Sunday, September 26, 2010

I Never Noticed That House Before

Recently I had an inspiration about the book I'm working on now. It came in the middle of writing an email to a friend, on a completely different subject. It arrived as a sensation of dropping--something like that jerky lowering of a person sitting in a basket, of a person being rescued from somewhere high up. Drop, drop, drop; at each level another quick glimpse of the possibility. Then, suddenly, the whole of it--the beginning, the end, how it would feel, its meaning. This incorporated all the work I've done on it, and it also reached backward to an initial ambition for the book lost in the intervening work. The inspiration shone a beam on what I know, what I have to give--in this case. Afterward I had the same feeling I have when I suddenly notice a house I've passed hundreds of times but have never seen. The components of the inspiration weren't unfamiliar. They were rearranged, re-envisioned. 
I suppose I was readying myself for this the other night in class. I found myself saying that over time I'd come to have faith in the creative experiences I'd had as a child, when I had no notion of work habits and only proceeded by inspiration. Suddenly I'd have an image in my mind and I'd run to write it or draw it or build it. 
There seems to be a difference between a good idea and a whole one. Inspiration is all encompassing. It's possible to root around for good ideas, but it seems that the whole ones arrive on their own time schedule. Probably it's sensible to practice technique on good ideas so you'll be ready when inspiration arrives, but I'm not even convinced of the necessity. Inspiration can guide and teach, too. Usually it is inspiration that prompts people to learn an art form, to fulfill the vision.
Who knows what will become of my inspiration? That is another matter.

I remembered how beautifully the painter Agnes Martin wrote about inspiration. Here are a few lines from An Untroubled Mind.
Inspiration is pervasive but it is not a power
It's a peaceful thing
It is a consolation even to plants and animals
It is an untroubled mind.
Of course we know that an untroubled state of mind cannot last so we say that inspiration comes and goes but really it is there all the time waiting for us to be untroubled again. We can therefore say it is pervasive. Young children are more untroubled than adults and therefore have many more inspirations. All the moments of inspiration together make what we call sensibility. The development of sensibility is the most important thing for children and adults but it is much more possible in children. In adults it would be accurate to say the awakening to their sensibility is the most important thing.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Flaubert's Four Pages in Four Weeks

Last night in class we discussed Madame Bovary, specifically the scene when Emma goes to the curé for spiritual sustenance or steadying when she is feeling herself slip. The curé only half pays attention to her; he is too busy trying to round up the wayward boys for their catechism class to notice the subtlety of her distress. It is a beautiful little scene told with Flaubert's careful description and to the point dialogue.

We then read a letter Flaubert wrote to his lover and muse, Louise Colet, about his composition of the scene.
"Finally I am beginning to see a little light in my accursed dialogue with the curé. But frankly, there are moments when I almost feel like vomiting physically the whole thing is so low. I want to express the following situation. My little lady, in an excess of religiosity, goes to church; at the door she finds the curé who in a dialogue shows himself to be so stupid, inept, sordid that she goes away disgusted and undevout. ... This must have 6 or 7 pages at most and must contain no comment, no analysis; it will all be direct dialogue. .... So: you are initiated into the torture I have been undergoing for a fortnight. By the end of next week, I hope I will have it off my hands."

I have edited the letter to the salient parts--those that show how fully aware he was of his intention, and that reveal how long it took him to get this little scene right. A fortnight already, now the week he is in, and his guess that it will take him another week. I count somewhere between three and four weeks. The final version has the feeling of inevitability of all great literature. It is simple, clear, and completely alive. This vivid inevitability takes deep thinking and a lot of work. I love Flaubert's letters for many reasons, one of which is that he reveals how long he spends on certain scenes and sections--and he was writing over long, uninterrupted days. He has a plan, always. He knows exactly what scene he needs to write, what must happen, who's present, how it must feel to the reader, how long it should be. His worldly ambitions--he was determined to be famous--enhance the quality of his thinking; he knows what he has to do, how much focus he needs to do it, that he has to give up Paris to write his book.

For the past ten days I have had a toothache, a root canal, and pain in its aftermath. Returning to Flaubert and his anguish over his recalcitrant scenes has been so soothing. Such an angry young man, so determined to be famous. I have the feeling he'd write to Louise about the annoyance of his toothache but he'd still be laying down the tracks of description.

Saturday, September 18, 2010


For the past couple of months I've had plantar fascitis in my right foot, which has curtailed my usual walking. Most days I go up to Mills Reservation with the dogs for an hour or so--or I did, before. Now I'm grounded, more or less. I make it up there a couple of times a week on Aleve, but the next day I am always hobbled. The transition from being able to count on this to having it be sporadic and painful hurts as much as my foot does. The dogs aren't happy about it either. Back on the leash, they walk around the block with me, and they're as cheerful as they can be, but we all know they can be a lot more than that. In the woods, they bring all they've got, and there are moments every day that have us all looking at each other--hey, did you see that dog/flower/fox/wild turkey/kid/snake/branch/shadow? We know every trail up there, and we have our spots--places where we suddenly feel the world grow larger. One of those spots is in this blog's title photo; I think of it as the boreal forest, the tundra, an ancient ground. We live in season here, though, and it when changes my imagination names it differently, the dogs care about it more or less, depending. We're secretly proprietary about everything up there, because we know how it looks and smells spring, summer, fall, winter. We love it when lost people and dogs need our help to get back to the parking lot--yep, we're experts, we know where we are.

For over 15 years now going up there has been my most predictable activity, and the one I guard against submersion into the rest of busyness. I hesitate to call it a meditation practice, though people have told me it is one. How can it be, though, when lots of times I am yakking on the phone the whole way, or listening to MMmm Bop or Jesse's Girl, or I'm talking aloud and loud as a crazy person, trying to explain myself in some way to someone who is no doubt not thinking about me at all? I think of the walk as fun, even when I'm miserable--because I never stay miserable up there. It's not the natural beauty that does it, either. Fact is, it's a nice spot, but not a knock out. What grounds me again and again, what brings me back to a point of happiness, albeit tiny sometimes, is watching my dogs. Call it Beginner's Mind, presence, body wisdom, whatever--what I see is that they just like walking around up there, no matter what. That gets to me, every time. Why not like it?

But I don't like being separated from doing that. I'm grounded, but not in a good way. I'm past the point, too, where I want to eke lessons out of setbacks. I just want to return to my routine, waste some time, watch the dogs stare pointlessly into a hole that has been empty for ages.