Natalie Goldberg’s book The True Secret of Writing, like many of her other books, talks about the relationship of Zen meditation practice to writing. Reading it recently reminded me of a favorite Zen story not in the book, this:
The eager student seeks out the Zen Master and at last is able to get a meeting with him. “Master, please, tell me how long it will take to achieve enlightenment.”
The teacher replies, “Twenty years.”
“Twenty years? No, no, you don’t understand. I am going to follow your instructions to the letter, I have a will of iron, I will meditate every day for as long as necessary, twice as long, I will not stray nor will I rest until I achieve enlightenment.”
The power of doing anything with quickness is always much prized by the possessor, and often without any attention to the imperfection of the performance.–Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.
Max Malini was a magician who came to America from Austria at the turn of the twentieth century. He made his fortune performing for the rich at their private soirees. While seated at their dinner tables, he would lift his bowler hat which had been lying on the table all evening, and reveal, underneath it, a large solid block of ice. It was stunningly mystifying. Where could it have come from? It couldn’t have been sitting on his lap or hidden under his hat all evening without melting. There was no explanation. (If you’d like to see an encore of that performance, pick up the DVD of the excellent documentary tribute to magician Ricky Jay, Deceptive Practice).
“Max, how do you do the secret move without anyone seeing?” asked his fellow magicians.
“You vait,” he replied.
“You vait a veek if you must!”
Patience in art is a virtue if only because the audience cannot conceive that anyone would wait that week.
Or spend ten years to write that novel. But sometimes that is what it takes: the willingness to live with the anxiety of not knowing the outcome until a time far into the future. Really, when you think about it, the profession of a novelist is an absurd one. How can one possibly plan to spend a good chunk of one’s adult life working on a book only to find out later that no one likes it? It’s much easier to write a poem or short story, find out what people think, and move on to the next one.
Philip Roth in an interview once said that the first few hundred pages of writing a novel is agony because he knows that he’s going to throw away most of it in search of the one little seed from which the novel will eventually grow.
The readers never know of this wait. To them, the final product is given all at once like a Christmas present. They can devour the novel all at once. They don’t have to have the patience of the writer. That is part of the writer’s gift to them.
But the novelist has played a trick on the readers. The trade-off is this: the writer can take all the time in the world to achieve her or his effects. There’s no pressure because without a time limit on the creation, anything is theoretically possible to achieve. Write, edit, write, edit; rinse and repeat until it works.
My favorite Malini story concerns the time he accidentally picked up the wrong overcoat from his tailor. He realizes that it’s the coat of an acquaintance., so he returns it to the tailor that evening.
A few years later, Malini runs into the acquaintance. Malini asks the man to pick a card from a deck of cards. It is the four of hearts. Malini asks the man to take off his overcoat. With a pen knife, the magician slashes the lining of the coat. In the lining of the coat, behold, there is a matching card: the four of hearts.
Yes, Malini had sewn the card into the man’s overcoat the night he received the coat from the tailor all those years ago.