False Starts and True
What a great feeling it was. It felt as though the sluice gates had opened, and suddenly everything felt able to flow.
I’d been doing my version of meditation, and I’d entered that clear and deep space that seems always to be waiting for us if we will but enter it, but that somehow we –or at least most of us– rarely do. The chronic tensions around my neck and head had already dissolved, and such thoughts that started welling up in my mind seemed to be dripping with meaningfulness. And then one of them popped up and blazed before me so dazzlingly that I lost all aspirations to the relaxed “no-mind” of the meditator and brought myself back to the purposefulness of my calling in the life of the mind.
What had arisen, unbidden, out of my meditation was an idea for what my next book would be. And it was a most fitting concept, considering the means by which it had arrived: what I would write would be a celebration of the value –of the almost mystical power– of the process of unfolding, of letting things flow without our trying to control them.
I’m not sure I can even recollect the specifics of that up-popping, meditation-stopping idea. Did I see something? Was it something I felt? Did it take the form of a thought, in words? I don’t know. What I do recall is that by the next day, I was referring to it as a kind of “vision” of there being something that we can trust, a kind of “what wants to happen” that will, if we but open up to it, simply unfold. And that this unfolding creates a kind of rightness, a beauty– that there is some convergence between the “wants to happen” and the “should happen.”
This vision felt liberating, its faith in the unfolding suggesting that we can relinquish the burden of our usual faithless approach to things: if something trustworthy is ready to flow through us, then we can let go of the hard task of making the world conform to our preconceived blueprint of how things are supposed to be and become.
This vision was liberating, too, in the way it relieved me of a particular burden I’d been carrying around for a while: a feeling having recently wasted a great deal of time in a series of false starts in my own creative life. Indeed, I recall that this was part of the joy even of that first moment upon my arising from my interrupted meditation, the way that this vision promised to redeem my recent creative –or would-be creative– history.
What had seemed to be meandering, I now saw in this moment of epiphany, had actually been leading me somewhere. What had seemed a fruitless sequence of false starts had been moving me, it now appeared, toward something perhaps bigger and better than any of those projects.
How deliciously intertwined this was! My new project –about trusting the unfolding– was itself the fruit of a process of unfolding that –O me of little faith– I had seen as a series of failures. Independently of any plan of mine, the process had taken me to a destination I now welcomed.
Those unfinished works that a few days before had looked to me like so many corpses, I now saw more as stepping stones, each one taking me into some dimension of this all-embracing issue I was now calling “the unfolding.” In each –whether or not I had understood it that way at the time– I had been wrestling with some aspect of the tension between flow and control, with the question whether there is something beyond our conscious will that we can trust to create what’s good.
For both these reasons –the relevance of their content, and the way my own creative process had unfolded independently of my conscious purpose– I decided that the place to begin my project was to review in my mind the story of these “false starts” which had led me to my exciting new project to celebrate the idea of unfolding.
It began with a book that grew out of my desire to play some role in helping the country to meet the challenge of that polarized ideological conflict that some called America’s “culture war.”
My work on radio over several years –discussing with callers the hot-button moral and cultural issues of our society– had persuaded me that there was a core dispute underlying all the many controversies. This dispute concerned the question of whether, as the liberal/countercultural view tends to say, things develop naturally into a good order from the bottom up, or whether, as the conservative/traditionalists argue, good order must be imposed on us and on our world from the top down. For example, with respect to how we should bring up our children, the two sides differed on such questions as: To what extent is the job of parents simply to nourish the child, to support it in becoming what it naturally wants to become? And to what extent is the parental role to impose on the child a kind of order and discipline to hold in check, to regulate and channel, its unruly natural impulses?
It was to explore this core controversy that I embarked upon writing a new book I entitled, tentatively, Loose Threads on the Cosmic Loom: An Inquiry Into the Sources of Good Order. The promise of this project, I felt, was that it might help to lead to a more constructive way for us Americans to talk with each other about the issues that divide us, that it might model a process of inquiry that could help get people to enter into conversation with people who disagree with them in a more open-minded and less self-righteous fashion, that it might help bridge our polarized moral divide.
My experience with the project was interesting and intense, but troubled. And both the positive and negative aspects of that experience were connected with how, in recent years, I’d changed my way of doing creative work. I had begun to plan less and to let things just unfold more. In basketball terms, it was like shifting from running set plays to an improvisational style of play, like a continuous fast break. And so I’d embarked on the writing Loose Threads without a clear idea of just how it was going to develop.
The writing had felt quite inspired and exciting; it was as though I was being propelled along. So deeply engaged was my mind in this inquiry, that I discovered I’d better keep a tablet by the bedside to jot down the ideas that came to me, with some regularity, in the middle of the night.
After a few months, however, it seemed that, in my new unplanned way of traveling into a book, I’d reached a cul-de-sac. I felt I’d lost my way, though it was not clear to me how or where I’d gotten off the track. Feeling that I needed to take some space from that book to be able to see better what it needed, I just set it aside.
(Now, in the context of exploring flow and control, I saw that I might have an even bigger framework for exploring how the good person, and the good society, can come into being.)
The Question of Honesty
When I’d set aside Loose Threads, I opened myself to the question of what project I should undertake next. What then arose was the idea that I should explore the power of honesty in our communications with one another. I meant honesty here not as the ethical virtue of not cheating people or outright lying, but more as interpersonal openness. For the purposes of my project, you are honest with people to the extent that you tell them what you really think and feel in all matters that pertain to your relationship with them.
I’d long been drawn toward the ideal of complete openness between people. In the earliest years of my adulthood, I’d been a leader of encounter groups. The ethic of those groups was simple: we were to be with one another, and make every effort to express fully and openly our responses to each other, to say what we felt, and thought, and perceived. These were to be laboratories for trying out, with comparative strangers, a greater degree of honesty than we habitually practiced in our daily lives, and to discover its positive power to create a greater feeling of connection, of intimacy, of being real. The hope was that we could take this practice of greater openness and authenticity out from the group into the important relationships we had in our “real” lives.
(In other words, in the context of the idea of “unfolding,” the ethic of the encounter group movement might be stated: Give up the effort to control your relationships by selectively hiding your thoughts and feelings, and just put out what’s inside you and allow the relationship to unfold freely.)
The experience in the encounter groups had been, for me and for many others, a very positive one. Yet the ideal was never entirely achieved. Aside from the fact that, even in those groups, people were often less than entirely open and honest, it wasn’t clear how one might carry this ethic of unguarded honesty into the wider world. The result of trying to do so was not always the loving intimacy, or at least satisfying exchange, that was the presumed purpose of the experiment.
But the question of honesty continued to intrigue me. Now, almost thirty years later, I was again getting a sense of some of the powerful and positive possibilities of a kind of dance of communication that was possible between people. And I felt drawn to find a way to illuminate what I decided to call “The Question of Honesty”– a question because, even as I wanted to celebrate the value of honesty, I also had come to see that the paths of honesty and of wisdom do not always coincide. “Honesty is the best policy,” in the sense of honesty I was using, is a gross over-simplification.
Among the questions I wished to address in this study were: What are the costs that we bear if we hold back from speaking our honest truth? And what are the costs we bear when others hold back their truth from us? And what qualities are required of us to be able to use honesty constructively when we speak and when others speak to us.
And then, as I envisioned it, the book would culminate in a section that I thought I’d entitle “Gifts: Blessings of the Flow,” in which I would explore questions like: What is the process like, when people practice honesty wisely and skillfully, allowing their mutual reality to unfold between them? And what would a world be like in which people were able and willing to open themselves to the unfolding of reality that honesty allows?
My hope was that I might write a book that would help people practice the path of constructive honesty, and to enjoy those “blessings of the flow.”
I felt uncertain about how the whole book was going to fit together. On the other hand, I had a variety of reasonably clear ideas about particular points I intended to develop in the book. So –using my new, more “unfolding” approach to writing– I started writing the bits and pieces, trusting –or at least hoping– that I’d discover how they ought to fit together as I explored the material from many directions at once. I would say “Hands up! I’ve got you surrounded!” and the subject of honesty would submit to me.
I wrote a good chunk of material– maybe a couple hundred pages. But eventually I sensed that the book wasn’t working for me, and I set it aside. I’m not sure why it didn’t come to fruition, but I believe there were two aspects of it. For one thing, it seemed that I was a lot readier to explore the problematic aspects of honesty than the celebratory aspects. This was reflected in a change in the title I tried out along the way: “Can We Trust Honesty?”
For another thing, I felt that what was coming out was shallower –more of a pop “how-to” book– than the one I had in mind. My gut feeling was that I was somehow not being true to my creative daemon, so I quit.
(Now, with the “unfolding” project beginning to take hold of me, I sensed that a deeper way of handling the question of open and unguarded human communication was now at hand.)
Lousy First Drafts: The Beginning
With two half-written books now stalled and gathering dust, I suffered from something of a crisis of faith. The excitement that I’d felt about my new, less planned modus operandi in my creative work had now been swallowed up by doubts.
My reason for trying to write in new ways was not that the old ways no longer worked, but rather that the old ways had become– well, old. The careful, disciplined, planned-out approach that I’d learned in my youth, mastered in my twenties, and continued to employ in my thirties and forties, had begun to feel not creative but routine. In the beginning, these tight approaches stretched me and they felt like the right flowering of my gifts. But once I’d written a half dozen books in that disciplined fashion, that approach felt too familiar and easy. Is not the creative life, in its essence, a matter of always growing toward what is fresh and alive with its “never-beforeness,” I asked myself? So I had chosen to challenge myself by discarding those structures of my craft that had already proven seaworthy, and trying to swim on my own.
But, after my honesty project had stalled, I found that I’d dissipated a great deal of good creative energy just splashing around. The creative process did not unfold in the unerring way I’d hoped. When I looked at the manuscripts, I found that the greatest impediment to further progress lay in the very existence of these unworkable first efforts. Once I’d cast a project in a flawed form, it seemed harder to discover the right form. Maybe my old way was better, I thought –keep everything amorphous until I was in full command of my project and then outline the whole before writing the first sentence.
It was at this point that I began an essay I called “Lousy First Drafts.” The question that drew me into writing the piece, I could now see, showed yet another dimension of my gestating preoccupation with the issue of unfolding: How much can the artist trust his own spontaneously unfolding creative flow? Here’s how it opened:
Lousy First Drafts
Andrew Bard Schmookler
I get up from reading a book about how to write, quarreling in my mind with the author. Then, as my internal conversation continues, I see that the issue has ramifications beyond the craft of writing. It seems inviting, and I begin my exploration.
Past the End of Our Nose
It started with the quote from E. L. Doctorow. On first thought, I really liked it.
“Writing a novel,” he had said, “is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Great image, I thought. You can’t see your destination, but by proceeding with only short-range vision you get there anyway.
But significant problems with the analogy later floated to the surface of my consciousness.
It may be that, when you’re driving at night, you can only see as far as your headlights illuminate, but if you don’t know any more than that about where you’re going, you’re probably lost. I live in the mountains, and much of the time –in terms of how far down the road I can see, what with all the sharp curves– it doesn’t make much difference if it’s night or day. But I get where I’m going because I’ve got a mental map of the whole road down my mountain and to the bottom where it follows Runion Creek along the valley down to meet Hwy 259 at Chimney Rock.
And besides that, the road was first drawn on a map by someone who knew the terrain and understood the need to connect one known destination with another. It doesn’t go –like a novel– through terra incognita. And it doesn’t lead nowhere.
So what does he mean about the writer of a novel not seeing any further than his headlights, I wondered? That he’s just making it up as he goes along, that he has no idea whether, when he proceeds another two hundred feet, he’ll find himself at a dead end?
The Doctorow quote appears in Anne Lamott’s book Bird By Bird, in which she gives the written version of a workshop on how to write. I was finding Lamott’s book, filled with playful humor and much of the guts of her own life, immensely entertaining and occasionally quite profound. From my own experience as a writer, I could agree with many of her observations. But then came the part that precipitated my quarrel.
Right after the headlights quotation, Lamott began a chapter she entitled “Lousy First Drafts.” (Actually, I have substituted “lousy” for the word she used, thinking that –as the phrase will become the core image of this essay– it would not be seemly to use her language, and that it would be awkward to change it into the literally closer “First Drafts Covered with Fecal Matter.”) In this chapter, Lamott counsels would-be writers to relax when beginning some new manuscript and just write.
It’s OK to just let the words and images pour out, she says. It doesn’t matter how bad it is; you’re the only person who will see this first draft. Later you can go back and do subsequent drafts keeping what was good and throwing out what was bad. Just charge ahead and write a lousy first draft.
Which is precisely the opposite of the modus operandi that has guided me for most of my decades as a writer. From hard experience, I adopted early on the principle that it’s is far easier to get it basically right the first time than to make right what got laid out wrong at the outset. And my reason was most emphatically not that it is easy to do the first draft well but rather that it is even more difficult –by far– to overhaul a structure that’s awry.
So it was my practice, particularly with the writing of books, to work for a couple of years before I even ventured to write the first sentence of the actual manuscript. By the time I began my writing, I’d outlined the whole book, planning paragraph by paragraph what my course would be. Once into the writing, I might relax into some creative riff or digression, being able to foresee clearly in advance how, once finished with the sidetrack, I’d slide back into my preordained basic route.
What made lousy first drafts anathema to me was that I found it difficult to look freshly at terrain through which I’d already forged a path. Once my thinking had coalesced into a certain shape, I found, I’d lost a good deal of my original flexibility. It’s like that old saw about the importance of first impressions: an image, once laid down, tends to persist.
To visualize just how hard it is to re-arrange pre-existing structures, think of home renovations. Just redoing a kitchen –or a bathroom– where it already is creates havoc enough. But if you want to change any substantial amount of the floor plan, you’re better off selling and buying another house. Or bulldozing and starting over.
Speaking of bulldozing, a second reading of Ms. Lamott’s chapter made me wonder briefly whether Ms. Lamott’s approach to writing and mine were really so different. The way she spoke of saving the really good bits and pieces, it sounded as though perhaps she was using this “first draft” as a way of building and then bulldozing this first edifice and collecting the useful scraps. Maybe this was just alternative way of generating the equivalent of the notes that I generate during my long preparatory time.
But then I came back to my original view that there was indeed a real difference in methodology here. Otherwise, why would she call the exercise a “draft,” which suggests that it is indeed a version of the finished product whose creation is the ultimate goal? Had she simply said to the more-or-less beginning writers she is addressing, “If you feel blocked by the inhibitions stemming from your fear of performing badly, you can break through by just writing and then haul it to the junk yard to salvage any usable parts might be there when you need them,” I’d not have disagreed. But she wasn’t just talking to neophytes, getting them past their fear of taking the plunge, and it seemed she wasn’t just talking about the writer’s expanding the inventory in her literary junk yard.
She was talking about “lousy first drafts,” and I am afraid of those. I fear I’ll get stuck in them, held back by them. Like the Children of Israel who, released from bondage in Egypt, could not be allowed into the Promised Land, because they were still stuck in the mindset of slaves. So the entry into the Promised Land had to await the dying out of the generation that left Egypt, reflecting the recognition that the fresh start of a new life required a new generation of Hebrews with their fresh minds.
Just trusting in following your headlights, I was saying, could lead to dead ends. What just unfolds can be a trap, so make sure you know just where you’re going before you take a first step.
I’d embarked upon writing “Lousy First Drafts” because of my experience –exciting and fertile, but ultimately frustrating and futile– in those earlier “false starts.” But it was only now, as I reviewed the whole sequence, that I saw that the substantive issue of the still-unfinished essay was really connected with the same substantive issue underlying those previous projects: the unfolding, the question of trusting the flow.
About this time, my family and I took a four-week trip to California it had been too long since we’d visited my brother Ed and his family in Berkeley and my good friend Reuel and his family in Palm Springs. In terms of writing, the trip was a fallow time. But, as often happens, the time away from the writing was more productive for the writing than time spent pushing to make progress. In particular, I found that during some of the long stretches of driving, some of the ideas from that dormant project, Loose Threads, were coming back to my mind with new life.
So when we got home, and had settled back into our lives, I took out that presumably failed manuscript and read it over to see if there was any way for it to be resurrected. I was delighted by what I discovered. Not only was I deeply gratified by the richness of much of what had flowed into that work already, but I also discovered that the wrong turn that led to that cul-de-sac actually occurred rather near the end of the writing I’d done.
The book itself was cast largely in the form of a fictional Internet discussion forum in which I was just one of the characters– a fellow named Andy who served as the narrator and who sometimes put in his two-cents. But the major portion of the text consisted of the statements of various other characters who were engaged in heated discussion of some of the basic philosophical issues underpinning that ideological/moral conflict sometimes called the “culture war” in contemporary America.
My wrong turn, I saw upon this rereading, occurred at a point where the discussion confronted a fundamental paradox: that both the two sides were at once both right and wrong in some of their most fundamental premises, and that the challenge was to find a higher wisdom that could reconcile those apparent contradictions. At that point in the manuscript, I’d somehow stumbled, failing adequately to grasp and dramatize the way out of that paradox.
Once I saw more clearly what was needed, and where it needed to be done, I was able to glide back along the wave of energy that had impelled me many months before in the launching of that Loose Threads project. I brought the project to fruition and the book was published (by M.I.T. Press ) under the title Debating the Good Society: A Quest to Bridge America’s Moral Divide.
And thus was some of the disappointment that went into my opening move in “Lousy First Drafts” lifted from me.
When I raised my figurative sails to the cosmic wind again to see where my creative work should carry me next, the subject that then arose was “Character.”
A couple of factors fed my energy for exploring the idea of character (or “moral character,” or “good character”). For one thing, the question of how a person is best formed had run like a thread through Debating the Good Society: How important is the development of good habits? How much does human goodness require the subordination of desire to conscience? How much sanctity should we accord rules, and other internalized governing principles, in our understanding of the life well led? (All of these were issues, it was now clear from my retrospective viewpoint, that involved the question of whether the flow of free human unfolding needed to be blocked or channeled.)
Another thing that had brought the character question to the fore was the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, which had just recently broken upon America. With these bombs bursting on prime-time air, the heated controversy throughout the body politic was brightly illuminating some cultural confusion about the importance of character.
In my usual way, I found myself believing that both sides in the moral controversy over Clinton and his conduct had something important to say, but also that each was missing an important element of the truth. On the one hand, I thought some people on the cultural left didn’t get it that moral character does matter in a leader. After all, if a guy is going to be the one person who gets to stand at the bully pulpit and command the otherwise extremely splintered attention of the American people, it will make a difference whether or not we believe him to have the moral standing to call upon us to rise above our pettiest concerns and to follow, in Lincoln’s phrase, “the better angels of our nature.”
But I saw blindness, too, in the moralists of the right. I was especially dubious about the way they seemed to equate “good character” with human goodness itself. Character, it seems, is a matter of structure, i.e. of an organization of the self in which some elements are subordinated to others. The person of good character “obeys” rules, obedience being a concept bespeaking hierarchical organization. The person of good character speaks the truth, disciplining his words to conform to the truth even if that sacrifices some of his self-interested desires. He is “bound” by his word, yoking his conduct to the duty to keep promises. Now, I’m a guy with lots of character in this sense: as far as I can recall, in more than half a century of living, I’ve never broken a promise. But even if that kind of tight structuring can be an important component of what we regard goodness in a person, it hardly seems synonymous.
This issue came up in some radio discussion in which I was participating in those early days of the scandal, and I recall in particular a point I made then. If we look back over American history, I argued, we can find leaders who, in that traditional sense, possessed “good character,” but who nonetheless did terrible things. Andrew Jackson, for example, seems to have been –in the terms of concern to our cultural conservatives– a man of character. His nickname, “Old Hickory,” bespeaks the kind of stiffness of structure that makes a man reliably “upright,” firm and unyielding stuff making a man not at all like the malleable and slippery person then occupying the White House. The same Virginia traditionalists I was speaking with on the radio, who had been so outraged about Clinton since well before this scandal broke, would likely have been great admirers of a fellow like Jackson. Yet Andrew Jackson was also a principal leader of a heartless process of genocide against the Native Americans who happened to get in the way of American imperial lusts for this continent. And Bill Clinton, whatever his defects of character, seemed too compassionate a person to ever have perpetrated such cruelty.
I wondered, therefore: from a God’s eye point of view, was it really appropriate to declaim, as so many conservatives then were, that our current president was far and away the worst person ever to occupy his office?
Something inside me felt it was important for us, as a society, to recognize both the importance and the limits of “good character.” A failure, on the part of some people, to see the value of character seemed a possible contributor to some of our current tendency toward moral anarchy. While the failure of others to grasp the limits to character seemed intimately connected with some of our cultural brittleness and rigidity.
I thought that if the two sides of this moral/psychological puzzle could be brought together in some illuminating way, it would be both interesting for my fellow Americans and possibly useful for our efforts to create a morally healthier culture.
The first half of that problem –the sloppy unstructuredness of the cultural left– had been uppermost in my mind as I wrote my Debating the Good Society. But now I felt a part of my heart drawn to that other, too-straight-laced part of the human moral predicament. Cannot goodness come from us spontaneously, just from the unfolding expression of who we are and what our hearts naturally embrace?
The [denizens] of the right make a great deal of the virtue of loyalty, for example. But it often seemed that their “loyalty” was something that was bound from above, tied in with oaths, compelled under pain of punishment for violators. Yet we know –from the creature we’ve made the exemplar of loyalty– that profound loyalty can exist with no such hierarchical psychic structures: I’m speaking, of course, of the dog, who acts without the encumbrances of civilization and its discontents. In the dog, loyalty is not a “virtue” taught in some WilliamBennettian book of virtues, not something trained through the formation of character, not something enforced by shame and guilt, but rather an expression, an easy unfolding, of the nature of the beast. Cannot humans find goodness in some similar way, I wondered?
The whole question of character –its nature and its relationship to human goodness and to the achievement of a good world– thus seemed pregnant with possibilities. But though I dove into the subject, I found the pool of what I had to bring to the project too shallow. Though I sensed that there were deep waters running somewhere inside, I couldn’t find my way into them. And so this project, too, got set aside without yielding the results I’d hoped for.
(And now I saw how those deep waters fed into this new larger project. And I harbored hopes through that this larger project I might help to put some of my country’s knotty moral disputes into an illuminating, spiritual perspective.)
For a while, it seemed that I was going to have a vacant space where I’d usually had some big creative project. I did my radio shows, and little commentaries. But once Debating the Good Society was off to publication, I was engaged in no major undertakings.
And it looked as though it might stay that way. My big projects usually grow out of the guts of my life. My book Living Posthumously had been “inspired” by my protracted struggle with a mysterious debilitating condition: it marked, indeed, the end of my struggling with it, my accepting it in a spirit of “if life deals you lemons, learn to make lemonade.”
And then, Debating the Good Society had been the fruit of a good deal of life as well. Several years of wrestling in my radio conversations with the issues of the culture war had populated my mind with a diversity of voices. Often I’d awaken in the night with these voices from my shows calling my attention to places of moral and spiritual tension in me and in our body politic. And I’d grapple with the challenge of how I might help the conversation unfold further next time out. It was from the soil of these ongoing conversations –internal and external—that grew many of the ingredients for the stew that became Debating the Good Society.
But now I could discern nothing in my life of like depth or intensity to carry me into some future project. Life seemed fairly well settled into the pattern of recent years. No new big challenges or unresolved conflicts. I felt I’d harvested all the major crops that my life had yet sown.
Then there came a moment, much like the one that was to come later, of sudden promise. I realized that there was a worthy subject –and one I’d never tackled– growing out of the guts of my life. And that subject was Creativity. Creativity was always something I was looking at, but generally the way a carpenter looks to his tool box for a hammer or a saw. But until that point –other than a momentary instance like my beginning “Lousy First Drafts”– creativity had never moved from being the tool in my hand to the thing under construction.
I’d first fallen in love with creativity –not only as something to practice, but also as a subject on its own– in my adolescence. I read books on subjects like “insight,” at that time, and I delved into the lives of some of my heroes, like Bach and Shakespeare. Then I became interested in it again after college –when I was about to drop out of graduate school because, among other reasons, my ongoing experience of study felt disconnected from my creativity.
I recall thinking, at that time, about how liable we are to get stuck in our own habits of thought, and accordingly how much more likely we are to have creative breakthroughs in our understanding of a subject in the earlier years of our encounters with it than if we continually work on the same questions for a lifetime. Perhaps, it occurred to me, this is why –in some fields, at least, like physics– the great new insights so often come from people in their twenties, like the young Einstein with his world-changing theories of relativity. These young thinkers –with their minds trained in their disciplines according to whatever was then the cutting edge pattern of understanding, but with the channels of their thought, thus trained, not yet dug so deep by repetitive habits of thought that the channels had come to rule the river– could conceive wholly new patterns, making use of the old understanding without being imprisoned by it.
At that time I concluded that it might behoove those who wanted to live a creative life to change their fields of endeavor every five years or so. Habit, as I saw it, being the inescapable result of practice over time, and being also the foe of creative breakthrough.
Once I’d dropped out of graduate school, I confronted the challenge of how to live creatively. Not always gainfully employed, not certain where my life and “career” were heading, I now faced that kind of freedom that’s “nothing left to lose.” I would wake up each day with time like an empty canvas onto which I was free to paint my life freely, moment by moment.
I was then in my early twenties and, up to that point, had lived my whole life governed largely by externally imposed structures. Like other kids, I’d gone to school, getting up in time for the bus, changing classes when the bell rang, doing the assignments given by my teachers. Even in college, when my time ceased to be so ruled by the clock, the overall course of my energies still flowed across terrain shaped by assignments others gave me. Now, having dropped out of that world of structures, and having situated myself (appropriately enough for that task, and for that time of the late 1960s) in Berkeley, I confronted the challenge of learning a new way of life.
The way of living I soon developed was governed by a simple policy: I called it “following my energy.” It required that I be able to answer the question, “What would feel most meaningful for me to do right now?” To do this, I had to learn to become aware of what was happening inside me at each moment. What did I feel? What needs were arising within me asking for attention? Does what I’m doing now still feel right, or is something calling me to change my course?
This represented a big change from most of my earlier training. Following my energy meant being receptive to the flow of parts of myself that were independent of will. My previous way of living had been based on a top-down discipline, a subordination of my energies either to my own will or to the will of others. In the world of discipline, the question was less “What would be most meaningful for me to do now?” than “What am I supposed to be doing right now?” In the discipline of getting assignments done, I was supposed to learn how to disregard internal signals like restlessness and boredom, to hold in check whatever impulses I might feel to get up and run off into something that might feel more alive and meaningful to me at that moment. A decade of athletic coaches had trained me to govern my body with my will, not letting pain or exhaustion deter me from achieving my purposes.
Now I was trying to learn to listen to, and follow, what my body was telling me it needed. At that time of political and cultural revolution in America, I was attempting a real revolution in my own internal governance. And at the core of the ideology underlying this revolution was the notion that there is some place within all of us that can be a source of guidance worthy of following, a place within each of us that is not ours to command but is rather a place of spontaneous upwelling.
For the thirty years since then, I tried to live and work from such a place. (I called it living creatively, but now I could see that it was also a way of being open to the unfolding.)
So now I was excited with the thought that perhaps, after all, there was a big idea ripe for my exploration, one that I’d not seen growing out of my life the way a fish doesn’t notice water. The subject –creativity, or living creatively– seemed to have great promise as a subject. It was an area I should know something about from my own experience. Something intrinsically fascinating and vital. And something of interest to many people –to parents and teachers, to businesses in the new economy of ideas and information and innovation, and to individuals seeking greater meaning and fulfillment in their own lives and work.
For a while, therefore, I thought that I’d found a great vehicle for my own further creative unfolding. But then, it too did not jell. For one thing, when I turned to the literature on creativity, I discovered it to be –surprisingly, for the subject– rather flat-footed. My own internal explorations proved earth-bound, too. And I began to wonder if perhaps there are some things that, though full of soul, cannot be discussed without somehow draining the soul from them. Maybe creativity, like making love, is better practiced and not analyzed. Or maybe such things are more for the poets than for the philosophers.
Sensing that, even if there might be something in the topic calling me to explore it, I hadn’t yet found my way into it, I decided not to force the issue, and I folded up my figurative tent and wandered again out into the desert of that vacant space from which I’d briefly emerged.
And there I dwelt until the burning bush of an idea came to me during that meditation– an idea that partook not only of what was vital in the creativity project, but on the others that had preceded it as well. Suddenly, all those false starts seemed transformed, redeemed. Not just seeds that never yielded a harvest, but a way of enriching the soil for a crop yet to come.
To use a different metaphor, it seemed as though each of those streams had been but channels of some underground river of my spiritual evolution that had been bearing me along, unawares, until it broke out above ground at a certain moment. How to describe that river? The river of Unfolding? of Openness to What Comes? of the Right Thing Happening Without Having to be Forced? Well, I wasn’t sure just how to characterize it. But there was some Big Idea in there some place, I felt sure, and I had energy to pursue it. Maybe all those particular and different manifestations of this Big Idea had not come to fruition for me because what I was really called to do was to explore the vision that might unify them.
The Whatever-It-Is moves in mysterious ways, I thought, its wonders to perform.
Now I had a project that, as I now intuited, could provide readers –if it fulfilled its promise– with the valuable ideas that the earlier projects had aspired to develop, and more! How to live honestly and creatively. How to go with the flow. How to resolve our contentious moral disputes. How to understand human goodness. And how –and this was the “more”– to see all these pieces in a larger, perhaps even cosmic, spiritual perspective. Maybe something like, How to align oneself with something in the cosmos one can trust.
If I could deliver on just a decent piece of that, I thought, my labors would render good service to my readers.
But for now, I was really still at the stage of promise undelivered, of inspiration generating an aspiration. My “false starts,” with their mining of some raw materials, had advanced me, perhaps, toward that goal. But in an important sense I was still at the beginning, and I hoped I could now find a way forward.
I felt uneasy that I didn’t have a firmer grasp on just what it was, in this “unfolding business,” that I was talking about. But it seemed to be something, for in subsequent days I kept bumping up against still more dimensions of this still amorphous subject. Perhaps it was simply a case that when one starts to think in certain terms, everything appears to fit into that new perspective. But –though this is the kind of thinking I customarily dismiss out of hand– it seemed almost as if, now that I was open to it, the cosmos was sending me all sorts of messages to aid me on my way.
So the way the project proceeded from this point, after its inception, proved deliciously like the winding path that had brought me to begin it. As before, I was actively engaged in exploring substantive aspects of the process of unfolding (albeit this time with that overarching concept now in the foreground of my mind). But as before, also, the way things unfolded as I went about my purposeful quest had only a partial connection to any plan of mine. And as before, I soon discovered, the path of my unfolding quest was not always easy, or comfortable. Indeed, the unanticipated ways that the work now actually unfolded taught me as much about unfolding as any of my focused, will-governed investigations. Or, perhaps what was most interesting was the way the substance of the project and the process of the project reflected illuminatingly upon one another.
So the best way, I think, to share what I learned about the value of “the unfolding” is to tell the story of how my quest for that understanding unfolded.