I have returned from a 14-day meditation retreat with a great new plot idea for my novel. Happy me. The thing is (and I can see a few people with their hands up at the back) that’s not really what these things are supposed to be about. If anything they are to develop greater concentration, or to generate loving kindness for one’s fellow human beings. Not to come up with a plot twist for your hope-to-be-bestseller.
The trouble is that, as I mentioned in ‘Writing Fiction: Altered States’, at a previous retreat I was given a plot development that transformed my second novel. So, of course, I went this time – having been told that the synopsis for my third novel was thin on plot – hoping that it would happen again. And it did. A piece of information that solves several other plot problems and gives the novel greater focus, momentum and depth.
Of course, this is no guarantee of the quality of the final product. Nor, is it a suggestion for a new fix-it-quick method. I was meditating for three years, including a daily sit and regular retreats, before any significant writing idea came to me. And I wasn’t even looking for it. But it’s an interesting phenomenon nonetheless.
It’s not just me. I’ve spoken to several other writers, musicians, a choreographer, and an artist, who have all had similar experiences. There is a German monk called Lama Govinda who says, ‘Art and meditation are creative states of the human mind. Both are nourished from the same source.’
On this retreat I had a chance to observe the process as it happened.
The first week was mixed. I was aware of my desire to get an idea, while at the same time conscious that it was not really the point of the retreat. After about four days I entered a period when a large number came to me, but though each promised to be the one, they were generally no more than an extension of the sort of thoughts I’d had before I’d gone away. And then it all went silent, as if I’d passed through some asteroid belt.
In the second week we went into actual silence, and about eight days into the retreat I had a personal insight into my own thoughts and behaviour. So strong, in fact, that I was aware of a physical sensation of almost being laid out. At the end of it, it occurred to me to think about the novel. It was like seeing it from a different vantage point, and the new plot development occurred to me
The experience was a little like being presented with the solution to that nine-dot puzzle. ‘Thinking outside the box’ is too thin a cliché, it was more like an Aha! moment. I’ve been writing it up since I got back and it really does have a powerful effect on the whole story. Hoorah!
But let’s take a look at this from the meditation point of view. During that ‘asteroid belt’ period, I was bombarded with ideas, each one promising to be the one. Each one took me further away from the focus of meditation. Some people say that you should write the idea down and then it will go away. Whereas for me, when I did, it was as if the brain was saying, ‘Oh, so you’re listening are you?’ and went a bit mental. In the second week when I was presented with the real deal, I actually didn’t write it down for about two days, because it felt as if it needed to marinade. And then, when it became a burden, I wrote it down, and I got nothing else.
My meditation advisor told me all of this was mental sensory desire. The ego, threatened with, at best boredom, at worst extinction, starts to create projects to bolster itself. The advice is to acknowledge the desire and keep returning to the object of meditation. Which is fine when it is easily recalled, but sometimes there is a particular wording. For example, it occurred to me during one of the meals that one of the things I hate is people who chew in a spritely way (yeh, I was a real angel). Now if I had waited to the end of the retreat to write it down it would have subtly changed eg people who chew in a vigorous way. Not the same.
So, where do I stand? In a way, it’s a paradox. I may want creative ideas but in searching for them I am taking myself away from the object of meditation and thus the kind of deeper experience that may result in those very ideas. To be honest, I’ll probably continue doing what I have done to date. But both writing and meditation are important to me, so I suspect the debate will continue. Usually in my head, and when I’m supposed to be concentrating on the breath.