By Brent R. Oliver
Writing has always been a bitch for me.
It’s painstakingly arduous and, even after decades of practice, thoughtful reflection, and reams of crumpled-up paper, I still come up with phrases like “painstakingly arduous.” What is wrong with me? I’m a writer, that’s what, and this shit is hard.
Awhile back, I saw a quote that Ty Phillips, co-founder of this here bad-ass website, posted on his Facebook page. Despite never having met, he and I are fantastic digital buddies and I happened to see the quote, which went through me like a bullet. The words were attributed to Thomas Mann and, in order, they said “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
Writing is probably always going to be hard for me. So hard, in fact, that I never would have come up with the pithy little quote Mr. Mann created. I just would have kept pounding inelegantly at my keyboard, cranking out my laborious prose and trying desperately to express this aggravation.
Despite this, I like writing. There’s satisfaction and glory to be had even if the odds are against it. 50% of everything I write is flaming garbage. 30% is usable after hours of Jägermeister-fueled rewrites. 10% is sort of funny and passable, if a tad juvenile and vulgar. Five percent is truly inspired and the last five percent is just pure fucking gold.
Those stats suck. It takes a lot of work to be mediocre at this and maintain the level of poverty I’ve grown accustomed to.
Writing has actually gotten harder over the years, even as I’ve gotten better at it. I feel like I’ve found my voice, which is deeply important, but I’m still not sure what I want to use it to say. And knowing how you want to say something but not exactly what or why is hellish.
I thought I might use it to destroy Western Buddhism, at first. To take apart this left-wing, starry-eyed, gentle-voiced, idiot colossus we’ve allowed to be built here. But that seemed like a task beyond my skills. The annihilation of something that big is too much for me. So I settled for making fun of it, which is undeniably churlish.
Then I thought I might save Western Buddhism—inject my ideas into it, pep it up, get its pulse racing and its genitals stirring. But I realized that’s far beyond my skill level (not as a writer, but as a Buddhist). I’m going to need a lot more dedicated practice on my side before I have anything resembling wisdom to add to this.
Right now, all I’ve got is rebellion, which is indeed useful. But without direction and aptitude, it’s just empty shouting. Turning Western Buddhism around is still on the agenda, I just need to become a much better Buddhist before I do it.
In that vein, I’m obviously not a teacher. At some point, after I’ve become more a bodhisattva and less an asshole, I’d like my writing to help people with their practice. Maybe I can guide them along the dharma a bit and help them find footing on the path. That’s been my goal ever since I discovered Buddhism. I just didn’t realize the bodhisattva:asshole ratio would take so long to reverse in my case.
So instead, I’ve been mostly writing about my own personal experiences (mostly failures) with Buddhism. Instead of using sagacity and knowledge to inspire, I rely on my humor to entertain—kind of a “what not to do on the path” sort of thing. I don’t feel like I’m scholarly enough or a seasoned enough Buddhist to offer specific guidance to anyone, so I’m just telling my stories.
That still doesn’t make this stuff any easier. As far as the personal what and why behind my writing, “just telling stories” is a pretty vague basis. I feel like there’s a core of importance to what I’m doing, as arrogant and swaggering as that sounds. But I’ve been through some shit in this life, both with and without the dharma to guide me, and I’m still breathing.
If my experiences can save someone else the pain of my mistakes, or show them a different way, or even just lighten their load with laughter, that’s not insignificant. And that’s why this is all terrifying.
Any writer will tell you the scariest thing is sitting down at the computer with uncertainty twisting your belly. What if you can’t say it right? What if you spend hours crafting your prose, sculpting each sentence, carving emotions out of the words, only to find out you haven’t expressed it all? Nothing you’ve written even comes close to getting your point across.
If what I’m doing is going to be important, I have to be able to articulate my ideas in a way that others can easily understand. Every time I write a story, or essay, or critique, the words have to line up and deliver their message unequivocally.
I’m about to do a piece on my time at a Shambhala Buddhist meditation center where I was a work-study resident for two months in 2001. It’s been kicking around my head for weeks but I’ve only just discovered why I want to write it and what it is I’m saying. But the fear is still there. If I don’t manage to express the isolation, alienation and frustration of living there, then the story is just for a few childish giggles.
The core of relevance I want so badly to expose will stay hidden behind the churning paragraphs and riotous anxiety.
So, yeah. For me, being a writer means writing is fucking hard. But being a Buddhist means I have an option to use that talent for something significant. It’s just challenging to get to that significance. It’s like peeling the world’s worst onion: on the surface, there’s suffering. Under that, it’s mostly dick jokes. And beneath the dick jokes is uncertainty. Under that is nervousness, then worry, then tension. But once you dig through all the smelly layers, there’s something worth seeing.
Maybe. Wait, is that an onion or an avocado?
Editor: Dana Gornall
Brent is a coach in Shinzen Young’s Unified Mindfulness system because it’s just such an approach. He works with individuals interested in everything from alleviating stress to pursuing classical enlightenment. He also coaches groups, and offers presentations to companies, schools, and organizations curious about the benefits of mindfulness. In addition to being a columnist at The Tattooed Buddha, Brent’s writing has also appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and Morpheus. He lives in Lexington, KY with his wife, two cats, and a crippling addiction to horror. Swing by his website BrentOliverMindfulness.com for more information.
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