Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

Zen and Being

In Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Wisdom on January 28, 2013 at 6:00 am
Chinese character for "Tao" -- the way. A gift, as it hangs on my wall, from Zen Master, Sunim Potwah

Chinese character for “Tao” — the way. A gift, as it hangs on my wall, from Zen Master, Sunim Potwah

I used to study Zen with a Korean Zen Master. He said a lot of things I did not–do not still–understand. For instance:

“Any single word loads all sorts of connection and is always valuable as the wholeness of the truth.”rightcol_banner_art

and

“Mistake or error is still good.”

A Zen Master will typically give the student a koan. A koan is like a riddle without an answer–at least most of us would think it is without an answer. The Master, however, might differ. Most likely, the Master would not consider it in such terms. Here is the first koan my teacher gave me:

A Monk asked Zen Master Yunmen the following: “When not producing a single thought, is there any fault or not?”

To which Master Yunmen replied: “Mount Sumeru.”

It would be bad form to discuss it here. That is a matter between teacher and student. But you are welcome to pick it up and noodle it. Mount Sumeru, indeed!

I like Zen in its austerity. Zen has no doctrine, no sacred texts, no gods, saints, or sinners. There is no heaven, no hell,  devil, or superstition. There is simply the practitioner and the meditation cushion. Despite all that, I don’t practice any longer. I cannot explain why. It is the koan of my life, the way I plunge into a pool, dive deeply, then dry off and never swim again. Like I said, some koans have no answer.

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I opened Alan Watts’s classic, The Way of Zen, the other day. Watts was a

The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

friend of Ginsburg, Burroughs, and the Beats. He was also a scholar. His book on Zen is considered a classic introduction to eastern philosophy. This passage caught my eye, in particular:

“Zen Buddhism is a way and a view of life which does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western Thought….It is an example of what is known in India and China as a “way of liberation,”…a way of liberation can have no positive definition. It has to be suggested by saying what it is not, somewhat as a sculptor reveals an image by the act of removing pieces of stone from a block.”

To pull Watts’s metaphor, the working sculptor, a smidgen down the road, let us consider sculpting in clay and sculpting in marble. One day you, the artist, arrive at your studio, lets say, and want to create something three dimensional. You grab some clay and start molding, adding a piece here, a piece there. You form it to your vision, building it, smoothing it, building more. That, it seems to me, is how we live. We build on existence until an object conforming to our vision is created. We call it our life. It is a process of addition. I note that this method does not conform to the Zen Master of New England‘s  admonition to simplify, simplify, simplify.

David, as released from the stone.

David, as released from the stone.

But, should we turn to marble, that is altogether a different matter. That is a process of subtraction, of chiseling away, of polishing and removing until the form is revealed in the rock. Michelangelo looked at the block and saw his David locked inside. As “a way of liberation,” David must have been grateful.

What is inside? is the question. It is the opposite of What should be added? Eastern thought asks the first question, Western thought the latter.

For me, after years of working in clay, building an image to conform to my vision, I wish to turn to the marble block and attempt to release its contents. Now where did I put my chisel and hammer? (Boy, I love exhausting a metaphor!)

Thanks for reading

Would Nabokov think you a “good” reader?

In Books, Creativity, Literature, Writers, Writing on January 25, 2013 at 6:00 am

“A hundred years ago,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov, “Gustave Flaubert in a letter to his mistress made the following remark: ‘What a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half dozen books.'”

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov

My sophomore year in college found me in a comparative literature class. I didn’t know what comparative literature was, but it sounded up my alley. My introduction to the discipline was ill-fated, learning quickly that the serious student was the one reading the texts in the original language. That makes sense. I was fated with the knowledge that with my genetic indifference to languages not womb-embedded, I would be better served building on my tenuous hold of the known, and forsake aspirations foreign. The course, however, instilled in me a keen interest in world literature that continues to this day. For that I am grateful.

The comp-lit class was taught by an associate professor. He was young and enthusiastic and brimming with energy. It did not take him long to introduce us to Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), the reclusive writer, whom our young professor had once interviewed in Montreux, Switzerland, where the master was spending his autumnal days. I did not know of this Nabokov, but my curiosity was aroused. I soon consumed all things Nabokovian.

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A half-dozen years later Nabokov published his Lectures on Literature. The writer had, for nearly twenty years, flexed his substantial literary muscle in the classroom, first at Wellesley then Cornell–and here were his lectures. According to Lectures, this is how “the course” opens:

“With a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual, we shall watch the artist build the castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.”

With that, Nabokov launches into his lectures. One former student of the course, Ross Wetzsteon, recalls Nabokov the teacher advising, “‘Caress the details,’ Nabokov would utter, rolling the r, his voice the rough caress of a cat’s tongue, ‘the divine details.'”

Here is the syllabus:

I’ve read several of these books with Nabokov’s notes at my elbow. It is not unlike, I bet, sitting in a masterclass with Yo-Yo Ma.

Let me share with you an extended passage by the master from the introduction, Good Readers and Good Writers:

“One evening at a remote provincial college through which I happened to be jogging on a protracted lecture tour, I suggested a little quiz–ten definitions of a reader, and from these ten the students had to choose four definitions that would combine to make a good reader. I have mislaid the list, but as far as I remember the definitions went something like this. Select four answers to the question what should a reader be to be a good reader:

  1. The reader should belong to a book club.
  2. The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
  3. The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.
  4. The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
  5. The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
  6. The reader should be a budding author.
  7. The reader should have imagination.
  8. The reader should have memory.
  9. The reader should have a dictionary.
  10. The reader should have some artistic sense.

The students leaned heavily on emotional identification, action, and the social-economic or historical angle. Of course, as you have guessed, the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense–which sense I propose to develop in myself and in others whenever I have the chance.”

Nabokov’s approach was sailing against the winds of the popular literary criticism movement of the time, deconstructionism. We won’t wade into that pool here, but suffice it to

Nabokov's notes on Kafka, with bug.

Nabokov’s notes on Kafka, with bug.

say, his approach to literature was not de jour–but it was lasting, thankfully. A quick perusal of Lectures on Literature reveals one major tenant of Nabokov’s appreciation and understanding of literature: the visual. He teaches to sketch major ideas. Draw Kafka’s bug, or map Leopold Bloom‘s perambulations through Dublin.

Nabokov's copy of Madam Bovary

Nabokov’s copy of Madam Bovary

Also, read with a writing instrument. And use it:

I’ll leave you with this thought, also from the introduction:

“Incidentally, I used the word ‘reader’ very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot ‘read’ a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why…”

I think, with that, I will be obnoxious and make you seek out the master’s answer as to why a good reader is a rereader.

I only wish he had taught Moby Dick. Class dismissed.

Thanks for reading,

d

Thursday is Theme Day: Hemingway

In Books, Creativity, Literature, Writers, Writing on January 24, 2013 at 6:00 am
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Yousuf Karsh’s famous portrait of Papa Hemingway

The (new) plan is to program Thursdays around a person, a thinker, writer, philosopher, a creative genius, a traveler–a person whose life was (or perhaps is) about the stuff that matters*–share some quotes,  lift a few words from a speech or lecture, perhaps recommend a few books by or about. In other words, on Thursdays, we’ll turn the podium over to an individual “the house” members might be interested in. That way you’ll get a break from my incessant navel gazing and auto-biographical-slash-memoir ramblings. (I hate the ungrammatical “/”.) Okay? I’ll try to bring you something fresh, and avoid the tired cut-and-paste lame Wikipedia entry.

Today we will begin the series with Mr. Hemingway (1899-1961).

To weigh in just a moment here (so difficult keeping my mouth shut!): I am, like so many others, more a fan of the man’s life than I am ofimgres his work. Of course Hemingway left us great writing. I am particularly fond, as I’ve mentioned before, of A Movable Feast. And of course the stories. The great short stories–marvelous stuff, indeed. But it is the life that has the grip on my imagination. (He was life outsized,  the Lady Gaga of his era.) He was no Montaigne; he did not talk about how to live outright, he showed us–at least his painful, dangerous, depressed-manic, genius version of life. So here are a few of Ernest Hemingway’s thoughts.

Oh hell…when I get excited it is difficult to stay with the program. Let’s first set this up with a quote from Joan Didion. We did just talk about her last week. When asked who most influenced her, Ms. Didion said:

I always say Hemingway, because he taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time….I mean they’re perfect sentences. Very direct sentences, smooth rivers, clear water over granite, no sinkholes.

Now on to Papa and his work habits:

imgres-4When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but fulling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

Once, when asked about his style (of writing), Papa replied:

That is a long-term tiring question and if you spent a couple of days answering it you would be so self-conscious that you could not write. I might say that what amateurs call a style is usually only the unavoidable awkwardness in first trying to make something that has not heretofore been made. Almost no new classics resemble other previous classics. At first people can see only the awkwardness. Then they are not so perceptible. When they show so very awkwardly people think these awkwardnesses are the style and many copy them. This is regrettable.

When talking about what writers he read, Hemingway launched into a who’s-who of influences:imgres-3

Mark Twain, Flaubert, Stendhal, Bach, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, Maupassant, the good Kipling, Thoreau, Captain Marryat, Shakespeare, Mozart, Quevedo, Dante, Vergil, Tintoretto, Hieronymus, Bosch, Brueghel, Patinir, Goya, Giotto, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, San Juan de la Cruz, Góngora–it would take a day to remember everyone. Then it would sound as though I were claiming an erudition I did not possess instead of trying to remember all the people who have been an influence on my life and work. This isn’t an old dull question. It is a very good but a solemn question and requires an examination of conscience. I put in painters, or started to, because I learn as much from painters about how to write as from writers. You ask how this is done? It would take another day of explaining. I should think what one learns from composers and from the study of harmony and counterpoint would be obvious.

Hemingway & Gellhorn--the movie.

Hemingway & Gellhorn–the movie.

I’ve read a lot of Hemingway, but it is likely true that I have read more about him than by him. The great biography by Hemingway associate, Carlos Baker, is definitive. (Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s third wife, called it “the King James Version” of Hemingway’s life. Not everyone thought so highly of the book. Truman Capote said, “The Baker book was bad all the way through. It was dull, it was uninteresting, it was badly put together.” ) There are many others–at last count over 500!–more or less of value.  For me, however, one of the most interesting books about Hemingway is Denis Brian’s, The True Gen. It’s a collection of memories and reminiscences from friends, lovers, enemies, and wives. It’s heavy on gossip, but rounded out the man in a way I found compelling and brimming with insight.

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*If there was a tag line to “…the house…” it would be, We think about the stuff that matters. But wait!– whether you know it or not, we have a tag line, A Journal of Life Pursued. Can one have too many tag lines? Too many interests?

Travel Bitching.

In Travel, Writing on January 22, 2013 at 6:00 am

Airports are such an interesting microcosm, everyone rushing around, on their phone, clutching a boarding pass between their teeth while towing an overstuffed bag on wheels. The airport is a kingdom of singular self-interest. Can I get past this stationary person on the moving walk-way? Why does the TSA agent single me out for a pat-down? When will the queue move? Will there be overhead storage left for my overstuffed bag on wheels?

Travelers are tribe nomads without the communal grace of a tribe. Travelers are myopic in focus: get from A to B with the least amount of hassle. Most travelers are blind to other members of the tribe, even the ones in need of tribal support, the elderly, the young, the confused.

The airport is the place where the most cherished of human attributes, joy, enthusiasm, compassion, are too often left curbside along with drinking water, guns and knives. The result is not Lord of the Flies, but it is sometimes close.

I try not to give myself up to this hopelessness, but usually fail. I admire the agent who pushes the elderly lady to her gate, smiling and chatting her up. There is much to learn from the pleasant young lady who wishes me a good day when I buy a pack of gum, her daily grind being so, well, very grinding.

It seems the airport microcosm is where self-interest most prevails and the better edges of human nature are chipped away by the press of elbows and bags and the mounting pressure of advancing departures. Should mother nature grace this scene causing delays the tribal nomad retreats deeper into the tent. There stored deep in the darkest corner is collected the garb of anger, outrage, and the cloak of self-righteousness.

This sounds so very upsetting, yet the experience is not necessarily so. Granted travel is hardly fun for most of us. The travel situation is nonetheless electric with the tension of anticipation: I am going home. Or, the mystery of a new venue awaits me. Or, I will soon be united with those I most love. Or, can I close the deal?

The tribe will put up with most anything for the reward at the other end. My personal problem with that notion is the fashion in which one gives of oneself to the future and suffers in the immediate. I don’t have a fix on such things, but I know that such practice betrays an ignorance of the present moment–a value I hold dear despite the unpleasantness. I believe the present is where I most need to live despite the occasion of wishing otherwise.

I reflect on this–and then, in the air and almost home, I look out the window and see the surging blue of the North Atlantic, the ribbon of land I call home, and my pulse begins to race. Look there, a lighthouse! And there, a lobster boat cleaving the water! My heart sings! “Why do men travel rather than sit still?” wondered Chatwin. Because the view is so very wonderful! Because without it, home is less marvelous!

I  leave the tent and fall into the embrace of my tribe.

And the Winner Is…

In Books, Writers, Writing on January 16, 2013 at 6:00 am
Nobel Prize Medal

Nobel Prize Medal

Nothing underscores the paucity of being monolingual like walking into a bookstore in a foreign country.  “To have another language is to possess a second soul,” proclaimed Goethe. In this instance, I was in France and the bookstore had a small table stacked with English titles. I walked out with Blindness by José Saramago. I was not familiar with the title, nor did I know anything of Saramago–except this: he was a Nobel laureate in Literature. I only knew this because the book sported a marketing emblem declaring it so. If you were to ask me the five best books I’ve ever read, Blindness would be on the list. I’m not sure what the other four would be. The point being, not every book written by a Nobel winner is going to be good, let alone great. But if good literature is your thing, you’ve probably stacked the odds in your favor by selecting one of these authors.

With that in mind, I thought you might be interested the “alumni association” of Nobel winners in literature. Be aware, the list is not without controversy. For instance, three of the greatest writers of the twentieth century didn’t get the nod from Stockholm: Joyce, Proust, and Nabokov.

Here is the list of the more fortunate:

2012 ~ Mo Ya

2006 ~ Orhan Pamuk
2002 ~ Imre Kertész
2000 ~ Gao Xingjian
1999 ~ Günter Grass
1997 ~ Dario Fo
1995 ~ Seamus Heaney
1994 ~ Kenzaburo Oe
1993 ~ Toni Morrison
1992 ~ Derek Walcott
1990 ~ Octavio Paz
1986 ~ Wole Soyinka
1985 ~ Claude Simon
1981 ~ Elias Canetti
1976 ~ Saul Bellow
1973 ~ Patrick White
1971 ~ Pablo Neruda
1961 ~ Ivo Andric
1957 ~ Albert Camus
1946 ~ Hermann Hesse
1943 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1942 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1941 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1940 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1938 ~ Pearl Buck
1935 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was with 1/3 allocated to the Main Fund and with 2/3 to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1929 ~ Thomas Mann
1928 ~ Sigrid Undset
1927 ~ Henri Bergson
1918 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was allocated to the Special Fund of this prize section.
1914 ~ No Nobel Prize was awarded this year. The prize money was allocated to the Special Fund of this prize section.
If you think great literature will earn you place in the pantheon of the immortals, think again. How many of these names are already lost to history?

Tell me a story.

In Books, Writers, Writing on January 15, 2013 at 6:00 am

421“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That is the declaration by which Joan Didion begins her now-classic, The White Album (1979). The book is a highly literary, essay-slash-memoir collection exploring the 1960s and 70s in California. Martin Amis, in reviewing the book, called Ms. Didion, a “poet of the Great Californian Emptiness.” It was a time of personal challenge for Didion, chiefly of the mental-stability order, and the expanse of California as metaphor agitates as a perfect harmonic.  Central to the book is the unease of the era as exemplified by the Charles Manson Helter Skelter murder of Sharon Tate and friends. Tate was a friend of Didion‘s. (As a side note, if you pick up The White Album I strongly suggest–no, demand–you then read Battleborn, by Claire Vaye Watkins. Watkins is the daughter of Charles “Tex” Watkins,  Manson’s righthand-man. Battleborn is starkly, and breathtakingly, original.)

So as to not drop Ms. Didion’s quote out of context, here is the full paragraph for your reading pleasure:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. The princess is caged in the consulate. The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea. The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accident, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be ‘interesting’ to know which. We tell ourselves that it makes some difference whether the naked woman is about to commit a mortal sin or is about to register a political protest or is about to be, the Aristophanic view, snatched back to the human condition by the fireman in priest’s clothing just visible in the window behind her, the one smiling at the telephoto lens. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely… by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.”

I am unabashedly smitten by: “We live entirely…by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images….”

(Aside: I drifted to this shore while reading an article about the current line-up of new TV shows, in particular shows that qualify my loose definition of being narrative-driven. You know the shows: Downton Abbey, Shameless, Breaking Bad, Homeland and a few others. (Full disclosure, I watch–no, I drink thirstily–the mentioned shows.) Are these the stories we are telling ourselves in order to live? What does that mean?)

I have another quote from The White Album in my moleskine: “I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.” That is as beautiful an explanation of why a writer writes as ever I’ve encountered. I trust Vonnegut‘s “ink-stained wretches” are applauding furiously. This is the quote that comes foremost to mind when reflecting on that which is attempted here at …the house…. My personal bookend to Ms. Didion’s observation is that I read in the hope, maybe even in the faith, that I will find a writer who will not necessarily explain my life, but share it. That, my friends, is why we tell stories–which is to say, the declaration of our very existence.