The Power of Contemplation

I was watching an interview recently where Pulitzer Prize winning author, Junot Diaz was asked if he had any advice for young writers.  True to Junot, he initially scoffed at the question, making no qualms about his disdain for such a clichéd question.  However, his disdain seemed to stem from his resentment of the professionalization of the writing craft... as if artist as a profession was like professionalizing one's humanity or thought or thirst.  He said, "There is nothing about our craft that needs to be pursued with such Talmudic concentration. But what does need to be pursued in our culture, which does everything to discourage us, is a passionate engagement with the world." He concluded, looking out into the audience and resting his eyes on the young question-asker, "The "you" that spends most of her life living not writing will be the "you" that writes the books I want to read."

I thought a great deal about those words in the days that followed.  Words, speech, or any communicative art form has a way of satisfying your thoughts in a way you didn't know they needed to be.  The quote soundtracked something I had been feeling for quite awhile.  I always felt my best writing followed a truly contemplative period.  Those periods where the world had smacked me around and I needed to make sense of it.  Or, maybe not so much make sense of it but figure out how I felt about it.  Those periods where I felt so deeply passionate about something or someone that I needed to give birth to something more than touch, or tears or anger... When my brother died, I needed to see it, in splashes of black ink beneath my fingertips or collections of letters against a white computer screen.  It made my feelings tangible... present... real. Even in fiction, I find escape.  I'm still there... just disguised, and pretty, and hiding in those in between spaces.  That need... to create... feels so intrinsically weaved into who I am, it is part of my human experience, like thought or thirst.

It's interesting that the young writer asked because I suppose the real question is how do we make "creating" our careers?  How can passionate engagement with the world and the product of that engagement sustain you? How do we become one of the lucky few that avoids the mind numbing ache of 9-5 realities, awkward elevator rides, and 30-year mortgages? I think the torture in being a writer, or any artist, is the urgency with which that desire consumes you.  It gnaws at you like a hunger pain or dirty sore.  There are days where my mind feels frantic.  Like my muse is pounding at the door, rattling my thoughts. Especially these days where my social, moral and cultural outrage seems fueled by my Facebook feed and i-Phone. This beautiful, flawed, unjust world is right at my fingertips, and I'm feeling some kind of way about it.  About it all. And I want to retreat with my words and some tea and the abundance of love I give and receive for every meal.  It's all I want.  Not the 9-5 or crummy elevator rides or 30-year mortgages.

But I wonder if the parts of my life that I'd rather not experience are a part of the contemplation.  If they are a part of that space before the art comes.  That place before its great.  What if "passionate engagement" comes not from getting everything that you want but getting a healthy dose of what you don't want.  How can I write about the beauty of feeling loved without knowing what it feels to be hated?  How can I fantasize about freedom without knowing what it feels to be caged?  How can I know the value of gratitude without loss? Maybe what Junot was saying... or what I'm going to decide Junot was saying (because let's face it, only Junot knows), is that we need to experience the ride.  Not just get through it.  But taste it.  In all its bitter and sweet.  In all its rotten and fresh.  The beauty in the breakdown.  I mean, whether you are able to professionalize your art or not, that kind of experience births wisdom.  And wisdom quenches the thirst of my art better than a dollar ever did.

Eh. Maybe Junot was just talking about reading. Young writers should always do more of that.

Love and Light,


  1. Thirty-year mortgages, awkward elevator rides, and work responsibilities will always take their places front and center as the realities of life. I can only imagine what a struggle this is for writers when conflicted with the burning desire to put pen to paper and let those all-consuming thoughts bursts forth. I wish I could write and let my thoughts explode.
    In today's NYTimes Book Review of David Grossman's book, Falling Out Of Time, he writes how there is no place to go when you've lost a child.You are wounded by disaster, forever bereft."There is no there, there is no there, and even if I walk for all of time I will not get there, not alive." The review: " ...A special kind of sorrow. Some people bear a loss that seems unbearable, and yet it must be endured. It is unacceaptable, and yet it must be accepted."
    Although I don't think that Junot was talking about the beauty in experiencing overwhelming, claustrophobic grief, it helps to read someone else's brave, insightful words about understanding the memories now wedded to pain.


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