Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Letting Go

In his 1958 essay "Zen and The Problem of Control," Alan Watts remarked that humans are a "self-conscious and therefore self-controlling organism," but posed an interesting question: how do we control the self-controlling part of us? He uses an interesting analogy to suggest how self-control can become a form of paralysis: it's as if "I wanted simultaneously to throw a ball and hold it to its course with my hand."

As a sports fan I recognize the wisdom of this analogy. Major league baseball players often talk about trying to avoid over-thinking in performance situations. Pitchers constantly remind themselves that at some point they have to stop thinking and just throw the ball. The batter, in turn, has less than a second to decide what he wants to do when the pitch is made. Ultimately he must shush his brain and let his body do what it has been trained to do: see the ball, hit the ball. Their planning and preparation, all in an attempt to control the outcome of their contest, must be released, shaken off at the moment of performance.  The batter either has to swing or not swing. The pitcher can't wind up, then walk the ball off the mound past the batter into the catcher's mitt. He must let it go.

As a parent I understand the wisdom of letting go. I've worked very hard for many years to point my son in the right direction -- that is to say, a direction that will be beneficial to him as an adult. I still coach, suggest, prod, nag and all the rest, hoping to nudge him down the road I think I can see more clearly than he can because I'm supposedly older and wiser. Yet I know in my heart ultimately I have to shut up and let him go. I can't walk him to his future. He has to walk there himself.

As a writer I'm also trying to rediscover the wisdom of letting go. When I was a young buck writing literary short stories I'd begin with a single image and see where it would take me. Occasionally, surprisingly, this worked as a technique. Today, though, I know that writing crime fiction requires a much different approach, and so I do a lot of preliminary research and I write an outline before I write a first draft. For myself, I have to know the solution to my mystery before I begin to write it.

Just the same, as writers we all recognize the feeling when we glance up at the clock and realize we've been writing steadily for the past two hours and where the hell did that all come from? It's as though the story began to tell itself, as though the characters took over and just did what they were supposed to do, and we in turn did our thing, which was to scrabble like crazy to get it all down while it was happening.

Oh god how I want to be there right now. I've been trying hard lately, but it hasn't happened. I've outlined and I've researched, then outlined something else and researched it, then blogged, then back to the first outline for more. An idea comes, I work with it, it sputters and dies. I can sense the spirit of Alan Watts chuckling: I'm trying very hard to let the writing flow, but "this amounts to saying I must be spontaneous, and controlled or willed spontaneity is a contradiction!"

When I was an undergrad still living at home, I'd be sitting at the dinner table next to my father, feeding my face, and he would reach out and take hold of my right (non-feeding) hand, which I always clenched unconsciously into a fist, and he'd gently open it up and place it palm down on the table. "Relax," he'd say. I wasn't even aware that I wasn't relaxed. I think of this right now, so many years later, because I have to unclench again.

Relax, Mike. Let go.

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