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Pay attention not only to the cultivation of knowledge but to the cultivation of qualities of the heart, so that at the end of education, not only will you be knowledgeable, but also you will be a warm-hearted and compassionate person.

~ HH the 14th Dalai Lama


More metta to Maynmar

I'm sorry to say things have gotten worse in Burma (Myanmar).

UPDATE: Things have gone from worse to deadly. Reportedly, even monks have been killed. For more information, please visit the Democratic Voice of Burma.

Even more than before, I still fervently hope the Burmese people and the governments of the world can find a peaceful, nonviolent way to intervene and prevent more violence.


Metta to Myanmar

Thynn Thynn, the woman I consider my first formal teacher in Buddhism, is from Burma (technically, Myanmar, but she refers to herself as Burmese). I've since shifted my focus to Mahayana practices (and some studies in Vajrayana), but I continually return to Thynn Thynn's teachings on mindfulness when I feel a need to sit, to settle into my roots. So I've been following with some concern the recent protests led by monks in Myanmar. So far the government has kept its response relatively peaceful--thanks, ironically, to pressure from China--but tensions are building.

I write this mostly as a means of supporting, however meekly, the monks in their actions. I know too little of the politics in Myanmar to comment on the reasons for protesting, but I admire the monks' quiet but insistent resistance, and, like a good friend of mine (who phrased this better), I am amazed at their willingness to leave their internal contemplation to march on behalf of largely secular concerns, just to help better the lives of the laity. May the protections of my newly-hung lunga prayer flags speed on the wind to help the monks and the Burmese people.

UPDATE: Tensions are reaching the breaking point. I can't believe I'm writing this, but I'm rooting for China to hold back the Burmese government from acting against the monks.



The other day, I introduced my students to freewriting and its more structured cousin, looping. As I always do when making my students write in class, I brought my own notebook (a smooth black thing with a red-ribbon bookmark and a folding magnetic flap embossed with a Japanese kanji for "joy"), and I wrote with them. I thought it might be amusing, and maybe instructive, to share some of those wild entries--unedited--here:

Freewriting isn't free--it costs words, lots of words, and effort, finger-cramping, backaching, mind-mushing effort. I don't know why I'm writing in this way. Perhaps I'll post it to my blog (I nearly wrote, Perhaps I'll die, like the old lady who swallowed a fly). Arm-aching: It's been too long since I've done this, despite writing w/ the teens this summer. My forearm aches, that little pinch of muscle just below my pinky is starting to cramp. This is not fun. I should be writing about my dissertation. I should be editing it, writing new scenes I meant to write the first time around.

And now my bicep hurts.

The pain of writing--the physical as much as the mental struggle of composition--is lost to us now. I wonder at those older scribes, the Marquis de Sade, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Cervantes, and I think of them with pens--quills, even--in hand, and I wonder if they had massive forearms, overdeveloped hands, the thick pad of their palm near the thumb bulging like a knotted oyster(?). Popeye was a writer, I'm sure of it.


I want a gong, or at least a gong tone--mechanical might be better, timed if possible, like a Zen clock, so I can meditate w/o thinking, so I can pretend these writing sessions--or hell, any writing session--is an act of meditation, which, from a certain perspective, it is. I have written a fairly long sentence. I wonder why. I like the long sentence as a reflection of stringy thoughts the way I like the short sentence as a punchline. So there. Have they written enough? No. Have I written anything productive today? No. Not immediately so. But we'll get there.


"What about the deer being evil?" [a comment a student made between classes]

Why What about the deer being evil? What about the deer being evil? What about the deer being evil? Why is the deer evil? Dear Evil, what about you being? What about the deer is evil? What is it about the deer being evil? What is evil about the deer? Tartlets ... and so on. It has lost all meaning. I mean: It has lost. Meaning I am lost. I miss LOST.


No one writing

On my Google homepage, I subscribe to a series of quotes that change day to day. One is a daily Thoreau quote, one is a general literary quote, one is a daily Jon Stewart quote, and so on. I also receive daily quotes from Buddhism (the service applies the term a bit liberally, often ascribing Buddhist ideas to Taoist writers or even modern psychologists, though I do enjoy the illustration of Jung's "collective unconscious").

Today's Buddhism quote, allegedly from Wei Wu Wei's The Tenth Man, is, "I have only one object in writing books: to demonstrate that there could not be anyone to do it."

Today, I'm finishing (for now) the scholarly preface to my dissertation, a novel narrated from the afterlife--by a dead narrator. How weirdly appropriate, then, to find this quote awaiting me this morning.


Audience analysis

I'm listening to an audio recording of teachings on the Garland of Views that HH the Dalai Lama gave in Miami in 2004. About 45 minutes into the second recording, His Holiness talks about how to explain the diversity of teachings in Buddhism:
If we were to ask what is exactly the Buddha’s own final standpoint—why did Buddha teach such diversity and sometimes quite opposing, contradictory teachings in his scriptures—so the Buddha’s own final standpoint may, from the point of view of Madhyamaka, be that of the Middle Way philosophy, but it is also a fact that Buddha did teach [the foundations of many other schools of Buddhism]. So what we see here [...] is recognition of how the Buddha’s teaching of the dharma really has to be understood in the context of its appropriateness to the given audience. So in a sense Buddha is not a case of an enlightened being who only wants to reveal one truth to everybody. It is a case of Buddha having to select what is most beneficial and what is most effective, what is most suitable in a given context and a given situation.
In other words, the Buddha taught a variety of lessons in a variety of contexts in order to reach a variety of audiences--each lesson, even if it seems to contradict an earlier lesson, is customized to meet the needs or expectations of a particular audience.

How wonderful to have discovered this example the day after I taught audience analysis in my freshman comp classes!


The art of revising

Tonight, while discussing the new film Becoming Jane with my wife, Jennifer, I was struck by a thought about writers in film in general. The past several years, I've been keeping an informal, mental list of films featuring writers (or, at least, the films I've enjoyed)--films like Finding Forrester or Wonderboys or Stranger Than Fiction--even, in a pinch, Under the Tuscan Sun. Becoming Jane is the newest film on my list, and it does a fair job of showing Jane Austen writing: The iconic scene is her sprawled across a small table, pages scattered everywhere; she's dressed in her nightgown and leans on one hand, gazing softly at her elegant, romantic penmanship, a perfectly picturesque country scene shining through the wide picture window before her and illuminating her and her work in a milky cool light. But it's not my favorite scene: for that, I much prefer her jumping from her chair to pace the room, biting her pen or wringing her gown in a frenzy of wordsmithing, then collapsing onto the piano bench to pound out a few notes and play away her creative fury until--eureka!--the ideal words spring to her mind and she rushes back to swirl them onto the page, dark ink soaking into the thick cotton paper in a weightless but serious script, and she smiles almost postcoitally. (My second favorite--and the most accurate in terms of writing craft, I think--is a brief scene in which Austen, just returned from a stroll and about to greet guests, suddenly and rudely slips to a nearby bench to scribble a phrase in her little notebook.)

Still, tonight I found the scenes frustrating, and what occurred to me was that films almost never portray the most important act of writing: revision. All we ever get are the long moments of deep concentration, writers waiting like saints for a vision from some Literature-God. If we don't get that, we get frenzied dashes of quirky, frantic behavior, the chain smokers and binge drinkers, the writers who have to wear their socks inside-out or bang on pianos or count the cracks in a sidewalk just to get their ideas flowing.

These are, of course, acts of writing, at least for some. I certainly have done my share of staring wistfully out windows, the hard glow of a blank computer screen winning our staring contest; and I certainly have my quirks, writing best at 2 a.m. and spending hours compiling "soundtracks" for my stories and novels. But even with these brief scenes of pain--the furrowed brows and the self-destructive habits--the movies have made writing look easy. All we have to do, it seems, is gaze long enough, think hard enough, or be weird enough, and the writing will take care of itself. When a colleague (who doesn't write) learned I was writing a novel this summer, she brushed aside my effort by saying, "Oh, well, that shouldn't be too hard--all you have to do is write a few words each day and you'll be done in no time." If only it were that easy! I could--and sometimes did--simply "write a few words each day," but what I want are the right words, and finding them takes a lot more effort than staring into space or drinking seventeen cups of coffee.

I have the front of an old birthday card stuck to my office door on campus; it shows Winne-the-Pooh tapping a pencil to his chin, a sheaf of papers tucked under one arm, and below him the card reads, "The hardest part about writing, thought Pooh, is finding the right words." A long time before Pooh, Mark Twain commented that "the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter--`tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning." Too true. But I tend to view writing a bit like sculpting, except harder: In sculpting, you have a choice between adding on wet clay to build up a piece or chiseling away raw stone to reveal a piece. In writing you have to do both, adding on loads of wet, raw words, and then chiseling away at the excess to reveal the beauty within. That's what it takes to find the right words. That's what good writing is about. That's called revision, and we almost never get to see it on film.

Jennifer (who, if she weren't so much like her mother, could be the love child of Nancy Pearl and Robert Osborne) pointed out tonight that writing in general is a pretty lonely act, with the writer often sitting motionless in a chair, only the fingers pecking at a keyboard or a typewriter, and except for a few iconic seconds to get across the idea of writing--Angela Lansbury punching in the title words for Murder, She Wrote, for instance--we really don't want to see the act of writing, because it's pathetically uncinematic. There's not any action to put on film, Jennifer said; everything is internal, the old wheels-turning-in-the-head gag. With revision, it's usually just more of the same, with the occasional addition of a scratch-out or an erasure, a scribbled note in a margin, maybe a highlighter or a sticky-note once in a while. Not a very pretty picture. Certainly not cinematic.

Still, I yearn to see the meat (or, in my case, the soy beans) of writing portrayed realistically and seriously, just once, just to see what it's like. I want more of the writing process on film, the way we get to see it for songwriting in Music and Lyrics or for screenwriting in Adaptation. Enough, really, with the old Hemingway-and-Faulkner routine: No more of the brooding craftsman who "would sit in front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame," who "would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, 'Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence." (All you have to do, Hemingway? I wish it were that simple!) And no more of the flippant, alcoholic madman, toying drunkenly with language just for the sake of it and letting the unpolished rough draft relax in the glory of its originality instead of stand on the merits of its expert prose. (Faulkner once said in an interview that "all the trash must be eliminated in the short story, whereas one can get away with some of it in a novel." It's fine that you let yourself get away with "trash," Faulkner, but did you have to dump all the garbage in my bookshelf? Couldn't you have tried in all your novels to be as tidy as you were in As I Lay Dying?")

Truman Capote said, "I believe more in the scissors than in the pencil." There, ladies and gentlemen, was a true reviser. There have been two recent, highly acclaimed films made about Capote, Capote and Infamous, and I somehow have yet to see either of them. Now I'm thinking I must, and soon, because perhaps there, at last, I'll get to see revising on film.


Madeleine L'Engle

Madeleine L'Engle has died.

When Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11 of this year, I kept silent most of the day and mourned the rest of the week. Vonnegut had a huge impact not only on my early fiction-writing but also on my early philosophical development: In both areas, he taught me not to take anything--especially myself--too seriously, but at the same time he always hinted at this wry but sublime sense of wonder and seriousness. I loved that man as much as it's possible to love a stranger. Still, while I did have the splendid good fortune to have heard him speak, at Trinity University in San Antonio some dozen years ago, I had never actually met him.

I did meet Madeleine L'Engle. She autographed my copy of A Wrinkle in Time, and that same day, I was lucky enough to have interviewed her for my college newspaper.

Okay, to be honest, it wasn't entirely luck, since I was managing editor of the paper and had arranged it so I would be the one to write the interview, because I understood even then what a huge opportunity it was to meet the woman, to speak with her face to face. But I blew the interview, I think. Standing on the auditorium stage after her lecture to the campus, I felt overwhelmed just by her presence, the profundity of her lecture and then, alone with her, the enormity of her fame. My memory of the interview is pretty thin--I remember stammering a few times, and my voice seemed uncharacteristically small, my questions too vague and too few--and the article we printed in the paper, while adequate, is no shining example of award-winning journalism.

But tonight, this is beside the point. I met the woman. I shook her hand. I spoke to her, and she spoke to me. She listened.

I've met dozens of authors since. It became a regular part of my graduate studies, and it remains a regular part of my professional life. I meet them, I drink with them, I talk about our craft and about their experiences, I coolly pretend I am on their level as I nod along with their ideas. It's the game we writers play.

But sometimes I meet a writer worth fawning over, worth doting on, worth dropping pretense and unabashedly saying, "I think you're brilliant, and I'd love to hear you talk about writing." Of these, Madeleine L'Engle was the first for me. And now she has died.

In her most famous book, A Wrinkle in Time, a trio of kids travel through space and time, across the universe, even. L'Engle calls it "tessering" in the book, as in, "They tessered across the universe."

In our small paperback copy--my college girlfriend's, if I remember right, but since I married her, the copy is ours--Madeleine L'Engle, aged already, wrote in her shaky hand, "for Sam & Jennifer tesser well" and signed her name. For all its obvious, self-referential simplicity, it remains one of my favorite autograph-epigraphs. And I'd like to offer it back:

Tesser well, Ms. L'Engle. "I'm sorry we don't have time to say good-bye to you properly."* I hope you get where you're going quickly, and happily.

* This is one of the final lines in A Wrinkle in Time. I hope she doesn't mind that I've borrowed it.


A note about the profile photo:

My profile photo is of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. Poor student of Buddhism though I am, the study is important to me, and Tsongkhapa is among my favorite Buddhist poets and teachers. He is considered an incarnation of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom, who is in turn usually considered the bodhisattva of writing, poetry, and knowledge. Which is why I included him here--another reminder to myself of the things I value.

Also, it's hard to see, but he's using the teaching mudra--the position of his hands, which here symbolizes that he's teaching a lesson, in the same manner that early icons of Christ show his hands in various teaching, blessing, or judging postures.


The Introduction

I can't predict how often I'll post to this blog. I might write daily, or every day I hold classes, or once a month, or never again. But I certainly hope I post with some regularity, if only to keep myself writing.

Most of what I plan to post will be related to the craft of writing, to my philosophy of teaching, and perhaps to my philosophy in general. Perhaps I'll write comments about my doctoral dissertation, which I'm near to finishing; perhaps I'll comment on new ideas for the classes I teach, or new ideas about teaching in general, things I've read or heard on the radio; perhaps I'll just wax meditative, noting a scrap of Buddhist poetry or the most recent Thoreau quote to pop up in my Google homepage (today, it's "Do not be too moral. You may cheat yourself out of much life. Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something"). Some days I may surprise myself with accidental profundity. Mostly, I expect this will wind up at least as mundane as the rest of the blogosphere, just another tiny voice in the din of the online planet, another set of opinions foisted onto the world and easily ignored.

So be it. The point is only to write, and to let my students see me writing, because I walk into my classrooms every semester and tell them I believe in this--in the importance of writing, impactful or not, and in the freedom to write useless, unimportant drivel just for the sake of practice--and I'd like to demonstrate that.

The name of this blog, "Beginner's Mind," refers to the first chapter of Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, in which she discusses her "beginner's mind, the first way I thought and felt about writing." It's a book I returned to a lot this summer, as I taught a teen creative writing workshop at the library and as I rushed to finish my novel. Goldberg's is as much a Zen reference as a writing reference, which I like, so I'm putting it here on my screen as a constant reminder to enjoy this blog, to write loose and for fun the way I should be writing always, and also as a subtle reminder to hold onto those other kinds of mind I value: Buddha mind, quiet mind, metta mind.

But that's just me. You can have whatever sort of mind you want.

So, enjoy.

Or something.