Look To Where You Want To Be

As I continue my investigation of the principles Shambhala Art, I’m considering this quote from page one of True Perception: Dharma Art:

“…the artist embodies the viewer as well as the creator of the works. Vision is not separate from operation.”

When I sit down to write a first draft, my tendency is to gather my thoughts before putting pen to page. I don’t necessarily workout each sentence ahead of time, although I know some writers who do. I usually have a general shape in mind before I start making marks.

The process is something like this: I listen to my mind, which is at first silent but not quiet. Perhaps what I hear is indistinct murmuring or the wind or the couple across the hall arguing or the couple snuggled on the couch watching a movie of people arguing. I don’t know what I hear or even if I hear anything until thoughts begin to coagulate into harmonies, and then I begin to write. The marks on the page distinguish the aeolian notes and chords from the silence that runs through them.

This process of arising, sensing, and marking is discontinuous. Often I will stop writing (sometimes mid-sentence) until the next thought becomes clear. These are the interesting moments, the silence within thoughts. The most interesting parts of writing and reading are in the gaps.

Brian Kiteley in The 3 A.M. Epiphany describes a writing exercise he calls The Gap. He suggests writing a brief scene of less than 300 words, then skipping to a much later scene with the same characters. The gap between the two scenes is full of richness, the way elision is full of richness in poetry. The purpose of the exercise is to develop the skill of knowing what to leave out and what to include.

The gap is also fundamental to how narrative works. Scott McCloud outlines six different types of transitions in comics and their various affects. The power of these transitions are in the gap between panels, called the gutter in comic books. The gutter is where the viewer and the creator become one.

How do gaps occur? How do I know I’m at a gap? How do I know to stop making marks?

The only way I know is that I’m reading the words as I write them. Again my writing process is one where I’m walking in the dark of my mind, my hands outstretched in search of edges and textures. As my fingers press up against a firm or warm or vibrating thought, I begin to describe, or rather inscribe the feeling of the thought on the page. As I’m writing I am also reading the inscription. I come upon the silence within the text and know I must engage the gap.

Staring into the gap, sitting in the gap, I am both a reader and a writer. I’m creating and reading. As Trungpa also says in True Perception, “…art is still a manual process. Everything has to be manual and realistic.” The act of making art is both material and mystical. There is no way to circumvent the material process of writing/reading, even if there are many varieties and layers of techniques artists can employ.

One of the most useful techniques I’ve developed has an analogy in motorcycling. The accepted wisdom among motorcyclists is that you go where you look. In Proficient Motorcycling, David Hough explains,

We tend to point our vehicles where we are focusing, even if that’s not where we think we’re steering.

On a motorcycle, you can think you are making a turn and ride straight off the road, if you are staring off the road.

Very often, I think I’ve written one story and discover something entirely different on the page. Sometimes this discovery comes a few days after writing the first draft, other times I get a surprise many years later and after multiple drafts. These long term blind spots are likely examples of parapraxis, but the quick and easy ones result from losing focus and staring off the side of the road. I was thinking about the writing I don’t want to make rather than the writing I do want to make. Trying to avoid pitfalls in writing is a sure way to fall into them. Instead, I focus my attention on exemplars of writing that I most enjoy.

The mantra I repeat is “Look to where you want to be.” This can be difficult when I’m on a mountain curve and can’t see the road ahead, but I look that way anyhow.


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