Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Art of Not Writing


A professor told me once that in order to write, one must learn not to write. One must understand the significance of not writing. Just as one understands winter. The snows fall, and the fields lie fallow so that spring may follow.

Sometimes, he said, he sits in front of a blank page for hours and hours, day after day. He sees it as a snow covered field. He sees the birds fly overhead, and the clouds. Poems will surely come, he says. He can never say when.


A woman sits alone at her desk practicing the art of not writing. It’s quiet in her home. Her husband is at work. Her children are at school. From her office window, she can see that her neighbor is out in her garden, watering flowers. She listens to a woodpecker tapping at the outside of her house. The phone rings. The dog scratches at the other side of the door, and whines, begging to come in. The dog walks in and out of her poem, its long tail wagging and knocking over a vase of flowers sent by a secret lover.


The professor and the woman are both sitting at their desks, staring out into space. Neither of them is writing. They are both practicing the art of not writing. They are both waiting for the poem that has never been written. The poem that is like the silence in a Zen painting. Like the lover they never had. In the morning news they read of children buried in mudslides. They read of travelers stranded in Denver without their luggage. Of masked men who broke into mansions and left no fingerprints and stole no jewels, no money, no artwork. What were they looking for in the carpeted homes of strangers?


Lyle Daggett said...

Many many years ago, a professor I knew (not in a class, we met in other circumstances) told about a school of artists in Japan. Probably associated with Zen practice, I'm guessing, though he didn't say that specifically. Also I was never quite clear if this was a practice from sometime in the past, or if it's still going on.

He described the method of training new artists:

The first morning, he said, the student artists show up for class with the teacher, early, before dawn. They unroll their meditation mats, lay out their paper and ink and brushes, then they sit and meditate for a while. Then they put away the ink and brushes and paper, roll up the mats, and then go about their other work for the day.

The next morning, same thing -- show up before dawn, lay out the mats, set out the ink and brushes and paper, and sit and meditate. then put everything away and go about other business for the rest of the day.

Third day, same thing. Fourth day, same thing. Every day, day after day, the same routine -- unroll the mat, set out the materials, sit and meditate for a while, then put everything away and do whatever else for the rest of the day. The teacher is always there, but gives no other instruction.

According to what the professor told me, this goes on every day for something like seven years. And during all that time, the student artists never once pick up their brushes to actually paint anything.

Then one morning, whatever morning it is, they show up as usual, before dawn, unroll the mats, lay out the paper and ink and brushes -- and, on this particular morning, the teachers says, "Now paint."

And the students (those who have lasted this long) are no longer beginners. No timid tentative brushstrokes, no false starts, no getting halfway through and getting stuck losing the thread. After all that time of leading up to it, they see and paint -- not necessarily like accomplished masters, but like experienced painters.

The reason is that silence of those years isn't silent, the emptiness isn't empty.

Every day I make a point of spending at least a little time sitting with my poem notebooks open in front of me. Sometimes something comes out, sometimes not. But I always make the attempt.

(In the bardic guilds of the ancient Celtic world, they took an approach at an opposite end of the spectrum: an apprentice poet was required to learn, by memory, something like 40,000 lines of existing poetry, before being allowed to try writing any original poems of their own.)

Erin O'Brien said...

The word "Zen" came into my mind about 1.5 seconds before I read it.

Did I subconsciously see it or really predict it?

"pashella" is my word verification test for this comment.