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After television, the philosophy: Three Zen Challenges for Writers

What is it with writers and Zen Buddhism?

In the fusty ’50s, Beats like Alan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder challenged the status quo by refashioning themselves as blissed out Dharma Bums who’d snubbed conspicuous consumption and the yoke of routine in order to experience the present more deeply and more profoundly.

Contemporary novelist Ruth Ozeki, who moonlights as a Zen Buddhist priest, has unabashedly described writing as a form of prayer, a way of connecting with the expansive and sometimes baffling world beyond one’s head.

Why the abiding Zen lovefest among literary types? For starters, these folks have correctly guessed that a spare, playful approach to the craft of writing serves any writer immensely well.

But it sure ain’t easy being spare. We all know. We’ve all tried. It’s the perennial writer’s lamentation: If only I weren’t so distracted! Then, I could make more space in my life to create.

As a writer-person who often feels rather mentally cluttered, I, too, long for more room. And I, too, admire the tidiness of the Zen Mandate: Clear away the non-essential, and you free up the semantic and literal space to focus intently, deeply, on what truly matters.

But making and maintaining the space to be creative on a regularly scheduled program is hard. Really hard. And yet we sense that the calculus ought to be simple: if you love something, you’ll find a way to do it every single day of the rest of your life, no matter where or how you achieve the feat.

Some writers have retooled their routines to accommodate a spare, playful approach by opting to work from out-of-the-ordinary locales where distractions are blessedly fewer: Ray Bradbury posted up in a shed behind the family home to meet his prolific daily word counts. Gertrude Stein did some of her best work from the front seat of a parked Model T Ford. Maya Angelou preferred sparsely appointed hotel rooms – any room would do – so long as all decoration had been removed from the walls.

What about the rest of us poor, distractible sods whose lives and pocketbooks don’t permit the luxury of slinking off to secret sheds and empty parking lots and bland, anonymous hotel rooms on the weekly?

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How can we make our own kind of space? Let’s wander over to the Pop Culture Vault for a moment, and consider the television sitcom.

Are you surprised? Because, wasn’t this supposed to be an essay on writing and Zen?

After mediation, the laundry, goes one popular Zen axiom.

In other words: no task is any better or worse than any other task. No thing is better or worse than any other thing. What matters is staying present in the face of it. Staying mindful, staying open, staying willing to make space for inspiration, no matter by which mundane form it comes to you. But you’ve got to be willing to make space. More than that – you’ve got to be ready to make a mess!

Besides, regularly syndicated babbling has its own crunchy Zen wisdom nuggets to impart. Case in point: one particular common obligatory love scene that’s been popping up in sitcoms and rom-coms for decades, now.

A breathless, bumbling lover commences to furious making out with a prize paramour. They stumble their conjoined way through a messy New York or San Francisco loft, kissing violently, bodies atangle, hands grabbing at bits like some four-limbed human spider, till they crash against a piece of furniture, usually a writing desk.

In thralls, the male of the pair reaches out to clear the surface of its contents with a decisive sweep of his hand.

There’s a satisfying clatter, something heavy-sounding hits the floor and breaks, then said lover throws said paramour onto the desktop and continues ravishing her. The desk-sweeping gesture is antique, unabashedly eager, and charming in its reckless abandon.

It says, “For my passion, I readily forego all else.”

It says, “Nothing matters but this.”

Years and years ago, a desk-sweeping incident in an otherwise inane episode of “Friends” turned the premise on its ear, and I’ve never forgotten it.

Dumb Blonde Phoebe is hanging out with her uptight scientist boyfriend in his lab. His name is David, and he’s beyond stodgy.

“Um, were you planning on kissing me ever?” Phoebe asks after David finishes explaining particle accelerator theory to her.

David confesses that he’s simply been waiting for the “perfect” moment:

David: Right. But, see, the longer I waited, the more phenomenal the kiss had to be, and now we’ve reached a place where it’s just gotta be one of those things where I just like… sweep everything off the table and throw you down on it. And, uh, I’m not really a, uh, sweeping sorta fella.
Phoebe: Oh, David, I, I think you are a sweeping sorta fella. I mean, you’re a sweeper! …trapped inside a physicist’s body.”

So David makes a move as if to sweep all the clutter from his physicist’s desk, then hesitates, grinning dolefully before he picks up a laptop from the mess.

“Y’know what, this was just really expensive,” he says, setting it aside.

Next to the laptop is a microscope.

“This was a gift,” he explains, gingerly removing it from the path of destruction.

Then and only then can he sweep. Papers fly, ravishing commences.

What’s all this got to do with Zen, let alone your stalled out writing practice? Well, whether you’re closing the deal on an awkward sexual conquest or simply vowing to carve out more space (read: time) for creating, big gestures are often kinda tough to make good on.

It’s hard to clear away dross from our lives because, often, that dross serves a purpose. Many purposes. Sometimes, that dross is expensive, difficult to replace, indeed, even precious.

Otherwise, why would we have kept it around?

This is where the Zen Mandate gets tricky: when pondering the dusty parlors of work and habit, it’s easy to distract ourselves with redecoration and relocation. We buy books about writing. We move our desk three inches to the left. We clean out all the old stickpins from the back of the drawer. But we’re afraid to make more sweeping changes to the way we do things.

Those gauzy Grandmother curtains aren’t the problem, nor is the relative feng shui of your writing space – it’s the furniture, friends, and it’s all got to go.

After television, the philosophy, I say! Matter of fact, before television, the philosophy, too. And in between, lots and lots of sweeping away.

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To that end, I give you three Zen-inspired challenges for writers:

  • Break something! Really. Break it. The next time you sit down to write and distraction strikes, pick something up from your desk and throw it out the window. Even if you go outside ten minutes later and retrieve it, even if you regret it instantly, even if it’s nothing more than an old sandwich crust that your hungry dog gobbles up a millisecond later, at least you’ll be reminded that being creative requires not a goddamned single inspirational wall quote or fancy fountain pen or novelty mug. Your dishes don’t even need to be clean. Surrounding ourselves with the comfort of stuff helps us. It also holds us back.
  • Go without! Take a cue from the pages of Bradbury, Stein or Angelou, and get out of your regularly scheduled writing location, foregoing all of your regular writing implements, for just a day. Tomorrow afternoon, park your car in the grocery store lot, roll down the windows, and write for 30 minutes. Rise next Sunday at dawn, set up a folding chair in the back alley, and crank out 10 pages of prose using the crappiest pen you can find. Above all else, challenge your attachments to your most cherished processes and tools. You are the conduit; not your laptop. It’s an inanimate hunk of plastic and metal teetering on the verge of obsolescence; you are 100-something-odd pounds of magical, pulsing flesh and bone and blood. Your laptop will end its brief lifetime as a steaming heap of scrap in a landfill of e-waste. You’ll end your brief turn on earth by returning to a flow of consciousness as big as space and as wide as time! Treat yourself, and your gadgets, according.
  • Meditate! Not metaphorically, or theoretically, but really actually. Find a Zen Temple in your city (they are everywhere) and try your hand at zazen, or sitting meditation. It will be hard, strange, frustrating, boring, infuriating, and sometimes painful, and did I mention hard? It will also reveal to you incredible, pointless busy-ness of that tiny little humanoid brain of yours. The mind is infinitely vast, infinitely distractible, infinitely cluttered. Learn to observe it. Then stop observing it. Sit long enough, and a profound silence will descend. Afterward, you’ll return to your writing with a newfound sense of calm and focus. You’ll require less. Repeat as needed until either death, enlightenment, or overnight literary success occurs.
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