Peter Selgin's first book of stories, Bodies of Water, won last year's Flannery O'Connor Award and is forthcoming from University of Georgia Press. His book on fiction writing, By Cunning & Craft: Sound Advice and Practical Wisdom for Fiction Writers, was published by Writer's Digest Books, 2007. His novel, Life Goes to the Movies, placed 2nd in this year's AWP Award and was a two-time finalist for the James Jones Fellowship. His short works have appeared in dozens of publications, including Glimmer Train and Best American Essays 2006. www.peterselgin.com
There's another side to discipline that's not quite so grim, it's not grim at all; in fact it's blissful. I'm talking about concentration, about that very special place where the disciplined mind goes if only it is disciplined enough, meaning if only it is patient and willing to put up with enough discomfort and pain to reach its ultimate destination, that pinpoint in time where nothing else matters but the very little thing that one is trying to accomplish right now: the thought, the sentence, the word, the nuance, the rhythm, the shade, the color—whatever it is that the we're as intent on as the seamstress is intent, when passing the thread through the eye of the needle, on the tip of that thread and the needle's eye. Nothing else matters; nothing else exists. When the writer (or anyone else for that matter) achieves concentration, the rest of the world does a fine disappearing act. Past and future cease to exist. There are no goals beyond the present goal. However much time it takes, the writer is willing to take that time. He's willing because thereís no such thing as time. In its blissful concentrated state, the mind knows no minutes or hours or days. It lives in the eternal present where all anxieties connected to time—to the past and the future (and, if you think about it, all anxieties have to do either with the past or the future)—no longer bear any weight or have any say. They bear no weight because they donít exist.
This sense of timelessness can be dangerous. Back when I was a painter, when traveling in Europe Iíd do watercolors. I'd set myself up with my painting supplies and my little Italian folding leather stool—my beloved sediolino—and go to work on some outdoor scene, starting usually in the morning and finishing some time in the middle of the afternoon. I did this all the time. When working outdoors for obvious reasons it's best to choose a location that wonít expose you to direct sunlight. For one thing, direct sunlight makes your colors dry too quickly. For another, you can get badly sunstroked. The problem, of course, is that the sun moves, and what was an ideal spot at ten in the morning has, by two o'clock, turned into the little tin shack they stuck Alec Guinness into in The Bridge on the River Kwai. From my blissful state of concentration I'd emerge into dazzling sunlight, faint with hunger and thirst, my nose, cheeks and forearms roasted to cadmium red. Bliss can do that to you. It doesn't know consequences, not until it's too late. Phone calls go unanswered. Trips to the bathroom are put off to an extent unhealthy for the bladder. Matters of hygiene and grooming tend to be ignored. Coffee grows cold and scummy in cups. A good day's work more than compensates for the disgrace of having spent that day in one's underwear with one's hair uncombed and one's face unwashed. We'll look good tomorrow—or anyway in time to accept our National Book Award.
One definition of pain: wanting to be where you're not, to be doing what you're not doing. When we're not concentrating we're in pain. The pain may be as mild as an itch, or dull as an ache, or it may feel like we're being branded with a white-hot iron. Either way it qualifies as pain.
But when fully engaged in our work we feel no pain: the material world is replaced by a world of instincts and ideas, of forms that may seem every bit as real to us who dream on paper as the forms of material, tangible things, but which in fact are purely conceptual matters of spirit and mind—mental constructs as impalpable as music or math. The world of concentration is painless because there are no things in it, nothing with points or corners or edges, nothing with reference to the body, its vulnerabilities and needs. When we enter the divine realm of concentration, the first thing we lose is the world; the second is our bodies. We become that which (presumably) we were before being born, and that which we hope to be again after we die. In asking for discipline we're really asking for a pure heavenly slice of our own weightless souls, for the benefits of eternity without the drawbacks of death.
Peter's essay on point of view will be featured in an upcoming issue of Writers Ask.
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