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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, April 20, 2007

a drop in the thinking bucket

After a few days of poking my nose into another writer's work, maybe it's time to get back to talking, at least tangentially, about my own.

But it seems there's not much to say. The process of writing, considered as a physical act, is unexciting. In some sense writing seems to be the least possible physical result of mental effort--well, perhaps not quite, for what about meditation? The image that springs to mind is this: meditation is like sharpening the knife; writing is like making the smallest possible cuts with the knife.

I'm still making my way through James's The Principles of Psychology, volume 2. He stresses that the natural result of every thought whatsoever is an action. Every thought leads naturally to action, and is prevented from becoming an action only by one or more countervailing thoughts. "Action" might be something physiologically subtle, such as quickened breathing or an elevated heart rate, but every thought will out in the body. There are no "dead-end" nerves; the sensory nerves lead into the brain and the motor nerves lead out; there is no insulating barrier between them. Stuff goes in, bounces around, and comes out; it does not simply vanish.

Hence, in simpler cultures, feelings of elation or joy erupt spontaneously as laughing, singing, and dancing. Feelings of sorrow erupt as groaning and pounding the ground. According to this view, our "civilized" cultures have more taboos on expression--countervailing thoughts--that block the spontaneous expression of thought and feeling, and no doubt (this is what I surmise) put us into a state of physical tension, like a strung bow.

Personally, I think he's on to something. It makes complete intuitive sense. And it occurs to me that even seemingly passive, purely aesthetic feelings, such as looking at a beautiful nature scene, push the body toward action--such as trying to express one's feeling of beauty in a work of art. I'm familiar with this feeling: there is a sense of being filled by an experience, energized by it, and an impulse to express it creatively. The energy comes in, is cycled through the system, and reemerges to join the world again.

Back to meditation: a practice in which one does not physically do anything, except maintain a particular posture. The effort of meditation is an effort of attention: bringing the mind repeatedly into the here and now. I've read that there are characteristic physical changes that come over the meditator: a slightly elevated heart rate and blood pressure. These things say "exertion", do they not?

And writing this blog-post? Here my thoughts and feelings, such as they are, find organized expression. How often have I sat thinking, when the output was merely a few muscle-clenchings, finger-drummings, impatient sighs, and the like? The energy of thought dissipating randomly, like heat from a running engine. So I have many times told myself: "If you're going to think, write it down."

Thus thousands of pages of journals and notes--and now blog-posts--have been generated in my life. No doubt a drop in the thinking bucket, but better than nothing.

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