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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, May 22, 2008

pointing-out instructions

In Vajrayana Buddhism there is a particular class of teachings called "pointing-out instructions". These are essentially tips given by a realized teacher to his student so that the student may recognize aspects of his experience for what they are. The student may already be having the experience, but doesn't know he's having it. So the teacher points it out to him. The teacher can't give you the experience, he can only point to it in the hope that you'll recognize it.

In a more mundane sense, I think this is basically what writing does, or is supposed to do.

For why, I wondered, in a world with so much sensual richness and variety, do I spend so much of my time scanning my eyes along a track of ink-marks on paper? As sensory inputs go, this is thin gruel. Imagine how quickly you would grow tired of scanning your eyes along the pages of a book written in a language you don't know. It would get very boring, very quickly. You would become acutely conscious of how little stimulation you're receiving, and seek to increase it, most likely by tossing that book aside and doing something else.

But reading in English is something I can do, happily, for hours each day. Indeed, I feel I'm missing out if I don't read in a day.

It's not purely a matter of entertainment. Activities that are "purely" entertainment--such as, say, video games--are things I usually tire of quickly.

No, for me reading is about learning. But it's not simply learning for its own sake. For to sustain a positive interest in learning something, you have to feel that it's relevant to your experience, your life. You need to feel that the new knowledge is, in the widest sense, practical. The knowledge will enrich your experience of life.

When I read nonfiction, like, say, A History of Technology, I'm learning in a straightforward, traditional way. The knowledge is practical for me because I'm writing historical fiction and need to know those things; and also because it enriches my appreciation of the world around me. Instead of looking at, say, a ship in the harbor and simply taking it for granted, my view of it is enriched by having learned a little about the history of ships--about how they evolved ultimately from the dugout canoe, and how for a long time they bore traces of that origin in their design and construction. Instead of merely sweeping my eyes over the ship, en route to looking at something else, I might actually see it, notice it. It becomes a more vibrant detail of my experience. In a certain sense, it has been pointed out to me.

Fiction makes this process (potentially anyway) more intimate and intense. A stream of artistic prose carries your mind along a track of pure noticing. Just as, in a painting, every square millimeter of the canvas had to be worked by the artist, had to be seen and depicted, to create a vibrant work that is purely and everywhere the expression of the artist's vision, so in a work of writing every word is a contribution to a total, unflagging act of attention by the writer, communicated to the reader. Word by word, the writer draws your attention to things: sensations, thoughts, feelings. One by one, point by point, in a meaningful, purposeful structure. The writer is pointing out aspects of your experience to you.

This is what makes a resort to cliches such a sin in writing: it is a failure of attention, shoving something fake into an intimate experience of genuineness.

Yes, I like having valuable things pointed out to me. So I'll keep on with my reading.


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