There is an order of Buddhist monks in Japan whose practice is running. They are called the marathon monks of Mount Hiei. They begin running at one-thirty a.m. and run from eighteen to twenty-five miles per night, covering several of Mount Hiei's most treacherous slopes. Because of the high altitude, Mount Hiei has long cold winters, and part of the mountain is called the Slope of Instant Sobriety; because it is so cold, it penetrates any kind of illusion or intoxiation. The monks run all year round. They do not adjust their running schedule to the snow, wind or ice. They wear white robes when they run, rather than the traditional Buddhist black. White is the color of death: There is always a chance of dying on the way. In fact, when they run they carry with them a sheathed knife and a rope to remind them to take their life by disembowelment or hanging if they fail to complete their route.
After monks complete a thousand-day mountain marathon within seven years, they go on a nine-day fast without food, water or sleep. At the end of nine days, they are at the edge of death. Completely emptied, they become extremely sensitive. "They can hear ashes fall from the incense sticks...and they can smell food prepared miles away." Their sight is vivid and clear, and after the fast they come back into life radiant with a vision of ultimate experience.
...Why do the marathon monks go to such extremes? They want to wake up. That's how thick we human beings are. We are lazy, content in our discontent, sloppy and asleep. To wake up takes the total effort that a marathon monk can exert. I told my class on the last day of the four-week seminar, "Well, you have two choices: Mount Hiei or writing. Which one will you choose? Believe me, if you take on writing, it is as hard as being a marathon monk."
Excerpted from the introduction, Long Quiet Highway: Waking Up in America by Natalie Goldberg
That quote is from one of my favorite books, a book that lives in my private exalted mental category where I consider a book to be a friend. I remember when I first read that tale of the marathon monks and something inside me gave a dull tug and also a shiver of recognition and excitement. But I was a voyeur, just a reader. I had never put pen to page or fingers to a keyboard.
Wannabe writer. Someday I'll write something. When I have something to write about.
I took one of Natalie Goldberg's workshops when she was a guest lecturer at Spirit Rock in Woodacre, in Marin County. I had read Writing Down the Bones, and I was struck by the author's brutal honesty and bravery. She just wrote. She did it no matter what mood she was in, whether or not she had a topic. It was a practice, a promise. It never occurred to me to feel that devotion about anything, but to me, if it was to be something, writing seemed to make a lot of sense.
And still I didn't write.
It's hard to say I'm a writer. I haven't been published. I haven't any expertise in a given field of study that I could be writing about. I don't have anything uniquely profound to say. But still I want to write, no matter what trappings of writingdom I haven't acquired yet.
It's primordial. A compulsion. A craving.
Once I finally let the genie out of the bottle, I haven't been able to put him back in. Not that I want to.
From the time I was a little girl , I steadily developed a fascination with the mechanics of writing: the old Royal manual typewriter that smelled of dust and hurt my fingers to press the keys hard enough just to mark the paper. The fragile onion skin. A fountain pen (how many kids in elementary school wrote with a fountain pen? I did.) Putting lead in a mechanical pencil. The shininess of lead on lined notebook paper. Pink eraser crumbs and how erasers smell when you rub them.
When I got older, I chose a major in college that would really let me dive into the mechanics of putting words on paper. I learned how to use French curves and scales to design a single letter (the old art of creating a font has nothing to do with computers, but everything to do with geometry and positive and negative space), how to measure in picas and points, how to cut rubylith, how to burn a printing plate, how to set up and run an offset press. I also had a box full of more expensive toys--every size of Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph pen, India ink, crow quill pens, engineering scales and protractors and compasses.
But still, I put no words on paper. I knew how they got there, in principle.
And still even later, when the nuts and bolts of putting ink on substrate lost some fascination for me (although I will never be cured completely), I became the writer's doctor. First a proofreader, then an editor. I niggled over minutiae. The Chicago Manual of Style was my bible, and I fought tooth and nail for serial commas and em-dashes. I became passionate about Garamond (yes, I am very old-fashioned in some things). I used a red pen, or a green or purple one to comment in the margins when I didn't want to crush sensitive egos.
And writing seemed farther away than it had ever been. I couldn't even fathom that I would ever write a sentence that I wanted to read, let alone share it with anyone else.
So many years later I have finally come to the place I meant to start. At the beginning, it feels like.
It may only be a blog, but finally, finally I write. Sometimes it's all fluff and crap, and sometimes I think hey, maybe I'm onto something here. And it's all exactly as great and hard and fun and boring and everything I thought it might be.
Below are a few wonderful quotes and images I've found about writing, trying to capture the essence of something that's hard to pin down. I hope you like them too.
Post inspired by a question from my sweet friend Relyn.
All beautiful images from flickr: typewriter, erasers, pens, nib, keyboard, metal type, notebook.