Many would consider Cassia’s family wealthy, but a close look would find that their money is tied up, mostly in real estate and the restaurant – investments that allow the family to be its own boss in working together and serving the surrounding community.
Imagine yourself with a million dollars. Where would you put it to do the most good?
Some artists begin with an outline of the work they’re doing and stick with it, starting in one corner and continuing to the opposite end. And, for many of them, once it’s filled in, that’s it, the piece is finished. Voila!
Others, like me, set forth in a particular direction with an expectation of what’s ahead but find ourselves often changing course as we go. And once the first draft is finished, we know it’s only a start, far from finished.
There’s a saying in writing that talent goes into that first draft, but genius comes in the revisions — if at all. That first draft can be exciting, even intoxicating, as the piece takes shape — in the case of writing, sometimes out of thin air.
Or, in the visual arts, there’s a description of someone who’s painterly — that is, scraping away earlier layers and painting over and over until something comes into focus. Oh, yes!
The truth is that first draft can be satisfying for its creator. You know where the story wants to go, who the characters are, how the pieces fit together. Your spelling can be irregular; the sentences, unfinished; the events as arbitrary as you wish. You could leave it there and turn elsewhere, should you decide. You don’t have to defend or explain anything.
On the other hand, if you wish to share your work with others, you’ll need to clean it up. Those who think otherwise are at least worthy of suspicion.
Which leads to the next step, one I think demands far more labor than the drafting stage and far more dedication. Revision.
For one thing, it means questioning everything that’s gone into that beloved first draft. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter. Ouch! For another, it means asking yourself just what you meant in that brilliant phrase before you. And for me, at least, there’s a stage where I start trying to liberate whatever it is that’s lurking beneath the prose on the page. (Well, these days, the computer screen.) It means tearing apart what you’ve done, discarding large chunks of material, and inserting fresh insights. And it’s much messier than what you’ve done previously. Is there a special maid service for writers?
One item on my mental checklist regarding the revision process has to do with identifying certain words that keeping repeating through a long work like a novel. I then go back through the story, looking for synonyms that will give me another angle on the concept or thought being repeated. In What’s Left, for instance, I had family, restaurant, hippie, and Buddhism high on that list. What could I do to lessen the deadening recurrence of those terms? Slang, I might confess, can work wonders.
From my poetry, I’d long ago learned that this is where the work itself opens into something totally new. What do I really mean here? What is the text trying to say to me? How can I liberate it? Or make it burst into flames?
OK, this sound pretty haughty, but it’s all part of the obsession.
As a parallel, let me suggest cooking, since it’s an element in the background of my new novel. Just look at how the ingredients cook down into something quite different. There’s much more than just throwing a steak on the grill or opening a bag of shredded lettuce. (Especially if you’re going to join me at Carmichael’s in the novel.)
To return to the question of just when is it finished for me, I’d like to say once the work’s been published. But that may be rushing reality.
A thorough revision can leave me exhausted, feeling I have nothing more of value to add. (At least for now.) Or maybe I’m finally released from the subject — it can move into the public arena now.
Thinking of What’s Left, I might mention a parallel in the visual arts where I originally saw the earlier chapters as pop art masters Roy Lichtenstein and then Robert Rauschenberg but narrowing into the black-and-white lithographs of Peter Milton. But then my perspective reversed!
Do you ever look at events around you like an ongoing movie? (Sometimes even as a cartoon, as I do?)
Maybe it’s a fair question, asking where an author stands in the story. Sometimes it’s pretty autobiographical. With my novel What’s Left, I can safely say I’m nothing like the narrator, Cassia. We don’t even like the same music.
And let’s say her father’s been a much better parent than me. Add to that the fact he’s traveled widely, has mountaineering skills, can translate Tibetan, finds true love not long after college, is able to call one place home the rest of his life. Well, let me add he shares a lot good traits with one very talented photojournalist I worked alongside all too many years ago now.
I will admit a flash of envy seeing the warm guidance he receives in the development of his talent and the freedom he has in pursuing it.
So there’s my disclaimer.
As for Cassia? I’m beginning to think of her as a daughter. She might even fit in with one of my own, though I think there’d be friction with at least one of the others.
Well, thinking of where we stand in a story, how about this?
Cassia’s conversations with Rinpoche lead her to crucial new understandings of her father.
In earlier drafts of my novel What’s Left, I considered these possibilities, but rejected them as, well, too wordy, esoteric, or preachy:
Your Baba was on the cusp of some original thinking about Christ as Light, Rinpoche tells me. He was connecting that with an ancient line of Greek philosophy about a term known as Logos. It was all very, very exciting. He was seeing Christ as much more than the historic person of Jesus, much as we see Buddha as something much more than a historic person — you know, Gautama — too.
Well, that happens to be a hobbyhorse I ride. Let’s give her father a break!
Rimpoche continues. Your Baba had scorn for those who claim a personal spirituality without any disciplined tradition. He wanted to encourage people to delve into a practice — not that they’re all equal, but they have their own unique wisdom to impart — and that led to his organizing some fascinating ecumenical dialogues, ones that included your Orthodox priest, plus a rabbi, a Sufi or yogi, an evangelical, and so on.
Maybe we’d better leave all that for a later discussion? Cassia has more pressing questions, many of them regarding his photographs and family.
Throughout his monastic studies and labors, he’s pressed to concentrate totally on what’s happening in the moment. Even while sleeping. Looking through a lens would, according to Manoula, place a filter between full experience of that timeless breath and himself. It would place a mask across his face when he most needs to be fully naked, as it were. Who knows what he wears in the monastery, for that matter. We can guess from the photos he took later, on his return visits — and his portraits of his teacher and fellow practitioners. For now, he needs to see not just with his eyes — and his Third Eye — but also with his nose, tongue, lips, ears, and especially his fingers and extended skin. And from there, to embrace the eternal realities rather than the ephemeral illusions flickering and dashing around him. Through this stretch, he heeds fellow monks who create beautiful colored-sand mandalas and then scatter them to the wind rather than preserve their work. This emphasis on the present while pursuing eternal truth may seem to be a paradox, but he submits to the instruction and its flowing current.
So that, too, was filtered out of the final revisions. As was this:
Baba and Rinpoche had grown close when they were both residents in the monastery. Rinpoche was then just another of the aspirants, albeit a Tibetan refuge with a lineage. Their teacher blessed their venturing into the Heartland to establish the institute here, and Rinpoche, with his mastery of Himalayan languages, took up an offer to teach academic courses at the university while leading a spiritual community from the house.
Like Rinpoche, Cassia’s father was in many ways a teacher. In their case, they were dealing with ancient Buddhist lore. Good teachers, as you know, are rare.