Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Cloud of Unknowing & Ollie Ollie Oxen Free

One of my favorite books is The Cloud of Unknowing,
by an unknown mystic from the 14th century.
It's a gentle & charming work meant to
"guide the reader in the path of contemplation."
It's sort of a manual addressed to a student
from a teacher on the ways of spiritual awakening.
Though it's aimed at a Christian audience, and deals
specifically with meditation on God, it always relaxes
& inspires me in my writing. It somehow frees up
my novelist soul to see life, myself & art in strangely
liberating & refreshing ways.

What the author suggests to the student about seeking
God through contemplation fits right in with seeking
truth through fiction:

"For the love of God, then, be careful & do not imprudently
strain yourself in this work. Rely more on joyful enthusiasm
than on sheer brute force. For the more joyfully you work,
the more humble & spiritual your contemplation becomes,
whereas when you morbidly drive yourself, the fruits will
be gross & unnatural....

"I speak half playfully now, but try to temper the loud, crude
sighing of your spirit & pretend to hide your heart's
longing from the Lord. Perhaps you will scorn this as childish
& frivolous, but believe me, anyone who has the light to understand
what I mean & the grace to follow it will experience, indeed, the
delight of the Lord's playfulness....

"Do not be put off if I seem to speak childishly & foolishly
& as if I lacked sound judgment. I do so purposely, for I
believe that the Lord has inspired me over the last few days
to think & feel as I do & to tell some of my other good friends
what I tell you now.

"One reason I have for advising you to hide your heart's desire
from God is because when you hide it I think he actually sees it
more clearly....

"For now you realize that to hide something purposely
is to cast it deep into your spirit."

This is why the unconscious, dreams, the forgotten crossroads
of childhood, coincidence, shreds of overheard conversations
are treasure troves of inspiration for writing for me.
What is most important & fruitful is what's hidden and quiet,
not what's on the surface jumping up & down & howling for attention.

For example, for me, choosing a subject for a novel is really
being chosen by the subject. This seems to be an obstacle for a lot
of writers--finding something important & deep & big enough to write
a novel about that is going to keep them invigorated over the long haul
of the book.

Rather than hunting down the subject like Elmer Fudd
chasing a scared rabbit with his shotgun, crashing
through the bushes & squawking like a foghorn, hide
from the subject, quietly, playfully, and let it
come to you in its time, calling "Ollie Ollie Oxen Free."

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