Be a Beginner
So much of our emphasis in life is to be the one who knows. When we embark seriously on any new endeavor, we look up to the masters and gurus and yearn to match their expertise someday.
They’re the ones who have it all figured out, after all. When they walk into rooms, people tilt their heads up in admiration. People ask them questions and hang on their every word. The experts move through life with surety, certainty, and maybe even a good paycheck, or so it seems from the outside. They dash off novels, speak with aplomb, and take exotic vacations.
When you’re a beginner, it’s easy to feel awkward and clumsy. We want to be graceful; we want it all to be effortless; or we just want to move.
Paradoxically, though, it can be more exciting to be the one who doesn’t know — the one who is beginning the search, the one immersed in the pursuit of answers, the one who has the humility to be open to learning all possibilities.
When my son was learning to walk, I paused one afternoon to simply watch his attempts. We’re accustomed to think that falling causes frustration, but Jules didn’t furrow his brow or cry out as he plopped on his behind again and again. He got up, swaying back and forth, wrestling with gravity, noticing the tenuous shifts coursing throughout his body, and he worked on his strength to stay steady, as if putting the pieces of a puzzle together.
As I watched him, I listed the lessons of his practice:
(1) He didn’t care if anyone was watching.
(2) He approached every attempt in a spirit of inquiry.
(3) He didn’t mind failure.
(4) He took pleasure in each new step/milestone.
(5) He didn’t imitate another person’s walk; he was just intent on finding his own way.
The many possibilities of the “beginner’s mind”
He was quite naturally immersed in shoshin, or beginner’s mind, a notion from Zen Buddhism that emphasizes the benefits of being open to whatever occurs and being observant and curious in each effort. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few,” said the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki.
The idea is that in the beginner’s mind there are no considerations of that very confining box called achievement, because the true beginner is always learning. A beginner’s mind is innocent of preconceptions, expectations, judgments, and prejudices.
Devise a way to stay in the mindset of a beginner, to be naïve and wholly open to the world.
Why bring up Zen Buddhism in an essay about creativity and writing? Because writers are so eager to become experts. We want so desperately to know how to write good dialogue, create mind-curdling suspense — and get published — that we often don’t properly value that wondrous and wonderful state of having a beginner’s mind.
In the heat of our aspirations, it’s easy to overlook the power of the fresh approaches we’re discovering and the potency of possibility that’s driving us. We don’t know that being an expert is often boring, and we can’t possibly realize that the expert we so envy just might covet and miss the flowing flexibility of our beginner’s mind.
Think about it. When you know something, you’re a little less awake, a little more dulled. If you’re an expert, you’ve already got it figured out, you’ve put a stake in the ground about storytelling, life, politics, whatever it might be, so you live and create within that position, and you tend to not pay as much attention to what’s happening as a result.
Too often, becoming expert means becoming finished, so thoughts ossify and the imagination follows such familiar patterns that the word imagination might not even best describe it. Becoming expert means feeling you know more than others, which too often means listening less — because you’ve got wisdom to dispense, to put into action.
It is necessary to any originality to have the courage to be an amateur.
People often disparage modern art by saying that it could be done by a child, but maybe that should be viewed as a compliment. Why should a work that has stiffened around an identity, made solely through the discipline of craft, merit more praise? A work of art that is closer to the beginning of life, its initial propulsions of gestation, holds a valuable life force, the sparks and excitements of making. “It is necessary to any originality to have the courage to be an amateur,” said Wallace Stevens.
Our minds gravitate toward acquiring things — the getting of knowledge. There is always more knowledge to get, and the more knowledge you have, the more powerful and strong you think you are. Your writer’s toolkit gets heavier over time, and hopefully your stories get better as well, but sometimes carrying that heavy writer’s tool kit can be more of a burden than an asset.
My recommendation: don’t worry about having it all figured out. Shed culture’s morals and artistic demands. Divest yourself of whatever preconceptions and conventional ideas might narrow your vision. Devise a way to stay in the mindset of a beginner, to be naïve and wholly open to the world, so you know how to keep your thoughts crisp and unjaded, so you come to your writing each day with a dewy notion of expansive possibilities.
Matsu Bashō, the great Japanese haiku poet, said, “Seek not to follow in the footsteps of men of old; seek what they sought.” That statement is a Zen koan unto itself. Its essence is to pursue your truth rather than imitating another’s expertise. If you’re always seeking, then your worldview expands. If you’re always trying to mimic another’s expertise, your worldview narrows and diminishes.
And what if you don’t become an expert — ever? What if you assume the open mind of a beginner with each sentence you write, just as you did with your first story?
I read a story about a professor who once visited a Japanese master to inquire about Zen. The master served tea. When the visitor’s cup was full, the master kept pouring. Tea spilled out of the cup and over the table.
“The cup is full!” said the professor. “No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” said the master, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
Keep your cup empty. Remember your first urges, the feeling you had when you wrote your first story.
Try This: Return to a Beginning
Think back to a beginning — your first guitar lesson, the first poem you wrote, the first time you traveled to a different country, even the first time you fell in love. Reflect on what possibilities you felt, how you noticed things, what experiments you conducted, perhaps even without knowing it.
Grant Faulkner is the author of Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded. His essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.