Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Writing as a Spiritual Discipline . . . no, Really

I was pitching some SKS students on a collaborative spiritual blog, and one of them raised a concern: "I would think that constantly publishing your thoughts would be egotistical, and be counter to an attitude of humility and service." Granted, he had just come back from many months with the brothers at Mepkin Abbey, who probably would find a blog to be somewhat self-aggrandizing. But I wanted to take the question head-on: of what spiritual value is blogging?
  • Public exposure can kill egos as well as create them. Public forums, and constant exposure to your peers, is actually less likely to inculcate intractable egotism than staying isolated. Other people pick up on your egotism far faster than you will . . . and they are usually only too glad to point it out. If your egotistical monologue remains only in your head, it can live their for decades unchecked. But if it expresses itself out in the open, at least it's more likely to be challenged and deflated. This is one of the primary directives in the whole SKS philosophy that Augie Turak has articulated for decades: you need a group of peers in a spiritual search, to provide a check against the untrammelled ego as well as providing general support and fellowship.
  • Some truths only emerge clearly when put into words. I think it was Socrates who said, in essence, "If you can't say it, you don't know it." I have often started blog entries with a firm opinion in mind, only to ditch them halfway because I realized my arguments sucked. I have been accused (usually behind my back) of (gasp) talking too much. Ironicially, it's not necessarily because I think I have a lot to say. Rather, I figure out half of what I'm really thinking by saying it. By blogging, at least, I'm sparing some poor souls the burden of politely listening to my half-baked ideas.
  • People perform better for an audience. Almost all performers (actors, musicians, etc.) will tell you that a good audience makes all the difference in giving a good performance. Audiences can evoke the best in the performance, literally giving them a reason to give their all to the performance. I would never put as much effort into my writing if I didn't know it was actually being read.
  • You actually have a duty to share. You have to share what you've learned with others. That's part of the formula for spiritual enlightenment, according to Augie's teacher Richard Rose, among many others. True, you may only be saying something someone else said, much better, at a different time and place. That really doesn't matter. For someone, it's probably still new, and better than what they heard before.
  • Writing is continuous meditation. Writing makes you engage life more completely. I read more, listen more, think more, reflect more, for the sake of my writing. None of these things is spiritual in and of itself, but the spiritual path is just a continuous attempt to "keep your head on it," to keep your attention focused on the truth.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Go forth and consume

In the first session of a poetry writing class in college, Jerry Barrax asked us, "What are you reading? Who are your favorite poets?" A few students ventured to say that they didn't read much poetry, although they liked to write it. "I'm really not much interested in what you're writing," Jerry said, some edge in his voice. "I'm much more interested in what you're reading. Because if you want to write poetry, you need to read poetry. A lot of poetry. And not just the classics from half a century ago . . . you need to read contemporary poetry. You need to know what your peers are doing."

That stuck with me. Jerry is a poet who believes in craft -- that good writing is much more a matter of skill and experience than inspiration. Nor was Jerry alone in the advice he offered. In a possibly apocrophal story, when J.D. Salinger was last sighted (a truly rare occurrance) by an aspiring writer who asked him for advice, he simply said, "Read." The Pultizer-winning playwright Marsha Norman advised writers to keep their current work relatively private ("Don't talk the play away") but otherwise to read voraciously. "Read at least four hours a day, and don't let anyone ask you why you're doing that instead of writing."

I think the advice could be generalized: if we want to create, we need to consume. If you're writing a blog, you'd better be reading other bloggers . . . and looking for new blogs all the time. If you want to get an online community going, you'd best participate in a bunch of other online communities to see what works and what doesn't. And if you want to create a spiritual community, you'd better see what other spiritual communities are doing. I see (in myself, anyway) the same sort of egotistical parochialism among spiritual seekers that dogs would-be writers. Sometimes we are so sure of our own wisdom that we don't allow ourselves to be educated by a wider world.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Let God sort 'em out

Well, I had a nice neat post prepared to follow up on my post on inclusivity and exclusivity, but Joanna stole most of my thunder. Communities interested in growth and stability should be wide open at the entry-level, but then set and enforce communal standards that make membership ultimately self-selecting.

Another analogy to use (if it doesn't seem to crass in spiritual contexts) is that of sales. (Augie Turak, God bless 'em, is a consummate salesman and the first and last spiritual teacher I've ever found to unabashedly use business language in a spiritual context.) Most businesses try to make it as easy as possible to engage their products; they even come to you to tell you about them, in advertising, phone calls and appointments. At some point, though, potential customers are qualified, and the qualification process usually requires an increased commitment from the prospect (answering more questions, getting on waiting lists, making deposits, undergoing credit checks, etc.) until they finally buy. A community goes through the same process, reaching out widely to new prospective members but eventually going through some kind of qualification process before ultimately demanding a commitment.

Sounds good on paper. But all the art and science of business and culture hangs on where you set those threshholds and standards, and how you communicate and enforce them. You can describe the essential nature of a community by the following factors:
  • How much commitment does it require? Some communities, like a pick-up basketball game, are ephemeral and don't require much commitment at all. Others, like a basketball league, require much more commitment. Usually, greater rewards require greater commitment.
  • How are the standards communicated? Some communities have very explicit standards: written policies, rulebooks, codes of conduct, etc. Others have more implicit expectations: e.g. nobody said you have to bring some food to the party, but it's still expected.
  • How are the standards enforced? Some communities have designated enforcers: authorities that let people in or kick people out, according to explicit or implicit criteria. Others have peer-enforced standards; other members exert pressure to get people to comply. Sometimes standards are enforced explicitly ("Congratulations! You have been admitted to Duke University") or implicitly (you stop getting invitations to the parties.)

Successful communities can be found throughout the spectrums of commitment, communication and enforcement. (If I was more industrious I would give lots more examples, but I will leave it as an exercise for the reader.) But if you're going to try to consciously build a new community, you probably need to figure out where you're going to stand on all these factors.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Inclusivity, Exclusivity

As the SKS beefs up its online presence over the summer, I've been ruminating on inclusivity and exclusivity as factors in building a community. Inclusivity is a value normally associated with the progressive liberal: we want institutions and communities that are inclusive, that don't reject people out of hand, for all the wrong reasons (race, sex, gender, etc.). Inclusivity also happens to be one of those values with a certain amount of theological grounding to it: Jesus made a big deal about accepting those who were rejected, and sweeping aside the usual boundaries for who was worthy of your love and concern. So it seems sensible that a spiritual community (virtual or otherwise) would want to be reaching out and pulling people in. The power of radical inclusivity has been demonstrated by the likes of the Wikipedia. By rejecting all notions of "who's an expert," and letting the masses participate to whatever extent they feel like, the Wikipedia has become a staggeringly huge resource of scholarship, comparable in quality to the "exclusive" club of Britannica authors and vastly bigger.

"On the other hand . . ." (as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof might say) we are hard-put to define a community that has any meaning at all unless we draw certain boundaries. When examining the unbridled, innocent liberalism of his parents, Barack Obama's critique was: "If everyone is family, then no one is family." In a world of limited resources (especially our time and attention), we have to make value decisions, and that inevitably leads us to put some people ahead of others. St. Paul did an awful lot of work to cultivate the standards of the early Christian community. The Christians were supposed to love everyone, but they were supposed to really love (and help) their fellow believers. Exclusive standards exist in every major institution -- education, business, politics -- to insure that you don't waste your time on people who are not equally committed to the same values and goals that you are. Exclusivity is demonstrated in other online phenomena, such as social networks: we still pick our friends and mates, and we like to think that's a pretty exclusive club.

So how to we synthesize inclusivity and exclusivity as real values? I still don't have the answer, but I suspect the meta-rules for inclusivity and exclusivity do exist and are active in all communities. More on this later.


Tuesday, May 15, 2007

High Concept

The technology section of yesterday's Wall Street Journal blared, "How to be a Star in a YouTube World." That's a nice hook -- everyone who does anything online is trying to find the magic combination of factors that makes a website, blog, video series, podcast, etc. find an audience. And therein is the secret -- the hook.

In a world of infinite options, with a text-based search engine to sift through it, popularity (or at least instant popularity) belongs to the describable. You want to rise high in Google merely on the virtue of your content? You'd better have the right keywords that describe exactly what you are, so that someone can read approximately twenty words of text and decide to click. You want to get a buzz going in the social networks? You need to be easily talked about. People don't rave about things they can't describe.

Having a hook is a gift to the clever marketer, and also the doom of subtlty. I have been perpetually frustrated that the most incredibly valuable things fail to get popular, because they don't neatly fit into the mental categories to facilitate easy description. Augie Turak is an incredible spiritual teacher, psychologist, and philosopher . . . and yet he doesn't get nearly as much press as he deserves. Part of it, I'm sure, is that he's complex and subtle, so much so that a market agent wouldn't quite know what shelf to put his book on. He's definitely not New Age . . . but he's not traditional religious "inspirational" either. He's not a Buddhist, although much of his philosophy is described as "Zen." He's not exactly Christian, in spite of his powerful award-winning essay about the monks of Mepkin Abbey. He's a businessman, but his philosophy transcends business. What Google AdWords are you going to buy for that?

More significantly, his is a challenging philosophy, in the literal sense. He gives people headaches. He kicks them in them in the ass. It might be the best kick in the ass you ever get . . . but people don't burble excitedly on MySpace when they get their heads handed to them. Usually they just sulk. He is similar to Kierkegaard in that respect -- tremendous thinker, super-influential, but he didn't make any friends in the Church for the sake of his scathing critiques of the prevailing apathy in so-called spiritual communities.

It also has implications for my own blog, as well. Abandon Text! was literally the first thing that popped into my head. Now that I'm finding some direction and motivation to do an explicitly spiritually-oriented blog, some rebranding is in order. Stay tuned.


Monday, May 14, 2007

On the Waterfront

Since Marlon Brando appears in two films that are long-standing part of SKS fare -- Apocalypse Now and The Godfather -- I figured it made sense to go back and watch his earlier stuff. We watched On the Waterfront, the 1954 classic about a washed-up boxer standing up to a corrupt union boss.

Everyone remembers "I coulda been a contenda," and it is a great scene, when Terry Malloy confronts his older brother about their shared compromises. Brando is very convincing as a sensitive brute, miles ahead of King Kong and other shlocky attempts to make the less-civilized morally superior. Ahh, that was in a time when films dared to be more subtle, when men could have touchingly intimate scenes with nary a hug, and every drop of romantic tension had to be squeezed from the heroine's lovely face, since the only on-screen consummation would be a kiss.

What stuck with me was a scene much less commented on, when one of Terry's young friends kills off all of pigeons Terry had cared for since the death of their owner, another man who broke the omerta. "A pigeon for a pigeon!" he cries, crying and visibly heartbroken. There was almost more pathos in the murder of a few birds than in the death of Terry's own brother. The slaughter of innocents by an innocent, in the name of a morally bankrupt code of silence . . . now that's complex. Perhaps the boy did it willingly, feeling utterly betrayed by his hero . . . or perhaps he did it reluctantly, afraid to be associated so closely with a turncoat. We don't know; Terry says simple, "Aw, what he have to do that for?" His sympathy is not (thank God) merely for the birds, but rather for the loss of the boy's innocence, the making of another sensitive brute. That scene is the moral pivot-point for the whole movie, more so than even his decision to testify in court. "I'm gonna go down there, and get my rights." That's when he goes past knee-jerk notions of loyalty and finds real principle. That's the moment when he transcends mere revenge and moves into self-sacrifice.

Ah, sacrifice. What with the priest's impassioned speech in the hold of ship, calling a stoolie's death "a crucifixion," I thought for sure that Terry was not long for this world. It wasn't clear, by Hollywood storytelling standards, whether Terry was culpable enough in the mob killings to deserve to die, but with so much Christ-like prefiguring I thought it was a sure thing he'd go down. He does get sold by the mob, a scourging by the soldiers, a stumbling walk on the way to redemption . . . but miraculous resurrection instead of death.


Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Essential Mom

What makes a good mom? We might as well talk about "what makes a good person" . . . but still, there are some essential things a good mother does:
  • Set the expectation for how the world will treat us. While we come into the world with lots of our own nature, we do not come into the world with any self-concept. The way we learn to think of ourselves is the way we are regarded by our mothers. It's the only model we have. My mother gave us the most remarkable thing, which was her time. We sensed it when we were young, but I've grown to know it as I became older: my mother could do anything she wanted to do . . . but she chose to spend her time on us. And she pretty much expected us to be the same way. I grew up really believing I could do most anything, too. Sure, I had my share of neurosis as well (if you could do anything, you better not screw it up) but that seems a small price to pay for confidence-at-the-core.
  • Set the template for all human relationships. The relationship with your mother is the first relationship you ever have. It is the template upon which all other relationships are based. Ours was not a very touchy-feely, intimate sort of home, but there was a prevailing sense of respect and dignity. We were spoken to with respect, and we freely gave it back. I wasn't even aware of it until I was at a friend's house and I saw him behave like a total ass to his mother. I remember thinking, "I would never treat my mother that way," closely followed by, "Nor would she ever stand for it." My mom cultivated an iron-fist-in-silk-glove reputation, or what Augie would describe as: "She's a really, really nice person; just don't piss her off." That basic attitude -- to be fair to all, but nobody's doormat -- is still my ideal (though temperamentally I'm much softer than that, for all my occasional shrillness.)
  • Set the example for how to meet the world. Our parents' ways become our own. Both may parents are paragons of frugality and ingenuity, a sort of Depression-era MacGyver. I prefer to do for myself, and when I can't to do without. I save money rather than spend it. Middle-class to our bones, we are embarrassed by extravagence, unless it is particularly clever extravagence. We have faith in work.

So, what do mothers do? They are, quite literally, our World. How we see ourselves, others, and the whole of existence begins in that one essential relationship.

I think mine did a pretty good job.

Labels: ,