“Under every deep a lower deep opens.” –Emerson
Our habitual stories usually protect us from the mystery of our lives. –Thomas Moore
This has been a hard week of writing for me. I find that I keep telling the same story over and over. The characters don’t change; I don’t change; the same people or forces or traits are still to blame. In short, I see that I am stuck. I seem to be moving (the pen is moving), but I am in a rut. I pick up a book at random and open it up. It’s a book my sister gave me, one I have resisted reading. Since I am resisting writing, I decide to look around it in. To my surprise, I find this passage:
“Whenever a story puts an end to reflection and further story-telling, that story is now serving as a defense. The whole point of a good story is to give birth to other stories and to deeper reflection. . . .The story within and beneath the familiar story is almost always full of insight and new possibility. It may take courage to go another level down, to abandon clarity, however illusory, for confusion and puzzlement. Our habitual stories usually protect us from the mystery of our lives. But there is always the opportunity to take our storytelling deeper, always the chance to find the intelligence and comfort we have been seeking at a level far beneath the basement of our expectations.” —Thomas Moore, Original Self.
Maybe I am stuck because I long ago decided who all these people in my story are (or were). What if I decided I didn’t know them so well? What else would I need to imagine about them? Most of what I do know about the inner life, the character of my characters is imagined— even if these “characters” are the real people in my memoir rather than the ones I create for fiction.
Stories work because someone does not get what he or she wants. What motivates the people I’m trying to write about? What does each one want most? What keeps him/her from getting it?
“Just tell me what happened,” I say to writers in workshop. Go back to that physical space, that moment in time you want to create and TELL ME A STORY. Who said what? What did she really want? How can I tell? Where was he standing when I saw something I’d never noticed about him?
The mystery of our lives — and of our characters lives — lies embedded in the ordinary details of the story. I have a page from an old Zen calendar tucked into the blotter on my desk: “The mystery of life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” Recreate the reality of your experience.
And, oh yes, let yourself fail. I have to remember that I am going to be stuck, that in fact there may be a good reason for me to be stuck. Do I expect the mysterious not to push me away? Do I believe that I can look directly at the light waiting in those bushes around the old house where I came into myself? the ones that burn in memory? There is a reason that I resist writing.
If I can say, “Oh, I see that I am really not wanting to write,” then I have brought that resistance out of the shadows. I am free to say, “Well, so what?” Most of the time I do resist writing. And when I do write, I am dissatisfied with what I have written.
Writing is about letting ourselves NOT do it right – It is about not doing the “assignment,” about failing to produce what we thought we were “supposed to” be doing. It’s okay to write badly, to write the same thing over and over. It’s also okay to start again to tell the story, especially if that means I abandon clarity in the trust that there are uncomfortable places to traverse before I reach the deeper work calling me to the page.