Spotless Mirrors, And All That

The editing and rewriting process for any of my books always exposes me to the same dilemmas, although each time 'round I experience them in a different form. Not so much procedurally, but emotionally. One of these dilemmas is best described by way of an old Zen parable, which I will relay by way of John Cage's paraphrasing of it:

In the poetry contest in China by which the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism was chosen, there were two poems. One said: “The mind is like a mirror. It collects dust. The problem is to remove the dust.” The other and winning poem was actually a reply to the first. It said, “Where is the mirror and where is the dust?”

Editing any book tends to be tough work. Every time you sit back down and continue to drill through, it feels like you're standing in the path of an endless firehose-blast of your own mistakes. Or perhaps not mistakes, but imperfections nonetheless. This sentence was awkward; this scene doesn't sit right; that particular thing there just feels wrong. These things get under the skin and itch. Dust on the mirror. All feels shabby, disordered, chaotic. (Cage again.)

Then two things happen. The first is you nudge things that much further away from being shabby, disordered, chaotic. You rewrite the awkward sentence; you polish that exchange of dialogue until you at least don't want to hang your head after reading it. And so on.

The other thing that happens is you begin to see, and feel, how all this is little more than just an exercise is seeing that there's really no mirror and no dust. Your bad feelings about your work are just as artificial and contrived as the work itself. Not because the work is fakery, or because your feelings are frauds, but only because they're just yours, and you are only one ingredient that goes into the whole. An important one, but still only one of many.

Eventually, the book is done, not because there's nothing left to add or change (or even to take away), but because you realize there's no way for you to further transcend all that might be wrong (or right!) with it without just letting it go. It's time to put it out there and let whatever lessons can come from it return back to you in some new form.

I always go through a long dark night of the dusty mirror with any book I work on. The arc of the experience is almost always the same, too. At first, you can barely bring yourself to even open the document. (My old psychic jiu-jitsu trick of "let's just open it and work on one sentence" often helps here to dislodge that stone.) Then over time, you think less of the work, and its difficulties, and its ameliorations, as personal things. The only progress I can really claim for the way this feels after (counts on fingers) the tenth or so go-round is that the span of time, and the depth of the gloom, across each such long dark night of dusty mirrors is a little shorter each time.

It's progress. I'll take it.

Tags: Zen  editing  writing 

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the category Uncategorized / General, published on 2018/05/31 08:00.

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