Form and Substance

One of my favorite writing stories is one Gary Zukav told me about the first time he tried to write. Zukav decided he wanted to be a writer. So he bought a book on How To Be A Writer, read it, sat down at the typewriter one day, rolled up his sleeves – and realized he had nothing he wanted to write about. That was the end of his first attempt.

A few years later he met some physicists who were discussing quantum physics. He thought it was fascinating. So fascinating, he kept hanging around with them, even though he was not a scientist and had never liked math. Eventually, he wrote The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which became a bestseller and won the American Book Award for Science, and his life as a writer and spiritual teacher was born.

It’s a great story, but in a way, it’s every writer’s story. Writing is only a form of expression. Like a lot of writers, Zukav recognized it as a form that would serve some greater need for him. But like some writers, he at first mistook the servant for the master, he mistook form for substance. The act of writing itself has no substance whatsoever. It has no inherent direction. Go wander a library and notice all the books there. Each is its own direction. The directions writing can take us are literally limitless – a fact that requires us to make some rather definite choices.

It is not always easy to make these choices. If you are an adult person, you have probably spent a lot time navigating the world of form – the form of jobs, the form of relationships, and the form of books themselves, these objects you can hold in your hand, and on whose cover you might one day like to see the form that is your name. This world of form seems to be where you live and love and succeed.

But to make the choice a writer must make, you must eventually direct your attention elsewhere, away entirely from the world of form and toward that which desires to be given form. It is a blessedly happy moment when you at last perceive writing and life’s true substance, but if you are like me, this choice comes with some trepidation. It can feel as if I am asking myself to walk blindly, to take my eyes off the hard edges of the world that so wounded me when I become distracted. In truth, it was the world that distracted me in the first place, and to seek writing’s source is to teach myself to see.

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


Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

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The Balance Of Love

I have written often in this space, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, about the idea that what it takes to write the book you most want to write is also what it takes to lead the life you most want to lead. Perhaps no one illustrates this more perfectly than the subject of one of my earlier interviews, Gary Zukav.

During our interview he described how in the middle of his life he was addicted to sex, he was smoking, angry, competitive and, to top things off, living on food stamps. Then he was given a chance to attend a meeting of quantum physicists. He decided to go because, as he described it, he “wanted to find out what a scientist looked like.” He found out more than that. As he listened to the physicists describe waves and particles and energy, a light, as they say, went on inside him. Zukav felt that the theories these men were sharing had ramifications that went far beyond the world of physics.

So Zukav decided he would write a book about quantum physics for the layman.  He wasn’t a scientist, he hated math, but he was so impassioned and excited about this project, he woke up every morning eager as a schoolboy to work on it. While he wrote, he said, he “forgot to be angry, forgot to be jealous, forgot to be afraid.” He didn’t want anything to taint what he had come to see as a sacred process.  In the end, he wrote The Dancing Wu Li Masters, which went on to win The National Book Award for science, and was a #1 New York Times bestseller.

But more important than that, Zukav learned how he wanted to live. He said that from that moment forward he wanted to live his life as he had while writing The Dancing Wu Li Masters. So there you have it. What it took to write the book he most wanted to write is what it took to live the life he most wanted to live. Or, more precisely, he had found love.

The great thing about writing is you can’t do it for very long unless you love to do it. Yes it can drive you mad when it’s not coming, and yes you can lay awake wondering if it has abandoned you, but you can wonder the same thing about any person you love. I am not learning how to write, I am not learning about characters and setting and pacing, I am learning to hold the balance of love against all the tides of fear, the only lesson I think I have ever had to learn.

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Soul Matters

I interviewed Gary Zukav this past Friday for our June issue. His latest book, Spiritual Partnership, deals – as have all his books since the publication of his evergreen bestseller Seat of the Soul – with matters of the soul.

The world “soul” means different things to different people. For some, it is a staple of their daily conversation, a reminder of life’s inarguable value; for others, it is yet another in a list of superstitious hokum floating meaninglessly above hard, observable reality. Although I was raised without any organized religion, I took to the word quite early, largely because it was used so freely by the artistic types I looked up to and whose lives I wished to someday emulate. Poetry or music or books were said to either have soul or not, and always the more soul a work of art had the better.

I came to see that artistic soul usually meant art that expressed itself without intellectual self-consciousness, which is always a grand thing. But as a concept, this idea of soul was too laden with accomplishment, as if soul is yet another by-product of craft. There seemed to me a deeper value to the word, and one that spoke more directly to the creative life.

My soul is that to which my interest attunes itself. My interest has no logic, it can never be proven, and yet it is the guiding force of my life, responsible for the woman I married, the food I choose to eat, the city in which I live, and the magazine through which I write to you now. The intellect sorts through the data of the physical world, interprets it, and arrives at logical conclusions, like how to make a boat buoyant. That which I call the soul has its own logic, whose only desired conclusion is my own contentment.

I cannot create without this concept of the soul. If I remain bound to the physical world, that which I can see and taste and hear and so on, then nothing I create makes any sense. There is nothing within the physical world that will tell me what to write next. Only the inherent logic of my own desire shows me a path through the infinite choices before me. Without my soul, I am little more than a rubber ball, buffeted meaningless by events; with it, I am a creature of action, an engine in the service of love.

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Imagine It

I am reading Gary Zukav’s Spiritual Partnership in anticipation of our upcoming interview. In it, he briefly describes the emotional turmoil that plagued the sculptor Michelangelo. Apparently, the older Michelangelo got, the angrier he got, until, in his eighties, he rarely finished a work, preferring instead to smash the sculptures with hammers.

Now that I think of it, Mark Twain apparently grew hard and bitter in his waning years. This is due in part, it is said, to the death of his daughter—but a lot of people have lost daughters and not drawn the curtain on hope.

It is sometimes important for artists to hear stories like these, grim as they sound. In his song “Star”, David Bowie sings, “I could fall asleep at night as a rock ‘n roll star/I could fall in love all right as a rock ‘n roll star.” Quite honest, that. Everyone, artists and non-artists alike, are frequently warned that success solves nothing, but everyone rarely listens.

So I don’t want to wag my finger. The warnings about fame and success and the rest are so often filled with the sour scowl of disappointment that it is hard to hear them clearly. What is so bad about millions of people reading your books or listening to your music? Why, nothing at all, of course.

But Bowie had it right, especially the falling asleep part. As with anything we long for to solve all our problems, we are seeking that universal stamp of approval that will free us once and for all from want. That is, wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t need anything to be happy? Yes, it would, except in the fantasy of fame, those who are not famous often forget that once this fame is attained they can never lose the fame or they would also lose their happiness.

The important thing to remember is the not-needing-anything-to-be-happy part. The desire is correct, but not the means of achieving that desire. The beauty of not needing anything to be happy is anyone can achieve it at any time. So when you look at another person and they seem free because they are beautiful or successful or famous or wealthy, you are actually a step closer to what you seek. If you had no idea of freedom, you would never be able to identify it incorrectly in another person. Forget the trappings you dressed it in, and seek the feeling for itself, because as every artist knows, if you can imagine something, it is only a matter of time before you find it.

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