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  • A.K. Lee

A flicker of light

September is a busy period for me, to the point where eking out any time to write is a huge challenge, hence I chose to focus on meditation and Zen teachings all month. I wouldn't consider myself a Zen practitioner - that would require more dedication and effort than I am able to give right now. Even so, I think it is something I wish to incorporate more into my daily life.

The concept of Zen is impossible to pin down. To me, it is an acceptance of existence as a transient concept; it gives me an understanding of people, it provides a calmness of mind and spirit, and it teaches a joy in the beauty of Now. Why am I interested in seeking Zen? Once, many years ago, I fell asleep aboard a bus on a rainy evening. When I stirred awake, what I saw were dozens upon dozens of glittering gems set against black velvet, and it was so transcendentally lovely that I wanted to weep. And then, the bus moved, and all the jewels that had transfixed me were but raindrops on glass.

But that moment - that moment, when everything outside of the beauty of light shining through the droplets on the glass pane did not exist, when I forgot my own existence and was made breathless by that sight... I think that was the closest I had ever come to an understanding of the brilliant, blinding joy in the moment that Zen can bring. What I want, more than anything, is to find even a flicker of that light once more.

Recently, in the reading of a few books on Zen Buddhism and its teachings (for this topic, I prefer to read in Chinese, which is why there isn't a book review this month), I find myself drawing parallels to writing, and also gleaned a few new ideas about creative writing that I'd like to share. (This is the first of a series of posts - look under writing & zen in the tags.)

One. Writing without thought of profit

Once a month, I meet up with some fellow writers and we give feedback about one another's writing. Invariably, someone asks if their stories would be published, or if people would want to buy their book. This is before they have even completed their first drafts!

My usual response has been that their concern about publication is unimportant, that the story itself is more vital, but I haven't really articulated why it isn't important. However, in the past couple of weeks, I have really sat down to consider my stock response. And I think the essence boils down to: why do writers write in the first place?

Before we even considered writing a book, we jotted down bits of plot, constructed lines of dialogue, or designed action set-pieces; we built our own characters, imbued them with qualities and flaws; we built imaginary worlds. All of these weren't done out of a desire to profit. They were done, because we have in us to create, we want, more than anything, to develop a universe where we can jump into with our minds and heart; we want to go on a journey or have an adventure. We instinctively know, even before we started on any writing project, that at the end of it, we have the prize: a complete story. Eventually, we hold our story in our hands, and we won't recall exactly how we get there - we just keep at it, and then there it is.

What has that got to do with profit? Absolutely nothing.

We write because we have to write, because the ideas are part of us and we want to share them. Our stories are our zen. If someone else wants to read our thoughts and ideas, then that is a benefit. But we cannot force ourselves to write our stories in order to get rich. All we can do is hone our craft and try to make sure the completed work is as good as we can make it.

And that is similar to the zen practitioner's constant pursuit of enlightenment. It is a pursuit, in that there will be effort exerted in search for a goal, and yet a master who has found zen will not be able to tell you how you can attain enlightenment. They can suggest ways in which you practice the teachings, they can model their personal practices, they can even guide you along as you practice. But at the end of the day, your zen is personal. How you get there is your own journey, much as how you write your story is your own personal journey. What others see is the completed project. We see the master and marvel at their accomplishment; we don't see the struggles they overcome, because much of that struggle is internal.

It's the same thing when we write stories. A reader is attracted to the final product, but it is not our duty to tailor our creative work to their liking, because this process of creating is our individual journeys. I write for my personal self-expression, and there have been readers who enjoyed what I have expressed; they like the completed project as it is. Yet, if I had based all my efforts on what other people wanted, I would not have been able to complete it, because what other people want differ among them. The only person whose preferences I know for sure is my own.

If you keep thinking about your audience and what they want, if you keep changing the content because you want to make sure everyone is happy and willing to buy your work, then you won't ever be happy with your own work. If you keep being chained by others' expectations, then how would your creativity and ideas flow freely?

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