I’ve been sharing notes from a writer’s workshop I watched a few weeks ago, presented by Richard Tarnas at Pacifica Graduate Institute. During the afternoon of the first day of the workshop, Tarnas presented what he calls The Writer’s Mandala, a symbol of the complete writer.
Mandalas have long been used in various spiritual traditions as aids to meditation and symbols of completion or universal oneness. Carl Jung saw the mandala as a representation of the unconscious self, and encouraged patients to draw mandalas as they progressed in analysis. Tarnas used the writer’s mandala to illustrate how a writer may forge him- or herself into an instrument of creativity.
Nine O’Clock: The Self
At the 9:00 position, the location of the Ascendant on an astrological chart, Tarnas began by identifying the self. All good writing begins with the writer’s self. Yeats and Nietzsche said that you have to transcend yourself (ego) in order to become your Self. Everyone is carrying something, a “flowering of the Universal.” He comments that a writer should maintain the idea of being with the self the way a loving parent is with a child; this is a reality when you are in the process of writing. “We have to forge ourselves as instruments that can carry the meaning of the whole,” he explained. But how do we forge ourselves as writers?
We first transform ourselves through style. The poem, the essay, the article, the short story and the novel don’t just appear out of nothing. Every line is re-worked until it belongs. Every line is revised and revised until it has a quality of necessity or inevitability. Like music, it comes in bits and pieces, through revising; Beethoven was a master of revision, taking a great deal of patience and care over every note. We must take similar care with our words, with every sentence, going over and over each word and sentence lovingly and critically.
Use a dictionary. Whenever you’re writing or reading, always have a dictionary at hand, not far away, not even two feet away. Also, it’s very helpful to pay attention to the etymology of words, to know what a word meant originally. If you know a word’s origin, you’ll have a better grasp of how to use it because you have a connection to its ancestral roots. Part of being a writer is to love language. If you know words, they are more likely to appear to you when you need them; it’s an I-Thou relationship around language.
Use a thesaurus. When you know that you’re in the ballpark, but the word isn’t exactly what you had in mind, you can benefit from a thesaurus.
Read the great stylists. One of the best examples is Abraham Lincoln, who was a numinous writer with one year of formal education altogether. He read Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and Pilgrim’s Progress during his childhood; this is how he forged himself. Darwin is also a very good writer and a good model for writing about pushing the boundaries of the cultural paradigm. He writes with great intelligence and great modesty. “I am asking you to write with great humility,” Tarnas urges, “You could try a little harder to write it better, more clearly, more nuanced. This relates to the inner reader, the Other, the Thou.”
Do what must be done to make yourself ready. If you have something to say that’s important, then the meaning is what is most important. You must forge yourself into an instrument that can deliver that message. If you do this, writing can be ecstatic; but knowing you have a call and knowing what must be done don’t guarantee success. A writer still has to endure, and do the hard work of writing and facing rejection.
A dark night will come. When Tarnas submitted his book proposal to Princeton University Press, they sent his manuscript out to six scholars for review. Three agreed that his book should be published (Joseph Campbell, David Miller, and Houston Smith); and three who were on the Princeton faculty did not. They said it was too narrative, and shouldn’t be published, “Who does this person think he is?” they asked, “We’ve never heard of him.” And, in fact, Tarnas was a nobody who had written the book from his little cabin in the redwood forest. He had little money because he had consciously chosen this writer’s life. As Nietzsche wrote, “Praise be a moderate poverty, for he who possesses less is so much the less possessed.”
At the point of this rejection, Tarnas asked, “What was I thinking, that I could write this book?” But he wrote it anyway, even after going through absolute self-doubt, and eventually of course, the book became a best-seller. Self-doubt, he wrote, is crucial to the unfolding of the writer and to the spiritual being. St. John of the Cross feels it is dying, surrounded by the sight of the soul’s absolute misery. At that moment, the Divine is re-making the soul to be divine. This dark night is experienced as absolute loss; you are a failure and everything is going absolutely the wrong way.
A great deal of theory proposes that the birth process is experienced as rejection by the infant because all they knew as their universe is excreting and rejecting them; therefore it is absolutely crucial to be worthless and rejected as a spiritual being. When we go through that, then we are born as writers and people; gratefully dead, twice born. What dies is something that needed to die in order for birth to take place. (Here, I was reminded of when Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it remains alone by itself. But if it die, it bears much fruit.”)
People who have had near-death experiences or a death-rebirth experience have this kind of epiphany. All the times when they thought they were most abandoned are the times that they hold most precious and almost revere later, because these were the parts that soldiered on and received grace. You don’t look back on the times when you were honored or elevated, but on the painful times which you now see were serving some larger goal and deeper purpose.
Six O’Clock: The Ancestors
At the 6:00 position of the writer’s mandala are the Ancestors, the culture from which we come, one’s history and the history of one’s people. There is a boundless expanse of soul that is a body to history; one must read, read, read. Read the great works, as many as you can. Thoreau said, “Don’t just read the Times, read the eternities.” Reading great cultural and historical works will expand the quality of your writing and deeply expand your breadth of reference and your depth of understanding.
Learn everything you have to know to say something well. You can’t fake it. The only people you’ll be able to fool are the people who don’t know anything, people who are uneducated. The people you want to read you will be able to catch your inauthenticity right away. When we’re young, we try to make up for our lacks by a greater intensity of statement, often over-stating things with greater force and greater confidence than needed. This has a tinge of inflation that the truly authoritative reader will see through. What you want to do is to devote yourself to learning in whatever field you want to contribute something new to; you want to master whatever it is with enough authority that you can speak with confidence. This often takes a long preparation, and it’s a continuing journey. You want to be there and be ready when the inspiration comes through.
Don’t only read the essentials in your field, but read the best in your culture. Read Shakespeare, the Bible, the cultural references that are essential to the western mind. Watch the great films and great filmmakers such as Bergman, Fellini, and Trousseau. Be familiar with the works in your field that constitute the set of assumptions you’re drawing upon or want to transcend. Certainly, our task is challenging in this day and age because so much has been written and published. Aristotle could have read everything relevant in about two months-and he did. Even Descartes could read all the original sources in his lifetime, but by the time you get to where we are, you really have to depend on great scholars who write works that will mediate your access to large realms of ideas, many works, and whole traditions. Today, we depend on secondary scholarship to open up the vistas.
Next: The last two positions of the mandala, the Thou and the Divine.