal and animistic practices (which DO rely on painting, sculpture, music and dance) the world’s great religions depend on the written word to mark their authority, to provide continuity through time, and to render a grand narrative that offers transcendent meaning to their followers.
Furthermore, it seems to me that religion needs writing more than writing needs religion. There are so many marvellous poems and novels and plays that provide a direct conduit to self-awareness (even in the spiritual sense of the word) and most of them achieve this success without constructing new religions from their foundations.
Nonetheless, there are plenty of writers who attach spiritual value to the act of writing. Several European Romantic writers and the American Transcendentalists testify to this bond. In our own era, many of the American Beats allied their creativity with the Zen notion of fully inhabiting the present moment. As Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg used to say, “First time, best time.” In other words, artistic intuition is the best guide to artistic excellence; never edit inspired phrasing into proper diction.
For me, the daily act of writing is the closest I get to levitation. It’s a practice I maintain for its own sake. With that perspective in mind, the pressure to publish diminishes, and the need to cater to the public taste and fashion dissolves. Ultimately, this approach offers a kind of creative freedom. And if that freedom can be completely unleashed—so that even unconscious self-censorship is eliminated—then the novel can dictate its own narrative, the characters will speak freely, and artistic clairvoyance can emerge.
In short, the novel can simply BE.