Zen and the art of writing (or not)

Panel on Writer's Block at Phoenix Comicon 2015. Photo by Lejon A. Johnson

Panel on Writer’s Block at Phoenix Comicon 2015. Photo by Lejon A. Johnson

I attended Phoenix Comicon last weekend. My write-up from last year was more thorough than this one will be, but I did make some interesting observations while sitting in at some of the writing panels. First, they were rather good panels (not always a given at conventions), well managed and moderated (thanks to the PhxCC staff), and featured well-spoken and insightful guests (including my friend Jamie Wyman, whom I was delighted to support). They stayed pretty well on topic and offered some helpful advice. They also afforded me the opportunity to do something I hate to say I needed to do: practice the art of letting go.

I’ve written before about how my writing career has slipped a bit from its more promising past; in fact, I wrote that post after asking to be on the author programming for last year’s Comicon and being turned down. Authors with major new books were in the running for the few availible slots. Midlisters who had just thrown one more random manuscript into the self-publishing ring, not so much. “Has-been” was the word I used. So this year I didn’t even bother asking. I told myself I was just going to relax, have fun, do some cosplay,* and show up at some panels to support my friend Jamie.

Then I found myself mentally answering all the questions being posed to the panelists, and feeling more and more bitter that I wasn’t up there answering them out loud.

Here comes the part about Buddhism. Technically, I’m studying the Shambhala tradition, not Zen, but the basics are the same: we cause our own problems, or magnify our existing ones, with our desire for things to be different than the way they are. One way we do this, particularly when confronted with an unpleasant emotion, is to buffer ourselves from feeling it by distracting ourselves with a storyline.** We tell ourselves a story about how things should be different, sometimes finding someone to blame for why things didn’t happen the way we wanted, or fretting and analyzing to figure out how to fix them.

This is pretty much what I was doing in the first of those panels: feeling an unpleasant loss of the potential I had ten years ago, feeding myself a storyline about how I could – and maybe should – be up there on that panel still, wracking my brain to figure out what the hell went wrong with my career so that I wasn’t up there, and suffering more and more by getting increasingly bitter.

So how do you stop? Here’s the big secret: there is no big secret. You just stop, and when you start obsessing again you stop again, and then again, and gradually try to train your brain away from obsessing and toward accepting things the way they are. There are more Buddhist traditions and variants on meditation practice than I can count, but generally speaking, Buddhist meditation is not a transcendental practice. You’re not trying to reach anything outside of yourself; you’re trying to learn to live with yourself, to accept whatever comes up in your mind and then gently pull it back to the present.

That’s what I tried to do in the next panels: to drop the storyline, let go of my continual desire to turn the clock back to before I was a has-been, and listen to what the panelists were saying. To appreciate their words and to support my friend. And when my attention drifted and the storyline started up again, to bring my focus back. And back again.

So what do I do now? Write what makes sense to write now, what I really feel drawn to, not what I desperately hope will restore my career. I might have to figure out what that will be. Poetry can be a good option; my poems are always the most popular posts on this site, and they give me a great opportunity to discover and interact with other poets who visit. And I’ll try to be aware of new possibilities as they open up. (Edit: two days after drafting this post, a new possibility did open up. It’s very tentative still; more details to come.) But my writing life won’t look anything like it did ten years ago, and I’ve finally realized just what it means to accept that.

**”Storyline” is the way it’s phrased by Pema Chodron, a delightful writer who’s a great resource if you want to learn more.

* The cosplay, anyway, was kind of awesome:

Photo from the free photo booth 5/30/15

We steampunked Iron Man and Black Widow. Photo from the free photo booth 5/30/15

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