"I started writing," Hubert Selby, Jr. once said, "because I did not want to die having done nothing with my life."
When I read those words for the first time, many years ago, I took them for my own almost immediately. I too did not want to die having done nothing with my life, living as I did in a world where I was painfully aware of how easy it was to do just that. But over time I expanded on Selby's vow, and in time replaced it with a different one: I write because I do not want to die feeling I have had no control over my life.
I know that the sense of control granted by creating fiction is not the same as, say, the sense of control one obtains from landing a new job with better pay and benefits. Or moving out of a costly and uninviting neighborhood into a cheaper and better one. Or changing up one's diet and exercise habits. Etc. All of these things and more I've done to fulfill some sense of having positive control over the external circumstances of my existence. But what about the inside?
Of all the things I've done in my life that allowed me any sense of control over who and what I was within, only two seem to have passed the test. One was zazen and studying Buddhism generally; the other was creating fiction. Each reinforced the practice of the other. But each accomplished profoundly different things. Zazen helped me see everything with a little less of my own distorting ego in the way; writing allowed me to channel my ego into making something that was as much not-me as it was me.
Some years back I was in a profoundly terrible state of mind, all the time. Writing was one of the few things that helped, except maybe in the love I felt for a few others and their love for me in return. I could sit down at my computer and open up Microsoft Word and there, in that space, between one word and the next, there was grace. Something flowered there that simply did not exist anywhere else, something that was entirely mine, something that remained mine even after it had left my hands, something that returned things to me I could keep forever in a way nothing else could be kept.
You can tell the real writers from the phonies, someone once said, by the fact that the real ones can't help themselves; they write anyway, whether or not anyone's looking or clucking tongues in approval. Am I like that? I thought, on hearing those words the first time. I wasn't even out of my teens and it sounded right; I couldn't help myself. Later, I found that was no guarantee of doing it right. Some of the worst writers are also the most devoted, if only because they can't stop what they're doing long enough to take stock and grow. Whether I'm any good I leave to someone else, but I know I can't help myself.
Some time after discovering Selby, I discovered John Cage, and both through him and in parallel with him, Zen. What Cage offered was the obverse of Selby: a way to find grace within one's self that did not involve having to create or perform. One could just be, and through that find grace.
These two impulses don't contradict each other. They exist in parallel, and I draw on each of them as befits the moment. When there is a time and an occasion to create, I create, and draw my strength from the mastery that gives me. When there is a time and an occasion to only sit back and observe, I do that too, and I find in that as much strength as I thought could only be gained from doing something. But I know that every road I'm on always leads back to a keyboard.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind