Natalie Goldberg says in Writing Down the Bones that we filter our words, even two or three times, before they make it from our first thoughts to the written page. As it turns out, this is just what happened when I wrote last week’s post about Writing Down the Bones. I mentioned several things from the book that spoke to me, but omitted the chapter that may be the most important to my creative development, “A Large Field to Wander In”:
Often I have had students who were very coherent right from the beginning. They wrote complete sentences, were descriptive, detailed, and grounded. In Minnesota, in the heart of the Midwest, almost everyone could write like this. I heard stories about tornadoes, winters, grandmothers, but after years of that I felt there was nowhere to go in their writing. Because they did write well, they were unwilling to leave what they knew, to break into new frontiers and crack open their world into the unknown. I remember in one Tuesday-night class, the writing was so basically solid and good, I couldn’t shake them. I wanted them to foam at the mouth, become blithering idiots, and wander into unknown fields. At the end of the class, after they were eager to understand and didn’t, and I was eager to shake them and couldn’t, I suddenly stopped and said, ‘I know what the problem is! None of you have ever taken acid!’
Now, I don’t propose that LSD or psychedelics necessarily make a person a better writer. What I meant was at some point in our lives we have to be crazy, we have to lose control, step out of our ordinary way of seeing, and learn that the world is not the way we think it is…
I read this on the plane out to Vegas two Saturdays ago, and I’d been reading the whole book cover to cover, so these didn’t strike me as a particularly resonant couple of paragraphs. I thought, “oh haha, acid, yeah,” and then kept going. But the image wormed itself into my mind. Last Friday I was driving out to Berkeley to pick up Jenn so we could go to FabMo together, and the LSD metaphor finally made its way to the center of my brain and hit whatever connections it was supposed to hit, and I thought, “Oh my god, she’s talking to me.”
The metaphor went into my brain as a single image, but there it exploded into other ideas that were already composting, and I got a total “aha” storm all at once. I was on west Solano Avenue, right before the residential neighborhood hits the commercial strip, and as the crossing guard stopped me so the schoolkids could cross, I snatched my notebook out of my purse and started writing at the red lights.
I remembered being in kindergarten when the teacher had us practice printing our letters. I’d known how to form AaBbCc for a long time already, so I made bubble letters instead, and my classmates saw me, and they were all excited I could do that. Then Miss Foster saw what I was doing, and took my paper away, saying, “I asked you to print. This is not printing.” I was so ashamed.
My parents were amazingly astute about raising kids in a culture different than the one they’d grown up in, but inevitably they’d miss some of the signals and do something that looked American-ignorant. I’d be embarrassed for myself and for them. Each “slip” would sharpen my eyes and ears, reminding me that I needed to be on guard to catch future mistakes and spare us all potential humiliation. I think a lot of kids of immigrants must grow up this way: watchful, self-conscious, hyper-vigilant to nuances of behavior and response from those around them. You never know when it might be your family that people talk about behind your backs.
My mom’s superstitions run the gamut from Chinese (put an orange peel in your pocket when you visit a cemetery, then throw it out just after you leave; the ghosts will stay in the peel and not follow you home) to Western (beware of Friday the 13th), encompassing everything in between (don’t mention your own death, or that of loved ones, even in jokes. You never know). All my life I’ve known there are places you don’t go and things you don’t talk about. Stay positive and optimistic and light. Don’t tempt evil by exploring the dark side of anything, especially yourself. Better be safe than in danger.
My family says, when I was a toddler, all they had to do was ask me: “Who is a good girl?” and I’d be on my best behavior. Follow the directions, color inside the lines. Who’s a good girl? Me, me!
It’s partly my upbringing, but it’s also just how I’m built. I do as I’m told and I smooth things along for everyone. It’s not easy for me to let go and be wild, or allow myself to be directed by forces outside my understanding. Even as a little kid I’d get insomnia: why welcome the surrender to sleep? So it’s natural for me to make art that’s pretty, nice, even thoughtful, but I am always the one making it; it never takes over. Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to dreams; in them I understand what it’s like when my imagination free-flows and creates its own reality. It’s an experience I have been unable to reproduce in waking life.
After thinking again on Goldberg’s LSD metaphor, I realized that if I only ever create from my conscious mind, I’ll never make anything greater than my conscious mind — and as I know from meditation and from listening to other artists, conscious mind doesn’t have a whole lot to say. It’s fretful, anxious, repetitive, and easily tricked or distracted. It knows what it knows and it fears what it doesn’t, and it’s persuasive, resistant, and impossible to shut off completely. So… what to do?
*The post title is an awesome Depeche Mode song.