Zen and the Art of a Story

Last summer I was sitting on the beach out at the tip of Cape Cod, listening to the waves roll in and reading a book.  Nearby, two young couples were setting up their chairs and laying out a blanket.  One of the couples had a baby—not more than a few months old—that they outfitted with a little tent to block the sun and wind.  The baby cooed and wiggled on its back as the couples set to their various tasks.  I stared out at the sea, not wanting to intrude but listening and reminiscing about the days not so long ago that my wife and I were in this very spot with friends and our two young children.

The tempo and melody of our neighbors’ conversation was filled with delight.  The couple with the baby was Irish; the other, American.  They were apparently close friends from previous circumstances.  Coworkers, perhaps.  College?

The men removed their shirts and shoes, and dashed into the waves.  The women, also now down to their suits, fussed with the baby, slathering its face and ears with sunscreen and fixing a blue cap on its head.  The American woman picked up the tot, and together with her Irish friend headed down to the water’s edge where they stood chatting with white foam wrapped around their ankles.

I returned my attention to the book in my lap.

I’m not sure I finished an entire page when I heard the friends tromping back up through the sand.  They toweled off and the men fished some sandwiches out of a cooler.  The American woman set the baby down in a car seat-cum-bassinet and nuzzled its nose.  I heard her say, “Oh, I am going to miss you so much!”  She accepted a sandwich handed to her and sat down next to the baby. Its mother joined her and the two chatted quietly.

I couldn’t make out much of what anyone was saying.  Just snippets.  Golf references leaked out from the men.  From the woman I caught “baby” and “flight.”  It seemed the Irish couple would be flying home soon.  That evening, no doubt, out of Boston toward tomorrow’s morning in Dublin or Shannon.

I tried to find my place in the book again.  But by the time I did, the group was shuffling about—folding up towels and stuffing them into a beach bag; collapsing chairs; packing the baby’s little tent back into its case.  Throughout, their chatter remained buoyant, infecting me with its pure joy.

And yet I couldn’t help feel a twinge of regret.  I had barely gotten to know these folks.  Well, I didn’t know them at all really, but it was as though their story was just beginning to unfold.  I wanted more.  But it was over.  Just a lovely moment in time.  A vignette.

Fully assembled, the group stood together looking out at the sea. I wondered if tomorrow the Irish couple would be standing on a bluff at Kilkee looking back.  The baby made some gurgling sounds, but otherwise they were silent.  Then they all turned and grabbed their things, the mother picked up her baby and swung it gently by the handle of the car seat, and they left.

I wanted to write their story and thought I might quickly try to take some notes.  Perhaps it was the sea air or simply the general state of vacation calm, but I decided at that moment there was no need to write their story.  In fact, it had already been written, there on the spot, and I took a great deal of joy from it.  What more was needed?  I decided that there were certain stories that had to exist momentarily in their purest state—like a Tibetan sand painting—then be freed into the cosmic swirl.

And so it was.


The Rhythm of Writing

Do you hear music when you write? I don’t mean, do you listen to music (on your iPOD or Pandora or even one of those old-fashioned contraptions, a radio).  I mean, do you hear music in your head?  Is there a beat going that your words are following?

It’s been said that Jack Kerouac wrote with the bop and syncopation of jazz, the prominent popular musical form of his time in the 1940s. When I was writing my novel, Gordon Hughes, I had the lilting guitar rhythms of Jerry Garcia flowing through my head.

For me, having a rhythm is fundamental to writing. I want there to be a certain cadence, dynamics, crescendo to give a piece flow—not strictly in terms of the story line, but in terms of the beat.  Yeah, maybe a little like poetry, but I would resist getting too bound by that analogue.

What difference does it make?  In my case, I’m partially satisfying the demands of an internal metronome.  It may very well be a disorder of some kind.  Nevertheless, I find it more pleasing when a sentence has a time signature.  Four-four, seven-four, eleven-eight—it doesn’t matter.  Just something.

I also think having a beat makes a difference for the reader. To this reader, at least.  What pure enjoyment it is to step into a story and be carried away—out of this mind, out of this world. Music has an ancient history of doing this to us.  Why shouldn’t writing do it, too?  Perhaps it is the rhythm of writing that takes us across that line to where we’re not just reading a story, we’re in the story.

Now, does a certain rhythm make one’s writing better?  As in a higher level of quality?  Perhaps in some respects, yes.  I hesitate, however, to pass that kind judgment because I also think there’s nothing more fun than experimenting with form. Yet, as much as I used to love when Garcia blasted the beat into a million pieces and drifted into a free-form space, it was only actually pleasing when he artfully pulled the tune back into time.  Like chaos finding form. I wonder if this is an innate human need that goes beyond music, writing, painting, or any other art form to the foundation of our lives in general.

What do you hear when you write?  Do you hear (or see or feel) anything beyond the words?  Does it help or hinder your work?