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

 

 

Things I’ve Learned About Writing From Teaching Math

“Who would like to show their process on the board?”

joke This is a question I ask many times a week. I teach Algebra and Precalculus at Renaissance School. I love it.

One of the challenges I have teaching at a school like Renaissance, which is for high aptitude students in Arts, Humanities, and Sciences, is that some of my students have almost a spooky natural facility with math – but many of the artists, actors, humanitarians, photographers, and musicians have developed something close to a phobia of it by the time they’ve gotten to high school. Since math is a required subject for graduation no matter the track of their studies, one way or another, we’ve got to make it to the end of the year.

My main goal is for every student to finish the class with confidence. They don’t need to be a wiz; I just want them to be able to tell themselves, “I can do this.”

paranormaldistributionSo I focus on process, not outcomes. Getting the right answer the fastest doesn’t accrue any brownie points in my class. Instead, I encourage students to come up to the board and show their thought process. Like I often say, “There’s more than one path from here to the MudHouse.” And I often add, while they’re nervously approaching the board for the first time, “We’re all on the same team. We’ve got your back. Let’s get through this problem together.”

So, it was a HUGE thrill about two months into the school year when one of my most math-phobic students said, “Ms. Carlson, can I show my process on the board for problem 37? I’m getting stuck and I don’t know what to do next.” Yes. Yes you can.

find_x_lolNow that the school year is coming to a close, I’ve almost worked myself out of a job. The students work together in groups. The quick ones race ahead, learn the new formulas, and teach them to their peers. Everyone is going to be wrapping up the year with confidence. With a process for solving problems.

Which, finally, brings me back to what teaching math has taught me about writing. I’m not sure I appreciated it fully in the beginning, but one of the things that has made BACCA a great writing group for the last four years is the feeling that we’re all on the same team. We’re not competing with one another; we have different skills and aptitudes; we work together to give candid feedback and solve problems. We, too, focus on process, not outcomes. Naturally, we all harbor dreams of seeing this or that work published. But our esteem in the eyes of each other is based in the work we do in the small ways each month, not the grand finale.

Writing may be a solitary exercise, but improving as a writer is a team effort. Just like math.

Bethany Joy Carlson is a founding member of BACCA, a WriterHouse Board Member, and owner of The Artist’s Partner.