Friday, February 8, 2013

Beginner's Mind and Revision

[Before I get into it: this has been widely reported already, but just in case you haven't seen it, there's a Divergent extras casting call for Illinois residents over 16 tomorrow in Chicago. More information here (after the bold heading "casting call").]

A few years ago I went through a series of huge changes in my life. They were good changes, for the most part, but they left me strangely...blank. I was no longer sure what sort of person I was, or what I wanted, or what I enjoyed. It was nerve-wracking, but it was also an opportunity.

Not long after this, I started dating my current husband. When we were getting to know each other, he would ask me questions like, "Do you like this?" or "Do you like that?", about food or clothes or movies, etc., and my answer was always: "No. Well, maybe. Let's try it and see if I like it."

As I said, it was an opportunity-- an opportunity to get to know the world again, like I was an alien who had just landed on earth and needed to be introduced to everything for the first time. I discovered that I liked high heels and short hair and fashion and sausage pizza and Flannery O'Connor, and that I didn't really like watching television, or Mark Twain, or "that's what she said" jokes, or arguing for sport. I discovered a lot more important things than that, too, about the baggage I carried and the person I wanted to be and the way I wanted to look at other people. I'm different, now, because of those explosive, terrifying, jarring months.

Over a year later, during a therapy session, I learned about a concept in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy called "Beginner's Mind." Very simply put, beginner's mind is the practice of approaching things--even things with which we are very familiar-- without preconceived notions about them, with the openness and eagerness of a child. I had a beginner's mind in those months I was just describing. Periodically I have to remind myself to try to get it back.

When I read Emerson's essay "Self-Reliance" in high school, this quote stood out to me and has stayed with me ever since: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." I may be misinterpreting it, of course, but to me it means, you don't have to like the things you've always liked just because you've always liked them. You don't have to think the things you've always thought just because you've always thought them. Let yourself change, because it's better to be accused of inconsistency than to be closed to most experiences or ideas.

As with most of my life lessons, this is also a writing lesson. As I revise the third book, it seems more important than ever. When I received my editor's feedback about Book 3's manuscript-- and this happens to me every time I receive feedback-- part of me recoiled from it, frustrated and afraid of seeing my book in a new and different way.

Good feedback forces writers to re-envision certain parts of our work. To the stubborn, defensive writer, this new vision is hostile; it threatens us and our writing, and we try to come up with excuses or defenses for what exists in our work so that we don't have to change it. To the writer with a beginner's mind, though, this new vision is an opportunity to experience our work in a new, different way-- like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, offering a different path that may actually be more enjoyable than the first.

Example: when I first wrote Divergent, the scenes that showcase the positive aspects of Dauntless life (ziplining off the Hancock building! Capture the Flag!) were not there. My editor pointed out that without some evidence for the good parts of the Dauntless, it doesn't make sense for someone as determined and brave as Tris to stay there instead of just defecting to the factionless when it's clear that the Dauntless way of life is deeply flawed. She also pointed out that the manuscript as it was was sort of a grim slog through a truly horrible initiation experience-- without high points, the reader would never actually feel the contrast of the low points, would not mourn with Tris when bad things happened to her.

My initial reaction to this was that my editor had not understood my vision, not just of the Dauntless, but of Tris's story and what it meant. Still, I decided to give it a try, so I wrote the Ferris wheel scene, and I wrote the ziplining scene, and my vision of Dauntless life and Tris's story expanded rapidly. To this day, those scenes are two of my favorites in the book, because they took away the simplistic view I had had of the story and the world and replaced it with a more interesting, more nuanced one.

I dragged my feet finding my way back to a beginner's mind then; it wasn't so difficult the next time. The next time, I discovered that even though revising is difficult, it can also be fun-- fun, to see the story in a different way or to try out new things, to show different aspects of characters or places, to explore the world you've created as if you're a beginner.

And really, I'm not an expert at anything, particularly at my age-- not writing, not food, not relationships, not even my own brain. So why do I try to have an Expert's Mind instead of a Beginner's one?

The take away from this, I guess, is that when someone critiques your story, or asks you if you like something you haven't tried in awhile, or tries to get you to see something from a new point of view, it's okay (and maybe even good) to say, no. Well, maybe. Let's try it and see.


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