by Perle Besserman
The 13th-century Zen master Dogen wrote:
To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.
When I forget my self and am “taken over” by a character, there is no longer an author present to experience emotions from the outside. Occupying another person like this (or being occupied by him or her) leaves no gap between you, only the living embodiment of the varieties of human suffering or longing that might eventually drive a person to confront the existential human dilemma of impermanence. There are times, when writing, when I lose touch with the person I think of as myself, and start thinking and talking and even moving like the character in whose voice I’ve been narrating. So that, at the end of the day, my husband has to remind me to come back to myself, as it were, by commenting on my facial expressions or humorously referring to me by the name of the character I happen to be “living” at the time. It may sound complicated, but it’s really no different from experiencing water by letting go of thoughts about water and simply immersing yourself in it.
The same thing goes for place. I’ve always been extremely sensitive to my surroundings, wherever I find myself. The sheer physicality of an experience like walking through a market, for example, is so powerful that I am often entirely overtaken by its smells, sounds, and sights. And when I write about that experience of walking through the market afterward, I am just as immersed, just as fully “there.” Jerusalem, Kyoto, Brooklyn, Melbourne, Shanghai—where I’ve been, and even some places I’ve only imagined—are all me: pleasant or nasty, happy or sad, beautiful or ugly. Living in Hawai’i on and off for almost thirty years has taught me that nowhere, not even “paradise,” is free of what being human entails; unfulfilled love, spiritual disappointment, physical and mental illness, misplaced trust, and loss are all on the menu of myriad things available to the writer willing to lose her self in them.
Dreams, too, provide a vehicle for embodying the people, places, and experiences that constitute the myriad things of the world. Like losing the self in writing, dreaming is not a conscious process. You don’t deliberately construct a dream, nor do you look in on it from the outside or comment on it while it’s going on—you are simply one with it. Losing your self in characters and places and encounters that rise up to meet you in your dream as they do in waking life extends the range of myriad things that dissolve the boundaries around daily experience, too. My writing is at its best when my dreams and my daily life crisscross each other so there’s no distinguishing between them. When I wake up, I am sometimes so deeply at one with the scenery accompanying the action of the dream that it takes me several minutes to exit back into the world of not dreaming. Often, an image or a fragment of dialogue from a dream will result in a story, its setting, themes, and characters arising simultaneously from my daily-life encounters with people, places, and events. The connections between them and the forms they take are illogical, emerging into waking life like non sequiturs from the depths of my dream. Like the glimpse of a rat crossing my jogging path in Central Park while vacationing in New York this summer that merged with a line from the dream of the night before—“Get out of my garden, Ennis”—and became a writing prompt for a story about two sisters engaged in a fierce struggle for their gardener mother’s favor.
Depending on the time and condition, whether dreaming or awake or dreaming while awake, any aspect of an event or person or place can spark a “self-forgetting” creative moment actualized by the myriad things. One of my favorite writers, W.G. Sebold, included in his novels photographs from a variety of factual sources he found in newspapers, family photo albums of people he didn’t know, historical documents and maps—becoming a precursor of today’s radical genre-bending novelists, poets, artists, videographers, and musicians whose work is a mélange of sounds, bits and pieces of music and street noise, snatched café conversations, internet videos and Twitter postings. This is not to say that everything is art. (I still can’t agree with Jeremy Bentham that “Pushpin is as good as poetry.”) Just that, from a certain perspective, the myriad things of this world are always storying forth, crossing the boundaries of “fiction” and “fact,” “dream” and “reality,” “me” and “you,” in a continuing stream of narrative. The task for me as a writer is to lose my self in all that brilliant diversity.
Recipient of the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award and past writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Artists’ Colony in Jerusalem, Pushcart Prize-nominee Perle Besserman was praised by Isaac Bashevis Singer for the “clarity and feeling for mystic lore” of her writing. She has published three novels—Pilgrimage, Kabuki Boy, Widow Zion—and a linked story collection, Yeshiva Girl. Her forthcoming book, Grassroots Zen: Community and Practice in the 21st Century, co-authored with Manfred Steger, will be published in 2017. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.