The Quiet Teachers

As I have mentioned more than once, I’m spending this year with Mark Nepo’s Book of Awakening, meaning that I begin my daily meditation by reading one of his 365 observations. More often than not, a series of readings—one day after another—will seem an awakening designed only for me. This past week, Nepo introduced me to the quiet teachers.

The quiet teachers are often ignored but are everywhere and are as solid as the ground upon which we walk. We know these quiet teachers by their “lessons [that] dissolve as accidents or coincidence…offering us direction that can only be heard in the roots of how we feel and think” (Nepo).

For me, the lessons have been clear but somewhat noisy for I am in the process of completely restructuring a novel I wrote seventeen years ago. What that means is the destruction of a weakly structured novel in order to salvage a stubborn story that has waited a long time to be told. It has required me to immerse myself into an old world, awakening characters long silent and provoking images fraught with memories. There has been much shattering of ideals but the shards of those ideals proved to be quiet teachers, the first of others that I met this week.

Nepo also introduced me to an observation from Megan Scribner: “‘I’m only lost if I’m going someplace in particular.'” I could not have described my own first attempt at writing a novel more succinctly. For over 80,000 words and seventeen years, I stayed with a story I no longer believed rather than facing the story that was trying to emerge. Once I began stripping away the façade, I heard the heart of the story and found myself at journey’s beginning: “Practice letting go of your plan and discover the path of interest that waits beneath your plan” (Nepo).

Not being attached to outcome or plan reveals the story waiting to be written. It is only when I have the courage to face failure do I heed the lessons of the quiet teachers. Accident and coincidence dissolve into the direction of the story. I am struck by the synchronicity of my own life’s direction with that of my writing life. Not for the last time, I am in awe at the oneness that is all.

“‘Be serene in the oneness of things and erroneous views will disappear by themselves'” (Seng-Ts’an) became clearer and clearer to me as I separated the heart of the story from the remnants of what was once a novel. All of the tearing apart and leaving of words is less difficult than I imagine. There are thorny moments but eventually, they give way to the relief of no longer having to hold up the façade of novel.

While the shininess of a new structure of a novel is a gift, the fear of idolizing structure at the cost of story, wherever it may wend, is a battle that will wage until structure and story support one another as a whole. I am confident in the lessons of the quiet teachers but mostly, I am vigilant for like life, writing is fraught with accident and coincidence as is the beating of my heart.

“As you enter your day, try not to reach for life. Try not to leave or arrive. Try to let life into you” (Nepo).

25 thoughts on “The Quiet Teachers

  1. There is a lot to be said for relaxing into things. Including writing (though I think that philosophy is a good one for most things!). Good luck with the revision. And, I think, there is much to be said for going back to an old project like that; the collision between the ideas of younger and older self – producing, perhaps, a different story than either, alone? I’d be interested to know your thoughts.

    Should add – I’ve got an idea for a post about relaxing into writing, bubbling away at the moment – and you’ve just inspired me to get going and finish it. Thank you.

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    • I look forward to reading that “relaxing into writing” post, Matthew! I so enjoy your blog: http://mjwrightnz.wordpress.com.

      Your observation regarding the reviving of an old project is spot on, I think. The emerging story is a melding, if you will, of the younger and older selves as it is no longer one or the other nor was it ever. Over and over, I am struck by the strength of the story that is emerging, for it is not an older self remembering nor is it the younger self expressing a moment, although in any given sentence or scene I could consider which self may be represented but the voice of the novel is new for both selves. It is clean and fresh. I am so glad you mentioned this concept because it is precisely what energized me for the project.

      As always, Matthew, thank you for providing me yet another perspective on my work.

      Karen

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  2. Attachment is something I struggle with a lot in my writing. Part of the reason that I’ve been resisting finishing the WIP novel I’m writing now is, I believe, due do the fact that I know that major characters are going to die, and I’m not going to want to write it that way. I’ve become so attached to many of the characters that writing the end to their stories will be difficult.

    I am going to try to learn the lessons of the quiet teachers, and try to release any expectations of my novel so I can find the story that is supposed to be written.

    Thanks for your wonderful post.

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    • Hi, Mike!

      So glad you enjoyed the post. As you say, it is so easy to attach to one’s characters and so very difficult to let them go. As I have learned, the story will have its way and as Jean Rhys wrote in one of her notebooks, the writer is writing’s instrument and ultimately, “it wrings you useless.” It is only now that I remember her quote within the light of attachment. Good for you, Mike, for learning to let go now rather than later.

      Karen

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    • That’s hysterical, Deb, and has kept me chuckling since you posted this comment yesterday. Every year I have is always so much more. Thanks for giving me a smile for a long time.

      Karen

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  3. I can relate to the going-back to “old” work that still irritates at the back of the mind wanting to be told. Sometimes it takes me ten years to complete a poem to my satisfaction. Not that I am constantly working on it; instead, I let it percolate (or stew, or rise, or moulder as the case may be) and return to it with a new “quiet” view.

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    • Yes, Ann, precisely and so succinctly said. As I do with many of your blog posts, I read and re-read your comments. Both post and comment are quite thoughtful. Thank you.

      Karen

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  4. You describe the process so well – last nano I began, again, a novel written about the same length of time ago and contained for years in a box in the attic. Going through it word by word was I guess a labour of love because I always wanted the story to emerge but hadn’t managed it back then. I too found the minable stuff quite exciting. It is now a better story for being a truer one but it is hard to jettison and to allow the book to dictate its course:)

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    • Absolutely, Alberta! I’m definitely pleased at discovering some subtle plot twists. For years, I found the entire manuscript too difficult to maneuver but as it turns out, what I needed to do was wait until the time was right.

      So glad that you are feeling better; we have missed you!

      Karen

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    • Isn’t the Megan Scribner quote wonderful? It has given me energy for days. So glad you are back from holiday as I have missed reading your blog posts (http//:omstreifer.wordpress.com).
      Karen

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      • Being offline & away made me miss out on your big day!
        Wish you all the best!!!
        But … you know; here in this sphere, in this open space, these minor details (e.g. age, gender, nationality …) doesn’t really matter, do they? As long as we have interesting thoughts to share – we shouldn’t care too much about the rest?!

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  5. “Not being attached to outcome or plan reveals the story waiting to be written.” Oh, how I struggle with this!
    I am so grateful for your sharing of your process, Karen. I am learning from your journey, and I am continually inspired by you. I am delighted to read of the progress you are making on this project!

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    • I struggle with attachment every nanosecond, KJ, but I am beginning to see the benefits of practice, practice, practice. I decided to share the process as it so closely mirrors my life these days. It seems you and I continue to learn from each other, which is quite rewarding.

      Karen

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  6. This is such a beautiful way of describing and teaching. As I was reading your message, out jumped the picture of the flower, and it all came together even better for me! Perfect Karen! Thank you for sharing so much of your life with us.

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  7. Your posts are a quiet teacher for your readers as well. Thank you for writing so clearly about this ‘unraveling’ writing process to find what is true. If your novel of 17 years ago was a first novel, I read somewhere that first novels are largely autobiographical. So it was with mine that I felt a great healing after I finished this now novel-in-a-drawer, knowing that one day I will take it back out.

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    • Yes, Beth, there was more autobiography in it than I ever intended. My plan had always been to remove the obvious but there were was more subtle autobiography than I ever knew, which can only be seen years later, as you say. It’s much easier to unravel it now. Thanks for the lovely compliment.

      Karen

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