I am reading a kind of self-help book. It is not the usual kind of self-help book that purports to tell the reader how to overcome anxiety or depression, nor how to make a blank-illion dollars, nor how to make a new and glorious YOU. The book was given to me by a kind soul who was trying to be helpful to me. She knew I enjoyed writing and she thought I might get something from the book, especially since I had also told her about my interest in the wabi-sabi aesthetic, an appreciation of things naturally imperfect, often asymmetrical. The book is titled, Wabi-Sabi for Writers, by Richard R. Powell.
As an instructional and writing technique, in his book, Powell recreates a Japanese writer and teacher who lived more than 300 years ago. Much like people still gain inspiration from Thoreau’s thoughts and writings and his approaches to living, so Powell relates the teachings, writings and ways of Basho to whom Powell attributes the refinement of the Haiku poetic form into an “…avenue of enlightenment.”
Oddly enough, the more I read the book, the more I realized that I was already following many of the principles it recommends. There was one point at which I mentally recoiled when Basho seemed to be setting out some disagreeable conditions for achieving good writing that included ascetic, austere, difficult pilgrimages with rough itineraries as being essential preparation for good writing. I wondered and hoped that the same kind of journey was no longer essential in 21st century Canada as it seemed to be in early 17th century Japan. Finally though, I took the advice to be figurative rather than literal. I hoped I would not be compelled to make a long canoe trip through tracts of northern wilderness in order to foster writing technique. I put doubt and skepticism aside and just read the book to see how the advice might fit within my own, contentedly urban, and sublimely comfortable frame of reference.
Basho advised: “Wandering is essential for writers.” Taken literally, I’d have to wander around neighbourhood, city, region, country, perhaps the world. No doubt I’d get good things from doing so, and I haven’t dismissed the idea of some literal wandering in my life. However, I hope that mental wandering, casting about for that which stimulates awe, love, excitement, appreciation, often very little things in life, like the semi-musical sounds of dishes clacking together or wine glasses ringing beautiful tones as they’re “tinged” while being removed from my dishwasher, might suffice. When such small beauties happen, I notice, and I notice that I notice. I think about what pleasure the sounds bring to me, and I ask myself “why”. They are sounds related to nurturing, to continuity, to comfort – not hardship. They are the music of domesticity, as are the deep rumbles and sloshings of washing machines.
Paul Simon is among the very best wabi-sabi writers of our time. He can seemingly write about anything and astute, moving poetry will express itself in song. His lyrics often touch upon matters of universal awareness that simply slipped through our grasp as being matters not worth our full attention at the time of our noticing, yet those same things weave the fabric of our conscious and subconscious experience.
Simon once wrote a song that addressed one of Basho’s key principles of good writing. The song is called, “Slip-sliding away.” Basho’s advice was as follows: “A good writer has a goal in mind but is prepared to drop the goal to attend to insight, to take side trips to explore that which reveals itself even for a moment.” Yes, slip-sliding away from the goal can be teasingly frustrating, but attending to the moment and insights gained within the moment can be equally instructive, equally important.
Awe and wonder are great triggers for creative impulse but one doesn’t need matters large or dramatic to stimulate those feelings. Just as the field of physics contemplates the vastness of the universe and the minuteness of sub-atomic particles, the consciousness of the creative writer might be stimulated by a raging storm, contemplation of the Milky Way or by studying the delicate filigree of structural supports in the wings of a dragonfly or in those of a decaying leaf. It is not place nor event that determines creative response, it is awareness and curiosity about things big and small, dramatic and seemingly incidental, present and pressing or perhaps almost forgotten.
After the writer takes notice of some something, the next challenge is to examine feelings, make connections to other experiences brought into mind by the stimulation and give those ideas expression in sometimes searing accuracy of description. In Powell’s book for instance, he is writing about the sights, sounds and feelings of a Saturday morning in suburbia as a storm rolls in. The whole sub-section is worth reading but I shall only quote the part before the storm as he is describing the sounds of children at play outdoors. “…excited like starlings at suet; their high polystyrene exchanges ricochet through my open window.”
I think of all these things as I tell you how much I enjoy being in my office, clickety-clacking away on my keyboard as part of my attention is attuned to the world outside my window. How much it changes through the seasons. From my high vantage point, in winter, I see for a long distance across a river valley and up an opposing rise many kilometres distant. In June, my view is shortened and made patchwork by the foliage of intervening trees. Then my awareness of distance is informed by sound. Children scream with delight or mock terror as they play in a school yard, a freight train rumbles past on the other side of the river providing the soundscape with a short-term, low-pitched drone, a workman’s power tool ratta-tatta-tats to force some material to do his bidding, a bird chatters a warning at an interloper, all while a moving screen of green leaves waves gently in the light breeze outside my window.
In more philosophically oriented writing, I have belaboured the torment of the conundrum, of the mutually exclusive, of simultaneously existing truths that would seem to contradict each other. Yet the more we can expand our minds to accept and welcome such natural forms of balance, the more we can get from our time of life, whether that time seems swift in passage (as remembered by an older person unhappy to see the end) or agonizingly long (as conceived by the youngster sitting in a hot classroom as summer vacation is still weeks away). Paraphrasing Basho, as presented by Powell, “By seeing clearly, perceptively into a fleeting moment, we glimpse eternity.”
Be open, be curious, be aware, be receptive, be descriptive. Don’t seek to be perfect, nor clever. Let insight find its way through you more as a conduit than as a creator.
I try. I try.