When Bright Faith Dissolves: Essay & Mandala
Originally published by Numéro Cinq.
Herewith a selection of images, mandalas from Laura Catherine Brown‘s notebooks. They say something about art and form, stillness within change, and the riot of variation that can proliferate from simple structures. Laura is an old friend, a former student from the time I used to teach novels at the New York State Writers Institute in the summers in Saratoga Springs. In those days, she was working on what became her first published novel Quickening, a stern and lovely book about a girl coming of age in impoverished upstate New York. Here also is a meditation on writing, process, faith and Buddha.
So you start something new and it seems good! It has life, freshness, vitality. Sentences flow. Some scenes make you laugh aloud! You hate to put the work aside when life requires you to. You leave your desk reluctantly and, even then, you dwell on the piece of writing like a new love; engrossed in the characters, their associates, certain sentences that you turn and turn again in your mind. You notice how your daily life offers rich, unique material to funnel into this new narrative. It unfolds like a dream sequence, constantly. Siblings materialize for the protagonist, friends and colleagues with backgrounds, dossiers, furies and desires. Internal and external conflicts weave through your thoughts. Plotlines reveal themselves like half-blazed trails and you rush headlong, first here then there, branching off, doubling back, circling around, an eager and breathless explorer.
This state of love-filled delight and eager joy at the prospect of actualizing possibilities is known in Buddhism as “bright faith.” Bright faith, Sharon Salzburg says eloquently, is not blind faith. It is the beginning. And in the beginning we have the opportunity to surrender cynicism, apathy, inertia; and propel ourselves forward into the creative unknown.
The rush of energy and creativity that surrounds a new work is like bright faith: powerful, exalting, euphoric. Until one morning, out of nowhere, you sit at your desk and the shimmering gold dust of your faith dissolves into ash. The trails are lost and you are lost and you find yourself not in a fertile forest but a wasteland so vast you can’t discern earth from sky. You are cut adrift. The gravitational pull of language’s bubbling magma, the metaphors and phrases and names and situations you thought you were inventing have all vanished. There is no escape from the dismal facts on the ground where you still have your day job. And laundry piles up. A broken light fixture in the kitchen dims your whole apartment. Your bathtub won’t drain. And your recently completed novel, a completion marked by circuitous struggles through brambles and detours and steep falls off unseen cliffs, the novel you once, long ago, had the same bright faith in as this new work, is a moribund shell of its ancient potential. A carcass preserved in amber, it passes ever so slowly from one publishing house to another, with an ever so slow drain of polite rejections sucking away your self esteem.
What do you do when it seems that something you’ve grown to rely on has died? When yoga causes injury and tendonitis and writing, too, causes inflammation and muscle spasm and you still have to earn a living, what do you do? Wash your face, brush your teeth and greet the world with aplomb? Put on the mask of cheerful sane persona and play the role. That old platitude? Be glad you have a job to earn a living in. Be glad you’re breathing and the sky is clear and be glad the mewling cats are hungry for if they were not hungry it would signal they were sick. Offer gratitude to your family and your friends. Give thanks for your hands that can lift and drop a question on your plate. Is it working yet? Can you feel it?
Return to that narrative you once thought had life and attend to the comatose prose that just last week seemed to sparkle and dance. When the energy has died, when faith has worn away, when doubt threatens to destroy what you have built, and futility is the operative word, it becomes obvious that bright faith was insufficient. Hard work must follow, hard work and the disillusion, disenchantment, examination and exploration that come with “verifying faith.” You open the document and begin to tinker, perhaps to sink deeper into what you once thought you had a handle on. Sometimes the practice of writing alone must suffice, faith in action, faith that the dull, pedestrian, meaningless paragraphs will eventually yield up magic. And perhaps this faith in action will lead you to “abiding faith,” through fits and starts and hesitations, through despair and dark nights, not only to a more profound understanding of the craft, the practice, the pain and bliss of writing, but also to your own true connection, woven into the tapestry of literature past and present. One can always try. And try. And try. And try.