I have read many books on writing. I keep most of them within reach. The books I’ve been most interested in are not about “instruction,” like grammar and style. I just have this fascination with the inner chamber of writing: what it takes to be authentic and then write “from” that position—essentially, what it takes to condition one’s mind and soul to be bona fide in the first place. We all want that, or we think so. We talk the talk about attaining to that elusive and scandalous self-awareness, a bare flesh on bench, splinter-risking connection with ourselves—dropping the veil on the harem of thoughts and their secret internal society that often control what we think and do. I’ve said this before, to write well is to think well. I’m not talking about correct composition under the stick of “Mrs. Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins,” which many stupidly believe is the holy grail of writing, with the result of prefect Pollyanna prose, often bloated with self-importance and overall embarrassing sermonizing. No. It’s what John Gardner calls a “quality of strangeness” that takes over a writer when in the midst of composition, when the writer takes his or her hands off the wheel and allows the muse to trespass wherever it has to. It’s almost a Jedi thing or a Sufi thing, an annihilation of the ego or the self-conscious self. Brenda Ueland believes it is the confusion between the human ego and Divine presence, how the stilted and trite compose from the former, thinking it is the latter. Creative thought, she says, is like a “little bomb of revelation bursting inside of you.”
When reading and thinking about the creative process long enough, you will hatch some interesting insights that connect with spirituality and the metaphors that are symbolic of an “otherly” order. I’m reading now Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing
. Mailer is no Sufi and, quite frankly, a lot of stuff that I read in the book is about ego (his), but he does offer perceptive comments that relate to this discussion, specifically about metaphor, not in writing per se but the mere existence of metaphor. Mailer relates what a friend says to him: “Metaphor reveals a writer’s true grasp of life. To the degree that you have no metaphor, you have not yet lived much of a life.” What I like about this quote is that it reminds me that metaphor in human life is mercy, a gift from Heaven. Our ability to appreciate and make sense of metaphor is like the “druid dude lifting the veil,” an alternate understanding of existence, amazingly expansive and interesting, that cannot happen without metaphor as a human limb. The Quran calls attention to God’s “signs” that hold meaning far greater than the “sign” itself (which is what a “sign” does). To know that appearance is merely a doorkeeper to something else is a startlingly beautiful addition to our lives. That’s why I call it mercy. And when you write and make use of metaphor, then know that you’re working on something else, not grammar and punctuation.