East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Practicing the True Secret of Writing (or at least trying)

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I think I already told you part of this, so bear with me if I repeat myself.
I started dabbling with Zen in high school: our teacher was convinced the Ministry-approved curriculum for History and Philosophy was limited and incomplete, and so he assigned us to write essays on subjects that were not part of the program. I already had a passion for the east, and so I chose to do a paper on Zen philosophy.
My teacher provided a few titles, and then I discovered Thomas Hoover’s Zen Culture, and I was thoroughly fascinated. Incidentally, Hoover’s book can be downloaded for free – together with many of his other fine fiction and non-fiction books – from the author’s web page.
My essay got top marks, my schoolmates concluded I was even more of a crackpot and a geek than I appeared to be, and I started what was to be an on-off interest for the rest of my life.

The crackpot part is significant – there was another thing I did, back in high school, that marked me as a weirdo. I wrote stories.
They were very poor stories, mostly fantasy and science fiction, hammered out on my mother’s Olivetti typewriter, but I liked it as much as I liked reading. Possibly more: because I’d be able to write stories I did not find around, and I would have loved to read.
It was a start.
My schoolmates looked at me and shook their heads.
Not all of them – a few were quite supportive – and one of them even said “You’ll end up being a real writer.”
I wished I had his faith in my skills.

It was about six years later, in 1990, give or take a few months, that I discovered Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and everything fell in its place: here was a book that connected writing practice and Zen practice. Goldberg approach to writing was very different to what I had learned by reading various writing handbooks and author bios.
It was writing as a reason onto itself.
It was a way to quiet the monkey mind, pacify the turmoil of thoughts, but also to get in touch with the wild mind in which truth, in some way, resides or passes by.

Almost thirty years on (my goodness!) as I pay my bills by writing, this seems at odds with the idea of writing for writing’s sake, writing as a liberating act, as a directionless, meditative practice.
Can you write to a call, with a given word-count, a required theme, following guidelines, and still be able to access your wild mind and making the act of writing something more than ticking the right boxes to sell?

This is where my crackpot practices, my Zen meditation and my timed writing exercises come into play – and once again I see people shaking their heads: think about paying your bills, then you can talk philosophy.

And I admit I do not like the cynical approach I see is becoming the standard practice: find the hot topic and write a few stories about that topic, feed the appetite of the punters, get the money, and when the interest wanes, move on and tap the new fad.
What I don’t like is the deliberate, cynical and aggressive, almost piratical approach to writing – find a market and plunder it.

There is nothing wrong with writing to a market – I do it every day, and I hope I’ll be able to keep doing for a long time still, and yet, there must be something more than just providing fodder to fulfill the minimum common denominator.
It can’t just be “fantasy of hard knocks”, “blades & boobs”, “young adult stories because right now the little bastards are the ones that spend more than anyone else in books.”

So I went back to Natalie Goldberg, and right now I am re-reading The True Secret of Writing, from 2013 – and I plan to go back, afterwards, to the older Wild Mind, from the 1990s.
The True Secret’s tag-line is Connecting Life with Language, and I think that’s what might make a difference. Not just tell the right story, but also telling the true story. making it an extension of our life, putting ourselves in danger, so to speak, by risking and putting what’s personal, intimate and truthful in the story.
Which does not mean writing confessional literature, or making a display of ourselves, but really pulling down the barrier between thought and action, between mind and story.

And I’m not saying it’s easy, mind you – and again I can see many colleagues shaking their heads, and thinking “Crackpot”.
I know a couple of writers that love projecting this blase and cynical, “ruthless mercenary”-style image.
And who knows, maybe they are right.
I’m not saying that mine’s the True Way or whatever.
But for me it works, or at least it’s worth trying.
As an exercise, if nothing else.
In case you’re interested, here’s a handy list of points to try it…

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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