I’m learning how many artists and thinkers extol the concept of “observing one’s actions from a state of inner calm”. Right now, I’m writing a lot, and reading Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. After learning more about Afghanistan’s recent history and Hosseini’s bio, I found this passage from his latest blog post:
By far the most difficult aspect of writing A Thousand Splendid Suns was writing a story from the female perspective–actually two female perspectives. I worried quite a lot about getting the voice “right.” I continuously grappled with the notion that a woman inhabits a different social and emotional arena, that a woman’s experience of the world is comprised of unique perceptions and emotions, different from those of a man. I wanted to handle this deftly, and the harder I tried the more self-conscious I became about it, and the less convincing Mariam and Laila’s voices sounded to me.
The critical insight for me was to stop thinking of these characters as women per se, but to understand them as human beings, people with fears, hopes, disappointments, etc. I had to understand why Mariam went to Jalil’s house, why she lived with Rasheed and tolerated his meanness and scorn, why she became so attached to Laila and Aziza. The more I understood these things, the less self-conscious the writing became, the more able I was to get drawn out of my own skin and into that of these two women. I would liken it to an act of reverse ventriloquism. When I started, I was the ventriloquist, speaking with my voice through Mariam and Laila. But as I kept writing and understanding the core and essence of these female characters, they became the ventriloquists, speaking through me, as it were. It was a real watershed moment for me as a writer. In the end, I tried to write these women as truthfully and authentically as I could. It is my hope you, as readers, will agree.
It reminds me of an interview with Ray Bradbury at the back of an anniversary edition of Fahrenheit 451 (can’t find the exact one I have, on Amazon – got it at Kepler’s). He’s asked, how does he create these stories? He answers that he sits and writes, and the characters pretty soon start to write themselves. I found another parallel in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, where she quotes Jack Kerouac from his list of prose essentials: “Be submissive to everything. Open. Listening.”
I’ve also been working with Kenny Werner’s book Effortless Mastery, to revise my mindset while creating music, after 17 years of playing the saxophone. In that period I experienced many ups and downs, many beautiful moments of being lost in the moment, sharing, open, creative, exuberant. I’d feel so naturally fully high after practicing or performing in that zone. Yet many other times when I felt very nervous or awkward. Especially when I was making a living as a musician, performing with musicians I didn’t know very well, playing tunes I’d rushed to create but hadn’t rehearsed with the group, or when I was trying to hard to “bring a certain thing” out in my playing, such as trying to do a John Coltrane thing or whatever.
So this brings me to the final parallel, with basic Buddhist teachings. I’ve been reading Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind each morning. The teachings aren’t “religious” or philosophical or anything. Just encouragements. To observe your thoughts, like waves on a lake. To not try too hard. To just be yourself, experience the world but don’t let it control you. In doing so you will express your true nature. And furthermore, help others by being centered, compassionate and energized.