Be Kind, Rewind

On this blog I have so far hit the 'begin again' concept from various, but mostly artistic, angles. When it comes to the craft of writing, the Camus quote that serves as the site's thematic through-line means that as much as we want and need for our works to be read right now, writers should slow down enough to make their art as close to complete, as whole, as they can. Writers owe their own fiction this devotion, and they owe the reader this dedication as well.

There is another side to this 'begin again' nonsense that I haven't written as much about. The essential other side of the creative process - the spiritual practice of art. 

I understand that 'spiritual' is a weighted term, fraught with implications that could skew positive or negative (probably negative) for most everyone. I understand those of you who prefer the rational, the humanistic, the agnostic or the Godless. And I understand the discomfort of having someone proselytize. Hear me out. What I intend by using the word 'spiritual' and why I anchor my artistic process with it is better defined by forming it as a question: how do I conduct myself in this world? And how does my interaction with this world in turn feed my art? 

Let me get to the punchline: I often conduct myself poorly. I don't pay enough attention to...well, most anything. There are many times I regret not stopping myself and acknowledging my wife, my kids, my friends, because although they mean everything to me, I rarely stop and let them know that or act as if I know that (I do).

I'm preoccupied. I'm busy. You know how it is. 

More damning, though, than a lack of attentiveness, worse than not being present, is the loss of empathy that leeches from us as we narrow the frame of our own existences and lose the wide-view. When we stop understanding other humans, we stop being human ourselves. As a writer this openness, this vulnerability, to both people and experience is the only way I can create characters that are real to me and (I hope) to the reader. I have to put myself into the heads of people I don't get and find my way to some shared humanity, some empathy, some compassion, even. This isn't easy to do when your character is an unrepentant asshole, (or if I am acting like an unrepentant asshole, which does occur on occasion) but that's the uncomfortable work of the artist: to dive the deep waters as often as you skim the shallows.

Being preoccupied, not being vulnerable and empathetic, this all makes for bad art, but worse, this all makes for one rotten human being. A spiritual practice should, at its root, be about your lifestyle, your behavior, how you live and how you interact with your fellow humans. That is the point of even laying claim to a term like 'spiritual' - yeah, your faith or your practice might initially be about some holy being from this or that tradition but in the day-to-day grind where experiences are alternatively joyful, painful, boring, irritating, sultry, stupid - that high-minded abstract spiritual stuff needs to yield real-world behaviors and actions or it's useless. 

We have all done questionable and hurtful things to other people but the redemption--if there is such a thing--is that we can stop. Start over. Begin again. 

As in art, so in life. As in life, so in art. 

Below I've linked to a commencement address that the (great) fiction writer George Saunders delivered this year on the importance of kindness. It's a delight.