issue 26 Winter/Spring 05
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Room for imagination

'If you don't befriend the wolf, it will come and eat you.' This is how Manjusvara explained the title of the popular Wolf at the Door workshops, which he runs worldwide with fellow Buddhist and poet, Ananda. Their workshops have inspired Writing Your Way, Manjusvara's new book on creative writing.

I interviewed Manjusvara during a Wolf at the Door writing retreat at Rivendell Retreat Centre, in southern England. He and Ananda had helped to create an atmosphere that encouraged even the shyest of us to risk digging a bit deeper and sharing words that often surprised us. Manjusvara is an optimistic presence, who radiates fun and understanding. He describes his book as a Wolf at the Door cookbook because he finds cookbooks accessible and sees writing exercises as recipes for the imagination. His Buddhist principles enrich Writing Your Way: 'Although I don't mention Buddhism explicitly, I hope the book is infused with it.'

Manjusvara was born into a loving, working-class family in England in the 1950s. 'The cultural environment was not one in which people read poetry. Nobody I knew did. Like a lot of my early life, poetry-reading had to be secret because it wasn't acceptable.

'I've just sent Writing My Way to the English teacher from my comprehensive school, saying he did a wonderful thing: when I gave him a poem he didn't laugh but accepted it graciously. That was important - someone was willing to read something called poetry that I was writing.'

The book is imbued with Manjusvara's love of music. 'The family story is that the first word I said was 'piano'. Before I could read, I was hearing music in my head. And my parents, who were not wealthy, bought me a toy grand piano when I was about two years old. I quickly grew frustrated because it only had white notes - the black notes were painted on. I knew they were there but I couldn't play them.'

For Manjusvara, creativity has been self-taught. 'In the 1960s with so much pop music around, it was natural to write songs. I didn't know anyone who wrote lyrics so I wrote my own and that led me to poetry. I taught myself by listening to music and reading books.' This has fuelled his enthusiasm as a teacher. 'It was why I wrote Writing Your Way. I was excited by the idea of sharing discoveries that Ananda and I had made.' He went on to study composition and electronic music at university and to write music for films, dance and the theatre.

Writing the book was part of Manjusvara's Buddhist practice. 'There is an altruistic aspect. In a sense, the world has asked me to write this book. I rejoice in watching people discover something significant.' One of its distinctive features is the Buddhist approach to writing. This is expressed not only in references to meditation but also in adherence to Buddhist speech precepts. 'I don't assume that readers are, or aspire to be, Buddhist. But they might want to set up a writing group and I suggest the Buddhist model of truthful speech, kindly speech, harmonious speech and non-frivolous speech offers a tolerant approach to giving feedback. I have also adapted aspects of our meditation practice into writing exercises.'

Writing Your Way has a deceptively simple structure, with short chapters built around exercises and commentaries. And yet the overall aim is ambitious. When I asked what snappy slogan might express this most succinctly, Manjusvara suggested, 'You can rewrite your life'. Having experienced these retreats, I see the power of this message and its connection with Manjusvara's personal experience.

In recent years hearing loss has meant him moving away from composing music. He discovered his increasing deafness when he could no longer hear people talking on the far side of a room. He speaks of the loss with acceptance. 'The process of moving from a hearing person to a partially-hearing person has been fascinating. I've passed from one world into another. It's another door and another wolf. The wolf of deafness at the door of silence.' Rather than give up workshops, he and Ananda devised the 'listening chair'. When anyone shares their writing they move to sit beside Manjusvara, and while in the listening chair they hold the floor and are not interrupted.

Manjusvara and Ananda are equivocal about the meaning of 'Wolf at the Door', but I persuaded Manjusvara to enlarge on it: 'The name is an image, and the value of images is that they're not prescriptive. The "door" and the "wolf" are determined by the individual. The American writer Robert Bly talked of a room in your house that you never enter. It may be a dark, damp basement, which is probably what you'd imagine. But it could also be a sky-lit, sunny attic. I've found this exciting as it suggests that some of us don't go into the brightly lit rooms of our lives; we feel more comfortable in the basement. So there is always a door, but we must decide to which room.

'Similarly, the wolf is a symbolic animal from folk tales - what it represents is for each to discern. It might be a shadowy, hungry, emaciated creature; it might be a playful, snow-white wolf. The name is also a play on the expression, 'keeping the wolf from the door'. In this case the wolf is the hunger or poverty we're trying to keep at bay. We're saying, Yes, but that wolf might be holding something we're actually seeking; it may even be poverty.'

I find something happens on Wolf at the Door retreats which releases more of my own 'wolves' than any other writing workshops I've done. Manjusvara suggests: 'Maybe it's the recognition that there are wolves out there - other worlds within us. I now take for granted the idea that I'm a multi-faceted personality. It's still shocking, not easy to live with. But it's not a commonly held view. Through Buddhist practice Ananda and I have an understanding of the complexity of the human mind. We're not trying to keep that at bay. That's a wolf we're welcoming.'

I was struck by the compassion in the book for all parts of ourselves, including our negative states of mind. Manjusvara believes this was learnt from his father. 'He was one of the kindest people I ever met.' Manjusvara also values participants' work and has included some of our pieces in Writing Your Way. 'It gives a flavour of the workshops. If there had been only my voice, and that of established writers, the book would have lost a vital ingredient.'

The key message Manjusvara offers comes from the American poet William Stafford, whom he regards as a mentor. Stafford, asked what he did if he got stuck, replied, 'I lower my standards'. Manjusvara explains: 'This might seem paradoxical. You'd think if you lower your standards the writing might get worse. But maybe to improve you need to give yourself permission to get worse. This might mean opening a door you normally wouldn't. It might be an erotic or angry or even generous room, where your demons and gods are awaiting you. If you don't lower your standards you may never go into those rooms.'

Manjusvara would love Writing Your Way to reach someone who has never written and never considered a spiritual life. He'd like to introduce a reader to these possibilities. 'Other than that, while writing I had two kinds of reader in mind: someone within my own spiritual community opening up to creative writing; and someone from the artistic community who might resonate with Buddhist values.'

Valerie Witonska