Beginner’s Mind

Everyone has periods when they are assailed by self-doubt.  For me this usually occurs when I “fail” to meet certain goals I hope to achieve or to live up to unconscious expectations that I hold.

Some recent examples:

  • by Medi BelortajaWhen I returned to the piano after being away for ten days, I realized, as I have many times before, that, like Sisyphus, I just had to push that rock up the mountain again. The myth describes the process as punishment, but, for me, it simply represents the reality of practice. If you allow your practice to fall away, even for a little time, you will be back where you started. And if you allow your emotions—anger, frustration, self-pity, anxiety—to intervene, you will be back even FARTHER than where you started! The only remedy I have ever found is to return, humbled, with  the Zen Buddhist notion of Shoshin or beginner’s mind, and to start again. Inevitably it improves.  Perhaps it will never improve “enough” but that is a matter for the calendar and one’s personal expectations. I am in favor of “good enough.”
  • Similarly, I have not written a new poem for several months. In part, this is due to writing this blog—the time and creative energy it takes seem to leave little for the actual writing of new poetry.  When this happens (and dry periods have occurred before), the same negative emotions are standing by, ready to take over saying, “give up; if you were a REAL writer, you would write NO MATTER WHAT!” Again, the only antidote I have ever found for such poisonous thoughts is simply to write, and to be willing to write a bad poem—if necessary, a really shitty poem—but to call it a draft and to go from there. Usually, creative curiosity will soon take over, silencing those repetitive, boring, and ultimately quite uncreative voices, and one is on the way again.
  •  In a somewhat more complex example, last August, I announced two goals to “give back” in my seventieth year. One is a recital, for which I am more-or-less (see above) on track.  The second is the publication of a manuscript of poems—a full-length book, unlike the three chapbooks that have previously been published by small presses.  Over the past five months, I have sent this manuscript out to nine or ten small, mini, and boutique presses.  Some of them have quickly rejected it (see my entry about rejection, October 6); others have indicated that it is just not “their” kind of thing; some have indicated that, contrary to what is stated elsewhere, they are not accepting unsolicited submissions; and others, including the one that seemed the “best fit” for my manuscript, have simply folded—unfortunately, not an unusual fate for many such short-lived presses.

Obviously I have experienced manuscript rejections many times.  And, similarly, the “solution” to self-doubt is simply to keep sending the manuscript out, over and over again, without any particular expectation, often revising it over and over again in the process. And usually at some point it will be ready. The stars will align and it will be “accepted.”

The difference this time seems to be a self-created one.  I have set a goal of publishing a new manuscript THIS YEAR and, in light of that admittedly self-imposed limitation, my option of continuing to send the manuscript out to press after press is limited.  Even if, in a month, it would by some fortuitous constellation of events, be “accepted,” it would still take many months to manifest.  Seventy may be the new “whatever,” but to someone whose parents died in their sixties and early seventies, it represents to me a time to “fish or cut bait.” And if no one is “biting,” than is it “cheating” to fish in a stocked pond?

Unraveling that rather involved metaphor, I am seriously considering self-publishing, using the “Create Space” application.  On the “up” side, it would cost me almost nothing; the print-on-demand feature would allow anyone interested to access it easily, either in print or digital form, without my having to buy and distribute the books myself.  In fact, if I want to “give” them away, as I said at the beginning of  this process (see August 6 entry) I can essentially do that.  I would have access to graphics for the cover, a designer if I want one, and some marketing assistance.  I could have the book available at any time, certainly by this summer, possibly by my birthday next month.

On the “down” side, I am not sure that I want to support Amazon. com, but do acknowledge the unprecedented ease with which they have made it possible for readers and writers to connect.  There is also (I am probably overthinking this, I realize) the possibility that I will live to be eighty, with plenty of time to send out many more manuscripts!

The big “nuh-uh” for me, though, if I am honest, is the belief that I would be downplaying the value of my poetry by self-publishing.  There is still (in my mind, anyway) a stigma that comes with self-publishing: the unstated admission that one’s work has not proven to be of sufficient value to be “chosen” or “picked up”  by someone else.  Given the increasing difficulties of publishing creative work these days, authors sometimes avoid dressing their work in the remaining tatters of the self-publishing stigma by creating their own “press”: i.e. coming up with a new logo for a press and then printing and distributing it themselves.  This happens much more often than you might expect.

In the final act of one’s life, there is that wish for the value of one’s work to be appreciated, but that seems quite different from the wish to give back. Both wishes, it seems, can become hindrances.  If I expect (and would be satisfied with) no more than twenty or thirty people at my recital in June, why then would I expect more than that to read a book of my poems? What is the difference? And if there is none, then why not use print-on-demand?

Once I can quiet those inner, emotional voices (and it does get easier the more one is called upon to do it), beginner’s mind is a good place to be. One believes in one’s process and happily offers the results to people who might enjoy them. But self-validation? I’m thinking I would rather use my energy to start on something new.

I am interested in other’s thoughts and suggestions on this matter.

By the way, thanks to Eve Hanninen  of The Centrifugal Eye  for her comments about my last post, and the corrected link she offers to those interested in reading her interview of me in a 2013 issue:

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