Thursday, December 15, 2011

Seeing One Could

Seeing. One could say that the whole of life lies in try to see more and to see better is not, therefore, just a fantasy, curiosity, or a luxury. See or perish. This is the situation imposed on every element of the universe by the mysterious gift of existence. And thus, to a higher degree, this is the human condition.

- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Human Phenomenon 

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When I taught fiction writing at Columbia College Chicago, we used a common coaching to help our students understand the task in front of them: See it and say it so someone else can see it. These eleven words seemed to me to be the whole of what I had to offer as an instructor. Teilhard manages to reduce the idea even further, to three words: See or perish.

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Vonnegut once wrote about the human need to see a horizon. I cannot recall the essay, but I am certain it was Vonnegut. If it wasn't Vonnegut and my memory is faulty as to the source, it does not change the truth or value of the idea I am now attributing to Kurt Vonnegut: you need to see a horizon. Think about it for a minute. What happens when you see an uncluttered, building-free horizon? What happens when you step out of the canyons of any downtown and move out, way out  to more open spaces? It is a feeling of relief and release bred in the bone. Horizons could always show primitive man trouble that was headed his way and the escape routes out. This is part of what Teilhard means in "see or perish."

But as we have evolved, as our interior lives have taken on language, as our emotional intelligence has evolved along side our intellectual capabilities, the idea of horizons and the necessity to see or perish takes on meanings that echo and thrum inside each of us. We must attend or perish. We must be awake or perish. We must unfuck our lives or perish with the sure knowledge that we fucked it up.

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Most students at Columbia when they "saw" their stories saw them as movies. That is often a huge step. It helps them gain a measure of control and knowledge about their stories that helps them tell it more effectively. But it is also crippling. To see as a movie sees, as a camera, or a director sees is to put strict limits on what is possible in the story. John Schultz, the father of fiction writing at Columbia and the progenitor of The Story Workshop® Approach, places a further demand on the writer - to see in the mind the totality of the scene in front of them, the secrets each character knows, the objects hidden from sight but present, the sounds three miles away and on and on. It is a demand to have a god-like consciousness of everything: a 360 degree, three dimensional thought process with the added concept of time. It is tough for the students to let go of their movies, but the most successful writing they'll do begins when they own it all.

The same is true for you, for your fucked in the fuck life. You want to unfuck your life? Then see it or perish. Just as horizons once made us safe by knowing what direction the danger was coming from and still provides a measure of peace when we encounter an unbroken horizon, so too are there horizons within you that can help restore your sense of place in the world, in your world, can help you see the ground you need to cover. The whole of life lies in seeing. Some of it is the light that enters your eye and then some of it is the inward sight of knowing who you are, knowing your desires and having the courage to act in accordance with them.

We get lost when we lose sight of these inward horizons. Our life becomes a movie instead of the profound mystery it is.

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I wear glasses. My sight is unfocussed without them, and I know I need a new prescription as it has been years since I've been to see an eye doc and the glasses are a weaker and weaker filter for what I see. A secret fear is that I will go blind, as Borges did, because I love words too much. But until such time I must use what I have available to me to do the work that is set out in front of me. And this touches on the broader aspect of Teilhard's dictum to see or perish. We are each gifted with existence, this existence and to short change the possibilities of that existence because we cannot see past our fears, our sorrows, our fuckedness is to shit on the gift and turn it into a punishment instead of a joy ride. But there is this as well: you have to move past the categories of fear and joy and move out into that open space, that horizon that offers both danger and redemption in equal measure and is silent in front of both.

Get there. Get to that place and you'll see.

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