Interview / Hubert Evans #2
April 07th, 2008
Evans: Creativity is a very strange thing, pill you know. Sometimes it just takes over. I think I told you there’s a passage in Mist on the River that I wrote down as if it was dictated. That poem “Questionnaire” wrote itself in half an hour. I don’t think I ever changed a word. Mind you those periods don’t come very frequently.
Twigg: And there’s a feeling of well-being you get afterwards…
Evans: Oh, stomach yes. I think this is not understood enough by creative people. There’s an added dimension that comes into it sometimes. Mind you, you can fool yourself too. You can think you’re inspired and you’re not. But when the real thing comes, it’s serious.
Twigg: And the accompanying timelessness is fascinating. It’s a bit like being a child again and being totally absorbed in learning something.
Evans: Well, you know, there’s that saying in the Gospel, “Except ye become as little children.” That has been misconstrued and misinterpreted so often. But I think there’s something relative in that to what we’re talking about.
Twigg: There is something about being able to give yourself up a hundred percent to an activity that is quite sublime.
Evans: Sublime is a good word.
Twigg: And maybe a hockey player feels that same sublimity when he’s taking a slap shot. You play the game for those moments.
Evans: Yes. And that’s really at the basis of a lot of Zen as I understand it. It’s really the basis of Christianity, too. You become part of the great whole. You yourself as an individual don’t loom very large. You become part of something greater than yourself. You see, Einstein said a human being is a part of that great whole we call the universe but, separated from it in time and space, he perceives himself through his mind and his senses and is therefore handicapped, as if in a cage. Einstein ended up by saying our job is to free ourselves from this prison. Of course, Einstein was off on cloud nine quite often but I see what he meant.
Life to me is a process of becoming. You can’t turn back, Things are constantly changing. Even in my lifetime, look at the changes. The other night I heard that two different groups of astronomers, one in England and one in the U.S., had simultaneously come up with the statement that our solar system is a mere twelve billion years old. It’s one of the younger ones. (Laughing) “What is man that thou art mindful of Him?”
Twigg: Does professionalism take away your ability to reach that unconscious, writing frame of mind? Or does experience make it easier to reach?
Evans: It’s a mystery. I don’t see how any self-imposed discipline might change it. It’s another element. I don’t know what it is. Look at Michelangelo. Gosh, he couldn’t sleep at night.
Twigg: There must be books written about a link between creative art and religious feeling.
Evans: Well, as a Quaker, I find some sentences and quotes have been quite helpful. For instance, “He that would save his life, shall lose it. But he that loses his life for something greater than himself, shall save it.” Now I can apply that to what we’re talking about. A writer says to himself, “I’m going to write this if it’s the last thing I do.” Because you’re transported. You don’t talk to people about this. They think you’re a bit odd. But it’s a thing money can’t buy.
It’s a mysterious thing but you also have to have the tools. You can’t be expected to start off from scratch. I was talking to my neighbour, Maxie, and she had me write this out for her. It’s from Pilgrim’s Progress and it’s kind of apropos considering our ages. “Come wet, come dry, I long to be gone. And however the weather be in my journey, when I come there I shall sit and rest me and dry me.” Here was a tanner, or rather a tinker, an almost illiterate man, writing great prose. I had it read to me as a kid, and I read it as a kid. “And trumpets sounding on the other side.” Where Pilgrim’s Progress ends like that, it does something to me. As Willa Cather said, there’s some words in juxtaposition that lift the thing right off the printed page. “And trumpets sounding on the other side.”
Twigg: And those special phrases that lift off the page are usually phrases that come to the writer out of the blue.
Evans: Sure they do!
Twigg: They’re the gifts you get.
Evans: In that poem of mine, “In Perpetuity”, there’s a line “and in the hanging valleys of desire.” (Laughing) “The hanging valleys of desire” does something to me. And I don’t know why.
Twigg: If you started rationalizing, you’d take that line out. You have to trust the feeling that it works.
Evans: Yes, William Blake is full of that.
Twigg: You could make the argument that good poetry is somehow the “highest” form of writing.
Evans: That’s a point. A lot of poetry that’s being written today is skillful poetry but it lacks content. You know what I mean? It’s sound and fury signifying nothing. When it’s all done, what has it done? It hasn’t got inside my skin.
Twigg: Perhaps there is a danger that you come to value the activity of writing so much that you get hooked on the solitary pleasure. Did you ever feel that?
Evans: No, I never did. I found it essential after writing that I had to do manual work. I found that a release for me. I got pretty tight sometimes. Whenever that happened my discernment sort of dulled a bit. It’s like the guy on the newspaper at eleven o’clock at night thinking he’s writing wonderful prose until the next morning he sees what the editor did to improve it. The evidence of a professional is that you have to be enthusiastic yet you have to be a good critic. When you’re a professional you can walk that tightrope.
Twigg: It has to be an adventure that is under control.
Evans: That’s what I mean, yes.
Twigg: For some writers it’s pure adventure without control. It’s like a drug. They overdose on writing and lead self-destructive lives.
Evans: I think so. One or two of the Russians were like that.
Twigg: Kerouac, too, And Sylvia Plath
Evans: But for me, way down deep, I look upon myself as a reporter. I’m reporting life as I saw it and felt it. So I’m something apart from the writing, too. I’m sure I’ve told you this before. I’m just seeing what’s being acted on that stage. I’m merely reporting. I’m not an actor.
Twigg: Whereas the subjective writer is dreaming awake. Have you ever bothered to write down any dreams?
Twigg: Many writers gain inspiration from that world.
Evans: I haven’t. Just the occasional image. When I’m tired, like I am now, I can shut my eyes and see faces. They just flood in. A montage of things. Of course I do a half hour’s meditation every morning and a half hour’s meditation every evening. I’ve been doing that for the last several months. Sometimes, not always, I can almost attain serenity for a short while. I can be quite outside “this guy.” I wish I’d done it earlier in life.
Twigg: What sort of meditation?
Evans; Well, pretty abstract. Basically Christian. A little bit of Zen, I guess. Or one of the Hindu cults. It’s what Einstein said. Get beyond the mind and the senses. To imagine myself as part of one great and inconceivably infinite whole.
There are some nights and morning when I’m just too full of myself and my worries. It doesn’t work. When you’ve got to be like I am, where you can’t even split your own kindling, I’m apprehensive. Very often this apprehension is an emotional reaction to your own helplessness, I guess. You’ve got to stop and realize that this is the process of life.
In that poem “Thoughts While Thinning Carrots” I tried to express this. I look upon nature and see cause and effect, always. I read years ago where an ecologist said that when a snowflake falls into the ocean, or a leaf to the ground, there is set in motion a chain of cause and effect that goes on forever. We don’t realize that in our social life. We rub off on one another. I will never be the same as I was before we had this talk.
This is where the writer is so vitally important. People say what does it matter? It matters. What the pharaohs did, or what primitive man did, is affecting my life. Our inter-relatedness is endless.
Twigg: And once you are aware of this, you become more appreciative and careful about your dealings with everything.
Evans: Sure. “That of God in every man” is what the Quakers have said for centuries. I mean, I try not to be derogatory or heedless or mean to anybody. Because we are made of one another. This inter-relatedness in life. I wish you’d write a novel about that. Think that one over for a few years. We impinge, impinge, impinge on one another.
Twigg: Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business starts when a boy throws a snowball, misses his target and hits a pregnant woman who gives birth prematurely. A chain of events is set forth for three novels from that one incident.
Evans: That should be emphasized in fiction particularly. And in movies. And in plays. I’m convinced of that. I can’t see that man is any exception from nature. That is why I tend to think that life isn’t a one-time thing. A Buddhist, I think, believes that anything that is learned in this lifetime isn’t lost. If you’re going to be stupid enough not to learn any lessons, you’re going to stay in a backward class for millennia. My brother called me from Minneapolis the other night, where he’s an invalid now. He’s way out, a Ph.D. about four times, a physicist and a biologist. He said, “All I’m looking forward to is oblivion.” I said, “Aren’t you lucky?”
Twigg: But he was serious.
Evans: Oh, yes. But I don’t think in the end we get away with anything.
Twigg: Getting back to that chain of enlightenment idea… it does seem to be true that if you have a negative altercation with somebody, it somehow rubs back on you.
Evans: It does indeed. Because the other person is a part of me. An old Buddhist told me once that it is conceivable that there are eight dimensions. I don’t’ know about that. But I can remember when the fourth dimension was considered a pretty screwball idea. How do you know there isn’t a dimension after dimension after dimension? When I can hear that our solar system is a mere twelve billion years old, whew! “When I behold the heavens, the work of Thy hands, what is Man that thou art mindful of him?”
Twigg: I think we’re talking about maintaining a reverential approach to life.
Evans: Most people, when you use that word reverential, think you’re talking about churches. Or some static form of religion.
Twigg: But in fact reverence is an essence of religion.
Evans: Sure. It isn’t pantheistic.
Twigg: So one can be religious simply by communing with nature in a reverential way.
Evans: Sure. I mean, the Iroquois and the Sioux, they worshipped the elements. The Indians do that up on the north coast. The old man worshipped the sea. They sat in awe.
Twigg: Maybe the writer, because he can slow down and repeat moments for people, is important because he can show us the importance of looking, of really seeing. Of appreciating life more deeply.
Evans: Sure. I remember my father telling me a story. He’d probably heard it from someone else. A carpenter was making a table. He was busy planing the underside of the boards. Somebody came along and said, “What do you want to be fussy about that for? Nobody will see that.” And the old guy replies, “God will see.” (Chuckling) You can transpose that into writing. Or into any activity.
Essay Date: 1984