Maya for Writers

Several ancient schools of thought, originating thousands of years ago in India and in China, tell us that when you give something a name, you cut it off from the great swirling unknowable unknown that we call the universe, the mystery, darkness within darkness, or the nature of reality. Of course, those are all names, so it becomes impossible to write about the underlying nothing, since the moment we use words, we confine the thing that is too big for words.

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Pulling focus to create uncertainty. Photo credit Austin Guevara pexels-photo-237898

How do creative artists, including writers, manage that paradox? On the one hand, the writer’s tools are words. On the other, in order to touch the universal, we must abandon words, abandon thinking altogether, in fact.

Leaving Thought Behind

This is why, for example, forms of meditation recommend that we ‘just be,’ focusing on breath, and briefly acknowledging and then dismissing thoughts as soon as they appear. In this context, thoughts are sometimes compared to clouds in the sky, waves on the surface of a deep ocean, or cars passing by on the road. They come and go, and have no meaning.

A teacher recently posed the problem, “Describe to me last week – without using words.” He concluded that the task was impossible, because there is no ‘last week’ without words and symbols. Ideas, relative positions in time, in fact the notion of time itself, are all constructs. All Maya.

Image of smoke rising in a vortex

The illusion of smoke. Photo credit Rafael Guajardo pexels-photo-604672

Maya, a Sanskrit word sometimes translated as illusion, has multiple, nuanced meanings. In Western popular-culture shorthand, maya has come to mean the shared trance that we unknowingly, collectively agree to, so that we can function in the modern world. Buying into the trance of maya, we pay our bills, go to our jobs, drive in traffic, give birthday gifts, vote for politicians, accept the names of things, and in countless other ways entertain the culturally accepted method of viewing the world. Underneath maya, though, is that limitless unknowable everything. Is being free from maya the goal of those seeking enlightenment?

 

My first response to the teacher’s question about communicating ‘last week’ without words, was to imagine a kind of interpretive dance, or a quickly drawn image that somehow elicited in the viewer an intuitive grasp – somehow – of the notion of ‘last week.’

Maya for Writers

Assuming for the moment that a dancer or artist might be able to do that, what does the writer do, faced with this challenge? Even the most artful, obscure poem uses words, does it not? And words, unavoidably, conjure up in each one of us our previous uses, memories, knowledge, and responses to them. In fact, words have richness and power because of all our associations with them. This is true for the writer and for the reader.

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The magic of a child and an illuminated fountain. Photo credit Darren Lawrence pexels-photo-3822110

If writers cannot possibly escape maya in our work, can we use our shared unreality for good? Do we use language – our creative tools – in ways that can shift that shared maya, for a moment, into a slightly new light? Do we apply metaphors and similes? Do we arrange words in unexpected sequences to permit the reader a brief glimpse of something beyond the words, into the unknowable?

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides creative coaching and full-service editing to authors and other creative people. Decks of 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, at the Chenille Books website, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers and on Amazon

 

 

The Troll and the Bully

Have you cultivated your relationships with your inner bully, troll, or monster? In my writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, I include a tool named “Objection, Your Honor!” that acknowledges the presence of our own inner mean voices. The tool recommends scripting replies to the mean voices, and keeping them handy for when you are feeling susceptible.

For instance, to that classic challenge, Who do you think you are?, one of my clients created little signs he keeps posted in his workspace. Each sign contains the nasty question – and his response to it, in this case, “I’m the one writing this book.” A novelist I met got excited about saying back to her bully, “Who do I think I am? I’m the author of a four-volume saga. The first book has been well-received, and I’m already done with the first draft of book two, that’s who I think I am.”

I’ve been exploring this further, in conversations with clients and fellow writers, and continue to learn about these inner voices. As I mentioned in a blog post elsewhere, I’ve come to see that we can engage with these voices — give them a seat at the creative table. While it’s handy to keep our swift, pointed replies handy for use in a crunch, I recommend setting aside calmer moments now and then to initiate a dialogue.

Here are sample vignettes of imaginary conversations with the troll and the bully, followed by a sample re-write of the second one.

Auntie Troll

auntie troll walks inShe launches herself into the library and commandeers the one comfortable chair, opposite you. Adjusting herself and her shawls and scarves, she begins, with her sweet, insinuating voice:

“You look busy, dear. Too busy. What’s your hurry? Where’s the fire? Speaking of fire, there’s a lovely tea shop nearby with a fireplace open to two sides. We’re sure to get a table there. Wouldn’t it be nice to treat yourself to a cozy afternoon? Surely this so-called work you obsess on can wait. Who’s paying you for this, anyway?”

“It’s creative writing. I haven’t sold it yet. At the moment I’m writing it.”

“Ah. I see. So let’s pack up your things, dear, and head to the tea shop. You won’t begrudge your auntie a cup of tea will you?”

Powerless to oppose her, you notice yourself packing up your notebook and laptop. As you hold the door open for her, you wonder how she was able to derail your writing session with just a couple of sentences.

This is troll behavior, intruding on your work session, diverting you with promises of comfort and ease, and, for good measure, adding a nice dollop of straight-up guilt.

Here’s another vignette.

The Bully

He’s there when you arrive. Lying in wait, it feels like. He speaks first, issuing the challenge.

drawing of an alien-looking creature the bully“There you are.”

“Am I late?” You realize, as soon as you speak, that you’ve blundered already by showing weakness.

“Late? Who’s to say? This is all so free form, who can say if you’re on time? Or years too late? Can you look me in the eye and promise me this project of yours is ever going to see the light of day?”

He looks like he’s enjoying this.

“Uh.” You feel so useless. Where’s the energy you had ten minutes ago?

“Right. Moving on. And if it does — say, for example, you get it printed yourself — can you explain to me how it’s going to be seen by anyone who doesn’t already know you?”

“Uh.” Well, he’s got you there.

“Say no more, buddy. Say no more.”

You exit, looking nearly as dejected and discouraged as you are feeling. No more writing for you, on this day or the next several days, as it turns out.

So far, this is a classic bullying session, which may even ring a few uncomfortably familiar notes.

The Bully 2.0

Now we’ll bring the scene in for a re-write, to turn the scene into an actual conversation.

Bully: “There you are.”

You: “Hey, good to see you. I’ve been wanting to have a chat.”

“You have? You want to talk to me?”

“Yeah. I’ve been thinking maybe we have more in common than I thought we did.”

“Well, yeah. Maybe. I mean, I am a part of you.”

“You raise an interesting point. I’ve always thought of you as the bully, this character from outside who somehow got inside my head and exists to disrupt my creative flow by questioning and diminishing all my ideas.”

“Wow. That hurts.”

“Excuse me? Are you telling me you have feelings?”

“I’m part of you. Do you have feelings? You do the math.”

“Well, that’s — a new perspective. Uh, what do you want me to call you? Do you have a name?”

“Call me BB.”

“Tell me more, BB. I need to understand how it is that you and I are on the same side.”

He sighs, whether more from relief or impatience it’s hard to tell.

“All right. I’m going to overlook – for now –  the fact that you have maintained a hostile attitude and basically wished I would just go away. That said, I will now explain how this works. Pay attention. I don’t intend to repeat myself.”

“I’m listening.”

“Let me ask you this — why do you think I ask you about whether your project will ever see the light of day?”

“To make me feel small and inadequate and sap my energy?”

“Okay, that’s one interpretation, I guess….try this on for size, instead. First of all, in case you aren’t aware, I’ve been with you all along. Ever since you’ve been here. Since before you could talk, or form sentences.”

“Huh. How is that rele–”

“So it’s relevant because it occurs to me that we may need to update my settings.”

“Your settings? What are you? A robot? A chip implanted in my brain? What the –?”

“Basically, you sent me away a long long time ago.”

“I did what?”

“I can see you need some deep background before this can make sense. You think of me as your bully because you effectively froze me into a role that I played when you were a kid. Technically, when we were a kid.”

“Froze you into a role?”

scared kid 11289228893_ee995ca3f4_z“Okay, so remember when life at school got really hard?”

“Which time? The playground bully, or the weird neighbor, or the monster teacher? Or something else?”

“I was thinking of the playground bully. what was that – third grade?”

“Yeah. Sounds right.”

“Didn’t have a lot of defenses then, huh? Didn’t want to involve the parents, who had their own problems. Kept switching schools, so no time to make close friends.”

“It was a lonely time.”

“Agreed. So my job became keeping you alert to danger. I was protecting us. Better to be ready when the next bad thing happened.”

“Be prepared, and all that.”

“Right. So I think you didn’t like how it felt, having me on the lookout like that all the time. So you put me in a corner of the attic somewhere and shut the door. And ever since then, all I’ve been able to say, or at least all you’ve been able to hear me say, are warnings of gloom and doom and failure. There was a time when that was helpful. I’d like you to understand that.”

“This is weird. But yeah, I can get that when I was a defenseless kid you were helping me out by looking out for trouble. It’s just that nowadays, that’s not what I need. From anyone — part of me or friend or stranger — anyone. What I need now is support of another kind.”

“What kind of support?”

“If we went back to the first question you asked me today — do I really think my writing project will ever see the light of day — could we look at things differently? Like, if you want to look out for me nowadays, ask me what I’m doing to cultivate my author platform and build buzz about the book before it’s even done. Encourage me to become a better literary citizen, keeping in touch with the people I know and want to know. Help me to venture into uncomfortable situations, introduce myself to authors I respect, post book reviews online, link to other writers and publications in my blog and newsletters, all of that.”

“Hmmm. I guess that makes sense. You know more about this writing and publishing stuff than I do. I’ll need to get up to speed, but I get the gist. Looking for existential threats isn’t the order of the day now, is it?”

“Nope. Not helpful.”

“Let’s do this again, okay?”

“It’s a deal, BB.”

–end scene–

smiling 11165453423_420ed1164b_z

Might it be worthwhile to check in with your own versions of the inner bully, troll, and/or monster? Might it be an interesting exercise to initiate a conversation?

Just as with the bully and the troll in these vignettes, you may be able to spot your versions of these characters delivering some script lines that are in urgent need of rewriting. And who better for that task than a writer?

— A M Carley writes fiction and nonfiction, and is a founding member of BACCA. Her company, Chenille Books, provides book coaching and manuscript development services to authors. Decks of 52 FLOAT Cards for Writers are available from Baine’s Books in Scottsville and Appomattox, VA, at the Chenille Books website, and on Amazon. Anne’s writer handbook, FLOAT • Becoming Unstuck for Writers, is available for purchase at Central Virginia booksellers and on Amazon. #becomingunstuck 

— All images courtesy the British Museum on flickr

— Special thanks to Artie Wu of Preside Meditation for his way of framing conversations with our “inner board members.”