April 24, 2007

Writer Without a Story: Prologue

I had a fantasy of what it would be like at The School for the Work of Byron Katie (which, as I found later, should have been called The School for the Work of Richard Cohen). About a hundred people would gather in a large meeting room and spend the day doing worksheet exercises using Katie’s method, as well as exercises going beyond the worksheets to challenge our limits, a sort of emotional and interpersonal Outward Bound. At the opening session Katie herself, the big guru, would give us a speech and after that most of our lessons would be given by the staff. We’d get a glimpse of Katie again now and then when she stopped by to give us a canned inspirational talk and make sure things were running smoothly.

Then the socializing! In the evenings I would hang out in the hotel bar, where, sneaking off for meat meals, I’d buy drinks for lustful, neurotic divorcees in my age range. One or more of them would come into focus as favorites of mine and we’d go to bed together, perhaps renting a separate room in order to eliminate the roommate problem. We would bare our souls by longingly telling every bit of personal information about ourselves. As a couple or in a group we’d explore Los Angeles by night and drive into the desert during free daytime hours. At school’s end we would exchange contact information, but I’d be wary of getting entangled with my former bedmates. Either I wouldn’t want to see them again and would have to fend off their emails and phone calls, or I’d want to turn my life over to one of them and would have to figure out how to persuade her to move to Austin.

This part of it was true: we gathered in a large meeting room and spent the day doing worksheet exercises using Katie’s method, as well as exercises going beyond the worksheets to challenge our limits, a sort of emotional and interpersonal Outward Bound. And at the end we exchanged contact information. That’s it. That’s how much of my fantasy life turned out to be real. Everything else was just a movie I produced to amuse myself. A feelgood movie, a feelbad movie –- who knows? Lots of talent went into it. Writing, acting, and directing all of professional quality.

Here’s a more realistic treatment:

It was more like three hundred people, and Katie sat in front of us in an easy chair for, oh, about ten or eleven hours a day, tirelessly answering our questions, hearing our stories and self-questionings and sometimes telling us hers. (I’m not counting mealtimes, which Katie took in private and students took in a large white tent on the hotel grounds. Meals were part of the work too, so I’m estimating that the average school day was fifteen hours long.)

Katie did all the group teaching herself sitting in the same easy chair in the same casual position, answering innumerable questions and unstintingly sharing what she knows, except that she took one evening off near the end the week. And except that every one of us was both teacher and student at every moment. (More about Katie’s apparent personality in a future installment.)

And the socializing? Well, most of what I saw and experienced was pairing up for after-hours work, students sitting in corners facilitating worksheets for each other, talking, crying, hugging, and in some instances screaming. Or sitting solitary, writing in notebooks and three-ring binders, staring into themselves, sipping the everpresent herbal tea, thinking, remembering, weeping.

I made dear friends I will either see again or not. I spent the entire time in love, breathing air saturated with it, the love of three hundred people who were all wildly, unpredictably, frighteningly different and all one lover loving itself. I met individual women, too, whom I embraced physically and mentally, and the thought of going to bed with any of them in that time and place scarcely occurred to me. The act would have been a betrayal of them, of Katie, and of myself. My luck was better than that.

I never hung out in the bar. I didn’t have a single alcoholic drink the whole time. (I’ve never had what’s called a drinking problem –- I average one drink per day or less-- but somehow this seems like a significant detail.) I didn’t taste meat for nine days (I’m a devout carnivore). I didn’t spend a cent, in cash or credit, except for tipping the chambermaid and buying some of Katie’s materials as gifts. I didn’t pay attention to the news. I didn’t touch a computer. I didn’t read the novel I’d brought for downtime. I didn’t even read it on the flight home.

Nor did I see LA, except for one outing that was very much part of the work. We were in the hotel the whole time, an undistinguished, adequate, midlevel, airline-crew hotel in walking distance of the airport. A beautiful neighborhood. It had everything we needed.

From what I observed, a culture of “didn’ts” held true for my classmates too. I saw one couple nuzzling after pairing up overnight, but I can’t be sure they weren’t spouses. I heard gay and straight people wryly joking about how good it would be to return to sex back home.

What could we possibly have been doing if not indulging our large and small vices, our one-size-fits-all vices, and sneaking off to kick away the day’s constraints? We were kicking away the constraints all right, not of school but of the rest of life.

One of the mottos of The Work is, “Who would you be without your story?” That’s what we were doing -– shedding our stories and, we hoped, not settling for a new story but instead doing without a story to whatever extent a human being can. Correction: not shedding our stories but simply looking at them, smiling to them, welcoming them as they came and went. Knowing that our stories are stories.

When I put it that way, a problem that’s been worrying me disappears. What is a writer without a story? Can a writer enlighten himself out of a job, like a policeman in a crimeless society or a doctor in a disease-free future? If I have loosened my stories’ grip on me, will it hurt me in my life’s calling?

Well, I guess I’m writing something now. And let’s face it, I’ll always have some story or other. If I welcome them rather than pushing them away –- oh, what stories I could tell!

Indeed the phrase “writer without a story” has a double meaning for me. In addition to fearing that I’d lose my creativity if I became too sane, I’ve feared that I didn’t have enough of a story to tell in the first place: that I hadn’t lived enough to gather material to work my gifts on. That I was a writer without a subject, whose story was so ordinary and uneventful that few would want to hear it.

That story, too, deliquesces in the very act of writing this.

There are things that cannot be said except sentimentally. The fault is in the words, not the things.

Labels: , ,