~~On a wet, raw evening, the mind and heart can become pensive, wander off course. It is such an evening in Boston–the summer surely in retreat, the winter not quite here yet. In-between, indeterminate, and exciting.
Well-meaning writing teachers will insist that students first draw up an outline, a tight grid with roman numerals, lower and upper case letters. Life coaches will counsel lost souls to design a clear, focused life plan and stick with it. Lovers will ask of each other consistency and undivided attention. But on evenings like this, all these prescriptions sound hollow and a bit labored, artificial. For the mind and the heart are often wayward things; they also love digression; they also resist focus. As much as the brain loves nicotine, it also hungers for the crooked path, fights against the single-minded pursuit. The writing teachers, life coaches and lovers (some) want the climb of the mountain, but the mysteries of the heart and mind (not brain, please!!!) want the open sea, with you standing on the shore and the waves inviting you into their undulations. The Mayo Clinic gives you all the tips for being happy (it’s the medical model, again!), but you know that you may be completely crooked, a limp in your leg, a sag in your thighs, your cholesterol count above normal but your heart and mind may be in the grip of utter and complete joy as you watch the waves, as you contemplate the invitations of the sea.
Forget about contentment, about serenity, about happiness–all achieved with focus and step-by-step process. Adhering to the outline is the curse of the unimaginative and the scourge of the myopic and flat-footed. Instead make digressions your intimates; get to know their secret whispers; be receptive to their tricks and teases. Of course, you will lose your way, the waves may overwhelm you. You may not have a choice (ah, the illusion of choice!), you may become aimless.
But not quite, not quite. For all this meandering, all this pleasant traveling is really a prelude for the hard work of forging a design, imagining an alternative. That’s why writing students should never ever be told to write the outline first before they throw themselves in the mess of the first attempt, the invitation of the waves. They should be instructed in the art of digression, of listening to the echo of the water, of seeing the glitter at the edge. “They became what they beheld,” wrote William Blake. The design follows that vision.
And what of joy? Who am I to venture an answer on this autumn evening? All I know is that our beginnings never know our ends; our exits never know our entrances. All I know is the excitement of beginnings–the first word on the page, the first image of the future, the first embrace. The rest? We have all the time we have, yes, all the hard work of form.~~
*John Fowles’ phrase, from The French Lieutenant’s Woman