March 05, 2008

Writing 101 - Writing Practice

At this very moment, I am sitting in a meeting of the university’s Electoral Commission. I am not on the commission. The meeting is taking place in the circle of semi-comfy chairs in the student government offices. I just happened to be here when the meeting was called to discuss a complaint lodged against one of the parties for improper use of an email listserv. Luckily, in Nebraska we have these things called open meeting laws. These laws have a long and glorious history and have become part and parcel of our political culture. No one even considered asking me to leave. So here I sit, happily typing away on my laptop, while the commission debates back and forth around me.

It is election day for student government. Tonight is our last senate meeting. So far as I can tell, the most contentious issue on the agenda is a reorganization of the student section at the football stadium by the Athletic Department administration. Which is a nice change from the past three weeks or so of four hour plus meetings full of contentious (and oh, so lovely!) debate.

“What does the word ‘official’ mean?”

“What was the original purpose of this rule?”

“How should we restrict student communications?”

“How should we protect students from unsolicited email?”

These questions bounce around until it finally settles, a vote is taken, and they move on to the next issue. I never, in any dream, would have pictured myself in such governmental meetings. I was never the slightest bit interested in politics. Election day would roll around. The week before, I would go online, check out the platforms, try to find some objective opinions (I know, I know) and then check the box beside the name. That was all the more involved I ever thought I would be in politics or law. Now I sit here and listen to good people, conscientious people, talk about “burdens of proof.” I especially never thought I would be genuinely interested in the discussion.

Natalie Goldberg tells us to practice. To write every day (or however often we feel practical), just like an athlete would train for a marathon. Such an athlete would run several times a week, but only complete a marathon every few weeks or months. We can’t sit down and expect to write the marathon, that race of races, right away. Of course, it’s not about length, but rather quality in this case, but the principle is the same. Practice. Don’t be afraid to write crap. (Don’t be afraid to publish crap, which is what blogs are for after all.)

Natalie’s first instruction, “Beginner’s Mind,” scared me frankly. It called for letting go, cutting loose, no censoring. Just sitting down to write for ten minutes and going, not stopping, just pushing straight through, capture the thought stream, no second thoughts, no editing, whatever is on the top of your mind. I took me time after reading that chapter to work up the courage to execute, because I knew what was on the top of my mind. Maybe if that had been any other week, it wouldn’t have scared me so, but I think it couldn’t have come at a better time. I need to learn to work with the scary, to work it through.

Today, I read in the Shambhala Sun about dying. “To be alive is to have a terminal illness.” Norman Fischer wrote. Ruth Ozeki wrote about “The Art of Losing.” Death seems to be a reoccurring thing in this issue, but then it is a reoccurring thing in life, so that seems fitting.

Ruth Ozeki believe that the very act of creation, whether through art, photography, carpentry, or writing, is a way of dealing with death. We create in order to cope with loss. And not merely to cope, but to somehow validate. We are not necessarily seeking to validate our lives, but perhaps to validate our deaths, or perhaps our existence in both states, all together.

It made me wonder, what might it be like to create nothing? What might it be like to intentionally go through our lives with the goal of leaving no trace – not a single written word, not a scrap of any possessions, not a name recorded in any book, on any stone. Perhaps we might yet be remembered, but in time even that would pass as those people inevitably followed us into death. Is that scary? Why?

Is that why we complicate our lives so? Why we create elaborate cultures, economies, laws, systems of government. We are constantly creating, and we don’t seem to particularly care what it is we are creating. And in the end we come up with elaborate rules to govern a process which was originally as simple as asking a question. Could we honestly say that death was what compelled us, as a species and a society, to create even this? What then compels us to preserve this, a system of government often attributed to the ancient Greeks? What compels us to maintain this system? Is it perhaps a belief that if we preserve what was created by those long dead, that someday what we create may be likewise preserved? Or is it the merit of the thing itself?

I, as a budding architect (and possibly writer) would hope for the later. I would hope that after my death, be it near or far, that which I have created might be preserved only if it hold some merit intrinsic to itself, and not merely because of an attachment to my person or a forlorn home that the act of conservation has some greater meaning.

In the meantime, it’s off to the senate meeting for me, to help create (or not) some new bit or legislation which will be recorded for posterity in the annals of student government.


TK said...

We are all programmed to crave existence: if we weren't, we'd be extinct. But all forms are empty according to Buddha: no such a thing as intrinsic merit or meaning. So, scattering, not gathering or preserving, would be a Buddhist thing to do.

If I create, hopefully that's because that is fun, not because I want it to be meaningful and/or remembered. I should be able to scatter the creation and walk away like Tibetan sand artists then.

Monica said...


Beautifully said. I agree. I suppose when I speak of intrinsic value of architecture, I relate to it on a relative level, not an ultimate. Does it help someone? It is good, or has merit, only if the answer is yes.

As for intrinsic meaning, well, I agree there really is no such thing. Meaning yes, but not intrinsic. Meaning is something which must be given, which exists outside the thing itself, and really only within our own minds.

I suppose that's why I don't save my blogs. If the server crashes, I loose them all. It's out of my hands. That is my act of scattering. Some people write things on paper and burn them. I think this would be a good practice.