My favorite parable isn’t Christian actually, it’s Buddhist or, anyway, Buddish. It could be from any faith with a monastic tradition but as I remember, it was told in Buddhist terms. I believe my dad related it to me when I was young, but it’s possible I learned it in a religion class in college.
We may have relayed it back and forth between us so often I only recall it that way. It’s been two decades since school, my distracted mind only remembers broad strokes, even just two days ago. It’s part of why I’m an alright writer, part of why I’d be a terrible witness. I remember the forest but am forced to backfill individual trees after the fact. He helped put me through college, after all, he got the story in my ears, details beyond that can be elided in charmingly writerly ways.
There was a monk whose all-encompassing goal was to attain enlightenment and, of course, the best way to never become enlightened is to have any all-encompassing goal. He did everything they told him to do to, every offering, every prayer, but it wouldn’t come. Eventually, he asked the head monk, “When, Master, will I know when I am there?” The head monk then told him a story, God, a story within another story, I apologize, I’m a victim of my post-ironic generation.
He told him the tale of a monk who, every day before he attained enlightenment, he would go to the well down the road from the monastery, to fetch water for himself and his brothers. Then one day, he found enlightenment. “So, fetching water enlightened him?” “No, no one knows why he found it that day, that’s not what’s important. What’s important is what happened next?” “What happened next?” What happened was, the next morning, the day after he attained enlightenment, he got up and he went to the well down the road from the monastery to fetch his brothers’ water.
“Goals are a sort of madness. Chase a horizon and you chase forever. Focus on process instead.”
Einstein said doing something over and over without obvious change is the definition of madness or, anyway, someone wanted us to believe that so he said Einstein said it. The problem with that, identity theft aside, is how what Al Einstein supposedly said also perfectly describes practicing. Something else my father always told me, and this I do remember was him, was “Writers write.” Write every day. Write every day you possibly can. Even if it is only a half a poem, some song lyrics, a joke. Flex those muscle and keep flexing them, eventually you will get stronger. Don’t focus on whether it’s good or saleable or anything stupid like that, just keep pumping that iron, keep walking the walk, fetching the water. Nothing in this life is guaranteed, but if you stick to the process, you at least have a chance.
So, writer’s block be damned, I hold to my father’s commission.