I finished reading One Continuous Mistake with grim satisfaction, climbed my hard hill, refused to give up, even when Gail Sher failed to comfort me, got my hard insights and not one moment of enthusiasm or joy. How can anybody live like this? I want to wail. I (meanly) picture her shaving her head, chewing slowly, kneeling in front of her mat, day after day, lecturing sternly about silence, worshipping the space between words, waiting in austere stillness for the right moment to begin.
She gives me stark insights, stretches my mind in unexpected ways, takes me places I would not have gone, ever. Today: great ideas are the enemy of true, spontaneous writing. The more you cling to or carry the great idea, bending under its weight, loyal to its promise, the less you have left over for surprise, the true moment, the unexpected.
This morning I read Gail Sher. God it’s hard going. She is austere and clear, disciplined and skillful. She wastes no time consoling or entertaining, tolerates no waffling or hesitation. Whenever she calls somebody Roshi, at the end of the name, like Ben Stein-Roshi, I immediately conjure a person that I wouldn’t enjoy, who is so deliberate about the way they brush their teeth and make their bed that they never have any fun, every single moment of their life a spiritual exercise, an opportunity to pay attention, an admonition to not Waste Time. And yet I keep reading, because she has these beautiful nuggets that appear, every twenty pages or so. I read one passage today where she named all the perfect obscure English words that we never use, and the words were so beautiful I had to circle them, read them aloud: cuirass, haruspication, flocculence. Meretricious. Nullifidian. Farrago.
And then she said, the writing is the person, can only be as deep as the person themself. If you are not fit, if you are not thoughtful, if your life is full of evasions and tricks, then your writing will be too. It struck me that you can really see that in her work—here is a woman who writes kneeling before a square of cloth, upon which she places a square of paper, beside which she puts a sharp pencil and a pen (I imagine a quill, or a fountain pen, something that has to be dipped carefully into a pot of ink to produce its lines), and you can see that practice in the hard polished nuggets of truth she writes, truth that you have to stare at for a long time in order to see into its dark center. Sometimes, once or twice, you can stare until your eyes cross and see nothing, and you want to get up and go find somebody to ask, “do you have any idea what this means?”
I thought about that dark, polished stone of hard wisdom a lot– we write what we are, and if we want to change the writing we need to change the person. That is secondary to the problem of practice—practice is the given, without that you have nothing. But the only control we have over the material itself is the way that we practice, which turns out to be nothing more or less than the way we live.