Writing tip 14. More on Immersion: Looking anew

The following should be read as an afterthought to the previous Writing Tip 12, Writing as Immersion.

Consider this statement from the 17th Century Japanese poet Basho:

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there. However well phrased your poetry may be, if your feeling is not natural – if the object and yourself are separate – then your poetry is not true poetry but merely your subjective counterfeit.

Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there.

With Basho, the technique of immersion, proposed by Ted Hughes, is carried to its extreme in a Buddhist no-mind, no-self, meditative exercise. Just replace the word ‘poetry’ with the word ‘writing’, the replace ‘object’ with ‘subject matter’ and the wider implications of Basho’s comment becomes clear.

In the 1920s the quantum physicists realized that to study something was to change it, the very act of study bringing an alternation to that being studied. Basho’s advice prefigures that insight. If we want to know something we need to get ourselves out of it as far as we can, otherwise we end up in an echo chamber of our own thoughts and folly.

For the fiction writer, a step in this direction is to imagine or visualize a scene or thing from your character’s p.o.v, or more than one character’s p.o.v.

You don’t have to be a Buddist monk to appreciate Basho’s point, and apply his advice. A wonderful writing exercise can come out this.

Here’s a couple of Basho’s famous haikus translated by Robert Hass…

Don’t imitate me
it’s as boring
as the two halves of a melon.
A caterpillar
this deep in fall
still not a butterfly.

…and a final quote:

When composing a verse let there not be a hair’s breath separating your mind from what you write; composition of a poem must be done in an instant, like a woodcutter felling a huge tree or a swordsman leaping at a dangerous enemy.
— Matsuo Basho
  Basho’s narrow road to the deep north…? Photo by National Geographic

Basho’s narrow road to the deep north…? Photo by National Geographic