The Phantom Wheel

When I was finishing my last novel, the image that kept popping into my head was of me in a car letting go of the steering wheel. Apparently I am a simple man who needs his metaphors clear and pre-interpreted. Regardless, this image became my guide, and it led me to an end that was, to the writer, satisfying and surprising.

I thought of this metaphor when I listened to Andre Dubus’s address at this past summer’s writing conference. He pointed out that you spend your whole day manipulating your time so that you have the opportunity to write. Then once you get to your desk, what do you do? You let go of the wheel. His exact words, if I recall correctly.

I mentioned this story to Radanath Swami when I spoke with him last month. I described how as a writer you have to let of go of control when you write. The Swami laughed and said, quite matter-of-factly, “I don’t think you ever have control.”

Wise Swami. I used to think pain came from holding on too tightly to the wheel of life, from resisting the ineluctable flow of which I am ineluctably a part. As if I am in a boat and trying to wrench the rudder against the current. Do this long enough and your muscles ache and your back stiffens. So I let go of the wheel, and things flow.

But that wasn’t where the pain came from at all. The pain came from believing there was even a wheel to hold onto in the first place.  It does not exist. There is nothing with which you can steer the world outside your own heart. It is the frantic grasping at nothing that sends me into a panic. It is like a nightmare where I am trapped on a bus, watching my stop fly past, and the rope to ring the bell keeps disappearing.

The bus will never stop and I don’t want it to. Peace of mind does not wait for me at an appointed place.  As I look back at that image I used to finish my last book, I see that I misunderstood it. I wasn’t letting go of the wheel at all. If I let my imagination’s eye travel down from my hands, I see that they are raised in surprise, having just discovered there is nothing to grab.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Let It Rain

I live in Seattle, where apparently there is not going to be a spring this year. Between winter and summer we are being treated to a damp, spongy period I will call Spronge. Spronge is fantastic for lawns but not so good for picnics. Very good for writing, however. Not much to tempt you from your desk, and all that rain and all those sodden trees can put you in contact with a very productive gloom.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one to romanticize despair. But warm rain has a very particular effect on me, and perhaps gloom is not precisely the right word. Persistent rain, for which Seattle is so rightly famous, reminds me of all that over which I have no power. Thus the gloom, I think. Which is to say, I must harbor some illusions that I am a kind of god, and if I were just skilled enough the world might bend to my will. Yet rain – particularly warm rain, which is so much kinder than winter’s edge-of-snow rain – puts me back in touch with humanty’s reliable limitations.

Exactly where I need to be to write. Hard to hold much wonder for a world you think you can control. Hard also to create characters without their own free will. Yet the more I relinquish this grasp on things I could never hold, the greater command I feel. Our balance is always best maintained when our hands are free, despite the tempting luxury of the handrail – you’ll only cling to it and remain where you are.

There is no freedom in stasis, and what misery to believe you are in charge of the world, how exhausting and impossible. The artist in all of us stands within the world, puny by physical scale, powerless to the smallest mosquito whose death we could engineer but over whose life we haven’t one ounce of authority – yet unburdened by the need to stop the rain, our energy is freed to reveal the limitless designs of imagination. We are large indeed.  There are no walls to hem us but our own desire.

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The Zone

Many writers, especially as they’re starting out, contend with The Editor Over The Shoulder. This phantom character can stop a story cold, drain all interest, and, despite it’s supposed role of improving prose, ruin what might have otherwise been perfectly good writing. If you’re fortunate enough never to have met this ghost, go have another cup of coffee and count yourself lucky; but if you have, here’s a trick that might dispel him or her once and for all.

This is merely an experiment, and you need only try it for one day. Imagine you have a Zone of Influence. This zone represents all that you have actual control over. There is a lot that is not inside this zone: tomorrow, yesterday, other people’s opinions, the weather, The New York Times (assuming you are not a member of its editorial board), agents, editors, readers. It’s a long list. Inside this zone, however, is what you are actually doing, who you are actually talking to, what you are actually writing.

For one day, make all those things outside your Zone of Influence off limits. This means not only can’t you talk about them, you can’t even think about them. This means no imaginary conversations, no thinking about what your writing group will say (because they aren’t saying it), no imaginary book signings—nothing. You will probably slip, but don’t worry. Just remind yourself that today you aren’t going to think about those things, and then move on.

This sort of technique is variously called mindfulness or living in the moment, but whatever it is called, it is a practice, a discipline. If you can practice taking your mind off all that you have no control over in your daily life, then when you sit down at your desk The Editor will be revealed for what he truly is: yet another expression of all that you believe you must control but cannot.

So give it a try.  And remember, it’s only for one day. Tomorrow you can go back to thinking about all those things outside your Zone of Influence. But perhaps you will discover the pleasure in not thinking about those things. After all, if you have no influence over something, all the thinking in the world isn’t going to change it, and so all that energy is spent making nothing. Turn that energy toward you can create, and you may be surprised by what grows.

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