I have a deep belief in the primacy of doubt and an abiding conviction that great wisdom informs very bad movies. My novel, Cloud Diary, will...read more be published by C&R Press in the Spring of 2018. I have a short story collection, The Naming of Ghosts, published by Press 53. I have a cat who is a much faster typist than I am. I'm co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC. I'm open twenty four hours a day at: www.thisisstevemitchell.com
The novel I was writing had a significant event at the beginning of the third act. I knew an event was there but I didn't know what it was. I didn't have a clue. What I had instead was an image:
A large orange resting atop a small iron table on the patio of a house in the Southwest. I couldn't see the house in the image, only the rolling desert in the distance. I could feel the house behind me. The sun had just set on the uneven horizon and the sky---even the air---was a deep indigo. That was the image: an orange set against a deep indigo sky.
It's impossible to say how the image arrived and, in fact, I don't remember the moment I discovered it, yet the discovery and its importance jolted me, lingering in my body with a stray voltage.
This image wasn't a symbol. It didn't mean anything, in the ways we usually talk about meaning. And, it resisted being teased out, refused to unfold into a larger scene. It remained steadfastly, and only, itself. When I reached the writing of that section, there was no way to work the image into the unfolding events.
And yet, the image had claimed me, sustained me. It held the place of the transpiring events until I got there. As I write this, I can still clearly see the orange and the sky, the play of color.
I write in coffee shops, restaurants, parks. Noisy public spaces where I might be interrupted. Where a child might be crying. Where a couple might have an argument or be unashamedly handsy.
I like being able to look up from the screen or the page, unsure of what I might see. I appreciate noise rather than silence, activity rather than stillness. Sometimes, I listen to music through my headphones but it never completely blots the din of the room. I wouldn't want it to.
There's something about the noise and activity that makes it easier for me to concentrate rather than harder; there's something about the possibility of the unexpected which provides a counterpoint to the writing. I might, at any moment, be lured or shocked from my work.
I could never be a monk; I'm too fascinated with the world around me. I don't find the idea of a writing retreat very useful, but if someone wanted to underwrite a week in the coffee shops and sketchy restaurants of Istanbul or Calcutta, well, I could go for that.
There's a quality of concentration that for me is brought about through its juxtaposition with activity. It affects the writing in a positive and real way. Still, what I'm really waiting for whenever I sit down to write is presence.
Presence is a kind of writer's grace, though the only thing spiritual about it is its mystery. Part of this mystery is that presence can't be constructed or planned; it can only be accepted when it arrives. Part of this mystery is that I never know what presence will bring or what it is for. Like the orange on the table, I only know it has meaning. Anything else requires patience and submission.
Presence is an opening, while concentration is a closing around. Concentration is concerned with filtering out the distracting things around us, the things we’ve decided don't matter: the chatter at a table, the airplane passing overhead, the aroma of someone's greasy lunch.
Presence is an opening without a filter. When my daughter was young – one, two, even older – she slept flung open upon the bed, on her back, arms thrown out, legs parted. Hardly ever would I find her curled into a ball or folded in on herself. Presence is like that, an openness to whatever arrives.
The difference between presence and concentration is in the body. In a state of concentration, I may be no more aware of my breathing or the position of my limbs than the couple talking at the next table. In a state of presence, my body becomes the primary instrument.
I'm sometimes hyper-aware: noticing the pressure of the air upon my skin, slight shifts in my breathing. Thinking as I usually know it – as gears whirring in my brain – has receded. My awareness, finally, is out of my head.
Concentration is when I no longer notice the coffee shop. Presence is when the shop is there, I am placed definitively within it, and something is happening on the blank sheet of paper.
I'm not ascribing creative states to the muses or something equally vague and undefinable; I'm merely attempting to distinguish between two inner states of being. It's no different than the distinction between waking and sleeping, between being attentive or bored. There is nothing other-worldly about it other than my complete inexperience with its existence.
But, what is present when I am present – in that instant of in-the-moment awareness?
What I call my self is, essentially, a cluster of personae in a loose aggregate and I call that aggregate me. What I call my self is accrued over the years from my responses and reactions. We all know we have a somewhat different self when we're at work, another when we're visiting our parents. Sometimes our experience of these selves is more cohesive and may resonate and overlap. Sometimes they feel disconnected or at odds.
But, what is activated when we experience presence?
When I am present, I simply am. It’s a state that seems to have no history; the history is there, it's simply organic and integrated as an element of who I am rather than a series of occurrences.
It's a state that carries no judgment. And things can happen. I can do things: I can write, for instance, and that writing can seem to come from someplace else, outside of what I usually see as me.
I stand away from so many of the things that often obstruct me.
These obstructions – some of them anyway – are my judgments (what people have said about my writing in the past, how it compares to other things I’ve written, how it compares to Joan Didion), my fears (It’s shit, it’s all shit) and my unease with what people might think of me.
Apart from the primal aspects of survival, it seems the only things this accrued or constructed self fears are shame and humiliation, shading its essential nature as social.
Writing, storytelling, art, would appear to be a social function, seeming to arise from a need to communicate. So, shame (I revealed something horrible about myself) and humiliation (My work really is worthless) would seem to make sense as a social function in response to writing.
But, what if writing isn’t really aimed at our social selves but something deeper, or – if not deeper – simply different?
There's a Philip K. Dick story I read as a young teenager, one of those stories that dug deep under my skin and proved impossible to cut out, infecting me with a kind of thought-virus.
In “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon”, Victor Kemmings regains consciousness during cryosleep aboard a spaceship. The ship's AI system can't find a way to repair the malfunction, nor fully awaken him, so he's trapped, conscious but paralyzed, throughout the ship's ten-year voyage. In an attempt to keep him sane, the system replays Kemmings' memories to him.
Eventually this begins to cause problems, so the AI asks Kemmings what he wants most. Kemmings replies that he wants the trip to be over and to arrive at his new home. The AI constructs this scenario for Kemmings, playing it to him again and again for the next ten years.
When the ship finally lands at its destination, Kemmings can’t accept the reality of his new home. He believes his arrival is yet another construction.
When presence comes to us, it appears as a visitation. It seems we have done nothing to bring it about. It arrives as an actual reality which our constructed reality, the movies we play over and over in our heads about ourselves, has supplanted. It comes with its own language. It’s a language we only occasionally understand.
I arrive to a self I recognize, yet am only passingly familiar with.
This is a self---a nearly liminal being---that I can only see now and then, and that I cannot know, at least not in the ways I usually consider knowing. I recognize it by the way I come into awareness in my body. It doesn't usually communicate as language---that comes later---it might be images, like an orange on a table, or a feeling, a pressure.
When I arrive in this way, 'expressing myself' takes on a completely different meaning. I’m no longer describing or cataloging the various aspects of my different masks. Expressing myself becomes articulating things I don’t know until I say or write them.
Instead of writing what I already believe, I find myself writing what I don't know I believe.
When it arrives in the context of our work, our writing, our painting, our art, it can come as an immediate insight – the answer to a problem – or as an overview moment in which we enter the gestalt of what we’re doing. It feels unified and coherent, where before it was simply made up of parts jostling against one another.
There's the way sunlight and cloud can cut the landscape into pieces and suddenly the field a hundred yards away seems more real than the ground beneath my feet. The light has drawn it into relief, pulled it from the wash of the world and given it clarity.
Here, we have to give up this thing we usually call understanding, which is instead a kind of dissection and categorization. We can't explain presence, or the meaning derived there, to someone else. We can't diagram a master plan. Instead, we enter its coherence, like entering weather with the attendant pressure drop, or a vibrant room with its own gravity.
Our personae, this grouping of masks we call our self believing it to be unified simply because it has accrued within our experience, these personae have little place within this presence. They seem too heavy, too bulky, to fit through the door of this room; their language is too blunt for this conversation.
And yet, these personae become the vehicle of our expression. They are the tools we use to express this inexpressible thing which is who we are when our selves have fallen away.
This is the gap, the abyss, between conception and articulation where the conception itself takes place in another realm, with a different language.
Writing, or any art, is a manner of translation between one world and another and the primary action of translation is listening. Listening, in this sense, is really being and being is a thing that happens away from anything we usually call our self and much of what we believe is the truth of our experience.
The creative self does not ‘feel’ like a self and its activity bears little relation to how many words we’ve written or how many paintings we’ve completed, much less how anyone might respond to our work.
The creative self is concerned with expressing the impossible, with putting into form that which resists and rejects form within us. Those things we can’t conceive, those things we can’t quite understand. It is that un-concluded state which makes art permeable, accessible, which allows us as its audience to enter the questions of art instead of what we might wish to believe are its answers.
Art has no answers.
Creativity is its own result. It doesn't give a damn about an object.
Creativity is about creativity.
Beauty is about beauty.
As artists, we feel a honorable compulsion to ease a thread of any beauty we might discover into the rough edges of the world. It’s always a bit like finding a remarkably beautiful and profound passage in Spanish, from Cortazar, say, then trying to explain its depth and complexity to a friend who knows only English.
Our personae, our masks – this agglomeration of responses and opinions, traumas and fears we call our self – have no reason to understand this. They know only their own language. They have no context within which to comprehend and if they are to be taught, we must do the teaching.
I’m the one who must teach my selves to recognize my own actual experience and confidences. I'm the one who must teach them the things I discover when I'm present, in the unpredictable and erratic instant it arrives.
I do that by using them. By using the experiences comprised of those responses and fears, and by using these personae to articulate my actual truth, a truth my selves hardly know. A truth which might be universal, which I don't fully understand, a truth I find only in presence.
I won’t have come to this truth in books or through art, though they may have helped me uncover it. I won’t have found these truths in religion, though it may have played a part in my understanding. I won’t have accepted it whole-cloth from my parents, my friends or my culture, though they certainly informed it.
This is a truth I can only come into contact with in a state of presence.
I may be able to approach presence in any number of ways and those ways need not be the usually prescribed, need not be meditation or yoga, prayer or reverence. Meditation and prayer are a form of concentration, not fundamentally different or qualitatively superior to any other. They don't necessarily invite presence.
Instead, I could dance maniacally to the Talking Heads or have a glass of wine on the porch. We each find our own way to invite presence.
We can’t bring about presence, but we can prepare the ground for it.
The ground in this developing exercise, however, always begins in the body: always first, the body, and not what we usually call the brain.
If I’m giving the impression this is some kind of gradual evolutionary climb of progress, it isn't. It's erratic, tangential, and occasionally demoralizing. It's a process upon which I have only nominal control. The only thing which unifies the occasional insight or image is a blind and dogged persistence.
My fourteen-year-old self was convinced he knew who he was, of course; he was fourteen. He was good in school. He knew what teachers wanted and giving it to them made them happy, which meant he had good grades.
So, in 10th grade history class, when he was given the assignment of writing a fictional account of a historical event, he wrote about a small boy who accompanies an adult to the Continental Congress for the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It was awful in a superficial and pandering way. It was stupid and he knew it. He expected to get an A.
The next week, the teacher announced that there were many very good papers turned in for the assignment but one was so exceptional that she thought it should be read to the class. Would he like to read his paper aloud to the class?
He said no.
She attempted to cajole him, imagining he was simply an awkward fourteen year old---which he was---but that wasn't the reason he said no.
She asked again. Again, he said no.
It's impossible to imagine what the teacher was thinking. He'd always participated in class before, so she knew he wasn't suffering from a crippling shyness. He was a good student. It wasn't like him to be intransigent.
They stared at each other for what seemed a very long time and she asked, once or twice more. When it became apparent he was adamant, she decided to read it aloud to the class herself.
And he had to sit in that class, while the stupid story he had written only to get a good grade, was read to everyone.
My fourteen-year-old self was convinced he knew who he was and decided, then and there, never to violate that self through the act of writing. Perhaps, in some sense, I actually had made a passing contact with something which might be called my self. Otherwise, I might not remember the story so vividly.
Of course, I do violate my self through the act of writing. Pretty much every time I attempt it. I'm absolutely aware of how clumsy and ramshackle this piece is, for instance; aware of its crystalline beauty before I attempted to wrestle it to the page, hoping nonetheless that enough shards survive on paper to give a sense of the initial impulse.
Every act of writing is a violation of the original insight. It can be nothing else.
Still, I'm constantly finding ways to keep those violations, for the most part, relatively honest. And, when I begin to slip, there's only one story I need remember to bring me back to my self.
I don't know that self. It's taken a long time to reach that place of unknowing and accept it. I do not know that self.
It's a glorious kind of uncertainty that occasionally frees me from my ridiculous thoughts and assumptions, from this angular and awkward facade of a self that fundamentally believes it should be protected instead of thrown open to the world.
Instead, a mysterious self. This vibrant, impossible, fathomless self. It's exactly what it should be; it's the very thing that allows me to write.