This post began as an answer to a comment on the previous post, identity gumbo. But before I tell you why, a small news flash: yesterday the seeds of the Black Valentine pole beans I poked in the ground maybe a week or ten days ago emerged.
The seedlings pushed up through the earth, some so eager, in their haste to rise, that they were still
wearing the little black hats of their split seed
cases. They came up as I had planted them, circling the tee-pees poles I’d put in for them to climb. (When I think about it, an optimistic act. One puts up the poles before planting the seeds. Who is to say that they will germinate? Or that those small black beans will not only germinate but actually, again, miraculously and improbably, grow into huge, vigorous six-seven-eight foot vines covered with leaves and edible pods?) Picture: last year’s Black Valentines.
Where is the time for angsting about creation, when you’re a bean? Beans just, in the words of the Nike ad, do it: soften, break open, send out sprouts which push up through the earth towards the bright sun, send out roots, which push down and out and into the dark earth. No anxiety, no anything except coming to life, actualizing what is quietly inherent in you and growing, because, given nominally the right conditions, it is your nature to grow. When you’re a bean, you’ve got bean imperatives.
(Of course, lacking the human triune brain, or any kind of brain, as we usually think of it, at all, is a big help here).
Jerri Ferris, herself a garden and design writer, thanked me for a book I’ve recommended here several
times, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, a collection of essays by nine authors, all well-known and much-loved, like Toni Morrison (photo, courtesy of VG: Voices in the Gap), Ian Frazier (one of Frazier’s laugh-out-loud New Yorker pieces, here), and Annie Dillard. The collection was edited by William Zinnser, himself a writer of clean, elegant prose (listen to an NPR interview with him, by Michele Norris, here). Jerri noted how much she loved Russell Baker‘s piece in the book, and found insightful the way, as a former journalist, his understanding that in writing memoir, he was not reporting on his life but inventing it. Then Jerri wrote:
In my own inner self-assessment, if I can be said to have done, (or do), good in this world, if I have any
accomplishment towards increasing human happiness (besides, possibly, my recipe for garlic spaghetti, photo, left, courtesy of abundant; I promise I’ ll post the recipe soon), it would be helping people see this. Helping others realize that so many, many unpleasant feelings are not wrong, bad, incorrect, in need of fixing, etc, but rather inherent to writing, creation, living, and life itself. The trick, and it is one that is lifelong in learning (I unfortunately find I must relearn it on a daily basis), is
A) accepting that anxiety and uncertainty are part of the ticket in, and
B) learning to acknowledge such feelings yet not be stopped by them; to gradually see fear as a partner, rather than an enemy bristling with weaponry.
This is the essence of the workshop I teach, Fearless Writing.: the A and B above, then developing craft, habit, and trust. Now these latter three are all big deals, true. But simple, even easy, once you’ve understood points A and B down to the cellular level.
Then, the rest is just practice. ("Just!" she says… but yeah, I do.) So whatever I teach of the how of writing (be specific, cut the mush, quit disclaimers and throat-clearing, don’t bother trying to make yourself look good, etc), it’s always in the context
of those two things. Because without this context — learning to tolerate and use anxiety — all the craft, self-discipline, in all the universe is not going to get you very far. You might plod along, becoming a serviceable writer: but you’ll never soar.
Every single time I teach Fearless I feel privileged: privileged to teach it, relearning it myself in the
process, watching my students astonish themselves and me. It’s even more improbable and amazing than watching small Black Valentine bean seeds become seedlings, and then six-foot pod-covered vines. After all this time, seeing so many people surprise themselves, how could I do other than have huge faith in "the creative process" (a serviceable short-hand term, but as arid to my ears as the experience is verdant)? (Picture: if you don’t eat your Black Valentine’s as fresh green beans but let them mature, shell them and dry them, you get an excellent black bean. Or, if you don’t grow them period, you can let somebody else do it for you, like Rancho Gordo, a Napa Valley-based grower and supplier of "glorious old-fashioned heirloom beans, with authentic Instructions for GOOD FOOD prepared in the Rancho Gordo manner. " A photo of their B.V.’s, left. )
Listen, I want to say to Jerri, to every former and future Fearless student, to everyone who struggles with writing and creating, who thinks, "WHY isn’t there an easier way to do this, WHAT is my problem here?" There are so many perfectly logical reasons not to do what we are put here to do, and those unpleasant feelings that inhere in the creative process will happily list them for us, over and over, unto infinity. Daily. This never ends.
But we are bigger than logic.
We are big enough to see what’s happening, to step back, take a breath, say "Thank you for your input" to all the self-aggrandizing logical quick-silvery angsting change-artist anxiety as it flutters from form to form and worry to worry… and then, just get to work, anyway.
We are big enough to experience not just fear and anxiety, but the ecstatic, absent-to-oneself conduit state, sometimes known as "flow": pure joy, a consummation in itself, quite apart from any possible publication or renown or income, that is writing, for the writer.
But we are bigger, even, than this. We are bigger than we know. Each of us has a mission, as vital and imperative and natural to us as that of my seedlings, to which, in some way, we are akin. Yes, sure, we’re fauna, and they’re flora, okay. But, as Dylan Thomas said,
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age…
What is that force? (David’s picture of a full blown peony, above taken last week… what a force drove through that green fuse to propel so explosive a blossom! )
What is that force? Because we, and it, or It, are bigger than we know, or can know (because the part of us that knows is only fragmentary) , it cannot be named. "The Name that can be named is not the real Name," say the Taoists, and most religions agree, in their own particular language. (The Bible weighs in with "The peace that surpasseth understanding;" the Bhagavad-Gita with, "Subtler far than mind’s inmost subtlety… Supreme beyond man’s measure.")
"From the island of my personal reality, I can look out on the panoramic interconnectedness of nature…our lives part of a larger process, vital links in our planetary ecosystem and human evolution. I watch us take our place… I recognize that my life is peripheral yet integral to a much reality. Like M.C. Escher’s drawing of two hands drawing each other, I am part of the world trying to figure itself out. As I accept the existential fact that we all live in different realities, I become one with everyone who lives a similar fate. I am no longer alone in my aloneness. I am one with Existence, expressed through my own existence." — David Schnarch, from Passionate Marriage
That taking our place described by Schnarch is, I believe, our mission. Though those of us with neo-cortexes (that part of the brain specific to human beings) and the ability to move around by choice (that would be the other, non-human animals, our fellow fauna) do it differently than plants, I think we’re all — humans and seedlings alike — part of the narrative life tells itself about itself.
Like those little seeds, life itself will, over time, soften us and break us open. May we then, like the seedlings, thrust our roots down into darkness as we stretch up, up, up into light.