2020-04-29
I read that you consider yourself an agnostic. So how did you come to write about a Carmelite nun struggling with her relationship to God?

My initial interest in the story came after reading an article about temporal lobe epilepsy. The fact that the symptoms of the disorder were a sudden intensification of interest in religious, philosophical, or cosmic matters fascinated me. I thought, "What if someone who had already dedicated her life to a search for God were to develop the symptoms of this disorder in midlife? Wouldn't she interpret those experiences as confirmation of her spiritual path?"

But if she were then told that a physiological abnormality might explain the experiences she's having, wouldn't it be a great struggle for her? Would it mean that her experiences were not real? So my initial interest was in the question of how do you decide whether your subjective experiences are valid, especially if they are triggered by something physiological.

Say more about that.

Let's say you have a terrible fever and you start having negative thoughts about life; you feel that everything is hopeless. When you come out it, you say it's a good thing I didn't listen to myself, because I was not thinking clearly.

But what if during the fever you have really positive feelings? When you come out of it, do you then dismiss them as you did the negative feelings, or do you say, well maybe they were an intensification of the wisdom I already had.

I was interested in that question. But the more I got into the story, the more difficulties I had writing it, and the harder time I had making the main character, the Carmelite nun, come to life. It gradually occurred to me that my problem stemmed from the fact I didn't have much of a personal connection to the character. I had never had a religious experience, and I had never struggled with the question of religious faith.

Then it occurred to me to ask myself: If this character is someone who has dedicated her life to a search for God, what have I dedicated my life to? I thought about it, and the answer came to me: I've dedicated my life to art, to trying to find the good through art. But, if I'm such a rational person--as opposed to a person who lives by faith--what rational objective reasoning do I have that justifies searching for the good through art? I realized that I don't have a reason. I take it entirely as a matter of faith that good exists and that art is worthwhile. I realized that my own life is as much based on faith as any Carmelite nun. It never occurred to me to think that way before. Once I did, then the character's struggles made sense. And I cared about the character.

I thought what you were going to say was that the idea came to you because of your martial arts background. I imagine that there's a regularity of practice and discipline--in fact, a kind of devotion--that might have some parallels to spiritual life.

I think that is certainly true. It's also true of my cello practice--I play the Bach suites every day. Since I was seven years old, I have--with only one break after college--continuously played the cello. For me, the Bach suites are a kind of breviary; they are like the cycle of Psalms that the nuns recite.

Each time I play through the cycle, I feel that I learn something; I feel that they are Psalms without words. With daily practice, you go through stretches where you feel you have nothing to bring to them; you feel dry, you feel like you have exhausted your own ability to bring something of yourself to the music. But then after a long plateau, there will be a leap, a new insight, and they suddenly seem fresh again.

There is a contemplative feel to the book which has a lot to do with the short prayers you place throughout. How did you come to do that?

I decided to do that after I met a Carmelite nun who was very, very interested and enthusiastic about the book. She was willing to be my guide into her world and to help me understand, as best I could, what her life was like. She suggested that I read through the Liturgy of the Hours at the same time the nuns do during the day, and to do that for a year.

For a year, I made it part of my life. I followed the breviary instructions and read through the same text that they were reading. They chant it; I read it silently. But it made me realize that this practice of going back to the Psalms sets up a resonance. I found myself thinking of phrases from these prayers at odd hours of the day because they were ringing in my mind. Returning to the Psalms several times a day keeps the resonance going.

I added the prayers to re-create the experience of contemplative living, how it would feel psychologically to live with those texts being so much a part of your life.

Did you actually pray all the hours? I mean, isn't the first Office said around 3:30 in the morning?

It varies from community to community. The Carmelites I knew do it at 5:30. I get up around 5:30, so I was able to do it then.

That's real dedication.

I'm an early bird, so I didn't have to adjust my life to do it. At first, it was difficult because so much of the text seemed repetitive; there was so much longing, so much "why have you forsaken me," so many violent Psalms.

At first, I wondered why people for hundreds of years had been inspired by these pieces; they didn't speak to me. But over time, I began to see them more as allegories, to realize that their power comes from the fact that they can be applied to so many human situations. At first, they seem odd, but after reading them awhile you realize that there is a lot of cumulative human wisdom in those passages. They reflect very deep patterns in human behavior.

After a year of reading the Psalms, six years of writing the book, and intense immersion in the spiritual life, do you feel in yourself any longing for more of a spiritual life?

I wouldn't say so. What it made me realize is that all along I had my own longing for a deeper sense of coherence; for an understanding of the world; for a sense of mystery, awe, and gratitude for being alive. My deepest longing has always been that I would feel fully alive at every moment. In all my different hobbies and interests, what I've been looking for is a deeper sense of involvement, an engagement in reality, in what is.

The unique effect writing the book had on me is that it made me realize how much I have in common with people who have a longing for a deeper understanding of God. I'd always felt that there was a gulf between people with religious faith and me. I felt I would never completely understand what their faith was about. Now I can read a religious text and feel that it speaks to me. A church can be a place where I can be searching in my own way, whereas before I always felt out of place.

Were you as deeply affected by the other books you have written, such as "Iron and Silk" and "The Laughing Sutra"?

Writing those books was a transformative experience, and I cherish the memory of working on each one. But in every case, I felt that I went on a journey where, at first, I didn't know where I was going; all I knew was that I felt called to try. It's almost as if there was a mountain whose top was obscured by clouds. I felt driven from within to try and climb it. I wanted to see what was up there.

As I was climbing, I reached a point where I felt lost. I didn't know what the ultimate destination was, but I kept trudging. There were times when I wanted to give up, when I questioned the value of the whole pursuit; I felt I was not up to the task. I would just keep climbing, taking wrong turns, getting discouraged, taking tumbles, and licking my wounds. During the climb, I felt that there was no pattern, no intelligence behind what was going on. I felt so stupid while I was on the way, but when I got there I looked back and saw that it all made sense.

The great joy of writing is that once you finally get to the end of a project, you see how necessary all the parts were and how they built to a nice resolution. You feel you have gained an insight, a little bit of confidence for the next time when you are a little bit lost. I'm writing a new book and I feel completely lost.

Does it bother you to keep talking about "Lying Awake" while you are on to your next project?



I enjoy talking about "Lying Awake" because it's such a pleasure to see the response the book is having, to know that people are reading and thinking about it, to know people are enjoying it. It's wonderful; you can't ask for anything more.

On the other hand, there is the problem of trying to concentrate. When something gets in my head, it's almost like a computer program; it has to run itself completely through before my mind will settle down. For me to think clearly, my mind has to settle completely. When I talk about "Lying Awake," it means for the rest of the day I'm going to be interviewing myself, thinking of all the things I should have said. That's the only problem--it gets me all stirred up, and it takes me about a day or so to settle down so I can see clearly again, so I can go back into being lost again ( laughs

).

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