This weekend, I finished reading The Dharma Bums – the book that apparently started the Backpack Revolution.
First, My Problem:
As the title implies, there are a plethora of Eastern-religion references throughout Dharma Bums. My problem was, and remains, that I had the toughest time believing Ray Smith, the main character, really understood the tenets of Buddhism. Sure, he meditated. Sure, he could list the Four Noble Truths. Sure, he bought into the idea of Enlightenment.
But he seemed to use all these things as an excuse to sit on his butt and do nothing. It’s not an attractive characteristic.
He used Buddhism to excuse his life rather than to live his life – does that make sense? This kind of pop-philosophy annoys me.
Second, Pop-Philosophy is Exactly What I’m About to Do:
After all, Kerouac’s my mentor this month, right? Gotta learn from the man. So, without further ado, I give you:
The Three Temptations of the Buddha as They Relate to Writing
1. Desire: It’s actually referred to as ‘lust’ in the story…but I’m adjusting things to make my point.
What on earth can desire have to do with writing? Well, it speaks to motivation, as do the other two temptations that I’m gonna talk about. I don’t know about you guys, but every now and then J.K. Rowling’s paycheck pops into my head. (As do Stephen King’s , James Patterson’s, and Nora Roberts’s). This seems harmless on the surface – after all, my logical brain knows the odds of getting the dough these writers bring in is astronomically low.
But my family is a single income family – and that single income is a public school teacher. (I know it’s forboden to discuss money, politics, and religion…but apparently I don’t follow rules very well.)
My husband and I cut a deal, known in the writing-type world as the Dean Koontz Deal. Meaning: my husband will bring home the bacon for a few years while I focus exclusively on my writing. I noticed, at the beginning of the summer, that a certain desperation had crept into my writing. It made me sit down religiously. I wrote word after word after word (and don’t get me wrong, they were pretty good words, if I do say so myself). But I panicked that I wasn’t moving fast enough. I didn’t need to be a millionaire, but I needed to have some income. I really, really, really wanted this to work and I wanted it to work FAST.
That’s desire. Sure, an income would be nice. But that kind of pressure…that kind of Want, the kind that feels like Need, is very, very unpleasant to write with.
2. Fear: Pretty straightforward this one, isn’t it? My desire could certainly be construed as fear – how to feed the kids? How many cars does a family need? Think of everything I lose in this game!
Fear can certainly be used as a motivator – fear of missing a deadline, fear of not hitting a word count, fear of being stuck. I think, a lot of times, writers just write because they fear the silence of a blank page. What if I never write again? Must put down WORDS! Must EDIT NOW! Because if I stop writing for even a second it means I’m Not A Writer.
Then, what if what you put down isn’t good enough? That’s one that stops writers. It stops me often enough. I’m not even comparing myself to anyone. Speaking of comparing…
3. Others: You can’t do it for Them. You can’t do it for your writer’s group…can’t try to impress them. You can’t do it to impress your mom, or to show your high school ex-boyfriend how you’re better off without him. In other words: You can’t do it for other people – not to beat them down with your bad-ass-ness or to bask in the glow of their love.
This one hasn’t been as much of a problem for me…maybe because my mother has hated all of my stories (she’s one of those very specific like/dislike kinda readers) and I only ever had to do it because I enjoyed writing. Though, I won’t lie: I sure do look forward to praise.
Now, How to Avoid Temptation?: The Middle Road
The middle road for all writers, in my-own-self’s opinion, is that you should always write for your own enjoyment. Maybe this is desire, but I don’t think so. This is a concept that has to be internalized, and accepted whenever a writer is ready. It’s an easy thing to say: “Just write because you like to write and don’t think about all that other shit.” But harder to put into practice.
One thing I thought of to help internalize this idea is a play on the concept of the Under The Bed Book. The idea is that Bad Books go under the bed, never to see the light of day. These are the books you never show anyone, you accept the lesson and move on.
I’m gonna shift that around a little and say: Put a Good Book under your bed. Put away a book that you’re proud of. Put away a book you think could be saleable. Just let it go. You created it, now keep it for you. You keep the lessons learned, and you don’t have to hear anyone ever say a bad thing about that book, and you never have to care if you would’ve made millions on it.
“Oh, yeah, Jenny,” you say. “You putting your money where your mouth is?”
I am actually. I’m currently working on a project that I’m going to keep to myself. I’m working on it right along with a project that I’m going to let out when it’s ready. I’ve had to do this for myself, to give myself permission to not feel that crazed desperation looming over me. I had to remind myself to write for myself.
If you can do that without doing all the work of writing a not-to-be seen novel, kudos to you! Keep doing what you’re doing.
I’m still working on it.
Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.