A week ago I attended a writing workshop at the Omega Institute with Lynda Barry, called “Writing the Unthinkable.” It was a powerful and transformative five days. Her approach to writing is emotional, psychological, spiritual, rather than intellectual. I think this method saved her life; at any rate, it has helped her to pass on what it is about any kind of art that makes life worth living.
For instance, she emphasizes the experience of capturing an image over the product of that experience. We are not to look at what we create for at least a week, preferably a month, because we will not be able to look at it without undue, unfair judgment before then. She likens art-making to the serious, fully-engaged play of children. The structure of her workshop was to guide us on a journey back to that open state of mind, in which the drawbridge can come down and images like ponies can cross over onto the field to play. These are Lynda’s words, Lynda’s metaphors; but I love them. I feel they could have been mine.
Every morning and every afternoon, we wrote three short pieces. Part of our preparation for each was to draw a tight spiral, or some other doodle, while she recited the same poem to us from memory. I heard this poem about twenty times. I came to love it. It is a poem by Rumi.
The Diver’s Clothes Lying Empty
You are sitting here with us,
but you are also out walking in a field at dawn.
You are yourself the animal we hunt
when you come with us on the hunt.
You are in your body
like a plant is solid in the ground,
yet you are wind.
You are the diver’s clothes
lying empty on the beach.
You are the fish.
In the ocean are many bright strands
and many dark strands like veins that are seen
when a wing is lifted up.
Your hidden self is blood in those,
those veins that are lute strings
that make ocean music,
not the sad edge of surf
but the sound of no shore.
Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks
For me, the work was to ride the current, even as it pulled me through rough, dark waters, beyond the “sad edge of surf” to “the sound of no shore.” What is the sound of no shore? I think it is the experience of the world beyond the hurts and upheavals of my own personal history, my own self as I have known myself. It is the experience of story beyond “my story.” One of the promises of the workshop was to move from memory into fiction, which is why I was drawn to it. She took us there – it was an exhilarating journey.
I chose not to write down the poem during that week – I wanted to experience it only as something heard while in an open state of mind. Once I got home, I looked it up on-line (my own Rumi collection has gone missing) and found another translation of the poem. It seems so different, to me, it almost seems like a different poem. Or at least a different poet. I wonder which is closer to the original Persian.
Clothes Abandoned on the Shore
Your body is here with us,
but your heart is in the meadow.
You travel with the hunters
though you yourself are what they hunt.
Like a reed flute,
you are encased by your body,
with a restless breathy sound inside.
You are a diver;
your body is just clothing left at the shore.
You are a fish whose way is through water.
In this sea there are many bright veins
and some that are dark.
The heart receives its light
from those bright veins.
If you lift your wing
I can show them to you.
You are hidden like the blood within,
and you are shy to the touch.
Those same veins sing a melancholy tune
in the sweet-stringed lute,
music from a shoreless sea
whose waves roar out infinity.
Rumi, translated by Kabir Helminsky
Between the two translations, I have a preference. I suppose I can’t help but have a preference. I prefer the version that I heard Lynda recite to us. The second version has its moments, but that word “infinity” just ruins it for me.