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Who Is Writing This?

Eugen Herrigel was a German philosophy professor who taught in Japan before World War II and studied archery there under a Zen master.  Zen archery is a highly stylized activity that is less concerned with developing a practitioner's skills with a bow and arrow than with disciplining the mind and the spirit.   By painful trial and error, Herrigel learned that drawing a bow in the prescribed manner was not a question of strength but of breathing properly.  Letting go of the string correctly could not be mastered until he had first learned to let go of himself.  Most elusively of all, hitting the target could not be achieved until he first learned to stop aiming.  To demonstrate this latter point, Herrigel's teacher let fly at the target in the dark, hitting the center with his first shot and then splitting the first arrow with his second.  Mastering the art of shooting an arrow meant learning how to observe one's own actions with the detachment of a stranger.  "How can the shot be loosed if 'I' do not do it?" a bewildered Herrigel asked.   His teacher's reply: "'It' shoots."

Painful trial and error is a familiar rite of passage for anyone who has tried to master the craft of writing.  When I was just starting out, I envied writers like Jack Kerouac, who would feed a roll of shelf paper into his typewriter so he could capture the torrent of prose that poured from him without having to stop every time he came to the end of a page.  Likewise, Henry Miller described episodes in which long passages of the Tropic of Capricorn and other books were "dictated" to him.  "I didn't have to think up so much as a comma or a semicolon," he wrote; "it was all given, straight from the celestial recording room." 

To anyone struggling to find his own voice, such thoughts are dangerously seductive.  They can lead you to the erroneous conclusion that there is some mystical breakthrough that will relieve you of the burden of having to learn your craft.  It's easy to overlook the fact that Henry Miller's own apprenticeship lasted into middle age and consumed millions of words before he ever wrote the Tropic of Cancer.  Ernest Hemingway, who was as finicky about words as Ted Williams was about hitting baseballs, once told an interviewer for the Paris Review that he had rewritten the last page of A Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times.  "What was it that had you stumped?" the interviewer asked.  "Getting the words right," Hemingway replied.

Getting the words right requires an ear as discriminating as the eye that Ted Williams used to gauge whether or not a pitch was in the strike zone.  You are never at a loss for words when the phone rings, but you can stare at a computer screen for hours, struggling to string a few sentences together.  Getting the words right is like waiting for the right pitch when the pitcher has no obligation to get one over the plate.  In this game, it seems, there are strikes but no balls.  The pitcher can taunt you endlessly with pitches aimed just outside the strike zone; and then, just to see if you are still awake, he will fire one across the plate.  You live for the moment when you finally make contact, hoping to hit one out of the park but willing to settle for a blooper up the middle if that's what it takes to get on base.

To anyone but a writer, the struggle to find one's own voice will seem absurd.  What could be more natural than speaking with your own voice?  Yes, but something strange happens when speech is translated into the written word.  Words that flow spontaneously from the lips seem to congeal when they are set down on paper.  By the same token, the written word frequently sounds artificial when read aloud.  Even when the words we read are our own, they often come across as recited rather than spoken.  Just as it often takes a skilled actor to bring the written word to life, it takes a skilled writer to give life to words on a page.  A speaker can draw upon a full range of vocal, facial and bodily expression to convey meaning, while a writer can only hope that his bare words will resonate in the mind and in the heart.  There is always the temptation to dress them up in borrowed finery, to impress, to please, to cajole, to do everything but speak the plain truth.  Finding your own voice is a painful process of stripping away every disguise until you're down to the bone and marrow of the real you, and you are at last capable of uttering a word or phrase that will stand on its own. 

The hard part is getting to the point where you can just let the words come.  How did St. Francis get the birds to alight in his hand?  Certainly not by setting traps for them or by running after them with a net.  Curiously, The Little Flowers of St. Francis, which is overstuffed with tales of his miraculous exploits, has little to say about birds.  There is one story that may prove instructive, however.  St. Francis persuades a boy to give him some turtle doves that he has caught in a snare and is bringing to sell at the market.  The holy man takes the doves back to his monastery and makes nests for them to raise their young.  According the story, the doves willingly remain at the monastery, until St. Francis gives them permission to leave with his blessing.  How do you get the words to come?  Perhaps by building nests for them, as St. Francis did for the birds, so they can be fruitful and multiply.  "Man has never lacked for words," wrote Henry Miller.  "The difficulty arose only when man forced the words to do his bidding.  Be still, and wait the coming of the Lord!" 

Where do the words come from?  Do we somehow think them up, as if mental exertion produced prose the way physical labor produces sweat?  If you observe carefully the physical act of writing, you might make an astonishing discovery.  The previous sentence was first written in longhand using a felt-tip pen.  As each word formed on the page, I slowly pronounced it in my mind.  When I finished writing the sentence, I read it over again silently.  I crossed out a phrase and substituted another.  Unless I  pay close attention, I might assume that my hand is taking dictation from my thoughts, when in fact the reverse seems to be the case.  The words form in my mind only after they appear on the page.  Granted, I may have turned the sentence over in my mind before committing it to the page.  But the actual writing happens without any conscious involvement on my part.  I do not stop to think how to spell the words or how to form the letters; they flow spontaneously from my pen.  I can even train myself not to repeat the words as I write them, making me a silent observer of this strange five-fingered creature as it weaves its inky web across the page. 

The writer must cultivate the same receptive frame of mind described by Eugen Herrigel in which "everything that he does is done before he knows it."  If he knows what he's going to say before he says it, chances are a reader will, too.  The writer lies in wait for a sentence so perfect that it can lodge in the mind like an arrow striking the center of a target in the dark.  One can almost imagine the beginning writer posing the question to a Zen master: "How do the words get written if 'I' do not write them?"  And the answer: "'It' writes."

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