Beginner’s Mind (Part 4) 03/01/21

So what exactly does having a beginner’s mind look like when it comes to writing? Practically, on the page?

Well, maybe we can start off by showing what it is not. I’ve gone back and forth as to what books to use as negative examples, namely because I don’t like the idea of putting anyone on blast who isn’t rich and successful. On the other hand, if they are rich and successful, that means that they’re at least doing something right (in most cases), and could therefore negate my argument that the excerpt in question is, in fact, bad.

The only way out, I’d wager, is by using a negative example by an author I really like. By including this, I am in no way saying that the writing here is bad. In fact, I’m saying that the writing is too good.

“In the molten fire where he lay he could watch the slow machinations of eternity, the cosmic miracle of each second being born, eggshaped, silverplated, phallic, time thrusting itself gleaming through the worn and worthless husk of the microsecond previous, halting, beginning to show the slow and infinitesimal accretions of decay in the clocking away of life in a mechanism encoded at the moment of conception, withering, shunted aside by time’s next orgasmic thrust, and all to the beating of some galactic heart, to voices, a madman’s mutterings from a snare in the web of the world.”

-William Gay, The Long Home

Now, I love this passage a lot. I have the book here on my shelf, but I ripped this one off of Goodreads, so I can wager that a lot of people also think that this is really good.

What this passage exemplifies, however, is the opposite of a beginner’s mind. Gay is flexing his chops here, he is showing you what he can do with language, and in doing so is creating some really hot paragraphing. Your eyes float over the text, each new word bringing in a new sensation, then flipping that sensation on its head and spinning it around.

Here’s the thing, though. Imagine if a whole book was written this way. In Gay’s case, they largely are.

Man, is it ever fraught to use someone’s commercial success as any kind of litmus test for whether or not they’re a good writer. What I’m arguing, instead, is that this kind of poetry can be completely exhausting when you’re hammered with it over and over, page after page. At a certain point, it becomes difficult to distinguish the signal from noise. The dynamism of the text can become flatlined.

What I am suggesting is that sometimes it’s a good idea to punctuate beauty like this with something that is dumb as fuck.

An atonal mistake, a sudden shift in volume, a break from the flowing river. Imagine if someone who’d never written a book was tasked with following that passage with one of their own. What would a beginner do in this situation? I’m not sure I know.

My gut tells me, however, that they too would try to write something beautiful and powerful, and though it would come out less skillfully than Gay’s passage, there’d be a certain kind of beauty in the trying, a kind of humanity that would shine through via the contrast.

In some books, there are sections that feel rushed, because the writer is working on a deadline. There are some sections where the ball gets completely dropped, because the writer doesn’t know what to do, or maybe they took a wrong turn fifty pages ago and are now completely lost. But it’s in that sense of being lost that real power can shine through.

Stuff like Gay juxtaposed with something very simple, human, maybe even goofy. That’s what keeps people on their toes.

I am convinced that writing is 90% voice, and that people read to hang out with their “friends,” the parasocial relationship they’ve developed with an artist. In drunken conversations, every once in a while someone will say something accidentally profound or beautiful…but imagine if someone talked like Gay writes? You’d be able to take it for about ten minutes. I know, I’ve met these people.

For now, that will do for me talking about beginner’s mind. Shoshin and wabi-sabi. Amateurish and unfinished as aesthetic. There’s something to this. I’d invite you to think about it for a bit. It’s been on my mind for a while, and I think there’s value in sitting with it.

Be human about it.

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