The small, cathartic lesson of putting pen to paper


Carlos Castaneda’s stories of Don Juan Matus—the height of popularity during the 1960s and ’70s, and targets of literary and anthropological disparagement ever since—are known chiefly for their depictions of ventures into alternate realities. But what has always impressed me about the Don Juan books, as testament to their veracity, is their inclusion of various tidbits that, though mundane, are keenly perceptive. One small example: the episode where Carlos, walking somewhere with a group of Mexicans, stumbles on the path and, in response, his companions trade low-volume, high-pitched chuckles among themselves. If you’ve ever been similarly situated, you know the details are spot-on. And again and again, when Carlos is fused or anxious or restlessly stressed, there’s Don Juan’s stern directive: “Write!”

Carlos carries a notebook and keeps copious notes. Don Juan looks askance at the obsessive note-taking, but he’s sharp enough to recognize what happens to Carlos when thus occupied. Honed in on the page, on the manufacture of each word on the page, Carlos settles into himself, lets go of extraneous worry, concentrates on functioning contentedly and more or less constructively in the here and now. In other words, he recovers his sanity, his equilibrium—at least for the moment.

I can’t possibly enumerate all the times when, fussed or anxious or restlessly stressed, I’ve heard that same stern directive in my mind’s ear—”Write!”—and have benefited from paying heed.

The benefit is no great mystery. First, the quality of focus demanded by writing necessitates the backing-off of other concerns. Moreover, even jotting down sketchy notes, as Carlos was doing, exercises the imagination and demands recourse to subconscious resources—on a par with drawing and painting, making music, gardening, and the entire gamut of arts and crafts. At the same time, there also needs to be some degree of intentional input, as well as some sort of direct physical agency. The result is that right brain and left brain enter into sync, as do mind and body.

It’s a rebalancing act; there’s none better. And sometimes you’ll even be pleased with the product.


J. B. Grant is a writer and musician living in west Sonoma County.

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