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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

restless attention

I never have only one project on the go. I'm not like, say, Kimmie, who can keep at a single activity almost indefinitely. Up in her sewing-room, her "mad scientist's lab" as we call it, putting together patterns, fabrics, and trim for Barbie clothes (or as she now calls them, "11.5 FD clothes"--meaning 11.5-inch fashion dolls, the technical term), Kimmie can go all day, pausing only reluctantly for meal-breaks. (It helps that I provide room service for hot drinks and, later, wine.)

Not me. I tire of things. The activity of which I'm capable of the most sustained effort is reading, and the utmost I can manage there is about three hours. I can rarely read from a single book for longer than an hour, no matter how interesting I find it. It palls on me; my mind wanders and I feel overfed. I need a change.

For a long time I saw this trait as a sign of native dilettantism. If you can't focus on any one thing for any length of time, how can you achieve anything meaningful?

When I attended the Vajradhatu Buddhist Seminary in the Colorado Rockies in 1994, my meditation instructor was Ruth Astor, an elderly woman (who has since died) of, I believe, the famous American Astor family, which became prominent through the fur trade and New York real estate. A former filmmaker and veteran of the three-year meditation retreat, the pinnacle program for Vajrayana students, she was one of the instructors of the seminary, and developed a special fondness for me over the course of the 11-week program. One day I expressed to her my worries about this shifting attention of mine, how I couldn't stick with any one project. Her answer was immediate: "You need to organize your space so you can grab whatever you want to work on at that moment."

She didn't see my restless attention as any kind of problem in itself; she saw the issue only as one of setting up my office space. (She also predicted that I would be famous.)

I have tried to keep her advice in mind. The advent of the PC has made things a lot easier. Now I have folders for my various projects and ideas, and I can shift between them at will with a few keystrokes.

But still I worry. For as new ideas arise, new projects crop up, the old ones get muscled aside. They become the runts of the litter that can't make their way to a teat, and they shrivel and starve. I'm the sow lying on her side, unconcerned with the accumulating corpses of my farrow, because I'm always interested in the latest, and there's always plenty more where they came from.

In short, I write the way I read: with more or less intense concentration applied in short bursts. And as you can tell from the growing reading-list in the sidebar of this blog, I always have several books on the go, and many of these lapse unfinished. My interest and attention move on, and I need new inputs; the old ones die away, perhaps to be picked up another day.

Rarely do I commit to finishing the reading of a book. I can't stand the slog of continuing to read material that I have lost interest in, that I am continuing to read only because of an artificial decision to reach the end. I like to trust the wayward horse of my interest to find its own way. Because, even as it continually changes direction, it's always going somewhere. And I'd rather be animated by the passion of the present moment than by a promise made in the past.

But while this noncommittal, devil-may-care approach seems harmless in reading, I feel more anxious about applying it to writing--my creative output. Nonetheless, I have to acknowledge the pattern is there. Just as in my reading-list, so in my writing-list: there are a lot of unfinished works lying dead at the roadside. I have to take solace from the fact that, as in my reading-list, so in my writing-list, there are also finished works. I do finish reading some books, and I can even say that I also, sometimes, finish writing them.

At this stage, that's just going to have to do.

An interesting side-note: Three-year-retreats are conducted not in complete solitude, but in small groups. (The actual length of the retreat is three years, three months, and three days.) One of Ruth Astor's fellow retreatants was Migme, an ordained nun and one of the senior residents at Gampo Abbey, who had spent her working career as a paleobotanist. When I was a temporarily ordained monk at the Abbey in 2002, Migme, well into her 70s, was my meditation instructor. I remember how she teared up in recollection when I mentioned that Ruth Astor had been my MI at Seminary. As with Ruth, I felt that I had a special connection with Migme. It feels very significant to me, as well as profoundly fortunate, that I have had a deep and beneficial spiritual connection with these two women.

May I live up to the teachings I have received from them!


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