Practice Getting Lucky: Diana Goetsch on Extraordinary Seeing and Writing

Sylke Jackson: Your next free-writing workshop will be on Extraordinary Seeing. That’s an interesting term and I think you said that it was related to a Buddhist concept. Could you talk more about the Buddhist notion of Extraordinary Seeing and how it relates to writing?

Diana Goetsch: “Extraordinary Seeing” is a translation of the Sanskrit word vipashyana, one of the two processes fundamental to meditation. First you let go of extraneous stuff, settle and focus—which everyone kind of knows about meditation. The second process involves a gap—not always, but if you’re lucky there’s a gap. That gap is vipashyana, or extraordinary seeing. It happens in meditation, but it also happens off the cushion, in life, all the time: 1) let go, relax, focus; 2) gap. It’s a natural process, but you can also cultivate it, and writers especially would do well to cultivate it.

SJ: I love the idea of a gap, and I feel I have known something like that. Can you give an example of a gap that happened in your experience of writing? 

DG: Gaps actually happen all the time. When Robert Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” he could just as well have said, “No gap, no poem.” James Joyce, referring to his short stories, used the word “epiphany” in the same way.

There’s a poem in my new collection called “The Fabric Factory, Circa 1987,” about a bar in Times Square I frequented when I began to cross-dress, a place so strange and magical me I barely believe now it was real. Anyhow, drafting the poem, I was going along cataloguing the various people who came to The Fabric Factory, using the terminology of that place and time: tranny and pre-op and TV and TS and shemale and sissy and tranny chaser. It’s a long catalog, and then I come to a moment where “a disco ball shined/its ever-receding facets on the faces of people we were/twenty years away from having any respectable words for.” And suddenly I saw what all those words were adding up to: this magical bar was actually a scene of excruciating shame, and yet we needed to be there. This is not something I could have said at the start, or arrived at it through logic. It was a moment of extraordinary seeing, arrived at through writing, which produced a gap.

In the experience of writing, the gap feels like nothing—at most, a quiet shedding of distraction. I used to see the gap as the opening through which the insight comes. But now I think the insight’s already there, and we go into the gap. Whatever the case, you’re too busy writing to really experience it. There’s often a tremendous afterglow, and you’re never more grateful to be a writer, but the moment itself feels like nothing—there’s no “you” to feel it.

SJ: Wow, that’s cool. So the gap lets you drop everything and see what you know. How do you help students find gaps?

DG: I guess by my own terms that’s like teaching people to get lucky, helping someone win the lottery. (Maybe I should charge more for this workshop!) But the fact is, we can manufacture luck. There’s an anecdote of the golfer Jack Nicklaus hitting a ball out of a bunker right into the hole, and someone in the gallery saying, “What luck!” Nicklaus turned to the guy and said, “Funny thing, the more I practice the luckier I get.” He wanted some credit for all the hard work and practice he puts in, though part of what he’s practicing is luck: habits of focus and relaxation and muscle memory that make it infinitely more possible for a tiny ball to jump into a tiny hole from unlikely angles and distances—when Nicklaus is hitting it.

The same goes for writing: there’s a stance we can learn, an engaged, yet suspended state we enter, and we can practice this. (Conversely, most writers adopt stances that ward off luck—tension-filled postures, attitudes, agendas that luck wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.) The practices I teach in “Extraordinary Seeing” all tend to take some time; there’s an accumulation of words and language, giving people a chance make a journey on the page, maybe get a little lost, a little hypnotized. That’s when the gap can come.

I taught this workshop in Novato, California in October; the room was packed, and the energy coming from the writing was palpable. At the end of the day, the participants all looked like they’d had good sex. (Okay I definitely need to be charging more for this.) Anyway I’m excited to offer “Extraordinary Seeing” at the Cuppa Pulp Writers’ Space on Saturday, Feb. 10th.