Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Writing Seed 5: A Sense of Mystery

 [This post was originally an assignment written for a writing workshop, meant to be practiced for a period of two weeks.]

Spotted Lake, British Columbia, 2010

In the winter of 2010 I sang in a Gregorian choir in Montreal.  The community of people who participated in this choir were mostly francophone and at the time my French was poor, which meant I was fairly isolated.  Despite this, I really connected with one German woman, Sylvia, although we spoke few words to one another.  But as life moved on, I moved on from the choir, and Sylvia and I lost touch.  One day, walking down the street I said to a friend of mine, “Remember Sylvia?  I’d like to see her again.”  Not two minutes later Sylvia tapped me on the shoulder.  Quel surprise! Stunned, I asked her to go for lunch, but this plan never materialized.  I forgot the whole matter, and soon six months had gone by.  Then one February day, she popped back into my mind, and that same day I visited my favourite herbal tea store.  As I was leaving the store, I noticed a brochure, with Sylvia’s photograph on it. What? Did this really just happen? I called her, and this time around we made our lunch date happen!

I’m sure that everyone has these experiences, small or large, of striking coincidences that leave us a little amazed and wondering.  They usually leave us smiling, and come with a flavour of the mysterious.  Is it really just chance, or has life conspired to show us something?


At its very core life is a mystery, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves that we know most of what there is to know.  Indeed, it seems to me that whenever we come close to “knowing everything” the world gives us a good shake and shows us that what we’ve seen is a small fraction of what there is.  In just this way, towards the end of the 19th century, it was a common belief that all the major discoveries in physics had already been made, that there were only a few loose ends to be tied up, and as a result young university students were discouraged to study physics, since there was no promising career to be had.  Suddenly Einstein comes along with his theory of relativity and turns the world on its head.  In the same way, when as individuals we think we know how life works more often than not something happens to turn our world upside down, and we are forced to reconsider.  Indeed, there are so many small mysteries that happen every day, if we are open to watch for them.  The point of this assignment is to recover our awe for the mystery that surrounds us!

The Feeling Of Mystery

Encountering mystery is exciting –  it’s what gets our creative selves churning, what makes our imagination work to come up with hundreds of possible explanations.  There’s nothing that fascinates and delights the human mind as much as does mystery.  Why else would scientists and philosophers spend decades of their lives searching for answers?

The world abounds with mysterious questions:  Why did 2000 red-winged blackbirds fall from the sky in an Arkansas town on New Years Day of 2011, all of them dead?  How does a single cell know how to develop into a human being?  How do our eyes and brain translate senseless sensory bits into meaningful images?  How is it that a lake develops a spotted pattern?

Instead of looking in books for answers that other people have hypothesized, why don’t we ask our imagination?

Emptying the Cup

“A Zen story tells of Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era who received a university professor.  The professor came to inquire about Zen.  Nan-in served tea.  He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.  The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself.

“It’s overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations.  How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

Our cup usually is filled to the brim with “the obvious,” “common sense,” and “the self-evident.”

Excerpt from The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Sukav

Being able to see mystery requires that we empty our cups and be open to life again, to let go of the obvious and the common sense to let new perceptions in.  Many a sceptic will say, “I’ll see it when I believe it,” when many a wise man has said, “When you let go of your beliefs, you will begin to see the world.”  This too is a mystery, an interesting question to ask ourselves:  how do seeing and believing relate to one another?

The Right Question

“I want the poem to ask something and, at its best moments, I want the question to remain unanswered.  I want it to be clear that answering the question is the reader’s part...”
Mary Oliver

One of my favourite authors is the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, and for any of you who have read his books, you know that they are bewildering.  When I finish one of his novels, more often than not, I am left wondering what I’ve really understood.  He knows how to spin a great tale, and he also knows how do leave his reader with a mind full of questions.  Orthodox writing advice tells us not to do this; instead we are told all the threads must be tied up in a neat conclusion.  There is some truth in this, there must certainly be a conclusion to a piece, but that does not mean that one or two mysteries cannot be left dangling in the reader’s mind.  In my opinion, this can enrich a piece, it leaves the reader in a state of wonder, and this state will make a larger impact than any neatly tied up conclusion.  The questions remain, and it is up to the reader to find some personal conclusion.  This is also closer to reality, since life often leaves us wondering, without explanations, without neat conclusions.  In fact, to live in the face of this mystery is the only choice we really have, although we too often try to explain it away.

Finally, in the words of Socrates,

“The answer is the in the right questions.”

Towards the end of this two-week period, try to complete one of the following:
  • Pick anything that is mysterious or fascinating to you.  It may be something like Spotted Lake, or the birds that fell dead from the sky, or even something very ordinary like a glass of water viewed from a completely different angle.  Describe the mystery inherent in whatever you pick, and imagine the kinds of explanations you might come up with to explain it.  Try to play at this like a child would, let your creativity carry you along for a ride!
  • Spin a small tale around a mystery that is ultimately unanswered, leaving a question mark in the reader’s mind.  You do not necessarily need to state a question within the text, and instead can let a question emerge from the images you show.  Sometimes the best questions are implied, left to hover in the mind of the reader.
  • Creating a story is as mysterious as anything else.  From nothing, we create something.  I would like you to take five random sources:  take a book near you and read one paragraph,  press ‘shuffle’ on your Ipod and listen to the song that is selected, eavesdrop on a conversation two people are having on a bus, click ‘I’m feeling lucky” on Google, select a random TED talk to listen to, etc.  With whatever sources you choose, note down an image or concept that catches you, in a word or two.  No details are necessary.  Let these sit for a day or two.  When you are ready to write, create a small piece that weaves these five random concepts together in one solid piece, and watch how easily chaos can be transformed into something coherent and orderly!
  • Write anything you like that has been inspired by this concept of mystery!
500 – 1000 words, as a guideline.

Have fun with this, and look at your world anew with emptied cups!

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