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Vision, revision, and play: life in writing

This is a short talk about writing from the point of view of one writer and teacher. It is framed as a personal narrative and in places it is somewhat psychological [and for that I apologize]. It is offered not as a practical pedagogical model but as a partial, one-individual's account of how he came to approach the craft as he does. There is no 'right way' to teach writing any more than there is a right way to write, but I am going to try to explain how for me learning to write has been a matter of learning how to know, and how to live.

As a child I was generally unhappy and afraid. My parents fought, sometimes violently, and I expected that any day my mother would leave, and our home would dissolve. I was younger than most kids on the street and seven years old before I had any kind of schooling beyond Sunday school. I was small, physically uncoordinated, had no control of my tears, and was no match physically or emotionally for the relatively brutal kids of the neighbourhood. I was not picked on especially, but my recurrent experience was of being alone and on the outside, playing in worlds of imagination beyond the realities of my parents' fighting and the neighbourhood sadism.

By the age of nine or ten it had become evident to me that my major problem was going to be how to reconcile my profound commitment to my own safe interior world of convictions, longings, fantasy, dark secrets, and desperately held illusions, to the terrible greater authority of the real world. How was I going to be able to live for the sake of what I thought when it was palpably clear to me that the actual version, the version out there, was objectively real, infinitely more complex, superior in every point of authority, universally assented to, adult-sanctioned, was a version that did not need mine, a version that was alien to mine, that did not care for mine, that in fact, as I knew at particular times of psychological terror, when familiar objects would seem to rise up against me, very much resented the imposition of mine upon it? Everything that mattered to me personally seemed to me to be unutterably private and partial and to exist in a precious, shameful bolthole beyond any possible or desirable scrutiny in the light of shared, let alone public knowledge.

In 1959, at the initiative of my mother, I wrote the entrance exams for the University of Toronto Schools, in those days a school for boys. For the next five years I spent three to four hours a day in term time commuting to and from UTS--we lived in the suburbs, in Woodbridge, in those days a village of 2400--and two or three hours a night on homework. I had no close friends at UTS. Most of the boys were the children of professional people, urban, sophisticated, arrogant, and somewhat, it seemed to me, callous. Most were headed for law, business, medicine. Since everybody at UTS was a Brain, the important thing was not to be a Spaz. A country boy whose mother had never finished high school and whose father had never started, a boy who moreover was unusually naive, younger and smaller than his classmates, poorly coordinated, and a late developer (swim class was naked), I was not happy at UTS.

At UTS there were many excellent teachers, but it was a man named Harrison--R.G. Harrison-who first showed me genuine literature, and who first taught me how to look at writing--my own included--with eyes not invested in myself. In Harrison's English class--this was Grade 12--we used a published text written by himself, that made use of short prose passages from the great modernists, such as Joyce and Conrad. The intensity of my experience of those passages I can compare only to my recurrent childhood dream of discovering a sunken treasure chest filled with puppets; or to the first time in my life I ate a wonderful meal, in France at the age of 20. Until I was 20 I had thought food was just for keeping the body going. Until Grade 12 I had thought writing was just for getting the thing down.

The end of high school seemed too soon to stop reading literature. At Victoria College at the University of Toronto, where Northrop Frye was and the country kids went, I studied English. At University, the great dark cloud of the world at last opened up and dumped on my head all the riches of the Sixties, including, at last, friends, friends I still have today. It seemed to me that life had tremendously improved. I was happy. Subject to periodic waves of unaccountable sorrow that would sweep me away on day-long crying jags, but otherwise happy. There were books, and now there was also life.

By this time I was writing poetry, partly to weather the crying jags and partly in the spirit of James Boswell when he says, "If only I can keep up my journal, then all will be well." Because my old problem of in-here vs. out-there had assumed a new cast. In one sense the tables had turned. In another, nothing had changed. Now I was trying to address the essential psychological situation of my childhood as an artistic problem. How to use poetry to create a bridge over the abyss between the subjective realm and the world out there. Now the problem was how to use writing to reach out and take hold of life in its elusiveness, its fleetingness, how to salvage something of value before the whole mess of the day vanished down the sink of time. Was I crying for the world lost, or for myself? Both. The world felt lost to me and without it I was lost. But I now believed that good writing came somehow at the heart, the truth, the order at the core of the moment. It seemed to me that literature was a way to get purchase on life. It seemed to me that literature was the only redemption for the world, and for me.

Dennis Lee was at Victoria College in those days as a sessional lecturer, and he was the one instructor who did not condescend to the writing being done by me and my peers. I would knock on his door and he would rouse himself from under his desk where he liked to curl up and sleep, and I would sit with him for an hour or so with nothing to say until he told me to leave. In 1968 one of the first books published by the House of Anansi was a sweaty collection of twelve sweaty young Toronto poets called T.O. Now, edited by Dennis Lee. This was my first publication beyond the college literary magazine, and in my own mind, anyway, I became a poet. But expressing yourself and connecting with life are unfortunately not quite the same thing. Poetry promised that connection, but in my hands it remained only a vehicle for dramatizing the disconnection that remained at the root of my own unhappiness.

After the BA I travelled in Europe for a year. On the road it came forcibly to my attention that not only was I out of touch with life but wholly unprepared for it as it is lived on the street. It also became clearer than ever that I was completely uninterested in anything remunerative that my education had so far qualified me to do. Looking back, I am not surprised that in London I fell in love with what was then the Reading Room of the British Museum, that glorious blue-and-gold domed bolthole, and I decided to return there if I could, in order to gird myself with more knowledge. A thick tough carapace against the incursions of the world.

At the University of London between 1970 and '74 I did my PhD on the eighteenth-century immaterialist philosopher George Berkeley, his influence on eighteenth-century English literature. Now, Berkeley is a philosopher with the reputation of saying that the real world exists only in the mind, and while he said nothing of the kind, there does seem to have been something mothlike about my being attracted to that particular flame. In fact, what Berkeley said was not that everything is in the mind but that the reality of the world lies in its being perceived and not in some other mysterious and unknowable component of it, and this turned out to be exactly what I needed to learn. Anyway, in London I had the sort of access to British society in its middle and upper reaches that only colonials and clerics enjoy, and I had the British Museum, where I read, five and a half days a week. Delivered to my desk were all the Books I could ever want, and I had Life at the end of the day, when the bell rang and we Readers stumbled out blinking into the London night. more personally, however, something was still distinctly wrong, or missing. From the second to the fifth of my five years in England I lived in a cottage attached to a nineteenth-century country house on Limpsfield Common, in Surrey. There I would go for long walks in the woods, and on those empty English Sundays that the Sunday papers could not begin to fill, the undertow of the sadness was unavoidably back.

Here the story takes an unusual turn.

Somewhere in my reading I had come across an ancient Eastern saying, The wise man never dreams, and being fairly sure that it wasn't wisdom, exactly, that I was acquiring at the British Museum, I decided to try to sneak in wisdom's back door--by stopping dreaming. And so I read the latest research and theories on dreams--what they are, where they come from, what function they might serve--and I decided that they must have their origins at specific emotional junctures in the day (or the day before), when perceivable thoughts go unperceived for reasons of habit, repression, distraction, self-image, and so on. These moments of failure to perceive the perceivable, these minor but violent crushings or repressions or pushings-aside of thoughts, are emotional moments, and normally they will be processed or "fixed" in the mind that night, during dreaming. (Fixed in both senses of that word: fixed meaning repaired and fixed meaning set.) But I reasoned that if I could remain sufficiently aware while awake, then the perceivable could be perceived on the spot, as it came up, and so the need for dreaming would be removed, or at least diminished, my dreams would disappear, or at least grow quiet, and I would become wise.

The trick was to see the various responses of thought both to external events and to itself without judging it, judgment being only self-consciousness, which is simply more thought. By the time I had learned to do this and had been doing it for about two years, my dreams became very quiet. I knew they were quiet, because although I was sleeping eight hours as ever I was more or less conscious for 24. As each dream image came up, my mind would note its source in recent experience and so with the next. In sleep my brain was continuing to do exactly what it was doing while awake, which was only natural. And yet this kind of awareness I was practising was quite demanding, going as it did against Western conditioning, and it required a certain asceticism, which I was fortunate enough not to have to impose on myself. It came on its own, from inside, as I think all genuine discipline must, because I was interested in this. For me it had become a matter of emotional survival.

Now, there were quite a few major effects of having no sea of unconsciousness to dissolve into at the end of the day, let alone no alcohol, sex, or other escapes. I will mention two.

The first was that in observing my thoughts as they came up, without judging them, I stopped being psychologically committed to them, and it became increasingly clear, experientially clear, that thought--as opposed to this capacity we have to watch it--is a response, a physical reponse, by which I mean mechanical, repetitive, fragmentary; and it also became clear to me that the subjective realm, the realm of the self, that bolthole of my youth so dear, so precious, so shame-ridden, so beleaguered, is simply a private reserve of old habits of pleasure and pain that do not require psychological commitment either for their perpetuation or for the creative health and survival of the individual. All that is necessary is attention to the appropriateness of the response of thought now. It also became clear that the primary issue for the health and well-being of the human mind as conscious mind is simply truth, and the apprehension of truth is an apprehension of the degree of relevance, of appropriateness, of sensitivity, of the response of thought at this moment, whether to itself or to a situation out there. Seeing this truth or its absence as the day unfolds--not judging, simply seeing it as fact--is all that is necessary to feed the mind. The accumulation of knowledge is a somewhat different process, although of course if the knowledge is true knowledge at its heart must be this perception of truth.

The second effect of my experiment, I stopped suffering inundations of fear and sorrow.

Wisdom? I would not go that far. But I did come to an insight that has been centrally important to me ever since. And that is that nature has designed the brain primarily as an organ of perception, and if it is to be healthy--if, that is to say, the world created by human beings is to be healthy--its first energy must lie with perception. What this means intellectually is that the mind operates most effectively, which is to say sensitively, when it is in--when it operates from out of--a state of watching, or attention. Inside and out. Most errors of the mind are the result of laziness or carelessness, yes, but the primary cause of carelessness, I would argue, is impatience, a compulsion to be active, to be carrying out a search. My students are not particularly lazy, but they are impatient. They are too eager to get on with it. more or less distracted. They have more important things to do. And so the wrong connection, the wrong word, the wrong solution is too readily seized upon.

If the mind is primarily a perceiving organ it is doing what it does best when empty and waiting and responding out of that emptiness. A mind full of ideas is not a mind at its best but one that is functioning as a memory machine, often highly impressive but just as often not entirely sensitive to the point. The popular notion that we as educators are fillers of brains, creating minds as rich and complex as the world out there, feeds the old lie, because it obscures both the proper nature--as I understand it--both of the mind and of education. The error lies in that other misleading metaphor: the mind as a mirror of the world, which harks back to the old picture theory of language. Thought in its essence is not a picture of the world but a response to it. The theme of this conference is English and Change. In my own view the most radical change the education system has undergone over the past twenty years has been the institutionalization of the idea, foregrounded by postmodern theory, that all knowledge is relative. Generally this is taken to mean that truth does not really exist. That one idea is as good as another. And this becomes justification for the fact that most of us continue to walk around all day in a fog of opinion and prejudice. But I am arguing that truth is exactly what the conscious mind is about. That it is only attention to the truth that will keep it sane and healthy. Imply to students that they can't discover truth and you're taking away their souls.

I think we should be trying to do three things for our students, and I'm afraid there's nothing new or easy about any of them. One, catch their interest, because interested minds are attentive minds, by definition. Two, stress the primary importance of their finding out what interests them about the topic, about anything, and pursuing it, for their own understanding. Three, try to be as clear and helpful as we can about where and why the wrong word, solution, or answer has been seized upon.

But more particularly to writing. As I understand, teach, and practise it, writing requires as a preliminary condition attention to the details and contradictions and repressions of my own experience, and on that basis, in the behaviour of others. This is the "Vision" of my title. Attention to what is actually going on in my life and what my own--and others'--responses--logical or not, neurotic or not, relevant or not--actually are. If I'm writing something academic, or an essay, or a sort of narrative-argument like this talk, the process is the same, except that "what is actually going on" is not the remembered actions of myself and other people but ideas as they continue to reemerge and recombine and be turned over in my own mind. These ideas, for example, about quieting dreams by being watchful, about thought as essentially mechanical, or about our students being more impatient than lazy.

Once I have written what I can in the way of a first draft, I have before me fresh material available to experience. Because now comes Revision. Re-vision. And the reading over what one has written that will initiate the process of revision demands exactly this same kind of attention, to the details and contradictions and repressions of one's own experience. This time as a reader. Because these are what will tell me what is wrong with the sentence, or passage, and they will tell me where it needs to go. To put this simply, I revise the sentence until it stops bothering me. Until my mind stops snagging on it. Until my unconscious stops working on it while I am asleep.

For me writing goes like this. I write the sentence or the passage. It comes out at first in some common form. more or less banal, more or less a cliche, usually with a twist or touch of artifice supposed to redeem it, to make it new. The next day I look at it. Am dismayed by what I read. So I change it. The next day I still don't like it; it still seems obvious, forced, artificial, false, unfaithful to what I am trying to say. And so I change it again. And the day after that I change it again. And so on. It evolves. Twisting and contorting. You start with the cliche, the common form, interrogating, excavating, deforming it until something has emerged that is fresh and particular. (And here we are at the central paradox of art, for me the heart of its fascination. The more truly artful the thing, the more natural it will seem.) And after 6 or 33 or 89 revisions my sentence finally feels about right.

I have been writing long enough now to know that I will never get it right the first time. Right the first time is for genius, and even genius, I suspect, is a projection, an empty ideal. Like the nagging, discouraging assumption that there is somehow "one right way" to say or do something. Or that there exists an objective view of the world. The right way to say a thing will be informed by the authority--if that is the word--of the entire history of its revision. I also know from those two years of watching my mind 24 hours a day--and every day I find this proven true again by experience--when I am working on something in a regular daily rhythm, some part of my brain will be working away 24 hours a day at each little problem of expression. That only tomorrow will I know what the next change must be. What I see today I was in no way able to see, or foresee, yesterday. I needed yesterday's change--and a night's sleep--to see what I see today. Drafts are not done out of our limitation and weakness, unless you believe that living in present time is a condition of lack and frailty. Unless you are comparing yourself to God, which is not advisable. Drafts are the living history of a sentence or paragraph. Every minute of the life of the world is a draft of the next minute. But the young are impatient. They want tomorrow today. I can remember when I wanted tomorrow today. But that has never made it easier to convince my students that the change they make today can only be made today. And only judged tomorrow.

Why isn't this process completely arbitrary? Why can't--in theory--the changes go on forever? Because to the extent that this process is artistic it is an aesthetic matter, a perceptual matter, an experiential matter, an intuitive matter, virtually a meditative matter. It's certainly a matter of attention, of the mind watching. Because the key lies in seeing when to change and when not to change. You can't afford to will the change, you can't desire it, you can't imagine it, you have to see it and follow it and watch to see what results. It's the same process--so I would argue--as attending to life, which is to say, attending to one's own--and others'--responses to life. Writing is just life in symbols. And the secret of engagement with it is the mind watchful. Which means a kind of humility before the material. And before the response to it. This is what--I would argue--it means to know. To know what is true. And not true.

Can any specific recommendations for teaching writing be made on the basis of this approach to writing? Probably not. But here are three.

One. Creativity is about process more than it is about product. It is above all an act of perception, or insight. Of ongoing Vision and of ongoing Re-vision. In the eagerness of us all--teacher and student--for a finished piece of work we should try not to forget this.

Two. The more natural, original, and truthful students are aiming to be, the more drafts they are going to require. Fresh and natural writing will aways be hard-earned. This truth does not soften with age and experience. Spontaneity in writing is only rarely what comes first, or out of the crucible of a deadline.

Three. Major drafts deserve a night's sleep between them. I know how difficult it is to get students to do a small amount of work each day over an extended period, but I would argue that this could be one of the most important things they learn to do, if they are interested in developing as writers who will one day work beyond the common forms.

But really what I have been trying to do here today has more to do with the spirit of the endeavour than with any particular aspect of it. I have been trying to push writing towards what in its essence I think it is, and that is a process of Play. As far as I can see, when writing I'm doing exactly the same thing as my son David when he sets up what he calls a 'game' with his GI Joes or his stuffies. David will spend hours playing and when I ask him how it went he will say, "It was a good one. It really worked out," or he'll say, "It didn't end right. I don't know. It went bad around half way," and I know what he means, because the same thing happens to me, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, story after story. We're both doing the same thing. Setting in motion a train of events over which we have only the most limited formal control, can finally only discover. And David and I, and all of us if we only knew it, are doing this in order to find out what the story could possibly be. Really we're just hanging around, day after day, trying to stay attentive to see where we're headed, where we need to go next. In doing this we're trying above all else to avoid being arbitrary, to avoid imposing ourselves upon the story, because the self, the will, desire, even imagination, is exactly what is going to make the story false, make it go bad. And in working this way we are negotiating that space between in here and out there, between our own private version and the story as it needs to be told.

What have I said here? That my own problems of pain and panic from childhood as a result of feeling strange in the world were not solved by self-expression or by making poetry or stories. They were solved by learning how to attend, to watch. By giving my mind a chance to know itself, its own habits and their limits: to see, in an actual, ongoing, way, the truth, or lack of it, in its own responses. And I have taken the next step and said that this is the heart of writing as I understand it. Primarily not a making, not a product, but a process that begins with watching and continues with watching. A process of hard work that from beginning to end is primarily concerned with the discovery of truth. At its best a process of hard work that is all play.


------"Vision, Revision, and Play: Life in Writing." Address to Conference of Ontario Council of Teachers of English, Communications and Language Arts, Riverdale Collegiate, Toronto, November 1996.