Archive for May 2011
Round Two of my Hildegard von Bingen novel is underway, and simultaneously (for reasons of pure avoidance), so is the travel guide to Things Hildegardian.
Thinking about how I will revise each chapter is fun. I went through and put a story arc on each fictional chapter (as I’d threatened to do in The Story Arc) and now I can see the slow points. I highlighted them in the outlines. I can focus on whether to add some action, change direction or tone, or just lop off the slow bits.
In the first chapter, it was pretty easy to lop off the beginning right after the second slow point. The lopped bits provided some context for the scene, but they didn’t really further the story much beyond introducing the characters and their location in time and place. The characters can introduce themselves during the less slow parts. See? That wasn’t so bad.
But all that reckless abandon and lopping away caused a dilemma. You see, I’d used the early part of that first chapter to show something about life in the Middle Ages within a convent, things my early readers had trouble understanding without a little help (oh, those pesky modern sensibilities!). Now I’ve got to find some clever way to put those little snippets of facts into the action. Someone can coyly say “oh she’s one of the reluctant nuns,” I suppose, and things of that nature.
Some of that knowledge of the 12th century needs to be in place for the second chapter to go smoothly. So there I sat, looking at Chapter Two as if it were a three-headed monster that had swooped up from under the davenport.
I turned my attention to the travel guide. I thought this would be easy—after all, I’m changing it to a memoir with an appendix full of directions for how to get there. Initially, it wasn’t hard, I plopped the directions into an appendix and then massaged the memoir-style stuff to flow nicely. But then I encountered the interesting tidbits about non-Hildegard things to see in the town. These are interesting! I can’t just lop them off! I can’t make another chapter or appendix for non-Hildegard things, can I? I mean, the memoir must include all the non-Hildegard things I did or it’s not the whole experience.
This led to the horrible question: Does it really have to be accurate? In other words, will anyone really mind if I go out of order, combine several trips into one, skip bits that I think won’t be interesting or add off-topic bits because they’re interesting or funny? (Like the fifteen-foot tall foot and ankle that I encountered outside a library in Mainz. Wouldn’t you be sad if that were missing?)
In the Travel Guide, the feedback of my readers was that the personal vignettes were the best parts. So my excursions around the town, Hildegardian or otherwise, are of interest, right? I mean the theme of the whole book is Hildegard and I plan to teach about her life as I go, but a memoir doesn’t need to be completely focused, does it? Shouldn’t it ramble into my own experience rather more than not?
And the fiction book, well, it’s fiction even though it’s based on history. I want to teach the facts, but it isn’t, after all, an academic exercise. So I have to snuggle the facts in there with the more entertaining aspects of the story. Can I use this technique in the non-fiction book?
I don’t know. I think I’ll go “revise” a closet or something. It’s gotta be easier.
About a month or so ago, my dear friend Mindy came over for dinner. I served the meal in some heavy ceramic bowls that she admired and she asked where I’d gotten them. When I told her that I’d had them for many years, she said “the glass is already broken.”
I was mystified. She explained that in her household, dishes and such tended to break because so many people came trooping through, so she was always on patrol for replacements. She went on to talk about the Buddhist koan “the glass is already broken.” She and I agreed that it seemed to mean that no matter how much sentiment, nostalgia, or monetary value we attribute to things, one day, they will break or otherwise no longer be ours. In the spirit of Buddhist non-ownership and impermanence, it is wise to think of the glass/bowl/cup as already broken.
I did a little thinking about it in the next few days (Mindy is very wise, and she is always saying things that make me think for a few days), and then I forgot about it.
Then, I went to this little meditation group that meets in my neighborhood, and the evening’s koan was “the glass is already broken.” I’d already gone down this path a little ways, so I was delighted to meet my old friend in this way.
Again, I let it resonate for a day or two (I ate out of one of those bowls, too), and then it slipped out of my head.
Last Monday, I sat next to a stranger on a plane. We talked about our jobs, traveling, being vegetarians, his wife’s religious belief in the Great Spaghetti Monster, and had a nice little conversation. And then, out of the blue, he said “the glass is already broken.”
The plane could have dropped out of the sky in that moment and I wouldn’t have noticed.
I had thought that the koan was about the intemperance of things, about falsely associating things with meaning. I had thought that I’d understood what it was supposed to teach me.
In the last week or four, I’ve been feeling general dissatisfaction about some social commitments, some musical endeavors, and about my job. Oh, none of it was new dissatisfaction; it just seemed all to be boiling unpleasantly at the same moment. And in truth, none of those things are incredibly unsatisfying. They’re just going through a cycle of unpleasantness on their ways to being pleasant again.
But this expression, the koan “the glass is already broken” coming out of this unexpected mouth, made me realize that I’d been thinking in terms of physical things themselves, and not really about my own attitude toward them. For me, now anyway, this koan is about false expectations.
I expect to always enjoy my musical endeavors, my social engagements, and because it has been true in the past, I even expect to enjoy my job. But really, life is about change, not about stasis. We grow up, we grow old, pets, people, and plants die, people move away, move up, move on. There is no way to stop any of that, and there’s really no excuse for wanting to stop it.
My job, my social commitments, my musical endeavors—all of these add color to my life. It’s really not reasonable of me to expect them to add meaning. Sometimes they do, and for those times, I am grateful. When they don’t, though, there’s no sense griping about it. Change seems to be the only permanent thing, after all.
Someday, whether I own them or not, those bowls will break.