I recently listened to a podcast where Dan Blank—an inspired book publicist whose work I avidly follow—interviewed the renowned writer Dani Shapiro. I was struck by what Shapiro said right at the start of the interview, about how after all her successes and accolades, none of that has changed the way she feels about herself as a writer—how everyday she still has to tell herself she’s a writer before she can set about doing any writing.
Which surprised me.
I think as writers, we often have this instinct, “When I get over there, where success lies, then it will all be easy.” We envisage a future mountaintop—perhaps it's a book or a creative project we've been dreaming about—and we feel that when the entity finally appears in the world, we will “arrive”.
Except of course, it's never this way. Shapiro takes an arrow and pops this balloon of attachment.
She explains how being on Oprah, having a book on the New York Times bestseller list, and being featured in The New Yorker... how none of these things has been the point of arrival. You never quite get there, she says. You never quite arrive.
This shouldn't be a surprise to hear. It's a key Buddhist teaching that I meditate on many days of my life. We externalize our concept of success all the time. We're endlessly craving something “out there” that will bring us happiness. Yet when we get there, or when it arrives, the happiness is elusive. It doesn't last. Or we never get there and spend most of our time feeling disgruntled at being here.
But as Shapiro says, even after you deliver the keynote address at the Writer’s Digest Conference, when you go back to your hotel that night, you’re still the same old person with the same old worries and neuroses and fears.
Which brings me to ponder the self-creation involved in the act of creating art. And how in reality, we're not so different from plants. We're impermanent phenomena, made up of many parts, we grow and morph, and everyday we are creating a new version of ourself. Through every breath, every sip of echinacea tea, every thought, we are creating a new appearance.
Shapiro goes on to say that even on the morning of the interview, she had to give herself permission to be a writer, to allow herself to get into that space. Which made me wonder: what kind of a self am I creating as I pull out my notebook/laptop and sit down to write? And could I be more mindful about this?
What if I were to spend a few moments slowing down, and intentionally identifying not with my normal neurotic self, but with the pure potential lurking within my heart. What if I were to connect to my “Buddha nature” or "Buddha seed" as we're taught in the scriptures, a seed within my mind that holds the potential for tremendous peace and wisdom. What if I were to actively seek out that self, identify with it, and then set a special intention: may this act of writing be the cause for me to become enlightened. And through the act of sitting here writing, may this act benefit all living beings and bring them peace.
Then set about spending 30 minutes on writing practice.
How would that change things up?
The 6 Perfections as Artistic Direction
What I'm thinking here is that this would be a way to fuse the Bodhisattva's Way of Life with the writing life. Maybe I will still write nonsense that day; maybe something inspired will rush out. But now, the emphasis will have shifted.
It won't be about the mountaintop anymore; rather, it'll be about every step along the path. It will be the act of walking, exploring, and making the entire journey an offering to others.
If I were to do this, not only would I be charting down ink on the page, letting creative thoughts flow freely, but I would also be starting to shed an ancient habit of clinging to a limited self. The one who arrives and is never happy. The one who worries and thinks she can't do it. I would be stepping out of that mental framework, that painful costume of ego, and into a capacity for space, reality, and the true nature of things.
Or as Leonard Cohen puts it: "“Abandon your masterpiece... and then get stuck into the real masterpiece.”
Because if I'm honest, the writer I want to meet, or perhaps the writer I want to become, isn’t the one who has created the perfect book but still goes home to a painful mind. (And I'm not suggesting that Shapiro has an ordinary mind; who knows maybe she is an enlightened being emanating to teach us something—the most extraordinary minds usually come disguised in humble beings). But when I dig deep, I realize that the crux of it is that I want to be a writer who has discovered a mind beyond sorrow. A fully ripened human potential, awake and aware. That's the real destination I'd like to arrive at, so why not try bringing that Bodhichitta motivation into the craft itself?
Okay, over to you dear friends. Do you have any thoughts about how to have a writing or creative practice that is freeing and medicinal and long-lasting? And isn't an insane game of the ego?!
Photo credits: Berberis vulgaris and Punica granatum, Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany via Wiki Commons.