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On the seven thoughts
what we think is the way we see
When it comes to art and writing, what is style? Is it just a matter of repetition?
Many authors have clear tells. Elena Ferrante, Haruki Murakami, Mary Gaitskill, George Sanders, and Neil Gaiman come to mind. I return to their writing knowing that I will find the same story and literary grace (or abruptness) repackaged with varying narrative delivery or plotlines.
There are fewer authors whose writing doesn’t in some way repeat itself, in sentiment and style. Amor Towles is the best recent example I can come up with. And I’ll be honest, it drives me crazy. When I love an author’s work, I want more of the same. I want the essence of the writer as much as I want the writing itself.
It is often said that at some point writers will begin to “find their voice” and stop copying others. But finding one’s voice might just mean we’ve created a groove, a way of telling the same story over and over again, and merely adjusting the lens.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot because after I complete my essay collection, I’d like to try something new. Something less fed by my past and more influenced by a sort of vision or presence. But I wonder if, ultimately, the tone will be the same.
John O'Donohue, an Irish philosopher and poet, in his works and talks, says that much of our reality is what exists behind the face. Meaning in the darkness within, that which no one can see. Our “doing” or accomplishments or lifestyle are only a fraction of our existence. I appreciated this idea but wonder if that which lives behind the face is revealed through the lens of art.
And if so, can the story change?
In another slice of brilliance, O'Donohue suggested in a talk he offered over a decade ago, before his passing, that those receiving his words would benefit from challenging themselves to think about the seven (7) thoughts that dictate their inner lives. I churned on this and began to wonder, if there are seven (or more or less) dominant thoughts, and we change them, will that change our work?
Take a moment and ask yourself what seven thoughts dominate your inner landscape. Perhaps one will come quickly, maybe two. For me, about four surfaced immediately. I thought about the beauty of small moments, the discomfort of being copied or not being given credit, the journey of my life and whether I’ll leave anything of value, the longing for security and health among my small family, and the simultaneous challenge and love I feel when I teach and write. I struggled to find more, but when I got honest about it, the others were less ideal. I found more worry and pain in their messaging, which would be counterproductive to share here.
I think a lot about philosophy, the meaning of pain, the way breath is shared; and I think quite less about what feeds most small talk or popular subjects. I don’t watch sports or most popular television shows, and I don’t care about brands or prestige. All of this is evident in my fiction, CNF, and poetry. At heart (or perhaps soul), I am looking for certain things in the world by looking at the world in a particular way.
The idea that so much of what sustains our mental space every day can be encapsulated in seven or so recurring thoughts is profound. Maybe more or fewer, but if you can distill things down to seven, it’s a self-study practice like no other I’ve done.
In response to what arises, John O'Donohue suggested to his audiences that we then ask ourselves what we’d prefer these seven to be, and he invites us to do the work to change them. The call to action is that our most transcendent capabilities lie within our projection of the world itself.
Perhaps we share the same stories again and again. Perhaps we do this to rid them of their power over us. Or perhaps by sharing the same stories we are taking small steps to better understand them and move beyond, somewhere yet unseen and so full of potential.
If you try this practice, let me know how it goes.