A few hands gather to release a floating candle into the dark night sky

“Let it go! Let it go!”

Years ago I coached a Buddhist priest in the development of his memoir.  Unlike most beginners, Sensei V (as I’ll Christen him) cranked out a crummy but exceedingly workable rough draft in no time flat.  Plagued by none of the usual hang-ups (self doubt, insecurity about “not being a real writer,” despair at how terrible his writing was, the inability to launch or sustain a daily writing practice, debilitating concern for what others would think), Sensei V confidently handed me the manuscript and asked, “What next?” 

I was impressed.  Here was beginner’s mind in action.  His hours sitting zazen were paying off.

“Revision,” I responded. 

A workable draft is one that’s easy to rip apart at the seams, rearrange, eliminate parts and insert new material without fear of ruining it.  You can recognize the gaping holes; you can glimpse the work’s emergent unity beyond your initial intentions and the inadequacies of your craft.  Early revision asks of writers a humility few of us are prepared for.  We must release our attachments to what we’ve written, despite the sweat and blood we’ve already sacrificed for this project; we need to let go even of our hopes for the project to labor in service of what is.  “To be a writer means, perhaps, exactly this,” Sarah Porter writes: “Surrendering the defined, expressible self to the wider possibilities of the page.”

Given Sensei V’s remarkable start, I took a no-holds-barred approach.  He needed to fix the mess he’d made of chronology.  Significant scenes he’d summarized had to be dramatized—I taught him to “show”.  If he wanted to bring readers into the full grace of Buddhist practice, as he intended, a blow-by-blow record of his life would be insufficient.  He needed to seek out and develop the themes riding under his experiences.

Sensei V blinked.  A bit of sweat glistened on his shaved head.  Had I been too harsh?  Would I ever see him again?

Sure enough, nine months later he booked another appointment.  His second draft blew me out of the water.  I’d never seen a newbie embrace revision so completely.  Whatever transpired on his zafu cushion was working wonders on the page.

In the decades since coaching Sensei V, the only other beginners I’ve met as nimble in their capacity to learn a fruitful creative process are serious contemplatives and professionals from other art forms.  Why?  Release, surrender, humility—whatever we call that internal capacity to let go—is foundational to both spiritual practice and art-making.  When I teach writing these days, I place as much emphasis on the spiritual muscles that writing exercises as craft techniques for this very reason:  No matter our goals (personal growth, creating art, publishing), the means to achieve them include this basic spiritual gesture.  Humility, the Russian Hesychasts teach, gives true value to our virtues, skills, and achievements.  Like Sensei V, we writers do well to observe where we cling, on the page and in life, then let it go.
– Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

Photo by David Ananda on Unsplash