This past week I took what I’ve come to call a Well Week, which is basically a week where I’m entirely focused on filling my creative well. I engage in projects and activities that will spark my imagination, inspire me, rejuvenate me, and hopefully leave me more excited than ever to write. For example, I took a workshop in reading the tarot for creativity, read and wrote poetry, and danced in my living room. This was my second attempt at a well week this year (2017 being my inaugural year of well-weeking) and while I worked out some of the kinks from the first one, it left a lot to be desired. More on this in my next post. However, one of my highlights of the week was a creative activity that ended up being indicative of the week’s unexpected central theme of surrendering: I drew a mandala. If you’re unfamiliar with what a mandala is, this is an example:
Mandalas are ancient Buddhist and Hindu symbols that can have various meanings depending on the symbols and designs, but one of the overarching ones is that they represent the cosmos in whole. Mandalas are gorgeous, intricate, painstakingly created works of art encoded with sacred symbols and intention. The possibility of making one myself has appealed to me ever since I learned about the sand mandalas Tibetan monks make. Their mandalas are a meditation on impermanence: made of sand, these mandalas naturally lack the permanence of a mandala that is painted or carved. But the monks go a step further: in order to bring the lesson home that nothing is permanent, not even ourselves (over the course of seven years, all the cells in your body will entirely regenerate!), they destroy the mandala after they make it. When you consider the amount of time, effort, and talent that goes into making these, it’s an almost painful thing to contemplate. Some mandalas can take weeks to create, with the monks spending hours each day creating the image drop of sand by drop of sand.
There’s actually a great episode of House of Cards where Tibetan monks make a mandala in the White House over the course of several days, which demonstrates the practice really well. (Side note: mandalas are a great way to remember that Trump won’t be President forever *cue sigh of relief*).
I went into this activity for a few reasons. One, it was creative and would force me out of my comfort zone (I struggle with stick figures). Two, it’s a meditative experience that I hoped would usher me into a flow state and force me to just be in the present moment for a bit. More than that, though, I really wanted to learn the lesson of impermanence. I’m currently going through an experience that I can only describe—with no attempt at eloquence—as Writer Hell, and part of this journey has involved me writing tens of thousands of words that I’ve had to throw out. As in, two entire books’ worth of words. 13K into the third attempt at the book, and I’m pretty sure I have to throw those out too. This goes beyond ‘kill your darlings’ — this is more like, ‘kill yourself.’ Over two years of my life has ended up on a literary guillotine and everything inside me is kicking and screaming, refusing to go down without a fight. It doesn’t matter how many tarot cards I pull that essentially say, Girl, take a break. I am desperately trying to find a way into this story that works and until the very last day of my Well Week, was slightly paralyzed, unsure how to move forward, knowing I can’t go back. I’ll leave it at that, since I’ll be blogging about this in my next post, but now perhaps you can see why a lesson in impermanence—one that is beautiful and positive and sacred—was in order. The purpose of creating the mandala was to get to a place where I could happily destroy it, prepared to accept and even welcome the destruction through the process of creation. The purpose of my novel, however, is most certainly not to destroy it.
Or maybe it is.
I’ve come to start thinking about this book as a teacher—a really fucking sadistic teacher, but one who is forcing me out of…something. It’s trying to open my eyes, to push me, to enact a change upon my creative functions….I don’t know. I can’t see the lesson right now. I just know that, for whatever reason, I’m writing these words and deleting them in order to discover something about myself, my writing, my career…something. You could argue that I’ve been a student of impermanence for years now. My first two novels—both of which I spent years writing and revising and submitting—received countless rejections. As I grew in my craft and understanding of my genre, I came to accept that these books were my starter novels—projects where I was basically learning how to write a novel—and so they ended up in the proverbial drawer. I came to terms with this pretty easily, actually, because I was enmeshed in other projects that I was much more excited about. And I recognized their significance in my journey, clearly seeing the role they played. But here…I’m not entirely certain where I went wrong. And I hope to God I don’t have to go through this too much longer in order to find out.
So: mandala. I sat down and did this online workshop, then continued on my own in between each segment of the online workshop, listening to the new Lorde album as I drew. Eventually, I ended up with this:
Note the mess of multiple colors in the center. This was not on the video, nor was it my attempt to enact my own unique artistic vision on the mandala. Nope: this is where Heather got frustrated—very early on in the process, I might add. I couldn’t see what the design was going to be, had no idea where I was going (much like my work-in-progress) and I became convinced I’d done it wrong and that I didn’t have the materials and ability to make it look cool, anyway. I almost started over entirely, but, shit, I’ve had to do that so much with my writing, I couldn’t bear it. I forged on, eventually seeing the intricacy of the final design take shape and seeing that I’d been too hasty in assuming what I was making was a disaster. There are many creatives lessons embedded within all of this, but let’s move onto the destruction of the mandala. So, I made the thing. I let it sit on my desk for a couple days, and then I destroyed. Voilà:
Because I knew from the get-go that this baby wasn’t sticking around, I was totally okay with destroying it. It would have been harder if I’d thought my mandala was totally amazing-looking, but still, I’d spent so much time on it! And ruined one of my Sharpies! Tearing it up was strange, but it felt like a bit of a purge to—a catharsis. Look: it was gone and the world was still standing. And the next one I’d make would be better. And equally impermanent.
My books will go out of print someday. Maybe someday soon. And my words might not stick around too long after I’m gone. This is hard to accept. As an artist, I want my work to stand the test of time, I want it to matter on a cosmic level, and it’s a painful process, recognizing that all of it—the stories, the characters, the effort and rewards, the physical books themselves—will all fade away. I hope they fulfill their purpose while they’re around, however long that is: to open my readers up to themselves and help them get in touch with their imaginations and what it means to be human. As they say in the military, “hearts and minds.” My hope is that this understanding of impermanence will help me to lighten up a bit as I work, to hold on less tightly, and to accept when it’s time to let go. To surrender. I’m trying to get there with this manuscript (next post!) and this was a great first step.
As I write this, I’m reminded of the tattoo I got last year of an ouroboros, an ancient symbol of a snake eating its tale. Here’s an example:
It can mean many things, but one of the aspects of it I like is that the figure represents the never-ending cycle of creation and destruction. It’s taken a year, but perhaps the ink is finally starting to settle deeper into my skin.
I’m curious: how many of you had to step away from a project? What lessons of impermanence has writing taught you? How did you heal and move forward?