Zen and the Art of Ultra Violence

From the moral crusade against violence in cartoons to descriptions of drug taking in Trainspotting, propriety repeatedly clashes with art over the line between acceptable and authentic depictions. And, just as an actor might decide to do a nude scene if it is tasteful but still fear it will be taken out of context, we sometimes find our draft caught between what our vision of a work suggests and what our inner critic says our mother (wife, colleagues, budgie) will think. M.H. Lee’s thoughtful An Unpleasant Surprise inspired me to share a possible method of resolving this conflict.

Several years ago I was introduced to a Zen story about young man and his father who go fishing. His father leans out too far and falls into the lake. The man says “Father, I have a calling to become a monk”, rows to shore and enters a monastery.

The dislike we might be feeling toward the son is the same, often commendable, consideration of others that can make writing certain types of emotionally charged scene difficult. However, there are other interpretations of the story that show discomfort is not the only possible response.

The story must be our story. Just as a Buddhist cannot complete their life path by living someone else’s life, so we cannot complete our story arc by writing someone else’s work. To write the work that we need to write, do not write it for anyone else. If this seems harsh then read the story again before moving onto the next paragraph.

Do you know that the father died, or even suffered more than a soaking? Or was it something you assumed because his fate is not mentioned? Try to judge your work on what is there, not what someone might see later.

Distorted Reflection
Do We Even See Clearly?
Peggy ReimchenCC BY 2.0)

A less harsh interpretation is to look at what happens next, at the monastery. The young man enters an enclosed community of people seeking the same exceptional goals. To experience his vision of his path the young man shut himself away, spending most of his days working or thinking alone, with some time spent with other people who fully accept the vision is more important than everyday concerns.

When we are trying to write a scene we feel is uncomfortable, it will become easier if we close ourselves away and discuss it only with a few people who will assess the success not the content. If we are lucky this might include a chosen beta reader, or a member of our writing group, but they might still be too much a part of our mundane lives. A better source might be the secular version of sharing our prayers with the universe: the internet. Maybe we can feel more comfortable seeking commentary on online writing forum under a user name unconnected to us.

Another assumption many people make is that the young man enters the monastery and spends his life there. He might have done this. Or he might have abandoned it before taking his vows. Starting to live as a monk did not commit him to it for all time; only after deciding it was right for him would he have committed for life.

If we mark the scene as zero-draft, for our eyes only, we can write it just to see how it fits your work with no consequences. Embracing the knowledge that – until it is right for our work – it can be changed or abandoned. Once we have written it we might discover it no longer feels uncomfortable.

Other Lives
My first suggestion was to focus on the son, not the father. That does not mean the father’s actions have no meaning. He tries to do something and ends up taking a fall. While there is merit in trying extremes, that does not make falling into the lake necessary or even better than staying in the boat.

Sometimes we are uncomfortable because we think our scene is too safe. There is no unbreakable rule that says we must give all the details of the sex that causes our hero to dance to work, or even mention that sex occurred. There is no cabal of book mages who will excise our work from existence if we reveal the brutality of a crime through the single-mindedness the heroine uses to escape instead of actually describing it. Just as our sense of the work’s path is the only guide to what goes into the draft, it is the only guide to what does not too.

Ultimately there is no easy solution to writing the scenes that make us uncomfortable other than writing them; however, considering this story might help silence the inner critic for long enough to test a scene to see if it works.

Do you have difficulty with certain types of scene? Have you developed methods to overcome this?


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