In our blog today, Cat Doty reflects on “Beginner’s Mind” one of the Core Principles of Clearing the Spring, Tending the Fountain–“Both listening/reading and speaking/writing are likely to be more creative and more alive if we approach them with what, in Zen practice, is called Beginner’s Mind.” Cat Doty is a leader in Clearing the Spring, Tending the Fountain–our poetry discussion groups for teachers. Cat also visits High Schools in our Poetry in the Schools Program. When she’s not working with us, Cat teaches middle school English in Millburn, NJ, teaches at aTi (link to their website www.artshorizons.org) every summer, raises her two kids, and (somehow) finds time to write.
Five days in, nine to go.
This is my first stay at an artist’s colony. I have a key to the house I am sharing, a key to my studio, and, because I am working to help defray the cost of my stay, a key to the kitchen where, I will prepare, by myself, with no more help than a cheat sheet of where stuff is and when it should come out, breakfast for the 80-or-so visual artists and writers. The main dish on Friday is oatmeal: two gallons of water, a whole silo of oats, and, when it gets over-thick on the steam table, another shot of water and a quick stir. There’s little difficult about it. I’ve had two days of training, and have thus far sustained only one injury: a hubris burn on my right bicep. (There are two ways to get boiling oatmeal from a cauldron to a serving vat: bail it like a loser a with a scoop the size of a baseball cap, or dump it all at once in one deft, butch move, a trick best attempted by someone tall and athletic). Then it’s off to my 24-hour-access studio, where I have no one but myself to impress, and (see above) nine days in which to do it.
Each writer’s studio includes a serious-looking desk, a huge window framing a moving river, and plenty of quiet. Most residents work with their doors shut. The only person using an actual typewriter has a note on her door apologizing for it. “If the noise bothers you,” she writes, “just knock on the door and I’ll stop.” Before word processors, the writers building, at capacity, must have been noisier than the welding barn down the street. Now it is impossible to gauge my neighbor’s progress (and compare it to my own) by the waxing and waning of happy bursts of tappage. I can always think myself alone if that’s what works, or revel in silent industry all about me. What I can’t always do, not as quickly as I’d like to, is get started.
I’ve been trying to just do it. I’ve been trying to not try to just do it, too, but, instead, to receive it, it being a crappy draft with a discernable heartbeat, a certain quickening buzz that says, if I go all-out on this homely fledgling, it will be worth (in experience or product) every hour and impulse I invest trying (and sometimes failing) to make it better than anything I ever wrote. Bring it! This is not meant as advice to you (I said Bring it! to the oatmeal, too), but as a reminder to myself to calm down and recognize the strength of not knowing. What I don’t know, in the process of exploration, may (please) lead me to discoveries that take a piece of writing to fresh places. Such a state doesn’t feel, in its itchiness and self-doubt, like Beginner’s Mind, but that’s what it is. A beginner at almost anything is not feeling comfy or secure, but there are thrills only beginners know. (Yes, good ones. I’ll tell you when I see you.)
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