Writing fiction well is intractably difficult.
You begin with maybe one or two bricks at the ready, stand facing an unruly forest that is neither for nor against you, but possesses all the density and might of any previously uncontested wilderness, and you are armed only with the vague feeling that a Taj Mahal-like structure of beauty and possibility is alive inside you. There really is no way to know where to place the first brick, but you must place it so that another is given to you. So you look down, and you place it, noting you have just interrupted the path of an ant.
After the first day’s work you have a knee-height wall snaking between the trees but going nowhere just yet. In truth, it has gotten away from you. The first brick led naturally to a second, which led to a third, and one thing led to the next, and it all felt wonderful—just laying brick felt majestic—but you can see now you must really take stock of things. Your wall is headed towards a copse of three trees that surprise you with their beauty, but also are quite simply in your way.
But in the way of what?
You will have to grapple with the relation of your wall to the land, you realize. Not just to those three particular trees, but to all of the trees. They are ideas and possibilities. You will have to uproot a few of them, incorporate others into your wall perhaps, prune a few and leave still others untouched, but you will have to do so with some intelligence. The truth is that you couldn’t have known even this until you took a few bricks out of thin air and laid them down, let them combine their finite parcels of being into something new, a something imbued with the suggestion of something even more. You can stand on that wall and look around now, and see this forest differently than ever before, but the wall is not good enough as of yet. It has served its purpose, and led you forward, shown you what before was not possible to see.
But now you must begin anew. You may keep a particular section, but overall it must yield to the flux of discovery.
In his book The Art of Fiction John Gardner wrote that, “What the beginning writer needs, discouraging as it may be to hear, is not a set of rules but mastery…” Mastery is the power of getting everything right at once, and doing so naturally, as if it could not have been any other way. What I’ve described as intelligence in the paragraph above is not intelligence at all, but feeling. According to Gardner, “Art depends heavily on feeling, intuition, taste. It is feeling, not some rule, that tells the abstract painter to put his yellow here and there, not there, and may later tells him that it should have been brown or purple or pea-green… his instinct touches every thread of his fabric, even the murkiest fringes of symbolic structure.”
Can it be, when we are beginning, that our feelings are wrong? If masterful work does not flow from our pens, is it because our instincts are inadequate? It may seem this way, but it is a false and debilitating conclusion.
This same difficulty overtakes in our lives all the time. We sense we must trust our hearts—that we cannot navigate by logic alone—but this path leads us so often into difficulty. We find ourselves in moments that are prickly with doubt, that awaken forgotten pain, that do not possess the grace and wonder of our beginning. We find ourselves in moments in which we seem to be losing. It is as if we are inspired, and we dash forth in heed of the call, only to find ourselves caught in a cauldron of despair.
When I sit down to write, this happens on recurring basis. At least once or twice during the process of writing every story I’ve written in the past year, I’ve reached a point at which I simply had no way to proceed, no idea how to proceed, and no hope of having one. The joy that brought me to the paper has vanished. And we cannot produce beautiful art by thinking our way through it, any more than we can lead a great life by following all the rules.
Gardner wrote that, “[t]he first and last important rule for the creative writer, then, is that though there may be rules (formulas) for ordinary, easily publishable fiction—imitation fiction—there are no rules for real fiction, any more than there are rules for serious visual art or musical composition.”
I’ve realized recently how similar the processes of writing and life are for me. We sense the Taj Mahal of goodness, beauty and peace within us, but the process of bringing it forth in the world—the process of being in the world in a way that allows these wondrous instincts of ours to flourish—is intransigent to our will and our rational efforting. We so often feel we are denied. And every effort on our part to reduce this act of living to rules and strategies—to technique essentially—results only in imitation, which is lifeless. Imitation is not living at all, really—nor is it what will move our world into what A Course of Love describes as “the New.”
The New as described in A Course of Love is what I would equate, metaphorically, with masterful writing. According to ACOL, “The new is not that which has always existed. It is not that which can be predicted. It is not that which can be formed and held inviolate. The new is creation’s unfolding love. The new is love’s expression. The new is the true replacement of the false, illusion’s demise, joy birthed amongst sorrow. The new is yet to be created, One Heart to One Heart.” The New is masterful, wholehearted expression.
But how are we to learn what cannot be taught or copied?
The answer in both cases is to trust. A core idea of A Course of Love is that we do not learn to be who we are. We cannot, in fact. Who we are is revealed to us as we build our walls through the forest, and as we, and others, respond to what we’ve done. Trust allows us to witness creation without the false premise of dead ends. With trust we are freed to shift naturally, to pull the wall up and try again, and to discover the wall we built has led us to a place we hadn’t known existed before.
Gardner says simply that a writer must practice. She must read, write and repeat. She must be immersed in the art of it and care for what she is doing. But he also says that trust in one’s own creative instincts is one of the two most important factors to a writer’s creative authority. We need this trust to overcome the difficulty that arises when a moment of inspiration produces a structure that is untenable. We need this trust because it implies the way forward already exists, and is already within us. Our feelings and instincts are not wrong. They do not lead us astray, but we don’t live, or create, or dream in straight lines. The process of creating something from nothing depends on our ability to respond artfully to what is, to let our feelings guide us from yellow, to purple, to pea-green. And back to yellow. We cannot do this while we think any change to what we’ve done implies we were wrong about something.
To experience the power and wonder of who we are, and to give the Taj Mahal of grace and truth within us to the world, we have to trust. And I think this simple truth can be found in every sort of creative practice there is, including the art of life itself.