Creativity Connection No. 45, October 2000, p. 12-13.
"Out From A Silence I Can't See Into"
Reading, for me, is no longer a matter of remarkable passages that strike deep in the heart. For years that's why I read. It still is, to an extent. But there's something more I look for now: a certain repose of mind that sometimes arises, a state akin to meditation. Then, whatever is read strikes deep. A readiness, a preparedness establishes itself -- like dynamite. I don't need a blowtorch; even a match. A spark will do. I don't require a purple passage. A casual phrase suffices. I'm transported straightway. I lay the book aside and snatch up pen and paper before I even know what I am going to write. Something in me has been touched. I haven't the faintest idea what it is. I sink so deliciously into the rhythm of writing. Out from a silence I can't see into, come words -- one sentence at a time. I have little inkling where it is headed. I just write down, as fast as I can, what presents itself.
This writing is not, by any stretch of the imagination, something I myself do. It is no more my accomplishment than a Dostoyevsky novel or a Rumi poem. No. It was already there. I just receive it. My only accomplishment -- I who don't read very much at all (a laborer for the last 25 years, I don't have time) -- is that I've learned to recognize the magic from the inside when it emerges and to get everything else out of the way.
I use books to convey me to the source of writing, to fly like a runaway slave into its freedom. And because I run with whatever rags of words cling to me, I somehow prove myself worthy of liberty and am made capable of being acted upon by its generative force. In giving myself over wholly, even if only for a few fleeting moments, to its dash -- I have a root (even if only a momentary one) right into the core of being. I am made real. A power arises in me to distinguish what I couldn't before. When I read, I know what writing comes from truth and what writing doesn't. When I write -- the same thing.
This happens once, it happens twice. I start reading differently. No longer is it my purpose to get anything from a book I do not already have. Instead -- whether it's The Enneads of Plotinus I'm laboring over, methodically, day by day for many months on end, just a few pages at a time; or the poems of Rilke, one single poem at a sitting is all it takes -- I pick up a book to find a way to myself. When that appears, I set the volume aside. It's not a matter of getting through the "important books." It doesn't matter how many authors I've been exposed to. It's all in me. What matters is how deeply I'm able to access that which lies there waiting and ready, like fresh water in a deep well.
In the back country of the Isle of Pines, Cuba where I grew up, the farm folk drew their water directly from wells. A neighboring farm had a hand-pump. A full bucket of water always sat beside it. If I wanted water from that well, I had first to prime the pump by pouring the whole bucket down the chute. Then I could pump to my heart's delight, as much water as I wished. The last bucket I saved, and set there by the pump, for the next person. I have come to read in the same way -- to be primed -- not to find out from someone else something I couldn't know for myself. When I write, it's like leaving the bucket there for the next person.
If I switch on the light bulb in my front room or if I switch on the one in the back room -- it's light, just the same. Similarly, starlight from the nearest star and that from the most distant one across the universe -- both are starlight. Light is of one substance, no matter its source. Granted there are degrees and variations, but light is not an individual thing. It is essentially of one substance wherever it appears. The same holds true for consciousness.
I labor through a thick volume by Plotinus. The same mind that resides in me authored that book one thousand seven hundred years ago. It was written by the same man I am inside. Only then it resided in a different body, a different country, was shaped by a different concept of the universe, had a different religion, and employed a different technology. That was a long-ago time. And so the same thing said that way then, is now said this way -- the way it comes out when I write it. It's not that I'm improving upon what was written before. It's just that it needs to be said, again and again over the centuries, over the millennia, in a way that's true, that hasn't become outdated because of superficial changes. Then the earth was thought flat, now it's known to be spherical. Then there were many gods. Now people believe in one or none at all. Then they had chariots. Now we have space shuttles. A certain kind of story is appropriate for a child, another for an adult. A certain writing happens in the infancy of a race or civilization, another later on, in its maturity. The thing needs to be said right again, like it was before. Only that saying it right now entails saying it differently. The same place is there, though, from which it was said the first time. And it is this -- that place in us from which these kinds of things can be known -- that it is the function of all great writing to transmit from one generation to another.
Duke University, where I did my undergraduate work, didn't teach me this. Neither did Columbia University, where I got my doctorate. Maybe the academic reads in one way, but the true man of books must read in another. Only by some rare miracle I survived years of approaching books in the wrong way, and looking for the wrong kinds of things in them. Only belatedly, I discovered how to recognize that pregnant hush that descends all of a sudden, unannounced, while I'm reading innocently along, and how quickly I need to lay the book aside and grab up a pen and paper when that happens.