Another day, another writing dilemma

So this happened. Photo from ADOT via KPHO

So this happened. Photo from ADOT via KPHO

Is every writer’s blog a collection of dilemmas? More to the point, does everyone repeat themselves the way I do? (I’m guessing the answer is Yes.) This time I’m revisiting the question of how a creative person – particularly a writer, who has to stay tied up in words – can follow a practice like Buddhism, which is all about letting go, and particularly letting go of words.

Here’s a particularly striking example of the impact words have. See all that fire on the road in the image? Yeah – I was driving through that last week as I was coming home from work. I’m in the process of drafting another post about this incident for the blog on the Phoenix Shambhala Meditation Center site, where I periodically contribute. Here’s how I’m describing the incident for that post:

I was driving home from work after closing that night when I saw what appeared to be a police barricade near the freeway exit I was headed toward. Some people turned around but three of us kept going to see where the closure was and if we could still get on the freeway. Then a truck came toward us, on the wrong side of the street, on fire. We kept going until we were able to turn off on a side street, which allowed us to backtrack and avoid the burning truck and the police. I got home safely over surface streets.

Nice and calm, right? I was actually surprised at how calm I was, but really, there was nothing I could do differently. Can’t control the cops, can’t control the burning truck. Nothing to do but follow the line of cars to the nearest turnoff and get the hell out of the way. Then I found a safe route and went home. End of story.

I’ll give you a minute to start laughing. End of story? I’m a writer – it’s never the end of the story!

Here comes the Buddhism part: One of the most popular modern teachers on the subject is Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun who’s so widely read she’s made appearances on Oprah. One of Chödrön’s best-known teachings is about dropping the storyline – that mental rumination and obsession that accompanies most of our emotions, and which actually boosts them and creates more suffering than they would have caused otherwise. (And Buddhism, after all, is about relieving suffering.) Here’s a brief example of how that happens:

Pete has a wonderful open quality and a great sense of humor, but when he’s having one of his meltdowns, he temporarily loses all his brilliance and lets the storyline take over, as in: “My younger brother gets everything and I never get anything.” – from Taking the Leap by Pema Chödrön

And here’s my example. As I was driving down the road, safely away from the burning truck and the road closure, I started imagining how I’d tell the story to other people. See if you notice a difference:

So I’m driving down Kyrene toward the freeway Thursday night after work and I see all these police cars in the northbound lane. I figure there’s a road closure up ahead but it’s too far away for me to see if it’s before or after the freeway, if I’ll still be able to get on. A lot of people make U-turns and head back, but about three of us keep driving forward. The cops keep coming on the other side of the street, so we all pull over as far to the right as we can, and that’s when we see that there’s a GIANT TRUCK ON FIRE heading toward us on the wrong side of the street. Like, right toward us! There’s something wrong with its tires and the driver isn’t navigating really well, but I’m really hoping he’ll get out of the way and BACK TO HIS FREAKING SIDE OF THE STREET. The three of us who are still driving slow way down and hug the curb as close as we can and the truck passes us on the left – I can feel the heat coming off the truck, and I had to check my car when I got home to make sure nothing scorched or melted – and finally we get to a side street where we can turn. Except it’s not a through street, just a little road to access the parking lot of a big shopping center. The guy in front of me U-turns in the access road, staring out his window, eyes bugging out, like he’s not sure what to do now. I just turn into the parking lot, since I’m pretty sure it runs all the way up to Chandler Blvd and I can get out there. I’m driving down the lot and I see a guy running through, on foot, with police dogs chasing him. I don’t know where the hell he came from** but he’s waving at the cops trying to get them to call off the dogs. A cop car comes rolling down the parking lot toward him, and I pull over to let him go by. The cop is more interested in the guy on foot than he is in me, so I start going again, and finally I get to the north end of the parking lot, and out on Chandler Blvd. The cops have closed Kyrene entirely south of Chandler by this point, but I’m out of the way of the closure now, I can take a breath, and I can get home and not worry about the GIANT BURNING TRUCK anymore.

Something very interesting happened as I was reciting all this in my head. Remember how I was so calm before? I wasn’t calm anymore. My heart started beating faster. I started getting agitated. Nothing had changed – the incident was behind me, the cops were handling it, and I was safely on my way home – but all of a sudden I was ten times as worked up as I’d been a few minutes earlier, and all because of this storyline I’d started reciting in my head.

Here’s the dilemma – writers need this ability. The craft of writing isn’t just about putting plots together and describing scenes. We have to be able to generate emotions through words, to communicate those emotions to readers, to do exactly what I did by rewriting the burning truck story and changing it from a neutral news report to a heart-pounding adventure. And yet, this is the exact process that catches our minds and generates more suffering if we let ourselves be carried away by it.

When I wrote about this before, one of the meditation instructors at the Shambhala Center made a comment, to the effect that we need to meditate when we’re meditating, and write when we’re writing. Which is basically another tenet of Buddhism: to be present in each moment when you’re there, not reliving some past moment or obsessing about some future moment.

So here’s your writing lesson: Write when you’re writing. Keep an eye out for material that you can use to amp up the emotion in your writing. But maybe if you’re dealing with a burning truck on the road, wait until you’re safely away from it to start imagining how you’d tell the story.

** As it turns out, this is the guy who