Today’s post is inspired by two wonderful pieces of art. The first is a brief documentary of the Scottish poet Robert Fullerton, originally trained as a shipbuilding welder. He says: This is the wonderful thing about both these trades. They are both done solitary and in silence. The second is a late-1980s essay by the San Francisco Chronicle writer Jon Carroll which no longer seems easily found online, in which he writes about the visit of Tibetan monks who were spending the week at the Palace of Fine Arts, creating a sand mandala that would then be swept into a bowl and cast into the sea as a teaching of non-permanence and detachment. But then a crazy lady walked through the middle of it while they were still making it. They looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “well, guess we’re done early, then. Lesson over.”
Writing is indeed done solitary and in silence. But then the moment comes when it’s done. What do we do then? The notion of detachment, as practiced fundamentally in Buddhism but really in lots of different faiths, is that suffering is born of desire. Teaching ourselves to renounce desire allows us an enlightened view of a world that needn’t respond to us, that needn’t implicate us at all. We have dedicated ourselves to the work, because the work is worthy. And then we let go of the work, because the attainment does not matter.
So here’s today’s quiz, to see the level of enlightenment that we may have reached around our work. Let’s say that you’ve spent a year or so writing a novel. You’ve tuned and revised, you’ve cut and arranged, you’ve brought it to a place where it feels true and real. It is done. Do you:
- Immediately start to think about finding fame? Or wealth?
- Immediately start to think about finding readers who will love you because of the work?
- Accept readers, or not, as emerges in the course of the world?
- Put it into a drawer or on the hard drive and look at it again occasionally in years to come?
- Put it into a drawer or on the hard drive and leave it there unregarded?
- Delete the file?
The work was the work. The work drew your attention and devotion. The work was worthy. But the work is done. The work no longer exists. The resultant object is not the work; it is an historical artifact of work that was once done, by a self who no longer exists. A self who typed “the end” some increasing number of days or months or years ago. In fact, the self who did the work isn’t even the same self as the one who now owns it. They wanted different things, and conducted different efforts to reach for it.
We contain multitudes, right?.
I vacillate between Levels 2 and 4 of the scale above. Level 1 is stupid, and Levels 5 and 6 are well beyond me. I have a long way to go to reach apatheia, may not reach it in this life. Should I? Or is the renunciation of desire its own form of self-regard, the snake consuming its ever-so-noble tail?
I read a book earlier this week that I’d written six years ago. No other human being in the world has seen it, and likely never will. It’s a good story. It made me happy to revisit those people and their affections and adventures once again. That’s my Level 4 experience. I can live at peace with that. It’s Levels 3 and especially 2 that ache, that burn. But as they say, time heals all wounds. Perhaps we natively inhabit different levels of detachment by temporal distance from the moment of completion. My first book, now over twenty years old, doesn’t even feel like mine any more. I’ve got a bunch of copies in the garage, a holdover from when I had some shipped to a speaking event. They are silent and inert. I’m not ready to put them into the recycling yet… but if someone else did, I probably wouldn’t be angry with them, and after a couple of days, I’d appreciate the empty shelf space. I’m at Level 5.8 with that one.
A different one—the one I just printed and sent around—is a red-hot Level 2. I want people to tell me how wonderful I am, what a great story it is and what a great writer I am to have devised it all. I’m a long, long way from detachment on that one. But in a few years, maybe I’ll buy a new computer and just not transfer that file over.
What an odd business we writers find ourselves in. We are at peace when we do the work, and then drive ourselves nuts every day once we’re done.