The Writer’s Mandala | 2

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.

the writer's mandala by you.

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.” mandala1 by you.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.

mandala5 by you.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 mandala2 by you.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 mandala4 by you.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 mandala6 by you.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 mandala8 by you.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.

Finally, be familiar with what others are writing, what’s important, what’s popular. Subscribe to the New York Review of Books. Read it all.

Next: The last two positions of the mandala, the Thou and the Divine.

8 responses to “The Writer’s Mandala | 2”

  1. Caroline Avatar

    “…..Read it all…….”.


    As you say, any writer wanting to write well, must read, read, read, and read.

    To read deeply and widely is to fertilize the soil, and to water the seedlings, which must be done daily, else the garden will wither and die.

  2. The Librarian in Purgatory Avatar

    “Except for the point, the still point,
    There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

    T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton, Four Quartets

    This post and the last have left me with a sense of tension that I couldn’t quite place, something that was there, was felt but not apparent, something that was making people bristle, if politely. It hit me this morning— writing, like everything else, can be broken into two groups; those who write for a living and those for whom writing is life (as essential and inseparable as eating or breathing. The essential differences, at least as perceived by the latter, is that the former made a choice to start writing while the latter did not, writing is something the former do and something the latter are.

    To grossly over generalize, there are myths/assumptions surrounding both:

    That those who write for a living, at some point, decided that writing was something that they’d like to do and set about to become skilled at it, much as someone would if they decided to take up running, or accounting, or anything else. Writing is seen as a set of skills that can be mastered if one makes the effort (discipline) and success for them is ultimately judged by a mastering the discipline, or paycheck, book sales, and fame and accolade.

    To those for whom writing is life, no choice was ever made to write, it just began somewhere as a form of expression and gradually became inseparable from who they believe themselves to be. The writing does not flow or stem from a set of skills per se but from who they are and success is not judged in any tangible way but in the ability to accurately/honestly give voice to what lies below the surface, the things unseen (art). To suggest a routine to such a person would be like saying, you’re eating incorrectly, or breathing wrong, etc.; you are in essence saying, your way of self-expression, of being, is wrong, needs work. Ouch.

    On the surface of it, it looks like the two are damn near irreconcilable, each deriving their motivation and ultimate satisfaction from very differing places. Where they are inexorably tied together though is in the middle, in the writing itself, stripped of a cause and an outcome. It is there, at that still point, where the world moves around them and not them in the world, that all writers become one, or at least the same; for writing is simply writing and the act of writing, the experience of writing is only what it is and can ever be. The act of writing doesn’t change, the perception of it does. It is before and after, when causes and judgments are added, that it becomes different.

    Both can learn from the other, discipline and art can coexist, often joyously and mutually flourishing and encouraging. One path is no better than the other as they all lead to the same place; to the dance, the dance of pen and paper, light and shadow, imagination and the ineffable, the known and the knower. And all that matters is the dance for it is there that you are truly alive; not in the thought that brought you there and not in how you thought the dance went but only in the dance.

    Writing, for whatever your reason, is not who you are, though you may believe as such, but something you do, a part of you. It may help define you, bring you into focus, but it is not you. If you could not write, you would still be you; you’d just have to find a different method of telling yourself about yourself. Writing is not who you are, it is who you get to be, it is who you become, it is the dance.

  3. Eve Avatar

    Irene, well you’re going to have to start your own blog, you know. You can start one and attach it to your web site. Or you can get a gmail address and blog under a pseudonym if you’ve got Saturn or Cancer oddly aspected or were Harriet the Spy when you were about 11 years old.

    Or for any other reason.

    And blogs can be for discussion too.

    (Yes, I’m doing the literary equivalent of batting my eyelashes and giving you a come hither look; because this is no mommy blog, where one-line responses are preferred. Respond away. If you have a lot to say, I’ll post it as I did when Amy from Adoption and its Triad wrote a rebuttal to my “real mother” series.)

    I love your work, by the way, love it in the thrilling, dark, archaic baby doll parts of myself. I covet Lost Babe in the Dark I (2006) because it seems to express a lot about the Orphan archetype, or something also about the feeling one might have at the threshhold of adventure; a person starting out is very much like a plastic baby doll, not really real yet; frightened, alone, or maybe just mildly concerned and infant-like in her naievete. And I loved I Honour You (2008). I happen to play the flute, which only added to my feeling about that painting. What can you tell me about both of them?

    And if I go on about the rest that fascinated me or made me chuckle or even laugh out loud with delight, then I’ll be hijacking this entire response thread, myself. I’d love to talk with you more about what you’re doing. I’ve read your whole web site and you’ve got me fascinated. I can completely see why you’d lurk around here. ;o)

    And your rabbits have me entranced. My oh my.

  4. Eve Avatar

    Helen, no, I’m not familiar with the dictionary. I use a reference book called “The Synonym Finder” (Rodale) or an online thesaurus; the Merriam Webster looks yummy and I’ve been thinking I need a better desktop work and this one looks great! Thank you!

    (I hope I’m not the only person around who gets downright excited about getting a new Dictionary!) Ha ha.

  5. Irene Avatar

    Um, I think the timid person just left the room.

    I just wanted to say, in response to you, that I think nothing we do is ever really wasted. I have bought books in the past, not read them, but found them to be exactly what I needed years later. And I’ve found certain blog sites (!) that stop me from working, but have been enriching my practice from a different angle! Things that appear to be leading me elsewhere suddenly, or eventually, lead me back to where my heart is. I even garden, and it connects!

    I won’t write yet about the fear/excitement part, otherwise I’ll just takeover this place…

    I think my tail is wagging furiously 🙂

  6. helenl Avatar

    Eve, Are you familiar with Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms?
    This book is better than a thesaurus; it shows meanings and antonyms also. I first learned about it from my thesis adviser. We spent over an hour just playing with his new copy. I bought one within the next few days.

  7. Eve Avatar

    Oh, Irene!! I’m so glad you came out of the shadows and joined us. I’m happy to meet you. It’s wonderful to have an artist around; I’ve often wondered just how different or alike our processes are. Having Helen and the Librarian as poets is very helpful, too; and I hardly know what to do with the blessed novelists at whose shrine I worship. My father used to always say “you should be a fiction writer.” I still am not.

    Anyway… I’m glad you jumped in boldly (not, you weren’t timid) because I wonder sometimes whether I should blog something or not. I appreciated this workshop very much for several reasons, but wondered if it would be too tiresome to post. The second half of his talk about the writer’s mandala is interesting and goes along with what you’re writing about how you’ve been improving your own craft. In fact, it’s so parallel, you’ll (hopefully) feel validated that someone paid to teach about writing came to the same conclusions!

    I started on a read the classics journey a few years ago and for awhile wondered if I was just being silly–wasting my own time, rather than just jumping back into writing. I’ve struggled with trying to decide whether to return to being a therapist, and deepen those skills and that craft through intense Jungian training, or to return to my writing. So I worried that maybe the reading was just an escape hatch.

    But my reading has changed my life so that I felt I had to continue (and I am). So what you wrote encourages me that others go down those paths, too.

    If I were a dog, I’d wag my tail over your commenting. Welcome to the blogosphere, and I hope you’re wandering around and visiting some of the blogs I link to, because in the past year I’ve borrowed a lot of these people’s friends and they’ve become mine, too.

    I also hope to hear more about your knocking and the fear and excitement. I think I know something about what you might mean. I get so fearful and excited I feel a little sick sometimes!

  8. Irene Avatar

    Hi Eve, I’m new to this blogging, in fact, I actually at the moment am only reading yours because of the amount of time it takes me to contemplate all the things you write about! I have been a secret reader for a few months now, and am getting so much out of it. Now I am trying to get over my timidity and actually join in.

    All the things you write about being a writer really do also apply to being an artist. I am a painter, and I can relate to so much that you and everyone else has said so far (from the last post). Things are never so black and white when it comes to being creative, are they? I do believe, though, in having some kind of daily practice, a commitment, if possible. I think that it’s a bit like when one writes down dreams to develop a better connection to the unconscious – the more you show commitment, the thicker and faster they come! At the same time, I have my awful black periods, and I can’t do a thing. My mum laughs (lovingly) at me during these times because she’s seen it so many times – she knows something is ‘coming up’ in my creative process. Certainly keeps things humble…

    When you wrote the other day about “the vertical dimension”, it really struck a cord in me. I’ve been working at my ‘craft’ for many years, initially very connected, but immature and inexperienced. Then, over the last ten years I have been pushing the connection aside, as I was on a journey to improve the craft of my art – reading, looking a lot, studying the works of others. Now this year its all starting to come together, and I can feel something knocking on the door that makes me fearful and excited all at the same time.

    I think it’s a bit of a journey to get to know one’s self, and what we individually need to open up the creative connection. Some mornings I can get straight to it, others I have to find my way in, either by writing down feelings and thoughts, or looking at pictures of other people’s paintings that inspire me. Sometimes I procrastinate for more than half a day, and then say ‘oh well, the days gone now, can’t start now…’ I think being kind to yourself is incredibly important too, not to punish yourself when you do things like that, but redirect yourself back to what you’re doing with patience and persistence.

    That really wasn’t very timid, was it? Thanks heaps for everything.

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