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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, March 19, 2007

ego is my hobby

Stephen King said that he wrote 365 days a year, including Christmas and his birthday, because that's what he liked to do. Book after book was written in this way, seven days a week, many thousands of words a day. Hence his famous prolificness.

I write fewer than 365 days a year--but not that many fewer. It's probably about 350. (Of course my output per day is also much less. Sigh.) But I'm not always pushing a single project forward. Continuous, unremitting work on a single thing I find exhausting and eventually boring and confining; I need a break, I need to let my mind loose on other things.

So on weekends I turn my mind away from The Mission and focus elsewhere. Right now I'm back to my musings on identity, writing notes toward what may, I hope, eventually become a nonfiction book project of its own. On Saturday and Sunday I sat here keying notes in much the same way I do with The Mission, including notes from research books. This project has its own folders set up on my PC, just as the novel does.

It's a hobby project, undertaken for love and interest, in exactly the same way that Kimmie makes a hobby right now of creating haute couture costumes for Barbie dolls up in her sewing room. Purely for love, not for any monetary or pragmatic reason, she diligently puts together patterns with carefully chosen fabrics, and makes little accessories from scratch such as hats with plumes and little handbags with special details; she even sews up Barbie-scale lace panties from sections of stretch ribbon. Over this past weekend she spent hours preparing an inventory of all her work on it to date, and counted 73 outfits already made, many of which are modeled on the three dozen or so dolls she has ranged in tiers atop her white shelving unit. Many of the costumes are Victorian and antebellum gowns--her favorite period. Like everything that's done for love, they're all excellent.

I'm trying to work for love as much as possible (I'm certainly not working for money!). And certainly my weekend hobby is done for love. I'm driven by pure curiosity and a desire to understand.

And what am I coming up with? I'm working toward a unified belief system for myself. I'd like to find out what I believe--what I think is true, what my real values are. In various problems and conflicts around the world, from the Iraq War to global warming to mass violence and starvation in Darfur, I think about what the solutions might be--not merely band-aids but solutions to the underlying problems. This means identifying the underlying problems correctly, just as a doctor can't treat a disease without diagnosing it properly first. What are the root causes of these problems?

The Buddha identified the root cause of all suffering as ego fixation: clinging to the notion that one's self is a real, existent thing that needs continual care and feeding. His insight was that this universal conviction is in fact a mistake, and that if one can gain clear insight into this mistake, everything changes--for the better. Specifically, your suffering is at a complete and permanent end, and you become a truly useful person to the rest of humanity.

Sounds good. I spent 15 years fairly intensively studying and practicing those teachings; they form the great bulk of my spiritual education, such as it is. I haven't achieved the enlightenment of the Buddha--far from it--and I came to see that that eventuality is probably some way off, not in this lifetime, not for me. But in all those years I made an examination of ego from the Buddhist perspective, for Buddhism is, in a certain sense, an intensive effort to understand ego through study and introspection. Now I've changed my approach, and am looking at it from a "Western" perspective--a philosophical and scientific approach, you might say.

What is it that makes us hate? What is it that has us identifying with an in-group and seeing ourselves in antagonistic competition with other perceived groups? Why are "Arabs" slaughtering "blacks" in Darfur? What, at bottom, do Shiites have against Sunnis, and vice versa? Why do I want more than my share?

These are all questions relating to ego, which I have rebranded as "identity" for my purposes. And that, friends, is my hobby.


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