In a bit of synchronicity, at the same time that I was posting Karl Marlantes’ thoughts on violence and compassion, I heard a recording of the bard and visionary thinker Terence McKenna in which he said that writing a novel is a good way to show yourself “that you can put yourself into the mind of the mother giving birth, the fascist interrogating a prisoner, the child at play, the gangster plotting the advance of career . . . [to show yourself] that the human experience is open to you.” He goes on to say, in a remark reminiscent of Suzuki’s words, that the ability to write a novel is often a sign that the author has “dissolved their boundaries”, as witnessed by the fact that they can move beyond themselves to occupy other points of view.
It doesn’t require much speculation to see that writing novels can be a way—for the wordier among us, at least—to meditate on the interdependence of all beings, and by extension to practice compassion. Many of the novels we call great demonstrate these qualities. The best novelists are acute observers of human nature and attuned psychologists—consider Austen, Eliot, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Undset, Forester, James, to name just a few.
Someday I will write a novel. When I do, it will be for myself alone; on second thought, perhaps I’ll do as Buddhists do with their meditation practice and dedicate the time spent writing “to all beings.” I’ll undertake it as a playful practice bound to afford a man like me (who has no evident talent as a storyteller) novel pleasures, so to speak. Besides the fun of it, I relish the prospect of suspending my own instincts, reactions, opinions, and judgments for the sake of vividly imagining other ways of being in the world, for the sake of grokking what it’s like to be in other people’s skin and leading their lives.
It’s no wonder that good fiction writers, practiced in this artful suspension, often report that along the way their characters start thinking and acting in ways that surprise them. It’s as though the author begins with the barest sketch and then simply records his observations, looking on as his characters flesh themselves out and come to life, body and soul. Most of us have had the wonderful and peculiar experience of insights and ideas occurring to us unbidden, seemingly out of nowhere; but it must be something else to watch as your own characters find their own voices and go about their lives, often with little direction from their author. Like a dream.
Anyway, when I do get around to writing that novel, I think I’ll do as a friend of mine did and join a support group formed by people who’ve pledged they’ll write their novel from start to finish in 30 days. You may think 30 days is too short a time to write a decent novel, and you’re right. But that’s the beauty of it: the time limit helps you give up any pretensions that you’ll be writing anything worth reading. This is hugely liberating. With no time to write a good novel, you’re free to focus on telling a story with rough-hewn characters acting in that world pieced together from your imagination, from what observations, empathy, and compassion you’ve gathered from your life experience, and from your Muse—should you be lucky enough to have one visit during those 30 days.