Oprah Winfrey has said that Mark Nepo’s writing takes her breath away. His The Book of Awakening has sold steadily since its publication in 2000 and then climbed up the bestseller lists in 2011 after Oprah picked it as one of her “favorite things.” Now Mark is ready to launch a new book called Seven Thousand Ways to Listen. I’ve preordered it. If you want to do the same, I’ve included a link at the end of this post.
Mark and I have been friends for many years. Recently he took time to answer questions about memoir and voice. Hope you enjoy.
Question: Most of your books include a number of personal stories as one way to relay the underlying spiritual concepts you are trying to illustrate. Was it ever difficult for you to share your own doubts, fears, triumphs? How important to your “expert” voice is your “memoir” voice?
Response: Let me begin by admitting that I don’t believe in the cult of expertise that dominates our age, that sets one voice above others. I believe and bear witness to the mysterious fact and resource that each of us has a depth of wisdom available, when we dare to minimize what stands between us and life, and live as openly and authentically as possible.
As with most things, the original notions of expert and memoir are connected underneath their contemporary meanings, in the unity that weaves all things together. It’s interesting that the word expert traces back to the Latin expertus, meaning “to try, to test.” And so, the original notion of an expert evolved as “a person wise through experience.” Note this doesn’t say that a person wise through experience is wise about all experience. That’s a leap we’ve made over the centuries, which steers people away from the discovery of their own wisdom. And the word memoir appears in the early 15th century, as an Anglo-French word, memorie, meaning “something written to be kept in mind.” So, the teacher that is our experience is the expert we all can discover through the ongoing conversation with our very own life. Memoir is the first-hand way to keep what matters in mind.
I have always felt that the personal is the only true and honest way to discover the Universal. Again, not believing that one size, one life, fits all. But the opposite, that the shared common center of living can be discovered through the particular story we are living, when entered honestly. In this way, I’ve come to realize that everything that matters is both personal and Universal. I’ve always felt that the space of writing is the one place where I can tell the truth as I experience it, with no one over my shoulder, even when I’m wrong.
Bringing my full humanity and the experiments of my life out in the open doesn’t instruct others how to live, but the truth of such attempts helps me live and, when true, opens the space of aliveness so that anyone listening or reading can explore their own. It is this common acre that is the ground of all my work. I guess, in the beginning, I ventured into this way of writing to create my own authentic community.
Question: How has your personal voice evolved over time?
Response: Before I even knew about poetry or spirit, the world spoke to me in metaphor. As a child, solitude was anything but quiet, but rather a place where the connections inherent in things showed themselves and I would listen, feeling their company. Of course, I had no language for any of this. It was in high school that I first started writing poetry, when the first woman I fell in love with dumped me. I had many acquaintances, but no real friends till college. So I began to talk to myself and this helped heal my broken heart. I found depth and resilience in this self-conversation, which wasn’t just self-referential. I had discovered through my pain how to open the self as a portal to everything larger than me. That was the conversation that was healing. And so, I had found a way to continue my conversation with the Universe.
In my thirties, it was my cancer journey that opened and evolved my voice even further.That three-year journey, coming so close to death and even closer to life, deepened and broadened my way of exploration. When I was ill, I was blessed to have kind souls from so many different traditions offer some form of prayer and healing. Being blessed to wake on the other side, I was not wise enough to know what worked and what didn’t. I was challenged simply to believe in everything. From that point forward, for the next 25 years, I have been a student of all the spiritual traditions, devoted to the common center from which they all arise; not how we are different, but where we are the same.
Before my cancer journey, I pursued a holistic view of things, but I was a driven artist, governed by my mind. Almost dying dropped my center of living. The center of my wakefulness had melted, like snow in March, from my head into my heart. I have lived from that center ever since, my mind serving my heart.
During my forties, I continued to discover my own voice, in which the genres became, more and more, tools in a toolbox, serving one encompassing form. This feels natural and comfortable to me: to use whatever form is necessary to stay close to what is alive and true, be it poetry, scholarship, story, philosophy, history, or memoir.
During my fifties, the very nature of writing evolved for me into more of a conversation than a statement, into a journey of listening over authoring. Writing has become a process of relationship by which I discover meaning. I have always felt that writing is a matter of retrieving what is already there but out of view, rather than creating something out of nothing.
In this, all artists come alive when discovering God and are stymied when playing God. All this has affirmed that poetry is the unexpected utterance of the soul. The words are just the trail of that inquiry. Like many others, I began by wanting to write great poems. Then life humbled me into the need to discover true poems that would help me live. Now I want to be the poem, to stay as close to life as possible.
I’ve had the privilege of witnessing some of the transformation Mark speaks about. I love his idea that we come alive when discovering God and choke when we play God. If you have questions for Mark, feel free to offer them below. He might be able to spare a few minutes in the busy days right before his new book launches. Do you have thoughts of your own about coming to voice that were stimulated by reading about Mark’s journey?